It is the war that never dies. Vietnam, the very word shrouded with extraordinary meaning in the American lexicon. For some it represents failure; for others guilt; for still more, anger that the war could have and should have been won. Americans are still arguing about this war, once the nation’s longest. For those who lived through it – the last war the U.S. fought partly with draftees – it was almost impossible not to take sides; to be pro-war or anti-war became a social and political identity unto itself. This tribal split even reached into the ranks of military veterans, as some joined antiwar movements and others remained vociferously sure that the war needed to be fought through to victory. Indeed, today, even the active-duty US military officer corps is rent over assessment of the Vietnam legacy.
Regarding America’s role in the Vietnam War, the myth-making began long before North Vietnamese tanks overran U.S.-backed South Vietnam in April 1975. Indeed, myths and exaggerations pervade the entire collective memory of this brutal war. Some believe that the politicians and antiwar protesters sold out the US military. That a “liberal” press was complicit in this treason as well. Neither was the case. Others claim that with more military force, more bombing and more patriotic backing, the US military would have marched away as the victor. This, too, is patently false. Without destroying North Vietnam in a genocidal fury and thereby risking world war with China and the Soviet Union, it is unlikely the US Army and Marine Corps could have forced the communists to capitulate. The communists actually led a coalition of nationalists fighting a civil war that was ultimately about independence. Such wars are quite difficult to “win,” in any traditional sense. Then there’s the common belief that all veterans were treated terribly upon their return. While some indeed were abused, the historical record demonstrates that the scale and pervasiveness of the mistreatment have been exaggerated.
Each of these myths carries political baggage and serves some political purpose. So divided was Vietnam-era American life that one’s stance on the war framed almost all social and political thinking. For some it still does. People on opposite sides of the debate also often draw conclusions and “lessons learned” from the Vietnam War and apply them to contemporary US military and foreign policy. This has proved dangerous and disruptive. Starkly applicable “lessons” from the past rarely translate into coherent contemporary policy. Still, today, with the US military again ensconced in seemingly never-ending armed conflict, the truth about America’s tragic foray into Vietnam is more vital than ever.
A careful study of the informational sources and the works of the most respected historians of the conflict demonstrates some important truths: that the United States lost the Vietnam War both politically and militarily. That the US may have been on the “wrong” side and acted far more like a European colonial power than most Americans are apt to admit. That the US engaged in wanton destruction of a rather poor society in its fruitless quest for “victory” over the communists. That global communism itself was no monolith and that although Hanoi gladly accepted support from Russia and China, this remained very much a Vietnamese war. That the press, protesters and skeptics had not sold out their country, but, rather, were on the right side of history. The Vietnam War, in sum, should never have been fought – the distant country was never a vital national security threat to the United States; American intervention was, ultimately, a national crime and tragedy.
A Long Backstory
The Vietnam War, in its entirety, lasted 30 years, from 1945 to 1975. Though the US was always somewhat involved, the American combat actions were only one part of a prolonged Vietnamese civil war and struggle for independence. The war never revolved around the United States. The American military meddled, struggled and gratuitously killed Vietnamese for over a decade, but the outcome was always destined to be decided among the native population itself. When it did intervene, the US was rarely a source of stability. Indeed, America merely took over where imperial France had left off, and it set back Vietnamese sovereignty. As such, the US role was shady and nefarious from the first.
During the Second World War, the Japanese “liberated” Vietnam from French colonial rule and proceeded to rule as Asian imperialists themselves. In response, Ho Chi Minh led a nationalist guerrilla independence movement that – from the American perspective – was tainted by his communist ideology. But Ho was always a nationalist first and a communist second. His men endured heavy losses against the Japanese occupiers in the hope of gaining independence for Vietnam at the end of World War II. One can understand the aspiration: After all, the US and Britain had seemed to promise as much in 1941 in the Atlantic Charter, in which they vowed to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”
World war quickly turned into Cold War, and the US, once (notionally) opposed to European imperialism, quickly performed an about-face and backed the British, French and Dutch attempts to regain their empires in Asia. This was particularly unfortunate for Ho and his nationalist-communist alliance. He would have to wait and fight longer to gain independence for his nation. At the end of World War II, his hopes had been high. When the Japanese evacuated in 1945, Ho’s revolutionists held a celebration with a million people on the streets and read a declaration of independence that included (verbatim) sections from the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Ho would soon find that such principles applied only to white Westerners.
Still, as the US was switching over to a pro-imperial policy, Ho desperately wrote eight letters to President Harry Truman begging for American support based on the superpower’s own promises in the Atlantic Charter. Truman ignored him. Thus, the Vietnamese waged a guerrilla war against the French army from 1946 to 1954. By 1954, though not yet committed on the ground, the US – obsessed with stifling world communism – was footing 80 percent of France’s bill for the war. France lost anyway, and at a peace conference in Geneva the French agreed to evacuate its army so long as South Vietnam was temporarily split from the north; the nation was to be divided until national elections were soon held. The elections never came because the US called them off, choosing instead a Vietnam divided by economic and political ideology. When the two-year deadline to hold elections arrived in 1956, a US Joint Chiefs of Staff memo explained they could not occur because “a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss [for the opponents of communism].” So the “arsenal of democracy” would stifle that very condition in Vietnam.
The US would essentially create a new state in the south, and it backed an unpopular Catholic (most Vietnamese were Buddhists) supporter of the large landlords (most Vietnamese were peasants) named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had only recently been living in New Jersey. Diem was corrupt, authoritarian and adverse to social and economic reform. By 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) formed in the south and, with North Vietnamese support, waged a new guerrilla war against Diem’s regime. Early reports from US government analysts saw, even then, just why the NLF movement flourished and the Diem regime floundered. One analyst, Douglas Pike, traveled to Vietnam and observed that “[t]he Communists have brought to the villages of South Vietnam significant social change and have done so largely by means of the communication process.” The later Pentagon Papers – a comprehensive study of US involvement in Vietnam conducted by the Department of Defense – said of this early phase of the war that “[o]nly the Vietcong [guerrillas] had any real support of influence on a broad base in the countryside.”
Meanwhile, back in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, Buddhist monks began setting themselves aflame in the streets, committing suicide in protest of Diem’s corruption and authoritarianism. Diem responded by having troops raid Buddhist pagodas and temples and killed nine protesters demonstrating on behalf of the Buddhists. This was the government that the United States would soon go to war for, the government for which more than 58,000 American soldiers would give their lives.
The ‘Best and the Brightest’ Blunder: Kennedy’s Vietnam
After the departure of the French, US President Dwight Eisenhower offered economic aid and a limited contingent of US military advisers (685 in 1960), but he avoided any major American escalation. His successor, John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, as a firm believer in the modernization schemes and philosophies of contemporary intellectuals, would commit more American resources to Vietnam. By October 1963, just before Kennedy’s assassination, there were 16,000 US “advisers” in the country. The very next month, Kennedy’s government tacitly supported a South Vietnamese military coup that left Diem dead and the country even more disorganized and demoralized. Later, defenders of Kennedy would claim that by late 1963 JFK had changed his mind and was about to pull the American troops out. This is unlikely.
Actually, the militarization of the Vietnam War fit rather neatly with Kennedy’s overall view of communism and his subsequent foreign and defense policy. Communism had to be stopped, now and everywhere—even in remote Vietnam. The US military was, for the most part, on board. Kennedy’s chief military adviser, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, took to calling Vietnam a “laboratory” for US Army development in the counter-commie fight. In addition, Kennedy would stifle suggestions – made by some of his more liberal advisers – to enter into negotiations with North Vietnam and set the stage for the promised (by treaty!) elections. Afraid he would look weak on communism, the president ensured that the election plan was stillborn.
Before he dropped the feckless and unpopular Diem, Kennedy had long known that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt. In response to the Senate majority leader’s suggestion that Saigon use American aid for social reform, the president simply said, “Diem is Diem and the best we’ve got.” By the time Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Americans had begun dying in modest but significant numbers in Vietnam. By December 1963, some 100 military men had lost their lives during “advisory” tours. Nonetheless, Kennedy had persisted, ignoring important dissenting counsel he received from key advisers and agencies. The CIA warned that to save Saigon the US would need to commit at least 200,000 troops; this proved to be a low estimate. The CIA, admittedly, had been wrong before, and Kennedy ignored it.
In the years since the murder of Kennedy, many of his defenders have pointed to a few late-stage actions to argue that had the president lived, he would have pulled the US out of the quagmire. Their Exhibit A is a speech Kennedy gave in September 1963 in which he declared, “Unless a greater effort is made by the government of South Vietnam, I don’t think the war can be won out there.” He then ordered the removal of some 1,000 US troops. Kennedy myth makers tend to ignore much evidence to the contrary, however. They omit, for example, that Kennedy had added in the speech that he did not “agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. … This is a very important struggle.” The defenders also fail to mention that most of the withdrawn troops were from an engineer battalion that had completed its work and was already scheduled to leave. Those troops were also to soon be replaced by others after Christmas.
Kennedy’s closest advisers have also weighed in and given us probably the best indication of the president’s thinking at the time. For example, he told close friend Charles Bartlett in 1963 that although “[w]e don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam … I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to reelect me.” Furthermore, Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, added later that he “had hundreds of talks with John F. Kennedy about Vietnam, and never once did he say anything [about withdrawal].” We’ll never know for sure if JFK would have de-escalated the war had he lived to win re-election in 1964, but it seems unlikely. Military escalation and counterinsurgency were entrenched in Kennedy’s Cold Warrior ideology, and he remained a prisoner of the worn-out playbook of stopping communism wherever it reared its ugly head. Here, as in several other policy areas, Kennedy emerges as more politician than statesman.
LBJ’s War: Escalation and Stalemate
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a stalemated war and Kennedy’s legacy on Vietnam when an assassin’s bullets put him in the Oval Office in November of 1963. As a consequence, he could not and would not reverse the foreign policy course of his martyred predecessor. Besides, Johnson, like Kennedy, was a Democrat stricken with the self-compulsion to look “tough” against communism. Besides, LBJ held much the same binary worldview as Kennedy and Truman. Just after the assassination, LBJ told Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the US ambassador to South Vietnam, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went [in 1949].” With Johnson afraid to look weak, the conflict became “LBJ’s War.”
Still, despite the breakdown of the South Vietnamese army and government, LBJ was at first cautious about escalating the US military role. Unlike Kennedy, LBJ loved domestic policy and was more interested in promoting his Great Society liberal social legislation than in pursuing a big war in Southeast Asia. This tension defined Johnson’s administration. Nevertheless, in the end he underestimated the will of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who continued to fight and escalate. It seemed they would never give in unless pummeled by American military might. Tragically for all, as Johnson would discover, even a massive application of US force would not work.
Unlike Truman’s war in Korea, LBJ’s war would be fought almost unilaterally by the United States. There was no grand coalition this time. Australia and South Korea sent troops, but Asian allies other than South Korea did not (the Philippines wouldn’t even allow the US Air Force to bomb from its bases there). NATO allies sat out the war. LBJ would ultimately escalate and Americanize the war based on lies and omissions. After two incidents in which Vietnamese naval vessels allegedly attacked US ships (it seems the second incident never happened) in the Gulf of Tonkin, LBJ pushed through a resolution – but not a declaration of war – in Congress authorizing American military reinforcement and an enlarged combat role. It passed 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate. This demonstrated the power of the Cold War consensus of the time. A nation would, with a spirit of unity, blunder into a war.
Then, in 1965, after his landslide presidential victory as an incumbent in 1964, Johnson hedged. He approved a sustained bombing campaign and sent in 100,000 more US troops but refused either a general mobilization (which conservatives wanted) or a negotiated withdrawal (which the left demanded). LBJ also lacked a legitimate stable partner. The generals running South Vietnam were corrupt and unpopular – what State Department Asia expert William Bundy called “absolutely the bottom of the barrel.” The bombing, additionally, made the US appear a bully and, inevitably, inflicted heavy civilian casualties. In a span of just two years, 1965-67, American planes would drop more bombs than the combined US total in both theaters of the Second World War. Furthermore, enough toxic defoliant, Agent Orange, was dropped on the countryside to destroy half of the south’s total timberlands. It is estimated that in all the years of American intervention some 415,000 civilians were killed and one-third of all South Vietnamese became refugees.
Johnson’s incremental strategy pleased no one, and although by avoiding national mobilization he mitigated the war’s political impact, his escalation exponentially increased casualties borne by the US Army, a hybrid of draftees and professional soldiers. Escalation led to further escalation, and the US became progressively mired in Vietnam. By 1967 there were half a million American troops on the ground, the US government had spent $25 billion and, in that year alone, 9,000 Americans were killed. It is true that American troops “won” most tactical engagements, but the heavy losses suffered by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were far from fatal to the communist cause. With a growing, young and nationalistic population, North Vietnam could count on 200,000 young men coming of age, annually! Besides, Ho was receiving arms and cash from both the Soviet Union and China (Vietnam’s historic enemy).
By 1967, the war was on track to become America’s longest and most unpopular. It depleted the government’s coffers, caused deficits and inflation, transferred resources to the growing military-industrial complex and escalated the arms race. The war’s length and brutality also unnerved European allies and tarnished the United States’ standing in the so-called Third World (the developing regions). And Johnson knew all this. He later wrote that he “knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor.”
In an effort to save the Great Society, Johnson would equivocate and hide the extent of US military involvement from the American people in the early years. He would also conceal the dissent growing among even the Kennedy Cabinet appointees who were most loyal to him, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. As early as December 1965, McNamara told Johnson he didn’t believe public support for the war would persist long enough to achieve victory. The president asked, “Then, no matter what we do in the military field there is no sure victory?” McNamara replied, “That’s right. We have been too optimistic.” Two years later, McNamara was so distraught that he was found pacing his office and weeping. Johnson too agonized over the war, wept when he signed condolence letters, checked casualty figures in the operations room at 4 in the morning and sneaked away to pray at a local Catholic church (he was a Protestant).
Still Johnson persisted, and – contrary to later myths – in this he had the broad support of most Americans until well into 1968. Furthermore, by keeping Kennedy’s defense officials and policies in place, he would show those communists just how tough he, and America, was. At one point he even told Ambassador Lodge to “[g]o back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word [and win]!” Johnson ignored conflicting evidence and even realized that Vietnam – what he called a “little piss-ant country” – wasn’t itself of great strategic value. He would fight on and escalate because he was insecure in foreign policy matters and a firm believer in the “domino theory” and, frankly, was not substantially challenged at first by the people. As for the military, most senior officers demanded more, not less, American involvement.
The US Army that fought the Vietnamese – unlike that which had won World War II – was unrepresentative of the American people. Draft exemptions and deferrals ensured that about 80 percent of US soldiers came from poor or working-class backgrounds. More were African Americans relative to the percentage of black Americans in the population as a whole. This was true particularly in the combat units (as disproportionate casualty statistics revealed early on). America’s troopers were also younger than in previous wars, the average combat soldier just 19 years old as opposed to 27 in Korea and World War II. While some units and leaders adapted to the counterinsurgent nature of this war, many brought conventional tactics and training to the fight. Famously, one Army major explained after obliterating the village of Ben Tre, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Gen. Curtis LeMay, the chief of the Air Force, urged that the US “bomb North Vietnam back to the ‘Stone Age.’ ” And so the brutal war slogged on.
By late 1967, the senior US commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, made ever more optimistic predictions and was paraded around back home by Johnson to “sell” the war. Yet even LBJ had questions and doubts. Westmoreland claimed victory was near but also kept requesting more troops and regularly underestimated the numerical strength of the enemy. In mid-1967, after yet another troop request, Johnson replied, “Where does it all end? When we add divisions, can’t the enemy add divisions? If so, where does it all end?” It was a fair question, and LBJ should have gone with such skeptical instincts. Still, as 1967 turned to ’68, Westmoreland was telling the domestic press that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” and that he was “absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.”
Then, in January 1968, despite all the proclamations of imminent victory, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese unleashed a nationwide offensive, attacking Saigon, nearly every other major city and most US military bases. Though taken by surprise, the US actually won a strictly military victory, but it suffered a political and strategic defeat. In March, James Reston of The New York Times summarized the situation well: “The main crisis is not in Vietnam itself, or in the cities, but in the feeling that the political system for dealing with these things has broken down.” And so it had. Despite the tactical successes and the high casualties inflicted on the enemy in what came to be known as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnamese government was as corrupt and illegitimate as ever and victory was nowhere in sight. It certainly wasn’t “around the corner.”
It was clear that the Johnson administration and the generals had been lying or equivocating all along. The famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was so appalled by the Tet Offensive that he exclaimed, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning. …” He then journeyed to Vietnam and returned to pronounce on air that “[i]t seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” And so it would, but not for a long while, and not without many more deaths.
The war would now become far more unpopular and shatter the Democratic Party. On March 31, Johnson announced a limited escalation to the American people but denied the larger military requests and shocked the nation with the following words: “There is division in the American home now. … I do not believe I should devote an hour of my time to any personal partisan course. … Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for president.” LBJ was emotionally exhausted and resigned himself to opening peace negotiations. Furthermore, his speech was important because it marked the president’s first admission that his policy of continued escalation had failed. Ultimately, antiwar candidates like Eugene McCarthy and (latecomer to the opposition) Bobby Kennedy would battle each other in a tough Democratic primary campaign, at least until June 4, 1968, when Kennedy, like his older brother, was assassinated. At the ensuing Democratic National Convention in Chicago – while police rioted against the gathered protesters and beat many senseless – a relative moderate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, emerged as the nominee, despite not having competed in any primaries. The left-wing contingent of the party was demoralized.
Cynical Denouement: Nixon’s Vietnam
Humphrey and the Democrats would ultimately lose in the 1968 presidential election, to none other than Richard Nixon and his cynical brand of conservative politicking. Nixon was helped into office by actions that approached the level of treason. During the campaign, Johnson was concurrently trying to negotiate a cease-fire and potential peace between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The key was getting the south to agree to talk with National Liberation Front representatives. Nixon, however, knew that good news in Vietnam wouldn’t bode well for his political stakes. Thus, he and his future national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, appear to have arranged for a prominent woman at the peace conference to promise the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal should Nixon be elected. The South Vietnamese pulled out and the deal fell apart. LBJ even confronted Nixon at the time, who subsequently lied about the trickery.
Nixon claimed throughout the campaign to have a “secret plan” to end the war. Soon after he was elected, he even proposed, in private, his infamous “madman theory,” telling an aide that he “wanted the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll slip the word to them that … you know Nixon is obsessed about communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button – and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” This, of course, hardly transpired.
In reality, Nixon would prolong the war not through escalation, per se, but by “Vietnamizing” the war: training and more heavily using Vietnamese troops while savagely bombing the north and south. Nixon was a cunning dealer. He knew that the growing antiwar movement would taper off if fewer Americans and more South Vietnamese were dying in the war. What he really desired was what he called “peace with honor,” to save American face by delaying the defeat of South Vietnam. In fact, it is unclear he ever truly believed the U.S. could “win.” Nixon, just like Johnson, personalized the conflict, stating that he “will not be the first President of the United States to lose a war.” So in the short term he would extend the ground war into Cambodia and Laos, and he secretly (and illegally) bombed both countries for years. So the south held on, just barely, as US troop numbers declined and the monthly draft calls fell back at home. Thus, Nixon divided and stifled the antiwar movement and gained time and space to bomb his way to “peace with honor.” South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu was furious, sensing (correctly) that the cynical Nixon would ultimately abandon him – though the US president denied it all the while.
By the time Nixon came into office in 1969 the US Army in Vietnam was demoralized and nearing a breaking point. Until 1969, most units had fought with great courage and maintained discipline. Still, as it became clearer the US would Vietnamize and not really win the war, some units broke down. No trooper wanted to be the last man to die in Vietnam. Small units started “coasting” and avoiding danger, some enlisted men increasingly refused to follow orders, and in 1,000 incidents in 1969-72, soldiers attempted to kill, or “frag,” unpopular and aggressive officers. Racial conflicts tore through the ranks. So did drug abuse; by 1971 it was estimated that 40,000 of the 250,000 American men in Vietnam were heroin addicts. Seven out of every hundred soldiers deserted, and double that number went AWOL (absent without leave).
As discipline slowly diminished, American brutality only escalated. In one highly publicized and polarizing incident, Lt. William Calley ordered his platoon to murder hundreds of civilians (including babies) in the village of My Lai. Though Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, his sentence upset many pro-war advocates. Under pressure, Nixon changed Calley’s sentence to house arrest and the former officer was ultimately released without serving a day of his original prison sentence. A popular song at the time, “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” actually lauded this war criminal. Such was the tribal division of American society during the war.
By 1972, the gradual withdrawal was such that only 95,000 American troops remained in Vietnam. Thus, when the North Vietnamese took the offensive that spring it was the Vietnamese who did most of the dying. However, the assault was checked with massive American bombing. Nixon exclaimed, “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” Approximately 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were killed, and South Vietnam survived, for the moment. However, with US troops filtering out it was clear Nixon’s policies had only delayed the inevitable.
That Christmas, Nixon ratcheted up the bombing even more in an attempt to gain concessions from the North Vietnamese at the Paris peace talks. Thousands died as a result, but in the end Nixon and Kissinger ended up accepting a peace that was remarkably similar to that which had long been on offer. The “Christmas bombing” hadn’t been necessary or changed the terms of peace. In fact, in exchange for the release of Americans held captive, Nixon agreed to quite a concession of his own – to allow North Vietnam’s soldiers to stay in South Vietnam after the cease-fire. This probably doomed the Saigon regime, and, indeed, in April 1975—a bit more than two years after a peace treaty had been signed – North Vietnamese tanks overran the capital. By then, Nixon had resigned in the Watergate scandal. The war was over. It took 30 years and the defeat of two imperial foreign powers, but Vietnam was independent and united.
What then can be said about Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War? Later pro-war apologists claim that it was Nixon’s heavy bombing of the north that forced its leaders to sign the peace treaty (one that generally was ignored by the Vietnamese contending in the war but did offer political cover to the Americans for their pullout). This is ahistorical. Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos and terror bombing of both of these countries and North Vietnam accomplished nothing besides a temporary survival of the South Vietnamese regime. It was Nixon, not the North Vietnamese, who ultimately gave the greatest concession; it was Nixon who gave in to the most important and controversial demand of the communists—that North Vietnamese troops be allowed to remain on the ground in parts of South Vietnam. Vietnamization and all the bombing prolonged a doomed war and delayed the inevitable. During Nixon’s term in office, the US lost 20,553 servicemen killed and the Vietnamese suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths. These soldiers and civilians, many of them women and children, did not have to die. Nixon’s insecurity and obsession with saving face and not “losing Vietnam” costs hundreds of thousands their lives. Imagine if the president had accepted the eventual peace terms several years earlier. Many lives surely would have been saved and the war’s outcome would likely have been precisely the same. Nixon’s war was a waste.
War in the Streets: Bringing ‘Nam’ Home
The antiwar protests at home stabbed the American soldiers in the back and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam—such is the pervasive myth perpetuated by pro-war apologists. For this powerful group, which includes many current and former military officers, it was privileged college students and un-American hippies who sold out their country. It simply isn’t true. Public support for the war actually remained rather strong until after the Tet Offensive of 1968. Furthermore, while the antiwar protests did eventually swell and put pressure on Johnson and Nixon, they were far from the decisive force of conservative imaginations. The war went on just as before. Lastly, the protesters represented a genuine, principled grassroots movement and were not, by and large, the tools of the Soviet Union or international communism. With hindsight, in fact, the antiwar movement was ultimately right about the immoral and unwinnable nature of the American war in Vietnam. The protesters have, in a sense, been vindicated from a historical standpoint but pilloried in our collective memories.
Prior to 1968, most of the press and media establishment supported Johnson and his war policies. Even television news programs aired mostly friendly coverage until Tet. And, though privileged college students have often been blamed for “stabbing the troops in the back,” most campuses were actually rather quiet until the late 1960s. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968 only 2 percent to 3 percent of students considered themselves activists and fewer than 20 percent had participated in a protest. It’s important to remember that the conflict, in general, was far more popular than is often thought. Nearly all major public institutions, such as unions, businesses, Congress, the media and the churches, either supported the war or stayed silent.
Nonetheless, opposition to the war did slowly grow and eventually reached a fever pitch during the Nixon years. In October 1967, a Catholic priest named Philip Berrigan broke into a Baltimore draft office and doused draft cards with blood. Young Americans also sought out creative ways to avoid the draft and service in Vietnam: getting married, having children, prolonging stays in college, joining the National Guard and faking illness or injury. The system of deferments ensured that the average soldier in Vietnam would be poorer and blacker than society at large. This scandalous state of affairs was obvious at the time and constituted a national disgrace.
Recognizing the link between racism at home and militarism abroad, and horrified by the high casualty rates among poor black soldiers, many key leaders of the civil rights movement eventually turned against the war. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) publicly denounced the war in 1966. Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), a SNCC leader and later a Black Panther encouraged students to burn their draft cards. Heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali refused to be inducted into the Army and as a result his boxing title was stripped from him. He asked, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while the so-called Negro people in Louisville were treated like dogs?” Then, in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., probably the most famous and respected civil rights leader, declared that “we are fighting an immoral war” and that his own country was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Although support for the war remained strong throughout most of his term, LBJ regarded this movement with an obsession bordering on paranoia. He became convinced that Soviet communists were behind the grassroots movement and, in an (illegal) program known as CHAOS, ordered the CIA – in defiance of its charter – to spy on protesters. FBI agents also infiltrated and attempted to disrupt the antiwar movement. When they found little evidence of communist collusion, LBJ leaked information saying the opposite to right-wing congressmen in an attempt to discredit the protesters. What’s more, the CIA knew that what it was doing was illegal and unethical. Director Richard Helms wrote an internal memorandum explaining that “[t]his is an area not within the charter of the Agency, so I need to emphasize how extremely sensitive [this is]. Should anyone learn of its existence, it would prove most embarrassing.”
Nonetheless, there was a powerful student-led antiwar movement brewing, if slowly. Groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized protests and marches on the Capitol and Pentagon. Their numbers would eventually swell into the hundreds of thousands, dividing the nation. Violence often occurred. When Nixon invaded Cambodia, 100,000 marched on Washington and college campuses exploded, with many schools forced to end the term early due to the chaos. Then, in Ohio and Mississippi overly aggressive police or National Guardsmen opened fire and killed peaceful student protesters and bystanders. America, it appeared, was being ripped apart.
Nonetheless, as powerful as the antiwar camp eventually became, the conservative backlash against the demonstrators and “hippies” was just as strong. Nixon actively fomented this backlash in his speeches. And it worked. A Newsweek poll after four students were shot dead at Ohio’s Kent State University found that 58 percent of respondents supported the National Guard over the students, despite the fact that the students who were killed had not provoked the guardsmen. Furthermore, even in 1970, 50 percent of respondents supported Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia while just 39 percent opposed. The protesters may have been loud and attention-grabbing, but what Nixon termed a conservative “silent majority” remained strong to the war’s end. These voters would, in the aftermath of Vietnam, become a new bedrock in a resurgent Republican Party.
Some pro-war Americans proved willing to take violent action. In New York City, some 200 construction workers attacked a few hundred demonstrators (who were commemorating the victims of Kent State). Wielding fists and hard-hat helmets, they beat the peaceful activists. The workers then marched on City Hall, brought along a mob of supporters and raised an American flag. Seventy protesters were bloodied; yet there were only six arrests. The very next day, the leader of that local construction union traveled to the White House and presented Nixon with an honorary hard hat. The president accepted it as “a symbol, along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism to our beloved country.” Mob violence now had presidential sanction.
The notion that a treasonous antiwar movement led by the Soviet Union had pulled the carpet out from under a successful military effort is just one of many later Vietnam myths. Another, particularly powerful among veterans and later military historians, is the “better war” thesis: the suggestion that “new” counterinsurgency tactics implemented by Gen. Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, would have, given more time and support, won the war. Such revisionism is nonsense. Others claim that an outright invasion of the north and increased (perhaps nuclear) bombing would have earned the U.S. military a victory, if only those crummy politicians and protesters had allowed such actions.
Neither theory is persuasive. Hawks have always overestimated the value of air power and bombing as a means of conflict resolution. Furthermore, given the iron will and commitment of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, it seems that nothing short of sheer obliteration and genocide would have won the war. The real problem was with the corrupt South Vietnamese government. Too few Vietnamese supported or felt any loyalty to the Saigon regime. Every year, one-third of South Vietnamese soldiers would desert. Saigon also ceded the popular policy of social and political reform to the communists, who thus gained power and prestige both north and south of the border. The US could never seal the 1,000 miles of border from insurgent infiltration without sending over a million troops to fight in a nation that was, ultimately, peripheral to US interests.
Later right-wing politicians continued to insist that, as President Ronald Reagan declared, the Vietnam War was a “noble cause” and should have been won. However, what’s more likely is that Vietnam demonstrated the limits of American military power abroad. It also established the inherent difficulty of defining “victory” in a nuclear age – especially in waging a counterinsurgency. The “better war” thesis also denies agency to the Vietnamese in what was at root their civil war. The war ended as it did because the communist-nationalist alliance simply had more legitimacy and fortitude, and won over more Vietnamese supporters. There was little, essentially, that US military power could do – besides kill by the millions – to alter this salient reality. What Vietnamese called the “American War” was actually only one phase in a 30-year independence struggle. Seen this way, the US hardly had a chance of achieving its goals.
Vietnam, like most anti-colonial insurgencies, presented enormous challenges to a foreign army. Consider the strategic geography: South Vietnam had a long, porous border that was never adequately sealed. The Viet Cong boasted safe havens in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The north was able to almost continuously provide direct military support to its troops and guerrilla fighters in the south, and supplies from the Soviet Union and China just kept rolling in. The US also faced a tough, historically nationalistic population, one that hated foreign occupation even more than it hated the corrupt regimes in Saigon. The combination of the long border, safe havens, foreign support and the lack of a legitimate allied host would undoubtedly have been impossible to overcome unless Washington was willing to exterminate the North Vietnamese as a people and risk global nuclear world war.
Taken as a whole, the defeat in Vietnam was a failure of imagination, to imagine a non-monolithic communism, to imagine alternative responses to the domino theory and military intervention. Trapped in a straitjacket of Cold War dogma, US policymakers forgot that the alliance of the historical enemies Vietnam and China was only one of convenience. Perhaps there was no military possibility of checking a dedicated anti-colonial nationalist movement. Nevertheless, as American troops remain mired in nearly two decades of war in the Greater Middle East, it seems that the conservative revisionist school of thinking on Vietnam may have won out. If there are lessons left behind by the tragic conflict in Vietnam, it is unclear that Washington, and the American people, has learned any of them.
To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
- H.W. Brands, The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War (1993).
- Gregory A. Daddis, Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017).
- Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century (2001).
- Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018).
- James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (1996).
- Howard Zinn, The Twentieth Century (1980).
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen