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On November 2nd, 2019, the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association hosted a symposium on the Vietnam War. The symposium was held at the Atlanta History Center in McElreath Hall and was attended by over 350 Vietnam veterans, AVVBA members and interested citizens, including Vietnamese-Americans. Several VVFH members attended as well, including David Hanna, who flew from Australia to attend. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote an article about the event.
Our Executive Secretary, R.J. "Del" Delvecchio moderated the symposium and VVFH members Dr. Robert F. Turner and Dr. Mark Moyar spoke, along with Dr. Michael Kort from Boston University. Lunch was supplied, as a courtesy to veterans, by Chick-fil-A, and the symposium was sponsored by Synovus Bank.
Video of the symposium will be made available by AVVBA and will be posted here when it's been published.
During the Q & A period after lunch, we received so many questions that we couldn't possibly answer them all. So, we promised to answer all the remaining questions, which we will do here. Some of these questions will take some research, so they will show up as we obtain appropriate answers.
Q: What effect did the news media have on the outcome of the war?
A: News media coverage not only affected the outcome of the war, but it also impacted the current teaching of the history of the war. Over time a theme developed that the war was unwinnable, immoral, unjust, and illegal. This was a direct result of the books written by war correspondents whose coverage of the war shaped the views of many historians. (Most notably Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History, David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie.)
You may be interested in reading Robert Elegant's How to Lose A War which was published in 1981. Elegant was a war correspondent in Vietnam and has harsh criticism for how his colleagues covered the war. Another correspondent who has been critical of the media is Uwe Siemon-Netto, who wrote The Wrong Side Won. We argue that coverage of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was a massive defeat for the communists, was turned into a victory by the news media's coverage of it as a victory for the North and of course, Walter Cronkite's famous "stalemate" opinion announced on national TV during his news broadcast.
Q: What is the current government of Vietnam now. Are the people better or worse off than if the US had stopped North Vietnam?
A: Vietnam is ostensibly a communist country although it's allowed a certain level of capitalism to arise in recent times. It is still a very oppressive society and has one of the worst human rights records in the world. If the US had not abandoned South Vietnam, it's likely that it would be similar to South Korea.
Q: What sort of reception do you receive on college campuses? Do you think you are successful in changing students' thinking? Are high school students aware of the VVFH?
A: Generally, we attend academic conferences on the war and participate when we can. Our reception has not been enthusiastic. Some of our members speak in high school classes, and they are often invited back after the initial presentation. We think we're having a small impact on high school students' views of the war. Changing minds in America's colleges is a greater challenge.
Q: Why did Congress not let the military win the war? And much sooner?
A: Congress supported the war early on. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed the House unanimously and passed the Senate 88-2. They continued to support the war until Richard Nixon became President, although support was eroding due to an effective propaganda campaign by the communists.
The difficulties the US military encountered in prosecuting the war were a result of the administration of LBJ micromanaging the war and ignoring the advice of military experts. The war was prolonged because LBJ would not authorize entering Laos or Cambodia to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail and refused to allow the military to mine Haiphong harbor and bomb key installations in the North.
Q: How did the US get involved in the Vietnam War?
A: The US monitored events in Vietnam immediately following the end of World War II. President Truman's administration was aware that Ho Chi Minh was a Comintern agent and worried that he might try to spread communism in Southeast Asia. Truman articulated a doctrine that promised, "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". Eisenhower later spoke of "the domino theory", a concept that postulated that if one nation in Asia fell to communism, the rest would fall like dominoes.
When France sued for peace with North Vietnam, Eisenhower negotiated the SEATO treaty that promised to protect Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) from communist aggression, and the US began sending military advisors to South Vietnam to assist them in resisting incursions from communist North Vietnam.
Q: Weren't the French in Vietnam first before the US?
A: Yes. The French conquered Vietnam in 1862 and made it a vassal state. They lost control of Vietnam during World War II and attempted to re-establish control after the war. In 1954, the French withdrew from Vietnam and signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam after being defeated at Dien Bien Phu.
Q: Of the eleven Southeast Asian countries, only two dominoes fell - Laos and Cambodia - yet you still believe in the domino theory. Why?
A: Some scholars scoff at the domino theory pointing, as this question does, to the many countries that did not fall to communism. But a question like this must be understood in the context of the times in which it was articulated. In 1954, when France left Vietnam, there were communist insurgencies in Malaysia, the Phillippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore as well as Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We address this in our Myths and Lies section. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore credits the US tying up the communists in Vietnam with allowing his country time to defeat the communist insurgency in Singapore and establish a stable society.
Q: With so many in academia being opposed to any non-orthodox views, do you see any way to turn this around?
A: Although academia is still solidly in the orthodox camp, there are cracks forming. Young scholars, particularly Vietnamese-American scholars, are mining documents that weren't available to earlier researchers. And we won't ever give up, because we owe it to our fallen brothers to continue to correct the record whenever possible.
Q: Is there any truth to the story that Dean Rusk sent our bombing targets to North Vietnam in advance through a neutral third country (like the Swiss)?
Q: Dean Rusk later admitted we sent notification of our airstrikes to the Swiss prior to the missions, supposedly to protect civilians. Why would the military not know and object to this? Is this not treason?
A: We combined these because they're really the same question. You can imagine that this story created quite a buzz at VVFH, so we investigated. We obtained the 26 episode set of the documentary with transcripts and viewed it from end to end. We also searched all of the transcripts. We found no such statement by Dean Rusk.
This story is sourced to a book written by Retired Air Force General Pete Piotrowski. The General claimed that he saw Dean Rusk admit to this in an interview with Peter Arnett. When we contacted Arnett, he said, "I do not recall the particular Rusk quote at issue, and do not recall being on CBS and commenting on it." He did state that he did interviews for the documentary and that he interviewed Dean Rusk for the documentary in 1978.
We then contacted the General and asked him for his source. He pointed to the documentary. When we told him we didn't find it in the documentary, he did not have an answer. So, we then contacted a White House official who participated in all the bombing planning sessions (which incredibly were directed by the White House, not by military personnel). The White House official, Tom Johnson, said no such thing ever happened and that the accusation was untrue.
"This is totally, absolutely UNTRUE. It is false, reprehensible, and spreading this lie is beyond belief. I was the notetaker in every major Vietnam meeting (each Tuesday lunch) with Rusk, McNamara, Helms, General Wheeler, NSC Adviser Walt Rostow, and press secretary George Christian. US forces did avoid certain civilian targets, but no advance warnings to NVM, Hanoi or Viet Cong on targets ever was provided. I will testify under oath to that. I also was an occasional link to Secretary McNamara, CIA Director Helms, and other intelligence departments about decisions made in those top secret meetings."
The source for this inaccurate quote may have come from here:
Episode 13 The Air War
:44 Dean Rusk: “At those Tuesday luncheon sessions where we considered bombing targets in the North, there were times when we would require our fliers to go in through the more heavily populated areas to deliver their bombs on military targets rather than easier targets, because of the difference in the possible threat to civilian neighborhoods and civilian populations.”
1:42 Senator William Fulbright: “Mr. Rostow.... I remember they had a theory, they called it surgical bombing, I heard him elaborate on this on various occasions. That if you would give the North Vietnamese notice that we would bomb plant A tomorrow and take it out, uh we don’t want to hurt you. We don’t want to kill any civilians, everybody get away, this is what we’re going to do. Now all you have to do is go to a peace conference. Let’s settle this matter. If you don’t, then after plant A, plant B.... We just give them notice, and surely at some point, you know, they would quit, because they would see we would utterly destroy the country.”
It's possible that General Piotrowski may have gotten the idea from this quote of Senator Fulbright. The reasoning certainly sounds like what the White House was thinking at the time, but there's no evidence that we could find that any such plan was actually implemented.
Q: The conventional history is that the US & SVN blocked elections in 1954 to reunite the North and South in violation of the Geneva Accords of 1954. Is this wrong? How did this idea get started?
A: Like most of the myths of the war, this has its roots in the propaganda promulgated by North Vietnam. That then infiltrated the antiwar movements in the US, and as some of those protestors moved into academia, they cemented the belief with their writings on the war's history.
Many people are unaware that scholars such as Marilyn Young, George Kahin, and Gareth Porter, all of whom wrote extensively about the war, were members of a communist front organization, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, and pushed a pro-Hanoi version of the war throughout their careers.
Here are the facts. The Geneva Accords of 1954 were signed by two parties; France and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (commonly known as North Vietnam). Neither South Vietnam nor the United States signed the agreement, although they both attended the conference. Article 14 mentioned elections but did not set a date.
(a) Pending the general elections which will bring about the unification of Viet-Nam, the conduct of civil administration in each regrouping zone shall be in the hands of the party whoseforces are to be regrouped there in virtue of the present Agreement;
An addendum to the Accords , titled Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference on the Problem of Restoring Peace in Indo-China, was added to them, which spoke of elections in 1954.
7. The Conference declares that, so far as Viet-Nam is concerned. the settlement of political problems, effected on the basis of respect for the principles of independence, unity and territorial integrity, shall permit the Viet-Namese people to enjoy the fundamental freedoms, guaranteed by democratic institutions established as a result of free general elections by secret ballot. In order to ensure that sufficient progress in the restoration of peace has been made, and that all the necessary conditions obtain for free expression of the national will, general elections shall be held in July 1956, under the supervision of an international commission composed of representatives of the Member States of the International Supervisory Commission, referred to in the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. Consultations will be held on this subject between the competent representative authorities of the two zones from 20 July 1955 onwards.
No one signed it. North Vietnam didn't sign it. South Vietnam didn't sign it. The US didn't sign it. So, the Addendum was not formally agreed to by any state. Therefore, 1956 elections was an aspiration, not a legal commitment. It isn't possible to block elections you never even agreed to. You can read more about this in our Myths and Lies article.
Q: The Tonkin Gulf incident is widely viewed as an incorrect and possibly fabricated pretext for US military intervention that started in 1965. Right or wrong?
A: Wrong. There are a number of issues with this claim. First, the US was involved militarily in Vietnam in 1955. As the years passed, the commitment of resources grew exponentially. By 1964, the US was conducting surveillance patrols in neutral waters off the coast of Vietnam. In 1965, the US committed combat troops for the first time when Marines landed at Da Nang.
On August 2, 1964, the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. There is no controversy about this attack. The Maddox was struck by machine-gun fire, and one of the patrol boats was sunk. Communist radio traffic confirmed the attack. After the war, the Vietnamese government admitted the attack. The second attack is more controversial, but there are sound reasons for believing that it took place. We have both the testimony of an eye witness and Adm. Vasey's report.
But the idea that a lie started the war is not supported by the facts. The US had already committed to South Vietnam's defense in 1955 with the SEATO treaty. An argument can be made that LBJ would have been justified to ask for the resolution after the first attack. Or when nine Americans were killed and 128 were wounded at Camp Holloway in February 1965. When thirteen Americans were wounded in terrorist bombings of the MAAG and USIS headquarters in October 1957, Eisenhower could have asked for a resolution. The communists provided plenty of unprovoked reasons for the US to go to war in Vietnam. You can find much more information in our Myths and Lies article.
Q: Are you familiar with the battles of Ngok Tavak and Kham Duc 10-11 May 68?
A: Not only are we familiar with them, but VVFH member James McLeroy also has a book about them coming out on December 3, 2019. The title of the book is Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc. Here's an excerpt:
NVA casualties at Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak are not recorded or are still a state secret of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, but a reasonable estimate of them can be made. In 1968, two full-strength NVA infantry regiments had 5,000 troops: 3,600 combat troops and 1,400 combatsupport and logistics troops. 24 Troop losses of 50 percent or more were common in all the NVA andVC human-wave infantry attacks. 25
Even if only half of the NVA troops at or near Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak were killed or mortally wounded from three days of air attacks and ground fire, plus two days of unrestrictedcarpet bombing, the two NVA regiments probably lost between 1,500 and 2,000 troops. TotalU.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine fatalities at, near, or as a direct result of Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak were forty-six men. 26
Many of the 112 wounded U.S. soldiers and Marines did not require hospitalization, and some of those who did soon recovered and returned to their units. Almost all seriously wounded U.S. troops were quickly evacuated to modern hospitals and almost all of them survived. Most seriously wounded NVA troops in that and all their other battles against U.S. combined-arms forces did not survive.
[End note] A former CG of the 2nd NVA Division stated that they had no organic hospital and few medically qualified doctors. -- PAVN LTG Nguyen Huy Chuong in Su Doan 2, Tap 1 [Second Division,Volume 1] (Da Nang,Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: Dang Uy va Chu Huy Su Doan 2 [2nd Division Party Committee and Division Headquarters], Da Nang Publishing House, 1989), p. 89; translated by Merle Pribbenow. Wounded troops had to be carried through jungle-covered mountains to crowded, unsanitary field hospitals, many of them underground, where medical equipment, supplies, and doctors were always scarce and often inadequate. In or on the way to such hospitals, most severely wounded men died from hypovolemic shock, septic shock, or disease. Dr Le Cao Dai in Appy, Christian. Patriots (NY: Viking, 2003), pp. 13–140. Dr Le also stated:“The most severely wounded people died at the front before they could be evacuated.” Zumwalt, James. Bare Feet, Iron Will (Jacksonville, FL: Fortis Publishing, 2020), p. 40. PAVN LTG Nguyen Xuan Hoang stated:“… our logistics forces, who were farther from the Americans, took greater losses than the combat units [due to B-52 carpet bombing].”Curry, Cecil. Victory At Any Cost (Washington, D.C., Brassey’s 1997), p. 257.
Q: Why didn't China participate in a combat role?
A: It is difficult to substantiate one way or the other what China might have done had we invaded North Vietnam and we must wait for access to the classified archives in China before we can provide you with a definitive answer to your question.
There are a number of factors that probably influenced China's decision not to send combat troops to Vietnam. If you think about the Korean War, China didn't commit combat troops until McCarthur approached the Yalu River. At that point, UN troops directly threatened China. It's likely that the same logic would have kept China out of a combat role in Vietnam unless the US approached the border of China, although some scholars believe if the US had taken Hanoi the Chinese would have become involved.
Another factor mitigating against China getting involved in a combat role was Mao's Great Cultural Revolution, which inhibited their ability to field troops for a large land war outside their borders. The topography of Vietnam, with its dense jungles and mountainous terrain, may have also entered into their thinking.
As it was, China supplied almost 325,000 troops serving in anti-aircraft batteries and other support roles such as engineers and construction experts and lost 1,446 KIA in North Vietnam. Some US Special Forces troops reported encountering "large men" among the dead that they assumed were Chinese. They may have been serving in an advisory role with NVA troops. Those reported sightings have never been confirmed.
Q: How would the Vietnam War have been different with modern technology?
A: This is an interesting question. The consensus of our members is that it wouldn't change a thing. The problems with the Vietnam War were not caused by a lack of technology. They were caused by poor decision-making by American political leaders who both pre-empted military leadership decision-making and foolishly refused to allow our military to enter Cambodia and Laos despite the NVA have major bases located in both countries, in violation of the treaties they had signed.
With today's technology, we may have been able to pinpoint concentrations of troops better and more carefully focus the kinetic power of our military, but the decisions made by political leadership hindered the war effort significantly enough that those technologies would not have altered the outcome.
It's important to note that the US and South Vietnam had won the war by 1972 despite the hindrances placed in their way. When North Vietnam invaded the South, they were soundly defeated by South Vietnamese troops with the assistance of US airpower, but US airpower also altered the outcomes of many battles that US troops engaged in. It was only after Congress decided to abandon South Vietnam by drastically reducing their aid, that North Vietnam was able to prevail, and that was done in clear violation of the peace treaty they signed in 1973.
Q: How effective and proper was the free-fire zone policy?
A: Since we're not certain what was asked, we will address both what were colloquially called free-fire zones and H&I (harassment and interdiction) artillery fire. Free-fire zones were areas where it was known that no friendly troops and no civilians were located. In those areas, maneuvering forces were not required to request clearance from headquarters before directing artillery fire at the enemy. In those cases, the maneuvering force would have located enemy forces and could then direct artillery fire to destroy them. That type of fire was usually effective at suppressing the enemy and destroying its capability to fight.
H&I fire was closely controlled by headquarters (both allied and ARVN) and was artillery fire directed at areas where the enemy was known to operate, such as known troop routes and consolidation points, without first having confirmed that troops were there. The idea was to keep the enemy off balance and deny him access to known locations and routes. Artillery would randomly fire a small number of rounds making it impossible to know when rounds might impact. It was ineffective both as an attrition technique and as a harassment technique unless there were friendly troops in the area to direct the fire. It was also controversial, since it had the potential to cause civilian casualties.
Both types of fire were legal under the laws of war.
Q: My interpreter used to say that the Vietnamese could not stand the Chinese people; culture was different, very jealous and not friendly to one another at all. Is this factual? And historical?
A: This type of question is outside the scope of our mission. We deal with facts regarding the war that we can document from primary sources. Opinions about people are as varied and unique as the people expressing them. In other words, the answer to this question is in the eye of the beholder.
Q: How do you see the effect of the incursion into Cambodia on - 1) ending the war 2) public opinion
A: First, some background for those who are unfamiliar with this. The Cambodian incursion was an operation that took place in May 1970. ARVN and US troops entered Cambodia to track down the NVA and destroy their bases of operation. You can read about the operation from an officer who participated: Battlefield Chronicles: Into Cambodia
The operation was very successful. Large numbers of NVA troops were killed. Large bases were discovered and their food, weapons, and ammunition caches were destroyed. After the operation, defections to the Chieu Hoi program skyrocketed, and morale among the NVA sank. Quoting our expert, Professor Robert F. Turner, speaking of the NVA defectors, "[they] said they were down to fewer than 10 rounds per AK—on AUTO the AK fires 600-rounds-per-minute--and were told to put away their AK’s and use the old Garands, M1 carbines, FALs, and other semi-auto rifles. Morale among Communist forces in the Delta never recovered."
The operation certainly contributed to ending the war. As for its impact on public opinion, the evidence is mixed. The media reported it as an "illegal" operation, which was completely false. Those reports caused massive protests on US college campuses. Media reporting seems to have had less of an effect on the average American. The evidence shows that the 40% who voted for Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire were hawks who were fed up with the incompetence of American leadership at the time. A Harris poll in May found that 60% supported the incursion into Cambodia, and in June Nixon's approval rating stood at 59%.
Q: Do you see any way to influence and change the teaching and texts that are currently utilized in schools?
Q: As Dr. Moyar stated - it is important for our young people to understand what really happened so they can feel good about the USA and understand how the war happened. Without schools teaching about the war, how are we learning this?
A: Education is a part of our mission. We publish books and magazines, write articles not only for our own websites but also for major media outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Our members interact through comment sections with educators as well as the public, and we engage in academic symposiums and conferences to help in correcting the record. Some of our members also speak about the war in high schools, and we've had great success in engaging students in investigating the myths and lies about the war. And many of our members have published books about the war, some of them considered quite influential in academia.
But, as you point out, the educational system in America is predisposed to teach a distorted view of the war that portrays America and the American soldier in an excessively negative light. None of us will stop fighting until we breathe our last breath, and we invite all like-minded academics and veterans to join us in the effort.
Q: Why haven't Vietnam War publications like Vietnam Magazine and VVA Veteran come out against the Ken Burns bias fiasco that will be used as the definitive history of the Vietnam War?
A: We can't speak for other organizations, but I can assure you that VVFH has come out strongly against the documentary. We created an entire wiki to deal with the problems with the documentary, with copious documentation of the many errors and inaccurracies that were made. We demanded that PBS correct the inaccuracies in the documentary. We received a polite brushoff from PBS. But that didn't stop us from speaking out wherever and whenever we can. We have made additional attempts to interact with PBS, with both Burns and Novick to no avail. It seems rather than desiring to open up a conversation on the war, as they claimed, their real desire was to be the final arbiter of the war. Some of our members were interviewed for hours for the documentary, but the vast majority of their interviews ended up on the cutting floor.
Q: Should the draft dodgers who went to Canada have received amnesty?
A: That is not a question we can answer. We can say that Americans are remarkably forgiving people. Perhaps that was the spirit in which it was done.
Q: Bottom line: Should the US have been involved? Given the same circumstances today, would you advise a US President to do the same?
A: Yes. There is no question that the US should have been involved in Vietnam. After the French left Vietnam, two powers vied for supremacy; the communists and Vietnamese nationalists. Despite all the problems that South Vietnam had, which were not unusual for an infant country struggling to get on its feet, the people of South Vietnam wanted to be free. Since we signed a treaty promising to defend them against communism, we had an obligation to do so.
Furthermore, there were communist insurgencies in the Phillippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. If we had not tied up communist troops and resources in Vietnam for ten years, those other insurgencies may well have succeeded, and all of southeast Asia would be communist today.
We would not, however, advise a US President to conduct the war that LBJ did. In 1954, North Vietnam signed a peace treaty that required them to remove their forces to their territory. They reneged on that treaty and left people behind, along with weapons caches, as a contingency. In 1962, North Vietnam signed a Neutrality Agreement with Laos. They agreed to remove their troops immediately. They failed to do so. Under international law, South Vietnam had a right to defend itself from Northern aggression, including entering Cambodia and Laos, if need be, to defend their territory. But LBJ refused to allow US troops to enter either country. We would have advised the President, as the military did, repeatedly, to cut off access to the Ho Chi Minh trail, by entering Laos and creating a blocking position on each trail with sufficient troops to ensure that traffic could not flow. We would have also advised him to mine Haiphong harbor and bomb vital military assets in North Vietnam, all things that LBJ refused to do but Nixon approved.
Later, when Nixon did send troops into Cambodia and the ARVN entered Laos, they found massive camps with hugh stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, and supplies. All of those camps were violations of international law, but the communists didn't care. If we had had better political leadership, the Vietnam War could have been won at a much lower cost in dollars and bloodshed.
Q: Why is there NO mention to US credit of the vast civic action we did? Such as outfitting a complete dental office in a leprosarium north of Saigon?
A: For those who might be unfamiliar with what the questioner is referring to, the US had a number of programs in Vietnam designed to help civilians.
U.S. civilian medical aid programs began in the early years of support in Vietnam. As the U.S. military commitment grew throughout the 1960's, new and expanded programs were developed. Through such efforts as PHAP (Provincial Health Assistance Program), MILPHAP (Military Provincial Health Assistance Program), MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Program), and CWCP (Civilian War Casualty Program), medical aid in increasing amounts and effectiveness was given to the people of Vietnam.
The US also built twenty-two airfields, six ports, thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of bridges, many provincial hospitals and district health clinics, and built schools and supplied them with books and other supplies. None of this was covered by the media or promoted by the US government. It's a source of frustration for many vets that the thousands of MEDCAP and DENTCAP missions never got any publicity.
This video will give you a glimpse into the efforts that Americans made in Vietnam - Vietnam: A Television History; Eleanor Brunetto (It was cut out of the documentary.) There are also articles about it on the web, one written by a doctor relating his experiences, a book by a surgeon who served, artists' renderings in a Wikipedia article on civic action programs, and an excellent documentary on Youtube.
The "why" is harder to answer. Our members can tell you from personal experience that the journalists in Vietnam never had any interest in covering those missions. Why that was so is unknown.
Q: How did humanitarian acts by soldiers and pilots during the Vietnam War compare to previous US wars?
A: The Vietnam War was the first insurgency war that the US was involved in. So, the approach to dealing with the civilian population was noticeably different than it was in previous wars. The US military has always been involved in humanitarian efforts during wars, as any picture of a WWII soldier handing candy bars to children would attest, but the Vietnam War was the first war in which the US government made a concentrated effort to benefit the civilian population while fighting an enemy.
Q: Comment on the NVA losses in the battles of Ia Drang, Dak To, and Ripcord, and the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh.
A: Like most battles in Vietnam, these battles resulted in disproportionate losses on the communist side. For example, during the Tet Offensive, the NVA lost more than 45,000 men. In the three phases, they lost more than 75,000 men. The allied forces total losses were about 9,000 men. In Ia Drang, confirmed American losses were 499 KIA, WIA and MIA. Confirmed NVA losses were 1037 (body count), and estimated losses were 1,735. A big problem for the NVA was the loss of wounded men. A large percentage died in transport or in the crude underground "hospitals" they had because they also lacked the needed medical supplies.
I read recently of a battle where a small SOG recon force with Vietnamese partners fought a division of NVA and the NVA suffered a 90% loss of personnel according to the NVA general who commanded those troops. The NVA were willing to take massive losses in order to extend the war long enough to turn Americans against the war. Obviously, our leadership's belief that attrition would end the war was mistaken, because the communists were willing to accept appalling losses, losses that would be wholly unacceptable to Americans, and continue fighting. As it turns out, US body counts, which have been roundly criticized and ridiculed by academics and others, underestimated NVA losses by about 35%.
Q: There is a theory that we taught our Vietnamese allies to fight our kind of war, but they didn't have the economic or technical resources to do so. I observed their inability. What do you think?
A: In the early years of the war, the South Vietnamese were ill-equipped and ill-trained to fight a war. This should not be surprising. They were a nascent nation only recently formed and struggling to establish stability internally.
As the years passed, more and more officers were trained by the US, and the leadership improved.
Ngo Dinh Diem disagreed with the US military's approach of fighting a conventional war and insisted that he was fighting an insurgency. He was half right. The Vietnam War was both an insurgency war and a conventional war, and it tended to become more conventional and less insurgency as the years passed. The US finally saw the value of counterinsurgency after Creighton Abrams became the commander of MACV.
By 1972, the South Vietnamese were so competent that they inflicted heavy losses on the NVA when they invaded South Vietnam during the Easter Offensive. Some will caveat that they needed American airpower to help them to victory, but American forces needed American airpower as well to prevail.
In the latter years, the RF and PF forces were finally supplied with modern weaponry, and they drove both the VC and the NVA out of the villages and defeated them soundly in battle
By 1973, when the US signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam, the South was relatively peaceful, and the communist forces were defeated. Unfortunately, the US Congress abandoned our allies, refusing to fund their efforts to stave off continued incursions from the communists, and, in April 1975, South Vietnam fell to the invaders. But their loss was not due to incompetence but a lack of supplies due to the restricted US funding.
Q: Does LBJ deserve the blame for damaging the credibility of the US military? Did Vietnamization of the war have any choice?
A: LBJ deserves some of the blame but not all. Robert McNamara's decisions deserve a great deal of opprobrium. Gen. Westmoreland's focus on body counts and attrition, and his statements that we were winning contributed as well, although some will argue he was fighting with his hands tied behind his back. Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell's extensive use of H&I fire in III Corps was roundly criticized, even by some of his own officers. The behavior of the Americal Division in the My Lai massacre and the subsequent covering up of that action were a factor as well.
Vietnamization was a necessity by the time Nixon articulated it. The public was turning against the war, and that opposition was being reflected in Congress as well. It was clear we were going to have to leave Vietnam, and so the US (belatedly) began to turn over the fighting to the South Vietnamese military.
Q: Bruce Herschensohn states the Congress forced the surrender of South Vietnam - Cambodia - Laos (April 10, 1973) - Can we find out who were the Congressmen that walked out of the meeting with President Ford?
A: The meeting referred to actually took place on April 10, 1975, when President Ford spoke to a joint session of Congress and asked for emergency military aid for South Vietnam and Cambodia. Cambodia fell to communism just seven days later. South Vietnam lasted just 20 days, falling on April 30, 1975.
According to the New York Times, in an article titled Reaction is Cool, dated April 11, 1975, "a few Democrats walked out". The Times identified one of them as Phillip Burton.
And Representative Phillip Burton, Democrat of California, one of the Representatives who walked out during the speech, termed the proposal for military aid an “outrage.”
Rep. Burton died in 1983.
The Arkansas City Traveler, in an AP article, titled Congress Due To Reject Military Aid For Viet, dated April 11, 1975 also named two other Congressmen.
Several longtime war foes, such as Bella S. Azug, D-NY, shook their heads in disapproval. Freshman Reps. Anthony Moffet, D-Conn, and George Miller, D-Calif, walked out.
The AP article also reported that about half the Senators and Congressmen didn't even bother to attend. Rep. Moffet was defeated by a Republican in 1983, and Rep. Miller retired from office in 2015.
Those were the only Congressmen whose names we were able to find in press reports. The Congressional Record does not mention anything about politicians who attended, didn't attend, or walked out.
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Burning History: The Fallacy of Inevitability and The Truncation of History
Final Thoughts: Paradigm shifts regarding the meaning of unwinnable, and the phrase the war ended, are imperative.
By John M. Del Vecchio
At the home of one of our interpreters in 1970: “Ronnie” with his eldest son, his beautiful daughter with his youngest son. Twelve years later--11/11/82: Me, my wife Kate and eldest son Nate during the dedication of The Wall in Washington, D.C. At Ronnie’s home we were served steak and shrimp fondue, paper thin slices we cooked in boiling alcohol and sugar. It was delicious. Few of the Americans appreciated the great sacrifice our host made—likely costing him a month’s wages. This, perhaps, was symbolic of American attitudes throughout our involvement.
The Fallacy of Inevitability
The war was unwinnable. This is the underlying motif in every episode, the main message of the entire series. And it is a fallacy. The theme begins with episode 1, Déjà Vu which ends with the devastating loss by the French at Dien Bien Phu, but never tells us why the base is there in the first place or that the North Vietnamese and Chinese communist were attacking in Laos in an attempt to widen the war. Déjà Vu is meant to be an omen that what happened in 1954 will inevitably reoccur in 1975. Burns hammers at this point through the following nine episodes, sometimes subtly other times blatantly, through four American presidents, through edited clips showing only their fears, skepticism, pessimism and duplicity.
But to claim inevitability and the un-winnability of the war for the allied side is to also infer that the communist side with all its aggression, coercion and tyranny somehow had a moral superiority or a mandate from the fates.
The theory of the unwinnable war rests on the fact that the war was not won. Because it happened this seemingly gives one arguing from that perspective the right to claim inevitable, but a change in any precursor might have produced a very different history. After the fall of Vientiane, Phnom Penh and Saigon, one may claim the war was unwinnable but at any point prior to the actual collapse that claim is untrue.
And if politicians didn’t see the possibility of winning the war, thousands, perhaps millions of American and South Vietnamese soldiers did. In the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, it became common to hear American veterans say, “We were winning when I left.” Think about what that means, about the significance it represents. Men knew the area in which they fought. They knew when it was “hot,” when there were large enemy forces present, and when that presence had been subdued.
Camp Eagle (101st Abn Div basecamp) sat close to Highway 547, the main road from the populated coastal lowlands to the mountains and jungles of the A Shau Valley. The first firebase west of Eagle was Birmingham. Through the spring of 1970 Americans only went to Birmingham via 547 in armed convoy. By late summer of that year the trip was often made by two guys in a jeep. Or recall Hue during the Tet offensive of ’68. Two and a half years later we would sightsee in Hue and the surrounding villages, and because it was peaceful GIs not on duty were not allowed to carry their weapons.
Imagine if the North Vietnamese communists had ameliorated their aggression in 1956; if they had realized their overly zealous slaughter of “land owners” was counterproductive to a healthy society; if they understood that fostering factions of the Indochina Communist Party and promoting wars of national liberation throughout Southeast Asia was not speeding the end of colonialism but was inducing the west, America in particular, to react to this spreading tyranny. Imagine if they stopped.
What would have been the reaction of the United States?
Imagine had the communists stopped in 1960 shortly after declaring war on the South, and after opening Routes 559, 759 and 959 which carried men and materiel—terrorists, assassins, political community organizers, and assault weaponry—because they realized this violent approach might create massive destruction in both North and South, and that recognizing the South might lead more quickly to reconciliation and unification— nationalistic goals versus dominance and hegemony by the party which were international communist goals.
What would have been the reaction of the United States?
Imagine if the North Vietnamese politburo had concluded after Tet 1968 that the price paid was not worth the desired aim, that a different approach might work better and not be as costly in blood and treasure; imagine had Le Duan said, “We have suffered too greatly, we must now seek reconciliation with the South and with the Americans. Imagine that same decision after the NVA offensives of Mini-Tet, the summer offensive of 1969, or the Easter Offensive of 1972?
Imagine had they not re-instigated and elevated their aggression after the Paris Peace Talks were concluded in 1973, but instead had withdrawn their 145,000 troops back to the North. [Burns talks about ceasefire violations by both sides as if this created a moral parity, but fails to mention that no South Vietnamese unit attacked a city or village or military installation in North Vietnam.]
At any of those times had the North stopped and sought reconciliation with the South and with the United States, and had asked for aid to rebuild their country, what would have been the reaction of the United States?
When you are imagining all this recall how the United States treated Germany and Japan after WWII. Would America have agreed to rebuild and reconstruct the infrastructure in the North if that nation had been open and no longer a threat to all other nations in the region?
Imagine also, at each step along the way, that the American “anti-war” movement, with many of its leaders having ties to the international communist movement, had not garnered its high degree of influence over the American media; and imagine too that JFK, LBJ, Nixon and Ford were not continuously reacting to public pressures created by the incomplete and slanted narratives these groups produced.
Imagine in ’67 or ’68 or ’70 had riots not erupted in American cities and on American campuses. Would LBJ, and then Nixon have been so defensive? Would they have developed their bunker mentalities? Would Nixon have ordered the break-in to the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex? Regarding war decisions, would they have better reflected the realities on the ground and in the skies of Southeast Asia, and might they have been less based upon internal politics and provoked public opposition?
Any one of the above items and thousands more, had they happened, would have changed the outcome of the history of this war. Nothing is inevitable until after it has occurred.
Now also imagine the homecoming for veterans had they not be tarnished by skewed press stories leading many Americans to believe that Vietnam had turned them into savages, that they were all baby-killers, that they burned villages, raped women and young girls, and committed repulsive atrocities.
Imagine totally different homecoming scenarios and general attitude toward their service; and imagine the effect on the development of Post-Traumatic Stress disorders.
After Saigon fell one of the voices in the Burns documentary declares, “The Vietnamese people could finally live normally.” What?! Hello!!! Also said, “…no blood bath.” How many people have to be executed for a documentarian to label an action “a blood bath”? I guess 60,000 murders in the first 90 days after the fall does not qualify. If one adds in the number of people who died in the gulags of re-education, does that push it into the category of blood bath? Some 1.5 million South Vietnamese men and women were treated to these communist camps—approximately 10% of the population of that country. Many were tortured. Many were starved. Many were worked to death.
Can we add in the South Vietnamese who attempted to escape the tyranny by sea—the boat people? More than a million tried to flee. Tens of thousands died in small, rickety coastal craft not designed for ocean voyage. Many more were captured and killed by pirates. Can we add any of them to the “no blood bath” equation?
What about the deaths in Cambodia and Laos. In both countries Ho Chi Minh was instrumental in establishing communist insurgencies. In both countries, long before the “end of the war,” Hanoi’s troops and agents controlled great tracts of land. Pol Pot’s faction of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge was born from Ho’s Indochinese Communist Party, but broke from Hanoi like a rebellious teenager from domineering parents. 1.7 million of 6 million Cambodians died after “the war was over.” Not a bloodbath, Mr. Burns? Francois Bizot, in his 2003 book The Gate “…understood the true nature of the Khmer Rouge long before other outsiders. Decades later, his frustration remains: ‘What oppresses me, more still than the unclosed eyes of the dead who fill the sandy paddy fields, is the way the West applauded the Khmer Rouge, hailing their victory over their brothers in 1975. The ovation was so frenzied as to drown out the protracted wailing of the millions being massacred…’”
This is a personal side bitch: Burns show American veterans returning to Vietnam years after the war, hugging and reconciling with North Vietnamese soldiers who had opposed them on the battlefield. The occasions are joyous, friendly, healing. All-well-in-good, BUT what about showing Americans reuniting with ARVN soldiers who were their allies? That’s not shown. And it’s not shown for a reason. ARVN vets are still second class citizens in Vietnam. There are numerous accounts of U.S. charities attempting to aid these men, many of whom still suffer physically from war wounds. Communist cadre always take a percentage of whatever is donated. Sometimes they take it all. Medical equipment meant to help these men is diverted to hospitals for communist party members. Americans who have pushed for fairness have become persona non grata.
And these nations, which we might have helped become Asian economic miracles, languished amongst the most politically repressive states on the planet with low per capita income and high per capita rates of disease and death. Religious and ethnic minorities are still repressed. Only a month ago two bloggers were arrested and jailed for posting items uncomplimentary of the party. The list of human rights abuses, for anyone following them, seems to be unending.
From the very first fallacy of accepting communist propaganda portraying Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist, then repeating it in multiple variations to make it a “fact,” this series has been intellectually dishonest; slanted toward a fake left-wing narrative for what purpose I do not know? Just a quick reminder: a true nationalist does not murder all his nationalist allies because only his sect of nationalism is acceptable.
Now I think, “Thank God that series is over.” But it’s not over. This series will likely be picked up by thousands of school districts and colleges across the country and around the world, and used to indoctrinate the next generations of young minds. This should be opposed. The series is offensive not only to millions of American veterans who served honorably and with pride, but to anyone who still believes in truth and academic integrity.
The war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos did not end in 1975. More Southeast Asians died in the following ten years due to fighting and communist tyranny than died during the ten years of active American involvement. The repression in all three nations continues to this day.
With all the promise and potential, with all the wonderful presentations, the incredible photography and the moving musical scores, the slanting by choice of material and by massive omission renders this series not history but propaganda.
This is the eighth in a series of eight essays on the Burns/Novick program. Please like, forward and share this essay. For the earlier essays, or for more on the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/ .
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.
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Burning History: Covering Up Original Sins
The Ambassador, The Newsmen, and the Imperative for American Conventional Military Intervention.
By John M. Del Vecchio #VietnamWaronPBS; # VVFH-Burns.
In the late 1990s at a dinner sponsored by actor Charlie Pfeiffer, I had occasion to talk with David Halberstam at some length about mechanical issues of the writing trade. At the time I was correcting transcripts of interviews with survivors of Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak, a battle which took place in May 1968, just prior to the opening session of The Paris Peace Talks. KD/NT was the core battle of the Communist offensive often referred to as Mini-TET. To say the least I was terrible frustrated with the transcriptionist.
Photo by the author: Sampans on the Perfume River: In 1963 few Americans understood Vietnamese culture.
As a historical novelist I have always been sensitive to the ers and ahs, the pauses and jumps in speech. One might consider them to be the metadata connecting or disrupting connections in thoughts or story patterns… perhaps telling as much about the speaker as the words themselves. So, I want to see these blips noted in a transcript. The KD/NT pages, however, contained none, and indeed were much worse. Not only was the metadata missing, so too were many negatives. That’s right—flipping the meaning of the sentence 100%.
In response to my plaints, Mr. Halberstam offered: I don’t have that problem.
I said something like: Oh, you must have a great transcriptionist.
Halberstam: No. Just my secretary.
Me: She must be very good to get the transcript right.
Halberstam: I don’t use a recorder.
Me: Then you must take careful notes.
Halberstam: No. I just jot down keywords. Then she types up the list of the words I’ve jotted.
It was hard for me to imagine that this man, this newsman and historian, worked from nothing but a list of keywords he’d scribbled on a pad. What license?! I thought. What freedom to recall conversations and to quote officials however one wish! Perhaps he was lying to me. I took him at his word. After reading the below, you can gage for oneself the relevance of this anecdote.
Airing tonight, Riding The Tiger, episode two of the Burns series, covers the years 1961 through 1963. We’ll recap and grade episode one at the end of this piece, but first let’s think about what’s coming.
I have not seen episode two, but the most relevant occurrences of the period are the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem (11/1), and John F Kennedy (11/22). I’ve a feeling Mr. Burns will bring this episode to a crescendo around these events. The build-up to these deaths should exposes original sins.
Late evening, August 22, 1963, newly appointed Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge deplaned at Tan Son Nhut airbase. He ignored General Paul Harkins, commander of MAG (the precursor of MACV), and other officials, “and headed straight for a group of U.S. newsmen.” [A detailed story of the days preceding this moment, and the following seventy-two days leading up to the demise of Diem, can be found in Dr. Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Quotes here and below are from Chapter 10 of that book unless otherwise noted.] The significance of this action cannot be overstated. The U.S. newsmen that evening, and at a following “lengthy dinner” arranged by Lodge, included Neil Sheehan, UPI’s Saigon Bureau Chief, Malcolm Browne, AP’s Chief Correspondent for Indochina, and David Halberstam, a full-time reporter for the New York Times.
The situation into which Lodge deplaned was one of apparent chaos, at lease according to news reports. The focus of episode two should be on the South Vietnamese, on their society, economy, government and security in the period leading up to the assassinations. Recall that South Vietnam was dealing with the terrorist equivalent in today’s U.S. of approximately 400,000 killed and another one million “disappeared” in the preceding three years. [Just for exercise, imagine if you can 8,000 people in your state, and in every other state, killed by militants from 2015 to today. How would you react? That’s what South Vietnamese society was dealing with.
Along with the killings and disappearances communist cadre were running a successful agitprop campaign. The term agitprop dates back to 1917 Russia, and is a combination of agitation and propaganda. It is a method of sowing dissent and dissatisfaction in the general public, originally through the arts (literature, film, plays), but later expanded to what we might call interest groups from unions and religious sects to social clubs and academia. Agitprop mechanisms and machinations include cadre (or true believers) gaining influence and leadership of traditional cultural organizations, then covertly steering those organizations into a coalition aligned with the communist cause.
If the Burns’ analysis emphasizes this theme we’ll be watching history. On the other hand, if episode two focuses on an interpretation of culture seen through the eyes of a few influential newsmen, once again know you are watching a skewed and flawed presentation.
1962 and 1963 are the years of Buddhist unrest in South Vietnam. Other segments of society were also being agitated. The conventional and flawed narrative talks about President Diem, a Catholic in a Buddhist country, ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist uprising, and suggests that had he ceded to the political demands of this and other interest groups, all would have returned to normal. In Diem’s words, “I cannot seem to convince the (U.S.) embassy that this is Vietnam, not the United States of America.” His reference is to long-ingrained cultural norms: in the U.S. over 200 years of democratic processes at local levels versus in Vietnam not simply a hundred years of colonial rule, but a thousand years of subservience to various forms of autocracy.
Diem also could not convince the American newsmen that this was not Kansas, that inherent factionalism and communist scheming were tearing the nation apart, or that only strong and fair leadership could keep it from splintering further. Nor could he convince them that the Buddhist Movement was a small yet vocal agitprop faction within the Buddhist community.
From Triumph Forsaken:
American reporters in Saigon would contend that Nhu (Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother) had alone master-minded the pagoda raids, a claim that the journalists would use first to promote a coup and then afterwards to justify their promotion of the coup. Opposition to the government, Hlaberstam maintained in his dispatch, “is acknowledged to be extremely widespread.” In addition, Halberstam claimed to have received reliable reports of mass defections among troops of the Vietnamese Army’s Second Corps because of the “attacks” on the Buddhists. All of the foregoing information from Halberstam’s August 22 reporting came from unnamed sources in Saigon whom Halberstam had been too eager to trust, and all of it was false. (my emphasis)
This is just one example of many, many incidents of fake news from that time influencing political events; and only one example of many showing Halberstam and other journalists were more interested in promoting a political agenda than in reporting without bias. The cumulative weight of this false reporting, and Lodge’s complicity, led to tragic consequences.
Let’s step back for a moment and consider the new American ambassador, his motivations, proclivities, and political placement. Henry Cabot Lodge, the vice presidential running-mate of Richard Nixon, came out of the 1960 national elections as a potential contender to oppose President Kennedy in 1964. Kennedy’s political instincts were to marginalize this opponent, and how better to do so than to exile him to a small nation on the other side of the earth where he would be unable to consolidate a political organization. Lodge likely understood the double-bind of the ambassadorial offer: accepting could side-line him, yet declining might prove he had little interest in supporting U.S. foreign policy or American allies threatened by the creep of communism. His decision to accept this great responsibility must be qualified by his political motivations, his pandering to the press, and the resulting calamities which ensued. These misdeeds and errors need to be added to the list of original sins.
When I said in the earlier blog post that the standard narrative covers up sins of the left, this interaction between Lodge and the newsmen is to what I was referring. In the 72 days from the time Lodge landed in Vietnam, he and the newsmen pushed hard to oust Diem. When South Vietnamese generals finally responded by arresting the president and offering him to Lodge to be flown out of the country, Lodge declined. That’s when the generals had Diem killed.
What followed the coup and assassination of Diem was more than three years of political and military turmoil within South Vietnam. This event signaled the North that the South was vulnerable, and it triggered Hanoi’s sending of conventional units (battalions/divisions) to the southern battlefields. It was these large conventional units that were first encountered in the Ia Drang Valley (see: We Were Soldier… Mel Gibson movie). The point is that the disruption caused by the killing of Diem threw SVN into chaos, destabilized both military and civilian/government entities, invited in enemies, and created the imperative for American conventional military intervention. Had Diem not been assassinated, chances are there would never have been the need for the massive U.S. build-up in ’64-65 to keep SVN from falling under communist control.
Thus one wonders, had the newsmen not succumbed to the communist agitprop of the time, and had the ambassador not played to the newsmen but instead had focused on American State Department and military advisors, and on the South Vietnamese officials in the trenches combatting the insurgents and terrorists, how differently the next twelve years might have been.
An aside: Are we in a relatively similar situation domestically today? Do we have politicians playing to the press, the press pushing an agenda driven by false narratives, and a loose coalition of issue-oriented interest groups agitating for the removal of a president? And are there enemies lurking at the gates, looking for openings to come in and wreck havoc?
Episode One Report Card: Ken Burns, Lynn Novic
1) Ancient State: Was this covered? No. Series begins with French colonization.
2) Mention of Crown Dominion Lands? No. Also very little mentioned about Laos, Cambodia.
3) Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism? Overstated. All communist terrorist activity shifted to other communist leaders to preserve Ho’s purity, but communist terror is mentioned.
4) French attempting to regain Empire? Very one-side presentation; some of the accusations against the French are well deserved, other factors ignored.
5) Dien Bien Phu and Laos terrorism? Nothing mentioned about Chinese and Vietnamese communist attacks in Laos being reason DBP was established. Myth of Vietnamese bringing guns to DBP by selves—as Chinese labor was parmount.
6) ’54-’56 Land Reform Pogrom? Surprise, this was covered. But not quantified! No analysis of extent or equivalence to today’s U.S. population. Viewer may believe this was minimal.
7) Geneva Accords and Elections? Standard flawed narrative. No mention that U.S., S VN, and N VN did not sign the agreement (i.e.: there was no agreement).
8) Hanoi’s 1959 Declaration of War on South and ensuing terrorism? Surprise again! This is mentioned, but again not quantified. Shown is a photo of three terrorist negotiating a very difficult section of jungle trail. It took a lot more than three to kill 18,000 officials.
Prior to seeing the episode I was prepared to give Burns/Novickan ‘A’ for cinematography and an ‘F’ for history. The program was better than I’d expected, but the filming was worse. To me the most offensive segment was showing one American Marine from 1967 talking about how much he hated the Vietnamese. Nothing is offered to balance this perspective. As a novelist, one recognizes inclusions like this as set-ups for future elements of the story. Look for it to be replayed in later episodes when talking about American atrocities. Report Card: for Cinematography: ‘B’; for History ‘C-“.
Please feel free to forward or share this essay. For more on this and for the need for paradigm shifts in the way we view history and many other aspects of our culture, visit: www.peakingat70.com/lets-talk-america/
John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com
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This article was sent to me by one of our members, Joe deSantos. I think it's especially appropriate now, since the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, 'The Vietnam War', has once again raised the issue of My Lai and other atrocities committed by American forces. More than 2.5 million men and women served in Vietnam. The vast majority of them were honorable professionals, who went about their jobs quietly and with dedication and do not deserve to be tarred with the brush of the few aberrations that deserve every condemnation we can pour over them.
There are times in our lives when all we can do is shake our heads, admit that someone has dishonored our group--attorneys, police officers, clergymen--and gently remind anyone who will listen that they should refrain from painting us all with the same brush.
Simplistic thinking? Perhaps. But it is human nature to defend ones honor.
"Every group has its bad apples."
That was sent to me by a former Special Forces officer and Vietnam veteran after having endured several days worth of media outlets telling us that a deranged, murdering bigot, who had killed three innocent people in Kansas last week, was once a "Green Beret" in Vietnam.
To be sure, the most important elements of this tragic story are the deaths of three ordinary Americans who did nothing to deserve their fate. Nobody would disagree with that and we should all remember them.
But there is another element of this tragedy that is worth mentioning, too.
While the media has correctly reported that the murderer was in fact a Vietnam Special Forces veteran, many who have donned the beret that marks them as men of honor are cringing at the thought that such a vile individual is being associated with them. Worse, this murderer's Special Forces affiliation has been a central part of the story, even though he served in an administrative position in a Special Forces unit during the war. He was no Rambo, although media outlets want him to be. A Vietnam Special Forces veteran goes on an anti-Semitic killing spree? Why, that seems normal; after all, Rambo was crazy in all eleven films he did.
But let us talk reality.
I have had the great privilege to have known and associated with many Vietnam-era Special Forces veterans. They have been great friends and have always shared their stories and time with me. I have been with them at reunions, meetings and on long trips. I have yet to meet an unpleasant SF man, though I know they exist. I have not yet met the unpleasant one because they are hard to find. The ones I have met neither look like Rambo nor act like savages. They are extraordinary men without letting you know who they are and what they have done. They are "The Quiet Professionals" and they like it that way.
So when a former SF man embarrasses them, or worse, takes innocent lives for the most contemptible of reasons, they are quick to point out the obvious--we are not like that.
Simplistic thinking? Yes.
But the men I know who wore the green beret in Vietnam still want to remind the world that they are by and large men of integrity and principles.
So do not paint them all with the same brush.
Like the victims in Kansas, they deserve better.
As we discuss the events that took place in Vietnam, please don't forget that the sins of the few should not tar the many. Most US military in Vietnam behaved honorably and did not deserve the label of 'baby killer' that so many antiwar protesters smeared them with.
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Burning History: Slogging Through…
Twilight Zones, Alternative Dimensions, Truth, Justice and The American Way.
By John M. Del Vecchio
Firebase Whip: On the southern edge of the A Shau Valley October 1970. Photo by the author.
Perhaps I live in an alternate dimension, or perhaps the film makers of this series (and many of those they have chosen to interview) live in the twilight zone. Of the 60 or more events portrayed in episodes 7 and 8, I’ve opted to address three using passages written years ago. I believe they’re pertinent. They also demonstrate the duration of divergence of thoughts on issues and narratives. With all the scholarship that followed the “end of the war,” the repetition and reinforcement of disproven narratives is disturbing. Worse, it opens old wounds.
Before we jump into some nit and grit, I wish here to openly thank leaders and commanders of 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) units from platoons to brigades for their leadership which was so vastly superior to what I’ve seen portrayed by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick. Surely I was blessed to soldier under such NCOs and officers. Then again, perhaps others, in other units, had experiences like mine. The video at this link (made in 2012 for the 30th Anniversary edition of The 13th Valley) explains my education in this regard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUxlt_-qEhI . Note, when I first wrote The 13th Valley I was writing strictly about the 101st. I had been appalled by news reports I’d read describing American troop activity in Vietnam, and I was out to set the record straight for the 101st. After publication I received thousands of letters… well, watch the video. It’s about two minutes.
Hamburger Hill, The Truong Son Corridor and Ted Kennedy: The below passage is from the Author’s Note to the 1988 edition of The 13th Valley. Please note the last line (emphasized). Burns/Novick have been beating the drum continuously that the war was unwinnable. It is true that some politicians believed this theory, or were at least skeptical about the chances for success. Others were more realistic, and less fatalistic. Success or failure were not predetermined but would hinge upon definitive actions of the various parties. American actions were affected (and finally perverted) by the building false narrative.
The strategic importance of the battle at Khe Ta Laou along with all the other battles fought in that expansive area of operation beginning in 1962—Ta Bat, A Shau, Lang Vei, Khe Sanh, Dong Ap Bai (Hamburger Hill), Ripcord, and so many others—lies in blocking and/or cutting the enemy’s logistical lifeline to communist units fighting in South Vietnam. Americans who fought there understand, but politicians of the time had different agendas. In 1969 Senator Ted Kennedy (D, Mass) criticized battles in this region in a speech before Congress: “I feel it is both senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relationship to ending this conflict.” (my emphasis)
Contrary to Kennedy’s assessment, these battles had everything to do with potentially ending the conflict. Disrupting the flow of men and materiel through the Truong Son Corridor from North Vietnam meant the enemy was harder pressed to threaten security and tranquility within South Vietnam. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the corridor, and the ensuing withdrawal of U.S. economic support for the South Vietnamese Army, the NVA moved unchallenged and unobstructed into the South—extending gasoline and oil pipelines down from Lang Vei, through the A Shau Valley (past Khe Ta Laou and beneath Hamburger Hill), south through Kham Duc and Dak To, all the way to Loc Ninh. This gave them a super highway with no cops and no speed limits along the way.
Mobility along this western corridor… gave the PAVN the ability to mass forces against comparatively sparsely defended points. In late ’74 and early ’75 the northern army stormed southward down this road, using hundreds of Soviet-supplied tanks and artillery pieces, and 18,000 military trucks transporting arms, ammo and supplies for 400,000 troops. This represented a logistical operation larger than most Axis movements of World War II, and it paved the way for North Vietnam’s Final Offensive in 1975. Without that corridor a PAVN victory was impossible; with it, conquest was inevitable.
My Lai, American atrocities, and the making of a narrative: Nothing in the passage below should be construed as an excuse for the actions of the Americans who perpetrated the crimes at My Lai, or those who covered up those crimes. The following passage is from Chapter 32 of my novel Carry Me Home. In this chapter the veterans at High Meadow have staged a mock trial as an educational exercise. The chapter is titled: Opening and Closing Arguments and Highlights of The Great Media Trial. It was written in 1991.
After the break the Myth Busters altered their tactics. “Americans were animals at My Lai but that incident was minor in the scope of the war. Yet of a total of 9,447 network evening news stories about the war that were aired between 1963 and 1977,” Al Palanzo testified, “473 dealt with the atrocity at My Lai. The media focused and fixated on this single incident which represented three of every one hundred thousand war deaths. The NVA assassinated six thousand Saigon government civilian personnel in 1970. That did not receive one minute of American television air time. Not one minute!
“The ramifications of this reportage are the labeling of allied soldiers as baby killers, and the dissolution of the moral rightness of the cause. By the way,” Al added, “these media figures have never been made public, and are not now in the public record. They have been derived from an internal network report.”
That caught Sherrick and the defense off balance. He questioned Palanzo at length about the source and how the information had been obtained. Then he requested that the evidence be declared inadmissible.
The numbers, indeed, are exact, and were derived from an internal report produced by ABC, NBC and CBS which listed and graded every story aired on evening news broadcasts from 1963 to 1977 that in any way involved the war in Vietnam. Important, but not said in the novel, the revelation regarding My Lai do not break until November 12th, 1969, approximately six years from the first story listed in the report, and less than six years from the fall of Saigon. Those 473 stories about My Lai represented approximately 10% of all TV evening news coverage from the moment of revelation to the final collapse. There are other major communist offensives, communist atrocities which dwarf the numbers at My Lai, Paris Peace Talks, POWs, communist offensives in Cambodia which lead to over 40,000 civilians being locked in gulag-camps that were precursors to the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Holocaust, yet ABC, NBC and CBS continued to focus on My Lai. Story builds narrative. My Lai became a plank in our national narrative far beyond its actual significance, and it is still a plank with extensive personal, social and political ramifications.
Cambodia prior to the Menu Bombings: The following passages are from Historical Summation, Part 1, in the novel For The Sake of All Living Things. The title of the work was derived from the Buddhist vow: I will become enlightened for the sake of all living things.These paragraphs were first written in 1986.
Sihanouk also controlled the national “Buddhist-oriented system of voluntary contributions”—that is, taxes. To earn merit and achieve a better station in the next life, a Buddhist must be charitable. Sihanouk argued that because the rich were all devout Buddhists their contributions would support the poor and the state. In reality, the rich gave little to the poor and almost nothing to the state. The merchant or middle class, though taxed, was tiny, and state income from it amounted to little. This left only farmers to support the state, and they were heavily taxed, even though farmers as a percentage of the population had shrunk from nearly 80 percent to about 50 percent. Payment from them was usually in rice, which the government sold on the export market. By 1966, two thirds of the peasants were burdened by indebtedness, loans which carried interest rates of 12 percent per month. New population pressures, the tax-caused indebtedness, and the feudal order combined to create unstable land tenure conditions. In 1950, only one in twenty-five Khmer farmers rented his land; by 1968 the figure was one in five.
Without broad-based taxes the government had no money with which to modernize the state, to improve or maintain the transportation and telephone systems, or to raise, equip and train a viable national army. Cambodia, from 1954, was an ever-increasing low-pressure area—a power vacuum—a nation unable to ensure domestic tranquility, much less the integrity of its borders…
There were four major Communist factions operating in Cambodia in the late 1960s—the Viet Cong… the North Viet Namese, the Khmer Viet Minh, and the Khmer Krahom. … By 1968 the NVA, by far the strongest force in Cambodia, had transformed the Northeast—Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri and portions of Stung Treng and Kratie provinces—into their own uncontested base area. In a different manner, they also controlled large portions of the South and Southeast. They were entrenched—through bribery, through corruption, through threat of force, and through assassination—in every area along the Sihanouk Trail from Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) northward to Phnom Penh and eastward along coastal Highway 3 through Bokor and Kampot, to the border regions. Indeed, in many of the villages in Svay Rieng, Prey Veng, Kandal, Kompong Speu, Takeo and Kampot provinces the North Viet Namese maintained at least a parallel governing administration to that of Sihanouk’s government. In portions of the southeastern provinces, especially along the border, they controlled the economy so completely they printed their own currency and forced local inhabitants to us it instead of the Cambodian riel. In addition, the NVA had established a (military) front headquarters just outside Angor Wat in Siem Reap Province in the Northwest.
These were the conditions in South Vietnam’s neighboring state—conditions brought on by the launch of Hanoi’s War of Hegemony over all of Indochina. That war, as mentioned in an earlier essay, was initiated in the late 1940s and reinforced every year in Laos, Cambodia and beyond. Without Vietnamese communist tutelage there is no Khmer Viet Minh, no reactionary Khmer Rouge, no Cambodian Holocaust. Declarations of neutrality were at best ripples in a vast lake. We heard less about this from Burns than I had anticipated. Treating the topic of the war as if it only involved North and South Vietnam and not all of Southeast Asia leads to many misunderstandings. The reaction on college campuses to the Cambodian Incursion occur in a knowledge vacuum, not unlike the power-vacuum created by Prince Sihanouk. Nothing good came from either.
I feel compelled to return to my opening thoughts. I recognize all the America troops—soldiers, Marines, airmen, etc.—interviewed for this series by Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick. I don’t mean individually. I mean I knew men like them in Vietnam. And I’ve known vets like them in the years after the war. But it seems to me, in general, this is not who we were in Vietnam. This is a small and skewed fraction. So who were we? In so many ways we were the best of the generation, the ones willing to meet the challenge, to repulse an enemy, and to secure the land of a people we barely knew. Many of us, even if we didn’t wear this on our sleeve, were willing to “bear any burden… oppose any foe…” in support of liberty… willing to die in support of the right to peace, to freedoms and to self-determination free of communist tyranny. Believing we were betrayed, angry at the government or the command, or believing in the cause, our discipline differed from many of those portrayed in the documentary. That’s just who we were. The most basic characteristic of the American soldier was his unexpressed support for Truth, Justice and The American Way.
[Corrections to essay #6: The family assassinated in Saigon on 1 Feb 68 identified as that of Gen. Loan’s brother should have read a friend of Loan’s; the woman visited by Bill Ehrhart at Hue may not have been a professional, but more tragically a young mother pushed by circumstances to trade sex for c-rations.]
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John M. Del Vecchio is the author of The 13th Valley and other works on Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and veterans issues. He is currently working on: Peaking At 70: Rediscovering America and Self. www.peakingat70.com.