The Vietnam War
Aside from the political and social tensions surrounding the event and the era of the Vietnam War, the war itself still needs to be analyzed. A famous study regarding what seventeen-years-olds didn’t know about the basics of American history cited ignorance of the Vietnam War as a telling “knowledge gap.” The vast majority of students questioned could not place Vietnam on a blank map of the world even though their fathers, uncles, and sometimes brothers had fought there. Can you? Furthermore, we would only add insult to injury for Vietnam veterans if we saw the war only in terms of domestic conflict and protests. There was a real war in Vietnam, and real Americans were killed and maimed. With the US still trying to grapple with the concept of “limited war,” an opportunity to contain communism was lost. We could have won—wait and see.
The causes of US involvement in Vietnam make a sort of jungle of their own. Theodore Roosevelt had set America on the course of being a big-hearted nation with global prominence, and World War II only confirmed and strengthened that position. The US had helped drive the Japanese back from their conquests which included French Indo-China, the colonial name for Vietnam and her neighbors. America tended to follow Woodrow Wilson’s advice since World War I, to let liberated people have self-determination. Another East-Asian region, however, soon distracted the US from Indo-China as communists swarmed over the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. Having successfully contained communism there, when similar aggression manifested itself in Indo-China the US turned a weary but still vigilant eye in that direction.
We missed our chance. Ho Chi Minh had come to America to seek support for a nation of Vietnam independent from the French who had returned after World War II to take up their imperial holdings again. This move put us in an awkward position as our values were being ignored by one of our allies in World War II and NATO. When we rejected Ho’s request, he turned to the communists to help supply his nationalist movement to repel the French which the North Vietnamese, now communists, did at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. What was known as the Indochina War thus ended and without the use of atomic weapons, but the United Nations could not do more than divide Vietnam into two countries.
Eisenhower sent money to support South Vietnam as well as 2,000 military advisors by 1961. Ike espoused the “domino theory,” the notion that if South Vietnam fell to communism, the rest of the countries of Southeast Asia would also fall. The desire to monitor the North Vietnamese communists in order to prevent an invasion of South Vietnam is what prompted Lyndon Johnson to authorize US Navy patrols off the coast of North Vietnam that included espionage. After the attack on US forces, the Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964. LBJ increased JFK’s troop level from 17,000 to 50,000 by April of 1965, and the draft was reinstated to meet the need for new troops. Johnson escalated the conflict to include bombing raids over North Vietnam called Operation Rolling Thunder and a total of 184,000 American troops by the end of 1965. The Soviets and Chinese chose to fight a puppet war by supplying the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Both sides in the Cold War attempted to save face with political posturing as the war continued to escalate with 385,000 US troops by 1966, 485,000 by 1967, and a top troop ceiling of 538,000 by 1968. By then 100,000 Americans had been wounded and 30,000 killed. There were volunteers who fought in the Vietnam War, but by 1968 1.7 million had been drafted.
Johnson vowed, “I will not lose. . .” to the American people. Americans had been in Vietnam since Truman’s presidency, but as we begin a summary of the course of the war we should note that the Battle of Pleiku was the first to claim American lives. From that point on General William C. Westmoreland carried out a policy called “Search and Destroy,” indicative of how difficult it was to find the Viet Cong guerrillas. American forces used helicopter transportation extensively to carry troops to villages where suspected VC guerillas resided.
The biggest mistake in this plan was the failure to capture and hold territory and thus deny support to the communist revolutionaries in South Vietnam. The US strategy believed a 1:4 body count ratio would lead to victory—wait until you see just what the final ratio of US soldiers to enemy soldiers was! Keep in mind that officers who would be judged by their kill ratios were tempted to inflate the numbers of killed enemies, and they did, giving the US a false sense of security eerily like that of George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn. After the war, a Vietnamese general simply reported that his people had been fighting for decades against the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and then the Americans. He said the North Vietnamese government’s position was simply, “How long does America want to fight? We can outlast anyone.”
Before he left office in disgrace, Johnson increased the bombing of North Vietnam and of Viet Cong strongholds in 1968 so much that the US dropped 50% more bombs on this little country than had been dropped in all of World War II! The tunnels the enemy dug, however, prevented this bombing from damaging their ability to fight on. Tunnels beneath the jungles and cities of Vietnam included large “rooms” for barracks, hospitals, etc. that were impervious to surface bombing. Monsoon rains, which were normal to the Vietnamese, also diminished the effectiveness of US military missions.
During the lame-duck period of Johnson’s presidency after the Election of 1968, the Viet Cong achieved a great psychological victory in a series of attacks called the Tet Offensive during the Chinese New Year (Tet). While the attacks across South Vietnam were uniformly repulsed with the greatest loss of life to the enemy of the war, television coverage portrayed the event as chaos. A news commentator said, “What the hell is going on over there?” while on the air. Public opinion dutifully shifted against the war. Opposition at home grew to bring about the activities of SDS, the Kent State shootings, and a march on Washington, D. C. sponsored by the anti-war protest movement.
Richard Nixon permitted the first de-escalation of the war with a reduction of American troops stationed in Vietnam to 478,000 by 1969. While some troops, therefore, were jubilant at the opportunity to go home, others faced the daily mental and physical challenges of fighting in a jungle. The jungle itself was dangerous with venomous snakes, tigers, and jungle-rot (a fungal condition that attacked the skin of US troops under the constantly damp condition in which they lived and fought). The VC craftily made man-traps of everything from holes in the ground with sharpened stakes to pierce the feet of Americans to booby-trapped bodies of their fallen comrades. The standard-issue weapon of the US military, the M-16, was poorly designed for jungle conditions and often jammed. Scores of American soldiers were found dead having broken down their weapons trying to clean them. Soldiers asked their families to send graphite to serve as a lubricant rather than the government-issued oil. An illicit drug culture spread among US military personnel as well as other forms of corruption including the murder of incompetent or overbearing officers.
A memorable battle, one of the only pitched confrontations between US soldiers and those of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) occurred at Khe Sanh, a mountain village. US forces used so many conventional bombs on enemy positions that the equivalent of five atomic bombs was dropped around the village, to little effect. The whole war had degenerated into a stalemate or a “quagmire,” a term more symbolic of the swampy conditions. Nixon desperately sought a solution that could be termed “peace with honor.” He hit upon a strategy called, “Vietnamization.” In this scenario, the US committed to increase its monetary support of South Vietnam while diminishing its military support. The hope was that the South Vietnamese would take on more responsibility for their own defense. US troop levels were reduced to 328,000 by 1970 at which point 40,000 had been killed. Another Tet Offensive in March of 1972 called this strategy into question, so Nixon responded with increased bombing of the enemy using B-52s and the mining and blockading of the harbors of Haiphong, the major port city of North Vietnam. Nixon also initiated secret peace talks with the Vietnamese in Paris, reduced the number of US troops to 24,200, and ended the draft by 1973.
Peace talks were successful by January of 1973, and a cease fire was achieved, partly because Nixon said he would cut off US grain shipments to the Soviet Union if the war did not end. After this step, however, the Nixon presidency collapsed in on itself for reasons we will examine, leaving Gerald Ford in charge. Ford could merely watch on television with the rest of America in 1975 at the ignominious sight of fleeing US helicopters ferrying US personnel off the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon as the South Vietnamese capital city fell to renewed communist aggression. Vietnam was forcibly united by communists, but Ford could say, “Our long nightmare is over.” The nightmare included, however, the disturbing news that in 1968 a unit of embittered American soldiers had rounded up the people of a village named My Lai and killed between 100 and 450 innocent old men, women, and children. The slaughter stopped only when a helicopter pilot landed his aircraft between the US troops and the villagers and trained its machine guns on our own troops. The pilot of that helicopter was given the Congressional Medal of Honor.
All of the consequences of the Vietnam War were disturbing in a way. A total of 300,000 US soldiers were wounded, and over 58,000 were killed. The war and the debate over it at home destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and opened up what is called a “credibility gap” between the American people and their presidents ever since. LBJ’s Great Society initiatives were stifled by his demise. Nixon shared the fallout, however, because the Pentagon Papers came out during his presidency. Secret Pentagon documents were leaked to the press that revealed Johnson had lied to the American people regarding the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that escalated American involvement in the first place. The Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon’s presidency originated partly in the efforts of the Nixon Administration to discredit the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg. More will come about that, later. Nixon’s cause was not helped, however, by the revelation that he had authorized secret raids into Laos and Cambodia to stop communist supply lines into South Vietnam (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) as well as holding peace talks while telling the American people he was not. The combined weight of these events caused a loss of presidential prestige that seems permanent in US history.
The disillusionment with the president was only the beginning of the fateful decline in American morale. Our first television war had left an indelible loss of national standing in its wake. Vietnam was the first war fought by the USA (not the CSA) where our nation “. . . failed to achieve its goals.” That was the government’s phrase for our having lost the war. Many Americans, as a result, came to distrust all war. The centuries-old Just War Theory in Western Civilization was dismissed by this element in American society as if the experiences of one generation were sufficient to dismiss the history of a hundred generations.
Vietnam was buried behind a “Bamboo Curtain” for 25 years. Ten million refugees fled the advance of the communists. While the United States improved its relations with the USSR and China (because of the food for peace strategy) and achieved a measure of détente, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia became “killing fields” where millions of Southeast Asians were slaughtered for resisting communism. Communism won through murder. From just the Vietnam War, 1.2 million Vietnamese were dead. The death toll created by the reality of the Domino Theory is unknown but considerably larger. By the way, since I told you how many Vietnamese we killed in the war it’s time to pin down the actual kill ratio. Our strategists said 1:4 would win; the end result was 1:20, and we still lost!
Statistics like these led to the War Powers Act of 1973. This law said that the President must notify Congress within 48 hours of sending American troops into combat. A president can “wage war” alone for only 60 days without the approval of Congress unless it would be safer for American troops to delay pulling them out of combat for a total of 90 days. Just as after the Great Depression, Congress acted to attempt legislation that would prevent a disaster, in this case a “quagmire” like that of the Vietnam War, from ever happening again.