history essays vietnam

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Vietnam War

By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 28, 2023 | Original: October 29, 2009

US Infantry, VietnamThe US 173rd Airborne are supported by helicopters during the Iron Triangle assault. (Photo by © Tim Page/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Vietnam War was a long, costly and divisive conflict that pitted the communist government of North Vietnam against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. The conflict was intensified by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. More than 3 million people (including over 58,000 Americans) were killed in the Vietnam War, and more than half of the dead were Vietnamese civilians. 

Opposition to the war in the United States bitterly divided Americans, even after President Richard Nixon signed the  Paris Peace Accords  and ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973. Communist forces ended the war by seizing control of South Vietnam in 1975, and the country was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam the following year.

Roots of the Vietnam War

Vietnam, a nation in Southeast Asia on the eastern edge of the Indochinese peninsula, had been under French colonial rule since the 19th century.

During World War II , Japanese forces invaded Vietnam. To fight off both Japanese occupiers and the French colonial administration, political leader Ho Chi Minh —inspired by Chinese and Soviet communism —formed the Viet Minh, or the League for the Independence of Vietnam.

Following its 1945 defeat in World War II, Japan withdrew its forces from Vietnam, leaving the French-educated Emperor Bao Dai in control. Seeing an opportunity to seize control, Ho’s Viet Minh forces immediately rose up, taking over the northern city of Hanoi and declaring a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) with Ho as president.

Seeking to regain control of the region, France backed Emperor Bao and set up the state of Vietnam in July 1949, with the city of Saigon as its capital.

Both sides wanted the same thing: a unified Vietnam. But while Ho and his supporters wanted a nation modeled after other communist countries, Bao and many others wanted a Vietnam with close economic and cultural ties to the West.

Did you know? According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.

history essays vietnam

HISTORY Vault: Vietnam in HD

See the Vietnam War unfold through the gripping firsthand accounts of 13 brave men and women forever changed by their experiences.

When Did the Vietnam War Start?

The Vietnam War and active U.S. involvement in the war began in 1954, though ongoing conflict in the region had stretched back several decades.

After Ho’s communist forces took power in the north, armed conflict between northern and southern armies continued until the northern Viet Minh’s decisive victory in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The French loss at the battle ended almost a century of French colonial rule in Indochina.

The subsequent treaty signed in July 1954 at a Geneva conference split Vietnam along the latitude known as the 17th Parallel (17 degrees north latitude), with Ho in control in the North and Bao in the South. The treaty also called for nationwide elections for reunification to be held in 1956.

In 1955, however, the strongly anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem pushed Emperor Bao aside to become president of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN), often referred to during that era as South Vietnam.

The Viet Cong

With the Cold War intensifying worldwide, the United States hardened its policies against any allies of the Soviet Union , and by 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had pledged his firm support to Diem and South Vietnam.

With training and equipment from American military and the CIA , Diem’s security forces cracked down on Viet Minh sympathizers in the south, whom he derisively called Viet Cong (or Vietnamese Communist), arresting some 100,000 people, many of whom were brutally tortured and executed.

By 1957, the Viet Cong and other opponents of Diem’s repressive regime began fighting back with attacks on government officials and other targets, and by 1959 they had begun engaging the South Vietnamese army in firefights.

In December 1960, Diem’s many opponents within South Vietnam—both communist and non-communist—formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) to organize resistance to the regime. Though the NLF claimed to be autonomous and that most of its members were not communists, many in Washington assumed it was a puppet of Hanoi.

Domino Theory

A team sent by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to report on conditions in South Vietnam advised a build-up of American military, economic and technical aid in order to help Diem confront the Viet Cong threat.

Working under the “ domino theory ,” which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many other countries would follow, Kennedy increased U.S. aid, though he stopped short of committing to a large-scale military intervention.

By 1962, the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam had reached some 9,000 troops, compared with fewer than 800 during the 1950s.

Gulf of Tonkin

A coup by some of his own generals succeeded in toppling and killing Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, in November 1963, three weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas .

The ensuing political instability in South Vietnam persuaded Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson , and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to further increase U.S. military and economic support.

In August of 1964, after DRV torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. Congress soon passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution , which gave Johnson broad war-making powers, and U.S. planes began regular bombing raids, codenamed Operation Rolling Thunder , the following year.

The bombing was not limited to Vietnam; from 1964-1973, the United States covertly dropped two million tons of bombs on neighboring, neutral Laos during the CIA-led “Secret War” in Laos . The bombing campaign was meant to disrupt the flow of supplies across the Ho Chi Minh trail into Vietnam and to prevent the rise of the Pathet Lao, or Lao communist forces. The U.S. bombings made Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.

In March 1965, Johnson made the decision—with solid support from the American public—to send U.S. combat forces into battle in Vietnam. By June, 82,000 combat troops were stationed in Vietnam, and military leaders were calling for 175,000 more by the end of 1965 to shore up the struggling South Vietnamese army.

Despite the concerns of some of his advisers about this escalation, and about the entire war effort amid a growing anti-war movement , Johnson authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops at the end of July 1965 and another 100,000 in 1966. In addition to the United States, South Korea , Thailand, Australia and New Zealand also committed troops to fight in South Vietnam (albeit on a much smaller scale).

William Westmoreland

In contrast to the air attacks on North Vietnam, the U.S.-South Vietnamese war effort in the south was fought primarily on the ground, largely under the command of General William Westmoreland , in coordination with the government of General Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon.

Westmoreland pursued a policy of attrition, aiming to kill as many enemy troops as possible rather than trying to secure territory. By 1966, large areas of South Vietnam had been designated as “free-fire zones,” from which all innocent civilians were supposed to have evacuated and only enemy remained. Heavy bombing by B-52 aircraft or shelling made these zones uninhabitable, as refugees poured into camps in designated safe areas near Saigon and other cities.

Even as the enemy body count (at times exaggerated by U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities) mounted steadily, DRV and Viet Cong troops refused to stop fighting, encouraged by the fact that they could easily reoccupy lost territory with manpower and supplies delivered via the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia and Laos. Additionally, supported by aid from China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam strengthened its air defenses.

Vietnam War Protests

By November 1967, the number of American troops in Vietnam was approaching 500,000, and U.S. casualties had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. As the war stretched on, some soldiers came to mistrust the government’s reasons for keeping them there, as well as Washington’s repeated claims that the war was being won.

The later years of the war saw increased physical and psychological deterioration among American soldiers—both volunteers and draftees—including drug use , post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD ), mutinies and attacks by soldiers against officers and noncommissioned officers.

Between July 1966 and December 1973, more than 503,000 U.S. military personnel deserted, and a robust anti-war movement among American forces spawned violent protests, killings and mass incarcerations of personnel stationed in Vietnam as well as within the United States.

Bombarded by horrific images of the war on their televisions, Americans on the home front turned against the war as well: In October 1967, some 35,000 demonstrators staged a massive Vietnam War protest outside the Pentagon . Opponents of the war argued that civilians, not enemy combatants, were the primary victims and that the United States was supporting a corrupt dictatorship in Saigon.

Tet Offensive

By the end of 1967, Hanoi’s communist leadership was growing impatient as well, and sought to strike a decisive blow aimed at forcing the better-supplied United States to give up hopes of success.

On January 31, 1968, some 70,000 DRV forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap launched the Tet Offensive (named for the lunar new year), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam.

Taken by surprise, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces nonetheless managed to strike back quickly, and the communists were unable to hold any of the targets for more than a day or two.

Reports of the Tet Offensive stunned the U.S. public, however, especially after news broke that Westmoreland had requested an additional 200,000 troops, despite repeated assurances that victory in the Vietnam War was imminent. With his approval ratings dropping in an election year, Johnson called a halt to bombing in much of North Vietnam (though bombings continued in the south) and promised to dedicate the rest of his term to seeking peace rather than reelection.

Johnson’s new tack, laid out in a March 1968 speech, met with a positive response from Hanoi, and peace talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam opened in Paris that May. Despite the later inclusion of the South Vietnamese and the NLF, the dialogue soon reached an impasse, and after a bitter 1968 election season marred by violence, Republican Richard M. Nixon won the presidency.


Nixon sought to deflate the anti-war movement by appealing to a “silent majority” of Americans who he believed supported the war effort. In an attempt to limit the volume of American casualties, he announced a program called Vietnamization : withdrawing U.S. troops, increasing aerial and artillery bombardment and giving the South Vietnamese the training and weapons needed to effectively control the ground war.

In addition to this Vietnamization policy, Nixon continued public peace talks in Paris, adding higher-level secret talks conducted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger beginning in the spring of 1968.

The North Vietnamese continued to insist on complete and unconditional U.S. withdrawal—plus the ouster of U.S.-backed General Nguyen Van Thieu—as conditions of peace, however, and as a result the peace talks stalled.

My Lai Massacre

The next few years would bring even more carnage, including the horrifying revelation that U.S. soldiers had mercilessly slaughtered more than 400 unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968.

After the My Lai Massacre , anti-war protests continued to build as the conflict wore on. In 1968 and 1969, there were hundreds of protest marches and gatherings throughout the country.

On November 15, 1969, the largest anti-war demonstration in American history took place in Washington, D.C. , as over 250,000 Americans gathered peacefully, calling for withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

The anti-war movement, which was particularly strong on college campuses, divided Americans bitterly. For some young people, the war symbolized a form of unchecked authority they had come to resent. For other Americans, opposing the government was considered unpatriotic and treasonous.

As the first U.S. troops were withdrawn, those who remained became increasingly angry and frustrated, exacerbating problems with morale and leadership. Tens of thousands of soldiers received dishonorable discharges for desertion, and about 500,000 American men from 1965-73 became “draft dodgers,” with many fleeing to Canada to evade conscription . Nixon ended draft calls in 1972, and instituted an all-volunteer army the following year.

Kent State Shooting

In 1970, a joint U.S-South Vietnamese operation invaded Cambodia, hoping to wipe out DRV supply bases there. The South Vietnamese then led their own invasion of Laos, which was pushed back by North Vietnam.

The invasion of these countries, in violation of international law, sparked a new wave of protests on college campuses across America. During one, on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio , National Guardsmen shot and killed four students. At another protest 10 days later, two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi were killed by police.

By the end of June 1972, however, after a failed offensive into South Vietnam, Hanoi was finally willing to compromise. Kissinger and North Vietnamese representatives drafted a peace agreement by early fall, but leaders in Saigon rejected it, and in December Nixon authorized a number of bombing raids against targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. Known as the Christmas Bombings, the raids drew international condemnation.

The Pentagon Papers

Some of the papers from the archive of Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971

A top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 was published in the New York Times in 1971—shedding light on how the Nixon administration ramped up conflict in Vietnam. The report, leaked to the Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, further eroded support for keeping U.S. forces in Vietnam. 

When Did the Vietnam War End?

In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam concluded a final peace agreement, ending open hostilities between the two nations. War between North and South Vietnam continued, however, until April 30, 1975, when DRV forces captured Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City (Ho himself died in 1969).

More than two decades of violent conflict had inflicted a devastating toll on Vietnam’s population: After years of warfare, an estimated 2 million Vietnamese were killed, while 3 million were wounded and another 12 million became refugees. Warfare had demolished the country’s infrastructure and economy, and reconstruction proceeded slowly.

In 1976, Vietnam was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, though sporadic violence continued over the next 15 years, including conflicts with neighboring China and Cambodia. Under a broad free market policy put in place in 1986, the economy began to improve, boosted by oil export revenues and an influx of foreign capital. Trade and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S. resumed in the 1990s.

In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War would linger long after the last troops returned home in 1973. The nation spent more than $120 billion on the conflict in Vietnam from 1965-73; this massive spending led to widespread inflation, exacerbated by a worldwide oil crisis in 1973 and skyrocketing fuel prices.

Psychologically, the effects ran even deeper. The war had pierced the myth of American invincibility and had bitterly divided the nation. Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from both opponents of the war (who viewed them as having killed innocent civilians) and its supporters (who saw them as having lost the war), along with physical damage including the effects of exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange , millions of gallons of which had been dumped by U.S. planes on the dense forests of Vietnam.

In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C. On it were inscribed the names of 57,939 American men and women killed or missing in the war; later additions brought that total to 58,200.

history essays vietnam

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Peace History

The Vietnam War

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I. Introduction

The Vietnam War

II. Origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam

Vietnamese independence and the first indochina war, the geneva agreements of 1954, the creation of south vietnam, repression and revolution in south vietnam.

  • The expansion of U.S. involvement under Kennedy

Lyndon Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

Johnson takes the nation to war, iii. the american war in vietnam – conduct and costs, “pacification”, the phoenix program.

  • Search and destroy: The ground war
  • Technological rampage: The air war
  • An inhuman fate: The U.S. chemical war

Peace negotiations

Costs of war.

  • Associated wars in Laos and Cambodia (linked page)

IV. The American home front

Consciousness raising, creating the antiwar movement, the antiwar movement in the nixon years.

  • Protest music of the Vietnam War (linked page)

V. Lessons and legacies

Abbreviations, about the authors, recommended resources, did you know.

  • Ho Chi Minh, the enemy of the United States in the Vietnam War, was initially a friend.  He worked with U.S. special forces in rescuing downed American airmen and providing intelligence on Japanese movements during the last year of World War II.
  • On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed national independence for Vietnam.  He began his speech with the words of the American Declaration of Independence:   “All men are created equal.  The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.”
  • The French refused to acknowledge Vietnamese independence and fought a war to reconquer their former colony from 1946 to 1954.  Ho Chi Minh appealed to the U.S. for support, but the Truman and Eisenhower administrations aided the French instead, preferring French imperial rule to an independent, communist-led government under Ho.
  • In July 1954, international peace agreements were signed in Geneva, stipulating that Vietnam be temporarily divided for two years in order to separate French and Viet Minh forces, and that unifying national elections be held in July 1956.
  • The United States refused to sign or abide by the agreements.  Instead, the U.S. attempted to create a permanent, separate state in the south and refused to hold unifying elections, recognizing that Ho Chi Minh would easily win the presidency.
  • The new government of South Vietnam was authoritarian, repressive, corrupt, and controlled by a foreign nation (the U.S.), all of which sparked widespread protests and rebellion.  The rebellion grew into an insurgency war, which North Vietnam (led by Ho) began aiding in January 1959.
  • The inability of the South Vietnamese government to defeat the insurgency led to a decision by the Johnson administration to deploy U.S. combat troops in March 1965.  By 1968, over 500,000 U.S. troops were in South Vietnam.
  • The American War in Vietnam was primarily fought in the south and largely against the rural population.  The U.S. also heavily bombed North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in order to slow the supply of arms and supplies to southern insurgents.
  • Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 6,162,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, which was 2.74 times the amount dropped in all of World War II (2,250,000 tons). [1]
  • American intervention in Southeast Asia resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3.8 million Vietnamese, 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians, about one million Laotians, 58,220 American soldiers, and 6,500 other participants. [2]
  • Gallup polls asked Americans at different times, “Looking back, do you think the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?”  The percentage who said “yes” increased from 24% in August 1965 to 41% in July 1967, to 58% in September 1969, to 61% in May 1971. [3]
  • Citizen opposition to the war in Vietnam developed into the largest antiwar movement in American history.  The movement encompassed thousands of Vietnam veterans and active duty GIs as well as prominent religious leaders such as Martin Luther King.

history essays vietnam

U.S. actions to permanently divide the country and establish a foreign-backed government in the south provoked strong resistance.  In an interview with the American historian Christian Appy, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the military architect of victories over the French and the Americans, explained why Vietnamese resistance fighters fought and prevailed:

We won the war because we would rather die than live in slavery.  Our history proves this.  Our deepest aspiration has always been self-determination…. History is not made with “ifs,” but if American leaders had been wiser I think we could have been spared the war.  In my opinion, the Vietnam War was not in the American interest.  It was a big mistake.  U.S. expenditures were vast, and for the Vietnamese people, casualties were enormous.  The Americans inflicted insane atrocities.  The My Lai massacre was just an example…. Perhaps the American people know this already, but they need to be told again and understand more. [4]

American illusions about Vietnam took on tragic proportions as the war got underway in the early 1960s.  Given widespread opposition to the U.S.-backed government in the southern countryside, the target of U.S. military operations became the rural population.  U.S. and South Vietnamese forces burned, bombed, strafed, and napalmed villages deemed pro-insurgent; declared whole areas “free fire zones”; sprayed toxic pesticides such as Agent Orange and Agent Blue on forests, jungles, and rice fields of villages suspected of feeding insurgents; relocated villagers to barbed wire “safe hamlets” where they could be supervised; and conducted clandestine assassinations of village leaders suspected of helping the enemy.  The “war in Vietnam,” said United Nations Secretary-General U Thant in 1966, “is one of the most barbarous wars in history.” [5]

history essays vietnam

Rev. Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967

At the heart of American misconceptions was the belief that the U.S. was fighting for a good and noble purpose – to “save” Vietnam from the evil communists.  Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. challenged this Cold War belief in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in April 1967.  He called on Americans “to admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.”  He advised that every citizen “of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his [or her] convictions, but we must all protest.” [7]   Many Americans did so, to their credit, agitating and organizing for “a halt to this tragic war.”  Their story is given prominence in this historical account.

The general consensus among American historians is that the American War in Vietnam was a “mistake,” although interpretations differ as to what exactly this means.  This essay takes the view that the ‘mistake” was a product of U.S. global ambitions and misperceptions that developed in the aftermath of World War II and were compounded over time. [9]   It probes deeply into the origins and nature of the war, making it a long article for a website (about 70,000 words), with about one-third devoted to the antiwar movement at home (Part IV).  A half-century of excellent scholarship on the Vietnam War is drawn together and frequently cited in this essay.

history essays vietnam

The French empire in Southeast Asia

By the mid-19 th century, France was ready to build an empire in Southeast Asia.  With superior weapons, French forces attacked the port city of Danang in 1858, seized Saigon the following year, and secured control over the whole of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia by 1884.  They divided Vietnam into three parts (Cochin China, Annam, Tonkin) and renamed their colonial acquisitions French Indochina.  The French exploited Vietnam for rice and rubber, formed an alliance with the Vietnamese royalty to rule more effectively, and suppressed resistance movements.  Amid the foreign takeover, Vietnamese life remained rooted in the extended family, village life, reverence for the land, and Confucian and Buddhist beliefs and practices, in the main.  The population grew from about 10 million in 1884 to 24 million in 1945, when the Vietnamese began their thirty-year struggle for national independence.

Ho made his first appearance on the world stage at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, following World War I.  Wearing a borrowed suit and using the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho presented a letter to the leaders of the victorious nations respectfully asking for recognition of the rights of the Vietnamese people.  These rights included equal justice in the courts; freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, education, and travel; and the “replacement of the [colonial] regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law.” [10]  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had previously indicated his support for the principle of self-determination, telling Congress on February 11, 1918:

National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.  “Self-determination” is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. [11]

Yet the victorious allies neither accepted Ho’s letter nor endorsed the principle of national self-determination for colonized peoples outside Europe.  Instead, France and Great Britain expanded their empires in the Middle East.  Ho’s efforts nevertheless made him famous in Vietnam.

history essays vietnam

Ho Chi Minh in Paris in 1919

In the aftermath of the Versailles Conference, Ho turned to socialist writings for inspiration, and to socialist and communist parties for support.  Living in Paris, he read Vladimir Lenin’s “Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions” and came to the conclusion that “only Socialism and Communism can liberate the oppressed nations.” [12]   In 1920, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party.  In the summer of that year, the Second Congress of the Communist International met in Petrograd and Moscow, and declared its support for anti-colonial revolutions, offering revolutionaries space for headquarters and limited funding.  In 1930, Ho became a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party.

history essays vietnam

Ho Chi Minh (3rd from left, standing) and General Vo Nguyen Giap (5th) with the American OSS “Deer Team,” 1945

During the last months of the war, the Viet Minh formed an alliance with American forces against the Japanese.  U.S. agents from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), relied on Viet Minh networks for intelligence information and for assistance in rescuing downed American airmen.  OSS officer Major Archimedes Patti was in charge of training some 400 Viet Minh soldiers in the use of American weapons.  He was impressed with their courage and tenacity as well as with Ho Chi Minh’s leadership qualities.  The OSS appointed Ho “Agent 19” and gave him a gift of six revolvers.  Ho appreciated the gift, but America’s friendship was far more important.  He hoped it would help him secure Vietnamese national independence after the war. [17]

history essays vietnam

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.  We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principle of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam….Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country – and in fact is so already. [20]

history essays vietnam

French soldiers, retaking control of Saigon in September 1945, rounded up Vietnamese nationalists for prison

The issue was hardly settled.  None of the great powers officially recognized the government of Ho Chi Minh and the French were intent on restoring their empire in Southeast Asia.  In late September 1945, with the support of British administrators in southern Vietnam, French troops engineered a coup d’état in Saigon, forcing the Viet Minh to flee the city and regroup in the countryside or retreat to the north.  More French troops soon arrived, 13,000 of whom were transported by a dozen U.S. Merchant Marine ships.  In the first American protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam, some American sailors wrote letters to members of Congress and newspaper editors objecting to their mission.  On November 2, the crew of the Winchester Victory sent a cablegram to President Harry Truman criticizing the use of “this and other American vessels for carrying foreign combat troops to foreign soil for the purpose of engaging in hostilities to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments when there are American soldiers waiting to come home.” [21]

In order to get rid of the Chinese troops, Ho made an unusual deal with French negotiator Jean Sainteny to allow 15,000 French troops to replace the Chinese in the north.  The agreement, signed on March 6, promised that the French government would recognize the Vietnamese Republic as a Free State within the Indochinese Federation of the French Union, and that all French troops would be removed from Vietnam, north and south, by 1952. [23]   Some of Ho’s comrades questioned the wisdom of allowing French troops to reoccupy the north.  Ho reportedly responded:

Don’t you remember your history?  The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years.  The French are foreigners.  They are weak.  Colonialism is dying.  The white man is finished in Asia.  But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go.  As for me, I prefer to sniff French dung for five years than eat Chinese dung for the rest of my life. [24]

Ho spent the summer in Paris trying to lock in the agreement, but the French government was purposely evasive, as it was conspiring to undermine Vietnamese independence.  Ho was nevertheless well received in the French media.  A French reporter who met him noted his “engaging manner and extraordinary gift for making contact,” which “at once brought a warm and direct exchange of views and gave a startlingly fresh ring to commonplace words.” [25]   Ho returned to Vietnam in October and appealed to the Vietnamese people for patience.  The French, however, showed their hand on November 22, 1946.  Using a dispute over control of customs in Haiphong as a pretext, French warships bombarded the unprotected port city, killing at least 6,000 and wounding some 25,000.  On December 19, Ho issued a call for “nationwide resistance”:

For the sake of peace, we have made concessions.  But the more conciliatory we are, the more aggressive the French colonists become.  They are determined to reconquer our country. No!  We would rather sacrifice everything.  We are determined not to lose our country and not be enslaved.  Dear compatriots, we must rise up.  Male and female, old and young, regardless of religion, political party, ethnicity, all Vietnamese must rise up to fight French colonialism and to save the fatherland. [26]

history essays vietnam

French Legionnaires returning to Vietnam

The First Indochina War had begun.  It pitted a combined French force of 348,000 – 80,000 French soldiers, 20,000 Foreign Legionnaires, 48,000 North Africans, and 200,000 Vietnamese working for the French – against some 350,000 Viet Minh troops, with a supporting cast of millions under the leadership of President Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and the DRV government.

history essays vietnam

President Harry Truman and Sec. of State Dean Acheson, 1950 (Truman Library)

Acheson thus offered support for the re-imposition of French control over Vietnam but cautioned that the French should strive to gain the support of the people.  It was a contradictory formula, as the vast majority of Vietnamese had no desire to live under French rule.  Yet it allowed the Truman administration to rationalize its support for French imperialism as something other than imperialism.  In deference to American sensibilities, the French made a symbolic gesture to “Vietnamese independence” by appointing former emperor Bao Dai as “head of state” in March 1949.

history essays vietnam

Ho Chi Minh’s telegram to President Truman on Feb. 28, 1946, requesting support for Vietnamese independence

In hindsight, Truman’s failure to respond to Ho’s entreaties was a tragic error.  The Viet Minh leadership was not beholden to the Soviet Union, and the Viet Minh’s egalitarian economic program posed no threat to the United States.  Had Truman offered aid to Ho’s independent government, the French would likely have been deterred from re-imposing their control, which means that there would have been no First Indochina War, no U.S. involvement in that war, and no subsequent American War in Vietnam.

As it was, the U.S. actively supported France’s attempt to recolonize Vietnam, in part to secure French participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Immediately after the war broke out, the U.S. sent material aid to the French forces and established a $160 million credit line in late 1946.  The Truman administration elided the fact that it was supporting French colonization by claiming that the DRV and the Viet Minh were not truly nationalist but rather a false front acting on behalf of the Soviet Union.  This spurious rationale was quickly picked up by French leaders, who claimed that their war in Vietnam was not a contest between colonials and imperialists but a global struggle between “communism” and the “free world.”  According to this reading, the French were defending self-determination in Vietnam while the Viet Minh and DRV were thwarting it, being agents of the Soviet Union.  For the French, the new rationale served to replace its outdated “civilizing mission” as well as to secure aid from the United States.  According to the American scholars George M. Kahin and John W. Lewis:

In accordance with these new American priorities, France’s position on Vietnam was now described in terms of the Free World’s stand against communist expansionism, and Washington ceased to perceive the war in Vietnam as primarily a local colonial conflict.  Now linked to the Cold War, Vietnam was regarded as an area of strategic importance to the United States. [29]

history essays vietnam

Viet Minh soldiers, 1954 (Agence France Presse)

There were people in the U.S. State Department, such as Abbot Low Moffat, head of the Division of Southeast Asia, who understood the intense nationalism of the Vietnamese people and could see through the imperial fictions, but their views were subordinate to those of higher authorities, particularly Secretary of State Acheson and President Truman.  Acheson was of the view that all communist movements, political parties, leaders, and liberation armies were part of a global conspiracy directed by Moscow.  Although his own department found no evidence of Moscow’s controlling hand in Vietnam (after three years of searching), Acheson claimed a collusion by virtue of both adhering to “Commie Doctrine.”  Moffat traveled to Hanoi and met with Ho in December 1946.  He reported to Acheson that Ho might be a communist, but he was first and foremost a nationalist seeking to establish an independent national state.  Moffat maintained that “the majority of natives stoutly maintain that Ho Chi Minh is the man, and the only one , who represents them and they will oppose the putting forward of any other candidate as the creation of but another puppet.” [30]   His message fell on deaf ears.

history essays vietnam

French soldiers man an American M24 Chaffee light tank

Applied to the real world, this directive should have compelled the U.S. to support Ho Chi Minh’s national independence movement in Vietnam.  The Viet Minh, after all, were resisting “attempted subjugation” by an armed minority (the French) that was imposing its will upon the majority (the Vietnamese people).  Yet Truman simply omitted from his abstract moral paradigm the great struggles against European imperialism underway in Asia.  He wanted to rouse the American public and Congress against Washington’s new rival, the Soviet Union, and did not want to complicate this with the fact that America’s best friends, Great Britain and France, were the major source of foreign oppression across Asia and Africa.  Soviet oppression, in contrast, was limited to Eastern Europe and its own people.  This telling omission had far-reaching policy implications in the years to come, as U.S. leaders misread national liberation movements as part of a Soviet conspiracy to take over the world.  Guided by this faulty blueprint, Truman and subsequent U.S. leaders often sided with the oppressors, as was the case in Vietnam, even as they claimed to be protecting the “free world.” [32]

Vietnam was conceptualized within this geopolitical framework.  President Truman did not want to “lose Vietnam.”  In February 1950, five months before the Korean War broke out, the Truman administration substantially increased U.S. aid to the French in Vietnam.  Over the next four years, U.S. aid rose from $150 million annually to over $1 billion.  By 1954, U.S. aid constituted 80 percent of France’s war expenditures and the U.S. had more than 300 advisers in Vietnam. [35]

history essays vietnam

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) was no less committed to a French victory in Vietnam than his predecessor.  In August 1953, he told a governors’ conference that a communist victory in Vietnam “would be of a most terrible significance to the United States of America, our security, our power and ability to get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesia territory and from Southeast Asia.”  The U.S., he said, could not afford to “lose Indochina.” [37]  The idea that a French defeat in Vietnam would lead to communist domination across Southeast Asia, imperiling U.S. access to resources, became known as the “domino theory.”  It was repeated with variations by subsequent U.S. presidents as the reason why the U.S. must intervene in Vietnam.

history essays vietnam

General Vo Nguyen Giap

The First Indochina War ended with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954.  On a flat valley surrounded by high hills close to the Laos border, General Henri Navarre positioned twelve well-supplied French battalions, about 13,000 troops, and dared the Viet Minh to attack.  The Viet Minh employed some 200,000 peasants to drag heavy artillery pieces through fifty miles of jungle, then reassembled the guns at superior positions surrounding the French.  Led by General Giap, the Viet Minh attacked on March 13 and continued to bombard the trapped French forces for fifty-five days.  Two American pilots were killed when their cargo plane was hit by ground fire.

history essays vietnam

French paratroopers jumping from U.S. C-119 aircraft flown by US pilots

During the siege, Paris urgently appealed to Washington for U.S. warplanes to bomb Viet Minh positions.   President Eisenhower was prepared to militarily intervene, but lack of international and domestic support persuaded him otherwise.  British leader Winston Churchill, who had warned in 1946 of an “iron curtain” being drawn across Europe, now advised the American president to let the French colony go, recognizing that historical conditions had changed (the British reluctantly gave up India, the crown of the empire, in 1947).

In the U.S., Vice-President Richard Nixon tested the waters by suggesting on April 18, 1954, that the U.S. might have to intervene.  The following day, Democratic Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared on the Senate floor, “I am against sending American GI’s into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man’s exploitation in Asia.”  Thousands of letters and telegrams opposing U.S. intervention arrived at the White House.  According to Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska, “The mood of the country on April 20, 1954, was clearly against a military involvement in a land war in Southeast Asia.” [40]

On May 7, the French command surrendered.  Giap later reflected that the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu validated a “great historic truth, that a colonized and weak people, once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and determined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist country.” [41]   The lesson was not lost on other colonized peoples around the world.  Nor would the Vietnamese forget this lesson in the next unexpected phase of the struggle.

history essays vietnam

Geneva Conference, 1954

After two and a half months of intensive bargaining, a set of agreements was finalized on July 21.  The agreements called for a temporary division of Vietnam at the 17 th parallel in order to allow Viet Minh forces to withdraw to the north, and French forces to withdraw to the south.  National elections, north and south, were scheduled for July 1956, after which Vietnam would have one government ruling the whole country.  During the two-year interim, the Geneva Agreements expressly prohibited the introduction of additional military personnel, foreign arms, and foreign military bases throughout Vietnam.  The final declaration emphasized that the “military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” [42]   The Viet Minh, having won the war, made a significant compromise in delaying its assumption of power.  It did so at the behest of the Chinese and Soviet delegations, both of which were interested in reducing Cold War tensions with the United States.

history essays vietnam

The Geneva Agreements called for a temporary, two-year division at the 17th parallel as part of a demilitarization plan, to be followed by unifying elections

The Eisenhower administration proceeded to violate all of the Geneva Agreements, militarizing South Vietnam, establishing it as a permanent state, and refusing to hold unifying elections planned for 1956.  Jean Chauvel, head of the French delegation at Geneva, perceptively analyzed the United States position:

The Americans can only accept the Geneva agreements provisionally…. As far as they are concerned, the general elections must be prevented by means of any excuse whatsoever.  The only purpose of the Geneva agreements, as they see them, is to provide a cover for the political, economic, and military preparations for the conquest.” [45]

The sabotage began even before the Geneva Conference opened on April 26, 1954.  The U.S. National Security Council (NSC) approved a Defense Department recommendation urging the administration to “exploit every available means to make more difficult control by the Viet Minh of North Vietnam.”  CIA teams soon began destroying key installations that were to be turned over to the Viet Minh.  By June 1, 1954, Colonel Edward Lansdale of the CIA had arrived in Saigon to direct “paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare,” according to the Pentagon Papers .  As CIA agent Ralph McGehee later testified before a Senate panel, “The disastrous Vietnam War began as a CIA covert operation.” [46]

history essays vietnam

U.S. transport ship took northerners to the south

The U.S. also took advantage of a stipulation in the Geneva Agreements that allowed civilians to travel north or south as they wished for a period of 300 days, ending on May 18, 1955.  The CIA conducted a covert propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the Catholic minority in the north that they would face harsh repression under the Hanoi government.  Codenamed “Operation Passage to Freedom,” the agency spread fear of Viet Minh rule, published astrological predictions of doom, and urged Catholics to follow the Virgin Mary south.  There was a real basis for the fear, although there was no government vendetta against Catholics.  In December 1953, the Hanoi government implemented an extensive land reform program that resulted in excessive violence.  An estimated 13,500 landlords and “reactionaries” (French supporters) were executed by either villagers or officials.  In August 1956, Ho Chi Minh acknowledged the errors and committed his government to a “correction campaign.” [48]   Some 800,000 migrants made the journey south between August 1954 and May 1955, with U.S. Navy ships transporting more than one-third of them.  The refugee crisis served U.S. goals by creating a loyal constituency for the new, U.S.-backed government in the south, reinforcing America’s Cold War self-image as savior of peoples oppressed by communism, and subtly assuming the right to intervene in Vietnam on behalf of humanity.

history essays vietnam

Hanoi residents welcomed returning Viet Minh vets, Oct. 1954

America’s “civilizing mission” was driven home by a Navy physician, Tom Dooley, who participated in Operation Passage to Freedom. His best-selling book, Deliver Us From Evil (1956), contained hair-raising stories of atrocities allegedly committed by communists.  The book, which was serialized in Reader’s Digest , helped to convince millions of Americans that the U.S. role in Vietnam was as benevolent as it was protective.  Dooley’s friend and co-worker, Daniel Redmond, who shared his anti-communism, called the book a “piece of shit,” full of “inaccuracies,” in a later interview with Christian Appy.  “Tom was given to exaggeration and to me it was symbolized by a picture in that book of a young Vietnamese guy on the street in Haiphong who was very deformed.  The caption said he was the victim of Ho Chi Minh’s torturers.  I used to see that guy every day.  He was no more a victim of Communist torture than I was.  He was a simple beggar who probably was born that way.  Never once did he ever hint that the Viet Minh had tortured him.”  The book nonetheless served to reinforce Cold War stereotypes. [49]

history essays vietnam

Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, 1955

The new Diem government quickly became a family dynasty.  The Nhu family was woven entirely into the regime’s fabric.  Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, was presidential hostess for the regime, a member of the National Assembly, and head of the Women’s Solidarity Movement.  Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was his right hand man and adviser and reputed to be the power behind the Diem presidency.  Another brother, Ngo Dinh Can, was virtual ruler of the Annam region.  A third brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, the Catholic Archbishop of Hue, was also a presidential adviser.  A fourth brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, became an ambassador.  Three family members served in the first cabinet and two in-laws held key positions as Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary for National Defense.  Madame Nhu’s father was “the American’s trusted man in Saigon” and Ambassador to Washington until August 1963, when he resigned over the regime’s treatment of the Buddhists.  Diem himself trusted only personal acquaintances for high office, once having remarked, “Society… functions through personal relations among men at the top.”  He advocated a vague political philosophy called “personalism” as a counterpoint to Marxism and claimed that “respect for human dignity” guided his administration. [50]

history essays vietnam

Ngo Dinh Nhu and Madame Nhu

U.S. planners hoped to turn Diem into a popular democratic leader, but few Vietnamese supported a permanent division of their country, and the Diem government proved corrupt and repressive in any case.  The U.S. could install a new government, but it could not create a new “South Vietnamese” national identity.  Family relations typically extended north and south.  Moreover, in the south as well as the north, most regarded the communist-led Viet Minh as great patriots, having fought and sacrificed to end French rule.  Ho Chi Minh was, in effect, the George Washington of Vietnam.

history essays vietnam

America’s chosen man, April 4, 1955

During the post-Geneva period, the United States propped up its client state with massive economic and military aid.  From 1954 to 1956, the Diem government received half a billion dollars, more than 60 percent for military purposes.  In February 1955, American advisers began arriving to train South Vietnamese army troops.  Out of $260 million in U.S. aid received in 1957 and 1958, $200 million went to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). [52]   All of this directly violated the Geneva Agreements.

history essays vietnam

Diem cast his referendum ballot, Oct. 23, 1955

Diem attempted to legitimate his rule by holding a referendum in South Vietnam on October 23, 1955.  The electorate could vote up or down on a proposition to “recognize Ngo Dinh Diem as the Chief of State of Vietnam with the mission of installing a democratic regime.”  To ensure his approval, Diem banned anti-Diem demonstrations and fraudulently counted the ballots.  The proposition was reportedly approved by 98.2 percent of the population.  Donald Lancaster, a senior political officer at the British Embassy in Saigon, observed, “The campaign was conducted with such cynical disregard for decency and democratic principles that even the Viet Minh professed to be shocked.” [54]  The Eisenhower administration nevertheless endorsed Diem’s “election” and pledged renewed U.S. aid.  On October 26, Diem officially proclaimed the existence of the Republic of Vietnam and declared himself president.

history essays vietnam

Vietnamese farmers transplanting rice (1961 photo by John Dominis)

One of the underlying causes of popular resistance to the government was its land transfer program, which effectively reversed the land redistribution achieved by the Viet Minh by not recognizing titles conferred by Viet Minh authorities.  Government agents were furthermore perceived as corrupt and unconcerned with the well-being of the people.  The Pentagon Papers describe the results of Diem’s land reform policies:

Diem’s reform package compared unfavorably even in theory with what the Viet Minh had done [in the south]…. By 1959, [it] was virtually inoperative.  As of 1960, 45% of the land remained concentrated in the hands of 2% of landowners and 15% of the landlords owned 75% of all the land.  Those relatively few farmers who did benefit from the program were most often than not northerners, refugees, Catholics … so that land reform added to the aura of favoritism which deepened peasant alienation…. Tensions were further aggravated by rumors of corruption, and the widespread allegation that the Diem family itself had become enriched through manipulation of land transfers. [62]

The Viet Minh cadre and villagers who lost their land fought back by assassinating some Saigon-appointed officials and intimidating others, leading many to sleep outside their village for safety.  Diem responded by dispatching his security forces to search, interrogate, and raid disobedient villages, resulting in arrests, torture, and imprisonment.  According to the Pentagon Papers :

Enough evidence has now been accumulated to establish that peasant resentment against Diem was extensive and well founded.  Moreover, it is clear that the dislike of the Diem government was coupled with resentment toward Americans.  For many peasants, the War of Resistance against French-Bao Dai rule never ended; France was merely replaced by the U.S., Bao Dai’s mantle was transferred to . . . Diem. [63]

history essays vietnam

ARVN Training in counterinsurgency

To enhance his powers of repression, Diem promulgated Law 10/59 on May 6, 1959, which established the death penalty for any person aiding insurrection.  It also declared more than one dozen organizations illegal, including the “Association of Buddhists for National Salvation,” the “Peace Movement,” and the “Liberation Front.” [64]   Diem labeled his opponents “Viet Cong” (communists), regardless of the fact that they included people of all persuasions, not the least those who believed in democracy and human rights.

The West is backing, with its eyes open … a reactionary police state. . . . The Asians are intelligent people, and well able to contrast the declaration of principles of . . . the United States, with the facts of the regime under which they live. No intelligent Vietnamese can fail to be cynical when he hears American professors lecturing of political freedom in one province, while Diem’s army and police are imprisoning thousands of suspected Communists without trial in another. [66]

Most of the American public, however, knew little about the repression taking place in South Vietnam.  This was due in large part to the “public diplomacy” efforts of the Eisenhower administration and the American Friends of Vietnam, an influential organization known as the “Vietnam Lobby.”  Both organized public relations campaigns that hailed the “miracle of democracy” in South Vietnam.  Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, for example, remarked at a symposium in Washington sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam in June 1956, that South Vietnam was the “cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia” and a “test of American responsibility and determination in Asia.”

history essays vietnam

Diem was warmly greeted by President Eisenhower and Sec. of State John Foster Dulles upon arriving in Washington in May 1957

When Diem visited the United States in May 1957, President Eisenhower praised him as the “miracle man of Asia” and applauded the “remarkable achievements” of South Vietnam since 1954.  The media generally followed the president’s lead in lavishing praise on the South Vietnamese leader, although Newsweek speculated on Diem’s replacement, recognizing his inability to establish a stable government. [67]

history essays vietnam

GVN “Agrovilles” later became “Strategic Hamlets”

The Diem government responded by accelerating the arrest of suspected rebels and their supporters, including those who accepted land distributed by the Viet Minh.  The government also initiated the Rural Community Development Program, a “pacification” program designed to resettle villagers into “safe” Agrovilles, thus enabling the government to maintain surveillance over villages.  The program incited more resistance than the land transfer program, as it forced peasants to abandon their homes, cultivated fields, and ancestral graves in exchange for inadequate housing and plots in the Agrovilles.

In Saigon, meanwhile, eighteen prominent South Vietnamese leaders, including ten former cabinet ministers, met at the Caravelle Hotel in April 1960.  They issued a respectful but devastating criticism of Diem in a public letter known as the Caravelle Manifesto.  The letter stated that they could not “remain indifferent to the realities of life in our country”:

Continuous arrests fill the jails and prisons to the rafters, as at this precise moment, public opinion and the press are reduced to silence…. Political parties and religious sects have been eliminated…. Today the people want freedom. You should, Mr. President, liberalize the regime, promote democracy, guarantee minimum civil rights, recognize the opposition so as to permit the citizens to express themselves without fear, thus removing grievances and resentments. [71]

Unlike other protests in South Vietnam, the Caravelle Manifesto was widely publicized in the U.S. press.  Embarrassed by the letter, Washington officials instructed U.S. Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow to urge Diem to open the political process to just the sort of people who signed the Caravelle Manifesto.  Durbrow suggested this to Diem and also encouraged him to give radio “fireside chats” to explain to the people the ways of his government, as if Diem were Franklin D. Roosevelt offering New Deal programs.  Diem was intransigent.  He harassed and arrested the signers, and published false information about them in order to ruin their reputations.

history essays vietnam

NLF troops pose with AK-47 assault rifles and U.S.-made field radios

Hanoi responded in kind.  In September, the Central Committee Directorate for the South called for the creation of a political and military organization that would “liberate the south” and replace the Diem government.  On December 20, 1960, at a secret base near Saigon, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, or National Liberation Front (NLF), was launched.  Like the Viet Minh organization nineteen years earlier, the NLF combined political, military, and economic goals.  Its political and military goals included the establishment of peaceful relations between the “two zones [north and south] pending the peaceful reunification of the fatherland,” a neutral foreign policy, and the departure of American military advisers, their bases, and their “enslaving and depraved U.S.-style culture.”  Its economic goals included higher wages for civil servants, the promotion of domestic industry over foreign imports, rent reduction and land redistribution, and equality between men and women and among national minorities. [72]

Expansion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam under Kennedy

history essays vietnam

President John F. Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy carried forward the Cold War rationales and policies of his predecessors.  In his Inaugural Address in January 1961, he called on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” [73]   South Vietnam was deemed a test case for the “success of liberty.”  During his thirty-four months in office, Kennedy increased the number of U.S. military “advisers” from roughly 1,000 to over 16,000, sent more lethal weaponry to the ARVN, initiated more covert missions against North Vietnam, created a new U.S. military command center in Saigon, and loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. military personnel.  One hundred and twenty Americans were killed in action between 1961 and 1963. [74]

history essays vietnam

President Kennedy with French President Charles de Gaulle in Paris, June 1961

French President Charles de Gaulle implored Kennedy to learn from France’s mistakes and give up American imperial pretentions, arguing that the “neutralization” of Vietnam was in United States’ interest.  Kennedy insisted that the U.S. was not engaged in imperialism but was defending South Vietnam from “communist domination.”  The latter view was made official in National Security Action Memorandum 52, which Kennedy signed in May 1961.  Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was even more adamant that South Vietnam must not “fall” to the communists.  On a visit to Saigon in May 1961, he hailed Diem as the “Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia,” and on his return to Washington, advised Kennedy to allay his “paralyzing fear” that U.S. troops might have to fight in Vietnam. [75]

history essays vietnam

Escaping an ARVN raid on Tay Ninh, near Saigon, July 1963 (AP photo by Horst Faas)

These additions enabled the ARVN to win some battles in the spring of 1962.  Yet the added firepower also increased the severity of attacks on villages suspected of supporting the NLF, which were many.  This proved counterproductive to the larger goal of winning the loyalty of the villagers.  “Everywhere [Diem’s] Army came,” one peasant remarked, “they made more friends for the V.C. [Viet Cong, or communists].” [78]   The use of armed U.S. helicopters and warplanes only increased the misery.

history essays vietnam

Suspected NLF collaborator captured by ARVN troops, 1962

The U.S. and Diem governments sought to undermine popular support for the NLF by instituting the Strategic Hamlet program, an updated “pacification” effort aided by British counterinsurgency expert Robert Thompson, who conducted a “pacification” program in Malaya.  Once again, villagers were forced to leave their homes, villages, fields, and ancestors’ graves in order to settle in “safe” areas under ARVN surveillance.  Many villagers regarded the program as punishment for either supporting the NLF or being insufficiently loyal to the Diem regime.  In March 1962, a pilot project, “Operation Sunrise,” was initiated in the district of Ben Cat, just north of Saigon.  As this was an NLF stronghold, the 5 th ARVN Division first cleared the area then rounded up the population and moved them at gunpoint to their new “home,” located far from the nearest market to ensure hardship.  Initially viewed as a success, by August the NLF had taken over the whole settlement.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the counterinsurgency war, U.S. tactics grew harsher.  Some NLF-controlled areas in the Central Highlands were declared “free-fire” zones, wherein South Vietnamese pilots flying U.S. warplanes indiscriminately dropped bombs, napalm, and herbicides on “enemy” villages.  In February 1963, Kennedy advisers Roger Hilsman and Michael Forrestal reported to the president that it was difficult to know “how many of the 20,000 ‘Viet Cong’ killed last year were only innocent, or at least persuadable villagers.” [83]  The brutal military policies nonetheless continued, thoroughly undermining other efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.

history essays vietnam

Madame Nhu motivating ARVN troops, July 1962

Lack of loyalty to the Diem government was more subtly apparent in the unwillingness of ARVN soldiers to fight.  They were supposed to fight to the death for the government of South Vietnam in a Washington-scripted play that divided the Vietnamese people into “good” non-communists and “evil” communists.  Yet most had no cause for animosity toward the communist-led NLF and only wanted to survive and be paid.  Hence when called to action, the results were often disappointing to U.S. military advisers.  A case in point was the battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which 350 lightly armed guerrillas routed a larger force of 2,000 ARVN soldiers equipped with Colt AR-15 rifles and light-weight jungle radios, and backed by aircraft and armored vehicles.  The ARVN had one of the highest desertion rates in the history of modern warfare.  Sixty-five percent of ARVN soldiers were forcibly conscripted, and many ARVN officers were patronage appointees who served the French and used their positions for personal gain. [84]

history essays vietnam

June 11, 1963. Buddhist monk Quang Duc burned himself in protest against the Diem regime’s repression (AP photo by Malcolm Browne)

Diem’s repression reached a new low in the spring of 1963.  On May 8, the 2,527 th birthday of the Buddha, the GVN decided to enforce a law banning the display of any flag other than the national flag.  It was clearly selective enforcement as Vatican flags blanketed the city of Hue where Diem’s brother, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, resided.  As the Buddhists celebrated with their flags, Diem’s troops opened fire, killing nine people.  Two days later, ten thousand Buddhists marched in protest.  Diem responded by jailing leading Buddhist monks and placing armed guards around pagodas.  On the morning of June 11, a sixty-six-year old Buddhist monk, Quang Duc, sat in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection and assumed a lotus posture.  As other monks chanted nearby, two helpers doused the seated monk with gasoline.  Quang Duc then lit a match and set himself on fire, sitting motionless and silent as the flames consumed him. The press had been alerted beforehand and photographs were taken. They appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world the following day.

history essays vietnam

Kennedy and his advisers discussed the fate of America’s “miracle man in Asia”

At a National Security Council meeting on August 31, the main topic of discussion was how to sustain a positive public view of the American project in South Vietnam now that the illusions surrounding “the miracle man of Asia” had been exposed.  Paul Kattenburg, a State Department specialist on Vietnam who had just returned from Saigon, sat in disbelief as he listened to the conversation.  “It was appalling to watch,” he later reflected:

They didn’t know Vietnam.  They didn’t know the past.  They had forgotten the history.  They simply didn’t understand the identification of nationalism and Communism, and the more this meeting went on, the more I sat there and I thought, “God, we’re walking into a major disaster.”

history essays vietnam

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge with Diem, August 1963

When asked to speak at the meeting, Kattenburg predicted that “we are going to be thrown out of the country in six months,” hence “it would be better for us to make the decision to get out honorably.” [85]   All the major players – McNamara, Rusk (Kattenburg’s boss), Taylor, and Vice President Johnson – strongly disagreed.  What was needed, they argued, was not a change in America’s course but a change in South Vietnam’s leadership; and indeed the change was already underway.  Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had been meeting in secret with generals contemplating Diem’s overthrow.

history essays vietnam

Secretary of State Dean Rusk (left), President Kennedy, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara

In hindsight, the opportunity to change course in Vietnam was at hand in August 1963, perhaps more than at any time since 1954.  Three developments pushed in the direction of a negotiated settlement.

One was a movement toward détente in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  This near-miss of nuclear war had a sobering effect on both U.S. and Soviet leaders, prompting them to sign a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on August 5, 1963, which banned above-ground nuclear weapons tests.  Kennedy also spoke to the larger issue of world peace in an address at American University on June 10, 1963.  Sounding like one of the peace advocates who lobbied for the treaty, he declared that “total war” makes no sense in the nuclear age, that it was time to “re-examine our attitude toward the Soviet Union,” and that Americans should not “see conflict as inevitable, accommodations as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.” [87]

history essays vietnam

Ngo Dinh Nhu

A second development was the opening of a backdoor dialogue between Diem’s brother, Nhu, and representatives of the NLF and DRV concerning the possibility of a reunited Vietnam.  While this dialogue fell into the same category as reconciliation between the U.S. and Soviet Union, it was not perceived as such by the Kennedy administration, which moved quickly to squelch it.  Nhu began talking with communist representatives in July 1963 about a possible accommodation that would allow him and his brother to remain in power while a lengthy unification of Vietnam proceeded.  Hanoi and the NLF were willing to accept this delay if it meant ridding their country of foreign troops.  President Kennedy, however, was committed to maintaining a separate, noncommunist South Vietnam.  This meant not only staying the course in Washington, but also preventing the Vietnamese from working out a peace agreement among themselves.  According to the diplomatic historian Fredrik Logevall:

The coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 happened in part because Kennedy administration officials feared that Diem might opt for an end to the war through an agreement with the enemy.  Reports that the successor government led by Duong Van Minh might have similar intentions caused Washington to become disenchanted with it as well. [88]

history essays vietnam

President Kennedy discussing Laos at a press conference March 23, 1961

A third development was the signing of an international peace treaty ending the civil war in Laos in July 1962.  The agreement was welcomed across the world as a step toward reducing Cold War tensions.  Along with de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan helped to convince Kennedy that a negotiated solution in Laos was the most realistic option and would not hurt U.S. interests in the region.  After conferring with Kennedy in March 1961, Macmillan wrote to de Gaulle:  “I think that the President really accepts the necessity for a political solution if we can get one.”  It took thirteen months of negotiations, but in the end, an agreement was signed by fourteen nations, including the belligerent parties in Laos and the governments of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China.  Laos became a “neutral and independent” nation led by a coalition government under prime minister Souvanna Phouma, with power shared with the communist-led Pathet Lao.  As the U.S. had been supporting anticommunist guerrillas in Laos since the late 1950s, approval of the treaty marked a significant change of policy. [89]

history essays vietnam

French President Charles de Gaulle

That the Vietnamese patriots who fought the French in the First Indochina War would accept de Gaulle as mediator was another irony of history.  With France no longer threatening to dominate Vietnam, French cultural, economic, and political ties took on a more benevolent quality.  There were French people in Vietnam, Vietnamese people in France, and biracial children in both places; thousands of Vietnamese children attended French schools; the Vietnamese educated class spoke French; France was the top importer of Vietnamese goods; and the French government maintained official contacts in both South and North Vietnam.

  • Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all claimed that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was necessary in order to save Vietnam from “communist domination.”  In reality, the communist-led Viet Minh and its leader Ho Chi Minh were celebrated as great patriots for defeating the French.  In any case, the U.S., as an outsider, had no right whatsoever to determine how Vietnam should be governed.  Rather than protect the people, the U.S. imposed a puppet state in the southern half and protected it with force of arms.  Eisenhower prevented unification elections and Kennedy prevented South Vietnamese leaders from exploring negotiations toward unification.
  • The trio of presidents also maintained that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was part of a global mission to save the world from communism.  Yet most international leaders believed that the U.S. was making the world more dangerous by its actions in Vietnam.  Rather than uphold world order, the U.S. had acted as a rogue nation in undermining the Geneva Agreements of 1954, establishing an illegal client state in the south and arming it to the teeth.  Most international leaders urged the U.S. to negotiate a peace settlement along the lines of the Geneva Agreements, fearing a wider war.  They were encouraged when the U.S. signed the Laos peace accords and hoped for a similar solution in Vietnam, but Kennedy rejected this sensible course.
  • U.S. officials often spoke of the need to maintain American “credibility,” meaning America’s prestige and reputation as a global power.  Implicit in this concept was the message that the U.S. must never appear “weak” or “soft,” lest rivals take advantage.  The concept reflected an empire mentality which held that the U.S. should be the dominant power in the world and that any diminution of American power constituted a loss; hence, the imperial fear of “losing” China, Cuba, or Vietnam.  U.S. leaders used the euphemism of “credibility” to justify to the American people virtually any militant policy they wanted to pursue, obfuscating the difference between global hegemony and national security.
  • U.S. Cold War policies were underpinned by a core belief in America’s essential goodness and its inherent good will toward other peoples.  This belief could withstand an inordinate amount of evidence to the contrary.  U.S. leaders proclaimed their intent to “support free peoples” (Truman) and ensure “the success of liberty” (Kennedy), but in practice destabilized governments deemed unfriendly, including some democratic ones, and supported a host of repressive regimes, including that of South Vietnam.  Americans were led to believe that the abuses of the Soviet Union somehow proved America’s good intentions, but this proved nothing at all about U.S. policies; only that there could be two bullies on the block.

These assumptions and beliefs served to justify and propel U.S. intervention in Vietnam.  Once accepted as ideological truths, they acted as blinders, shutting out contrary evidence and views, and narrowing the debate to instrumental objectives.  Had Americans been willing and able to unpack these ideological wrappings and examine Vietnam on its own terms, the slaughter in Southeast Asia might have been avoided. [93]

history essays vietnam

President Lyndon B. Johnson

President Lyndon Johnson continued the trend toward Americanizing the war in Vietnam.  On his third day in office, he told Ambassador Lodge, “I will not lose in Vietnam.”  Johnson relied on Kennedy’s top advisers, which he kept, to tell him how to win the war.  On November 26, 1963, he signed National Security Action Memorandum 273, which reaffirmed that the U.S. would assist the South Vietnamese to “win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy.” [94]

history essays vietnam

General Dong Van Minh

Even more worrisome to U.S. officials was the fact that much of the population in South Vietnam supported “neutralization” along the lines suggested by de Gaulle, and that the new Military Revolutionary Council in charge – made up of twelve generals headed by General Duong Van Minh – had indicated a willingness to listen to de Gaulle’s proposals.  President Johnson, upon hearing of this, wrote a letter to General Minh on December 31, 1963, making it clear that the neutralization of South Vietnam was “unacceptable” because it “would only be another name for a Communist take-over.” [96]

history essays vietnam

Gen. Nguyen Khanh

With behind-the-scenes support from the U.S., General Minh was ousted on January 29 in a bloodless coup d’état led by General Nguyen Khanh, the most pro-American officer in the junta.  There would be no more talk of peace negotiations or easing up on the NLF-linked villages.  The Saigon government would henceforth strictly follow the American president’s lead.  McNamara, returning from a visit to Saigon in early March 1964, reported that Khanh would do very well.  He would allow U.S. advisers to participate at all levels of civilian and military agencies, and he would consult with Ambassador Lodge before making appointments to his cabinet.  Gen. Khanh headed the military junta from January 1964 until February 1965.

history essays vietnam

American PT boats used in South Vietnamese commando raids

To regain the initiative on the war front, President Johnson signed off on Operational Plan 34-A on January 19, 1964.  The plan called for graduated pressure on North Vietnam, proceeding in stages from surveillance and small hit-and-run raids by South Vietnamese commandos, then in operation, to more destructive “airborne and seaborne raids on important military and civilian installations” such as bridges, railways, and coastal fortifications, then to large-scale “aerial attacks conducted against critical DRV installations or facilities, industrial and/or military,” designed to destroy North Vietnam’s infrastructure and incapacitate its economy.  This secret plan, now declassified, amounted to a declaration of war against North Vietnam. [98]   Although U.S. officials were well aware that the insurgency in the south was largely sustained by the rural population rather than by Hanoi, they reasoned that increased pressure on North Vietnam could reduce the flow of weapons and supplies to the NLF and, in any case, punish the DRV for supporting the NLF.

history essays vietnam

DRV Prime Minister Pham Van Dong

The DRV, for its part, described the insurgency as a “national war,” a continuation of the struggle for national independence that began in 1945.  President Ho Chi Minh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong were willing to make limited concessions in the interest of peace, but they would not allow their country to be permanently divided.  On February 11, 1964, the two leaders met with French officials in Hanoi and indicated their support for de Gaulle’s mediation efforts.  Pham Van Dong summarized his government’s position:  “We don’t want Americans in the South, but we are in no hurry, and we know how to wait.  When the time comes, we will talk around a table.  The reunification of the country presupposes a single government, but we will respect the interests of the South, sincerely, without any pressure.” [99]   In the south, meanwhile, the NLF attempted to broaden its appeal by organizing the Self-Determination movement, which advocated the “neutralization” of Vietnam and popularized de Gaulle’s proposal for a negotiated end to the conflict.  The movement’s manifesto, “America for Americans, South Vietnam for South Vietnamese,” sought to prevent a full-scale American intervention and all-out war.

history essays vietnam

Senator Wayne Morse

The war in Vietnam by this time had become a controversial issue in the United States.  On March 4, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon gave a passionate speech on the Senate floor denouncing U.S. policy in Vietnam.  The United States, he declared, “should never have gone in” and should “get out” now.  Unless the administration changed course, he warned, Americans would soon see “casualty lists of American boys in South Vietnam.”  Morse outlined in detail his belief that the U.S. had violated international law, usurped the role of the United Nations, and defied the U.S. Constitution.  On March 10, Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska said that there was no justification “for murdering a single American boy in South Vietnam” and that someday it would be “denounced as a crime.” [102]

history essays vietnam

U.S.S. Maddox

The engineered crisis took place on August 2, 1964.  In the wake of a series of covert raids by South Vietnamese commandos against North Vietnamese coastal targets in the Gulf of Tonkin, three North Vietnamese patrol boats approached the U.S. destroyer Maddox in international waters.  U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Pat Paterson tells the story of what happened:

Weather conditions were clear, and seas were calm. At 1440, the destroyer detected three North Vietnamese patrol boats approaching her position from the west. Aware of North Vietnamese intent from the earlier SIGINT [signals intelligence] message, Captain Herrick ordered gun crews to open fire if the fast-approaching trio closed to within 10,000 yards of the destroyer, and at about 1505 three 5-inch shots were fired across the bow of the closest boat.  In return, the lead vessel launched a torpedo and veered away.  A second boat then launched two “fish” but was hit by gunfire from the destroyer.  Re-engaging, the first PT boat launched a second torpedo and opened fire with her 14.5-mm guns, but Maddox shell fire heavily damaged the vessel. [106]

history essays vietnam

McNamara briefing at the Pentagon (AP photo, Bob Schutz)

Whether or not Captain Herrick knew about the South Vietnamese commando raids, the administration knew very well that the North Vietnamese attack on the Maddox was provoked by these raids.  At a National Security Council meeting in which the events of August 2 were reviewed, CIA director John McCone explained that the North Vietnamese “are reacting defensively to our attacks on the off-shore islands.  They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations.” [107]  That understanding was never shared with the public.  The U.S. had thrown the first punch and North Vietnam had punched back, without effect; but the public was led to believe that North Vietnam had attacked the strongest nation on earth without provocation.

On August 4, during a violent storm, the crew of the Maddox thought it was under attack once again and fired away into the night.  This turned out to be an error, a misreading of sonar instruments, as confirmed by Navy pilot James Stockdale, commanding officer of the VF-51 fighter squadron.  It was nevertheless added to Johnson’s congressional resolution in order to make a stronger case.  The resolution stated that the United States had been “repeatedly attacked” as “part of a deliberate and systematic campaign of aggression that the Communist regime in North Vietnam has been waging against its neighbors,” and that United States “desires only that these people should be left in peace to work out their own destinies.” [108]

Johnson’s deception was nearly undermined by his vice-presidential running mate, Hubert Humphrey.  On August 4, Johnson complained angrily to his friend and campaign adviser, James Rowe, that Humphrey had been telling the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to the media, jeopardizing the administration’s claim that the attack on the Maddox was unprovoked.  Johnson’s outburst was recorded on the White House taping system:

This boy, our friend Hubert, is just destroying himself with his big mouth.  He just can’t stop it…. Yesterday morning he went on the TV and just blabbed everything he heard in a briefing, just like it was his personal knowledge, and almost wanted to claim credit for it.  They [the reporters] said, for instance, how would you account for these PT boat attacks on our destroyers when we are innocently out there in the Gulf sixty miles from shore.  Humphrey said, well, we have been carrying on some operations in that area, and we’ve been having some covert operations where we have been going in and knocking out roads and petroleum things, and so forth.  And that’s exactly what we have been doing .  But the damned fool just ought to keep his … big mouth shut on foreign affairs, at least until the elections are over. [109]

The administration rushed the resolution to Congress the following day, August 5, before Humphrey’s allegations could be investigated and substantiated.  Introduced under the title, “Joint Resolution to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia,” the resolution mixed a deceptive version of events in the Gulf of Tonkin with illusory claims of protecting the people of Southeast Asia, as prelude to authorizing “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” [110]   This was an open-ended declaration of war, but few members of Congress realized it at the time.

history essays vietnam

Senator J. William Fulbright

Senator Gaylord Nelson, Democrat of Wisconsin, cautiously suggested an amendment that would limit the U.S. response to the “provision of aid, training assistance and military advice” to the South Vietnamese government, but he was talked out of it by Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who assured Nelson that Congress was “just backing the President on his Tonkin response, not giving him a blank check for war.”  In fact, the resolution was a blank check for war and, later, Fulbright bitterly regretted his role in passing it.  “I don’t normally assume a president lies to you,” he wrote. [112]

history essays vietnam

Surrounded by members of Congress, President Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution at the White House on August 10, 1964 (Senator Humphrey is second from left)

With the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution enacted, Johnson had the power to expand the war as he saw fit.  His strategy was to increase it in stages, allowing the DRV and NLF to capitulate to U.S. demands at any pause.  If they did not, the U.S. would increase the punishment.  That fall, Johnson expanded the war in the south without fanfare, increasing U.S. bombing runs, building and expanding air bases, dispatching three additional regiments (about 4,500 soldiers), lifting restrictions on the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus (napalm was already in use), and expanding the area of “free-fire zones” to encompass larger sections of the countryside, including heavily populated areas.  It was still not enough.  On October 31, 1964, the NLF used captured American mortars to attack the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa, destroying five B-57 bombers and badly damaging thirteen more; four Americans were killed and thirty wounded.

history essays vietnam

Results of the NVA-NLF attack on a U.S. airbase near Pleiku, Feb. 7, 1965

Yet Lyndon Johnson chose war.  In the aftermath of his election, he waited only for the right moment to bomb North Vietnam and to deploy large numbers of U.S. combat troops in the south, judging that such actions must be seen as defensive.  The moment came on February 7, 1965, when NLF soldiers attacked Camp Holloway, a small airbase near the city of Pleiku, killing nine Americans and wounding 126, and destroying ten aircraft.  Johnson immediately initiated a bombing attack on four pre-selected targets in North Vietnam (Operation Flaming Dart), carried out by 132 U.S. and 22 South Vietnamese planes.  A few days later, on February 13, he approved a sustained bombing campaign (Operation Rolling Thunder) against North Vietnam.  China, meanwhile, declared on February 15 that it would enter the war if the United States invaded North Vietnam.

history essays vietnam

General William Westmoreland

Also not mentioned was the fact that U.S. forces had been engaged in bombing and napalm attacks in the region around Pleiku, and that some of these had originated from the U.S. airfield there.  The attack on the U.S. air base by NLF and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces was part of a wider counteroffensive against the growing American presence.  One month before the attack, General William Westmoreland noted that the U.S. had in South Vietnam a total of “16 important airfields, 9 communications facilities, one large POL [petroleum, oil, lubricants] storage area, and 289 separate installations where U.S. personnel work or live,” and that “any one of these is conceivably vulnerable to a VC [Viet Cong] attack in the form of mortar fire or sabotage.” [119]   General Westmoreland assumed command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in mid-1964 and retained that position for nearly four years.

history essays vietnam

U Thant, United Nations Secretary General

In fact, Johnson rejected a plethora of diplomatic initiatives during the month of February 1965.  Appeals were made by Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pakistani leader Mohammad Ayub Khan, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville.  British Prime Minister Harold Wilson issued a statement on February 8 backing U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam but also instructed his ambassador in Washington, Lord Harlech, to meet with administration officials and request a new Geneva conference.  In Rome, Pope Paul VI called for a negotiated settlement to the war sponsored and guaranteed by the United Nations.  On February 24, UN Secretary-General U Thant, having tried and failed to broker a peace agreement, appealed directly to the American people, suggesting that the Johnson administration had not been fully candid about its war plans and operations:

I am sure the great American people, if only they knew the true facts and background to the developments in South Vietnam, will agree with me that further bloodshed is unnecessary.  And that the political and diplomatic methods of discussions and negotiations alone can create conditions which will enable the United States to withdraw gracefully from that part of the world.  As you know, in times of war and hostilities, the first casualty is truth. [121]

Truth was not only the first casualty of war, as the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said 2,500 years ago, it was also a continuing casualty of American war plans and operations.  President Johnson and his advisers engaged in numerous and elaborate deceptions in order to keep American public opinion on their side, or at least sufficiently confused so as to not interfere with their war plans.  Johnson’s deceptions included misrepresenting the nature of the guerrilla war in South Vietnam, the extent of U.S. military operations in South Vietnam, covert operations against North Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and U.S. peace proposals (which amounted to ultimatums).  Added to these were continuing deceptions fostered by previous administrations concerning the Geneva Agreements, the nature of the South Vietnamese government, and the origins of the war.

To some degree, Johnson administration officials also deceived themselves, predicting that massive bombing of the north and the introduction of U.S. combat troops in the south would boost the morale of the ARVN, increase GVN stability, and buoy American “credibility.”  Yet this “stepped-up American military effort,” writes Logevall:

could not rectify the fundamental problem, the unwillingness of the mass of southerners to fight for the regime.  If anything, a larger American presence in the South would exacerbate the problem by making the regime seem more like a puppet than ever before…. Among Asians generally, sympathy for the Vietcong and its North Vietnamese allies would increase as they took on a very big, very white, western power, in the same way that the Vietminh before them had taken on the French. [122]

Various officials within the Johnson administration (in addition to George Ball) had expressed serious misgivings about the prospect of “success” in Vietnam during the preceding year.  One was Willard Matthias, an analyst with the CIA’s Office of National Estimates, who described the political and military situation in South Vietnam in June 1964 as so unstable that the administration should consider “some kind of negotiated settlement” to end the conflict.  “The guerrilla war in South Vietnam is in its fifth year and no end appears in sight,” Mathias wrote.  There is “serious doubt that victory can be won.”  Even with massive U.S. assistance to South Vietnam, he estimated that the best that can be hoped for is a “prolonged stalemate.”  On February 22, 1965, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor (who had temporarily replaced Lodge in Saigon) warned in a cable to the State Department that once U.S. forces are deployed, “it will be very difficult to hold the line.”  He predicted that U.S. soldiers on patrol would be unable to “distinguish between a VC and a friendly Vietnamese farmer,” and that the Vietnamese people would not welcome Americans soldiers.  “I am convinced,” he concluded, “that we should adhere to our past policy of keeping ground forces out of direct counter-insurgency role.” [123]

history essays vietnam

James Thomson resigned in 1966 and later taught at Harvard

What did President Johnson and his top advisers make of these warnings?  Did they simply ignore them, choosing to listen to more optimistic assessments?  Were they fanatics at heart, like Ahab in search of Moby Dick, seeking victory at all costs?  According to insightful insiders such as James C. Thomson and analysts such as George McTurnan Kahin, Johnson and his top tier of advisers vacillated between wishful thinking that the next action would bring the desired results and fear of humiliation for both the nation and themselves as architects of the Vietnam policy.  They did not want to be accused of “losing Vietnam.”  Thomson, a specialist in East Asian Affairs in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, noted “the banishment of experts, internal doubters and dissenters” in Johnson’s decision-making circle and their replacement with “’can-do guys,’ loyal and energetic fixers unsoured by expertise.”  Ideologically rigid in their view of the “enemy” and unwilling to understand Vietnam within its own experience and history, administration officials operated under the militaristic assumption “that Vietnam posed a fundamental test of American’s national will .”  Most of all, U.S. officials had little concern for the people of Vietnam, notwithstanding public pronouncements to the contrary.  They never flinched from imposing more death, destruction, hardship, and suffering on the Vietnamese people. [124]

history essays vietnam

The International Herald Tribune , April 29, 1965, reported that U.S. troops had been attacked by “rebels” and fired in return

It was also possible that the U.S. would achieve its goals in South Vietnam.  Judging by other U.S. policies, superior power coupled with convincing propaganda usually came out on top.  Such was the case with the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965.  U.S. military forces invaded the country in order to secure a rightist military junta that had ousted the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch.  The American people were told that the 20,000 U.S. troops dispatched were sent to save American lives and prevent a communist takeover.  Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst who was privy to the inside story, reflected, “We were 100 percent lying about what we were doing in the Dominican Republic.”  The Dominican Republic, said Ellsberg, was “one of the few communist-free environments in the whole world.” [125]   The Johnson administration got away with its lies and Washington added the country to its list of client-states.  As in Vietnam, internal developments in the Dominican Republic were touted as a threat to the United States, when in fact there was no threat whatsoever.  The alleged threat provided a cover for the administration to establish another pro-U.S. regime and retain hegemony in the Caribbean-Central America region.

history essays vietnam

U.S. Marines arrived at Danang, March 8, 1965

Despite the added troops and firepower, the underlying political dynamics of the war remained the same.  The Saigon government was detested by most of the people, and no amount of U.S. troops in the country could change that fact.  A report by the CIA Office of National Estimates on March 2, 1965, warned of the “danger that U.S. troop commitment will lead more South Vietnamese to accept the Communist line that U.S. colonialism is replacing French,” and thus “turn increasing numbers of Vietnamese toward support of the Viet Cong effort to oust the U.S.” [127]

history essays vietnam

Herb Block parodied escalation and deception, 1965

Taking a longer view, the American attempt to create and protect a separate, noncommunist state in southern Vietnam went through four phases over the course of twenty-one years.

  • The first (1954-1965) involved the formation of South Vietnam in the aftermath of the Geneva Convention and U.S. attempts to maintain it with subsidies and military advisers.
  • Phase two (1965-69) began with the South Vietnamese government on the brink of collapse.  U.S. combat troops were introduced in March 1965 and troop levels rose steadily until April 1969, reaching a peak of 545,000.
  • The third phase (1969-1973) was catalyzed in part by the Tet Offensive (a coordinated NLF-NVA attack on South Vietnam’s cities in early 1968), which convinced many Americans that there was “no light at the end of the tunnel,” and in part by rising domestic opposition to the war.  U.S. troops were gradually withdrawn while efforts to win the war continued by building up South Vietnamese forces and increasing the air war in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (and North Vietnam in 1972).
  • Following the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in March 1973, a fourth phase (1973-1975) began in which the U.S. supported its ally in Saigon which fought the NLF-NVA for two more years.

history essays vietnam

Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh formed a temporary alliance

The American War in Vietnam was mainly fought in the South.  The U.S. bombed North Vietnam heavily but did not send in U.S. troops, as this would likely have triggered Chinese intervention and a wider war, as noted in a CIA estimate in July 1965.  Moreover, writes the international relations scholar John W. Garver, “A Sino-American war fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula would probably have facilitated the growth of communist power in Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, and Malaysia.  China would have spared no efforts to outflank the United States by supporting insurgencies elsewhere in Southeast Asia.” [130]

history essays vietnam

Unable to speak the language, American soldiers attempted to identify communists and their supporters among the rural population

With the introduction of U.S. combat troops, efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people were eclipsed by intensified U.S. efforts to win the counterinsurgency war.  Given the widespread animosity in southern Vietnam toward the GVN, if not outright support for the NLF, the American War quickly turned into a war against the rural population.  The targets included not only the communist-led NLF but also any person or village that offered support to NLF cadre or failed to expel them from their villages.  The idea that Americans could distinguish between communists and non-communists, and between civilians and guerrillas, in a foreign world of thatched huts, straw mats, and wooden plows was predictably illusory, with debilitating consequences.  The war against the rural population entailed harsh relocation (“pacification”) programs, a clandestine assassination program against village leaders suspected of helping the NLF (Operation Phoenix), the burning of villages deemed pro-NLF, the bombing and strafing of whole regions decreed as free-fire zones, and the spraying of poisons such as Agent Orange on millions of acres of forests and cultivated fields.

Unable to hold territory without a massive military presence, the measure of American success became the “body count” – how many of the “enemy” were killed.  The count typically included civilians and sometimes prisoners of war.  There was great pressure from the top to produce a high body count in order to “prove” that the U.S. was winning the war.  According to the historian George C. Herring:

In a war without front lines and territorial objectives, the “body count” became the index of progress…. It was impossible to distinguish between Vietcong and noncombatants, and in the heat of battle American “statisticians” made little effort…. Throughout the chain of command there was heavy pressure to produce favorable figures, and padding occurred at each level until by the time the numbers reached Washington they bore little resemblance to reality…. Largely on the basis of these figures, the American military command argued that the United States was “winning” the war. [131]

Other misconceptions attending U.S. policymaking lay beyond the realm of military strategy.  The first mistake was to label the communist-led patriots of Vietnam “enemies” of the United States, despite the fact that they posed no threat to U.S. national security and held no animosity toward Americans before the United States intervened in 1954.  Another debilitating misconception was that the U.S. had the right to militarily intervene in South Vietnam, a view not shared by most Vietnamese.  A third was the belief that military force could make up for the acknowledged political failure of the South Vietnamese government to win the loyalty of the people.  A fourth, drilled into the minds of U.S. soldiers, was that the U.S. had to “save” Vietnam from Vietnamese communists.

history essays vietnam

Woman and child hide from American search mission in Le My village, May 15, 1965 (Bettmann-Corbis)

U.S. soldiers sometimes referred to Vietnam as “Indian country,” a place beyond the pale of civilization where savage wars took place.  At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 1965, General Maxwell Taylor joked that is was “hard to plant the corn outside the stockade when the Indians are still around.  We have to get the Indians farther away in many of the provinces to make good progress.” [134]   The analogy to the earlier “Red threat” was appropriate in certain ways.  The assumption that the U.S. had the right to take over Indian lands, exercise control over Native American tribes, and suppress any resistance had parallels in the way the U.S. assumed the right to take over South Vietnam, exercise control over the GVN, and suppress the NLF.  The U.S. Army honed its skills in counterinsurgency warfare by fighting numerous “Indian wars” and the American public became habituated to the idea that U.S. military forces were advancing civilization and democratic institutions irrespective of the devastation wrought on other cultures.  Continental empire-building in the 19 th century furthermore whetted the appetite of American imperialists for global empire-building in the 20 th  century.  The reputed enemies of American “progress and civilization” shifted from Red Indians to Red Communists.

American conduct in the Vietnam War was indeed savage in its effects.  While purporting to save Vietnam, the U. S. military forces wreaked havoc on a population that did not want the Americans there.  As George Herring writes:

The massive bombing and artillery fire disrupted the agriculture upon which the South Vietnamese economy depended, produced huge numbers of civilian casualties, and drove millions of noncombatants into hastily constructed refugee camps or into the already overcrowded cities.  American military operations further undermined the social fabric of an already fragile nation and alienated the people from a government which never had a firm base of popular support.  “It was as if we were trying to build a house with a bulldozer and wrecking crane,” one American official later observed. [135]

history essays vietnam

A young Marine private arriving at Danang, March 1965

American soldiers were both victims and perpetrators in the Vietnam War.  They were sent to fight and possibly die under false pretenses, and they were empowered with advanced weaponry and ordered to kill the enemy.  Sixty-one percent of the 58,200 Americans who died in the war were twenty-one years of age or younger.  In successive waves of one-year terms of duty, some 2,600,000 American military personnel made their way to South Vietnam, most believing they were serving their country though they knew little about Vietnam and its history, including their own nation’s imperial moves to divide the country.  Between 7,500 and 11,000 American women served in Vietnam, the majority being nurses.  In living out the fiction that the U.S. was “saving” South Vietnam, many soldiers became disillusioned and cynical.  Some became opponents of the war, joining the GI antiwar movement.  Most returned scarred from the war, psychologically or physically.  “The grunts and GIs who fought the war,” writes David Cortright, a Vietnam era veteran, “were victims of a hopelessly misguided policy.” [136]

history essays vietnam

Nguyen Van Thieu became president of South Vietnam in 1967

America’s ally, the GVN, garnered little loyalty from the people during its two decades of existence.  It remained from beginning to end, an authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt client-state of the United States.  It was also constantly in turmoil.  On February 19, 1965, General Nguyen Khanh was ousted in a coup d’état , tacitly approved by U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor and General William Westmoreland.  Khanh left the country and power was transferred to a triumvirate of generals, Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Chanh Thi, and Nguyen Van Thieu.  To please the U.S., the new government pledged on March 1 not to negotiate with the enemy.  Thi was soon banished to the U.S., while Ky and Thieu became the key leaders for the remainder of South Vietnam’s existence.  Ky was born in Hanoi and had been trained as a pilot by the French in Algeria.  He was described by Ambassador Taylor as having all the qualities of a successful juvenile gang leader.  Thieu, also northern-born, had fought with the French against the Viet Minh, graduated from the United States Command and General Staff College in 1957, and became president of South Vietnam in 1967.  Thieu’s top power broker, General Dang Van Quang, was heavily involved in the narcotics trade, controlling the Vietnamese Navy which harbored an elaborate smuggling organization. [137]

history essays vietnam

Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang was greatly respected by ARVN soldiers and thus was viewed as a threat by Generals Ky and Thieu (UPI photo by Vo Thanh Son, April 18, 1966)

In March 1966, protest demonstrations led by Buddhists broke out in Saigon, Danang, Hue, and other cities.  Their main demand was a return to civilian government, which they believed would be amenable to a negotiated end to the war.  On April 4, General Ky announced that Danang was an “enemy-held city” and threatened to “liberate” it from the “communists.”  He ordered an attack on Danang pagodas, which killed some one hundred civilians and wounded more.  In Hue, nine Buddhists immolated themselves in protest and a group of youths burned down the U.S. consulate on May 31.  Eight days later, GVN troops invaded and took over the city.  Rather than resist, Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang went on a hunger strike that almost led to his death.  Elections were held in September 1967 under repressive conditions and Thieu and Ky were respectively elected president and vice-president.  Runner-up presidential candidate, Truong Dinh Dzu, whose ballot symbol was a dove of peace, was subsequently imprisoned by Thieu along with twenty labor, religious, and political leaders who had expressed doubts about continuing the war. [138]   War and authoritarianism, as such, went hand in hand in South Vietnam, despite a façade of democratic procedures.

history essays vietnam

Wounded South Vietnamese soldiers (AP photo by Eddie Adams, Jan. 31, 1966)

The idea of every U.S. president, from Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon, was that the South Vietnamese Army should carry the main burden of defeating the insurgency.  Yet many ARVN soldiers held no animosity toward their fellow countrymen, communist or not, and viewed the counterinsurgency war as America’s rather than their own.  It is therefore not surprising that, as U.S. troop levels increased, ARVN military activities declined.  The U.S. command was highly critical of this “inefficiency” and lack of “integrity,” but it was not laziness, cowardice, or inferiority that made the ARVN less-than-willing soldiers.  Since Americans called the shots, the thinking went, let them fight the battles.  The “need” for American troops was directly related to the unwillingness of Vietnamese men in the south to fight for the American cause.

One American solider, Jeff Drake, who did two Army tours in Vietnam between July 1970 and February 1972, was incensed to find that “many ARVNs did not want to have anything to do with fighting the Viet Cong.”  He resented this for many years after returning home.  In time, however, after reading about the history of Vietnam, he came to a different view.  He had been “incorrect,” he wrote, in his belief:

that the South Vietnamese people had asked us to help them win the war.  This request had not come from the South Vietnamese people, it had come from the South Vietnamese government, whose existence was due solely to American support and interests.  The ARVNs, many under the age of 17, had no choice in fighting and were often sympathetic to the cause of the Viet Cong.  Knowing the truth, I now feel little resentment towards the ARVNs I saw who were unwilling to fight, only sympathy.  We, Americans and ARVNs, were all unwitting cogs in the same terrible war machine. [139]

history essays vietnam

South Vietnamese survivors following a two-day battle at Dong Xoai, June 1965 (AP photo, Horst-Faas)

For the Vietnamese, the war front was their home front.  Tran Thi Gung, a southerner who joined the NLF in 1963 at the age of seventeen, after her father had been killed by the Diem government, told the historian Christian Appy in an interview some forty-five years later:

Whenever anyone asks me about the suffering of the war, I have a terrible nightmare that very night in which I relive these experiences.  I miss my comrades very much and often see them again in my dreams.  But I never felt guilty about the killing I did.  It was war.  Wouldn’t you shoot me if you saw me holding a weapon and pointing it at you?  I think it was justified.  But if I went to America and killed people there, I would feel very sorry and guilty.  Since the Americans came to my country, I don’t feel guilty. [140]

With the onset of the American War in 1965, the masses who hailed Ho Chi Minh as their liberator and national hero were deemed “fellow travelers” of the NLF resistance by U.S. leaders and treated accordingly.

history essays vietnam

Villagers labor on a barrier fence to keep out NLF infiltrators

The U.S. and GVN instituted a succession of “pacification” programs in an attempt to secure the countryside, separate guerrillas from civilians, and create a base of popular support in villages.  Beginning with the Rural Community Development program in the late 1950s, there followed the Strategic Hamlet program in 1962, the Hop Tac (Cooperation) program in mid-1964, the Ap Doi Moi (New Life Hamlet) program, the Ap Tan Sin (Secure Hamlet) program, the “Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support” program in May 1967, and the Accelerated Pacification Campaign in 1969-70.  According to the Pentagon Papers , “By the summer of 1967, pacification had become a major ingredient of American strategy in Vietnam, growing steadily in importance and the amount of resources devoted to it.  The U.S. Mission in Vietnam had been reorganized three times in 15 months and each reorganization had been designed primarily to improve the management of the pacification effort and raise its priority within the overall effort.” [141]

history essays vietnam

Villagers waiting to be relocated to a refugee camp, May 1969 (photo by Hugh Van Es)

General Westmoreland made a momentous change in U.S. policy when he declared at a press conference in December 1965 that villagers would no longer be allowed to stay neutral.  They would have to ally with the GVN and U.S. or be moved out and see their villages destroyed.  As the general put it, the villager “will have to choose if he stays alive.”  One reporter asked, “Doesn’t that give the villager only the choice of becoming a refugee?”  Westmoreland replied, “I expect a tremendous increase in the number of refugees.”  His expectation proved tragically correct.  About one in four South Vietnamese became a refugee between 1965 and 1969. [143]   The American rhetoric of pacification, rural reconstruction, and self-determination became Orwellian terms that meant the opposite – coercion, destruction, and confinement.

history essays vietnam

Lt. Col. John Paul Vann (2nd from right) briefs his colleagues (Library of Congress)

Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who retired from the Army in mid-1963 and returned to Vietnam in 1965 to become the provincial pacification director for the Agency for International Development, overseeing twelve provinces, believed that pacification programs could work.  He thus protested to his superiors “the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the countryside which the U.S. high command was conducting to try to deprive the Vietnamese Communists of their population base,” as such assaults were undermining his attempts to win the loyalty of the villagers.  According to Vann’s biographer, Neil Sheehan, “Large sections of the peasantry were driven into slums in the cities and into refugee camps near the district capitals and larger towns.” [146]

history essays vietnam

Winning hearts and minds through fear and terror, 1966 (photo by Kyochi Sawada, UPI)

Accompanying “pacification” programs were clandestine operations designed to find and eliminate NLF cadre.  During the 1950s, the Diem regime’s police and military intelligence units hunted down those suspected of supporting the insurgency.  American “advisers” assisted the hunt by establishing an identity card system and aiding in the creation of computerized lists of subversives to be rounded up and frequently tortured. [148]   In 1965, The CIA launched its Counter Terror program, described by one analyst as an attempt to use “techniques of terror – assassination, abuses, kidnappings and intimidation – against the Viet Cong leadership.”  According to the historian Alfred W. McCoy:

The program expanded in 1967, when the CIA established a centralized pacification bureaucracy, the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS), that drew all the scattered counterinsurgency operations into a covert assassination campaign later named the “Phoenix program.”  With limitless funding and unrestrained powers, Phoenix represented an application of the most advanced U.S. information technologies to the task of destroying the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in the villages. [149]

history essays vietnam

Interrogation technique

Operation Phoenix sought to separate the rural population from the NLF through intimidation and terror.  Phoenix agents utilized psychological warfare techniques such as posting “Wanted” posters and blacklists, spreading disinformation and superstitions, and even stringing up corpses on hooks for maximum terror effect. [155]   The CIA instructed its protégés in sophisticated interrogation techniques designed to emphasize the prisoner’s helplessness and dependence on his captor, using lie detectors, Page-Russell electroshock machines, and other gadgets.  These methods led to wide-scale torture.  K. Barton Osborn, a U.S. Army intelligence officer, testified before a Congressional subcommittee in July 1971 what he had witnessed:  “The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one my detainee’s ears and the tapping through the brain until he died.  The starving to death [in a cage] of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being a part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages . . . the use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to [men’s and women’s genitals] to shock them into submission.”  Medical experimentation was also undertaken under the direction of the CIA’s Faustian doctor, Sidney Gottlieb, at the Bien Hoa mental hospital.  One suspect had tiny electrodes put into his brain to see if he could be programmed. [156]   Some Phoenix agents used their positions for revenge and extortion, threatening to kill people and count them as VC if they did not pay huge sums.  Atrocities were committed by “VC avenger units” prone to rape, pillage and body mutilation. [157]

history essays vietnam

Suspected communist sympathizers, 1966

The intimidating effects of the Phoenix interrogation program were compounded by the mass arrest of political prisoners, of which there were at least 100,000 at the peak of the fighting.  Under the army’s small wars doctrine, effective prison management was seen as crucial to counter-insurgency as it provided a symbol of government authority and means of winning political converts through reeducation.  The State Department consequently spent $6.5 million between 1967 and 1972 for the maintenance and renovation of the forty-two major prisons run by the government of South Vietnam, and built three additional facilities and a juvenile reformatory.  The U.S. provided generators and handcuffs, built special isolation cells for hard-core “Vietcong,” and oversaw the construction of over thirty state-of-the-art detention centers (Provincial Interrogation Centers). [160]   Many of the supplies, however, were resold on the black-market by local authorities, usually cronies of Vietnamese Generals Ky or Thieu, or kept until wardens paid a bribe.

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CIA director William Colby testified before Congress that over 20,000 suspects had been executed in the Phoenix program, but that the U.S. bore no responsibility

On February 17, 1970, the Washington Post ran a story titled “U.S. Aides in Vietnam Scorn Phoenix Project.”  In April 1971, Rep. Jerome Waldie, Republican of California, provided a well-documented exposé of the Phoenix program’s abuses. On July 19, 1971, Phoenix program director William Colby testified before a Congressional subcommittee.  He was asked by Rep. Ogden Reid, “Can you state categorically that Phoenix has never perpetrated the premediated killing of a civilian in a noncombat situation?”  Colby replied, “No, I could not say that, but I do not think it happens often…. Individual members of it, subordinate people in it, may have done it.  But as a program, it is not designed to do that.”  Colby thus deflected his responsibility for civilian assassinations to lower-level employees (as was done in the Philippines and Indonesia).  He nevertheless acknowledged that 20,587 suspects had been killed under his tenure.  The following day, K. Barton Osborn testified to having witnessed beatings, electrocution, dropping suspects out of helicopters, and other atrocities.  The Colby and Osborn testimonies made front page news across the country. [163]

Search and destroy:  the ground war

history essays vietnam

U.S.-designated combat zones of operation

Search and destroy operations were initiated in 1964 and widely employed through 1968.  The brainchild of Generals William DePuy and William Westmoreland, these operations were aimed at flushing out enemy troops hidden in the countryside, pinning them down, and calling in heavy artillery and airpower to annihilate them – thus “find, fix, and finish.”  By June 1967, U. S. battalions were spending 86 per cent of their time on these missions. [165]

history essays vietnam

The day’s operation burned down 150 houses, wounded three women, killed one baby, wounded one marine and netted these four prisoners.  Four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English.  Four old men who had no idea what an I.D. card was.  Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature.  There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here.  But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side. [168]

history essays vietnam

Life magazine focused on the death of one U.S. airman in its April 16, 1965 issue

The ground war employed substantial air power.  Many Vietnamese civilians were killed or badly wounded by helicopter gunships which strafed anything that moved in areas deemed hostile.  Louis Jankowski, district senior adviser of Tra Cu District in the Vinh Binh Province in 1968, characterized gunship operations as a “form of nonselective terrorism” that attacked houses, sampans and bunkers, often without any knowledge or concern about who was inside.  Many people were killed simply for the “sin of running,” as historian David Hunt termed it. [169]   David Bressem, who flew with a reconnaissance unit to “find the enemy,” testified before a congressional committee in 1971:

Anyone taking evasive action could be fired upon.  Evasive action was never explained to me.  It normally entailed someone running or trying to evade a helicopter or any fire…. There is one incident I recall where we flew over a large rice paddy, and there were some people working in the rice paddy, maybe a dozen or fifteen individuals, and we passed a couple of times low over their heads and they didn’t take any action; they were obviously nervous, but they didn’t try to hide or anything.  So we then hovered a few feet off the ground among them with the two helicopters, turned on the police sirens and when they heard the police sirens, they started to disperse and we opened up on them and just shot them all down. [170]

Among the factors contributing to the killing of civilians were the bureaucratic labeling of whole districts as NLF territory and thus free-fire zones; a “body count” reward system that identified civilians killed as communist guerrillas; lack of official accountability such that the generals did not want to know about, report, or investigate civilian casualties; psychological factors including revenge, sadism, racism, and boredom, any of which might impel a soldier to slay or rape civilians; a military culture that encouraged racist views of Asians and Vietnamese, commonly referred to as “gooks”; and the massive firepower readily available to U.S. soldiers that killed indiscriminately.

history essays vietnam

U.S. Marine company on patrol, July 1966

Dropped into war zones, without knowledge of the Vietnamese language and with little, if any, understanding of local culture, U.S. soldiers had problems distinguishing enemy from neutral from friend.  They often became frustrated when making no contact with enemy soldiers for long periods, then seemingly out of the blue were interrupted by violent surprise attacks.  Daily treks through insect-filled jungles in the heat and humidity also took a toll on GI nerves.  In numerous documented cases, their frustrations were taken out on civilians.  The approved routine of burning of huts, destruction of villages, and terrorizing of residents could and did lead to unauthorized sexual assaults, random shootings, and even massacres such as that in My Lai.  Heonik Kwon lists thirteen large-scale massacres, including some by South Korean troops; Nick Turse, in Kill Anything That Moves , documents more.  Even in villages with decent relations with local U.S. forces, other mobile U.S. forces were known to violently intervene. [171]

history essays vietnam

U.S. and ARVN treatment of prisoners of war contravened U.S. and international laws

Such practices violated important tenets of international law, including the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.  The moral and legal issues hardly concerned American military leadership, but they ate away at the conscience of many “grunts” and raised questions for an American public increasingly disenchanted with the war.

One such GI, Tom Glen, who served with an American mortar platoon, expressed his moral concerns in a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, in the fall of 1968.  “The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations,” he wrote.

Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as “slopes” or “gooks,” in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy.

Glen noted that some American troops “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and, without provocation or justification, shoot at the people themselves,” and that “severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of questioning captives.”  He ended by asking General Abrams to implement the codes of the Geneva Conventions.  Abrams passed Glen’s letter on to Major Colin Powell (future Secretary of State), who never interviewed Glen and dismissed the allegations as overly broad and without documentation. [172]

history essays vietnam

Resupplying and evacuating troops in the battle of Ia Drang Valley, Nov. 16, 1965 (photo by Joe Galloway)

The first major battle between U.S. and with North Vietnamese forces took place in Ia Drang Valley in mid-November 1965.   The U.S. First Calvary Division, venturing deep into the Central Highlands, found itself surrounded by NLF-NVA forces.  In the ensuing four-day combat, one out of every four American soldiers was killed or wounded.  Up to that point, 1,100 Americans had been killed.  The Ia Drang mission added 234 more.  The U.S. command claimed victory, as an estimated 3,500 NLF-NVA soldiers were reportedly killed.  Two weeks later, however, Secretary of Defense McNamara sent a top-secret memo to President Johnson predicting that, just “to hold our present geographical positions,” the U.S. would need the “addition of 28 U.S. battalions,” or about 200,000 troops.  McNamara’s early optimism never returned after the Ia Drang Valley battle. [173]

history essays vietnam

Besieged U.S. Embassy in Saigon during Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive, named after the Tet holiday celebrating the lunar new year, was a major turning point in the war.  On January 31, 1968, approximately 84,000 NLF-NVA fighters attacked South Vietnam’s major cities and some 100 other targets, putting the U.S. and GVN on the defensive for the first time.  In Saigon, the presidential palace, airport, ARVN headquarters, and U.S. Embassy grounds came under fire.  It took ten U.S. battalions to restore “security” in the Saigon area.  The city of Hue remained in NLF-NVA hands for twenty-six days.  Prior to this offensive, Americans had been led to believe that the U.S. and GVN were winning the war or at least making “progress.”  General Westmoreland was quoted in Time (November 27, 1967) as saying, “I have never been more encouraged in my four years in Vietnam.” [175]   Although NLF-NVA forces were driven out of the cities and suffered grievous losses, they succeeded in demonstrating to the American people that they would never give up.

history essays vietnam

Civilian homes destroyed in Saigon in the Tet counteroffensive

The Tet Offensive was immediately followed by a massive U.S.-GVN counteroffensive that produced much collateral damage.  The Saigon government reported 14,300 civilians killed, 24,000 wounded, 627,000 made homeless across South Vietnam.  John Paul Vann, chief of the pacification effort in the provinces surrounding Saigon, thought the operation excessive in his region.  “I estimate 15,000 houses destroyed,” he wrote, “about 99 percent of this has been the result of over-reaction on the part of US and Vietnamese units.”  The U.S. also bombed the majestic city of Hue, leaving over 100,000 people homeless.  The photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths wrote that thousands of civilians “were killed by the most hysterical use of American firepower ever seen.” [178]

history essays vietnam

The city of Hue after bombing by U.S. warplanes, May 1968

Following the U.S.-GVN recapture of Hue, shallow mass graves were discovered in and around the city.  Many of the bodies had their hands bound, indicating execution.  Free-lance journalist Len Ackland estimated the number at 300 to 400.  U.S. officials estimated 2,800 to 5,700.  Later Vietnamese accounts and memoirs verified that NLF and perhaps NVA soldiers killed prisoners, whether because they were “reactionaries” or during a panicked retreat under U.S. bombardment, but not in the numbers alleged by U.S. officials.  According to the political scientist Gareth Porter:

There is evidence of several hundred political executions carried out by the Communists toward the end of the occupation in Hue…. But that the more than 2,800 bodies found in and around Hue after Tet were victims of Communist executions is supported only by official assertions.  In the bloody fighting to recapture Hue, in which half the homes were destroyed, thousands – civilians and Vietcong troops – were killed and buried in mass graves. [180]

The story that was heard in the U.S., however, was that of Douglas Pike, an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, who blamed the civilian deaths entirely on the insurgents and warned that more massacres could be expected should South Vietnam fall to the communists.  His story was spread by U.S. agencies and the American Friends of Vietnam, which issued a pamphlet in June 1969 warning that the “massacres at Hue … were only the most outrageous in a long history of such Communist atrocities.”  Excerpts of Pike’s story also appeared in Reader’s Digest (September 1970) in part to counter revelations of American atrocities at My Lai. [182]   Writing forty years later, the American military historian James Willbanks concludes:

Regardless of the actual circumstances of the civilian deaths in Hue, U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities trumpeted the killings as an object lesson in Communist immorality and a foretaste of the atrocities ahead – should the Communists triumph in South Vietnam.  We may never know what really happened at Hue, but it is clear that mass executions did occur and that reports of the massacre there had a significant impact on South Vietnamese and American attitudes for many years after the Tet Offensive. [183]

My Lai and other atrocities

history essays vietnam

U.S. soldiers killed this family just seconds after the photo was taken by Ron Haeberle, March 16, 1968

The American massacre of civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968, was part of the U.S. counteroffensive following Tet.  The area in which the My Lai village was located was labeled “Pinkville” and a U.S. unit known as Charlie company – led by Captain Ernest Medina, with 2 nd Lt. William Calley commanding the First Platoon – treated it as a free-fire zone, killing some 500 unarmed men, women, children, and infants.  A number of women were raped as well.  Not all soldiers participated in the murders; one broke down and cried; another shot animals instead.  Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot surveying the scene from above, spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape.  Realizing that a massacre was taking place, he landed his chopper and rescued ten civilians while ordering his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians.  On the same day, another U.S. unit, Bravo company, murdered some 90 civilians in the village of My Khe, two kilometers to the east.  These massacres were not acknowledged by military authorities at the time.  The task force commander overseeing operations wrote in his after-action report that the day’s maneuvers were “well planned, well-executed, and successful.” [184]

history essays vietnam

The U.S. public was informed about the My Lai massacre one and a half years after it took place.

The American public did not learn about the My Lai massacre until one and a half years after it occurred.  On November 12, 1969, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the My Lai story in the U.S. press.  This was followed by publication of Army photographer Ron Haeberle’s photographs in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 20, its front page filled with a shocking scene of slaughtered women and babies on a country road.  Life magazine picked up the story and published more photographs in “The Massacre at My Lai” in its December 5 th issue.  Haeberle testified that he personally saw about thirty different American soldiers kill about 100 civilians, but he destroyed photographs of these killings, keeping only the end results.  Mike Wallace of CBS television followed up the story with an interview of Private Paul Meadlo, aired on November 25, 1969.  Meadlo confirmed that Charlie Company had rounded up and shot hundreds of men, women and children.  “And babies?” asked Wallace.  “And babies,” replied Meadlo. [186]

history essays vietnam

Vietnamese memorial to the civilian victims of U.S. massacres in the Quang Ngai province

In the aftermath of My Lai, more atrocity stories came to light, many told by GIs and veterans themselves.  To limit the damage, the Pentagon assembled a secret Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that gathered more than 300 criminal investigation reports, testimonies, and allegations of atrocities, including massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and the execution of prisoners.  The purpose of the working group was not to administer justice but to bury the evidence in top-secret classification.  The Pentagon framed My Lai as an “isolated incident,” the product of a few “bad apples,” and kept the lid on information and reports regarding other atrocities, including the massacre at My Khe that same day.  It refused to investigate many of the allegations by GIs and vets in the interest of keeping the extent of atrocities under wraps.  This went beyond public image making, as the generals themselves could be charged with war crimes under international law (in the tradition of the Nuremberg Trials) should a consistent pattern of atrocities and cover-ups be proven. [188]

history essays vietnam

Plaque inscribed with 74 names of civilians massacred by South Korean forces in the villages of Phong Nhi and Phong-Nhat in Quang Nam Province (photo by Ko Kyoung-tae, Feb. 2014)

Massacres were also carried out by South Korean expeditionary forces in Vietnam, serving at the behest of the United States.  U.S. news reports in 1965 and 1966 described the South Korean troops as “fierce” and “effective,” which, in practice, meant brutal and insensitive.  In 1973, two Vietnamese speaking Quakers, Diane and Michael Jones, carried out a study which found that South Korean troops had committed twelve separate massacres of 100 or more civilians, and dozens of smaller massacres and murders. [189]

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Lt. William Calley

On March 29, 1971, Lt. William Calley was convicted on charges of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Hawkish patriots immediately forged a common front of denial.  Governor Jimmy Carter proclaimed “American Fighting Man’s Day” and encouraged his fellow Georgians to drive with their headlights on during daylight hours for one week to show their support for Calley.  State legislatures in New Jersey, Arkansas, Kansas, Texas, and South Carolina passed motions officially requesting clemency for Calley.  Alabama Governor George Wallace named Calley an honorary Lt. Colonel in the Alabama National Guard.  According to the New York Times , “In the days immediately following his conviction, there were public demonstrations on his behalf, and a song about him became a hit record.”  President Nixon used the surge of patriotic support for Calley to counteract the strength of the antiwar movement.  Three days after Calley’s conviction, Nixon ordered him transferred from prison to house arrest at Fort Benning while his appeal was heard.  Calley ultimately served three and a half years of house arrest before being released in September 1974. [191]

history essays vietnam

Hamburger Hill, May 1969

In another mission from May 10-20, 1969, U.S. and ARVN troops fought an intense, uphill battle (literally) for Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill,” near the Laotian border.  The U.S.-ARVN forces succeeded in taking the hill, with significant casualties, but since no territory in the countryside could be permanently retained without sizable forces present, the hill was quietly abandoned on June 5.  Two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area.  In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked on the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?” [193]

On June 8, 1969, President Richard Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island in the Pacific and announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of August.  Thus began the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, theoretically to be replaced by ARVN troops.  Labeled “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the policy sought to reverse the Americanization of the war, notwithstanding the fact that there was no possibility of the South Vietnamese winning the war on their own.  The shift in policy may be attributed to domestic opposition to the war – a political reality – rather than to any military strategy for winning the war or even achieving a stalemate.  According to Department of Defense statistics, U.S. troop levels fell from 539,000 in June 1969 to 415,000 in June 1970; 239,000 in June 1971; 47,000 in June 1972; and 21,500 in January 1973. [194]

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Presidents Thieu and Nixon

Still, President Nixon did what he could to ensure that South Vietnam would survive as long as possible.  On April 30, 1970, he ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia to destroy NLF-NVA sanctuaries as well as back up the rightist coup d’etat of General Lon Nol.  Nixon’s public announcement of this expansion of the war set off nationwide protests on college campuses, including one at Kent State where members of the National Guard shot and killed four students.  U.S. troops were withdrawn from Cambodia after two months, but the bombing of Cambodia continued for another three years.

More frightening to the Army command was the increasing frequency of “fragging” superior officers who ordered GIs into hostile territory.  According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History:

One of the more disturbing aspects of the unpopular war in Vietnam was the practice known as fragging.  Disenchanted soldiers in Vietnam sometimes used fragmentation grenades, popularly known as frags, or other explosives to threaten or kill officers and NCOs they disliked.  The full extent of the problem will never be known; but it increased sharply in 1969, 1970, and 1971, when the morale of the troops declined in step with the American role in the fighting.  A total of 730 well-documented cases involving 83 deaths have come to light.  There were doubtless others and probably some instances of fragging that were privately motivated acts of anger that had nothing to do with the war.  Nonetheless, fragging was symptomatic of an Army in turmoil. [198]

The “turmoil” in the Army included occasional mutinies (disobeying direct orders), consultations in the field between troops and officers (the military is not supposed to be a democracy), desertions, temporary absences without leave (AWOL), drug use, racial tensions, general resistance to military rules and authority, including dress codes, unauthorized peace advocacy (petitions, gatherings), numerous conscientious objection applications, and lackluster re-enlistment.  Such problems were the subject of a revealing essay by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” in the Armed Forces Journal (June 7, 1971). [199]   While the decline in fighting spirit was commonly described as a problem of “low morale,” at least some of it reflected a positive trend toward questioning the purpose and conduct of the war.  Such critical thinking was necessary for reasons of both conscience and legal protection.  Given the routine carnage employed in ground operations, soldiers had to be careful not to commit war crimes, as defined in U.S. military codes and international law.

Technological rampage:  The air war

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Each small red dot represents one U.S. bombing attack

Much of the stomping was done by aerial bombing.  Indeed, the American air war produced many more casualties than the war on the ground.  According to the military historian Michael Clodfelter:

The United States Air Force dropped in Indochina, from 1964 to August 15, 1973, a total of 6,162,000 tons of bombs and other ordnance.  U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft expended another 1,500,000 tons in Southeast Asia.  This tonnage far exceeded that expended in World War II – 1,613,000 tons in the European Theater and 537,000 tons in the Pacific Theater. [201]

American bombing missions were enabled by the U.S. global military base structure, which allowed airplanes to carry out missions from as far away as Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Thailand, and by the construction of air-bases, landing fields, military compounds, roads, ports and energy depots in South Vietnam by two politically connected companies, Bechtel and Kellogg, Brown and Root. [202]   For the Pentagon, Vietnam served as a “remarkable technological opportunity,” in the words of General Maxwell Taylor, for showcasing new super-weapons developed by military scientists and engineers.  Following the Soviets launching of Sputnik in 1958, the Eisenhower administration founded the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose mission was to recruit top scientific talent for developing cutting edge military technologies that would enable the U.S. to win the Cold War.  In 1971, it was estimated that more than 240,000 technological and scientific workers were involved in war related production or research. [203]   Their output was considerable.

history essays vietnam

Boeing B-52s carpet bombed from high altitudes

Among the advanced weapons used in Vietnam were B-52 bombers that could carry ten times the load of bombs as WWII models; AC-130 gunships, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” capable of sensing ammonia in human sweat and urine, and firing 6,000 rounds per minute; Huey and Cobra attack helicopters with rapid-side fire capability; Raytheon and Hughes wire guided missiles with built-in path-correcting devices; swift boats equipped with twin .50 caliber machine guns; surface-to-surface rockets capable of operating at a range of over 100 miles; blockbuster bombs that could destroy enough jungle vegetation to create a “bald spot the size of a football field”; bombs laden with a proximity fuse with a 75-millisecond delay so they would detonate below the jungle canopy but above ground; camouflaged electronic sensors and land mines for use along the Ho Chi Minh trail; Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) capable of conducting surveillance over North Vietnam and China; and computerized navigation, mapping and communications systems linked with space-based satellites. [204]

history essays vietnam

NVA-NLF simple tunnel system

history essays vietnam

The 559 Engineering Corps maintained the Ho Chi Minh Trail

The NLF and NVA studied American weapons systems and attempted to evade or counter them by developing effective warning systems, spy networks, camouflage techniques, clever battlefield tactics, knowledge of the jungle terrain, and support from the local population.  Although southern fighters were aided by the north, they had to rely on their own ingenuity to neutralize the advantages of American weapons.  Expert at navigating the waterways and moving supplies by boat, they built a network of underground tunnels where they could live for days and even perform medical surgeries.  A cook by the name of Hoang Tram became a national hero for developing a stove that could cook meals without giving off tell-tale smoke.

NLF fighter trains teenage girls in a jungle clearing, Sept. 8, 1867

NLF leader trained teenage girls in a jungle clearing, Sept. 8, 1867

Guerrillas manufactured homemade bombs and mines from unexploded American ordinance.  They set up punji traps and camouflaged land-mines for GIs to step on while on patrol.  To trick American ground sensors, which were prone to false alarm and inaccurate placement, they used decoys such as sending herds of cattle to simulate troop movement.  NLF officers placed their radio huts at a distance from command posts, resulting in air strikes “blast[ing] a patch of jungle just because a transmitter had been heard there,” according to an NSA study.  Tanks and other heavy equipment as well as rice supplies were shipped through an alternative route from the heavily bombed Ho Chi Minh trail, Cambodia’s Port of Sihanoukville. [206]   Some of the most dedicated revolutionary fighters were women, following the example of the Trung sisters and Lady Trieu who had fought previous foreign invaders.  Nguyen Thi Dinh led rebellions in Ben Tre province, while Ngo Thi Tuyen carried 95 kilograms of ammunition (twice her body weight) down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. [207]

history essays vietnam

Bombed out village in North Vietnam, 1965

National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy claimed in Foreign Affairs (January 1967) that the bombing of the North was “the most accurate and restrained in modern warfare.” [210]   Eyewitnesses, however, pointed to the bombing of hospitals, schools, Buddhist pagodas, agricultural cooperatives, administrative buildings, fishing boats, dikes, and a leper colony and sanitarium, resulting in the death of an estimated 52,000 to 180,000 civilians.  Nam Dinh, Vietnam’s third largest city in North Vietnam, was “made to resemble the city of a vanished civilization,” according to New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury, despite being a center for silk and textile production, not war-related production.  In Vinh (population 72,000), the destruction was akin to the German city of Dresden in World War II.  This included nearly all homes, thirty-one schools, the university, four hospitals, the main bookstore and cinema, two churches, an historic 18 th century Buddhist pagoda that served as the cultural center of the city, a museum of the revolution, and the 19 th century imperial citadel. [211]

Following raids in Dai Lai village in the rural Thai Binh province (southeast of Hanoi) in October 1967, French journalist Gerard Chaliand witnessed men and women weeping as they swept debris from the floors of destroyed homes and recounted how their neighbors had been burned alive by the fires.  Bui Van Nguu, age forty-six, told Chaliand that he had been outdoors making brooms for the cooperative when a bomb exploded in his kitchen, burying his three children.  The only thing left of them was mangled limbs, shreds of flesh, and the ear of his eldest daughter which was found in a garden seven yards away.  Rescue teams in the village dug out many other children who had been buried alive, burned to shreds, or asphyxiated in the bombing massacre that was one of many in the war.  A woman who had lost her parents and six siblings in the bombing of Phy Le told visiting peace activist David Dellinger to “ask your president Johnson if our straw huts were made of steel and concrete” (as LBJ claimed) and to ask him if “our Catholic church that was destroyed was a military target….Tell him that we will continue our life and struggle no matter what future bombings there will be because we know that without independence and freedom, nothing is worthwhile.” [212]

history essays vietnam

U.S. F-4 and VF-96 warplanes on a bombing run, 1971-72

U.S. rules prohibiting the intentional bombing of civilians seemed to have little effect on actual bombing practices.  One reason is that some pilots simply ignored the rules.  Pilot Randy Floyd attested that “virtually anywhere in North Vietnam was a free drop zone.  We bombed the cattle because we were told that anything out there was North Vietnamese controlled and we figured that was part of the food supply.”  Another reason is that pilots were unable to distinguish between civilian and military targets.  Historian Jonathan Neale notes that “in most parts of North Vietnam, hospitals, schools and churches were the only brick or cement buildings of two stories or higher and pilots thought they were military barracks.” [213]   A third is that many bombs went astray, especially when dropped from high altitudes.  According to one very experienced American pilot, “the odds of bombs hitting their targets are not high… a bewildering number of variables could affect its trajectory [including] unforeseen winds, inherent radar tracking inaccuracies… target location uncertainty, map errors, computer settling time, [pilot] reaction time on the pickle button, the rotation of the earth, and gravity.” [214]

history essays vietnam

Luu Huy Chao, North Vietnamese pilot

U.S. pilots also had to evade surface-to-air missiles and sometimes MiG-17s, which made precision bombing even less likely.  North Vietnamese encryption specialists were often able to intercept American communications, resulting in foreknowledge of attacks.  An estimated 900 U.S. warplanes were shot down or lost over North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder.  Luu Huy Chao, a North Vietnamese fighter pilot trained in China, personally shot down four U.S. aircraft with his twenty-year-old MiG-17, which flew half the speed of American F-105s but was more maneuverable.  This earned him a meeting with Ho Chi Minh, who told him, “don’t be overconfident.  You must be extra careful when you fight the Americans.  They come from a very advanced country and their aircraft are much faster and more powerful.  Even so we can deal with them if we keep up our spirit and never lose courage.” [215]

history essays vietnam

North Vietnam’s artillery guns were transported by armored tractors

The Pentagon’s assessment of Rolling Thunder in September 1966, cited in the Pentagon Papers , concluded that “initial plans and assessments for the ROLLING THUNDER program clearly tended to overestimate the persuasive and disruptive effects of the U.S. air strikes and, correspondingly, to underestimate the tenacity and recuperative capabilities of the North Vietnamese.”  Contrary to public rationales, “the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam (NVN) had had no measurable direct effect on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations in the South at the current level.”  What the bombing did do was cause an estimated $86 million in damages to North Vietnam’s infrastructure and economy, thus diverting energy and resources to reconstruction; but this damage was offset by increased Soviet and Chinese aid “on the order of $250-400 million, of which about $100-150 million was economic.” [216]

A summary Pentagon report at the end of 1966 took stock of civilian casualties, estimating that about 80 percent of the 13,000 to 24,000 North Vietnamese killed by American bombs were civilians.  The commanding generals discussed the issue of civilian casualties, not as a humanitarian crisis, but as a public relations problem, as any acknowledgement of civilian casualties would give North Vietnam a “propaganda” advantage and turn world opinion (more strongly) against the United States.  The report also noted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were eager to abolish all legal restraints on bombing.  A final report on Operation Rolling Thunder issued in the fall of 1968 summarized its failure to achieve stated military and psychological objectives:

Twenty-seven months of US bombing of North Vietnam have had remarkably little effect on Hanoi’s over-all strategy in prosecuting the war, on its confident view of long-term Communist prospects, and on its political tactics regarding negotiations.  The growing pressure of US air operations has not shaken the North Vietnamese leaders’ conviction that they can withstand the bombing and outlast the US and South Vietnam in a protracted war of attrition.  Nor has it caused them to waver in their belief that the outcome of this test of will and endurance will be determined primarily by the course of the conflict on the ground in the South, not by the air war in the North. [217]

history essays vietnam

U.S. Navy pilot John McCain lies in a Hanoi hospital after his Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down on Oct. 26, 1967, on his 23rd mission. He remained a POW until the end of the war. Photo by Francois Chalais.

The resiliency of the Vietnamese people in the face of the crushing American attacks from the sky was interpreted by Townsend Hoopes, the Undersecretary of the Air Force, as an “Oriental indifference to death.”  The Vietnamese, he wrote, “defy us by a readiness to struggle, suffer and die on a scale that seems to us beyond the bounds of humanity, exploiting our Christian values which make us reluctant to bear the burden of genocide.”  Hoopes’ remarks fit within the “savage war” doctrine dating from the era of the Indian wars, which identifies the United States as the ethical party in war and justifies the commission of significant atrocities by claiming that America had been compelled to do so by an uncivilized enemy.  One U.S. army officer, after observing a community outside Hanoi fill up a bomb crater with dirt and build new railroad tracks within twenty four hours, stated, “Caucasians cannot really imagine what ant labor can do,” in yet another manifestation of the deep racism underlying the war. [218]

On October 31, 1968, with the antiwar movement in full-swing and public opinion having turned against the war, President Johnson ended Operation Rolling Thunder, hoping to boost the presidential prospects of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.  Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the election and continued this official halt, while increasing the bombing of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  He nonetheless wanted DRV leaders in Hanoi to believe that he was ready to employ all means necessary to win the war, perhaps even nuclear weapons.  According to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon had confided to him:

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob.  I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.  We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism.  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. [219]

history essays vietnam

Hanoi bombed, Dec. 24, 1972 (photo by Minh Loc)

An NLF-NVA offensive in March 1972 led Nixon to renew the bombing of North Vietnam on April 10.  Known as Operation Linebacker, B-52s and tactical aircraft dropped over 150,000 tons of bombs within a six-and-a-half-month period, ending October 23.  The U.S. also mined North Vietnamese harbors and blockaded its coast.  In December, with peace negotiations proceeding to a conclusion and few U.S. troops remaining in South Vietnam, Nixon initiated one last rampaging campaign, Linebacker II, designed “to inflict the utmost civilian distress” and wring last minute concessions from Hanoi.  During the eleven-day onslaught, more than 36,000 tons of munitions rained down on North Vietnam, resulting in at least 2,200 civilians killed.  Among the ruins were North Vietnam’s largest hospital, the Gia Lam Airport, Hanoi’s major bus and train stations, and over 2,000 homes.  The North Vietnamese shot down fifteen B-52s, according to the U.S., or thirty-four, according to the DRV. [220]   The “Christmas bombing,” as it was called, was all for naught as nothing changed in the final peace agreement signed in Paris on January 27, 1973.

history essays vietnam

A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam in 1966 (AP photo)

While U.S. policymakers agonized over the decision to bomb the North out of fear of drawing in the Soviets or Chinese, there was no such constraint on bombing the South.  The United States dropped almost twice the tonnage of bombs on its ally, South Vietnam, an area two-thirds the size of Great Britain, as it did on all countries in World War II.  According to the historian and former U.S. Air Force pilot, James P. Harrison, “Most of the bombs (about 4 million tons) and virtually all of the defoliants were dropped on our ally … In South Vietnam over half of the forests and 9,000 or 15,000 hamlets were heavily damaged. [221]

history essays vietnam

An aged woman injured in a US-GVN airstrike that hit a Buddhist monastery 40 miles from Saigon was carried to a hospital by Pvt. Carl Champ, Aug. 3, 1965

Most of the American pilots who flew the bombers and warplanes were “anesthetized” to the violence and conditioned to think of the Vietnamese as mere “dinks” or “gooks.”  Randy Floyd, who had flown 98 combat missions in a two-engine A-6 jet bomber, told a war crimes commission in Oslo that it was hard to explain how “depersonalized the war is for pilots.  You never see any blood; you don’t hear any screams; you’re just operating a machine, and you’re doing an efficient job.”  A junior officer stationed on Hancock Carrier told a reporter that “they would go on a mission and come back to white linen tablecloths.  There was the attitude that those (Vietnamese) were less than people…. Each meal was punctuated with war stories from pilots whose bombing victims were referred to as ‘crispy critters.’” [223]

On the receiving end of the bombs, Truong Nhu Tang wrote in A Vietcong Memoir about the “undiluted psychological terror” experienced by revolutionary fighters operating under the constant threat of B-52 attack.  “From a kilometer away, the sonic roar of the B-52 explosions tore eardrums, leaving many of the jungle dwellers permanently deaf.  From a kilometer, the shock waves knocked their victims senseless. Any hit within half a kilometer would collapse the walls of an unreinforced bunker, burying alive the people cowering inside.”  The first few times he experienced a B-52 attack, Truong felt as if he had been “caught in the apocalypse. The terror was complete. One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out…. Sooner or later though . . . people just resigned themselves – fully prepared to ‘go and sit in the ancestors’ corner.’” [224]

history essays vietnam

A small boy holds his younger brother and looks at the remains of what was once his village, Tha Son, South Vietnam, 45 miles Northwest of Saigon, June 15, 1969 (AP photo by Oliver Noonan)

In Operation Speedy Express, which lasted from December 1968 to May 1969, the U.S. aimed to bring the rural population in the Mekong Delta under its control.  The region was pounded with artillery, bombers, and helicopter gunships, followed by sweeps of U.S. forces.  According to U.S. military figures, 6,500 tactical air strikes were carried in support of the operation, dropping 5,078 tons of bombs and 1,784 tons of napalm.  Provincial hospitals overflowed with civilian casualties.  The U.S. reported 10,889 enemy killed, as compared to 242 U.S. soldiers.  Air Force Captain Brian Willson, newly arrived in Vietnam, had yet to be anesthetized to the violence when he was asked to assess bomb damage in five hamlets in Vinh Long Province in mid-April 1969.  As he later wrote, “I estimated that we documented somewhere between seven and nine hundred murders of Vietnamese peasants, all due to low-flying fighter-bombers who could see exactly who and what they were bombing.”  In one hamlet, he personally counted sixty-two bodies, mostly women and children “usually in their mothers’ arms or very close to them,” and old people.  The official report, however, listed them all as “VC.” [226]

history essays vietnam

Water-filled bomb craters from B-52 strikes in the rice paddies and orchards west of Saigon, Vietnam, 1966 (AP photo, Henri Huet)

The hardest hit area was the province of Quang Tri, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, where an estimated 3,489 villages were repeatedly bombed.  In April 1972, the province was hit with the heaviest B-52 bombing of the entire war.  Forty B-52s flattened a “box” two miles long and one-half mile wide.  The capital city and the southeastern quadrant of Quang Tri were obliterated.  Arthur Westing, an ecologist who had worked for the U.S. Forest Service, experienced combat in Korea, and made three previous trips to Indochina to study the war zones in Cambodia, reported after a 1973 visit to the Quang Tri province that he was “unprepared for the utter devastation that confronted us wherever we turned.… Never were we out of sight of an endless panorama of crater fields.  As far as we could determine not a single permanent building, urban or rural, remained intact; no private dwellings, no schools, no libraries, no churches or pagodas and no hospitals.  Moreover, every last bridge and even culvert had been bombed to bits.  The one rail line through the province was also obliterated.” [228]

history essays vietnam

Burned by napalm, Kim Phuc is tended by US and ARVN soldiers, June 8, 1972 (photo by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut, AP)

At the heart of America’s technological rampage was the dropping of an estimated 388,000 tons of napalm; over ten times the amount used in the Korean War.  A 1967 Ramparts Magazine article by William F. Pepper captured the horrors of this “wonder weapon” and “its companion, white phosphorus, [which] liquidized young flesh and carve[d] it into grotesque forms.  The little figures are afterward often scarcely human in appearance, and one cannot be confronted with the monstrous effects of the burning without being totally shaken.”  Pepper, at least, was shaken by what he had seen, and he wanted to wake up the American people as to the reality of the war behind the benevolent American rhetoric of “saving ” South Vietnam.  His article was reportedly read by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in February, whose images were unforgettable, said King.  “I came to the conclusion that I could no longer remain silent about an issue that was destroying the soul of the nation.” [231]

history essays vietnam

In the same attack, a grandmother sought help for her one-year-old grandson. A South Vietnamese pilot flying a US-made Douglas A1 Skyraider dropped US-made napalm bombs on her village of Trang Bang, June 8, 1972 (photo by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut, AP)

The writer Martha Gellhorn, having personally witnessed the effects of the war, wrote an article about injured Vietnamese children for the Ladies’ Home Journal (January 1967).  She made the connection between “loving our own children” and thinking of “children 10,000 miles away.”  Gelhorn described her visit to the children’s ward at the Qui Nhon hospital where she met a seven-year-old boy badly burned by napalm and moaning in pain.  The boy’s grandfather told her through an interpreter that “Vietcong guerrillas had passed through their hamlet in April, but were gone.  Late in August, napalm bombs fell from the sky.”  An American surgeon explained that almost all casualties in such village bombings were women, children, and old men, as the young men were away, fighting for either the Viet Cong or the ARVN. [232]

U.S. warplanes also dropped cluster bombs.  Developed by elite military scientists in conjunction with 39 private companies such as American Electric of La Mirada, California, cluster bombs released hundreds of smaller bomblets, each one exploding into hundreds of razor-sharp shrapnel that could rip through bodies.  These were antipersonnel weapons specifically designed to cripple and maim.  The main casualties were again civilians.  Doctors told David Dellinger that they had “trouble operating on any patients wounded by [cluster] bombs because the steel is so small.  Some of the bombs are timed and go off later [and thus] interfere with relief operations.” [233]   The mentality of those who designed such devices was epitomized by a laboratory worker at MIT who told a reporter that he didn’t care if what he was designing “might one day be used to kill a million people,” as this was not his “responsibility. I’m given an interesting technical problem and I get enjoyment out of solving it.” [234]   Napalm inventor Dr. Louis Fieser of Harvard, claiming to have not foreseen that his creation would be used “against babies and Buddhists,” said it “wasn’t his business to deal with political or moral questions…. I was working on a technical problem that was considered pressing.”  These comments exemplify a cult of technical rationality divorced from human concerns. [235]

U.S. conduct clearly violated international laws, including the Hague Convention of 1907, which outlawed the bombing of undefended villages and the use of indiscriminate firepower and chemical weapons, and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. [236]   Specific articles of the latter convention, summarized by the American Red Cross, include the following:

  • Articles 13, 32. Civilians are to be protected from murder, torture or brutality, and from discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, religion or political opinion.
  • Articles 33-34. Pillage, reprisals, indiscriminate destruction of property and the taking of hostages are prohibited.
  • Articles. 33, 49. Civilians are not to be subjected to collective punishment or deportation. [237]

At the Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit in early 1971, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Eric Herter spoke of the devastating consequences of American style techno-war, where an “entire culture” was being decimated by “an automated electronic and mechanical death machine.”  This killing was “one-sided, unseen and universal….Those of us who testify… have seen the mechanical monster, the mindless devastation, the agony of simple people caught in the firestorm of our technological rampage.” [238]

The man at the helm of the “death machine” from June 1964 to June 1968, General William C. Westmoreland, was callous in his attitude toward Vietnamese civilian deaths and saw technical advances in Vietnam as inaugurating a new way of war.  He told an army lobby group in October 1969 that “on the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire control.  With first round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continually track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition will be less important.” [239]

history essays vietnam

Supplies hauled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail

As in Laos, the U.S. began to secretly bomb Cambodia in 1965 to order to impede the flow of arms to the NLF-NVA in South Vietnam.  In March 1969, President Nixon significantly increased the aerial assaults under the codename MENU, while still keeping the raids secret from the American people, an amazing feat considering that 110,000 tons of bombs were dropped over a fourteen-month period.  A Pentagon report, released in 1973, stated that Nixon’s national security adviser, “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970 as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.”  In March 1970, Cambodia fell into civil war after Defense Minister Lon Nol engineered a coup d’état .  The U.S. backed the anticommunist Nol, sending U.S. forces into Cambodia in May and June.  U.S. bombing continued until Congress passed legislation forcing the administration to end it in August 1973.  All told, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, an amount that exceeded the tonnage dropped on Laos.   According to the diplomatic historian Greg Grandin:

The bombing of Cambodia was illegal in its conception, deceitful in its implementation, and genocidal in its effect.  It destroyed the fragile neutrality that Cambodia’s leaders had managed to maintain despite the war next door.  It committed Washington to a program of escalation, including its 1970 invasion, which hastened the collapse of Cambodian society. [242]

An inhuman fate:  U.S. chemical warfare

history essays vietnam

U.S. Air Force UC-123 planes spraying Agent Orange in South Vietnam in 1966 (AP Photo)

Between 1961 and 1971, the United States Air Force sprayed an estimated seventy-three million liters of chemical agents over central and south Vietnam.  Of that volume, more than forty-five million liters consisted of Agent Orange, a mixture of herbicides containing a heavy concentration of dioxin, a long-lasting toxic chemical linked to birth defects, cancers, leukemia, and other debilitating diseases.  The nickname was derived from the orange identification band painted on 208-litre storage drums. [245]   Other concentrated mixtures included Agent Blue, a quick-acting defoliant used to destroy crops, and Agent White, a long-enduring toxic mix used to destroy forests.  In all, the U.S. sprayed these toxins on five million acres, about twelve percent of the land, with some areas hit repeatedly.

history essays vietnam

Defoliated area near the Ban Karai pass to Laos

John Green, an American medic in the war, recalled walking through a defoliated zone sprayed with Agent Orange, where “everything was dead.  The trees had literally grown to death because that’s how Agent Orange works – it accelerates growth in a plant’s cell until finally the plant or tree dies.”  Agent Orange caused plants to whither and trees to explode, and left jungles stunted and bare.  It killed domestic cattle, water buffalo and pigs, and caused birth defects in humans.  Long before Agent Orange became an issue in the United States, hospitals in South Vietnam were reporting an upsurge in still-births and babies born with spina bifida and other deformities. [247]   Dr. Ton That Tung, who carried out pioneering studies on Agent Orange, averred that, “in the abominable history of war, with the sole exception of nuclear weapons, never has such an inhuman fate ever before been reserved for the survivors.” [248]

history essays vietnam

Aerial herbicide spray missions South Vietnam, 1965-1971

According to a 2003 health study, an estimated 3,181 villages in South Vietnam were directly sprayed with toxic chemicals, and another 1,430 were indirectly sprayed, exposing “at least 2.1 million but perhaps as many as 4.8 million people” to the herbicides.  The defoliation of South Vietnam’s jungles and forestland resulted in rampant soil erosion, wildfires, floods, malaria and disease epidemics caused by rat infestations, among other serious ecological consequences, some of which still linger a half century later.  The heavily defoliated A Luoi Valley once possessed a tropical forest rich in hardwoods and rare species of trees, full of elephants, tigers and monkeys, its rivers teeming with fish.  In July 2009, American professor Fred Wilcox found it covered by wild weeds with poor fauna, having only 24 bird species and five mammal species, a fraction of what existed before the war. [249]

Agent Blue was the poison of choice used for crop destruction in South Vietnam.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk, although a strong supporter of the war, correctly anticipated the counterproductive political effects of this program.  “The way to win the war is to win the people,” he wrote in a memo to President Kennedy on August 23, 1962.  “Crop destruction runs counter to this basic rule.”  He further elaborated:

The problem of identifying fields on which the Viet Cong depend is hardly susceptible to solution so long as the Viet Cong and the people are co-mingled.  The Government will gain the enmity of the people whose crops are destroyed and whose wives and children will either have to stay in place and suffer hunger or become homeless refugees living on the uncertain bounty of a not-too-efficient government. [251]

As with “pacification” programs, Phoenix assassinations and interrogations, and search and destroy missions, the crop destruction program thoroughly alienated the rural population.  As the great majority of villages were in NLF territory, any could be targeted for the destruction of their rice crop.  U.S. and GVN agents furthermore told village residents that the chemicals being sprayed on their crops and surroundings were not harmful to humans.  When NLF cadre went into the villages to explain the dangers of the chemicals, the U.S. and GVN undertook efforts to counter this “communist propaganda” by issuing leaflets that explained, “The only effect of defoliant is to kill trees and force leaves to whither, and normally does not cause harm to people, livestock, and land, or the drinking water of our compatriots.”  The cartoon-filled leaflets concluded, “I now resolve never to listen to Viet Cong Propaganda.”  The U.S. and GVN promised to compensate villagers who were inadvertently harmed, and there were in fact many applications.  According to a Herbicide Policy Review coordinated by the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968, $35 million was paid to 5,848 claimants, although much of the money never reached poor farmers. [252]

history essays vietnam

Agent Blue was sprayed over South Vietnamese rice fields

One RAND Corporation study in 1968 reported “an almost total absence” of efforts by the U.S. and GVN to educate people about herbicide use “or to assist those who have been affected.”  It noted that those who received compensatory claims were more likely to be wealthy landowners.  One villager was quoted as saying “that even under the French nothing so awful has ever occurred.”  Another RAND study explained that “crop destruction struck at the very heart of the rural South Vietnamese farmer’s existence, obliterating in one spray pass the product of many months of his family’s labor,” and that it “generated much hostility to the United States and its South Vietnamese allies,” thus confirming Rusk’s prediction. [253]   The Pentagon nevertheless continued the program, believing that it created an effective means of severing the rural population from the guerrillas.

Donald Kennedy, chairman of the department of biological sciences at Stanford University, introduced a 1971 study on the effects of the American chemical war in Vietnam with these words:

No one can conclude, after looking carefully at the impact of our military strategy in Southeast Asia, that we are fighting a war against an army.  Instead, we are waging a war against a people and the land they live on.  The enormity of our attack upon the Vietnamese environment has, for me, changed entirely the logic with which one evaluates the morality and even the efficiency of our operation there…. The central question is now a simple one:  How can we claim to be acting on behalf of people when our action itself is prohibiting a future for them? [254]

Lingering effects

history essays vietnam

U.S. soldiers traveled through areas sprayed with Agent Orange

The phasing out of the American chemical war in Southeast Asia was the result of an expanding ecological awareness as well as specific studies of chemical agents.  The insecticide DDT, which was widely used in American agriculture, was banned in 1972 after a ten-year movement that began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962.  In a similar way, reports of birth defects and other deleterious effects of Agents Orange, Blue, and White in Vietnam led to scientific studies that correlated these effects with toxic ingredients, particularly 2,4,5-T.  Scientific experiments produced malformations and stillbirths in mice.

history essays vietnam

Apparent effect of Agent Orange on Vietnamese child

Fred Wilcox, author of two in-depth studies on Agent Orange, Waiting for an Army to Die (1983) and Scorched Earth (2011), estimates that some three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, suffered from the effects of toxic chemicals in the aftermath of the war.  Cam Nghia, in Quang Tri province, was transformed into a literal village of the damned.  Film-maker Masako Sakata and her late husband, Vietnam veteran Greg Davis, found dioxin residues from Agent Orange to have caused terrible disabilities and deformities afflicting 158 children out of a population of 5,673 when they visited in 2003. [256]

history essays vietnam

Fred-Wilcox at the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), July-2009

Wilcox’s first book, Waiting for an Army to Die , chronicles the effects of Agent Orange on American veterans.  Many became sick or died from diseases that normally do not afflict young men, including rare cancers, while others reported that their children were born with birth defects similar to those seen in the offspring of female laboratory animals exposed to dioxin.  The veterans considered themselves to have been guinea pigs in scientific experiments by their own government. [258]   They brought a class action lawsuit in 1980 against the government and Monsanto, which was settled out-of-court in 1984 for $180 million dollars.

history essays vietnam

LBJ drawn with a scar from a recent operation in the shape of Vietnam, and a Pinocchio nose (David Levine, The New York Review of Books , 1966)

The administration’s peace rhetoric was aimed at domestic and international audiences, not the Vietnamese.   Indeed, UN Secretary-General U Thant worked tirelessly during the 1960s to broker a peace agreement based on the Geneva Agreements of 1954, but to no avail. [261]   The real difficulty for Johnson and company would be to explain to the American people why American blood had been shed in Vietnam at all.  Having passed up ripe opportunities to resolve the burgeoning war in Vietnam in late 1963, following the Diem overthrow, and in late 1964, following his re-election as the “peace candidate,” President Johnson sabotaged another opportunity to negotiate an end to the war in late 1966.  The Hanoi government was prepared to sit down with U.S. representatives in secret talks arranged by Poland, code-named “Marigold,” when Johnson authorized bombing raids on the center of Hanoi for the first time on December 13 and 14.  The North Vietnamese pulled out, the talks collapsed, and the war expanded. [262]

history essays vietnam

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger

In late October, with Democratic Party presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey running behind in the polls, Johnson unilaterally halted the bombing of North Vietnam and called for the resumption of peace talks.  The announcement immediately boosted Vice-President Humphrey’s poll numbers by six percentage points, just two points behind Republican candidate Richard Nixon, who served as vice-president under Eisenhower.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger secretly sabotaged the peace talks by convincing President Thieu – through intermediary Anna Chennault, chairwoman of the Republican Women for Nixon – to reject them in anticipation of getting a better deal from the Nixon administration.  Hence on November 1, four days before the American election, Thieu publicly declared his implacable opposition to peace negotiations. [264]   Nixon narrowly won the presidential election, but the campaign rhetoric of both parties had signaled a shift in America’s approach to the war.  Humphrey had promised to end the war without “humiliation of defeat,” while Nixon had promised to achieve “peace with honor.”  Neither wanted to lose the war, but two-thirds of the American public polled had said they would vote for a candidate who would “de-Americanize” the war, according to a Gallup poll taken in early August 1964. [265]

history essays vietnam

DRV representative Le Duc Tho and U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger engaged in talks that led to the Paris Peace Accords

In May 1971, with the war going badly for the U.S., Kissinger conveyed to Hanoi that the U.S. was prepared to set a specific date for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.  This rekindled secret peace talks in Paris.  The Saigon government, however, was not ready to give up the war, and the Nixon administration was not prepared to abandon Thieu.  Hence the peace talks proceeded with difficulty, bogging down over numerous issues, including the shape of the negotiating table.

history essays vietnam

Kissinger met with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong to establish a new rapport with China

In part to limit the damage from America’s impending loss in Vietnam, the Nixon administration undertook a dramatic new policy in early 1972, inaugurating détente with the great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union.  New trade and arms control agreements were signed as part of a general relaxation of tensions.  After twenty-five years of anti-communist propaganda and policies, it appeared that the U.S. could live with communist nations after all, that peaceful competition could replace militant confrontation and that mutual interests could be pursued.  This seismic change in official U.S. attitudes toward communism was surprisingly well-received by the American public.  Nixon and Kissinger essentially adopted the liberal program advocated by former Vice-president Henry A. Wallace in the late 1940s, and by many European leaders beginning in the mid-1950s.  Had the détente policy been taken up a generation earlier, the American War in Vietnam would never have taken place.

history essays vietnam

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on Jan. 23, 1973

On January 23, 1973, a treaty based on Hanoi’s nine-point draft was signed by representatives of the United States, the Hanoi government, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (formed in 1969 as the political arm of the NLF), and the foreign minister of South Vietnam.  In a secret protocol with North Vietnam, the U.S. promised to “contribute to the postwar reconstruction of North Vietnam without any political conditions.”  At the same time, Nixon promised Thieu that the United States would continue “full economic and military aid” and “respond with full force” should North Vietnam violate the agreements. [270]

What happened next has often been missed in popular American accounts.  The Hanoi government and NLF did not proceed with the war, but rather pursued the formation of a Joint Military Commission to supervise the cease-fire, and the formation of a National Council in preparation for national elections.  Thieu, on the other hand, repudiated his foreign minister’s signature on the treaty and reiterated his “Four No’s”:  no recognition of the enemy, no neutralization of South Vietnam, no coalition government, no surrender of territory.  The Nixon administration lent support to Thieu’s obstinacy by transferring one billion dollars’ worth of U.S. weapons and equipment to the South Vietnamese Army and Air Force. [271]   According to George Herring:

Fully aware of the fragility of the agreements, Nixon and Kissinger used every available means to strengthen the Thieu government…. In a secret meeting with Thieu at San Clemente in March, he [Nixon] reaffirmed his commitments and assured the South Vietnamese leader that “you can count on us.”  Throughout the remainder of 1973, the administration employed various subterfuges to sustain its military aid at a high level without overtly violating the terms of the Paris accords.  Instead of dismantling its bases, the United States transferred title to the South Vietnamese before the cease-fire went into effect.  Supplies were designated “nonmilitary” and were rendered eligible for transfer.  The military advisory group was replaced by a “civilian” team of some 9,000 men, many of them hastily discharged from military service and placed in the employ of the government of Vietnam. [272]

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GVN President Nguyen Van Thieu

Secure in the knowledge that the U.S. would not abandon him, Thieu initiated a post-treaty offensive that sought, first to recapture territory lost to the NLF just before the truce, then to move into NLF areas and capture more territory.  NLF-NVA troops defended their positions but did not initiate offensive actions except in one area near the Cambodian border, where the ARVN was transferring supplies to the Phnom Penh government. [273]

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Nguyen Thi Binh, PRG rep

Fighting in Vietnam nonetheless continued.  In lieu of setting up unification elections, as stipulated in the Paris treaty, Thieu declared in November 1973 that the “Third Indochina War” had begun and went on the offensive.  The NLF and NVA responded in kind, and with more success.  Their final offensive to take Saigon was launched in March 1975.  On April 2, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the Provisional Revolutionary Government representative who had signed the Paris treaty, offered to halt the NLF-NVA offensive if Thieu were replaced by a leader who would implement the terms of the Paris agreement.  Thieu refused and lashed out against the NLF-NVA troops surrounding Saigon with every weapon at his command.  The U.S. military, which came under the command of President Gerald Ford after Nixon was forced to resign on August 9, 1974 (due to the Watergate scandal), provided Thieu with monstrous 15,000-pound CBU-55 bombs originally intended to clear landing zones in the jungle.

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Saigon, April 30, 1975 (Agence France Presse)

On April 20, 1975, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin asked Thieu to resign for the good of the country.  Six days later, after berating the U.S. for not supporting him, Thieu left for Taiwan on a U.S. transport plane, allegedly with gold bars from the national treasury packed into oversized suitcases.  On the morning of April 30, Thieu’s successor, Duong Van Minh, ordered a general cease-fire, which undoubtedly saved many lives. NLF-NVA tanks rolled down the main thoroughfares of Saigon and took control of the government.  There was no bloodbath. [274]

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Elders separated by the war were reunited, May 1975 (National Geographic Books)

In the aftermath of the war, the country was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  The new government imposed three-to-ten-year prison sentences on former South Vietnamese military officers and government workers, and generally sought to “re-educate” all southerners in the ways of socialism.  Hundreds of thousands of southerners fled the country, many eventually settling in the United States, Australia, Canada, or France.  Millions of others set about the task of reconciliation after so many years of warfare.  The U.S. reneged on Nixon’s promise to provide reconstruction funds as the Vietnamese sought to rebuild their country and heal the division between north and south.

history essays vietnam

Ambassador Pete Peterson meeting with his former captor, Sept. 1997

The American War in Vietnam was not an equal war.  No Vietnamese soldiers came to America to kill the political faction they did not like.  No American cities were bombed.  The war was fought in Vietnam, and mostly in the south.  The U.S. transported 2.6 million Americans more than 7,700 miles from its Pacific coast to fight in Vietnam, the elusive goal being to save the Vietnamese from “communist domination.”

The U.S. lost the war, but the NLF and Hanoi government can hardly be said to have won it.  After initial euphoria, the Vietnamese came to terms with the war’s devastation.  Ta Quang Thinh, a NVA nurse who was severely wounded in a B-52 bomb attack while on duty in the south, returned to the north in 1971.  In an interview with Christian Appy many years later, he reflected:

When I got home, I think everybody, including myself, was sick of the war.  We abhorred it.  It was not only cruel, it was absurd.  Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms.  Don’t you think that’s absurd?  We just wanted to be prosperous and live like other people.  Of course we had to fight to protect our country but we were really sick of the war.  Deep down we didn’t like it.  Casualties were enormous.  And not just that – our savings, our houses, our plants and animals, everything was wasted by that war. [276]

In 1995, the Vietnamese government estimated NLF-NVA military casualties at 1.1 million killed and 600,000 wounded over the course of twenty-one years – the period of direct American intervention (1954-75).  U.S. casualties, in contrast, were 58,200 killed (including 10,800 in non-hostile situations) and 305,000 wounded.  For every American soldier who died in Vietnam, nineteen NLF/NVA soldiers died.  At the end of the war, the NLF-NVA had 300,000 soldiers missing in action as compared 2,646 American MIAs.

history essays vietnam

South Vietnamese peasants continued to work in a rice field during a U.S. air attack, 1972 (Agentur Focus)

South Vietnam suffered in more ways.  Some 1,200,000 people were forcibly relocated through “pacification” programs and five million became refugees between 1964 to 1975.  The urban population swelled from 15 percent in 1964 to 40 percent in 1968, to 65 percent in 1974, undermining the social fabric of the country.  Normally a rice exporter, South Vietnam had to import 725,000 tons of rice in 1967.  Hunger and starvation were side effects of the war.  The U.S. also conducted its chemical war in the south, spraying nineteen million gallons of toxins on five million acres, with some parts of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia sprayed as well.  The debilitating effects of this chemical war still linger. [280]

IV. The American home front: Stopping the war

history essays vietnam

Protesting in Washington DC, Aug. 6 1965, Dave Dellinger, Staughton Lynd, and Bob Moses (L-R) were splashed with red paint by counter-protesters

The anti-Vietnam War movement grew from a small contingent of critics to a broad section of the American public.  According to the historian Melvin Small, “By 1969 there may have been as many as 17,000 national, regional, and local organizations that could be considered in the movement,” with about “six million [citizens] participating in its major events and twenty-five million on the sidelines sympathizing with them.”  The antiwar movement gave voice to public opposition to the war and lent support to Congressional opponents of it.  The combination pressured the Johnson administration to halt its escalation in 1968, and the Nixon administration to gradually withdraw U.S. troops and sign a peace treaty in January 1973. [282]

Public opinion shifted during the war.  In the fall 1964 election, a majority of Americans voted for a presidential candidate who promised not to send “our boys” to Vietnam.  Once combat troops were sent, however, the majority endorsed the war, in keeping with patriotic support for American troops abroad.  A Gallup poll taken in June 1965 reported that 66% favored continued U.S. military involvement as opposed to 20% who favored withdrawal.  Only one year later, support for the war had begun to wane.  A Gallup poll taken in June 1966 reported 48% in favor of continued involvement and 35% in favor of withdrawal.

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Former Navy Lieutenant John Kerry (center), after addressing a massive antiwar rally in Washington on April 24, 1971 (AP Photo)

In February 1968, for the first time, a Gallup poll indicated a plurality of Americans believed that sending U.S. troops to Vietnam was a “mistake” (49% to 41%), even if a majority still favored winning the war.  The following month, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, 69% said they wanted a “phase-out-plan” in which American troops would be replaced by South Vietnamese units (many still hoped that the war could be won without U.S. troops in Vietnam).  By June 1971, with American deaths having surpassed 45,000, 72% of Americans favored setting a firm deadline for the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam.  The following month, 65% agreed that U.S. withdrawal should continue “even if the government of South Vietnam collapsed”; only 20% disagreed. [285]

history essays vietnam

Bread and Puppet Theater troupe, New York, 1965 (Penn State Library)

Reorienting American thinking about the war was an uphill climb.  The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War was raised on heroic World War II stories, pumped full of national pride, and indoctrinated to believe in the benevolence of American foreign policies.  Still, the purported “threat” of a communist-led government in a small country halfway around the world did not elicit the same fighting spirit as defending the nation in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  This was true for the general population as well – the necessity of the war was not obvious.  Hence, the administration had to work assiduously to persuade the public that developments in Vietnam did indeed pose a dire threat to the security of the United States as well as to the survival of the so-called Free World.

history essays vietnam

Poster, 1970 (Berkeley Historical Society)

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. held back from speaking out against the Vietnam War for almost two years, as Lyndon Johnson was a friend of the civil rights movement, having signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  By the spring of 1967, he could remain silent no longer as “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” as he put it.  He offered a clear exposition of his views in a sermon-like speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, sponsored by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

King devoted a large part of his speech to reviewing the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  He recounted how the U.S. turned its back on Ho Chi Minh, supported “France in its reconquest of her former colony,” undermined the Geneva accords of 1954, and implanted in the south “one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem.”  Having established this factual history, still unknown to many Americans at the time, he called on Americans to atone for their government’s misdeeds as a prelude to changing course.

The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.  The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

King suggested “five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.”  These included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral cease-fire; curtailing the U.S. military buildup in Thailand and interference in Laos; accepting the National Liberation Front in negotiations; and setting “a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.” [289]

history essays vietnam

Dr. King marched with pediatrician Benjamin Spock (left) and Fr. Frederick Reed (right) in New York, April 15, 1967 (Agence France Presse)

Having spoken from his conscience, King was labeled an enemy of the state by his government, and derided as a dupe of the communists by the press.  He was not alone in this.  Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations besmirched antiwar activism as support for the communist cause, if not actually being controlled by communists.  Using an expansive definition of “subversion,” they employed the FBI and CIA to conduct surveillance and sabotage of antiwar groups, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Though administration depreciation of the movement never ceased, the mainstream media came to view the peace movement more charitably as more Americans joined the movement and the costs of the war increased.

Senator Ernest Gruening and Herbert Beaser, in Vietnam Folly (1968), offered a detailed history of U.S. policy in Vietnam, explaining how the “’dirty little war’ in Vietnam has now escalated into a ‘dirty BIG war,’ involving hundreds of thousands of United States fighting men – with the end nowhere in sight.”  Dedicating their book to American soldiers, the authors stated their conviction that “if more of the American people became aware of the basic miscalculations which have brought the United States, step by step, to its present dilemma, the greater would be the number opposing its present course.” [294]

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Professor Noam Chomsky, 1967

Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the son of an émigré Hebrew scholar, addressed the issue of the moral responsibility of intellectuals in a special supplement in the New York Review of Books in February 1967.  Based on a thorough examination of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he judged that it was genocidal in conduct and imperialist in intent.  Like other intellectuals on the left, he viewed U.S. involvement in Vietnam as neither an aberration nor a simple mistake but rather as part of a larger design to extend American hegemony.  Chomsky examined the role of the intellectuals in World War II, particularly those in Germany and Japan who failed to speak out against the atrocities committed by their respective governments.  Considering the relative freedom of Western societies, he argued that academics and intellectuals had a responsibility to “seek the truth hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.” [295]

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Pro-war rally in Washington, April 8, 1970 (photo by Tom Norpell)

Notwithstanding the growing number of critical assessments of the Vietnam War, the administration retained certain advantages in the public debate.  The president had access to the “bully pulpit” and could direct the press to follow his leads and leaks.  To some degree, the administration could manipulate developments on the ground and bury evidence of U.S. misdeeds; and in cases of indisputable proof of misdeeds such as the My Lai massacre, declare them exceptions to the rule of good conduct.  With ample institutional resources at its disposal, the administration could reinforce salient Cold War and nationalistic themes to frame the debate to its advantage, employing euphemisms such as “protecting freedom” and “saving Vietnam” to obfuscate actual policies and results.  It could and did organize covert propaganda campaigns at home.  Critics of the war were disparaged as disloyal and dupes of communists, and accurate and truthful historical accounts of the origins and nature of the Vietnam War were dismissed by simply noting that the “enemy” had presented similar accounts.

Criticism of imperious U.S. policies in Vietnam began long before U.S. troops were deployed.  During the 1950s, insightful critiques were proffered by investigative journalists Bernard Fall and I. F. Stone, political scientist Hans Morgenthau, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and peace leaders A. J. Muste and Sidney Lens, to name a few; and in publications such as I. F. Stone’s Weekly , The Christian Century , The New Republic , The Nation , Dissent , Monthly Review , and Liberation .  In the November 1952 issue of The Christian Century , for example, the editors castigated the U.S. for supporting French imperialism in Vietnam and ominously warned, “American boys are not dying in Indo-China – yet.  But American policy is getting into a deeper and deeper morass there.” [298]   In the June 1954 issue of Monthly Review , following the defeat of the French, Marxist scholars Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman issued another warning:

The American people, by and large, are against colonialism and aggression, and believe in the right of every country to manage its own affairs free from outside interference.  Rarely have these simple principles been so clearly and grossly violated as in the present United States policy towards Indochina…. Are we going to take the position that anti-Communism justifies anything, including colonialism, interference in the affairs of other countries and aggression?  That way, let us be perfectly clear about it, lies war and more war leading ultimately to full-scale disaster. [299]

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Popular folk singers, Peter, Paul, and Mary, spread the antiwar message

Activist peace organizations in the early 1960s were mainly concerned with stopping the nuclear arms race and open-air nuclear testing.  Their interest in Vietnam increased in proportion to U.S. involvement.  In May 1962, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) denounced the Strategic Hamlet program as “a clear violation of human rights” and “a conscious departure from the moral values supposedly being defended in the Cold War.”  Early in 1963, leaders of the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) declared they had a “special responsibility” to educate Americans about “the dangers and horror” of the expanding war in Vietnam.  The religious-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) supported Buddhist peace efforts in Vietnam.  In October 1963, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) opened a Vietnam Information Center in Washington. [300]   Also that month, small protests were organized in various cities in response to a month-long tour by the South Vietnamese President Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu.

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Ann Sims protests a napalm plant in Redwood City, CA, 1966 (photo by Erik Weber, Ramparts)

The strength of the movement lay in its grassroots authenticity, creativity, and overall tenacity.  People joined local peace organizations, committees, and study groups, exchanged information and opinions, wrote to legislators and newspaper editors, arranged educational programs, placed ads in newspapers, set up draft counseling centers, worked in election campaigns, lobbied legislators, boycotted products of Dow Chemical (maker of napalm), organized vigils, protests, guerrilla theater, and prayer services, engaged in civil disobedience actions, and boarded buses for national demonstrations.  What could not be done at the local level was to create a sense of movement identity and momentum.  In lieu of national leadership, coordinated national demonstrations served this function.  Organized by a succession of coalitions, mass demonstrations of 100,000 or more people were held semi-annually from the spring of 1967 through the spring of 1971.

Pacifists generally abhorred the dehumanization of war, promoted conflict resolution and reconciliation, encouraged individual conscientious objection to war, and supported nonviolent social change for justice in the manner of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Jr.  Many pacifist and pacifist-leaning groups had long experience in organizing campaigns (founding dates noted):  FOR (1915), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, 1917), WILPF (1919), WRL (1923), Congress on Racial Equality (CORE, 1942), and Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO, 1948).  Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste, a practical pacifist with experience in labor and civil rights movements, played a unifying role in the antiwar movement until his death in February 1967.  Some pacifist groups, such as WILPF, leaned toward the liberal wing of the movement while others, such as WRL, pulled to the left.  WRL International issued a statement in August 1968 declaring its intent to work with “our brothers and sisters in the various liberation movements” to “bring an end to colonialism and imperialism … but without yielding up our belief that the foundation of the future must be laid in the present, that a society without violence must begin with revolutionists who will not use violence.” [305]

The liberal wing of the antiwar movement, represented by groups such as SANE, WSP, Student Peace Union, and Americans for Democratic Action, supported détente, diplomacy, and demilitarization of the Cold War, paying particular attention to the nuclear arms race.  Liberal peace groups worked to build a broad-based movement, gain positive media attention, and influence members of Congress – all essential elements of movement-building.  At the same time, they tended to narrow their vision and political goals to what was feasible within the American context, which fell short of what was needed to achieve peace in the international context.  The unwillingness of liberal peace groups to support U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam not only divided the antiwar movement but also constituted a missed opportunity to combine domestic peace efforts with international diplomatic efforts led by UN Secretary-General U Thant, which were based on the Geneva formula.  According to the historian Milton Katz:

Peace liberals in SANE can certainly be criticized by what at times seemed an obsessive concern with respectability and for excluding specific groups from coalition activity, both of which contributed to the fracture in the antiwar movement.  And although they continued for so long calling for negotiations to end the war, feeling it was politically expedience and a face-saving device for the United States, they should have realized America really had no moral right to negotiate anything except, perhaps, as David McReynolds [of WRL] said in an exchange with Michael Harrington, “the routes our troops will take getting to the ports of embarkation.” [306]

Leftist-socialists classically challenged economic inequality and imperialism.  Some leftist critiques were on target, illuminating underlying systems of injustice, while others evinced ideological dogmatism, attached themselves to authoritarian communist states, or indulged in revolutionary romanticism.  SDS, founded in 1960, sought to distance itself from the dogmatic Old Left by emphasizing democratic practices within and supporting democratic socialism without.  This was also the position of the 60-year-old Socialist Party, but the latter appeared too sedate for the young leftists.  SDS gained a large following on college campuses, making it one of the two most important leftist groups in the antiwar movement.  The other was the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which supported anti-imperialist revolutions abroad by organizing nonviolent demonstrations in the United States.  Leftist groups with marginal roles in the antiwar movement included the Communist Party USA, the Progressive Labor Party (which broke off from the Communist Party in 1962), and the Black Panther Party.  The left was plagued by sectarian disputes, bitter rivalries, and impractical strategies that undermined its anti-imperialist message.  In 1969, the SDS national office fractured into splinter groups, although local chapters continued to organize against the war. [307] Beyond ending the war, some on the left called for “revolution” in the United States, which was accompanied by increased militancy in the late 1960s.  SDS national secretary Greg Calvert transitioned from promoting “nonviolent revolution” to calling for general “revolution,” which he later regretted:

Because I regard the rise of revolutionary rhetoric as one of the most disastrous things that happened in the movement of the sixties, I regard whatever I did around raising the rhetoric as a real mistake…. I think that it was a mistake to use the word revolution to characterize [our movement for radical change], that it conjured up people’s most romantic and irresponsible selves…. What I’m sorry for is that at points like in that national secretary’s report I used language that I think I hadn’t thought through the implications of.” [308]

The main organizational strategies of the antiwar movement involved education, political action, demonstrations (mobilization), civil disobedience, and draft and GI resistance.  Liberal, leftist, and pacifist groups all supported education and mass demonstrations.  Liberal groups and some pacifist groups, such as FCNL, took the lead in lobbying, while SDS and SWP steered clear of lobbying and election work.  Socialist Party chairperson Michael Harrington, however, was a strong advocate of political action, even arguing that the peace movement’s resources would be better spent on influencing Congress than on organizing mass demonstrations. [309]

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The impetus to militant confrontation within the antiwar movement derived from an unwillingness to accept business-as-usual at home while the government pursued a murderous war in Vietnam, plucking young people from their normal lives to fight it.  Although commonly identified with leftist groups, some groups on the left, notably SWP, steered clear of confrontational actions.  Some radical pacifists, on the other hand, particularly Liberation co-editor David Dellinger, were fervent advocates of assertive-yet-nonviolent civil disobedience.

history essays vietnam

On May 5, 1970, following the killing of 4 students at Kent State, 6,000 students at the Univ. of Washington in Seattle poured onto Interstate 5, blocking traffic, in a confrontational nonviolent protest (Museum of History & Industry, Seattle)

Militant actions initiated by antiwar groups included occupying university buildings, breaking into draft board offices and destroying files, and engaging in sit-down strikes designed to block entry to the Pentagon or to tie up traffic in cities.  More severe destruction of property – the burning of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) buildings on campuses, the vandalizing of draft board offices, and raucous street violence  – was usually the work of clandestine groups or individuals who remained anonymous.  Out in left field was the Weathermen Underground, one of the radical splinters from the SDS breakup, whose bombing spree beginning in 1970 was disavowed by antiwar groups.  Mark Rudd, an SDS activist at Columbia University who became a founding member of the Weathermen, then a fugitive for seven years, renounced the violent strategy in hindsight, writing, “Over the last forty years I’ve thought intensely about the choices which I and my comrades made, coming to the practical conclusion that only nonviolent mass political action can be successful in this country.” [310]

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Nearly 2,000 people attended a teach-in at Cornell University, sponsored by the Faculty Committee on Vietnam, May 1965 (Cornell Library)

The first campus teach-in on Vietnam took place at the University of Michigan on March 24-25, 1965, the same month that U.S. troops landed in Danang.  Over 3,000 people showed up on the Ann Arbor campus for lectures and discussions that ran through the night.  The purpose, as one flyer put it, was to focus attention “on this war, its consequences, and ways to stop it.”  The educational venue quickly spread to other campuses.  Within one week, thirty-five more had been held; and by the end of the year, 120 had taken place.  Some were organized locally, others by the Universities Committee on Problems of War and Peace, a three-year-old group based at Wayne State University.  For Doug Dowd, a Cornell University professor, lifelong leftist, and activist organizer, the teach-ins were an exhilarating experience.  He had gone through the Red Scare period when “you couldn’t get anybody to say anything about the Korean War…. Everybody was scared.” [314]   The teach-ins aimed to both educate people on the issues and inspire greater confidence in questioning political authorities and foreign policy experts.

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Phil Ochs wrote a medley of popular antiwar songs, including “ Talking Vietnam ” and “ Draft Dodger Rag “

SDS is credited with organizing the first “mass” demonstration against the war, a march in Washington that drew 20,000 people on April 17, 1965 (there were smaller demonstrations beforehand).  The marchers circled the White House and proceeded to the Washington monument where they heard folk songs by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Phil Ochs, and speeches by I. F. Stone, Robert Parris Moses, Senator Gruening, Paul Potter, and others.  Entirely peaceful, they sang the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”  Potter presented a memorable commentary:

Most of us grew up thinking that the United States was a strong but humble nation, that involved itself in world affairs only reluctantly, that respected the integrity of other nations and other systems, and that engaged in wars only as a last resort…. But in recent years … the development of a more aggressive, activist foreign policy have done much to force many of us to rethink attitudes that were deep and basic sentiments about our country.  The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy … The further we explore the reality of what this country is doing and planning in Vietnam the more we are driven toward the conclusion of Senator Morse that the United States may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today.  That is a terrible and bitter insight for people who grew up as we did – and our revulsion at that insight, our refusal to accept it as inevitable or necessary, is one of the reasons that so many people have come here today. [317]

In the aftermath of this successful demonstration, SDS national leaders decided not to pursue antiwar organizing at the national level, a decision that SDS national secretary Paul Booth later called “a colossal blunder.” [318]   The SWP stepped into the breach and formed a new coalition in August, the National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam.  Planning began for a major event in mid-October, the “International Days of Protest.”  SANE and other liberal groups declined to participate and initiated plans for a separate demonstration six weeks later.  Not wanting to exclude the left entirely, SANE invited 30-year-old SDS president Carl Oglesby to speak.  Most people who attended these demonstrations were not too concerned which groups sponsored them, but the dueling demonstrations attested to the difficulty of national coordination. [319]

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Nov. 6, 1965: (L-R) Tom Cornell, Marc Edelman, Roy Lisker, David McReynolds, and Jim Wilson burned their draft cards at Union Square, New York City, as A. J. Muste looked on

The “International Days of Protest” on October 15-16, 1965, drew more than 100,000 people in demonstrations in eighty American cities and several European capitals.  In New York, 22-year-old David Miller ceremoniously burned his draft card on Friday.  The following day, 20,000 people paraded to the United Nations Plaza.  The protests aroused considerable ire around the country, as many regarded antiwar protests during wartime a taboo.  “Hostility reverberated through the press and politics of the nation,” notes DeBenedetti.  Life magazine derided the protesters as “chronic show-offs” who failed to understand that “the destiny of the U.S. is at stake.”  The editors of the Mississippi Daily News warned more ominously, “This is the time for police brutality, if there ever was one.”  Democratic Governor Pat Brown of California declared that the demonstrations “give aid and comfort to Hanoi.”  City officials in New York helped organize a pro-war parade on October 30, which drew 20,000 people. [320]

history essays vietnam

Antiwar march in New York City, March 26, 1966, sponsored by the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee (photo by Robert Parent)

Demonstrations, despite difficulties, were of great value to the antiwar movement.  They fostered camaraderie, stimulated learning, encouraged activism, made a public statement, and gave people a sense of being part of something important and larger than themselves.  They also fostered hope that the wheels of democracy would turn in favor of the protesters, that citizen advocacy would compel a recalcitrant Congress to put an end to the war.  That hope was the source of much frustration as neither protest in the streets nor lobbying on Capitol Hill seemed to affect the administration’s relentless escalation of the war for three years running.

history essays vietnam

Senators J. William Fulbright and Wayne Morse converse in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, 1966

The first major Congressional challenge to the administration took place in early 1966.  Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held televised committee hearings watched by an estimated 22 million Americans.  Senators grilled Secretary of State Dean Rusk and General Maxwell Taylor on the administration’s war plans, policies, and rationales.  Among those who testified was the respected foreign policy analyst George Kennan, who questioned the necessity of the war.  “The first point I would like to make,” he said, “is that if we were not already involved as we are today in Vietnam, I would know of no reason why we should wish to become so involved, and I could think of several reasons why we should not wish to.”  Kennan expressed the view that, rather than buttressing American credibility, the war had already damaged America’s international prestige.

history essays vietnam

Against a backdrop of the United Nations headquarters in New York, Dr. King spoke at the huge antiwar rally, April 15, 1967 (John Littlewood, Christian Science Monitor )

Public opposition to the war was registered in massive demonstrations on April 15, 1967.  The Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam drew crowds of at least 125,000 in New York City and 50,000 in San Francisco.  “Participants included blacks and whites, hippies and church members, children and grandparents, military veterans and Vietcong sympathizers – even a bridal party,” writes DeBenedetti.  “In New York a group of Native Americans carried signs that appealed: ‘Americans – Do Not Do to the Vietnamese What You Did to Us.’”  The featured speaker at the United Nations Plaza in New York was Martin Luther King, who called for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam:  “Let us save our national honor – stop the bombing!”  Sidney Peck, an organizer of the event, described the demonstrations as “successful beyond all expectations.”  The only arrests were of five disorderly counter-demonstrators.  The press was less critical than in previous years but still disdainful.  The editors of the New York Times described the protesters’ call for unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam as “romantic posturing.” [326]

history essays vietnam

Antiwar demonstration at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, April 15, 1967 (AP Photo)

Nine days after the demonstration, General William Westmoreland spoke at an Associated Press luncheon in New York City and expressed “dismay” at the “recent unpatriotic acts here at home.”  He claimed that the demonstrations gave “hope” and “support” to the Vietnamese communists.  He also took the opportunity to urge a more aggressive strategy in Vietnam, saying that the time had come for “putting maximum pressure on the enemy anywhere and everywhere we can…. In effect, we are fighting a war of attrition, and the only alternative is a war of annihilation.”

The following day, April 25, Senator George McGovern challenged the general on both accounts.  It is not “American dissent which is causing the Vietnamese to continue the war,” he said, but American military intervention.  The war, he charged, “represents the most tragic diplomatic and moral failure in our national experience.”  It is “devastating an impoverished little state and ravishing the people whose freedom we would protect.  In the process, we are sacrificing many of our bravest young men, wasting valuable resources and threatening the peace of the world.” [327]

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Administration abuse of citizenship rights was later revealed in a Senate committee investigation led by Frank Church, New York Times , Dec. 22, 1974

The administration’s other invisible hand used the FBI to conduct surveillance and sabotage of antiwar groups, including SDS, SANE, WRL, WSP, CORE, and various mobilization committees.  FBI headquarters ordered its agents to expose, disrupt, and neutralize selected targets:  “Show them as scurrilous and depraved…. Send articles to newspapers showing their depravity…. Use narcotics and free sex for entrapment.  Have members arrested on marijuana charges.  Exploit hostilities between various persons…. Use misinformation to confuse and disrupt.  Get records of their bank accounts.”  In mid-1967, FCNL warned that government infiltration posed a “serious threat” to the antiwar movement as well as to American civil liberties in general. [328]

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Jerry Rubin, Dave Dellinger, and Abbie Hoffman (L-R)

At a press conference on August 28, Dellinger boldly promised to “shut down the Pentagon…. We will fill the hallways and block the entrances…. This confrontation will be massive, continuing, flexible, and surprising.”  Mobe committee member Abbie Hoffman added, “There is nothing to explain about the war in Vietnam.  Those days are over.  The time has come for resistance.”  Other movement leaders, particularly pacifists, were not pleased with this turn.  Dellinger’s co-editors at Liberation magazine, David McReynolds and Charles Bloomstein, quit the editorial board, charging that Dellinger had moved toward the acceptance of violence “as a legitimate, even radical, alternative in the struggle against oppression.”  Sensing trouble, SANE, WILPF, and AFSC declined to support the planned events.  SWP remained on the sidelines in the civil disobedience segment. [331]

history essays vietnam

Civil disobedience sit-in at the Mall Entrance to the Pentagon, Oct. 21, 1967

On October 21, 1967, between 50,000 and 100,000 citizens gathered at the Lincoln memorial.  According to the Washington Post , “the crowd that had gathered was in a football-afternoon mood as it lined the banks of the Reflecting Pool.  There were hippies and housewives, veterans and aging pacifists, but the overwhelming majority were college or high-school aged students. They came with banners unfurled from Harvard, Radcliffe, Southern Illinois University, the University of Georgia, and many other campuses.”  In mid-afternoon, the main body of demonstrators marched to the Pentagon behind a huge banner proclaiming “Support Our GIs, Bring Them Home Now!”  Before they arrived, according to the Post , an “earlier foray of several hundred [protesters] pushed against military police lines and a rope barrier.  Some of them were carrying North Vietnamese flags.  After a brief scuffle, they were shoved back with night sticks.  They identified themselves as members of the U.S. Committee to Aid the National Liberation Front, a New York group.”  More altercations took place when the main body arrived at the Pentagon entrance:

In the most serious incident, 20 to 30 demonstrators slipped through lines of U.S. marshals and military policeman and into a small vestibule inside the office of the Pentagon’s Mall entrance.  Once inside they encountered heavily armed troops.  The troops, carrying rifles with sheathed bayonets, used gun butts to force some outside and carried others out bodily.  Blood was spotted on the floor.  Outside, the big crowd surged forward and began throwing what they had at hand – picket signs, magazines, leaflets, sticks and at least one rock which crashed through a Pentagon press room window…. Throughout the afternoon there were sporadic encounters between small groups and the troops.  Several demonstrators were clubbed when they pressed too close to troop lines or refused to move out of forbidden sectors.

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Jan Rose Kasmir and others talked to the military police

In all, 681 protesters were arrested and 47 were hospitalized over a two-day period.  No weapons were confiscated, indicating the intent to commit aggressive civil disobedience rather than violence.  The press highlighted the mayhem and Hoffman’s absurd claim that the protesters would “levitate” the Pentagon by chanting, while ignoring speeches at the rally by Benjamin Spock, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and others. [332]   The peaceful side of the protest was captured by French photojournalist Marc Riboud, who snapped a photo of Jan Rose Kasmir, age 17, offering a flower to soldiers while standing just inches from their bayoneted rifles.  “She was just talking, trying to catch the eye of the soldiers,” recalled Riboud.  “I had the feeling the soldiers were more afraid of her than she was of the bayonets.” [333]

The famous peace logo was created in 1958 for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain

The photo of Kasmir became a symbol of the new hippie counterculture, which gained national prominence in the 1967 San Francisco “summer of love.”  Hippies henceforth became a mainstay at antiwar gatherings, adding new protest songs that buoyed the movement. [334]   Disdainful of social conventions and the “establishment,” the pot-smoking culture was nonviolent at heart.  Its ubiquitous peace symbol, adopted from the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, became the movement’s logo as well.  Harking back to communalist and nature movements in American history, the hippies not only opposed the Vietnam War but also sought alternatives to what the historian William A. Williams called “empire as a way of life,” which included more communal living arrangements and ecological practices and less reliance on technology.  In the documentary film, “Berkeley in the 1960s,” Jentri Anders notes that “on at least some level, those of us in the hippie movement understood that ours was a culture that was destroying the world.” [335]   Their peace-oriented values reflected a genuine sensitivity towards the destructive aspects of the American way of life, which the Vietnam War in all its horrors had exposed.

history essays vietnam

Antiwar poster, replica of a woodcut by Anton Refregier, 1970 (Library of Congress)

The antiwar movement was a never-ending fount of new organizations and projects.  From 1965 to 1967, new organizations included Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, Veterans for Peace in Vietnam, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Another Mother for Peace, RESIST, and American Writers and Artists Against the War.  Among the new projects were the National Voters Peace Pledge Campaign, organized by SANE, “Vietnam Summer,” a community organizing project led by Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, and “Negotiations Now,” a petition drive led by prominent liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

history essays vietnam

Antiwar protest in Harlem, 1967

SNCC jumped into the antiwar movement rather suddenly following the murder of Sammy Younge Jr., a 21-year-old Navy veteran who was shot and killed when he attempted to use a whites-only restroom at a gas station in Macon County, Alabama, on January 3, 1966.  Three days later, SNCC issued a manifesto that decried the “hypocrisy” of fighting for freedom abroad while denying it to African Americans at home:  “We are in sympathy with, and support, the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam in the name of the ‘freedom’ we find so false in this country.”  The Georgia House of Representatives responded by refusing to seat newly elected Julian Bond, SNCC’s communications director.  Seventy-five house members filed a petition charging that Bond’s opposition to the war “gave aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States and Georgia, violated the Selective Service laws, and tended to bring discredit and disrespect on the House.” [341]   The issue eventually reached the Supreme Court which ruled unanimously in favor of Bond.

history essays vietnam

Women Strike for Peace protest

Drawing more women into the antiwar movement was a goal of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP), and Another Mother for Peace (AMP).  All facilitated grassroots lobbying.  WSP, founded in 1961, also set up local draft information and counseling centers, attracting “blue-collar workers, school dropouts, and working-class apprentices, both white and African American,” according to the historian Amy Swerdlow; and it organized many protests. “Some people take their children to churches,” said WSP co-founder Dagmar Wilson.  “We take ours to marches.”  In mid-February 1967, two weeks after CALCAV’s “Education-Action Mobilization,” WSP mobilized some 2,500 well-dressed women to parade in front of the Pentagon with signs that read, “Mothers Say Stop the War in Vietnam” and “Drop Rusk and McNamara, Not the Bomb.”  In 1970, WSP members in New York helped elect another co-founder, Bella Abzug, to the House of Representatives.  Two hundred and thirty-five WSP members worked in the Abzug headquarters during the campaign. [343]

history essays vietnam

Actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward with the AMP logo

Another Mother for Peace began in the living room of Lorraine Schneider in Beverly Hills, California, in March 1967.  “There were only fifteen women that spring,” Schneider recalled.  Four years later, the group’s membership numbered 215,000.  Schneider, an expert printmaker, created the group’s famous sunflower design and logo, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”  AMP’s stated mission was “to educate women to take an active role in eliminating war as a means of solving disputes between nations, people and ideologies.”  The group’s methods were entirely conventional:  producing and distributing “homework” for study, selling posters, bumper stickers, note cards, and gold medallions with the group’s logo, encouraging letter-writing campaigns, and supporting peace candidates running for Congress.  AMP’s first action on Mother’s Day 1967 was to distribute postcards to be sent to all members of Congress and the President.  Congress received some 200,000 cards that year, which read:

For my Mother’s Day gift this year, I don’t want candy or flowers. I want an end to killing. We who have given life must be dedicated to preserving it. [344]

history essays vietnam

Bucknell campus antiwar rally, October 1969

The sheer size of the “baby boom” generation – those born in the late 1940s and early 1950s – made youthful protests against the war a spectacle.  During the 1960s, the number of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in college jumped from 3.6 to 8.0 million, or from 24% to 36% of this youthful population.  The number and size of colleges and universities grew accordingly.  Most college students, like the general population, supported the war at the outset.  In the spring of 1967, two years into the war, a Gallup poll found that 49% identified as “hawks” (pro-war) and 35%, as “doves” (antiwar).  Two and a half years later, however, the proportions had more than reversed, with only 20% identifying as “hawks” and 69%, as “doves.”  This was more dovish than the general population in the fall of 1969, which registered 31% “hawks” and 55% “doves.” [346]

history essays vietnam

Antiwar protest at the Univ. of Florida, Gainesville

Many protests combined opposition to the war with some tangible concern such as university cooperation with the Selective Service System, military and CIA recruiters on campus, the presence of ROTC, or contracts with the Pentagon or Dow Chemical (the Pentagon distributed about $1 billion annually to universities for research projects). The draft, or conscription, made the war impossible to ignore.

In May 1966, students at the University of Chicago conducted a two-day protest against the school’s practice of providing the Selective Service System with student grades by which deferments could be determined.  One Iowa co-ed recalled picketing the local draft board because she was “not going to support a government that goes around killing its students…. Being at the draft board was a time for me to say, ‘No.  This has to stop.’” [349]   Enrollment in ROTC, the main source for junior officers, dropped by two-thirds between 1968 and 1972-73, from 218,000 to 72,500 registrants.  Attacks on ROTC buildings reached a high point in the 1969-70 academic year, with “323 assaults, resulting in $155,000 worth of government property loss and $1.25 million damage to colleges,” according to David Cortright.  “Thirty ROTC buildings were fire bombed in the spring term [1970] alone.” [350]

history essays vietnam

Dow protest at UW-Madison, 1967 (UWM Archives)

Following the publication of William Pepper’s “The Children of Vietnam” in the January 1967 issue of Ramparts Magazine – a revealing exposé of the effects of napalm with accompanying photographs – many student groups initiated actions against Dow Chemical, maker of napalm.  By the company’s own count, there were 221 major anti-Dow demonstrations on U.S. campuses between 1967 and 1970.  Sit-ins, pickets, and blockades were employed to demand that Dow recruiters be banned from campuses and that universities end all association with the company.  Students carried signs decrying Dow for “Making Money Burning Babies” and urging, “Dow Shall Not Kill.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, students organized a series of sit-ins at Dow recruitment offices on campus.  At the second sit-in in October 1967, administrators called the police, which led to a violent confrontation in which 75 protesters and 10 police officers were injured.  Dow was temporarily banned from campus.  At Harvard University that same month, students sat in at Conant laboratory (named to honor President James Conant, a former director of the National Defense Research Committee) to protest Dow recruiters on campus. A Dow recruiter was locked in an office for seven hours. [352]

history essays vietnam

On April 9, 1969, 400-students sat in at the Stanford Lab

At Stanford University, on April 9, 1969, some 400 students occupied the Stanford Research Institute, a Bechtel Corporation funded high technology scientific research organization connected to the Defense Department and its affiliated Applied Electronics Laboratory, effectively shutting it down.  Almost one-half of the institute’s support in 1968 came from the Department of Defense, including $6.2 million directly related to Southeast Asia, according to its critics.  The protesters demanded an end to all classified war research, including research into Air Force reconnaissance and surveillance systems and chemical and biological warfare.  Student radicals later stormed the university’s computational center which ran stimulation programs used by helicopter and gunship pilots.  English professor H. Bruce Franklin was fired for having urged students to “shut down the machinery of war.”  The protestors had caused $800 worth of damage. [353]

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Muhammad Ali (right) points to a newspaper headline on a Vietnam protest, March 28, 1966

The most famous person to refuse induction was boxing champion Muhammad Ali.  When informed in March 1966 that the Selective Service System had reclassified him as 1-A, making him subject to conscription, he declared he would seek C.O. status as a black Muslim.  “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.  They never called me a nigger,” he famously said.  He reiterated the point when refusing induction in April 1967.  “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said.  “And shoot them for what?  They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father…. Shoot them for what?”  Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, but he remained free on appeal.  After much legal wrangling, the Supreme Court granted him C.O. status in June 1971 ( Clay v. United States ). [356]

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Folk singer Joan Baez was arrested, among others, during a sit-in demonstration blocking the entrance to Oakland Induction Center, Oct. 16, 1967 (AP photo)

In the fall of 1967, organized draft resistance gained momentum with the formation of a new national organization, RESIST, followed the publication of “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books (October 12), signed by hundreds of the nation’s foremost public intellectuals.  A “Stop the Draft Week” was organized in mid-October in which at least 1,100 young men turned in or burned their draft cards in thirty cities, although some burned copies to avoid legal penalties.

history essays vietnam

The Cantonsville Nine burning draft records, May 1968 (Fr. Philip Berrigan, 5th from left, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, 7th)

The growing militancy in the antiwar movement in 1967 and 1968 was directed in part at local draft boards offices.  These “became the target of an increasing number of violent attacks – what amounted to a small-scale guerrilla war,” writes David Cortright.  “By September 1969, sixty-five of the nation’s four thousand local boards had been attacked or harassed, including eleven incidents of burning or mutilation of records.”  On October 27, 1967, Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, Protestant minister James L. Mengel, and two others entered a local Selective Service board office in Baltimore and poured blood over draft files while reading from the Bible.  In their written statement, they explained that their action was meant to protest “the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.”  In May 1968, nine people led by Philip and Daniel Berrigan broke into the draft board at Catonsville, Maryland and burned selective service records with homemade napalm.

Other raids, often led by clerics, destroyed draft records in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Akron, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, New York, and Buffalo.  Sentences were initially harsh, but in 1972, in a surprising turn, Judge John Curtin vacated the sentences handed down to the “Buffalo Five,” three men and two women who had broken into Buffalo’s Old Post Office building in August 1971 for the purpose of destroying draft files.  Judge Curtin told the defendants, “Your love of country is above that of most other citizens.  If others had the same sense of morality, the war would have been over a long time ago.” [360]

history essays vietnam

On June 30, 1966, Pfc. James Johnson, Pvt. David Samas, and Pvt. Dennis Mora (Fort Hood Three) held a press conference to announce their refusal of orders to board a plane at the Oakland Army Terminal for deployment to South Vietnam

Open dissent on U.S. military bases slowly emerged.  The first public act of defiance came on June 30, 1966, when three privates issued a public statement declaring their refusal to ship out to Vietnam on the grounds that the war was “immoral, illegal, and unjust.”  The “Fort Hood Three” were court-martialed in September and sentenced to three to five year prison terms.  In October, Army doctor Howard Levy refused to train Green Beret medics at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, asserting that Special Forces units were responsible for war crimes in Vietnam.

In July 1967, two African American Marines, William Harvey and George Daniels, called a meeting “to question why black men should fight a white man’s war in Vietnam,” according to Cortright, who was one of the leaders of the GI movement.  “When Harvey, Daniels, and twelve other Marines requested captain’s mast to discuss the matter with the commander, the two were arrested and charged with insubordination and promoting disloyalty.  They were found guilty in November and sentenced to six and ten years, respectively.” [361]

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GI News, March 1968

Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war.  With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas.  GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967.  More newspapers followed.  Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation.  In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers.  ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights.  An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service.  Even if denied, their applications clogged up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders.  At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders as of March 1, 1970. [362]

history essays vietnam

Actress Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam in 1972, making her infamous with American war supporters

The visits often proved enlightening. David Dellinger, arriving in Hanoi in October 1966, recalled that his hosts “would talk about what they’d been doing for hundreds of years, trying to gain their independence and fight off imperialists.”  This longer historical view of invasion and colonization in Vietnam reshaped the outlook on the war that many activists held.  Some, like Chicana Elizabeth Martínez, elaborated on the similarities between the U.S. government’s treatment of Mexican Americans and the Vietnamese, while others noted the determination of the Vietnamese to win, given their long fight for independence.  Notable antiwar activists who traveled to North Vietnam include Herbert Aptheker, Joan Baez, Daniel Berrigan, Elaine Brown, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Eldridge Cleaver, William Sloane Coffin, Rennie Davis, Barbara Deming, Doug Dowd, Richard Fernandez, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Staughton Lynd, Mary McCarthy, A. J. Muste, Diane Nash, Grace Paley, Susan Sontag, and Howard Zinn. [364]   Fonda’s visit in particular raised the ire of war supporters, who anointed her “Hanoi Jane.”

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The aging Ho Chi Minh

Hanoi officials coordinated many of these visits through the Committee for Solidarity with the American People (Viet-My) and the VWU.  Visiting groups were accompanied by a translator, doctor, photographer, and military personnel in and around Hanoi, indicating the significance of these visits for the Vietnamese.  The Viet-My and VWU arranged meetings with government officials, including Ho Chi Minh and Premier Pham Van Dong, chauffeured groups to areas of the countryside that had been bombed, took them to “evacuated” factories, and toured bombed schools and hospitals.  According to the historian Jessica Frazier, “The Vietnamese made clear that they invited [Americans] to North Viet Nam to provide evidence that the U.S. military knowingly and indiscriminately killed civilians.” [365]

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Cora Weiss, 1972

As a way to show that Hanoi wanted reconciliation above all else, Cora Weiss and the Viet-My coordinated one last prisoner release in September 1972.  This time, Hanoi stipulated that prisoners must return to the United States via commercial airline; hence they would be able to hold a press conference upon their return before being debriefed by the U.S. military.  Hanoi and Weiss made it clear that any intervention on the part of the U.S. government could imperil the future release of additional POWs before the end of the war.  Anticipating U.S. interference, they announced a false itinerary of their return trip to the United States.  As expected, the U.S. military met the plane that the three POWs were supposed to be on in Laos with the intent of forcing the three men to fly the rest of the way back to the United States via military aircraft.  All the while the POWs were actually escorted by Weiss on another day via a different route.  Weiss wrote a press release stating that the intervention was evidence of Nixon’s disregard for POWs’ safe return and his attempt to conceal the truth from the American people. [368]

history essays vietnam

Antiwar marchers in New York City, April 28, 1968

By the spring of 1968, the patriotic ‘rally-round-the-flag effect was wearing thin and recognition of the war’s mounting costs was sinking in.  On April 27, the Mobe sponsored another major demonstration, this one relatively peaceful.  About 100,000 people congregated in New York to hear Coretta Scott King, Mayor John Lindsay, and other speakers.  Another 20,000 gathered in San Francisco.  A group of forty active-duty GIs were given the honored place at the head of the demonstration in San Francisco.

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Sen. Eugene McCarthy campaigning on Main Street in Manchester, N.H., March 9, 1968 (AP Photo, J. Walter Green)

The “hawks” came out in force.  Johnson’s supporters paid for an ad accusing McCarthy of “surrendering” to the enemy and warned that “the communists in Vietnam are watching the New Hampshire primary…. They are hoping for a divided America.”  Governor John King suggested that a McCarthy victory would spark “dancing in the streets of Hanoi.”  Freshman Democratic Senator Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire labeled McCarthy a friend of “draft-dodgers and deserters.”  McCarthy was not intimidated.  Speaking in Manchester, he called attention to the fact that the “Democratic Party in 1964 promised ‘no wider war.’  Yet the war is getting wider every month.” [372]   On March 12, 1968, McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary as compared to Johnson’s 49 percent, a very respectable showing (Johnson did not campaign and was a write-in candidate).

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Chicago police charged the demonstrators at Grant Park, Aug. 28, 1968

Daley made it impossible for the protesters to assemble legally near the convention arena or the delegates’ hotels as they marched from their encampments in Lincoln and Grant Parks.  In addition, intelligence agents had penetrated their cadres; for example, Jerry Rubin’s bodyguard was an undercover Chicago policeman.  Some of the government plants acted as agents provocateurs, spurring on the demonstrators to take violent or illegal actions.  A minority of the demonstrators did not need the direction of agents to provoke and even attack the police.  All the same, in several pitched battles seen on television around the world, the police appeared to be the aggressors.  “The Whole World is Watching” was the chant, as protesters were clubbed and dragged into paddy wagons in what a government investigative commission later labeled a “police riot.” . . .
Injured CBS news reporter John Evans interviewed a bloodied protester The melees resulted in 668 arrests.  The rest of the battle figures included:  one person shot dead, 425 treated for injuries at the movement clinics, 200 treated on the spot, 400 needing treatment for tear-gas inhalation, and 101 treated in hospitals.  On the other side, twenty-four car windshields were broken, seventeen police cars were dented or otherwise damaged, 192 of the 11,000 police personnel involved needed hospital treatment; only ten claimed that they were kicked by demonstrators, six said they were hit, and four said they were assaulted by crowds of protesters. [373]

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Sen. Abraham Ribicoff was booed and cursed for criticizing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s strong-arm tactics

The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, chaired by Milton Eisenhower, interviewed more than 1,400 witnesses to the events and studied FBI reports and films of the confrontations.  Its report, released on December 1, 1968, characterized the convention violence as a “police riot,” albeit on the part of a minority of police officers, and recommended prosecution of those officers.  The police officers were not prosecuted, but seven movement organizers – Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, John Froines, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, Tom Hayden, and Bobby Seale – were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on March 29, 1969, on charges of conspiracy and traveling across state lines to “incite a riot.”  Five were convicted of the latter charge, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.

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The Commander-in-Chief

In fact, Nixon waited until June 8 th to announce the first withdrawal of 25,000 GIs, which amounted to less than five percent of the 540,000 troops stationed in Vietnam.  Nixon knew that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would reduce U.S. leverage in negotiations, but he was obliged to appease public opinion at home.  His duplicitous strategy toward the peace movement was to steal its thunder by gradually withdrawing U.S. troops while at the same time denouncing the movement for urging withdrawal.  Sam Brown commented, “It seemed that he was going to get out of Vietnam as slowly as possible, while selling the idea that he was getting out as fast as possible.” [379]

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LIFE magazine, June 27, 1969

Life magazine added urgency to the idea of withdrawal by publishing in its June 27 (1969) issue portrait photos of all 242 Americans killed in Vietnam during the previous week. “It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead,” wrote the editors. “Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war — 36,000 — though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who.” [381]

history essays vietnam

David Hawk (left) and Sam Brown at a press conference, Sept. 27, 1969 (AP photo by Harvey Georges)

The VMC raised funds, reached out to every possible constituency, and generally presented the Moratorium as a legitimate redress of citizen grievances.  By October, VMC had 31 full-time staff persons and 7,500 field organizers working to make the event a success.  CIA operatives who infiltrated the Moratorium’s headquarters in Washington warned their superiors that the Moratorium was gaining wide support and that “prominent people regarded as loyal Americans have instilled the day with respectability and even patriotism.”  These statements were correct.  Among the Moratorium’s endorsers were nine members of Congress and the faculty at Harvard, which voted of 391-16 in favor of it.  Participation on the day of the Moratorium exceeded expectations.  According to Small:

history essays vietnam

Candlelight vigil, Washington DC, Oct. 15, 1969 (Library of Congress)

As many as two million people in over two hundred cities and towns participated in Moratorium activities.  Participants ranged from at least 15 combat soldiers in Vietnam wearing black armbands, to 100,000 listening on the Boston Common to South Dakota senator George McGovern and setting a record for the largest political crowd in the city’s history, to 250,000 in New York who attended rallies in Bryant Park and on Wall Street.  Many Broadway shows canceled their matinees that afternoon and Republican Mayor John Lindsay ordered flags to be flown at half-mast on municipal buildings.  As many as 90 percent of high school students in New York failed to show up for class that Wednesday.  Turnouts were impressive as well in Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh, where the city council endorsed the demonstration.  Even more impressive were the dignified silent vigils and prayer meetings held in several hundred small towns where antiwar demonstrations had not been very popular. [385]

history essays vietnam

Sen. George McGovern at Boston, Oct. 15, 1969 (Paul J Connell, Boston Globe )

Scattered violence in Washington and some other cities did not detract from the Moratorium’s mainstream image.  Only one week before the Moratorium, the Weathermen had engaged in a fit of property destruction in Chicago as part of its “Days of Rage.”  The press did not confuse this politically incoherent violence with the Moratorium.  Indeed, the Moratorium’s middle-class demeanor, breadth of support, and notable endorsements favorably impressed the media.  Life magazine described the Moratorium as, “without parallel, the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in the country.”  Time magazine editorialized, “Nixon cannot escape the effects of the antiwar movement.”  Newsweek headlined its story, “Nixon in Trouble.”  Sam Brown sought to gain political leverage from the event (like the civil rights movement had done following its mass demonstration in Washington in August 1963) by arguing that it signified a common call for “withdrawal from Vietnam no later than December 1 st of next year,” but Congress was not so moved. [386]

history essays vietnam

President Nixon ventured out among the protesters near the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 am, Nov. 15, 1969, but did not engage with them in any serious discussion

The November Moratorium flowed seamlessly into the New Mobilization demonstrations on November 15.  Between 250,000 and 500,000 gathered in Washington and between 100,000 and 300,00 in San Francisco.  The lower estimate for Washington was made by Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson who had been advised by administration officials to “low-ball” the numbers.  Attendance might have been larger had not FBI agents threatened bus companies with legal action if they transported demonstrators to Washington.  Norma Becker recalled that “thousands were stranded” in New York City. Demonstrators in Washington, led by a contingent of over 200 GIs, marched peacefully up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument, occasionally breaking into a chorus of “Give Peace a Chance.”  “It was a wonderful, wonderful day,” VMC leader David Hawk remembered.  Musical performers included folk singers Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Speakers included Senator George McGovern, Senator Charles Goodell (Republican of New York), and entertainer Dick Gregory, among others.  In San Francisco, Ralph Abernathy and Senator Wayne Morse spoke and the cast of the hit musical “Hair” performed “Let the Sun Shine” and other songs. [391]

history essays vietnam

A sea of humanity filled the National Mall in Washington to protest the war on Nov. 15, 1969

Trouble began in Washington only at the end of the rally when rowdies broke windows and threw bottles at police, an example of civil disorder rather than nonviolent civil disobedience.  The police responded with tear gas that drove the crowd into the downtown area, where “marauding bands of youth trashed businesses and cars,” according to Tom Wells. [392]   The efforts of the march organizers to prevent violence during the main rally and march nevertheless paid off, as the press clearly distinguished between the rowdies and the peaceful protesters.  The New York Times titled its front-page article, “250,000 War Protesters Stage Peaceful Rally in Washington; Militants Stir Clashes Later.”  The report noted, “The predominant event of the day was that of a great and peaceful army of dissent moving through the city.” [393]

history essays vietnam

Joe McDonald of “Country Joe and the Fish” at Woodstock, Aug. 1969 (Bear Family Records)

While the Nixon administration called on Americans to blindly “support the troops” without questioning the war, more GIs were coming to view the peace movement as being on the right track.  One young private in Vietnam told New York Times correspondent R. Drummond Ayers in the summer of 1969, “I just work hard at surviving so I can go home and protest all the killing.”  Hal Wingo of Life magazine interviewed nearly one hundred GIs in combat zones and found “unexpected cheers” and “open and outspoken sympathy” for the Moratorium demonstrations that fall.  On November 9, a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times , signed by 1,366 active-duty servicemen, including 189 soldiers in Vietnam, calling for an end to the war and encouraging GIs to support the November 15 th demonstration in Washington. [395]   The Woodstock festival in upstate New York in August 1969 reinforced the cultural turn against the Vietnam War.  Joe McDonald, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 and returned to Berkeley, California, to start the rock band, Country Joe and the Fish, sang his rousing antiwar song “ The I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag ” at the festival.  Its sardonic lyrics and upbeat melody would make it an anthem of the antiwar movement (refrain):

And it’s one, two, three, What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, Next stop is Vietnam; And it’s five, six, seven, Open up the pearly gates, Well there ain’t no time to wonder why, Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Taking stock

Taking stock at the end of 1969, activists might have been encouraged by the successes of the antiwar movement.  The Moratorium and New Mobilization were the largest antiwar protests in American history up to that time.  Participation in antiwar activities had become “normalized” on college campuses.  More Vietnam veterans and active duty GIs were connecting with the antiwar movement.  The media on the whole was less hostile to the movement and more critical of the administration.  Nixon’s secret war plans had been aborted (some suspected this); and U.S. troops were at least being withdrawn rather than added (troop levels declined from 537,000 at the beginning of 1969 to 474,000 at the end of it).  Although beset with problems, the antiwar movement was making progress.  According to Melvin Small:

Beginning as a tiny cloud on the horizon in 1965, the antiwar movement had grown impressively to a point at which its arguments had been adopted by many people who would never have participated in a demonstration or signed a petition.  In a complicated symbiotic relationship, antiwar activists affected and were affected by prominent figures in Congress, the media, and the intellectual world who confronted the president with an articulate, sizable, and increasingly influential group of citizens whose proposals for withdrawal from Vietnam began to appear more credible than those of the president who could only promise more of the same. [396]

history essays vietnam

Uncle Sam poster published by the Committee to Unsell the War, 1971 (V&A Museum, Great Britain)

Public opinion polls at the end of 1969 indicated that half of Americans viewed the war as “morally indefensible,” 60% said that it was a “mistake,” and 80% said they were “fed up and tired” of the war.  Moreover, more Americans were coming to view the “mistake” in Vietnam as part of a larger pattern of American “imperialism.”  According to two polls taken by the Yankelovich organization, the “proportion strongly agreeing with the statement ‘the war in Vietnam is pure imperialism’ increased from 16 percent in the spring of 1969 to 41 percent in [April] 1970, just before the Cambodian events.  Those strongly disagreeing dropped from 44 to 21 percent.”  The embrace of a larger anti-imperialist critique posed a broad challenge to U.S. interventionist policies, later named the “Vietnam Syndrome.” [397]

history essays vietnam

President Nixon forewarns the U.S. public of a new escalation of the war, April 30, 1970

On April 20, 1970 President Nixon pledged to withdraw another 150,000 troops from Vietnam over the next year.  The pledge was designed to appease the majority of Americans who now wanted out of the war.  Ten days later, however, Nixon announced a bold expansion of the war – a U.S. invasion into Cambodia.  As “North Vietnam has increased its military aggression … particularly in Cambodia,” said Nixon in a televised address, the U.S. was obliged “to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.”  This was necessary, he continued, in order to “protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program.”  Nixon ended his address with an appeal to the foundations of U.S. foreign policy:  “If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.” [399]

history essays vietnam

The National Guard fired tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the Kent State commons, May 4, 1970

Protests arose spontaneously in cities and on campuses.  Most were peaceful, but at Kent State University in Ohio, militants burned down the ROTC building, which prompted the university to ban rallies and the governor to call out the National Guard.  The National Guard’s mission was not merely to protect buildings, but to disperse student gatherings, which placed the guardsmen on the offensive.  On May 4, nervous guardsmen, who claimed to be in danger, fired over sixty times into the crowd, killing four students and wounding nine.  The closest two students were 60 feet away from the guardsmen; eight were more than a football field away.  The administration’s initial response was utterly insensitive:  “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy,” stated a White House press release.  That evening, Vice President Spiro Agnew called the killings “predictable” and went on to incoherently condemn “traitors and thieves and perverts and irrational and illogical people in our midst.”  J. Edgar Hoover fed the administration’s callousness by informing officials that one of the female victims had been “sleeping around” and was “nothing more than a whore.” [401]

history essays vietnam

Wounded Kent State student John Cleary, May 4, 1970

The killing and wounding of students at Kent State ignited an explosion of unrest on campuses across the nation.  “The overflow of emotion seemed barely containable,” wrote the Washington Post editors on May 6.  “The nation was witnessing what amounted to a virtual general and uncoordinated strike by its college youth.”  Protests were held on more than 1,300 campuses during the month of May, with many moderate and conservative students participating for the first time.  Among them was Craig McNamara, who joined other students at Stanford University in a rampage of window-breaking.  “I remember the rage setting in on me, and the frustration that we all felt because we couldn’t stop the war,” he reflected.  “What was in my mind … was rage, pure rage.”  The governors of 16 states activated National Guard units to curb rioting.  Campus unrest forced the shutdown of 536 universities and colleges, 51 for the remainder of the semester. [403]

history essays vietnam

Antiwar rally in Washington, DC, May 9, 1970

New Mobe and SWP organizers called for a demonstration in Washington on May 9.  With only a week’s notice, 100,000 people showed up on the Ellipse behind the White House in a nationally televised rally.  Several hundred federal employees waved banners outside office windows, one proclaiming, “We Have Found the Enemy and He Is Us!”  Nine members of Congress joined Dr. Benjamin Spock on the platform.  The rally was peaceful except for about 1,000 protesters who went off-route to engage in vandalism and block traffic in the street.  Police wearing steel helmets and gas masks forcefully removed them.  Rallies were also held in other cities, drawing 60,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in Minneapolis, 20,000 in Austin, and 12,000 in San Diego. [404]

The following day in Manhattan, however, some 300 “helmeted workmen, some armed with lead pipes and crowbars, ranged freely through the financial district for almost three hours, attacking protesters and those who sought to help the injured,” according to the Wall Street Journal .  “One construction worker, who said his life would be in danger if he was identified, claimed the attack was organized by shop stewards with the support of some contractors.  He said one contractor offered his men cash bonuses to join the fray.”  The violence was worse than any mayhem initiated by antiwar demonstrators, as it was directed at persons rather than property.  “’We came here to express our sympathy for those killed at Kent State and they attacked us with lead pipes wrapped in American flags,’ said Drew Lynch, a 19-year-old employee of the city’s Human Resources Administration, who came away with a black eye and a split lip.”  According to the Journal report:

At Trinity Church, where volunteer doctors and medical students treated about 60 victims in a makeshift hospital at the head of Wall Street, the vicar, the Rev. Donald Woodward, locked the gates to prevent worker mobs from entering.  The surly crowd ripped down a Red Cross banner and tried to remove the Episcopal Church flag…. Later the workers stormed City Hall several blocks to the north, overwhelming police and forcing officials to raise to full-staff the American flag. It had been ordered to half-staff by Mayor John Lindsay in memory of the four slain Kent State University students.  Still later, the workers invaded nearby Pace College, again attacking students. [405]

The White House offered no criticism of the rampaging workers and no sympathy for the injured antiwar protesters.  Instead it sought to overwrite the image of pro-war thuggery with a sanitized patriotic march twelve days later.  Officially sponsored by the Building and Construction Trades Council, the march was billed as a demonstration of “love of country and respect for the country’s flag.”  According to one union member, “The word was passed around to all the men on the jobs the day before.  It was not voluntary.  You had to go.”  Some 100,000 people marched in New York City on May 20 amid signs that read “We Love Our Police, Flag and Country” and “Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi.”  The demonstration left the impression that the Nixon administration had at least one significant constituency backing his war policy.  According to the historian Penny Lewis, however, this was not the case.  After surveying opinion polls from the era, she concludes that “working-class people were never more likely than their middle-class counterparts to support the war, and in many instances, they were more likely to oppose it.” [406]

history essays vietnam

Daniel Ellsberg speaks to reporters outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, Jan. 17, 1973 (AP photo)

Within the administration, three of Kissinger’s closest aides, Roger Morris, Anthony Lake, and William Watts, resigned in response to the Cambodian invasion.  Laurence Lynn, senior staff member on the National Security Council, resigned after the Kent State killings.  Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, having become convinced that the war was immoral as well as futile, proceeded with copying the Pentagon Papers , a 7,000-page classified study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1940 to 1968, which he would later leak to the New York Times , exposing administration deceptions over the course of four presidencies.

The last years of the war

history essays vietnam

Nixon’s secret plan to end the war (Herb Block, Aug. 1972, Library of Congress)

history essays vietnam

John Kerry, 27, former navy lieutenant who was wounded three times in Vietnam, testified in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, April 22, 1971 (AP photo by Henry Griffin)

On the Senate side of Capitol Hill, Senator McGovern similarly pressed for formal hearings on American war crimes, but to no avail.  Senator Fulbright, however, invited Lt. John Kerry to speak to his committee on behalf of the VVAW.  Kerry, who later became a senator, presidential candidate (2004), and secretary of state, testified on April 22, 1971:

We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them.  We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.  We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals.  We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts…. Each day … someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake.  Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, “the first President to lose a war.”  We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?  How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? [411]

history essays vietnam

Vietnam Veterans Against the War – Dewey Canyon protest

Kerry’s presence in Washington that spring was part of the VVAW’s Operation Dewey Canyon III, a five-day “invasion” of the capital in which some 2,000 VVAW members and friends lobbied members of Congress and engaged in various symbolic acts of protest.  In the climactic event on Friday, April 23, over 600 veterans threw their combat medals and ribbons over a make-shift fence and onto the Capitol lawn.  Most made a brief comment about their reasons for returning their awards and some dedicated their peace witness to fallen comrades.  VVAW’s membership increased from about 10,000 to 20,000 over the course of 1971.

history essays vietnam

Antiwar rally in Washington, April 24, 1971

Immediately following Dewey Canyon III, on Saturday, April 24, antiwar organizers pulled off “what may have been the largest single rally in the history of the antiwar movement,” according to Melvin Small.  “At least 300,000 and perhaps as many as 500,000 showed up that day to march from the Ellipse down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol where organizers had obtained permission to use the Capitol steps for a rally, the first time that such permission had been granted.” [413]   Some 30 members of Congress were on hand to offer their support for the rally, its purpose captured in the slogan “Vietnam, Out Now.”  The huge protest was nonetheless treated rather perfunctorily in the press, as demonstrations had become routine and the central political question regarding U.S. policy in Vietnam appeared to have been settled.

history essays vietnam

Vietnam vets doing guerrilla street theater in Connecticut

On May 15, Armed Forces Day, protests against the war were successfully carried out at nineteen bases across the U.S.  Two weeks later, on Memorial Day, a group of GIs at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington joined the VVAW in sponsoring an antiwar service at an on-post chapel.  Approximately 200 soldiers joined in the ceremony.  Meanwhile, the New England chapter of the VVAW organized a march of some 200 fatigue-clad veterans to Revolutionary War battle sites at Lexington and Concord, the intent being to show how far nation had veered from its founding ideals.  “With an ironic twist,” the VVAW fliers explained, “our presence in Indochina as viewed by a native of an occupied village easily coincides with the British army in America.”  According to David Cortright, “The GI movement in the Army reached its peak during the spring of 1971.”  Across the country, veterans and civilian supporters offered GIs counseling and legal services, read and wrote for the GI Press Service , set up “Free the Army” entertainment tours with actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, and initiated numerous off-base projects, committees, and coffee houses, all aimed at encouraging opposition to the war by those assigned to fight it. [415]

history essays vietnam

Time magazine, June 28, 1971

Adding fuel to the antiwar fire was the first release of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times on June 13, 1971.  The administration attempted to prevent their publication, claiming that they harmed national security, but the Supreme Court rejected this argument and ruled on June 30 to allow their publication.  The documents, written by the Pentagon’s own historians, showed a consistent pattern of administration deception, most importantly in regard to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an intentional U.S. provocation that was part of a secret plan (Operation 34-A) to expand the war.  In introducing the papers into the Congressional Record in August, Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska said that only a person who “has failed to read the Pentagon Papers” could still believe in “our good intentions” or that the U.S. was fighting for “freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia.”  The U.S. “created an artificial client state in South Vietnam, lamented its unpopularity among its own people, eventually encouraged the overthrow of that government, and then supported a series of military dictators…. The elaborate secrecy precautions, the carefully contrived subterfuges, the precisely orchestrated press leaks, were intended not to deceive ‘the other side,’ but to keep the American public in the dark.” [416]

history essays vietnam

VVAW led a protest march in Miami, Aug. 22, 1972, at the opening of the Republican National Convention. Disabled Vietnam vet Ron Kovic held an upside down American flag as a symbol of distress (AP Photo)

The year 1972 was marked by fewer activities, in conjunction with the de-escalation of American involvement in the war, the exceptions being a vigorous anti-bombing campaign and electoral work.  Most peace organizations experienced declines in membership in 1972, and national coalitions went their separate ways.

V. Lessons and legacies of the war

history essays vietnam

Hanoi War Remnants Museum

Another American visitor that year, Corey Adwar, reported on the museum for Business Insider magazine.  “Museum curators make concerted efforts to educate foreigners, especially Americans, about the war,” he wrote, “but based on a certain government-sanctioned Vietnamese interpretation of events.”  Although skeptical of this point-of-view, Adwar noted the value of the education.  “Americans have told me that they do not have a lot of information about Vietnam in the United States.  They didn’t even know that Vietnam was fighting for independence and that the involvement of their country was not necessary!  When they come here and see for themselves the war crimes committed by U.S. troops, they feel ashamed.” [421]

history essays vietnam

Vietnamese Memorial to 504 victims at My Lai The Vietnamese people had to suffer from callous injustice and ruthless terror during the war, just because they wanted to have an independent free and unified country.  Young men from the United States and other allied countries did not shed their blood in the interest of their own people; indeed, they died fighting against a people that held no enmity whatsoever for their country.
For humanity, war is immoral.  The war waged against the Vietnamese people was even more immoral because it did not serve the interest of either of the two belligerents; its only aim was to impose the domination of one nation over another, impose the ideology (way of thinking and way of life) of one group on another.  Many opportunities arose for putting a reasonable end to the war, in the interest of peace and honor for all sides, but they were not taken advantage of.” [423]

history essays vietnam

Veterans for Peace march in Washington, 2017

The idea that the aim of the United States was to impose its will on the Vietnamese people has never been accepted by U.S. officials – before, during, or after the war.  At a news conference on March 24, 1977, President Jimmy Carter was asked if he felt “any moral obligation to help rebuild that country.”  Carter replied, “Well, the destruction was mutual.  You know, we went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people.  We went there to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese.  And I don’t feel that we ought to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.” [424]   To say that the “suffering was mutual” here disregards the fact that the war was entirely fought in Southeast Asia, not in the United States, and that the casualties and suffering were nowhere near comparable.

Ronald Reagan, as a presidential candidate speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago on August 18, 1980, was more adamant in asserting American righteousness, twisting history into conformity:

For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.”  Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand.  Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests…. It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.  A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.  We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned…. There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam.  If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace.  And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win. [425]

history essays vietnam

Official U.S. denial of responsibility for the death and destruction wrought in Vietnam was reinforced by various cultural expressions.  Accounts of the war in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978), First Blood (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Rambo III (1988) present American soldiers as righteous warriors who were prevented from winning by inept Washington politicians, the “liberal” media, and the peace movement. [426]

These films were part of a larger reactionary movement designed to restore America’s noble self-image, assuage guilt, and drown out the outrage felt by other Americans convinced that the administration had lied its way into an unnecessary war.   Stories were spread that antiwar activists had spit on returning vets and that American POWs were being held in Vietnam, making America appear the victim rather than the aggressor in the war.  The “lesson” for the hawkish crowd was that the U.S. should have, and could have, won the war.

history essays vietnam

POW/MIA flags fly over public buildings

The POW allegation gained official backing in 1991, when Congress passed a law ordering that a black POW/MIA (prisoners-of-war/missing-in-action) flag be flown over every federal building in the country.  At the bottom of the flag is written “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN.”  The law declared the flag “a symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing, and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia.”  There were, in fact, no American POWs being held captive by the former enemy, only 2,500 Americans still missing from the war.  The latter number may be compared to some 75,000 MIAs from World War II and 8,000 from the Korean War.  The POW allegation should have been laid to rest following a Senate investigative report, dated January 13, 1993, which concluded that there was “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” [428]   Yet the allegation continued and the POW/MIA flags continued to fly.  According to Christian Appy, “The myth of abandoned POWs reinforced the powerful 1980s idea that the Vietnam War was an American tragedy that victimized our troops, our pride, and our national identity.  The destruction of Vietnam was supplanted by American suffering.” [429]

history essays vietnam

Strangers in a strange land: “These Three Soldiers” memorial in Washington

For much of the American public, the main lesson of the Vietnam War was to avoid risky military interventions and lengthy occupations. It was understood that getting into wars is easier than getting out of them.  Many also recognized the Pentagon’s mistaken “threat perception,” wherein Ho Chi Minh’s leadership in Vietnam, half a world away, was depicted as a threat to U.S. national security.  Beyond the concern for American casualties, the death and destruction inflicted on Southeast Asian peoples also weighed heavily on some.

A sharper strain of the “Vietnam Syndrome” took aim at the contradictions and abuses of U.S. foreign policy.  Ho Chi Minh’s quest for self-determination was part of a broad historical movement against imperialism and toward self-determination for peoples of Asia and Africa.  The U.S. was on the wrong side of this movement, a global paradigm shift, first in supporting the French attempt to reconquer Vietnam, then in disregarding the Geneva Accords and establishing an authoritarian regime in the southern half of the country.  More broadly, this critical view recognizes the hypocrisy of U.S. support for authoritarian regimes around the world while espousing democratic ideals, the propensity of the U.S. to intervene in other countries, often covertly, in the name of protecting the “free world” and national “defense.” and the lavishing of taxpayer funds on the military to the detriment of human needs.  The Vietnam War was a “mistake,” to be sure, but not an exception to the rule of imperious American conduct abroad.

Yet another level of criticism focused on underlying systems and beliefs that arguably propelled the U.S. into Vietnam.  Critics have identified the quest for Pax Americana , lack of international law, global capitalism, the military-industrial complex, the “imperial presidency,” macho-male military culture, and American exceptionalist ideology as systematic contributors to militarism and interventionism.

Martin Luther King, in his April 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, identified “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” and declared that the “war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation.” [430]  The historian Christian Appy has argued that the first step is to reconsider American exceptionalism:

If the legacy of the Vietnam War is to offer any guidance, we need to complete the moral and political reckoning it awakened.  And if our nation’s future is to be less militarized, our empire of foreign military bases scaled back, and our pattern of endless military interventions ended, a necessary first step is to reject – fully and finally – the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.  Only an honest accounting of our history will allow us to chart a new path in the world.  The past is always speaking to us, if we only listen. [431]

In terms of policymaking, U.S. war planners and hawkish right have never stopped working to undo the “Vietnam Syndrome” and restore the cherished myth of American righteousness.  The Reagan administration punched a hole in the “Vietnam Syndrome” in October 1983 with a surprise invasion of the tiny island of Grenada – a sure victory.  The administration was nevertheless inhibited from sending combat troops to El Salvador and Nicaragua, utilizing proxy forces instead.  The first Bush administration conducted another, more lethal surprise invasion, this time of Panama in December 1989.  Although the United Nations General Assembly declared it a “flagrant violation of international law,” there were no negative political repercussions at home.

Critics of the war might offer a different set of goals:  (1) beyond thanking veterans, to discuss whether the war itself was necessary or honorable; (2) in regard to the Armed Forces, to examine the debilitating effects of U.S. aerial assaults, ground operations, chemical warfare, and counterinsurgency doctrine, especially on civilians; (3) on the home front, to recognize the contributions of those who opposed the war as patriotic and honorable; (4) with respect to science and technology, to examine the environmental and human devastation wrought by high-tech weaponry and poisons such as Agent Orange, and to reassess the slavish dependence on statistical benchmarks that obscured the inhumanity of the war; and (5) to recognize that America’s most important allies did not support the war and that the United Nations and other nations strongly advised against it.  Such goals would likely produce sobering lessons that would strengthen efforts to prevent future wars.

history essays vietnam

Doug Rawlings placed letters at The Wall, 2016 (Ellen Davidson photo)

The inauguration of the Pentagon’s 50 th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War inspired Veterans for Peace to launch a counter campaign called “Full Disclosure.”  In “An Open Letter to the American People,” the veterans declared their intention to “truly examine what happened during those tragic and tumultuous Viet Nam years.”  Army vets Doug Rawlings and Tarak Kauff characterized official justifications for the Vietnam War as a tissue of lies.  “The little lies that gather together to form the Big Lie are put together by design.  The intent is to justify not only this war but also future wars.  We can’t let that happen.”  The war they fought in, they write, was “one of unbridled aggression, one of soul-sinking depravity, one so deeply ingrained into our psyches that 50 years later we wake in cold sweat.  It was not a battle fought for freedom and democracy and not one that we are proud of.” [435]

In 2015, Rawlings began the “Letters to The Wall” project, encouraging anyone directly impacted by the war – as a soldier, conscientious objector, antiwar activist, or as a loved one of any of these – to write their personal story.  On Memorial Day 2015, the first batch of 132 letters and 32 postcards were laid at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, all copied beforehand for publication on the Vets for Peace website .  The National Park Service collects these letters left at The Wall and may feature some in its forthcoming educational center. [436]

[1] Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1772-1991 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995), p. 225.

[2] John Tirman, “Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?” Washington Post , January 6, 2012.  See also “Casualties,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History , Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), p. 175; and U. S. National Archives, “Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics,” https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics#category.

[3] Mike Gillespie, “Americans Look Back at Vietnam War,” November 17, 2000, http://www.gallup.com/poll/2299/americans-look-back-vietnam-war.aspx.

[4] Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War from All Sides (New York: Penguin books, 2003), p. 42 (interview).

[5] U Thant, “From Remarks at Luncheon of United Nations Correspondents Association, New York, June 20, 1966,” in Andrew W. Cordier and Max Harrelson, eds., Public Papers of the Secretaries General of the United Nations, U Thant, Volume 7: 1965-1967 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 267.

[6] The United Nations Charter (Article 2, Section 4) states, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state….”  See Fredrik Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam,” Presidential Studies Quarterly , Vol. 34, No. 1 (March 2004); and Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999).

[7] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam.

[8] The historian Henry Steele Commager expressed a similar view in an article in the New York Review of Books , October 1972.  Comparing the U.S. war in Vietnam to the Confederacy’s war to preserve slavery and Germany’s war of aggression in World War II, he wrote, “Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots.”  Cited in Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), p. 177.  Of course, the peace movement’s quest was to prevent the war and stop the war, irrespective of American victory or defeat.

[9] The nature of the American mistakes in Vietnam range from ineffective military strategies (including, from the hawkish side, failure to invade North Vietnam), to inadequate attention to winning Vietnamese hearts and minds, to the identification of Vietnam as a vital strategic interest, to the basic attempt to impose U.S. designs on Vietnam.  See David L. Anderson, “No More Vietnams: Historians Debate the Policy Lessons of the Vietnam War,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, eds., The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); and John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).

[10] Ngo Vinh Long, “Vietnam’s Revolutionary Tradition,” in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove Press, 1995), pp. 19-20.

[11] President Woodrow Wilson, “Address to Congress on International Order,” February 11, 1918, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=110448.

[12] Ho Chi Minh, “The Path Which Led Me to Leninism,” (1960), reprinted in Gettleman, et al., eds., Vietnam and America , p. 22.  Lenin’s thesis was preceded by British Fabian socialist writer John A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (1902).  Hobson hoped to persuade the British public that the “glory” of the empire was actually a burden on the British people.  More generally, the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism was very much part of European politics in the early 20 th century, evident in the growth of the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic party, and French socialist and communist parties.

[13] Ngo Vinh Long, “Vietnam’s Revolutionary Tradition,” pp. 9-10.

[14] “Appeal Made on the Occasion of the Founding of the Indochinese Communist Party,” delivered at Hong Kong, February 18, 1930, Selected Writings of Ho Chi Minh (1920-1969) , online: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/ho-chi-minh/works/1930/02/18.htm.

[15] David G. Marr , Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 308.  See also Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940 (Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2001).

[16] Geoffrey Gunn, “The Great Vietnamese Famine of 1944-45 Revisited,” The Asia-Pacific Journal , Vol. 9, Issue 5, No. 4 (January 24, 2011), http://apjjf.org/2011/9/5/Geoffrey-Gunn/3483/article.html.

[17] Ho’s codename was “Lucius.”  Two accounts of Ho’s brief career as an OSS agent are Charles Fenn, Ho Chi Minh: A Biographical Introduction (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pp. 72-84, and Archimedes Patti, Why Vietnam? Prelude to America’s Albatross (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), pp. 43-136.

[18] Quoted in Mark Philip Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 76-77.  President Roosevelt reiterated this point in October 1944, telling Secretary of State Cordell Hull, “Indo-China should not go back to France.  France has had the country – thirty million inhabitants – for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning. . . . The people of Indo-CHina are entitled to something better than that.”  Quoted in Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam: From World War II through Dienbienphu (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 25.

[19] Charter of the United Nations, Chapter XII, Articles 75 and 76, http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-xii/index.html.

[20] Ho Chi Minh, “Vietnam Declaration of Independence (September 2, 1945),” in Gettleman, et al., eds., Vietnam and America , p. 26.  Henry Prunier had been part of the OSS “Deer Team” that worked with Ho Chi Minh in July 1945.  He arrived in Hanoi with a small group of Americans just after the Declaration was read.  They were welcomed by Ho at the Governor’s Palace and given small gifts.  Ho encouraged them “to come back and see him any time,” according to a later interview with Christian Appy.  He continued: “At one point someone asked him directly if he was a Communist and he said, ‘Yes, I’m a Communist, but there’s no reason why we can’t be friends, why we can’t live together.’”  Appy, Patriots , p. 40.

[21] George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (New York: Dell, 1967), pp. 23, 24; and H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), p. 50.

[22] Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 13.

[23] The agreement stipulated that 3,000 troops would be removed each year beginning in 1947; also that a referendum would be held in Cohinchina, which had previously been a full-fledged French colony rather than a protectorate like Annam and Tonkin, would be part of a reunified Vietnam.  See Gareth Porter , A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1975), p. 3.

[24] Jonathan Schell, The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000), p. 13.

[25] Truong Nhu Tang, A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), pp. 12-13.

[26] Quoted in Hy V. Luong, Tradition, Revolution, and Market Economy in a North Vietnamese Village, 1925-2006 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), p. 140.

[27] Gareth Porter, ed., Vietnam A History in Documents (New York: New American Library, 1981), pp. 38, 39.

[28] Text in Robert M. Blum, “Ho Chi Minh and the United States: 1944-1946,” in The United States and Vietnam, 1944-194 7; a study based on the Pentagon Papers , prepared by the staff of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Study No. 2, p. 10; and “Letter from Ho Chi Minh to President Harry S. Truman, 2/28/1946,” DocsTeach, U.S. National Archives, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/ho-chi-minh-to-truman.

[29] George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam (New York: Dell, 1967), p. 29.  Securing U.S. support for the French reconquest of Vietnam was accomplished in part through the efforts of General Jean-Marie Gabriel de Lattre.  Assisted by U.S. officials in Washington and Saigon, Lattre won American heart and minds by insisting that the French mission was to keep Vietnam out of the hands of communists.  Featured in a cover story in Time on September 24, 1951, the magazine approvingly repeated his message that Korea, Indochina, and Malaya were only “different battles of the same war.”  Mark Philip Bradley and Mary L. Dudziak, eds., Making the Forever War: Marilyn B. Young on the Culture and Politics of American Militarism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), 96.

[30] Porter, ed., Vietnam A History in Documents , pp. 54, 56, 65.

[31] “Truman Doctrine: President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947,” The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp.

[32] In addition to siding with France in Vietnam, the U.S. sided with the colonial Belgian regime against nationalist forces in the Congo.  See Anne Sophie-Gijs, “Fighting the red peril in the Congo: Paradoxes and perspectives on an equivocal challenge to Belgium and the West (1947–1960),” Cold War History , Vol. 16, No. 3 (2016): 273-290.  For an in-depth analysis of the ideological and geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War, see “ Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990 ,” U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide.

[33] Quoted in Marty Jezer, The Dark Ages, Life in the United States, 1945-1960 (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1987), p. 18.

[34] For an excellent analysis of economic motives interwoven in the American quest for hegemonic power in Asia as well as ideological-driven rationales, see Noam Chomsky, At War with Asia: Essays on Indochina (New York: Vintage Books, 1970; republished, Chico, CA: AK Press, 2004).

[35] Howard Jones, Crucible of Power: A History of American Foreign Relations from 1897 (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001, p. 292.  An earlier version of the “domino theory” was written into National Security Council memorandum 64, adopted February 27, 1950, which stated that “the threat of Communist aggression against Indochina is only one phase of anticipated communist plans to seize all of Southeast Asia.”

[36] “NSC-68, 1950,” Office of the Historian, U.S. State Department, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/NSC68 .  Officially titled, “A Report to the National Security Council – NSC 68”, April 12, 1950.

[37] “President Eisenhower’s Remarks on the Importance of Indochina at the Governors’ Conference, August 4, 1953,” the Pentagon Papers , Gravel Edition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), Vol. 1, pp. 591-92.

[38] “Revolutions Make Hard Choices,” The Christian Century (May 24, 1960): 636, in Robert Shaffer, “ The Christian Century : Protestants Protesting Harry Truman’s Cold War,” Peace & Change , Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 2017), p. 104.

[39] See Louis B. Zimmer, The Vietnam War Debate: Hans J. Morgenthau and the Attempt to Halt the Drift into Disaster (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).

[40] Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies , p. 51; and Senator Ernest Gruening and Herbert W. Beaser, Vietnam Folly (Washington, DC: The National Press, Inc., 1968), p. 106.

[41] General Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War, People’s Army (New York: Praeger, 1962), p. 187.

[42] “Indochina – Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet-Nam, July 20, 1954,” The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/inch001.asp.

[43] “Indochina – Statement by the Under Secretary of State at the Concluding Plenary Session of the Geneva Conference, July 21,1954,” The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/inch006.asp.

[44] Fredrik Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2012), p. 554; and The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 1, Ch. 3, “The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954,” pp. 146-178.  The Pentagon Papers were written by 36 professionals from government agencies and think tanks between June 1967 and January 1969.  The study was commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and became known as the “Pentagon Papers” when Daniel Ellsberg leaked parts of the study to the press that were published in June 1971.  The release caused a stir because they revealed how the presidential administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had all misled the public about the nature of the struggle in Vietnam and U.S. involvement.  Officially titled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force”, the Pentagon Papers bound into 47 volumes and contained 3,000 pages of narrative and 4,000 pages of supporting documents, all classified as secret.  The government attempted to block their release, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government had failed to prove harm to national security, and that publication of the papers was justified under the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.

[45] Philippe Devillers and Jean Lacouture, End of a War: Indochina, 1954 (New York: Praeger, 1969), pp. 322-23.

[46] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 1, Document 95, “Lansdale Team’s Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955,” pp. 573-83; and Mark Danner, et. al., “Should the CIA Fight Secret Wars?” Harper’s Magazine , September 1984, http://www.markdanner.com/articles/should-the-cia-fight-secret-wars.

[47] Thak Chaloemtiarana, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2007), p. 157.  Of four independent states in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Thailand joined SEATO, while Burma and Indonesia did not.  Other SEATO members were the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan.  Under the Geneva Agreements, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos could not take part in any international military alliance.

[48] Edwin E. Moise, “Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953-1956,” presented at the 18th Annual Conference on SE Asian Studies, Center for SE Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley (February 2001).  See also Edwin E. Moise, Land Reform in China and North Vietnam (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1983), pp. 205-222.

[49] Appy, Patriots , pp. 49-50. See also Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), Chapter One.

[50] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 1, Ch. 5, “Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960,” p. 299; Jean Lacouture, Vietnam: Between Two Truces (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 79; and Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Harvard University Press, 2013). On “personalism,” see Jessica M. Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca Cornell University Press, 2013), p. 121.

[51] Porter, A Peace Denied , p. 38; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: The White House Years (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 372.

[52] Charles Haynie and John Heckman, The Rebellion Against the Diem Regime, 1957-58 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Ad-Hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam, 1965), p, 21.

[53] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. I, pp. 298, 266.

[54] Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams (New York: Praeger, 1963), p. 257.

[55] Hans Morgenthau, “Vietnam Chief a Multi-Paradox,” Washington Post , February 26, 1956.

[56] Joseph A. Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled , (New York: Praeger, 1967), Vol. 2, pp. 976-77.  Buttinger was born in Bavaria and became a leader in the anti-Nazi movement in Austria.  He fled to Paris in 1938, then immigrated to the United States, where he helped found the International Rescue Committee and the Friends of Vietnam.  He became a friend and supporter of Ngo Dinh Diem, but became disillusioned with Diem’s repressive policies and denounced him.  A self-taught expert on Southeast Asia, Buttinger’s writings were sought out as the U.S. became more involved in Vietnam.  His two-volume study, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled , was hailed by the New York Times as “the most thorough, informative and, over all, the most impressive book on Vietnam yet published in America.”

[57] Gabriel Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a War, 1940–1975 (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985), p. 89; the Pentagon Papers , Vol. I, p. 255; and Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), pp. 144-147.

[58] Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 67.

[59] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 1, pp. 242-69.  Hanoi also appealed to the co-chairs of the Geneva conference, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, on numerous occasions, asking that the Geneva conference be reconvened to deal with Diem’s obstinacy.

[60] Lacouture, Vietnam: Between Two Truces , pp. 28-29.

[61] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. I, pp. 256-57.  See also Jessica M. Chapman , Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

[62] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. I, pp. 254-55.

[63] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. I, p. 252.

[64] “The Legal Underpinnings of Government Terror in South Vietnam: Law 10/59,” in Gettleman, et al., eds., Vietnam and America , pp. 156-60.

[65] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 1, Ch. 5, “Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960,” pp. 314-346.

[66] David Hotham, “General Considerations of American Programs,” in Richard Lindholm, ed., Vietnam: The First Five Years (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1959), p. 347.

[67] “Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Conference on Vietnam Luncheon in the hotel Willard, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1956,” https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/JFK-Speeches/Vietnam-Conference-Washington-DC_19560601.aspx ; U.S. Congress, Senate, “Background Information Related to Southeast Asia and Vietnam,” 89th Congress, 1st session (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1965), p. 73; and Clarence R. Wyatt, Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 63-65.

[68] See Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, MJ: Wiley & Sons, 2008); Malcolm Byrne, ed., “The Secret CIA History of the Iran Coup, 1953,” National Security Arhive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB28; and Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[69] Porter, A Peace Denied , p. 11; and Lacouture, Vietnam: Between Two Truces , p. 176.

[70] Young, The Vietnam Wars , pp. 69-72.

[71] Haynie and Heckman, The Rebellion Against the Diem Regime, 1957-58 , p. 28. To read the complete Caravelle Manifesto, see “United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense/IV. A. 5. 2. Rebellion Against My-Diem,” en.wikisource.org/wiki/United_States_-_Vietnam_Relations,_1945-1967:_A_Study_Prepared_by_the_Department_of_Defense.

[72] Gareth Porter, Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions (E. M. Coleman Enterprises, 1979 ), Vol. 2, pp. 86-89.

[73] “Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy, Washington, D.C., January 20, 1961,” Presidential Library, https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/JFK-Quotations/Inaugural-Address.aspx.

[74] Edwin E. Moise, “JFK and the Myth of Withdrawal,” in Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 166.

[75] William Conrad Gibbons , The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part II (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 42, 43.

[76] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 2, pp. 88-92.

[77] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 29.

[78] James W. Trullinger, Jr., Village at War: An Account of Revolution in Vietnam (New York: Longman, 1980), p. 91.

[79] David Marr, “The Rise and Fall of Counterinsurgency, 1961-1964,” in Gettleman et al., eds. Vietnam and America , pp. 206-207.

[80] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 2, p. 164.

[81] See the Pentagon Papers , Vol. 2, pp. 128-159, and Vol. 1, p. 130; and Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams , pp. 377-80.  U.S. planners also appeared to neglect the historical lesson of the American “reconcentration” program in the Philippines at the turn of the 20 th century.

[82] Cheng Guan Ang, Vietnamese Communists’ Relations with China and the Second Indochina Conflict, 1956-1962 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1997), p. 229.

[83] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 2, pp. 722-23.

[84] Robert K. Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), pp. 7, 12.

[85] CBS interview with Paul Kattenburg, February 16, 1979, in Gibbons , The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War , p. 161.

[86] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 3.

[87] Commencement Address at American University, June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BWC7I4C9QUmLG9J6I8oy8w.aspx.

[88] Logevall, Choosing War , p. xx.  Thirty-seven years prior to Logevall’s account, Gareth Porter, in A Peace Denied , pp. 18-20, documented this development, noting that in September 1963, Diem and Nhu had reached a definitive agreement with the North through the Polish intermediary Mieczyslaw Maneli and that negotiations were to be completed in New Dehli in November, thus adding further motive for the U.S.-approved assassinations.

[89] Ibid., pp. 40-41.

[90] Max Paul Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 176-77. See also, Sean J. McLaughlin, “De Gaulle’s Peace Program for Vietnam: The Kennedy Years,” Peace & Change , Vol. 36, No. 2 (April 2011): 218-61.

[91] Friedman, Rethinking Anti-Americanism , pp. 176-77.

[92] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 38.

[93] Robert Mann, in A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), expresses a similar view, writing “that millions of deaths might have been averted had the American people and their leaders opened their eyes to the delusions leading them progressively deeper into the morass of Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s – a national crusade undertaken to defeat an enemy that had once been our ally and that had originally wanted nothing more than independence from brutal colonial rule.  From beginning to end, America’s political, military, and diplomatic leaders deluded themselves, accepting a series of myths and illusions about Vietnam that exacerbated and deepened the ultimate catastrophe.” (p. 2)

[94] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 77.

[95] Ibid., pp. 89, 80.

[96] Ibid., p. 91.

[97] Ibid., p. 108.

[98] MACVSOG OPLAN 34A (declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act), https://www.scribd.com/collections/2747731/MACVSOG-OPLAN-34A-FOIA.

[99] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 121.

[100] Logevall, Choosing War , pp. 124, 150.

[101] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 2, pp. 459-461; and Logevall, Choosing War , p. 367.

[102] The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships , Prepared for the Committee on Foreign relations, U.S. Senate, April 1984, by William Conrad Gibbons, Part II, p. 224; and Ernest Gruening, March 10, 1964, in Congressional Record , 88 th Congress, 2 nd session, p. 4835.  On July 9, 1964, Senator Wayne Morse spoke on the Vietnam War and entered into the Congressional Record some 280 letters he had received from U.S. citizens along with a dozen newspaper articles, all challenging the Johnson’s administration war policies in Vietnam.  Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 88th Congress, Second Session , Vol. 112, Part 12, June 19, 1964, to July 21, 1964, pp. 16206-16237 (online).

[103] CBS Reports: “Vietnam: The Deadly Decision,” transcript of broadcast, April 1, 1964.

[104] Logevall, Choosing War , p. 91.

[105] National Security Action Memorandum No. 308, June 22, 1964, https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsam-lbj/nsam-308.htm.

[106] Lt. Commander Pat Paterson, U.S. Navy, “The Truth About Tonkin,” Naval History Magazine , Vol. 22, No. 1 (February 2008), http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin.

[107] Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War , Vol. 2, p. 293.

[108] “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 1964,” Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/tonkin-g.asp .  See also Peter Dale Scott, The War Conspiracy: JFK, 9/11, and the Deep Politics of War (New York: Skyhorse, 2003); and Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: Univ. of N. Carolina press, 2000).

[109] Michael R. Beschloss, Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), pp. 493 – 496.

[110] “The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 1964,” Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/tonkin-g.asp.

[111] Mann, A Grand Delusion , pp. 359-60.

[112] Gibbons, The U.S. Government and the Vietnam War , Vol. 2, pp. 326, 327, 334.

[113] “Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, 1964,” http://www.authentichistory.com/1961-1974/4-vietnam/1-overview/4-1964-1968/19640800_Senator_Wayne_Morse_on_Gulf_of_Tonkin_Resolution.html

[114] Mitchell Lerner, “Vietnam and the 1964 Election: A Defense of Lyndon Johnson,” Presidential Studies Quarterly , Vol. 25, No. 4 (Fall, 1995), p. 760.

[115] CIA Special National Intelligence Estimate 53-64, September 8, 1964, pp. 2-3, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0001166415.pdf.

[116] Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam,” p. 103.

[117] Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 127.  See also Mark White, “Going to War in Vietnam: George Ball’s Dissent in the 1960s,” American Diplomacy website, http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2007/0406/whit/white_ball.html.

[118] “Rationale for Escalation: The US Government ‘White Paper’ of 1965,” in Gettleman, et al., eds., Vietnam and America, p. 256; and  I. F. Stone’s Weekly, March 8, 1965, p. 4,   http://www.ifstone.org/weekly/IFStonesWeekly-1965mar08.pdf.

[119] Quoted in George McTurnan Kahin, “Bureaucracy’s Call for U.S. Ground Troops,” in Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1990), p. 233.

[120] Logevall, Choosing War , pp. 360-61, 349-50.

[121] Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990 , p. 129.

[122] Logevall, Choosing War , pp. 378-79.

[123] Logevall, Choosing War , pp. 165-166; and the Pentagon Papers , Vol. III, pp. 418-19.  Although Ambassador Taylor warned against U.S. troop deployments, he sought an increase in the bombing of North Vietnam in order “to convince Hanoi authorities they faced prospect of progressively severe punishment.”  George McTurnan Kahin, “Bureaucracy’s Call for U.S. Ground Troops,” in Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1990), p. 235.

[124] James C. Thomson, Jr., “An Autopsy of the Bureaucracy,” p. 222, 220, 224; and Kahin, “Bureaucracy’s Call for U.S. Ground Troops,” pp. 217-42.

[125] Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 30.

[126] Logevall, “Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam,” p. 103; and Air Force Association, The Air Force in the Vietnam War (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 5.

[127] Kahin, “Bureaucracy’s Call for U.S. Ground Troops,” pp. 234-35.

[128] The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration began with the Presidential inaugural event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, and concludes on Veterans Day, November 11, 2025; see http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/about.

[129] “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” (Paris, 27 January 1973), http://www.cvce.eu/content/publication/2001/10/12/656ccc0d-31ef-42a6-a3e9-ce5ee7d4fc80/publishable_en.pdf.

[130] John W. Garver, “The Chinese Threat in the Vietnam War,” Parameters, 22 (Spring 1992), p. 84.

[131] George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), pp.153-54; also, Philip Caputo, Rumor of War (New York, 1977), p. xviii.

[132] See “ The War of 1898 and the U.S.-Filipino War, 1899-1902 ,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, https://peacehistory-usfp.org/1898-1899.

[133] Stanford Biology Study Group, “The Destruction of Indochina,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , May 1971, p. 36.

[134] Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1972), p. 368.

[135] Herring, America’s Longest War , p. 155.

[136] “Interesting Statistics of the Vietnam War,” 1 st Battalion, 12 th Infantry Regiment website, http://www.redwarriors.us/NEWS_Statistics.htm ; Olga Gruhzit-Hoyt, A Time Remembered: American Women in the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1999), p. xi; and David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (Chicago: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975), p. 264.

[137] FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake , p. 274; and Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003), p. 229.

[138] FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake , pp. 276-338.

[139] Jeff Drake, “How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam,” http://www.vietvet.org/jeffviet.htm .  For an informative study on ARVN, see Robert K. Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death in the South Vietnamese Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006).

[140] Appy, Patriots , p. 18.

[141] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. IV. C. 11. “The United States Re-Emphasizes Pacification – 1965 to Present, An Examination of a Major Trend in our Effort.”  This summary report focused almost exclusively on organization and agency relationships to the exclusion of program results, noting only that Washington’s demands exceeded realistic possibilities.

[142] Sargent-Major Herbert A. Friedman, “Psyop of the Strategic Hamlet in Vietnam,” http://www.psywarrior.com/VNHamletPSYOP.html.

[143] Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990 , p. 343; and John C. McManus, Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq (New York: New American Library, 2010), p. 210.

[144] R. Michael Pearce, “Evolution of a Vietnamese Village – Part II: Duc Lap Since November 1964 and Some Comments on Village Pacification,” RAND, February 1967, p. 3, cited in Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 147-48.

[145] FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake , p. 161.

[146] Neil Shannon, Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 6.

[147] Ibid., pp. 508-18.

[148] See Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).

[149] Alfred W. McCoy, “Imperial Hubris: Information Infrastructure and America’s Ascent to Global Power,” pp. 18-19, https://archive.org/stream/Imperial-Hubris-Alfred-W-McCoy/McCoy_Definitivo_djvu.txt.

[150] Colby recounts his testimony in Andrew J. Rotter, Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War Anthology (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), p. 153. See also Kathy Kadane, “U.S. Had Role In Massacre Of 250,000, Ex-Diplomats Say,” The Seattle Times , May 20, 1990.

[151] See Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam (New York: William & Morrow, 1991); and Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991).

[152] Valentine, The Phoenix Program , p. 13.

[153] Stathis N. Kalyves and Matthew Adam Kocher, “How ‘Free’ is Free Riding in Civil Wars?  Violence, Insurgency, and the Collective Action Problem,” World Politics , 59, 2 (January 2007), 201; and Ralph W. McGehee, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA (New York: Sheridan Square Publications, 1983), 156.

[154] James P. Sterba, “The Controversial Operation Phoenix: How It Roots Out Vietcong Suspects,” New York Times , February 18, 1970; and Mark Moyar, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: Counterinsurgency and Counterterrorism in Vietnam (Lincoln: University of Nebraska press, 1997), p. 236.  In spite of the Phoenix Program’s notoriety, it has several defenders, including Mark Moyar and Dale Andrade. Both of these historians argue that critics have misrepresented the program and that Phoenix seriously impacted the VCI in the countryside.

[155] McCoy, “Imperial Hubris”; interview with anonymous Phoenix veteran by Jeremy Kuzmarov; and Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007).

[156] “Military Intelligence and the Phoenix Program,” Statement of K. Barton Osborn, Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, 92 nd Congress, 1 st session, July 15-Aug. 2, 1971; Frank Snepp, Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam , rev. ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), pp. 31, 38; Frank Browning and Dorothy Forman, eds., The Wasted Nations: Report of the International Commission of Enquiry into United States Crimes in Indochina, June 20-25, 1971 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 203; Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), p. 65; and Gordon Thomas, Secrets and Lies: A History of CIA Torture and Bio-Weapon Experiments (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2007).  According to the New York Times , Dr. Sidney Gottlieb “developed a poison handkerchief to kill an Iraqi colonel, an array of toxic gifts to be delivered to Fidel Castro, and a poison dart to kill a leftist leader in the Congo,” and also conducted LSD experiments on unsuspecting American soldiers; Tim Weiner, “Sidney Gottlieb, 80, Dies; Took LSD to C.I.A.,” New York Times , March 10, 1999.

[157] Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression ; and John Stockwell , The Praetorian Guard: The U.S. Role in the New World Order (Boston: South End Press, 1991), p. 47.

[158] Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression ; Iver Peterson, “Vietnam: This Phoenix Is a Bird of Death,” New York Times , July 25, 1971; Alfred W. McCoy, “Torture in the Crucible of Counterinsurgency,” in Marilyn B. Young and Lloyd C. Gardner, eds., Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past (New York: New Press, 2007), p. 241; Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 1973), pp. 92, 93; and Valentine, The Phoenix Program , p. 61 .

[159] David Donovan, Once a Warrior-King: Memories of an Officer in Vietnam (New York: McGraw Hill, 1985)l interview with anonymous Phoenix veteran by Jeremy Kuzmarov; and interview with Michael Uhl, Phoenix veteran, by Jeremy Kuzmarov, December 22, 2016.

[160] Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression ; Don Bordenkircher, Tiger Cage: An Untold Story , as told to Shirley Bordenkircher (West Virginia: Abbey Publishing, 1998); Fred Branfman, Unpublished Memoir, p. 436.

[161] Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression , chapter 7; Bordenkircher, Tiger Cage , p. 199; Doris Longacre and Max Ediger, Release Us From Bondage: Six Days in a Vietnamese Prison ed (Akron, PA.: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, July 1974), pp. 7, 9-10; and Fred Branfman, “Vietnam: The POWs We Left Behind,” Ramparts (December 1973), p. 14; Holmes Brown and Don Luce, Hostages of War: Saigon’s Political Prisoners (Washington DC: Indochina Mobile Education Project, 1973); and Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy Toward Latin America (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 181.  Don Luce, fluent in Vietnamese, served as director of International Voluntary Services in Vietnam.  In 1967, he and three other senior staff members resigned in protest, issuing a widely published five-page letter to President Lyndon Johnson that openly criticized the U.S. war strategy.  “We are finding it increasingly difficult to quietly pursue our main objective: helping the people of Vietnam,” the letter stated. “Because American understanding of the [Vietnamese] people has been so limited, the tactics devised to assist them have been either ineffective or counterproductive.  They have served to create more Vietcong than they have destroyed.”  Seth Mydans, “Don Luce, Activist Who Helped End the Vietnam War, Dies at 88,” New York Times , December 6, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/06/world/asia/don-luce-dead.html?.

[162] Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), “A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations: The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-1970, CIA Library, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol51no2/a-retrospective-on-counterinsurgency-operations.html.

[163] Rotter, Light at the End of the Tunnel , p. 154.  See also Randall B. Woods, Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[164] “Operation R.A.W., Viet vet march stirs thought,” GI Press Service (New York, NY), Vol. II, No. 9, September 21, 1970, p. 3; and “Operation RAW,” http://vvawai.org/archive/sw/sw31/pgs_35-44/operation_raw.html.  See also Gerald Nicosia, Home to War (New York: Crown Publisher, 2001), p. 56.

[165] Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), p. 51.

[166] George C. Herring, “The War That Never Seems to Go Away,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, eds., That War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), p. 338.

[167] “Types of Engagements in Combat Narratives, “The Pentagon Papers, vol. 4, pp. 461-62.  For an overview of U.S. Army campaigns during the whole war, see “U.S. Army Campaigns: Vietnam,” http://www.history.army.mil/html/reference/army_flag/vn.html.

[168] Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 , pp. 143-44.

[169] Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , pp. 58, 90, 91; and David Hunt, Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), p. 162.

[170] Citizens Commission of Inquiry, ed., The Dellums Committee Hearings on War Crimes in Vietnam: An Inquiry into Command Responsibility in Southeast Asia (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 174.

[171] Heonik Kwon, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2006), p. 31; and Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , especially chapters 1-5.

[172] Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend — My Lai,” Consortium News , 1996, http://www.consortiumnews.com/archive/colin3.html.

[173] Joseph Galloway, “Ia Drang – The battle That Convinced Ho Chi Minh He Could Win,” Vietnam Magazine , October 18, 2016, http://www.historynet.com/ia-drang-where-battlefield-losses-convinced-ho-giap-and-mcnamara-the-u-s-could-never-win.htm .  McNamara’s memo is dated November 30, 1965.  For a riveting account of the battle, see Michael Herr, Dispatches ((New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).

[174] Peter Brush, “Operation Niagara: Siege of Khe Sanh,” Vietnam Magazine , reprinted, http://www.historynet.com/operation-niagara-siege-of-khe-sanh.htm.

[175] Jake Blood, The Tet Effect: Intelligence and the Public Perception of War (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 40.

[176] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy and His Times , Volume 2 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978), p. 843.

[177] Herring, America’s Longest War , p. 204; Mann, A Grand Delusion , p. 595; and President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks on Decision not to Seek Re-Election (March 31, 1968),” http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3388.

[178] Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 220; John Paul Vann, letter to Roger Darling, May 14, 1968, Neil Sheehan Papers, quoted in Turse, Kill Anything That Move s, p. 105; and Philip Jones Griffiths, Vietnam Inc. (New York: Macmillan, 1971), cited in Young, The Vietnam Wars , p 219.

[179] “Major Describes Move,” New York Times, February 8, 1968.

[180] Gareth Porter, “Little Evidence of 1968 Tet Massacre in Hue” (letter to editor), New York Times , October 29, 1987.

[181] Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 219; Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, rev. ed., 1997), p. 544.  See also Scott Laderman, Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 94.  Laderman’s doctoral thesis is online:  “’They Set About Revenging Themselves on the Population’: The ‘Hue Massacre,’ Travel Guidebooks, and the Shaping of Historical Consciousness in Vietnam,” (University of Minnesota, 2002), http://cmsw.mit.edu/mit2/Abstracts/ScottLaderman.pdf .

[182] Laderman, Tours of Vietnam , p. 106.

[183] James H. Willbanks, “Tet – What Really Happened at Hue,” January 25, 2011, http://www.historynet.com/tet-what-really-happened-at-hue.htm .  Willbanks notes that Gareth Porter challenged Pike’s allegation of an NLF-NVA massacre in the June 24, 1974 issue of Indochina Chronicle , calling it a manufactured story promoted by U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and one of the “enduring myths of the Second Indochina War.”   Laderman, in Tours of Vietnam (p. 213), furthermore notes that Senator George McGovern entered Porter’s study of the “Hue Massacre” in the Congressional Record in February 1975 and urged members of Congress to “look behind the hysterical misrepresentations of history” presented by the administration.

[184] “The Villagers of My Lai,” http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/myl_bvillagers.htm ; Robert Jay Lifton, Home from the war: Vietnam Veterans, Neither Victims nor Executioners (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), pp. 17-18, 58; “Hugh Thompson, 62, Who Saved Civilians at My Lai, Dies,” New York Times , Jan. 7, 2006; and Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993), p. 275.

[185] David Corn, “Colin Powell’s Vietnam Fog,” The Nation , May 14, 2001, https://www.thenation.com/article/colin-powells-vietnam-fog.

[186] Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , p. 228.

[187] Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , p. 223.  Brown is quoted in Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1990), p. 195.

[188] The Peers Inquiry report, Dept. of the Army, March 14, 1970, notes “a number of Vietnamese sources alleged that on 16 march 1968 approximately 80-90 noncombatants, including women and children, were killed by US soldiers in My Hoi subhamlet of Co Luy Hamlet, a coastal area of Son My village shown on US maps as ‘My Khe’” (page 7-1).  Yet no serious investigation took place and no charges were filed.  See the full report at https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/ll/llmlp/RDAR-Vol-I/RDAR-Vol-I.pdf.  In 2001, Nick Turse, a graduate student researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, came upon the secret records of the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and later published his account of the records in Kill Anything That Moves (2013).

[189] Frank Baldwin and Diane and Michael Jones, America’s Rented Troops: South Koreans in Vietnam (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1973), cited in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman , The Political Economy of Human Rights 1: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 321.

[190] Paul Alexander, “Villagers recall S. Korean atrocities in Viet War; Troops massacred 1,600 civilians in all, survivors say,” Associated Press, April 9, 2000.  See also Heonik Kwon, “Anatomy of US and South Korean Massacres in the Vietnamese Year of the Monkey, 1968,” The Asia-Pacific Journal , Vol. 5, Issue 6, June 4, 2007, http://apjjf.org/-Heonik-Kwon/2451/article.html; and Choe Sang-Hun, “Vietnam War Victims Say South Korea Still Owes Them Answers,” New York Times , August 22, 2021.

[191] Robert Mackey, “An Apology for My Lai, Four Decades Later,” New York Times , August 24, 2009, https://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/an-apology-for-my-lai-four-decades-later/?_r=0.

[192] Robert Mackey, “An Apology for My Lai, Four Decades Later,” New York Times , August 24, 2009, https://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/an-apology-for-my-lai-four-decades-later/?_r=0.

[193] J. Edward Lee, H.C. “Toby” Haynsworth, Nixon, Ford and the Abandonment of South Vietnam (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002), p. 20; and Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 236.

[194] Amy Belasco, “Congressional Restrictions on U.S. Military Operations in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Somalia, and Kosovo: Funding and Non-Funding Approaches,” CRS Report for Congress, January 16, 2007, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33803.pdf .

[195] “1971 – Laotian Incursion / LAM SON 719,” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/vietnam2-laos.htm ; and Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , p. 39.

[196] Michael Mace in Michael Takiff, Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam (New York: Morrow, 2003), p. 157, cited in Lt. Col. Gregory A. Daddis, “No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War” (dissertation, Univ. of North Carolina, 2009), p. 310.

[197] Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 31.

[198] “The U.S. Army in Vietnam from Tet to the Final Withdrawal, 1968-1975,” U.S. Army Center of Military History, p. 349, http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH-V2/AMH%20V2/chapter11.htm.

[199] Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal (June 7, 1971), https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/Vietnam/heinl.html#0.

[200] DePuy is quoted in Bernd Greiner, War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 55.  Westmoreland is quoted in Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 73.

[201] Michael Clodfelter, Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1772-1991 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1995), p. 225.

[202] These corporations had bankrolled President Johnson’s political career and “billed the government for so much concrete,” a congressional audit concluded, “they could have put a concrete skin eight feet deep over the entire country of Vietnam.”  Sally Denton, The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 82; and James Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[203] Richard Barnet, The Economy of Death (New York: Atheneum, 1969); Jeff Sharlett, “Manipulation of Men for a War Economy,” Science for the People Newsletter , Vol III, No. 3, July 1971, pp. 7, 8; and Barbara Barksdale Clowse, Brainpower for the Cold War: The Sputnik Crisis and the National Defense Act of 1958 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1981).

[204] “Interview with Leonard Sullivan, May 4, 1999, Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, http://history.defense.gov/Portals/70/Documents/oral_history/OH_Trans_SullivanLeonard5-4-1999.pdf ; Alfred W. McCoy, “Imperial Illusions: Information Infrastructure and the Future of U.S. Global Power,” in Alfred W. McCoy, Josep M. Fradera, and Stephen Jacobson, eds., Endless Empire: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, America’s Decline (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012); James W. Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam , rev ed. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000); Sarah Bridger, Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), p. 146; and Thomas Mahnken, Technology and the American Way of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[205] Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite (New York: Penguin, 2007), p. 72; Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 41; Eric Prokosch, The Technology of Killing: A Military and Political History of Antipersonnel Weapons (London: Zed Books, 1995), pp. 109, 110; and Gregg Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising From the Atomic Bomb to SDI (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 154.

[206] Stephen P. Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir : An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and its Aftermath (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), p. 204; Martin Van Crevald, The Age of Airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), p. 366; Mickey Grant, “The Cu Chi Tunnels (59-minute documentary film, 1990), http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-cu-chi-tunnels ; Jonathan Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War (New York: The New Press, 2003), pp. 99-100; and Stephen Budiansky, Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p. 259.

[207] Karen G. Turner, “Vietnam” as a Woman’s War,” in Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (UK: Blackwell, 2004), p. 97; and Sandra Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999).

[208] Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (New York: 2007), p. 247; George W. Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of Intelligence Failure in Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001); Michael Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (London: The Free Press, 1989), 134; and Barry Miller, “Litton Develops Fighter Air Data Systems,” Aviation Week , September 19, 1960, p. 95.

[209] John W. Garver, “The Chinese Threat in the Vietnam War,” Parameters , 22 (Spring 1992), p. 76.

[210] Cited in Appy, American Reckoning , p. 162.

[211] Harrison Salisbury, Behind the Lines: Hanoi December 23-January 7 (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 100; Harrison Salisbury, “No Military Targets, Namdinh Insists,” New York Times , December 31, 1966, p. 3; Browning and Forman, eds., The Wasted Nations , p. 91; John Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence: Proceedings of the Russell International War Crimes Tribunal (New York: O’Hare Books, 1968); and Christina Schwenkel, “Architecture and Dwelling in the War of Destruction in Vietnam,” in J.M. Mancini and Keith Bresnahan, eds., Architecture and Armed Conflict: The Politics of Destruction (New York: Routeledge, 2007), p. 11.

[212] “The Bombing of Dai Lai, Testimony of Gerard Chaliand,” in Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence , pp. 274-280; and David Dellinger, “North Vietnam: Eyewitness Report” Liberation , December 1966, pp. 3-15.

[213] Neale, A People’s History of the Vietnam War ; and Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam North (New York: International Publishers, 1966), p. 13. In an all-too typical incident, American bombers destroyed a leprosorium in Quinh Lap in April 1967, causing 120 deaths and over 1,00 wounded. When some of the lepers fled to nearby caves, the caves were mercilessly bombed through the month of June, killing well over a dozen more.

[214] Van Crevald , The Age of Air Power , p. 389; and James P. Stevenson, The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993), p. 293.

[215] Thomas Johnson, American Cryptology during the Cold War, 1945-1989 : Book II, part II, p. 56, available at National Security Archive, George Washington University; Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), p. 143; and Appy, Patriots , p. 214.

[216] The Pentagon Papers , Vol. 4, Ch. 1, “The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968,” pp. 1-276, Summary and Conclusions, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon4/pent3.htm.

[217] Ibid.

[218] Chomsky, At War with Asia , p. 298; and Townsend Hoopes, The Limits of Intervention (New York: David McKay & Co., 1969), pp. 64, 79, 128-129.  See also Richard Drinnon, Facing West: On the Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

[219] H. R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), p. 122.

[220] James E. Hickey, Precision-guided Munitions and Human Suffering in War (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 79-89; Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons, pp. 124, 305; John Gliedman, Terror from the Sky: North Vietnam’s Dikes and the U.S. Bombing (Cambridge, MA: Vietnam Resource Center, 1972); Herring, America’s Longest War , p. 248; and Andrew Cockburn, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech Assassins (New York: Henry Holt, 2015), p. 30.

[221] James P. Harrison,” History’s Heaviest Bombing,” in Werner and Huynh, The Vietnam War , p. 130.

[222] Quoted in Howard Zinn, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967, pp. 51-59.

[223] Barry Weisberg, ed., Ecocide in Indochina: The Ecology of War (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1970, p. 8; and Browning and Forman, eds., The Wasted Nations , p. 181.

[224] Tang, A Vietcong Memoir , pp. 167, 170.

[225] Jonathan Schell, “The Village of Ben Suc” (1968), in The Real War: The Classic Reporting on the Vietnam War with a New Essay (New York: Da Capo Press, 2000) p. 188.

[226] Turse, Kill Anything That Move s, p. 256, 212; John Paul Vann, letter to Roger Darling, May 14, 1968, Neil Sheehan Papers, quoted in Turse, p. 105; and Brian Willson, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson (Oakland: PM Press, 2011), p. 48.

[227] Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , p. 253. See “Pacification’s Deadly Price,” Newsweek , June 19, 1972, http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/Vietnam/buckley.html.

[228] Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves , p. 81.

[229] Young, The Vietnam Wars, p. 177; Eric Norden, “American Atrocities in Vietnam,” in Richard Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds., Crimes of War   (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), pp. 265-284; Herr, Dispatches ; and Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drugs Trade , rev ed. (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991).

[230] Fulbright is quoted in FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake , p. 351.  Bernard B. Fall, “This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain,” in A Vietnam Primer, published by the editors of Ramparts Magazine (San Francisco: 1967).

[231] Robert M. Neer, Napalm: An American Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 126-127, 256; E. F. Bullene, “It’s Not New but Napalm is an All-Purpose WONDER WEAPON,” United States Army Combat Forces Journal (November 1952), pp. 25-26; William F. Pepper, “The Children of Vietnam,” Ramparts , 5, 7 (January 1967), pp. 46, 55, 58, 59, 60; and David J. Garrow, “When Dr. King Came Out Against Vietnam,” New York Times , April 4, 2017, p. A25.

[232] Appy, American Reckoning , p. 54.

[233] David Dellinger, “North Vietnam: Eyewitness Report” Liberation , December 1966, 3-15. See also Prokosch, The Technology of Killing ; Finkbeiner, The Jasons . “Weapons for Counterinsurgency: Chemical/Biological; Antipersonnel Incendiary,” National Association for Research into the Military Industrial Complex (NARMIC); and “Who are the Mad Bombers,” Science for the People , December 1970, p. 37.

[234] Quoted in Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 238.  The worker was Jim Kain, described as a clean shaven twenty-two-year-old graduate student from Alabama. His colleague William McFarland, 29, said he didn’t regard his work on military weapons as “evil. I think the American government is composed of rational men who do not sit around all day thinking of ways to kill people.” See also Jon Nordheimer, “Protests Disturb Lab Men at M.I.T.,” New York Times , November 9, 1969.

[235] Neer, Napalm , p. 138.  See also Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

[236] See Greiner, War Without Fronts ; Deborah Nelson, The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009); and Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence , which includes testimony by international legal experts at the Stockholm (Sweden) War Crimes Trials sponsored by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1968.  Russell, the 94-year-old philosopher who convened the hearings and whose antiwar activism extended back to World War I, wrote in the introduction: “war crimes are the actions of powers whose arrogance leads them to believe that they are above the law. Might they argue is right.” (Duffet, p. 4).

[237] American Red Cross, “Summary of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Their Additional Protocols,” https://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m3640104_IHL_SummaryGenevaConv.pdf.

[238] Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield , p. 208.

[239] Cockburn, Kill Chain , p. 23.

[240] See H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Super-Weapon and the American Imagination (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, rev ed., 2008); and Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1999).

[241] Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell, “Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos,” Critical Asian Studies 41:2 (2009), http://legaciesofwar.org/resources/books-documents/legacies-of-war-cluster-bombs-in-laos.

[242] Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015), pp. 63, 68.

[243] Calum MacLeod, “Fifty years later, U.S., Vietnam deals with Agent Orange ,” USA TODAY , Nov. 7, 2012.

[244] Tom Fawthrop, “Vietnam’s war against Agent Orange,” BBC News, June 14, 2004 (special report from the Cu Chi district, Vietnam), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3798581.stm.

[245] Jeanne Stelmann et al. “The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and Other Herbicides in Vietnam,” Nature , 422 (April 2003), 681-687.

[246] Major William A. Buckingham Jr. “Operation Ranch Hand: Herbicides in Southeast Asia,” Air University Review , July-August 1983, 3, http:www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/airchronicles/aureview/1983/jul-aug/Buckingham.html.

[247] Fred Wilcox, Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), pp. 4, 51; Fred Wilcox, Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011); “Effects of Chemical Warfare in South Vietnam,” in Frank Browning and Dorothy Forman, eds., The Wasted Nations: Report of the International Commission of Enquiry Into United States Crimes in Indochina (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 117; and Duffet, ed., Against the Crime of Silence , p. 335.

[248] Quoted in Wilcox, Waiting for an Army to Die , p. 54.

[249] Jeanne Mager Stellman, Steven D. Stellman, Richard Christian, Tracy Weber, and Carrie Tomasallo, “The extent and patterns of usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam,” Nature 422, (2003), pp. 681-687, https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01537; Weisberg, ed., Ecocide in Indochina ; and Wilcox, Scorched Earth , p. 19.

[250] “A Report on Herbicide Damage to Rubber and Fruit trees,” June 2, 1969, by Charles A. Minarik, Jack B. Shumate, Nadir G. Vakili, Fred T. Schirley, RG 472, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Military History, box 197, National Archives, College Park Maryland.

[251] Edwin A. Martini, “Hearts, Minds, and Herbicides: The Politics of the Chemical War in Vietnam,” Diplomatic History , Vol. 37, No. 1 (2013), p. 62.

[252] Ibid., pp. 65, 67.

[253] Ibid., pp. 75-76; and Anthony J. Russo, A Statistical Analysis of the U.S. Crop Spraying Program in South Vietnam (RAND, October 1967); Buckingham Jr. “Operation Ranch Hand.”

[254] Stanford Biology Study Group, “The Destruction of Indochina,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , May 1971, p. 36.

[255] Institute of Medicine (US) Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides. Veterans and Agent Orange: Health Effects of Herbicides Used in Vietnam (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 1994), section 3, “The U.S. Military and the Herbicide Program in Vietnam,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK236347.

[256] Masako Sakata, Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem (2003); Wilcox, Scorched Earth . Sakata’s film is a tribute to her husband, a Time Magazine photo-journalist with whom she travelled to Vietnam while Davis was himself dying of liver cancer caused likely by his exposure to the herbicide.

[257] Wilcox, Scorched Earth , 169-180.

[258] Wilcox, Waiting for an Army to Die ; and Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign , GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War – Agent Orange and Atomic Radiation (Playboy Press, 1980).

[259] Wilcox, Scorched Earth , 85-105; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange#U.S._veterans_class_action_lawsuit_against_manufacturers.

[260] Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 182.

[261] See Bernard J. Firestone, “Failed Mediation: U Thant, the Johnson Administration, and the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History , Vol. 37, No. 5 (November 2013): 1060-1089.

[262] See James G. Hershberg, Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam (Chicago: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[263] Porter, A Peace Denied , p. 29.

[264] Nixon’s secret plot was confirmed in recently discovered documents; see Peter Baker, “Nixon Sought ‘Monkey Wrench’ in Vietnam Talks,” New York Times , January 3, 2017.  On Kissinger’s role in subverting the peace talks for the sake of his own career advancement, see Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York: Touchstone, 1984).

[265] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 222; and “G.O.P. War Stand Is Backed in Poll; Gallup Finds 66% in Favor of ‘de-Americanization,’” New York Times , August 11, 1968.

[266] Mann, A Grand Delusion , p. 636; and Text of Ho Chi Minh’s will, as it was released in 1969, is reprinted in Gettleman, et al., Vietnam and America , pp. 440-41.

[267] George Kahin, unpublished paper, November 1988, p. 6, cited in Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 264.  George and Audrey Kain were in Hanoi at the behest of Senator J. William Fulbright who wanted to clarify the Vietnamese position on negotiations. Ellsworth quoted in David F. Schmitz, Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Centur y (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), p. 118.

[268] “Nixon, Kissinger, and the ‘Decent Interval’,” Miller Center (White House audio recording), https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/educational-resources/nixon-kissinger-and-the-decent-interval; and William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Madman Strategy during Vietnam War,” May 29, 2015, National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb517-Nixon-Kissinger-and-the-Madman-Strategy-during-Vietnam-War.  See also, Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 2001); Berman describes the Nixon-Kissinger strategy as a mission of “diplomatic deception and public betrayal” (p. 10), the result being a “sham peace held together with a plan to deceive the American public with the rhetoric of American honor” (p. 261).

[269] Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter, The Palace File (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 124.

[270] Young, The Vietnam Wars , p. 279; and Herring, America’s Longest War , pp. 253-34.

[271] Young, The Vietnam Wars , pp. 289, 286.

[272] Herring, America’s Longest War , p. 254.

[273] See Porter, A Peace Denied , chapters 6 and 7.

[274] Ibid., pp. 295-99.   In 1990, a former aide to Thieu, Ha Son Tran, “repeated often-leveled but unproven charges that Thieu had profited from the Indochinese drug trade, and had fled in 1975 with $75 million in gold from the Vietnamese national treasury,” according to Sonni Effron, “Ky and Thieu Wage Battle for Hearts, Minds,” Los Angeles Times , May 20, 1990.

[275] William Kremer, “Pete Peterson: The ex-POW teaching Vietnam to swim,” March 23, 2013, BBC News Magazine , http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21770163.

[276] Appy, American Reckoning , p. 21.

[277] The Vietnamese government’s assessment was reported in an Associated Press release, “Vietnam Discloses 1.1 Million Died in War, 600,000 Wounded,” April 3, 1995, and a French Press Agency news release, April 4, 1995, http://www.rjsmith.com/kia_tbl.html#press .  Other data derived from “Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War,” U.S. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html; and “Vietnam War Casualties,” Vietnam War website, http://thevietnamwar.info/vietnam-war-casualties.

[278] “Vietnam Statistics – War Costs: Complete Picture Impossible.” In Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1975 , 31st ed., 301-5. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1976; R. J. Rummel, “Statistics of Vietnamese Democide”, Line 61, http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.TAB6.1B.GIF ; and French Press Agency news release, April 4, 1995; and Luu Doan Huynh, “The War in Vietnamese Memory,” in Werner and Huynh, eds., The Vietnam War , p. 244.

[279] John Tirman, “Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?” (op-ed), Washington Post , January 6, 2012.

[280] Young, The Vietnam Wars , 177, 302.

[281] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[282] Melvin Small, Antiwarriors: The Vietnam War and the Battle for America’s Hearts and Minds (Hanham, MD: SR Books, 2002), p. 3.

[283] Interview with Tom Wells, in Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 559-60.

[284] “Vietnam Background: Congress and the War: Years of Support,” Congressional Quarterly Almanac online, http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal75-1213972.

[285] Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2001), pp. 512, 594, 682; “Gallup Poll Reports 49% Believe Involvement in Vietnam an Error,” New York Times , March 10, 1968, p. 4; and Charles DeBenedetti, with Charles Chatfield, assisting author, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse University press,1990), p. 310.

[286] Jeremi Suri, Review of Jessica Elkind, “Aid under Fire: Nation building and the Vietnam War,” American Historical Review , February 2017, p. 204.

[287] Appy, American Reckoning , xi-xii. See also, Robert Jewett, The Captain America Complex: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co., 1984).

[288] “Manifest destiny” was an informal doctrine that combined religious, political, and racial ideas into a righteous justification for American territorial expansion.  The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904 was the American equivalent of the French and British “civilizing missions,” applied to the Americas.  The Truman Doctrine of 1947 established the basic ideological framework of the Cold War, intellectually dividing the world into communist totalitarians and freedom-loving peoples, which tragically failed to acknowledge British and French imperial domination in Asia and Africa.  For historical context, see “ The United States-Mexican War, 1846-1848 ,” U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide.

[289] Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967, American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.

[290] Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon , Vol. 45, No. 1 (1984), p. 29; David J. Garrow, “When Dr. King Came Out Against Vietnam,” New York Times , April 4, 2017, p. A25; and Wells, The War Within , p. 131.

[291] Marcus G. Raskin and Bernard B. Fall, eds. The Viet-Nam Reader: Articles and Documents in American Foreign Policy and the Viet-Nam Crisi s (New York: Random House, 1965, 1967), p. xix.

[292] Senator J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1966) pp. 3-5, 25, 31.

[293] Eliot Fremont-Smith, “Report on America in Vietnam,” September 1, 1967 (review if Mary McCarthy’s Vietnam ), http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/26/specials/mccarthy-vietnam.html .

[294] Gruening and Beaser, Vietnam Folly , pp. 1, ii.

[295] Robert R. Tomes, Apocalypse Then: American Intellectuals and the Vietnam War, 1954-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 152-53.

[296] “Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars Statement of Purpose,” March 30, 1969, https://www.scribd.com/document/144628996/Bulletin-of-Concerned-Asian-Scholars-vol-3-Issue-2 .

[297] See “ The War of 1898 and the U.S.-Filipino War, 1899-1902 ,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide, https://peacehistory-usfp.org/1898-1899.

[298] Quoted in Robert Shaffer, “The Christian Century: Protestants Protesting Harry Truman’s Cold War,” Peace and Change , Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 2017), p. 116.

[299] Quoted in Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies , p. 52.

[300] There is a large body of literature on the American peace movement.  For a quick reference guide, see Charles F. Howlett, “American Peace History since the Vietnam War,” Perspectives on History (State of the Field), December 2010, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2010/american-peace-history-since-the-vietnam-war .

[301] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 90-91, 87, 107.  By April 1965, 4,500 people had signed the Declaration of Conscience.

[302] “5,000 Scholars Ask A Neutral Vietnam,” New York Times , July 11, 1984.

[303] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 97, 171.  A Harris poll published in Newsweek , February 27, 1967, found only 12% of Americans supported immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

[304] Tom Hayden, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 16.

[305] “On Wars of Liberation,” prepared by the Council of the War Resisters’ International at its meeting in Vienna, August 12-17, 1968, A J. Muste Memorial Institute Essay Series (pamphlet), pp. 7-8.

[306] Milton S. Katz, “Peace Liberals and Vietnam: SANE and the Politics of ‘Responsible’ Protest,’” in Walter L. Hixson, ed., The Vietnam Antiwar Movement (New York: Garland, 2000), pp. 65-66.

[307] For an insider critique of SDS, see David Barber, A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why It Failed (University Press of Mississippi, 2008).

[308] Small, Antiwarriors , p. 100; and Wells, The War Within , pp. 96-97.

[309] Harrington expressed his views in a New York Times Magazine article, May 30, 1971, titled “The Peace Movement is Using the Wrong Strategy”; cited in Katz, “Peace Liberals and Vietnam,” pp. 62-63.  Many years later, SWP leader Peter Camejo looked back at his antipathy toward politics with regret, describing SWP’s blanket opposition to lobbying Congress as simply “wrong.”  Similarly, SDS leader Greg Calvert said that renouncing political activity was “one of our biggest failures.”  Interviews with Tom Wells, in Wells, The War Within , p. 79.

[310] Mark Rudd, “Violence and Nonviolence,” http://www.markrudd.com/?/violence-and-non-violence.html.

[311] Norma Becker interview with Tom Wells, in Wells, The War Within , p. 273.

[312] Wells, The War Within , p. 18.

[313] Hayden, Hell No , p. 10.

[314] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 107; and Wells, The War Within , p. 36.

[315] “33-Hour Teach-In Attracts 10,000; Many Camp Out for Night at Berkeley Vietnam Debate,” New York Times , May 23, 1965, p. 26; and “The Pacifica Radio/UC Berkeley Social Activism Sound Recording Project: Anti-Vietnam War protests in the San Francisco bay Area & Beyond” (which has recordings of many of the speeches), http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/pacificaviet.html#ucbteachin.

[316] Wells, The War Within , pp. 29, 32, 34

[317] “15,000 White House Pickets Denounce Vietnam War.” New York Times , April 18, 1965, p. 1; Paul Potter, “The Incredible War” (17 April 1965), http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/potter-the-incredible-war-speech-text; and DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 112.

[318] Wells, The War Within , p. 44.

[319] SANE’s difficulties with the left included (1) opposition to immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; (2) the inclusion of other issues and the implication that the whole of American society had to be overturned before the war could be ended; (3) the possibility of militant leftists causing disorder and violence at the demonstration; (4) the left’s antipathy to political action, which some leftists labeled “class collaboration”; and (5) an unwillingness to be associated with the despised Communist Party, mainly for image reasons, despite the fact that the latter did not espouse revolutionary rhetoric (which is why the Progressive Labor Party broke off from it).  See Katz, “Peace Liberals and Vietnam.”

[320] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 33-34; and DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 126.

[321] “White House Picketed by 12,000 in Protest of Viet Nam Policy,” Chicago Tribune , November 28, 1965.  The headline on page two noted that 25,000 had attended the march, according to police estimates.

[322] Charles DeBenedetti, “On the Significance of Citizen Peace Activism: America, 1961-1975, in Walter L. Hixson, ed., The Vietnam Antiwar Movement (New York: Garland, 2000), p. 46.

[323] Mary Hershberger, Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War (Syracuse, NY:  Syracuse University Press, 1998), pp. 2-3.

[324] Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the War in Vietnam, 1963-1975 (Garden, City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1984), pp.2-3; and James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 204.  Other Americans who immolated themselves in 1965 besides Herz and Morrison were Hiroko Hayasaki, a 36-year-old Japanese-American Buddhist, Roger La Porte, a 22-year old member of the Catholic worker movement, and Celene Jankowski of South Bend, Indiana; and in subsequent years, 55-year old housewife Florence Beaumont (1967), 27-year old Zen Buddhist student Erik Thoen (1967), 16-year old high school student Ronald Brazee (1968), musician Steve Sexton (1968), and 23-year old student George Winne, Jr., (1970).  See “Nonviolent Action: The Ultimate Sacrifice,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia , https://kyotoreview.org/issue-19/nonviolent-action-the-ultimate-sacrifice.

[325] Mann, A Grand Delusion , p. 495; Michael Newton, The FBI Encyclopedia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2003), p. 392; Wells, The War Within , p. 69; and U.S. Senate Historical Office, “January 24, 1966 Vietnam Hearings,” https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Vietnam_Hearings.htm .

[326] Wells, The War Within , p. 134-35; DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 174-77; and Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (New York: Scribner, 2008), p. 182.

[327] Mann, A Grand Delusion , pp. 536-37.

[328] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal, p. 177.  The specific FBI instructions noted here were issued in July 1968 but may be assumed to apply to earlier operations.  See “Operation MHCHAOS,” https://targetedindividualscanada.com/tag/operation-chaos ; and U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee), Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 26, 1976).  The latter study examined efforts of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other security agencies to “disrupt and discredit the activities of groups and individuals deemed a threat to the social order” (p. 1).

[329] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 204-205, 247.

[330] Small, Antiwarriors , p. 100.

[331] Wells, The War Within , pp. 174-75; and DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 189, 196.

[332] Debenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 197-99; and William Chapman, “179 Arrested As Violence Takes Over,” Washington Post , October 22, 1967, http://college.cengage.com/history/ayers_primary_sources/rallyagainst_vietnamwar_pentagon1967.htm,  See also, Norman Mailer, “The Battle of the Pentagon,” Commentary , April 1, 1968, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-battle-of-the-pentagon.

[333] Jeff Leen, “The Vietnam protests: When Worlds Collided,” Washington Post , September 27, 1999; and Andrew Curry, “Flower Child: A Vietnam War protester recalls a seminal ‘60s image, part of a new book celebrating French photographer Marc Riboud’s 50-year career,” Smithsonian Magazine , April 2004, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/flower-child-102514360/#cXsIUx7dVRrzbbk5.99.

[334] See H. Bruce Franklin, The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems (Boston: Bedford Books, 1996).

[335] “Berkeley in the Sixties” (California Newsreel, 1995).  See also Tom Hayden, The Love of Possessions is a Disease with Them (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972).

[336] Wells, The War Within , pp. 136-37, 105-11.

[337] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 145, 195; Wells, The War Within , p. 119; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 51.

[338] Robert D. McFadden, “Donald W. Duncan, 79, Ex-Green Beret and Early Critic of Vietnam War, Is Dead,” New York Times , May 6, 2016.

[339] Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 10-17, 3.

[340] Stephen H. Wheeler, “’Hell No – We Won’t Go, Ya’ll’: Southern Student Opposition to the Vietnam War,” in Marc Jason Gilbert, ed., The Vietnam War on campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), p. 151; and John S. Bowman, ed., The Vietnam War Day by Day (New York: Mallard Books, 1989), p. 89.

[341] SNCC Statement, January 6, 1966, The Sixties Project, http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SNCC_VN.html ; and Cristian Farias, “The Story Behind An Iconic Picture Of Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond,” Huffington Post online, Aug 19, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-julian-bond-fought-georgia-all-the-way-to-the-supreme-court-and-won_us_55d21a65e4b055a6dab0ecc1.

[342] Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Dell, 1968), p. 118.  See also Congress, Staff Study by the Committee on Internal Security – House of Representatives, The Black Panther Party Its Origin and Development as Reflected In Its Official Weekly Newspaper The Black Panther Black Community News Service , (Washington, D.C.: GPO, October 6, 1970), http://www.aavw.org/protest/cleaver_panthers_abstract24.html.

[343] Wells, The War Within , pp. 122-23; and Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 167, 153.

[344] “The Sunflower that Grew and Grew,” McCall’s magazine, May 1971; and “Another Mother for Peace: Purposes,” http://anothermother.org/about.

[345] Barbara L. Tischler, “Antiwar Activism and Emerging Feminism in the Late 1960s: The Times They Were A’Changing,” Against the Current , January 3, 2000, https://againstthecurrent.org/atc085/p1681; and Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace , pp. 227-28.

[346] Thomas D. Snyder, ed., National Center for Education Statistics, “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait,” January 1993, pp. 83-84, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf ; Joseph A. Fry, “Unpopular Messengers: Student Opposition to the Vietnam War,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2007), p. 221; and Harris and Gallup polls, October and November 1969, cited in DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 264.

[347] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 86-87; “Columbia 1968 History,” http://www.columbia1968.com/history ; and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1996), p. 220.

[348] “Columbia 1968 History,” http://www.columbia1968.com/history ; and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1996), p. 220.

[349] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 86-87; and Fry, “Unpopular Messengers,” p. 227.

[350] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , p. 6.

[351] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 44-45.

[352] Neer, Napalm: An American Biography , p. 138; Fry, “Unpopular Messengers,” p. 229; and David B. Sicilia, “The Corporation Under Siege: Social Movements, Regulation, Public Relations, and Tort Law since the Second World War,” in Kenneth Lipartito and David B. Sicilia, Constructing Corporate America: History, Politics, Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 200.

[353] Kelly Moore, Disrupting Science: Social Movements, American Scientists, and the Politics of the Military, 1945-1975 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008); Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism-a Memoir (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), pp. 97, 99; and Richard Lyman, Stanford in Turmoil: Campus Unrest, 1966-1972 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 136, 180-181.  On Bechtel, see Sally Denton, The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), pp. 84, 85.

[354] “Selective Service and Training Act (1940),” http://apushcanvas.pbworks.com/w/page/52475705/Selective%20Service%20and%20Training%20Act%20(%20September%201940).  For a comprehensive review of draft resistance, see Michael Steward Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

[355] John S. Bowman, ed., The Vietnam War Day by Day (New York: Mallard Books, 1989), p. 89; and David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt: G. I. Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1975), p. 5.

[356] Krishnadev Calamur, “Muhammad Ali and Vietnam,” The Atlantic , June 4, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/06/muhammad-ali-vietnam/485717.

[357] Foley, Confronting the War Machine , pp. 20-21.

[358] “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” (1967), https://vietnamwar.lib.umb.edu/warHome/docs/1967CallToResistIllegit.html.

[359] Joseph A. Fry, “Unpopular Messengers: Student Opposition to the Vietnam War,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2007), p. 233.

[360] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , pp. 5-6; Jacques Kelly and Carl Schoettler, “Philip Berrigan, apostle of peace, dies at age 79,” Baltimore Sun , December 7, 2002, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-12-07/news/0212070391_1_philip-berrigan-vietnam-war-jonah; Erik Brady, “The Buffalo Five,” USA TODAY, November 24, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/2016/11/24/buffalo-five-jeremiah-horrigan/94128312 ; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 72.

[361] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , p. 52.

[362] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , pp. 54-57, 23, 17.

[363] Pham Van Chuong, quoted in Jessica Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy during the Vietnam War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p. 3; Hershberger, Traveling to Vietnam ; and Dagmar Wilson, “WSPers Return from Jakarta,” Memo 3, no. 24 (July 31, 1965), 2, quoted in Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy , pp. 16-17.

[364] Dellinger interview with Tom Wells, in Wells, The War Within , p. 162; and James W. Clinton, The Loyal Opposition: Americans in North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1995).  On Daniel Berrigan and Howard Zinn’s trip to Hanoi in February 1968, see Michael Knocewicz, “Howard Zinn Carried Out an Act of Radical Diplomacy in the Middle of the Vietnam War,” Jacobin , August 24, 2022, https://jacobin.com/2022/08/zinn-vietnam-war-antiwar-prisoners-trip.

[365] Carol Cohen McEldowney, Hanoi Journal, 1967 , ed. Suzanne Kelley McCormack and Elizabeth Mock (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), p. 43; and Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy , p. 19.

[366] “Peace Witness and Relief Efforts during the Vietnam War,” http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/315/Peace-Witness-and-Relief-Efforts-during-the-Vietnam-War; and Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy , p. 128.

[367] Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy ; and Michael J. Allen, “’Help Us Tell the Truth about Vietnam’: POW/MIA Politics and the End of the American War,” in Mark Bradley and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 258-50, 265-66.

[368] Frazier, Women’s Antiwar Diplomacy , p. 119.

[369] Mann, A Grand Delusion , p. 580; and Wells, The War Within , p. 242.

[370] Mann, A Grand Delusion , pp. 582, 585, 587.

[371] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , p. 57; and Eugene McCarthy, “Denouncing the Vietnam War,” December 2, 1967, http://www.speeches-usa.com/Transcripts/eugene_mccarthy-vietnam.html.

[372] Mann, A Grand Delusion , pp. 592.

[373] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 80, 98-99.

[374] David Farber, Chicago ’68 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 201; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 98-99.

[375] See Jonah Raskin, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).  Hoffman’s sensational tactics were later used by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, which helped change the conversation in America about wealth and inequality.

[376] Nixon quoted in the Washington Post , June 4, 1969, cited in John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2009), p. 302.

[377] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 244.

[378] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 244-46, 248; Small, Antiwarriors , p. 105-106; and Max Frankel, “Nixon Has Begun Program to End War in Vietnam,” New York Times , April 6, 1969.

[379] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 254; and Wells, The War Within , p. 328.  Nixon, in his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention on August 8, 1968, pledged “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.”

[380] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 248; and Terry H. Anderson, “Vietnam is Here,” in Anderson and Ernst, eds., The War That Never Ends , p. 258.

[381] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 247-48; and “The Vietnam Wall Controversy, Round One,” http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/vietnam/r1/1967.

[382] Senate “doves” included George McGovern (D-South Dakota), Frank Church (D-Idaho), Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota), John Sherman Cooper (R-Kentucky), Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon), Clifford Case (R-New Jersey), Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisconsin), Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), Edmund Muskie (D-Maine), Alan Cranston (D-California), Al Gore Sr. (D-Tennessee), Joseph Clark (D-Pennsylvania), Harold Hughes (D-Iowa), Charles Goodell (R-New York), and Stephen Young (D-Ohio), with moderate support from Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas), and George Aiken (R-Vermont).  The two foremost critics of the war in earlier years, Wayne Morse (D-Oregon) and Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska), were defeated in the November 1968 Congressional elections.  Goodell was defeated in 1970.

[383] “Vietnam Background: Congress and the war: Years of Support,” Congressional Quarterly online; and Donald A. Ritchie, “Advice and Dissent: Mike Mansfield and the Vietnam War,” in Randall B. Woods, ed., Vietnam and the American Political Tradition: The Politics of Dissent (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 199.

[384] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 261; and Wells, The War Within , p. 334.

[385] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 263; and Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 109-110.

[386] Small, Antiwarriors , p. 111; and DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , p. 256.

[387] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 258-59; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 112.

[388] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (New York: Gallery Books, 2012), p. 362; Mann, A Grand Delusion , p. 636; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 112.

[389] Scott D. Sagan and Jeremy Suri, “The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969,” International Security , Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2003), p. 150, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/madman-nuclear-alert-secrecy-signaling-and-safety-october-1969; and Stone and Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States , p. 363; and “Daniel Ellsberg: Nixon Almost Took Vietnam War Nuclear in November 1969,” MintPress News Desk, Feb. 22, 2016, http://www.mintpressnews.com/daniel-ellsberg-nixon-almost-took-vietnam-war-nuclear-in-november-1969/214120.

[390] Wells, The War Within , pp. 390-91.

[391] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 261-64; and “Marchers in Bay Area Protest Vietnam War,” Corsair (Santa Monica City College newspaper), November 19, 1969, California Digital Newspaper Collection, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=CRS19691119.2.2.  The Nixon administration attempted to divert public attention from the series of moratoriums and antiwar demonstrations by conducting a campaign focused on American POWs held in North Vietnam.  On November 6, just days after the October Moratorium and a week before its November sequel, President Nixon signed a bill declaring Sunday, November 9 a “National Day of Prayer” for the POWs.  The Armed Forced Chaplains Board authorized a prayer to be read nationwide, seeking divine intervention to reunite American captives with “their loved ones.”  Newspaper advertisements began appearing demanding the release of the prisoners.  Hearings were initiated in a House subcommittee to sustain the momentum.  In a “Memorandum for Correspondents,” dated March 26, 1970, the subcommittee noted that “some wives of men who are prisoners of war or missing in action in Southeast Asia, have been receiving telephone calls from a peace group in New York.  The phone calls apparently advise the wives that approximately 82 letters from POW’s are said to be en route to the families in the United States.”  This attempt to facilitate connections between families outside the U.S. mail service was denounced as “a transparent, cruel effort to extract political gain from the misery and anguish of the families of our missing and captured men.”  American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1972, Hearings before the Subcommittee on National Security Policy and Scientific Developments of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 92 nd Congress, 2 nd Session , pages 58, 60.  See also, Jerry Lembcke and Tom Wilbur, “Dateline Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi: The Moratorium Days Against the War, 1969,” Counterpunch , November 4, 2019, https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/11/04/dateline-hoa-lo-prison-hanoi-the-moratorium-days-against-the-war-1969.

[392] Wells, The War Within , p. 395, 398; Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 114-15; and “No More War,” Washington Post , November 16, 1999.

[393] Wells, The War Within , p. 396; John Herb, “250,000 War Protesters Stage Peaceful Rally in Washington; Militants Stir Clashes Later,” New York Times , November 16, 1969, p. 1.

[394] Wells, The War Within , p. 389; and Henry Kamm, “Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town,” New York Times , November 17, 1969.  Nixon periodically went into rages and his slur against Jews should take into account the fact that his closest adviser was the German Jewish émigré Henry Kissinger.

[395] Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , pp. 33, 62.

[396] Small, Antiwarriors , p. 92.

[397] Terry H. Anderson, “Vietnam Is Here: The Antiwar Movement,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, eds., The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2007), p. 259; and Seymour M. Lipset, “Polls and Protests,” Foreign Affairs , Vol. 49, Issue 3 (April 1971), p. 549.

[398] Wells, The War Within , pp. 452-53, 404, 390; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 121.

[399] Robert B. Semple, Jr., “Nixon To Pull Out 150,000 From Vietnam In a Year; Says Hanoi Blocks Peace,” New York Times, April 21, 1970; and Richard Nixon, “Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia,” April 30, 1970, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2490.

[400]  Wells,  The War Within , pp. 420-21, 423; and Philip Warden, “Percy Blasts ‘Misguided’ War Expansion in Southeast Asia,”  Chicago Tribune , May 9, 1970, p. 1.

[401] Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley, “The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University: The Search for historical Accuracy,” published in revised form by the Ohio Council for the Social Studies Review , Vol. 24, No. 1 (summer 1998), pp.  9-21,  http://www.kent.edu/may-4-historical-accuracy ; and Wells,  The War Within , pp. 424-25.

[402] Scranton Commission, The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 87; “Excerpts From Summary of F.B.I. Report on Kent State U. Disorders Last May,” New York Times , Oct. 31, 1970; and Lewis and Hensley, “The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University.”

[403] Wells, The War Within , pp. 425, 110.  While the Kent State killings gained major media attention, the killing of two and wounding of twelve black students by police officers at Jackson State University received comparatively little attention.  This violence was not part of Vietnam War protests.  The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest blamed the violence on an “unreasonable, unjustified overreaction” by the police officers.

[404] Wells, The War Within , pp. 441-42; and Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 125-26.

[405] “After ‘Bloody Friday,’ New York Wonders If Wall Street Is Becoming a Battleground, Wall Street Journal, May 11, 1970, https://chnm.gmu.edu/hardhats/bloody.html.

[406] Wells, The War Within , p. 427; Appy, American Reckoning , p. 195; and Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), p. 53.

[407] Becky Little, “Nixon’s July 4 Bash Ended With Tear Gas and Nude Protesters,” February 25, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/richard-nixon-honor-america-day-july-4-1970; Mario T. García, “Lessons from the Chicano anti-war movement,” August 30, 2010, National Catholic Reporter , https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/lessons-chicano-anti-war-movement; and Mario T. García, “An important day in U.S. history: The Chicano Moratorium,” August 27, 2015, National Catholic Reporter , https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/important-day-us-history-chicano-moratorium.  See also, Mario T. García, The Chicano Generation: Testimonios of the Movement (University of California Press, 2015).

[408] Wells, The War Within , p. 463.

[409] “Selected Statistics on the Vietnam War, with a few from Iraq,” http://edmoise.sites.clemson.edu/VNStats.html.

[410] Michael Uhl, Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007), pp. 204-208; and “5 Vietnamese Women Support Former G.I.’s Report of Slayings,” New York Times , May 10, 1971, p. 12.

[411] “Vietnam War Veteran John Kerry’s Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 22, 1971,” with Editorial Notes by Dr. Ernest Bolt, University of Richmond, https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/johnkerrytestimony.html

[412] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 139-42; and Wells, The War Within , pp. 514, 490-91.

[413] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 139, 142-43.

[414] Small, Antiwarriors , pp. 146-47; Lawrence Roberts, Mayday 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold Story of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020); Aryeh Neier, “How the ACLU Won the Largest Mass Acquittal in American History, ACLU, January 17, 2020, https://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/rights-protesters/how-aclu-won-largest-mass-acquittal-american-history; and Louis Harris, “Tide of Public Opinion Turns Decisively Against the War,” Washington Post , May 3, 1971.  For testimonials by participants in the May Day 1971 civil disobedience action, see Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, “Webinar on May Day 1971 Mass Arrests for Civil Disobedience,” April 29, 2021 (50 th year anniversary), https://vnpeacecomm.blogspot.com/2021/03/webinar-on-may-day-1971-mass-arrests.html.

[415] Elise Lemire, Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021); and Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt , pp. 80-87.

[416] The Pentagon Papers, Vol. 1, pp. x-xii, quoted in Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies , p. 43.

[417] Wells, The War Within , pp. 529-32, 559; and Small, Antiwarriors , p. 152.

[418] DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal , pp. 338-41.

[419] Wells, The War Within , p. 564.

[420] Donetella Lorch, “War’s Lingering Requiem in Vietnam,” New York Times , July 2, 2014.

[421] Corey Adwar, “Inside The Vietnamese Government’s Haunting War Museum That Portrays America As The Enemy,” Business Insider , August 25, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/vietnam-war-remnants-museum-portrays-us-as-enemy-2014-8.

[422] Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 276-77.

[423] Tran Van Tra, “The War That Should Not Have Been,” in Jayne S. Werner and Luu Doan Huynh, eds., The Vietnam War: Vietnamese and American Perspectives (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1993), p. 241.

[424] Jimmy Carter, The President’s News Conference, March 24, 1977, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7229.

[425] Ronald Reagan, Speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, Chicago, Illinois, August 18, 1980, Reagan Library Archives, https://reaganlibrary.archives.gov/archives/reference/8.18.80.html.

[426] See Appy, American Reckoning , pp. 246-48; and Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies , pp. 48-49.

[427] Jerry Lembke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

[428] “Executive Summary,” Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. United States Senate. 1993-01-13; and Appy, American Reckoning , p. 243.  See also Franklin, M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America .

[429] Appy, American Reckoning , p. 247.  See also, Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies , pp. 48-49. Joseph Babcock, in a New York Times op-ed article, “Vietnam’s Sad Hunt: 300,000 Missing Souls” (Dec. 21, 2018) offered Americans a rare glimpse of the suffering on the other side. “More than 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers are still missing from the war with America, a heartbreaking statistic that reverberates across thousands of Vietnamese families, mostly in the north,” he writes. “And though Vietnam’s government has made scattered efforts to search for remains, the resources devoted to finding the missing Vietnamese are a small fraction of those devoted to recovering the 1,600 Americans still listed as M.I.A. from the same war. Having a missing family member is particularly traumatic in Vietnam’s culture of ancestor worship, which dictates that if the dead aren’t found and buried along with other ancestors in their hometown, where relatives can pray and honor them, the dead person becomes a lost soul, wandering homeless and hungry, in a kind of permanent purgatory.”

[430] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

[431] Appy, American Reckoning , p. xii, xvii.

[432] Herring, “The War That Never Seems to Go Away,” p. 335; and Appy, American Reckoning , p. xvi.

[433] William J. Astore, “War is the New Normal: Seven Deadly Reasons Why America’s Wars Persist,” TomDispatch , February 1, 2015, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175950 .  See also Franklin, Vietnam and Other American Fantasies .

[434] The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, “About the Program,” http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/about.

[435] Vietnam Full Disclosure, “An Open Letter to the American People,” http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/an-open-letter-to-the-american-people ; and Doug Rawlings and Tarak Kauff, “Pentagon Lies Vs. Harder Truths About the War,” Full Disclosure Truth About America’s War in Viet Nam,” a 24-page special issue published by Veterans for Peace in spring 2016..

[436] Letters can be read on the VFP website: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/index.php/2017-letters-wall .  As of Memorial Day 2017, 300 letters and 32 postcards had been collected.

[437] Quoted in Rick Cohen, “Rejecting the Pentagon’s Revisionist History,” Full Disclosure publication, Vets for Peace.

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Book Review: Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War

Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War

edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur and Brad Austin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2014

For today’s college and high school students, the Vietnam War may as well be the Peloponnesian War, since it took place ages before they were born. What’s also true is that increasing numbers of high school history teachers and younger college professors have no memory of the war.

That fact alone points to the need for a book that offers solid information for those who teach the history of America’s most controversial overseas war. Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War fills that need: 18 essays by experienced Vietnam War history and English professors that provide practical advice.

The book, its editors note, “offers a road map for navigating” some seemingly trivial issues, such as the date the war started (arguments can be made for 1946, 1959, 1954, 1964 and 1965); correct names for the war itself (the Vietnam War, the American War in Vietnam, the Second Indochina War); and correct names of opposing forces (the Viet Cong, the National Liberation Front or The People’s Liberation Army, the North Vietnamese Army or the People’s Army of Vietnam).

There is also guidance on the bigger questions, such as why the United States took over the French fight against the Vietnamese Communists and why the other side came out on top.

Following a cogent introduction by editors John D. Tully, Matthew Masur and Brad Austin—history professors at Central Connecticut State University, St. Anselm College and Salem State University, respectively—are insightful essays by two of the Vietnam War’s most accomplished scholars: Marilyn Young of New York University and George Herring of the University of Kentucky. Young and Herring discuss how their teaching of the war has evolved since they began in the 1970s.

Then come seven essays that provide concrete approaches to teaching the war. Massachusetts high school history teacher Kevin O’Reilly explains how to apply the decision-making approach: Students are asked to put themselves in the place of American decision-makers as they were considering important milestones in the war. One such milestone would be the Johnson administration’s decision in the summer of 1965 to greatly escalate the war.

The book also explains how to incorporate new and nontraditional elements into Vietnam War courses: the music of the era; newly released primary sources such as the White House tapes from the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations; Hollywood movies; Vietnam War novels and memoirs; online material and oral histories.

Nine essays take in-depth looks at different aspects of the war. Masur, for example, offers his analysis of the often debated question of whether Ho Chi Minh was at heart a nationalist or a Communist.

“A full understanding” of the war, Masur writes, “requires teachers and students to understand how nationalism and communism became linked in Vietnam and how the United States reacted to this phenomenon.” Teachers, he says, “can use the rise of Ho Chi Minh and America’s response to this popularity to show that nationalism and communism, decolonization and the Cold War, were all part of the Vietnam War.”

Other essays examine the French role in Indochina, the antiwar movement, the Vietnamese on both sides, the Hmong in Laos, Vietnamese-Americans, the Tet Offensive and the lessons of the war.

These are essays by college professors; the writing is not exactly scintillating. However, the material will prove invaluable for anyone teaching the Vietnam War and those interested in how the war is being taught in high schools and colleges in 2014.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam . To subscribe, click here .

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Essays on Vietnam War

🇻🇳 understanding the vietnam war: why write an essay.

The Vietnam War, a pivotal conflict in the 20th century, offers a rich tapestry of historical, political, and social complexities. Writing an essay about this topic is not just an academic exercise; it's an opportunity to delve into a multifaceted war with profound global implications. Exploring the Vietnam War through an essay allows us to gain insight into the human cost, political decisions, and lasting impacts of the conflict. 📚

📝 Vietnam War Essay Topics

Choosing the perfect topic for your Vietnam War essay requires careful consideration. It involves finding an aspect that piques your interest and aligns with your goals as a writer:

🗣️ Vietnam War Argumentative Essay

An argumentative essay on the Vietnam War demands a strong stance on a particular issue related to the conflict. Characteristics of this type of essay include presenting a clear position and supporting it with evidence. Here are ten engaging topics:

  • The role of media in shaping public opinion during the Vietnam War.
  • Was the Vietnam War justified from a moral perspective?
  • The impact of the Vietnam War on American society and politics.
  • Assessing the effectiveness of U.S. military strategy in Vietnam.
  • The influence of anti-war protests on U.S. government decisions.
  • The long-term consequences of Agent Orange and chemical warfare.
  • The significance of the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War narrative.
  • Comparing the Vietnam War to other 20th-century conflicts.
  • The role of foreign powers in the Vietnam War: U.S. vs. USSR.
  • The legacy of the Vietnam War in modern geopolitics.

🌍 Vietnam War Cause and Effect Essay

A cause and effect essay on the Vietnam War explores the factors that led to the conflict and its far-reaching consequences. Characteristics of this type of essay include analyzing both the causes and outcomes. Here are ten thought-provoking topics:

  • The causes and effects of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
  • How the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and USSR contributed to the Vietnam War.
  • The impact of the draft and conscription on American society.
  • Consequences of the Vietnam War on Vietnamese civilians and their communities.
  • The ecological damage caused by defoliants and chemical warfare.
  • The influence of the Vietnam War on the anti-war movement.
  • How the Vietnam War reshaped U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.
  • The economic aftermath of the Vietnam War for both the U.S. and Vietnam.
  • Effects of post-war reconciliation and diplomacy between the U.S. and Vietnam.
  • Long-term repercussions of the Vietnam War on veterans and their families.

🤷‍♂️ Vietnam War Opinion Essay

An opinion essay on the Vietnam War allows you to express your perspective on various aspects of the conflict. Characteristics of this type of essay include sharing your viewpoint and supporting it with reasoning. Here are ten intriguing topics:

  • My personal stance on the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War.
  • Was the Vietnam War an unwinnable conflict from the start?
  • The role of media bias in shaping public perception of the Vietnam War.
  • Do I believe the U.S. should have intervened in Vietnam?
  • The significance of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War narrative.
  • My thoughts on the impact of the Vietnam War on veterans' mental health.
  • Was the Vietnam War primarily a civil conflict or part of the Cold War?
  • The moral implications of using napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam.
  • My perspective on the role of diplomacy in ending the Vietnam War.
  • The lasting lessons we can learn from the Vietnam War experience.

📖 Vietnam War Informative Essay

An informative essay on the Vietnam War aims to provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of the conflict. Characteristics of this type of essay include presenting factual information and historical context. Here are ten informative topics:

  • The historical background of Vietnam leading up to the war.
  • Profiles of key figures and leaders in the Vietnam War.
  • A chronological overview of major events during the conflict.
  • The experiences of soldiers on both sides of the Vietnam War.
  • The significance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the war effort.
  • The cultural and social impact of the Vietnam War on the U.S.
  • The aftermath of the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese people.
  • The role of the media in shaping public opinion about the war.
  • The different phases and strategies of the Vietnam War.
  • Comparing and contrasting U.S. and Vietnamese perspectives on the war.

✍️ Vietnam War Essay Example

📜 vietnam war thesis statement examples.

1. "The Vietnam War profoundly shaped the trajectory of the United States in the 20th century, influencing both domestic policies and international relations."

2. "The media played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion and perceptions of the Vietnam War, ultimately affecting government decisions and the course of the conflict."

3. "The Vietnam War remains a complex and contested chapter in history, with diverse perspectives on its causes, consequences, and ethical implications."

4. "The experiences of Vietnam War veterans highlight the lasting psychological and emotional scars of combat, underscoring the need for comprehensive support and recognition."

5. "The Vietnam War serves as a cautionary tale of the limitations of military power and the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation in resolving conflicts."

📝 Vietnam War Essay Introduction Paragraph Examples

1. The Vietnam War stands as a pivotal moment in history, marked by complex political maneuvering, profound social change, and human sacrifice. Its significance stretches far beyond the battlegrounds, shaping the course of nations and altering the lives of countless individuals.

2. As we embark on this exploration of the Vietnam War, we find ourselves stepping into a realm of historical turmoil, moral dilemmas, and enduring legacies. The war's impact reverberates through time, demanding a closer examination of its causes, consequences, and contested narratives.

3. The Vietnam War, often referred to as the "American War" in Vietnam, occupies a unique place in global history. It is a conflict that defies easy categorization, a turbulent chapter marked by ideological clashes, geopolitical maneuvering, and the indomitable spirit of those who lived through it.

🔚 Vietnam War Essay Conclusion Paragraph Examples

1. In conclusion, the Vietnam War remains an enduring testament to the complexities of warfare and the indomitable human spirit. Its lessons remind us of the importance of critical reflection, diplomacy, and compassion in the face of adversity. The echoes of this conflict continue to shape our world today.

2. As we reflect on the Vietnam War, we are reminded that history is not a stagnant entity but a living narrative that informs our present and future. The war serves as a stark reminder of the costs of armed conflict and the imperative of seeking peaceful solutions to global challenges.

3. The Vietnam War's legacy endures, challenging us to confront its difficult truths and contemplate the enduring impact of war on individuals and nations. It is a history we must continue to study and remember, not only to honor those who lived it but to ensure that such conflicts remain lessons of the past rather than blueprints for the future.

Vietnam War Character Analysis

The emotional and physical burdens of war in the things they carried, made-to-order essay as fast as you need it.

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Where The Domino Fell Analysis

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The Failure of The United States in Vietnam

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How Public Opinion Changed The Course of The Vietnam War

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1 November 1955 – 30 April 1975

The United States, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of (South) Korea, Thailand, the Philippines

The Vietnam War, which took place from 1955 to 1975, was a complex conflict deeply rooted in the historical context of Vietnam and the broader Cold War era. It emerged as a result of the division of Vietnam into North and South following the Geneva Accords of 1954. The historical context of the Vietnam War includes the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Vietnam had been under French colonial rule for decades, and nationalist movements, particularly the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh, sought to liberate the country. The defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 marked a turning point, leading to the division of Vietnam and the subsequent involvement of major world powers. The conflict was also shaped by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The United States supported the South Vietnamese government, viewing it as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese, backed by the Soviet Union and China, sought to reunify the country under a communist regime. The escalation of the war saw the United States deploying large numbers of troops, conducting aerial bombings, and employing controversial tactics such as defoliation with Agent Orange. The conflict was marked by guerrilla warfare, protests, and anti-war movements both domestically and internationally.

Geneva Accords (1954): The Geneva Conference resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel. North Vietnam, under Ho Chi Minh's communist leadership, and South Vietnam, led by Ngo Dinh Diem, were established as separate entities. Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964): Following reports of a purported assault on American naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the U.S. Congress responded by approving the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, endowing President Lyndon B. Johnson with expansive powers to intensify U.S. engagement in Vietnam. Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968): The U.S. began sustained bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, aiming to weaken the communist forces and halt their infiltration into South Vietnam. This marked a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement. Tet Offensive (1968): The surprise attacks launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during the Tet holiday resulted in widespread fighting across South Vietnam. Although a tactical defeat for the communists, the offensive had a profound impact on American public opinion, as it contradicted the belief that victory was near. My Lai Massacre (1968): The revelation of the My Lai Massacre, where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, shocked the world and fueled anti-war sentiment. Paris Peace Accords (1973): The peace agreement aimed to end direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. It called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and the release of prisoners of war. Fall of Saigon (1975): The North Vietnamese Army captured the capital city of Saigon, marking the end of the war. This event led to the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.

Ho Chi Min: Ho Chi Minh was a key figure in the Vietnamese struggle for independence. He led the Viet Minh and later became the President of North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh's leadership and determination played a crucial role in rallying the Vietnamese people against foreign intervention. Lyndon B. Johnson: As the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His administration significantly increased American troop deployments and conducted extensive aerial bombings, seeking to prevent the spread of communism. Richard Nixon: Richard Nixon succeeded Johnson as President and implemented a policy of Vietnamization, gradually withdrawing U.S. troops while increasing the combat role of the South Vietnamese forces. Nixon pursued a strategy to negotiate a peace settlement and eventually oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. General William Westmoreland: General Westmoreland served as the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. He played a prominent role in implementing the U.S. military strategy, including the large-scale deployment of troops and the conduct of major operations. Robert McNamara: Robert McNamara served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. He was a key architect of U.S. policy and the escalation of military involvement. McNamara's later reflections on the war brought attention to the human and strategic costs and prompted a reassessment of U.S. actions. Jane Fonda: Jane Fonda, an American actress and activist, became highly controversial due to her opposition to the war. She visited North Vietnam in 1972 and became an outspoken critic of U.S. policies, particularly the treatment of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners of war.

Shifting U.S. Foreign Policy: The Vietnam War prompted a reassessment of U.S. foreign policy and military interventionism. The war's unpopularity and its unforeseen challenges led to a shift away from direct military interventions and a greater emphasis on diplomacy and covert operations in subsequent conflicts. Anti-War Movements and Civil Rights: The Vietnam War fueled massive anti-war movements and protests across the United States and around the world. These movements fostered greater political activism and solidarity, influencing subsequent social and political struggles, including the civil rights movement and the push for gender equality. Diplomatic and Geopolitical Ramifications: The war had significant diplomatic consequences, leading to changes in global alliances and the balance of power. It strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as China, and influenced the political landscape of Southeast Asia. Impact on Veterans and Society: The Vietnam War had a lasting impact on the soldiers who fought in it, as well as on their families and communities. The war's aftermath gave rise to discussions on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the treatment of veterans, and the broader societal responsibility towards those who serve in conflicts.

Public opinion on the Vietnam War was deeply divided and evolved significantly throughout the conflict. Initially, many Americans supported U.S. involvement, viewing it as a necessary measure to prevent the spread of communism. However, as the war dragged on and casualty numbers increased, public sentiment shifted dramatically. Anti-war sentiments gained momentum, fueled by televised images of the war's brutality, the draft, and the perception of an unjustifiable military intervention. Protests, demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience became widespread, representing a growing segment of the population opposed to the war. Criticism of the government's handling of the war intensified, with calls for a withdrawal of troops and an end to the conflict. Opposition to the war also extended to college campuses, where students staged protests and strikes. Public opinion on the Vietnam War played a pivotal role in shaping political discourse and policy decisions. The growing anti-war sentiment ultimately influenced policymakers, contributing to a gradual de-escalation and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979): Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this film is a renowned depiction of the war's psychological impact. It explores the horrors of war and the moral dilemmas faced by soldiers in a surreal and symbolic manner. "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien: This critically acclaimed book is a collection of interconnected short stories that delve into the experiences and emotions of soldiers during the Vietnam War. It explores themes of memory, truth, and the psychological weight carried by soldiers. Vietnam War Photography: Photojournalists like Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, and Larry Burrows captured powerful images that became iconic representations of the war. Examples include the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner and the haunting image of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack. "Born on the Fourth of July" (1989): Based on the autobiography of Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, this film directed by Oliver Stone depicts the journey of a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who becomes an anti-war activist. "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: This song has become synonymous with the Vietnam War era. Its lyrics critique the unequal burden of military service and the socio-political context of the time.

1. The Vietnam War lasted for approximately 19 years, from 1955 to 1975. 2. The United States spent an estimated $168 billion (equivalent to over $1 trillion today) on the Vietnam War. 3. Over 2.7 million American troops served in the Vietnam War, with approximately 9.2 million military personnel from all sides involved in the conflict. 4. U.S. Air Force pilot Colonel Floyd James Thompson holds the distinction of being the longest-held American POW in the Vietnam War, enduring captivity for nearly nine years. 5. The Tet Offensive, launched by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in 1968, involved coordinated surprise attacks on over 100 cities and military installations throughout South Vietnam. It was a turning point in the war and significantly impacted public opinion in the United States. 6. The United States military used the herbicide Agent Orange to defoliate dense vegetation in Vietnam. Unfortunately, it caused severe health problems, including cancer and birth defects, for both Vietnamese civilians and American veterans. 7. In 1968, U.S. troops massacred hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. This event became a symbol of the war's brutality and led to widespread outrage. 8. The Vietnam War sparked massive anti-war demonstrations worldwide, with millions of people taking to the streets to express their opposition to the conflict.

The Vietnam War is an important and compelling topic to explore in an essay due to its profound historical, political, and social implications. Delving into this subject allows for a comprehensive examination of a conflict that not only shaped the course of the Cold War era but also had far-reaching consequences for global politics and societies. Studying the Vietnam War offers insights into the complexities of military interventions, the limits of power, and the ethical dilemmas faced by nations in times of war. It provides an opportunity to analyze the political decision-making processes, the role of the media, and the impact of public opinion on policy outcomes. Moreover, the war's divisive nature and the anti-war movements it sparked raise important questions about the responsibility of citizens, the power of collective action, and the long-lasting effects of trauma on individuals and communities. By exploring the Vietnam War, one can also gain a deeper understanding of the experiences and perspectives of soldiers, veterans, and civilians who were directly affected by the conflict. Their stories offer valuable lessons on resilience, sacrifice, and the consequences of armed conflicts on societies.

1. Anderson, D. L. (2017). The Vietnam War. Palgrave Macmillan. 2. Appy, C. G. (2003). Patriots: The Vietnam War remembered from all sides. Penguin Books. 3. Davidson, P. (2019). Vietnam at war: The history, 1946-1975. Oxford University Press. 4. FitzGerald, F. (2002). Fire in the lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Back Bay Books. 5. Herring, G. C. (2014). America's longest war: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. McGraw-Hill Education. 6. Hunt, M. H. (2009). A Vietnam War reader: A documentary history from American and Vietnamese perspectives. University of North Carolina Press. 7. Karnow, S. (1997). Vietnam: A history. Penguin Books. 8. Sheehan, N. (1989). A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Vintage Books. 9. VanDeMark, B. (1991). Into the quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Oxford University Press. 10. Young, M. G. (2017). The Vietnam wars, 1945-1990. HarperCollins Publishers.

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history essays vietnam

Vietnam War - Free Essay Samples And Topic Ideas

The Vietnam War was a protracted and contentious conflict from 1955 to 1975 between North Vietnam, supported by communist allies, and South Vietnam, backed by the United States and other anti-communist countries. Essays could delve into the complex geopolitics of the Cold War era that framed this conflict, examining the differing ideologies and interests that fueled this long and costly war. The discourse might extend to the military strategies, the notable battles, and the human cost endured by both civilians and military personnel. Discussions could also focus on the anti-war movement within the United States, exploring how the Vietnam War significantly impacted American politics, society, and culture. Furthermore, the lasting effects of the war on Vietnam and its relations with the U.S., along with the contemporary narratives surrounding the war and its veterans, could provide a well-rounded exploration of this crucial period in 20th-century history. A vast selection of complimentary essay illustrations pertaining to Vietnam War you can find at Papersowl. You can use our samples for inspiration to write your own essay, research paper, or just to explore a new topic for yourself.

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The feuding began after World War II, mostly regarding political and economic power. After the destruction that World War II caused, the United States and the Soviet Union were left standing. Gaining control of countries was sought after, even if the countries weren't benefiting them in any way. During this time, it was all about power. From the years of 1957 to 1975, the Cold War was in full effect and the United States and the Soviet Union were in […]

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The Domino Theory and the Vietnam War

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American Involvement in Vietnam War

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By the end of the 18th century, the British Empire was one of the biggest colonial powers in the world. It had colonies in many countries across the world such as India and Australia. There were other colonial powers such as Spain, France, and the Netherlands. One of the latest countries which entered the imperialistic way was the U.S. It saw that other countries, especially Great Britain, were gaining resources, territories and most importantly dominance over the world. The U.S. […]

The Vietnam War in U.S History

The Vietnam War has been known in U.S history as the longest and most controversial war. The United States became involved in Vietnam to avoid having the country fall to a communist form of government. There were numerous fateful battles that claimed countless lives of those on both sides of the war. This war also resulted in many conflicts for the United States on the home front of the war, when the American people no longer supported the war. North […]

Comparison between World War II and Vietnam War

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How To Write an Essay About Vietnam War

Writing an essay on the Vietnam War is a task that combines historical research, analysis, and personal reflection. This article will guide you through the process of writing such an essay, with each paragraph focusing on a crucial aspect of the writing journey.

Initial Research and Understanding

The first step is to gain a thorough understanding of the Vietnam War. This includes its historical context, key events, major political figures involved, and the impact it had both globally and domestically in the countries involved. Start by consulting a variety of sources, including history books, scholarly articles, documentaries, and firsthand accounts. This foundational research will give you a broad view of the war and help you narrow down your focus.

Selecting a Specific Angle

The Vietnam War is a vast topic, so it's crucial to choose a specific angle or aspect to focus your essay on. This could range from political strategies, the experiences of soldiers, the anti-war movement, the role of media, to the aftermath and legacy of the war. Selecting a particular angle will not only give your essay a clear focus but also allow you to explore and present more detailed insights.

Developing a Thesis Statement

Based on your research and chosen angle, formulate a strong thesis statement. This statement should encapsulate your main argument or perspective on the Vietnam War. For instance, your thesis might focus on the impact of media coverage on public perception of the war, or analyze the strategies used by one side and how they contributed to the outcome. Your thesis will guide the structure and argument of your entire essay.

Organizing Your Essay

Structure your essay in a clear, logical manner. Start with an introduction that sets the scene for your topic and presents your thesis statement. The body of your essay should then be divided into paragraphs, each focusing on a specific point or piece of evidence that supports your thesis. This could include analysis of key battles, political decisions, personal stories from veterans, or the war's impact on domestic policies. Ensure each paragraph transitions smoothly to the next, maintaining a cohesive argument throughout.

Writing and Revising

Write your essay with clarity, ensuring your arguments are well-supported by evidence. Use a formal academic tone and cite your sources appropriately. After completing your first draft, revise it to enhance coherence, flow, and argument strength. Check for grammatical errors and ensure all information is accurately presented.

Final Touches

In the final stage, review your essay to ensure it presents a comprehensive and insightful perspective on the Vietnam War. Ensure that your introduction effectively sets the stage for your argument, each paragraph contributes to your thesis, and your conclusion effectively summarizes your findings and restates your thesis.

By following these steps, you will be able to write a compelling and insightful essay on the Vietnam War. This process will not only deepen your understanding of a pivotal historical event but also refine your skills in research, analysis, and academic writing.

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Vietnam History and Western Influence Essay

History of vietnam, influences on vietnam, repeating history, why did we go to vietnam, the french presence in vietnam, seato and other agreements, reference list.

The history of Vietnam is one of the longest histories in the world. This country has been through many invasions, interventions; it has been colonized and taken over by other nations for the major part of its history, it even got influenced by the Cold War (Moss, 2010). Vietnam started its history as a part of the Funan Kingdom, famous for sophisticated art and refined architecture (History, 2014). Eventually, it got under the influence of China, France, the USSR, and the USA.

I think being a person who lived in a country that has always been under the influence of other cultures and nations is very confusing. Being taken over by a European culture was a shock for Vietnamese people. They intended to turn the Vietnamese into Christians, this added to their hostility towards the newcomers. This is why I agree that Chinese domination leads to more tensions with the French from the very beginning. French culture was oppressive for the Vietnamese, so naturally, it was not welcome there at all.

The statement by Cicero, the Roman philosopher, describes exactly the policy of any modern country. All the main issues remained the same, and the politicians of nowadays deal with the same challenges. History repeats itself, people repeat their paths, even if these paths were proved to be mistaken long ago. The passion of a historian is to explore the causes that led people towards making the same decisions and re-living the errors of their forefathers.

The explanation of the decision the USA made to go to Vietnam is very clear. To my mind, that decision was surely dictated by the recent past of the people of that time, the fear of another massive confrontation, another world’s disaster forced by the eternal fight for influence and power. The American politicians tried to take the situation under control because it tended to become too dangerous.

The French presence in Vietnam seemed to be helpful, but the outer side of it did not match the inner side. This “help” resembled a behavior of a not very caring owner, who attempted to adopt a whole nation. “I give you food and education, and in return, you become my property.” The French brought humanitarian goods, yet these goods were directed to create multiple limitations for the Vietnamese population. This mission’s inner purpose was not humanitarian at all.

SEATO, just like most of the other collective organizations, was created to maintain the balance of powers in the world, namely, to oppose the threat of Communism spreading in Southeast Asia. The West was afraid that another massive war might burst out, so all the agreements were the measures of precaution.

Moss, J. D. (2010). Vietnam: An American Ordeal. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall PTR.

History . (2014). Lonely Planet. Web.

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Exploring the vietnam war: a teacher’s resource essay.

He didn’t even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined . . . to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world.” ––Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955) 1

The purpose of this essay is to provide classroom instructors and other interested parties with a review of a range of readings, films, and documentaries about the Vietnam War. The eight areas presented explore the conflict in its complexity, from background to culture to the legacy for US foreign policy. The areas can be shaped into instructional units, with readings and films chosen with a secondary school or college audience in mind.

       Vietnam’s French Colonial Background

Before the American war came the French colonial experience, establishing Indochina as a far-flung colonial outpost, enriching the mother country while brutally suppressing resistance. From the 1870s to the 1950s, the French regime raised generations of Vietnamese civil servants, who developed cultural and intellectual ties with their occupiers. A class of Western-educated nationalists emerged in the twentieth century who denounced the foreign occupation and called for self-determination. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was in the forefront. Much of Ho’s popular appeal can be read and dissected in Bernard Fall’s edited volume, Ho Chi Minh on Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920–1966 (1967). These primary sources offer an idea of the hope Ho offered to so many Vietnamese who chafed and suffered under French domination. The best biography on Ho is William J. Duker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life (2000). Graham Greene’s graceful novel, The Quiet American (1955), captures the mood of the French under siege, while foreshadowing the American experience. The French were defeated in 1954 by the communist Viet Minh.

A familiarity with the French colonial experience in Vietnam is important for Americans’ study, as the Americans ignored or misread the lessons from the French failure. The French war was also America’s initial entry, as the US funded 80 percent of the war by 1954, as a Cold War fight against communism. The first chapter of George C. Herring’s excellent work, America’s Longest War (1979), “A Dead-End Alley: The United States, France and the First Indochina War, 1950–1954,” is a fine introduction to France’s defeat and America’s entry onto the scene. Indeed, Herring’s book is well worth reading in its entirety, for both high school and college classes. In addition, for this first unit on the war I strongly recommend the 1983 PBS “American Experience” series, V ietnam: A Television History, beginning with Episode I: “Roots of a War (1945–1953).”

US Objectives in Cold War Context, the Case for the War and Reasons Lost

a building with pillars sits above a line of people trying to enter.

The rationale that led America into Vietnam must be placed firmly into the Cold War mindset. In the years after World War II, US policymakers perceived communism as a near-monolithic entity. Thus, the communist and anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam played upon US fears of communist global expansion: Russia, 1917; Eastern Europe and Poland, post-1945; China and North Korea, 1949; Tibet, 1951; North Vietnam, 1954; and Cuba, 1959. As Herring writes, although Indochina was considered by the Americans to be “important for its raw materials, rice, and naval bases . . . it was deemed far more significant for the presumed effect its loss would have on other areas,” otherwise known as “the domino theory.” 2 If South Vietnam fell, then “Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Malaya (and then, successively, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia) would ‘fall to the Communists’ in their proper order.” 3

The answer was the “containment doctrine,” established during the Truman administration, and pursued, with variations, on through the 1980s. Students would benefit from reading George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” sent from the US Embassy in Moscow to Washington, DC, in which Kennan argued that Soviet encroachments be contained at every opportunity, meeting force with force. Kennan’s telegram is a seminal document in Cold War history. 4 Although the threat of communist expansion was the primary concern in Vietnam for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, additional motives included US credibility and domestic political concerns, with administrations fearful of seeming to appease totalitarian aggression.

For a counterbalance to more mainstream histories, I also find useful Howard Zinn’s chapter, “The Impossible Victory: Vietnam,” in his classic polemic, A People’s History of the United States (1980). Zinn presents a critical leftist perspective, stressing US economic motives behind the nation’s overseas ventures. Focusing on the disconnect between official democratic principles and cynical self-interest, his work can be counted on to provoke lively class discussions.

image of a downed plane

For documentaries, I strongly recommend Errol Morris’ The Fog of War , which won an Academy Award in 2003. The film presents a series of interview clips with Robert McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense and a key architect of the war. An eighty-five-year-old McNamara reflects on Vietnam, the danger of too much power, Cold War presumptions, and mistakes that were made, interspersed with combat footage.

While the antiwar movement opposed the basic tenets of why the US should involve itself in Vietnam, plenty of bipartisan foreign policy experts were firmly convinced that America was both morally and strategically justified in seeking to contain North Vietnam. Richard Nixon asserted in No More Vietnams (1985) that the conflict was no civil war, but rather, “the Vietnam War was the Korean war with jungles,” in which a hostile communist force “camouflaged its invasion to look like a civil war,” while undertaking a stream of ceaseless border crossings while supporting the Viet Cong. 5 The American media and antiwar movement are both singled out by Nixon, but also the failure of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to explain “what we were fighting for,” thus failing to secure enduring public support. 6 Nixon also blamed the US Congress for allowing Saigon to fall in the two years following America’s withdrawal.

Nixon’s polemical book is useful in providing an alternate perspective to the antiwar critique, whether in explaining the US justification or in de-romanticizing Ho Chi Minh, whose 1950s agrarian policies sparked “major peasant revolts,” resulting in the deaths of 50,000 North Vietnamese. 7 Additional arguments for support of the war are to be found in Robert F. Kennedy’s oral interviews in Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years (1991), edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman, and in Lyndon Johnson’s memoir, The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963–1969 (1971).

a billboard with a woman and "Vietnam" on it

As arguments are studied for the war’s justification, so should debates be reviewed on why the war was lost. The issue of whether the American media helped lose the war and the theory of an “oppositional” media are discussed by Melvin Small in Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves . 8 In Nixon Reconsidered (1994), a largely positive reevaluation, Joan Hoff reviews flaws in the 1973 peace agreement, which was essentially forced upon South Vietnam’s President Thieu, with Nixon threatening an “immediate termination of U.S. economic and military assistance” if Thieu did not sign the document. 9

In We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young , Retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore in his final chapter, “Reflections and Perceptions,” singles out flaws in US military and political policy as to why America failed in Vietnam, including one-year tours of duty and frequent officer rotations. Failure also resulted from losing the hearts and minds of the populace by bombing heavily populated areas. “None of us,” Moore wrote, “had joined the Army to hurt children and frighten peaceful farm families.” 10 Nor would the American people condone the ongoing losses as the years passed, despite superior firepower. Even with a “kill ratio of 10–1 or even 20–1” against the enemy, eventually Americans would demand that the troops come home, mission accomplished or not. 11

The Face of War

As historian John Dower once wrote, “atrocities follow war as the jackal follows a wounded beast.” 12 Vietnam was no different, and, like Dower’s own area of expertise on the Pacific War, the war in Vietnam was carried out between peoples of different races, languages, and cultures; cruelty, racism, and dehumanization followed in its wake. Certainly, atrocities occurred on both sides, from the 1968 massacre by US soldiers in the village of My Lai, to the mass executions by communist forces in the city of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. For students to form an accurate perception of the face of the Vietnam War, works that present the American soldier’s experience should also include a feel for the camaraderie, the stultifying dullness, the struggles against heat, loneliness, brutality, loss, and fear.

Mark Baker’s Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women who Fought There (1981) is a collection of veterans’ oral histories, at times starkly graphic, and cannot fail to hold students’ attention. “You can’t tell who’s your enemy,” one veteran recalled. “You got to shoot kids, you got to shoot women. You don’t want to. You may be sorry that you did. But you might be sorrier if you didn’t.” 13 Other veteran accounts include Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us (1983), with accounts gathered by reporters Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller; Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977); Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1985), edited by Bernard Edelman; and Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk (1983), a fascinating account by a US helicopter pilot who flew more than one thousand combat missions in Vietnam. Of these works, Baker’s Nam is the most graphic, in terms of violence, language, and brutality, and thus should be read carefully by the teacher before the book is assigned, since the material is disturbing. For a popular fictional treatment, many fine examples exist, but perhaps the best remains Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990).

On the other side, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1991) is a novel by a North Vietnamese Army veteran. One of 500 soldiers who served in the North’s 27th Youth Brigade, and one of only ten who survived, Ninh was seventeen when he joined the war and twenty-three when it ended. His novel has become a literary classic. Nor did the decade following Hanoi’s victory bring the longed-for reconciliation for which many had hoped, as Truong Nhu Tang makes clear in A Viet Cong Memoir (1985), written with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai. A former guerrilla who served as Minister of Justice after the war, Tang’s bitter disillusionment with postwar Vietnam eventually forced him into exile. For an excellent visual, the National Geographic documentary, Vietnam’s Unseen War: Pictures from the Other Side (2002), offers a series of interviews and photographs by North Vietnamese photographers, giving more of a face to “the faceless enemy” in the jungle.

For American POWs, the war included the nightmare of internment. A useful account of one American POW’s experience in Hanoi’s notorious French-built Hoa Lo Prison is Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr.’s When Hell Was in Session (1976). Lionel Chetwynd’s dramatic film, Hanoi Hilton (1987), offers stark images for viewers unused to seeing American POWs at the mercy of others. The documentary Return with Honor (2001), directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, depicts the POWs’ plight and their return to America.

The Antiwar Movement

image of a pin that says "march on washington, End the war in Vietnam, April 17, 1965"

Much has been written on the anti-Vietnam War movement, and abundant films and documentaries are readily available. Two comprehensive tomes are Tom Wells’s The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (1994), and Terry H. Anderson’s The Movement and the Sixties (1995). Born on the Fourth of July (1976) by Ron Kovic is an excellent choice for high school audiences, presenting Kovic’s journey from an all-American high school athlete who comes home from the war in a wheelchair and becomes a spokesman for the antiwar movement. The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade (1984), edited by Judith Clavir Albert and Stewart Edward Albert, is an excellent compendium of primary sources that cover six main areas, from the cultural to the political and from the moderate to the extreme.

Although the dominant popular perception of the sixties generation depicts a “politically and socially rebellious” youth, a 1989 Gallup poll found otherwise. Among those surveyed who came of political age during the sixties, “large majorities . . . say they did not get involved in anti-war or civil rights movements, did not smoke marijuana on a regular basis or experiment with psychedelic drugs, and did not ‘dress like a hippie.’” 14 Paul Lyons’ work, Class of ’66 , is a wonderful corrective in this area. Indeed, as Godfrey Hodgson wrote in America in Our Time (1976), the 1968 “swing of public opinion against the war did not mean that the peace movement had succeeded in achieving its dream of mass conversion.” 15 While a growing majority conceded that the war had become “a mess,” that did not mean they were ready to mount the barricades—far from it. Instead, the curious situation arose in which “most of those who disliked the war, disliked the peace movement even more.” 16

A cover for the documentary. Says: "The Weather Underground: We are the outlaws, free and high--a youth guerrilla underground in the heart of honky America"

The collection Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the Sixties is a useful resource containing reflections by three dozen former activists. A common theme in the section “Second Thoughts on Vietnam” is how, after 1975 and the ensuing communist repression in both Vietnam and Cambodia, many New Leftists who had cheered communist-driven wars of national liberation later ignored or sought to discredit reports that reflected poorly on the new communist regimes. As one writer stated, “such methods of imposing the Party’s power over a newly ‘liberated’ society have been a part of every Communist victory since 1917.” 17 Another writer spoke of the inherent danger of romanticizing “the other side,” a pitfall experienced not only by the New Leftists but also by “old leftists” who glorified Stalin in the 1930s. 18 A fine study on the evils that befell Cambodia and the danger of romanticizing guerrillas of any stripe is William Shawcross’s Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia (1979), which indicts the Nixon administration for destabilizing fragile, neutral Cambodia, leading to the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power and the genocidal slaughter of over a million Cambodians.

Perhaps the best documentary of the protest movement is Berkeley in the Sixties (1990), directed by Mark Kitchell. In the previously-mentioned Vietnam: A Television History series, the antiwar movement is portrayed in the episode “Homefront USA.” For a look at the most radical and violent protest group that arose from the sixties, The Weather Underground (2003), directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, shows the radicalization of a small band of revolutionaries who sought to bring down the US government, with their reflections thirty years later. Together these documentaries provide a fine cross-section of the protest movement, from those who advocated peace to those who sought to end the war and change society through far more violent means.

Culture Clash: America and Vietnam

The great cultural, linguistic, political, and historical differences that separated the Americans from the Vietnamese contributed to the war’s tragedy, fueled by the frustration that arose between mutually uncomprehending people. “America was involved in Vietnam for thirty years, but never understood the Vietnamese,” wrote Loren Baritz in his work Backfire (1985). 19 Vietnamese men, for example, had the custom of holding hands in public with their friends. For American youths raised on John Wayne films, this practice repelled many GIs who felt that their Asian allies were either effeminate or cowards, prompting them to wonder “why Americans had to die in defense of perverts.” 20 Baritz’s first chapter, “God’s Country and American Know-How,” is particularly informative as to the clash of cultures, though the entire book offers much insight.

Another excellent place to start for exploring cultural differences is Frances Fitzgerald’s landmark work, Fire in the Lake (1972), in which each culture’s view of the historical process differed, which affected their view of revolution. Traditional Vietnamese view history as cyclical, in keeping with their life as an agrarian-based people, while Westerners view history as a path of progression, with humanity emerging from a state of chaos to eventual order and stability. Thus, whereas Westerners tend to perceive revolution as “an abrupt reversal in the order of society, a violent break in history,” Vietnamese view it as “the cleansing fire to burn away the rot of the old order.” 21 In Vietnam, Americans were in the unenviable position of supporting the old order, a pro-Western series of anti-communist governments, which the French had left in their wake. As for documentaries, Peter Davis‘s classic work Hearts and Minds (1974) presents tragic and starkly contrasting images of cultural differences and the Americans’ involvement in Vietnam. The film should be viewed in advance by the instructor due to images of violence and, more rarely, nudity.

The War and America’s Cinematic Memory: Reality, Fantasy, and Remorse

Far from the more “patriotic” films arising from the World War II and Korean War eras, such as Back to Bataan (1945), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and Pork Chop Hill (1959), the Vietnam-era films, with the exception of John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), are marked by a suspicion of authority in general––particularly military and political. This was the generation of writers and directors who learned of official lies during the war by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Nixon’s own conduct of the war, including prolonged secret bombings of Cambodia by US warplanes, and capped off by the Watergate scandals, resulted in many Americans en masse experiencing a deep distrust of their government.

Beyond the political perspective of many of these films, Hollywood—and US citizens—were coming to terms with the kind of damage America had wrought on Vietnam, and the kind of harm inflicted on US soldiers, their families, and survivors. Out of a rich tapestry of films, part fantasy, part reality, and much soul-searching, many are worth noting, but I shall mention only a few. Francis Ford Coppola’s fanciful Apocalpyse Now (1979) offers an image of the American war effort’s descent into chaos, though it is likely to raise more questions than it answers. A harrowing depiction is Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), the director himself a Vietnam vet. The scene in which an entire Vietnamese village is nearly wiped out by tense, frustrated, and angry US soldiers recalls the My Lai massacre. Hamburger Hill (1987), directed by Jon Irvin, deals with a specific battle and is brutal in its realism. Coming Home (1978), directed by Hal Ashby, focuses on the hardship experienced by returning veterans and their families. At the end of the film a paraplegic vet, played by Jon Voight, delivers a speech to a high school audience that is particularly moving, in which he expresses remorse for actions taken while “killing for one’s country.”

Lessons learned (or not): “No more Vietnams”

a man is slumped over the wall of names

The anguish that the war inflicted upon the American psyche left a legacy that continues to impact US foreign policy, providing a ripe and relevant area for student research. In the thirty years since 1975, with each new military foray, cries are issued on the danger of the US finding itself once more in “another quagmire.” In his account of the Reagan presidency, as Reagan’s former Secretary of State, George Shultz bemoaned the “Vietnam syndrome.” “The Vietnam War had left one indisputable legacy,” Schultz wrote: “massive press, public, and congressional anxiety that the United States—at all costs—avoid getting mired in ‘another Vietnam.’” 22 In 1991, after America and its allies succeeded in pushing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush publicly declared, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” 23 Yet, amid the Serbian and Croatian acts of genocide in the Balkans, Bush “was slow to act” due to “the ghosts of Vietnam” and “the great fear of being sucked into a Balkan quagmire.” 24

Former antiwar protester Bill Clinton would himself face the Vietnam legacy in determining US foreign policy. Clinton pulled out the troops after eighteen US servicemen died in civil-war-torn Somalia. He experienced the same fears of over-engagement when he ordered limited air strikes on Serbia during the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, though he emerged successful and limited US objectives were achieved.

His successor, George W. Bush, went deeper. By December 2005, towards the end of the third year of Bush’s war in Iraq, with roughly 2,200 US soldiers dead, many politicians began calling for an exit strategy. “We are locked into a bogged-down problem not . . . dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam,” stated Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, himself a highly decorated Vietnam veteran. “We should start figuring out how we get out of there.” 25 Former Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright struck a middle ground, stating, “The American military [in Iraq] is both the problem and the solution. They are a magnet [for insurgents] but they’re also helping with security.” 26 Democratic politicians attacked each other for fear of seeming weak. 27 For his part, President Bush maintained that US forces in Iraq would emerge victorious, promising “complete victory,” in which US forces would eventually withdraw as Iraqi forces increased their level of readiness against the insurgency. 28 As with Vietnam, politicians of both parties were increasingly caught between their record of past support, public discontent, perceived US interests, political vulnerability, and a faith in America’s potential for good amidst a sea of troubles.

Disputing Vietnam comparisons, military historian Victor Davis Hanson emphasizes that the number of US war dead in Iraq after two and a half years of war in no way approximated the far higher losses in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Since the 1970s, American expectations as to its own capabilities have increased. In a war that seeks to defeat guerrillas and where victories are not measured by ground taken, “our growing intolerance of any battlefield losses” will only meet with frustration when US wars are fought without quick and easy victories. 29

Vietnam Today

As the communist forces neared Saigon in the spring of 1975, the US military’s Stars and Stripes predicted in a bold headline that “AT LEAST A MILLION VIETNAMESE WILL BE SLAUGHTERED.” 30 The anticipated bloodbath did not come, though severe hardship and repression did. For an excellent firsthand account of the prisons and re-education camps under post-1975 communist rule in Vietnam, see The Vietnamese Gulag (1986), by Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff. What followed was an eventual “exodus of boat people, a transformative flotilla that would carry one million South Vietnamese—about five percent of the South’s population,” to lands overseas. 31 It would take years before the country established a sense of normalcy.

I thus recommend closing the unit on the Vietnam War with a glimpse of Vietnam today, thirty years after the country’s reunification and the fall of Saigon. In addition to my own teaching and research over the years, my knowledge was greatly enhanced by a summer 2004 trip to Vietnam with Pacific Village Institute, led by John Eastman. I was most impressed by the sheer energy of the Vietnamese, their friendliness, optimism, and eagerness embracing newfound opportunities currently available through the government’s policy of increased economic liberalism and the encouragement of small private enterprise.

Whatever the instructor’s political views, whether judging Vietnam’s current economic trend as a cause for “free world” celebration or one of leftist utopian mourning, the fact remains that the Vietnamese standard of living and per capita income are both on the rise, after decades of economic mismanagement and stringent government control. 32 Although censorship of the press and restricted civil liberties are as one would expect in a one-party state, a look at Vietnam at the dawn of the twenty-first century provides a positive area for students to discuss and an upbeat note to end on, in a unit that focuses on the grim reality of war. As veteran war reporter David Lamb stated in his excellent work Vietnam Now (2002), the cautious moves by the Vietnamese government have resulted in a country that “remains closer to impoverished Laos than it does to developing Thailand. Yet,” Lamb adds, “the Vietnamese have always had staying power and been good at capitalizing on opportunity; their country brims with potential.” 33 This potential, which the country is in the process of realizing, is reason enough for an in-depth study of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people, and the nation they are becoming.

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1. Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 18.

2. George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 , 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 14.

3. Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 33.

4. David M. Kennedy and Thomas A. Bailey, The American Spirit, Vol. II: Since 1865 , 10th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 410.

5. Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 47.

6. Nixon, 15.

7. Nixon, 43.

8. See Melvin Small, Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 231–33.

9. Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 235. See the section “How Not to End a War,” 231–37.

10. Lt. Gen Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 403–04.

11. Moore and Galloway, 406.

12. John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 12.

13. Mark Baker, Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women who Fought There (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981), 171.

14. Paul Lyons, Class of ’66: Living in Suburban Middle America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 103.

15. Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 392.

16. Hodgson, 393.

17. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, eds., Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the Sixties (Lanham, Md.: Madison, 1989), 78–79.

18 Collier and Horowitz, eds., 90.

19. Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), 3.

20. Baritz, 6–7.

21. Fitzgerald, 30–31.

22. George Schultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 294.

23. George C. Herring, “America and Vietnam: The Unending War,” Foreign Affairs , Winter 1991/92, www.foreignaffairs.org/19911201faessay6116/georgec herring/america-and-vietnam-the-unending-war.html.

24. David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 32.

25. Josh Meyer, “Republican Senator Says U.S. Needs Iraq Exit Strategy Now,” Los Angeles Times , August 22, 2005, A4.

26. Robin Wright, “Democrats Find Iraq Alternative Is Elusive,” Washington Post , December 5, 2005, A1.

27. Jim VandeHei and Shalaigh Murray, “Democrats Fear Backlash at Polls for Antiwar Remarks,” Washington Post , December 7, 2005, A1.

28. Paul Richter, “Bush Promises a U.S. Exit Linked to Iraqi Readiness,” Los Angeles Times , December 1, 2005, A1.

29. Victor Davis Hanson, “2,000 Dead, in Context,” New York Times , October 27, 2005, A31.

30. David Lamb, Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), 74.

31. Lamb, 78.

32. See, for example: Tracy Dahlby, “The New Saigon,” National Geographic , Vol. 187, No. 4, April 1995, 60–86; Mason Florence and Virginia Jealous, Vietnam (Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet, 2004); Amy Kazmin, “Vietnam Gets in the Swing,” Los Angeles Times , August 8, 2005, C4; and Lamb, 70.

33. Lamb, 268.

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Essay: The Vietnam War

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Introduction The topic we choose for this assignment is the Vietnam War, because this war has been one of the most influential ones in American history. The war, which lasted from 1955 until 1975, had and still has a great impact on American society. Hundreds of thousands of both soldiers and civilians were killed it a, what later turned out to be, a useless interference in a civil war by the United States. The media had reported on big parts of the war. For the first time, due to the introduction of the television, every American citizen could see the horrible effects of the war live from their living room. Vietnam War Summarized overview The Vietnam War was a proxy war during the Cold War-era that took place between 1955 and 1975. The war was fought between the communist North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese communist force Viet Cong on one end and the non-communist South Vietnam on the other. The Vietnam War followed up the First Indochina War, partially, due to the interference of the United States and the Soviet Union, among other forces. The United States and its allies supported South Vietnam, while the USSR its allies supported North Vietnam. This made the Vietnam War known as one of the few ‘hot’ conflicts of the Cold War. The war represented a successful attempt of the North Vietnamese government, led by Ho Chi Minh, to unite the country under communist flag, since it had been split up by the decolonization. Elections for unification of the country were held in 1956, but South Vietnam ignored them. From this year up until the end of the war the Viet Cong carried out attacks in South Vietnam. The amount of US armed forces in Vietnam had been growing since 1955 but the real interference did not take place until after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, august 2nd, 1964. This incident, in which two US navy vessels had been torpedoed, led to the Tonkin Resolution. This resolution made it possible for the president of the United States to assist any South East Asian country in a war against communism. Between 1964 and 1968 the US president, Lyndon B Johnson, send over 500.000 troops to Vietnam. The US Army general William Westmoreland was in command during that period, he believed large scale aerial attacks to be the best option for defeating the Viet Cong. On March 28th 1968 the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces began to launch a series of guerrilla-attacks on South Vietnamese cities, the Tet Offensive. Even though the US Army troops were better equipped and larger in number, they could not withstand these attacks. The Tet Offensive later became known as the turning point of the war, as the public opinion on the righteousness of the war shifted. This was due to broad media coverage of all the events and attacks in the Vietnam War. President Johnson was not re-elected and succeeded by Richard Nixon. The Nixon administration was responsible for something called the Vietnamization. This basically meant that, because public opinion about the war had shifted, American troops must be withdrawn and the war handed back to the Vietnamese again. Also, Nixon ‘expanded’ the war into neutral countries such as Cambodia and Laos. This led to big protests in the United States, especially amongst students. In 1973, after peace negotiations in Paris, the last US Army troops leave Vietnam. In the following two years North Vietnamese forces took over large cities in South Vietnam resulting in the surrendering of South Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975. Reception of the Vietnam War The Vietnam War was the first war that was broadly documented and reported on by the media. Almost every day, news about Vietnam was broadcasted on American television. At first the general opinion was positive, but as the war escalated and more American soldiers died, the opinion shifted. This was greatly fuelled by the negative and sometimes inaccurate news reports during the Tet Offensive. The gruesome images of warfare broadcasted by the media caused distrust towards to government felt by the American society. One of the most famous events is the death of a Buddhist monk, who burned himself to death protesting the suppression of Buddhists by Ng”nh Di’m’s administration. Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne) Between 1967 and 1971 the percentage of young men who refused to serve in the US army rose from 8% to 43%. The opposition pointed out that the civilians of both North and South Vietnam became the main victims and that the US were actually supporting a corrupt government in the South. Because the United States lost the Tet Offensive, contrarily to public expectations and the insurances of the White House that victory was near, a big Anti War movement and counterculture was founded. Woodstock Music and Art Festival is the most famous example of this counterculture. The combination of new morals such as free love, recreational drug use and rock music made Woodstock a symbol of the antiwar movement. The anti war movements organized huge demonstrations. Among the demonstrators were a lot of students, clergy’s and African American. Popular anti war slogans were: ‘Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today’? – Chanted by the demonstrators in opposition of Lyndon B. Johnson “Hell, no, we won’t go!” Vietnam War and present day US Some of the things that happened during the Vietnam War have had a huge impact on how the Americans and the rest of the world live today. One of the things that had a huge impact on the Vietnam War is that the American media played a large role in this war. For the first time the citizens of America were able to see exactly what was happening overseas and witness the horrors of true war. This is something that was new then but now reports like that are on the news at least every week. Because the media is more involved then it ever was nowadays, the opinions of the people have changed and not everyone is ‘pro war’ anymore. This new source of information during wars and conflict also sparked distrust amongst the people of America towards their government and other authorities. This is something that can still be seen today. According to a survey carried out by Gallup.com(Gallup) 81% of the American people have a hard time trusting their own government. Another thing that changed is that since this war, the President is no longer able to declare war without consulting first. Congress also changed their army draft to an all-volunteer force and changed the voting age to 18. All of this to give more freedom to the people and give them more influence on the government. The Vietnam War resulted in a loss. America the number one country in the world, with the strongest army, had lost its first war. The citizens lost confidence in their country and its government. But what about the countless veterans who came home from this terrible war. Most of the veterans that came back suffered from physical as well as psychological problems. Because of these problems most of these veterans were unable to get back to their regular lives. This was also known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Up until the 1980’s nobody actually talked about the existence of this trauma and because of this there was almost no care for the veterans who had served their country. A lot of the veterans that returned to the USA could not get jobs and so became homeless. The veterans were also now seen as not only heroes or victims, but also as victimizers. This of course after the citizens of the USA had seen the terrible thing their own soldiers had done. The government, which promised health care and education for the veterans that got an honorable discharge, kept to their promise. The only problem for a lot of veterans was that their discharge had not been honorable and so had no right to any of these things. Because of the poor conditions the veterans had (and some still have) to live in took its toll on a lot of them. Statistics show that almost every 80 minutes a US veteran commits suicide, about 18 a day. They also had to cope with the physical harm caused by Agent Orange or the mental harm; PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder). They still cope with these problems today as Agent Orange can cause birth defects and PTSD is very hard to overcome, especially since the American government does so little to help these people. Conclusion It depends on from what perspective you look at this war and to what it has brought the world and more important America. We think that the consequences of this war are negative for the most part. America took several hits and still has not recovered from them. One of the most obvious things is that the citizens distrust their own government. Another thing is that more and more people are starting to agree on the fact that the Vietnam War might not have been such a great idea. Over the years people have started to doubt whether it was the right thing to do and in the year 2000, approximately 70% of the American people think that it was a mistake (see graph(Gillespie, 2000) below All of this because of the Vietnam war, but why? Why had this not happened in earlier wars? The biggest reason for this is that the media played a major role in this war. For the first time the American people could follow the war right at home with their television. Not only could they watch broadcasts of the war but there were also a lot more reports coming in every day. This made people look at the war from a whole other perspective. No longer was this war about helping people, honor and glory. People got to see the actual battles that took place, horrific images that one would not forget quickly. For the first time people did not think of America as the savior but as the bad guy.

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Barry Romo, Vietnam veteran who then fought against the war, dies at 76

Four Americans show letters from families of prisoners held in North Vietnam, Dec. 13, 1972, before departing New York's Kennedy Airport for Hanoi, where the letters will be turned over to the Committee of Solidarity with American People. The group includes, from left are: former Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, who was chief U.S. counselor at the Nuremberg war trials; Rev. Michael Allen, of Yale Divinity School; folk singer Joan Baez; and Barry Romo, of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Four Americans show letters from families of prisoners held in North Vietnam, Dec. 13, 1972, before departing New York's Kennedy Airport for Hanoi, where the letters will be turned over to the Committee of Solidarity with American People. The group includes, from left are: former Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, who was chief U.S. counselor at the Nuremberg war trials; Rev. Michael Allen, of Yale Divinity School; folk singer Joan Baez; and Barry Romo, of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Dave Pickoff/AP)

Barry Romo, a former Army officer in the Vietnam War who became a leading antiwar organizer and bore witness to devastating U.S. bombing runs on Hanoi during a 1972 visit to North Vietnam with activists including folk singer Joan Baez, died May 1 in Chicago. He was 76.

His death was announced by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group for which Romo served as a national coordinator for more than four decades. A spokesman, Roberto Clack, said Romo had a heart attack at home and was taken to a hospital, where he was declared dead.

During the height of the antiwar movement, Romo was a prominent voice among former military members who challenged Pentagon and White House narratives of a conflict that was winnable and necessary. Romo and other veterans - often wearing their old uniforms and fatigues - also added powerful symbolism to the wider protests by students, draft resisters, religious groups and others.

In April 1971, Romo organized convoys to bring thousands of veterans to Washington for an antiwar encampment known as Operation Dewey Canyon III, named after two U.S. military operations seeking to strike North Vietnamese bases. The veterans, camped on the National Mall, attended Senate hearings and staged rallies at Arlington National Cemetery and outside the Supreme Court and Pentagon.

On April 23, Romo joined hundreds of the veterans who lobbed their medals, discharge papers and war mementos onto the Capitol steps. Romo, who fought in the 1968 Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese forces, hurled his Bronze Star Medal and Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

Standing near Romo was former Navy lieutenant John F. Kerry, also a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “I am not doing this for any violent reasons but for peace and justice, and to try to make this country wake up once and for all,” said Kerry, who later was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, U.S. secretary of state and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.

Barry Romo, second from left, and Bill Davis in Chicago marching with Vietnam Veterans Against the War on Veterans Day circa 1970.

Barry Romo, second from left, and Bill Davis in Chicago marching with Vietnam Veterans Against the War on Veterans Day circa 1970. (Vietnam Veterans Against the War)

After Romo and many of the veterans had left Washington, massive antiwar marches paralyzed many parts of the city on May 1. More than 7,000 people were arrested in what became one of the largest street confrontations of Vietnam era.

Yet the sight of the veterans’ medals clanking on the Capitol’s marble steps became one of the defining scenes from the weeks of protest - at a time when public opinion was increasingly questioning how long the war could drag on and at what cost. Four years later, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), fell to the North Vietnamese.

In an essay in 1988, Romo looked back on the protest at the Capitol - “painful and angry thoughts filled our minds” - and recounted the death of nephew Bob Romo, who was killed by a North Vietnamese sniper in May 1968. “He drowned in his own blood,” Romo wrote.

He often retold the story of his nephew. For Romo, it was a key moment in his evolution from an eager Army enlistee to an antiwar leader. Romo signed up in 1966 as a supporter of the war. “I bought all the lines,” he recalled. His nephew was later drafted and put in an infantry brigade under Romo, who rose to become a first lieutenant.

“[My nephew] begged me to help him get out of the field,” Romo told NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “But I couldn’t help him.”

When his nephew was killed on patrol, the body couldn’t be recovered for 48 hours because of North Vietnamese fire. Already, Romo said his view of the war had changed, seeing the destruction of villages and the growing enmity at the U.S. military even among South Vietnamese. The death of his nephew was a tipping point.

“My mind started to change when I could see the people didn’t give a damn, our allies didn’t want to fight and senior officers flew around in helicopters while we ran around the jungle with barely enough water to drink,” Romo told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “My nephew’s death made me face the reality I was killing people for all the wrong reasons.”

After leaving the battlefield, Romo oversaw a training company at Fort Ord in California and was honorably discharged in January 1969. He soon became active in antiwar marches and veterans’ actions, and he was among more than 100 former military personnel at an event in Detroit in early 1971 to offer accounts of alleged military abuses and atrocities by U.S. forces.

The gathering, known as the Winter Soldier hearings, was also among the first forums to discuss the extent of psychological scars, including post-traumatic stress disorder, on veterans.

“Our slogan was ‘honor the warrior, not the war,’” said Romo, who began work in the national office of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1972. “It was important to overcome those kinds of differences.”

Romo returned to Southeast Asia in December 1972, traveling to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, with Baez; Michael Allen, an associate dean at Yale Divinity School; and former Army Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, a chief prosecutor at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials who became a staunch critic of the Vietnam War. Romo carried Christmas presents and letters for more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war.

During the two-week stay, the United States opened an intensive bombing campaign on the city even as peace talks were underway in Paris. The airstrikes were “worse than anything I was under in London during the blitz,” Taylor said.

The group said the bombing damaged civilian sites, including a 950-bed hospital. At one point, Romo and the others saw a woman digging in the rubble of the building in a residential area of Hanoi, shouting, “My son, my son, where are you?”

Much of Baez’s 1973 album “Where Are You Now, My Son?” was based on what the group experienced in Hanoi.

Barry Louis Romo was born in San Bernardino, Calif., on July 24, 1947. His father, a World War II veteran, worked as a meat cutter. His mother, who was born in England, was a homemaker. The couple met during the war.

Romo enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school and was sent to Vietnam in 1967 as a second lieutenant.

After the war, Romo helped guide Vietnam Veterans Against the War into other roles, including pressing for greater health-care coverage for people exposed to the military defoliant known as Agent Orange.

Later, Romo helped efforts in 2006 to establish an allied group, Iraq Veterans Against the War. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service, including as a local union leader, and retired in 2009.

His marriage to Alynne Kilpatrick ended in divorce. Survivors include two children.

In Romo’s apartment in Chicago, the walls had posters from antiwar events during the Vietnam years. There were also newspaper clipping and printouts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It would be nice to move on,” he once said. “But history keeps repeating itself.”

previous coverage

  • Remains of Iowa native killed at Pearl Harbor identified
  • Veterans embark on memorable trip to National Mall on Freedom Honor Flight
  • Remains of Korean War soldier, Vietnam War pilot identified
  • Dick Rutan, Vietnam War veteran and co-pilot of historic round-the-world flight, dies at 85
  • Biden awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19
  • Following an Honor Flight, a mission, and a life, completed
  • Exposed to Agent Orange at US bases, veterans face cancer without VA compensation

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Illustration of a missile made from words.

In the campus protests over the war in Gaza, language and rhetoric are—as they have always been when it comes to Israel and Palestine—weapons of mass destruction.

By Zadie Smith

A philosophy without a politics is common enough. Aesthetes, ethicists, novelists—all may be easily critiqued and found wanting on this basis. But there is also the danger of a politics without a philosophy. A politics unmoored, unprincipled, which holds as its most fundamental commitment its own perpetuation. A Realpolitik that believes itself too subtle—or too pragmatic—to deal with such ethical platitudes as thou shalt not kill. Or: rape is a crime, everywhere and always. But sometimes ethical philosophy reënters the arena, as is happening right now on college campuses all over America. I understand the ethics underpinning the protests to be based on two widely recognized principles:

There is an ethical duty to express solidarity with the weak in any situation that involves oppressive power.

If the machinery of oppressive power is to be trained on the weak, then there is a duty to stop the gears by any means necessary.

The first principle sometimes takes the “weak” to mean “whoever has the least power,” and sometimes “whoever suffers most,” but most often a combination of both. The second principle, meanwhile, may be used to defend revolutionary violence, although this interpretation has just as often been repudiated by pacifistic radicals, among whom two of the most famous are, of course, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr . In the pacifist’s interpretation, the body that we must place between the gears is not that of our enemy but our own. In doing this, we may pay the ultimate price with our actual bodies, in the non-metaphorical sense. More usually, the risk is to our livelihoods, our reputations, our futures. Before these most recent campus protests began, we had an example of this kind of action in the climate movement. For several years now, many people have been protesting the economic and political machinery that perpetuates climate change, by blocking roads, throwing paint, interrupting plays, and committing many other arrestable offenses that can appear ridiculous to skeptics (or, at the very least, performative), but which in truth represent a level of personal sacrifice unimaginable to many of us.

I experienced this not long ago while participating in an XR climate rally in London. When it came to the point in the proceedings where I was asked by my fellow-protesters whether I’d be willing to commit an arrestable offense—one that would likely lead to a conviction and thus make travelling to the United States difficult or even impossible—I’m ashamed to say that I declined that offer. Turns out, I could not give up my relationship with New York City for the future of the planet. I’d just about managed to stop buying plastic bottles (except when very thirsty) and was trying to fly less. But never to see New York again? What pitiful ethical creatures we are (I am)! Falling at the first hurdle! Anyone who finds themselves rolling their eyes at any young person willing to put their own future into jeopardy for an ethical principle should ask themselves where the limits of their own commitments lie—also whether they’ve bought a plastic bottle or booked a flight recently. A humbling inquiry.

It is difficult to look at the recent Columbia University protests in particular without being reminded of the campus protests of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, some of which happened on the very same lawns. At that time, a cynical political class was forced to observe the spectacle of its own privileged youth standing in solidarity with the weakest historical actors of the moment, a group that included, but was not restricted to, African Americans and the Vietnamese. By placing such people within their ethical zone of interest, young Americans risked both their own academic and personal futures and—in the infamous case of Kent State—their lives. I imagine that the students at Columbia—and protesters on other campuses—fully intend this echo, and, in their unequivocal demand for both a ceasefire and financial divestment from this terrible war, to a certain extent they have achieved it.

But, when I open newspapers and see students dismissing the idea that some of their fellow-students feel, at this particular moment, unsafe on campus, or arguing that such a feeling is simply not worth attending to, given the magnitude of what is occurring in Gaza, I find such sentiments cynical and unworthy of this movement. For it may well be—within the ethical zone of interest that is a campus, which was not so long ago defined as a safe space, delineated by the boundary of a generation’s ethical ideas— it may well be that a Jewish student walking past the tents, who finds herself referred to as a Zionist, and then is warned to keep her distance, is, in that moment, the weakest participant in the zone. If the concept of safety is foundational to these students’ ethical philosophy (as I take it to be), and, if the protests are committed to reinserting ethical principles into a cynical and corrupt politics, it is not right to divest from these same ethics at the very moment they come into conflict with other imperatives. The point of a foundational ethics is that it is not contingent but foundational. That is precisely its challenge to a corrupt politics.

Practicing our ethics in the real world involves a constant testing of them, a recognition that our zones of ethical interest have no fixed boundaries and may need to widen and shrink moment by moment as the situation demands. (Those brave students who—in supporting the ethical necessity of a ceasefire—find themselves at painful odds with family, friends, faith, or community have already made this calculation.) This flexibility can also have the positive long-term political effect of allowing us to comprehend that, although our duty to the weakest is permanent, the role of “the weakest” is not an existential matter independent of time and space but, rather, a contingent situation, continually subject to change. By contrast, there is a dangerous rigidity to be found in the idea that concern for the dreadful situation of the hostages is somehow in opposition to, or incompatible with, the demand for a ceasefire. Surely a ceasefire—as well as being an ethical necessity—is also in the immediate absolute interest of the hostages, a fact that cannot be erased by tearing their posters off walls.

Part of the significance of a student protest is the ways in which it gives young people the opportunity to insist upon an ethical principle while still being, comparatively speaking, a more rational force than the supposed adults in the room, against whose crazed magical thinking they have been forced to define themselves. The equality of all human life was never a self-evident truth in racially segregated America. There was no way to “win” in Vietnam. Hamas will not be “eliminated.” The more than seven million Jewish human beings who live in the gap between the river and the sea will not simply vanish because you think that they should. All of that is just rhetoric. Words. Cathartic to chant, perhaps, but essentially meaningless. A ceasefire, meanwhile, is both a potential reality and an ethical necessity. The monstrous and brutal mass murder of more than eleven hundred people, the majority of them civilians, dozens of them children, on October 7th, has been followed by the monstrous and brutal mass murder (at the time of writing) of a reported fourteen thousand five hundred children. And many more human beings besides, but it’s impossible not to notice that the sort of people who take at face value phrases like “surgical strikes” and “controlled military operation” sometimes need to look at and/or think about dead children specifically in order to refocus their minds on reality.

To send the police in to arrest young people peacefully insisting upon a ceasefire represents a moral injury to us all. To do it with violence is a scandal. How could they do less than protest, in this moment? They are putting their own bodies into the machine. They deserve our support and praise. As to which postwar political arrangement any of these students may favor, and on what basis they favor it—that is all an argument for the day after a ceasefire. One state, two states, river to the sea—in my view, their views have no real weight in this particular moment, or very little weight next to the significance of their collective action, which (if I understand it correctly) is focussed on stopping the flow of money that is funding bloody murder, and calling for a ceasefire, the political euphemism that we use to mark the end of bloody murder. After a ceasefire, the criminal events of the past seven months should be tried and judged, and the infinitely difficult business of creating just, humane, and habitable political structures in the region must begin anew. Right now: ceasefire. And, as we make this demand, we might remind ourselves that a ceasefire is not, primarily, a political demand. Primarily, it is an ethical one.

But it is in the nature of the political that we cannot even attend to such ethical imperatives unless we first know the political position of whoever is speaking. (“Where do you stand on Israel/Palestine?”) In these constructed narratives, there are always a series of shibboleths, that is, phrases that can’t be said, or, conversely, phrases that must be said. Once these words or phrases have been spoken ( river to the sea, existential threat, right to defend, one state, two states, Zionist, colonialist, imperialist, terrorist ) and one’s positionality established, then and only then will the ethics of the question be attended to (or absolutely ignored). The objection may be raised at this point that I am behaving like a novelist, expressing a philosophy without a politics, or making some rarefied point about language and rhetoric while people commit bloody murder. This would normally be my own view, but, in the case of Israel/Palestine, language and rhetoric are and always have been weapons of mass destruction.

It is in fact perhaps the most acute example in the world of the use of words to justify bloody murder, to flatten and erase unbelievably labyrinthine histories, and to deliver the atavistic pleasure of violent simplicity to the many people who seem to believe that merely by saying something they make it so. It is no doubt a great relief to say the word “Hamas” as if it purely and solely described a terrorist entity. A great relief to say “There is no such thing as the Palestinian people” as they stand in front of you. A great relief to say “Zionist colonialist state” and accept those three words as a full and unimpeachable definition of the state of Israel, not only under the disastrous leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu but at every stage of its long and complex history, and also to hear them as a perfectly sufficient description of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived in Israel or happened to find themselves born within it. It is perhaps because we know these simplifications to be impossible that we insist upon them so passionately. They are shibboleths; they describe a people, by defining them against other people—but the people being described are ourselves. The person who says “We must eliminate Hamas” says this not necessarily because she thinks this is a possible outcome on this earth but because this sentence is the shibboleth that marks her membership in the community that says that. The person who uses the word “Zionist” as if that word were an unchanged and unchangeable monolith, meaning exactly the same thing in 2024 and 1948 as it meant in 1890 or 1901 or 1920—that person does not so much bring definitive clarity to the entangled history of Jews and Palestinians as they successfully and soothingly draw a line to mark their own zone of interest and where it ends. And while we all talk, carefully curating our shibboleths, presenting them to others and waiting for them to reveal themselves as with us or against us—while we do all that, bloody murder.

And now here we are, almost at the end of this little stream of words. We’ve arrived at the point at which I must state clearly “where I stand on the issue,” that is, which particular political settlement should, in my own, personal view, occur on the other side of a ceasefire. This is the point wherein—by my stating of a position—you are at once liberated into the simple pleasure of placing me firmly on one side or the other, putting me over there with those who lisp or those who don’t, with the Ephraimites, or with the people of Gilead. Yes, this is the point at which I stake my rhetorical flag in that fantastical, linguistical, conceptual, unreal place—built with words—where rapes are minimized as needs be, and the definition of genocide quibbled over, where the killing of babies is denied, and the precision of drones glorified, where histories are reconsidered or rewritten or analogized or simply ignored, and “Jew” and “colonialist” are synonymous, and “Palestinian” and “terrorist” are synonymous, and language is your accomplice and alibi in all of it. Language euphemized, instrumentalized, and abused, put to work for your cause and only for your cause, so that it does exactly and only what you want it to do. Let me make it easy for you. Put me wherever you want: misguided socialist, toothless humanist, naïve novelist, useful idiot, apologist, denier, ally, contrarian, collaborator, traitor, inexcusable coward. It is my view that my personal views have no more weight than an ear of corn in this particular essay. The only thing that has any weight in this particular essay is the dead. ♦

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An illustration of a flower growing out of a dark cloud into a lighter cloud.

Opinion Nicholas Kristof

The Case for Hope

Credit... Cecilia Carlstedt

Supported by

Nicholas Kristof

By Nicholas Kristof

Opinion Columnist

  • May 9, 2024

Mr. Kristof is the author of a new memoir, “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

More than three-quarters of Americans say the United States is headed in the wrong direction. This year, for the first time, America dropped out of the top 20 happiest countries in this year’s World Happiness Report. Some couples are choosing not to have children because of climate threats. And this despair permeates not just the United States, but much of the world.

This moment is particularly dispiriting because of the toxic mood. Debates about the horrifying toll of the war in Gaza have made the atmosphere even more poisonous, as the turmoil on college campuses underscores. We are a bitterly divided nation, quick to point fingers and denounce one another, and the recriminations feed the gloom. Instead of a City on a Hill, we feel like a nation in despair — maybe even a planet in despair.

Yet that’s not how I feel at all.

What I’ve learned from four decades of covering misery is hope — both the reasons for hope and the need for hope. I emerge from years on the front lines awed by material and moral progress, for we have the good fortune to be part of what is probably the greatest improvement in life expectancy, nutrition and health that has ever unfolded in one lifetime.

Many genuine threats remain. We could end up in a nuclear war with Russia or China; we might destroy our planet with carbon emissions; the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened greatly in the United States in recent decades (although global inequality has diminished ); we may be sliding toward authoritarianism at home; and 1,000 other things could go wrong.

Yet whenever I hear that America has never been such a mess or so divided, I think not just of the Civil War but of my own childhood: the assassinations of the 1960s, the riots, the murders of civil rights workers, the curses directed at returning Vietnam veterans, the families torn apart at generational seams, the shooting of students at Kent State, the leftists in America and abroad who quoted Mao and turned to violence because they thought society could never evolve.

If we got through that, we can get through this.

My message of hope rubs some Americans the wrong way. They see war, can’t afford to buy a house, struggle to pay back student debt and what’s the point anyway, when we’re boiling the planet? Fair enough: My job is writing columns about all these worries.

Yet all this malaise is distorting our politics and our personal behaviors, adding to the tensions and divisions in society. Today’s distress can nurture cynicism rather than idealism, can be paralyzing, can shape politics by fostering a Trumpian nostalgia for some grand mythical time in the past.

The danger is that together all of us in society collectively reinforce a melancholy that leaves us worse off. Despair doesn’t solve problems; it creates them. It is numbing and counterproductive, making it more difficult to rouse ourselves to tackle the challenges around us.

The truth is that if you had to pick a time to be alive in the past few hundred thousand years of human history, it would probably be now.

When I step back, what I see over the arc of my career is a backdrop of progress in America and abroad that is rarely acknowledged — and that should give us perspective and inspire us to take on the many challenges that still confront us.

I think of a woman named Delfina, whom I interviewed in 2015 in a village in Angola. She had never seen a doctor or dentist and had lost 10 of her 15 children. Delfina had rotten teeth and lived in constant, excruciating dental pain. She had never heard of family planning, and there was no school in the area, so she and all the other villagers were illiterate.

A young journalist following in my footsteps today may never encounter a person like Delfina — and that’s because of the revolution in health care, education and well-being that we are in the middle of, yet often seem oblivious to.

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I have implored President Biden to do more for the children and babies dying in Gaza. I’ve been unwavering about the need to support the people suffering bombardment in Ukraine . And I regularly report on the conflicts and humanitarian disasters in Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen and elsewhere that garner less attention.

Some people see my career covering massacres and oppression and assume that I must be dour and infused with misery, a journalistic Eeyore. Not so! Journalism is an act of hope. Why else would reporters rush toward gunfire, visit Covid wards or wade into riots to interview arsonists? We do all this because we believe that better outcomes are possible if we just get people to understand more clearly what’s going on. So let me try with you.

Just 100 years ago, doctors could do nothing when President Calvin Coolidge’s 16-year-old son developed a blister on a toe while playing tennis on the White House court. It became infected, and without antibiotics the boy was dead within a week. Today the most impoverished child in the United States on Medicaid has access to better health care than the president’s son did a century ago.

Consider that a 2016 poll found that more than 90 percent of Americans think that global poverty stayed the same or got worse over the previous 20 years. This is flat wrong: Arguably the most important trend in the world in our lifetime has been the enormous reduction in global poverty.

About one million fewer children will die this year than in 2016, and 2024 will probably set yet another record for the smallest share of children dying before the age of 5. When I was a child, a majority of adults were illiterate, and it had been that way forever; now we’re close to 90 percent adult literacy. Extreme poverty has plunged to just 8 percent of the world’s population.

Those are statistics, but much of my career has been spent documenting the revolution in human conditions they represent. In the 1990s I saw human traffickers openly sell young girls in Cambodia for their virginity; it felt like 19th-century slavery, except most of these girls were going to be dead of AIDS by their 20s. Trafficking remains a huge problem, but the progress is manifest. In Kolkata, India, where I’ve covered this issue for decades, one study found an 80 percent reduction in the number of children in brothels since 2016.

Two decades ago, AIDS was ravaging poor countries, and it wasn’t clear we would ever control it. Then America under President George W. Bush started a program, Pepfar , that allowed the world to turn the corner on AIDS globally, saving 25 million lives so far. One reason you don’t hear much about AIDS today is that it’s among the great successes in the history of health care.

It’s not just that the world has in our lifetimes seen the greatest improvement in human wellness that we know of since the birth of our species. Despite some setbacks for democracy — and real risks here in the United States — I’ve learned to doubt despotism in the long run.

One of my searing experiences as a young journalist was covering that terrible night in June 1989 when Chinese Army troops turned their automatic weapons on unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square, including the crowd that I was in. You never forget seeing soldiers use weapons of war to massacre unarmed citizens; I still have my notebook from that night, stained with the sweat of fear.

“Maybe we’ll fail today,” my scribbles record, as I quoted an art student nearly incoherent with grief. “Maybe we’ll fail tomorrow. But someday we’ll succeed.”

Yet I also remember a day five weeks earlier in the democracy movement, April 27, 1989, when Beijing students prepared for a protest march from the university district to Tiananmen.

Students knew that if they marched, they were risking expulsion, imprisonment or worse. The evening before, some students spent the night writing their wills in case they were killed.

I drove out to the university district that morning and saw roads lined with tens of thousands of People’s Armed Police. I slipped onto the Beijing University campus by pretending to be a foreign student and watched as a frightened band of 100 students emerged from a dormitory, parading with pro-democracy banners. Gradually other students joined in, and perhaps 1,000 marched, clearly terrified, toward the gate. Rows of armed police blocked their way, but the students jostled and pushed and finally forced their way onto the road. To everyone’s surprise, the police didn’t club the students or shoot them that day. Once the vanguard broke through, thousands more students materialized to join the march.

Word spread rapidly. As the marchers passed other universities, tens of thousands more joined the protest march, and so did ordinary citizens. Old people shouted encouragement from balconies and shopkeepers rushed out to give drinks and snacks to protesters. The police tried many times to block the students, but each time huge throngs of young people forced their way through.

By the time they reached Tiananmen Square, the protesters numbered perhaps half a million. Then they marched triumphantly back to their universities, hailed by the people of Beijing screaming support. That evening at the gate of Beijing University, the students were met not by phalanxes of armed police but by white-haired professors waiting for them, crying happy tears, cheering for them.

“You are heroes,” one professor shouted. “You are sacrificing for all of us. You are braver than we are.”

It was a privilege to witness the heroism of that day. There is much to learn from the commitment to democracy shown that spring by Chinese students.

The exhilaration of that march to Tiananmen Square didn’t last. But in my reporting career, I’ve learned first to be careful of betting on democracy in the short run, and second, to never bet against it in the long run.

Some day, I hope to see the arrival of democracy in China, as well as in Russia, Venezuela and Egypt.

Commentators are always predicting the end of American primacy. First it was the book “Japan as No. 1” in 1979 by Ezra F. Vogel, then Patrick Buchanan’s 2002 right-wing “The Death of the West” and Naomi Wolf’s 2007 leftist “The End of America.” It seemed for a time that Europe might surpass us, while in the longer run China appeared poised to overtake America and become the world’s largest economy.

Yet the United States maintains its vitality. World Bank figures suggest that the United States has actually increased its share of global G.D.P., measured by official exchange rates, by a hair since 1995. Europe today is leaderless and has anemic growth. Japan, China and South Korea are losing population and lagging economically. “Uncle Sam is putting the rest of the world to shame,” The Economist noted recently.

China’s struggles today are particularly important, for it was China that was the foremost challenger to American pre-eminence. Many people around the world thought that China had a more vibrant political and economic model. Yet today China is struggling and even with its population advantage it is no longer clear that China’s economy will ever eclipse America’s. The United States is the undisputed titan in the world today.

As I see it, the possibility of a Donald Trump election hangs as a shadow over America. Yet even if Trump were elected, there is a dynamism and inner strength in America — in technology, culture, medicine, business, education — that I think can survive four years of national misrule, chaos and subversion of democracy. Indeed, Trump might wreck Europe and Asia — by abandoning NATO and Taiwan — even more than he would damage America, in a way that would perversely cement U.S. primacy.

Note that one of the dominant issues in this year’s general election will be immigration. That’s partly because of the determination of people around the world to come to America, just as my dad risked his life to escape Eastern Europe and make his way here in 1952. Desperate foreigners sometimes see our nation’s resilience more clearly than we do.

I have seen that faith in America in surprising places, even when I periodically slipped into Darfur to cover the genocide there in the 2000s. I couldn’t obtain a government pass to get through checkpoints, but I realized that U.N. workers were showing English-language credentials that the soldiers surely couldn’t read. So I put my United Airlines Mileage Plus card on a lanyard, drove up to a checkpoint and showed it — and the soldiers waved me through.

Recklessness caught up with me, and eventually I was stopped at a checkpoint and kept in a detention hut decorated with a grisly mural of a prisoner being impaled by a stake through the stomach. It was a frightening wait as the soldiers summoned their commander. He eventually arrived and ordered me released — and then one of my captors who previously had seemed ready to execute me sidled up.

“Hi,” he said. “Can you get me a visa to America?”

I share the view that a Trump election would pose immense damage to American political and legal systems. But in the scientific world we would continue to move forward with new vaccines for breast cancer, new drugs to combat obesity and new CRISPR gene-editing techniques to treat sickle cell and other diseases.

How can we weigh democratic decline against lives saved through medical progress? Of course we can’t. As my intellectual hero, Isaiah Berlin , might say, they are incommensurate yardsticks — but that does not mean that they are irrelevant to our well-being.

And no one can accuse me of ignoring the problems that beset us at home and abroad, for they have been my career. They’ve left me a bit too scarred to be a classic optimist. Hans Rosling, a Swedish development expert, used to say that he wasn’t an optimist but a possibilist. In other words, he saw better outcomes as possible if we worked to achieve them. That makes sense to me, and it means replacing despair with guarded hope.

This isn’t hope as a naïve faith that things will somehow end up OK. No, it is a somewhat battered hope that improvements are possible if we push hard enough.

In 2004 I introduced Times readers to the story of an illiterate woman named Mukhtar Mai, whom I met in the remote village of Meerwala in Pakistan. She had been gang-raped on order of a village council, as punishment for a supposed offense by her brother, and she was then expected to disappear in shame or kill herself. Instead, she prosecuted her attackers, sent them to prison and then used her compensation money to start a school in her village.

Instead of giving in to despair, Mukhtar nursed a hope that education would chip away at the misogyny and abuse of women that had victimized her and so many others. Then she enrolled the children of her rapists in her school.

Mukhtar taught me that we humans are endowed with strength — and hope — that, if we recognize it and flex it, can achieve the impossible.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , WhatsApp , X and Threads .

Nicholas Kristof became a columnist for The Times Opinion desk in 2001 and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. His new memoir is “ Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life .” @ NickKristof



  1. Grade 12 History notes-Vietnam war essay

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