Monday, August 23, 2004

The Vietnam era as I remember it

I want to talk about the Vietnam War to review in my own mind as to what I think about the 40-year-old war that has become an issue in this election. I was in the military in the late 1950s. In fact, despite my almost four years in and honorable discharge from the Air Force, I am not considered a veteran because I was in between the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the Vietnam war. With that out of the way, let’s look at the history of that war.

Most people think the Vietnam war and our involvement in it began in the late 1950s and early 60s. Actually, we became, to some extent, involved in that war from the start. President Harry S. Truman edged us into it by pledging support to the French, our WWII allies, in their battles against Nationalist forces in their overseas colonies such as those of Ho Chi Minh in Indochina. At the same time, Truman and Marshall set up the containment policy on communism that lasted for about 45 years and eventually led to the end(?) of totalitarianism in Soviet Russia and, I think, an easing of it in China. Under this policy, the beginning of what we called the Cold War, people who attacked our democratic friends, and later just our friends, democratic or not, were immediately classed as communists and needed to be deterred. The communists did support many of them. It was an easy path to us and our resources. As we saw in Cuba later, however, the USSR would push as far as it could and then provide moral support.

Ho Chi Minh, however, was a different kettle of fish. He feared his Chinese neighbors, unlike the North Koreans. He did seek help from the USSR which provided supplies around the horn as it were, since there was no land connection between the two countries except across China which refused to allow passage. We sent some supplies to the French, who because they had been conquerors of Indochina in the colonial era and did not realize, as the British eventually did in India, that the colonial era had ended, kept fighting to retain their colonies. They did have a puppet government in Saigon and after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1955, they pulled out, leaving that government in charge, with a promise from Dwight Eisenhower to help prop it up.

In the meantime we were having our own domestic problems. Racial issues, such as schools and Jim Crow laws were under discussion; the feeling of well being by the middle classes was beginning to get edgy over domestic policies and scandals in government such as the serious 10%ers who charged that to open gates to influence in the administration and the farcical case of Nixon’s dog. So we were not aware of what we were getting pulled into. By the time I was discharged in 1959, we were aware that U.S. special forces, mostly Green Berets and their Air Force equivalents, were being assigned to accompany South Vietnamese forces into battle as “advisors.” We told each other we didn’t want to go there. The advisors weren’t supposed to shoot but we always wondered what would happen if they were attacked and didn’t defend themselves.

The rest of the country paid little attention to Vietnam. We had Russia to worry about: Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the desk at the U.N. and threatening to bury us. Our CIA planners got their balls busted at the Bay of Pigs. Then came the Cuban missile crisis in which the two super powers stood eyeball to eyeball before someone blinked and Russia pulled back the missiles it had planned to install in Cuba. We saw it all. Our television screens were filled with black and white (before most TV was in color) film of the missiles on the decks of the transports and the missile sites being erected in Cuba taken by Air Force reconnaissance. We saw them in our newspapers and in our news magazines. I remember sitting in my car in the sunlight on the Rimrocks above Billings listening to the President warn the Soviets to pull back and wondering if I would be recalled to active duty (I was in the so-called ready reserve) as so many of the men I’d served with who’d been in WWII had happen to them for Korea. So we didn’t pay much attention to Vietnam. We in the news business, as I was then, saw the infrequent stories out of Washington that more men had been assigned to Vietnam but if we carried those stories they got little reaction. We’d survived the missile crisis, according to some recent sources the closest the U.S. ever came to a nuclear confrontation (some folks believe the world came closer to one several years back when India and Pakistan were squaring off).

Then we had our President assassinated and a new President who did in his first 100 days a great deal toward attacking racial barriers. This created tension in the country. Despite rulings and executive actions, the country had a great deal of trouble dealing with this issue. It was a focusing point. And we had already starting having sitins and protests concerning that issue. Police in Alabama, for instance, used water hoses and police dogs on marchers who were doing nothing but walking down a street. There were other instances of protests met with force and the country was already becoming uglier. In addition, we had the creation of “The Pill” which brought sexual freedom to women and changed the atmosphere of the workplace. We were having trouble adapting to that as well.

In Vietnam, a corrupt royal regime was milking peasants who wanted only to live their lives unmolested. The rich were getting richer and the poor had children, as the old song says, who starved. In 1964, the regime which we had been propping up for several years to one extent or another, was in severe danger of falling and letting the nationalists/communists take over. Actually, it did fall several times and we propped up a new ruler. Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara committed combat troops in 1964 to maintain the south’s government. A number of people in Congress and out were not happy with it, but the choice was made. Eventually, the South Vietnamese army virtually crumbled and we were in full charge of the fighting. We actually seemed to have the Viet Cong, the south’s opposition, on the run, and then the north sent in well-trained troops and regained much of the control of the countryside. We were a bit like the British troops in our own revolution fighting a guerilla enemy. We’d thrust salients into the countryside and win battles and withdraw into the cities or armored fortresses until the next patrol or major effort. In the meantime, we were bombing the north (and apparently some of the adjacent countries) in an effort to block the Ho Chi Minh trail and having some good results, although we never did cut the route entirely.

At home, the opposition was mounting. Some of the same people who had been protesting to improve civil rights began to suggest that the use of resources and attention to Vietnam was acting against resources we needed to improve living conditions here. In addition, Lyndon Johnson was saying that we could have guns, for Vietnam, and butter, for domestic issues. Inflation soared. A 10 cent can of Campbell's Tomato Soup, as an example might be 11 cents the next time you went to the store and 13 cents two weeks later and it didn’t stop. (These are not actual figures, but illustrate the general problem.) Our wages were not going up that fast. So the middle class was becoming disillusioned.

Johnson and McNamara got caught in lies and he resigned. The best hope to bring some peace to our world, many of us thought, was the attorney general, John Kennedy’s brother, Robert. Then he and Martin Luther King were gunned down. We had different attitudes about the war take center stage. Eugene McCarthy led the protesters’ viewpoint. Richard Nixon had a plan for settling the war with “honor.” Hubert H. Humphrey, many of us thought, would bring the focus back to domestic issues. Then came the tumultuous 1968 Democrat convention in Chicago. Today, many will claim it a riot by protesters. It was not. It seemed to be a riot by armored police who had personal attitudes to take out on the marchers, much like the Montgomery police did on the civil rights marchers. There was no excuse for what happened. Even so, the American people, I think, still supported the war. Then came Kent State University. In the spring of 1969, students were protesting the war and, as I recall, threatening to sit in at the campus president’s office. He called in the National Guard made up basically of untrained kids in uniform. The trained ones were in Vietnam. The marchers were heckling and throwing small objects, stones, perhaps, although that never really was proven. The soldiers had live ammunition and fired at the students, killing five.

That was really the end of the Vietnam War. From that point on the issue was never whether we were going to stay on, but when we would get out “with honor” since Richard Nixon had been elected. My newspaper publisher was essentially a conservative and a supporter of the war but, as I remember, he called me in on a Saturday to write the first editorial against the Vietnam war that we had ever printed. I also wrote a signed column that appeared in the same issue, calling on us to get out of Vietnam because it had become such a divisive issue in this country and we weren’t having much success in winning it.

I have read that veterans say that if we had not had the protests in this country following the Tet offensive that the North Vietnamese had been ready to sue for peace. I doubt that. They may have withdrawn into the north for a breather and a refurbishment of military strength. They had doubted since the beginning, even before protests, that we would stay the course. And we would have had to stay over there and prop up yet another South Vietnamese government without any indication of a good result. Much of what was going on in Saigon seemed to outside observers as if the rulers were convinced the war would end badly and were trying to take care of their postwar future. Sometimes we doubted that there even would have been a South Vietnamese government or army if we had not been there. However, I remain convinced that the American will to conduct that war ended at Kent State in the spring of 1969. We still fought, but there was a lot of bitterness about that. The protests escalated. But, by 1970, when John Kerry threw out his medals, the protests were just pushing a decision already reached. The only caveat was Nixon’s (and Kissinger’s) insistence on “honor,” something I would suggest Nixon never understood.

At times, I think we won our political objectives in that war. Our leaders told us about the domino theory that if Vietnam fell all of southeast Asia would as well. Containment eventually did bring down the Communist government in the USSR. And we did contain the communists in Indochina for something like 27 years. At other times I’m not so sure. Indonesia later became Communist without adding any strength to Russia or China. Now its Communist government is gone. Maybe Vietnam was not really an effective part of the containment strategy. Would a Ho Chi Minh victory have given the Kremlin Southeast Asia, as people argued at the time? Or would it only have strengthened Russia’s hand against China with which it was already having issues? Or would it have made no difference to anyone but the Vietnamese?


Blogger bedrocktruth said...

An excellent overview/summary/post Chuck. We contend on a lot of issues but I acknowledge your depth and broader knowledge on most of them, if not always your conclusions :)

2:03 AM  
Blogger Eric Coobs said...

The troops came home from Vietnam more than 30 years ago - it wouldn't even be an issue if it wasn't for John Kerry.

In 1996, the Democrats said that military service in Vietnam shouldn't be an issue when Bob Dole was running against President Clinton, and now those same Democrats think it's important? Please!

7:44 AM  
Blogger David said...

Great stuff. Unsentimental but not judgemental. You'd be amazed how many people have been blogging we would have won if it weren't for Walter Cronkite. I'm not sure how many have memories of the actual war and how many don't. Just google Tet Syndrome if you feel like it - or click through to my blog.

It's about the current round of revisionism in the blogosphere - I'm even less inclined than before to try writing about Vietnam myself after seeing your essay.

5:54 PM  

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