NOTE: Following France’s devastating loss at Dien Bien Phu, in July 1954, Viet Nam was partitioned at the 17th parallel. When the Geneva Agreements were signed, many Roman Catholics fled south, and elections were supposed to be held within two years, unifying all of Vietnam. South Vietnamese President Bo Diem’ however, never agreed to hold them
In 2044 B. C., Chinese People began building dikes, roads and engaged in primitive farming in the Red River Valley of Vietnam. Throughout history, Vietnam embodied much of Chinese culture, including Buddhism. The country has always ben an agricultural nation.
During the 20th Century, Vietnam was ruled by China for 1,000 years. Whenever there was a change in Dynasty, however, the Vietnamese fought for their freedom, but China always re-gained its control. And then, the French colonials ran Vietnam for two hundred years.
Unlike the Chinese rule, which was mostly territorial expansion, the French plundered the agricultural resources by making the locals work for them, and treated the Vietnamese People awfully. The British and the Dutch were equally harsh in how they plundered the natural resources, and treated the locals in other parts of Asia.
During World War II, the American O. S. S. (Office of Strategic Services), which later became the C. I. A., was involved in sorting out the instigators from prisoners in the various Prisoner of War Camps. Most OSS agents sent dispatches back to Washington, stressing that the Colonials should not return.
Mao Zedung, in China, Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, Sukarno, in Indonesia, etc., were all beloved by their citizenry, and they wanted them to lead. As one Vietnamese man said: We hated the Japanese; however, we knew that they would leave. But, if we allowed the French to return, they would never leave. Those sentiments were how the other Western Colonials behaved, as well.
President Dwight Eisenhower felt compelled to stand with the Western nations, who had been our Allies throughout WWII. From then on, America was regarded as just another of the various Colonials, who were expecting to return to their plundering ways.
You might recall the “Domino Theory”, which was a key part of the basic rationale as to why America engaged in the Vietnam War, to begin with. President Eisenhower gave a press conference in early 1954, just about the time that the Viet Minh, fighting for Vietnamese independence, were about to conquer the French at Dien Bien Phu.
“Ike” suggested that the four countries of Indochina—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam were like dominoes, lined-up in a row. And, once once fell to Communism, the rest would also fall, in turn. After the Paris Peace talks for Vietnam, one of the Vietnamese representatives shot that theory down, however, when he pointed-out that Vietnam fought China for a thousand years. Would we allow them in now?
With the 1954 Partition of Vietnam, most of the Roman Catholic minority fled south, from the North and the Central portions of the country. This was a major problem for the Saigon government gaining the support of the People, 90% of whom were Bhuddist. President Diem only admitted Catholics into his government, as well as the upper levels of his military.
To make matters worse, Diem had ordered his military not to fight; because, he said casualties made him “lose face.” Actually, he wanted the full force to be available, at all times, to rush back and defend him, in case of an attempted coup. The Vietnamese Army preferred to just call in air and artillery strikes; however, they often killed more civilians, than than Viet Cong, the local guerrillas.
When the SeniorAmerican Advisors told the generals in Saigon that the Vietnamese Military refused to fight, regardless of how much they coerced them, they were ignored. And American junior Generals and Colonels, who tried to report what Washington didn’t want to hear, they were sometimes sent back to the Pentagon and forced to retire.
Washington and the American Saigon Command knew what news they wanted to hear: America and its Vietnamese allies would turn the corner: with another 100,000 of our combat troops or another $10 billion would help; perhaps an additional six months; etc. And the Diem government was only too happy to tell it. When I was there, in 1967 and ’68, there were more than 500,000 American GIs in the country.
Around that time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, specially Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LaMay, kept recommending that we bomb the North back to the Stone Age by targeting railroads; bridges; industrial plants, etc. Common sense, however, would have suggested that agricultural nations would have very little industrial infrastructure to bomb. The industrious North Vietnamese People had a solution for the bombs that were raining down on them—make bomb shelters out of the craters.
Perhaps the best example of what America failing to understand Vietnam was the ”Protective Hamlets” strategy. Whole villages were destroyed, and the farmers were re-located to small hamlets, generally miles away rom their land. The peasants were let out in the morning so they could work their farms, and return to the hamlets in the evening. There were two major problems, however, with that solution.
Some of the farms were so far from their land, that the farmers had to walk as far as ten miles, each way, carrying their tools to and from work. Also, a major part of Buddhism is ancestor worship; but, with the burial mounds are back at the farm, the ancestors are left behind each day. That’s why we were not “Winning the Hearts and Minds” of the majority Buddhists, and this idea, in effect, was sending them over fight for the Viet Cong.
Additionally, as with most non-industrial countries, the government of South Vietnam was rife with corruption. America financed the Saigon Government; but, Diem and his key associates made sure to send sizable portions those funds to their offshore bank accounts.
We were in Vietnam under false pretenses, and the troops seemed to have been kept their for political reasons. Previously, the VC or the North Vietnamese always attacked in small hit-and-run ambushes. Over Tet, the Lunar New Year holiday, of late January 1968, Secretary of Defense Robert Mc Namara was convinced that the attacks would be limited to the Khe Sanh Marine base and the large city of Da Nang, both of which were in the north of South Vietnam. As it turned out, the local VC and the North Vietnamese Army attacked the South at many locations, and with sizable force. From that day forward, the war in Vietnam was recognized as being not winnable.
Newly-elected President Richard Nixon, however, decided to keep the war going until January 1973, in case he needed the extra push. How many innocent soldiers, marines, airmen or sailors were killed during those additional five years—just in case Nixon needed the extra political push.
NOTE: It truly breaks my heart when I think of the more than 58,000 (mostly) young Americans who died in that senseless war, which we had no reason to be in, in the first place. I have a few friends that I know were killed; but, how many did I know in Naval ROTC that died; boot camp, language school at Monterrey, CA and Infantry OCS, where some young Lieutenants lead from the front, but left their minds behind. But, the total of 58,000+ killed in a senseless war, even 50 years later is still just too difficult to fathom.
If you are in Washington, near the Mall, visit the Vietnam Memorial, either at sun-up or at dusk. I believe that you will find it a very emotional experience. Perhaps it is the only war memorial that can be truly viewed as an anti-war memorial. Also, the names of those killed, which are listed on it, have grown over time.
KEN BURNS LINK: The following link, about the showing of select clips a The Kennedy Center from Ken Burns’ series, followed by a panel discussion–with a number of present and former Congressional and Administration members–from The Washington Post, is a great introduction to the topic of Vietnam:
The Daily 202: McCain and Kerry outline lessons from Vietnam after watching new Ken Burns documentary
A paratrooper from the 101st Airborne Division guides a medical evacuation helicopter through the jungle foliage to pick up casualties at Hue in April 1968. (Art Greenspon/AP)
With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve
THE BIG IDEA: Hundreds of Washington insiders gathered last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House for an advance screening of Ken Burns’s new documentary on Vietnam.
Before he showed half a dozen choice clips from his 10-part, 18-hour film, which premieres Sunday, the director asked everyone who served in the military during the war to stand so they could be recognized.
John McCain and John Kerry were among those who rose, along with other famous veterans like Bob Kerrey and Mike Mullen.
Burns then asked anyone who protested Vietnam to also stand. Dozens did.
“I couldn’t tell the difference,” the director said, referring to the two groups.
The veterans, including McCain, joined the audience in applauding the antiwar demonstrators.
That moment set a tone of reconciliation and harmony for a discussion about one of the darkest and most divisive chapters in American history.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) leaves the Senate chamber after a vote last week. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
— Forty-two years after the fall of Saigon, McCain believes “it is the right time to take notes.” “There has to be a period of time after a conflict where the passion cools,” he said during a panel that followed the screening. “Maybe we can look back at the Vietnam conflict and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that we did before.”
The 81-year-old, who is undergoing chemotherapy as he battles an aggressive form of brain cancer, said that watching “the magnificent work” reminded him of just how young so many of the Americans were who died. With sorrow in his voice, he talked about “the 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids who had no idea what they were getting into.”
“Their leaders didn’t lead, whether they were military or civilian,” said the Arizona Republican, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war after getting shot down on a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967. “By telling the American people one thing, which was not true, about the progress in the war and the body counts, it caused a wave of pessimism to go across this country, which bolstered the antiwar movement. We can learn lessons today because the world is in such turmoil: Tell the American people the truth!”
McCain said he visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as often as he can to take in the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who died. “Depends on the weather,” he said. “Sometimes once a week. Sometimes once every couple of weeks. I try to go very early in the morning or when it’s near sunset. … It’s really an incredibly emotional experience. … These young men died because of inadequate or corrupt leadership.”
As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, McCain is managing the defense reauthorization bill on the Senate floor this week. Whenever troops go into combat, he explained, it is essential that the country decides “what victory means” and, then, “do not forget it!”
“We need to be able to have leaders who will lead and who will be able to give (the troops) a path to victory so that we will not sacrifice them ever again in a lost cause,” McCain said.
Secretary of State John Kerry signs the Paris climate agreement while holding his granddaughter. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
— Kerry, who captained a swift boat in Vietnam before returning home to protest the war, echoed similar themes and alluded to the Trump administration’s credibility gap.
“Vietnam has always stood out to me a stunning failure of leadership,” said the former secretary of state. “We were operating without facts back then. In today’s world, it’s (also) really hard to figure out what the facts are. And people won’t honor facts. You know what they are, but you have your ‘alternative facts.’”
The 73-year-old spoke of feeling betrayed by “the best and the brightest” who he had looked up to in the American government. He singled out Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
“I thought I had felt all the anger I could feel about the war, but I hadn’t until I read ‘A Bright Shining Lie’ by Neil Sheehan,” Kerry said, referring to the classic book that came out in 1988. “All the way up the chain of command, people were just putting in gobbledygook information, and lives were being lost based on those lies and those distortions.”
Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who moderated the discussion, asked Kerry how society can learn “the right lessons” from Vietnam. “A lot of people don’t,” he replied. “It’s that simple.”
The five-term Massachusetts senator said that war should always be “a choice of last resort” after diplomatic options have been exhausted. He spoke of the need to have an endgame before going in. “So many missed opportunities,” Kerry said, shaking his head. “I hope never again will any generation have to face a moment like we did.”
Kerry explained that his combat experience as a young man has been “tricky” at times, and that he tried to not let it overly color his approach to the world during his tenure at Foggy Bottom. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a captive of Vietnam,” he said. “Not everything is Vietnam!”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in May. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
— By sparking new conversations, Burns and his co-director, Lynn Novick, hope to heal old wounds. Famous for his in-depth explorations of the Civil War and World War II, the director highlighted additional parallels between Vietnam and the present moment: “Mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the administration … A president certain the news media is lying … Asymmetrical warfare that taxes the might of the United States military … A country divided in half … Huge document drops of stolen, classified material into the public sphere … Accusations that a political campaign reached out to a foreign power during a national election to affect the outcome.”
“So much of the division that we experience today, the hyper-partisanship that besets us, we think the seeds of that were sown in Vietnam,” Burns said.
— Kerry recounted his work with McCain in the 1990s to normalize relations with Vietnam, which grew out a conversation they had during an all-night flight on a CODEL to the Middle East. “We decided consciously to work on this because we felt very, very deeply that the country was still at war with itself, and that we needed to move forward in the relationship with Vietnam in order to be able to move forward with the relationship here at home,” Kerry said. “We wanted to be able to talk about Vietnam as a country, not as a war.”
As the 2004 Democratic nominee for president spoke, the 2008 Republican nominee interjected to say that Bill Clinton deserves credit for backing them up at a time (before he got reelected) when it was not politically easy.
— Former defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who enlisted to fight in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts as an infantryman, praised the documentary for humanizing the war. “We too often don’t humanize the mechanics of war,” the former Nebraska Republican senator lamented. “We say, ‘Well, we’re going to send six or seven divisions or three battalions or squadrons of planes.’ But what does that mean to the men and women who are fighting and dying? … As secretary of defense, I saw that from many years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same was true for Vietnam.”
NOTE: Two books, which I have on my Recommended Public Affairs Tab, which are arguably the two best on Vietnam, are as follows:
The Brightest and the Best, by David Halbersham.
Perhaps the most widely acclaimed book on Vietnam, I believe, along with Bright and Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan, tell two sides of what until then, was our longest war. The two books, however, relate it from different perspectives. While Sheehan recounts the war mostly as related to him by subordinate officers in Vietnam, Halberstram portrays it mostly from the political perspective, back on Washington.
Both reported that America was losing the war, and the generals only wanted to receive good news from the field. Many lies and omissions were also bandied about in Washington, as President Lyndon B. Johnson placed more emphasis on his Great Society, and running for President in his own right. Read both, if you can!
A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan.
This is the most exquisite, well-written and comprehensive (790 pages) book that I have read about Vietnam, or any war! It won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1989.
Sheehan made numerous trips to South Vietnam, oftentimes going out with combat troops on missions; because that is where wars or fought! Our War was mismanaged at the highest civilian and military levels; because, no one understood the culture, nor was flexible enough to consider more relevant ideas and strategies. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the War for their own political purposes.
Additionally, America didn’t understand the Saigon Elite, and the string of unpopular puppet governments that we helped establish. Each of those South Vietnamese governments had two primary concerns: use the Army to prevent an overthrow; and manage both the civilian and military bureaucracy for their own corrupt enrichment.