Tag Archives: ARVN


by LEWIS SORLEY Copyright © 2006
A Lecture Delivered at the Vietnam Center Texas Tech University Lubbock, Texas

No one account could hope to address all the many aspects of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s performance in such a long and complex endeavor as the Vietnam War. This morning, then, I would like to speak to selected aspects, and to do so in the form of eight chunks, two sidebars, and a very brief conclusion.

The South Vietnamese government awarded campaign medals to Americans who served in the Vietnam War. Each decoration had affixed to the ribbon a metal scroll inscribed “1960- .“ The closing date was never filled in, for obvious reasons, but for our purposes 1960 will serve as a suitable starting point (one of several that might have been chosen). From that point forward increasing and eventually large-scale American involvement in the Vietnam War provided an excellent vantage point for evaluation and appreciation of the performance rendered by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the period 1960-1975.

Some years ago I published an analysis of ARVN’s performance in the 1972 Easter Offensive. I called the piece “Courage and Blood,” and it appeared in Parameters, the journal of the Army War College. The late Douglas Pike commented in a subsequent issue of his periodic Indochina Chronology: “Slowly but steadily the effort goes on to rectify the record and rescue the reputation of the South Vietnamese soldier,” he wrote, “those so casually trashed by the ignorant commercial television reporter and the academic left-winger bent on some ideological mission. Sorley’s writings amount to historical revisionism and he is a sturdy yeoman plowing this particular patch.”1

I have always been grateful for that encouraging assessment, and wish Professor Pike could be with us now to observe how the emerging historical record sustains an increasingly well documented and objective appreciation of the heroic and ultimately successful maturation and performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Only when the United States defaulted on its commitments to South Vietnam, while North Vietnam’s communist allies continued and indeed greatly increased support to their client state, were our unfortunate sometime allies overwhelmed and defeated.

Thus far there has never been a full-scale evaluation of ARVN’s evolution and performance over the years of its expansion and development that has been based solely on the record broadly considered. In the limited time available here, I hope to provide the beginnings of a corrective to the incomplete, unfair, and ideologically tainted view of ARVN that until now has largely constituted the conventional wisdom.

Americans know very little about the Vietnam War, even though it ended over three decades ago. That is in part because it has been seen by those who opposed the war, or at least opposed their own participation in it, as in their interests to portray every aspect of the long struggle in the worst possible light, and indeed in some cases to falsify what they have had to say about it. James Webb identified the media, academia, and Hollywood as groups that “have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.”2 That they also to a large degree dominate the public dialogue helps explain why many have such a distorted view of the war even three decades after the fact.

Such distortions extend from wholesale defamation of the South Vietnamese and their conduct throughout a long and difficult struggle to Jane Fonda’s infamous claim that repatriated American prisoners of war who reported systematic abuse and torture by their captors were “liars” and “hypocrites.”

It is time to move beyond the unrelentingly negative, often slanderous, and overwhelmingly politicized denunciations of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—the ARVN—that have characterized so much of the dialogue since the war.

* * *
Chunk 1: ARVN in the Earlier Years

This was a period of American dominance in conduct of the war, with the South Vietnamese basically shoved aside, relegated to pacification duty (which was itself a facet of the war pretty much ignored by the American command) and given little in the way of modernized equipment or combat support.

Many people, including some Americans stationed in Vietnam, were critical of South Vietnamese armed forces during this period. But such criticisms seldom took into account a number of factors affecting the performance of those forces. American materiel assistance in these early years consisted largely of providing cast-off World War II American weapons, including the heavy and unwieldy (for a Vietnamese) M-1 rifle. Meanwhile the enemy was being provided the AK-47 assault rifle by his Russian and Chinese patrons.

“In 1964 the enemy had introduced the AK47, a modern, highly effective automatic rifle,” noted Brigadier General James L. Collins, Jr. in a monograph on development of South Vietnam’s armed forces. “In contrast, the South Vietnam forces were still armed with a variety of World War II weapons….” Then: “After 1965 the increasing U.S. buildup slowly pushed Vietnamese armed forces materiel needs into the background.”3

Thus South Vietnamese units continued to be outgunned by the enemy and at a distinct combat disadvantage. General Fred Weyand, finishing up a tour as commanding general of II Field Force, Vietnam, observed in a 1968 debriefing report that “the long delay in furnishing ARVN modern weapons and equipment, at least on a par with that furnished the enemy by Russia and China, has been a major contributing factor to ARVN ineffectiveness.”4

It was not until General Creighton Abrams came to Vietnam as deputy commander of U.S. forces in May 1967 that the South Vietnamese began to get more attention. Soon after taking up his post Abrams cabled Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson. “It is quite clear to me,” he reported, “that the US Army military here and at home have thought largely in terms of US operations and support of US forces.”

As a consequence, “shortages of essential equipment or supplies in an already austere authorization has not been handled with the urgency and vigor that characterizes what we do for US needs. Yet the responsibility we bear to ARVN is clear.” Abrams acknowledged that “the ground work must begin here. I am working at it.”5

Abrams spent most of his year as the deputy trying to upgrade South Vietnamese forces, including providing them the M-16 rifle. By the time of Tet 1968 he had managed to get some of these weapons into the hands of South Vietnamese airborne and other elite units, but the rank and file were still outgunned by the enemy. Thus Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, South Vietnam’s senior logistician, recalled that “during the enemy Tet offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of AK- 47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops.”6

Even so, South Vietnamese armed forces performed admirably in repelling the Tet offensive. “To the surprise of many Americans and the consternation of the Communists,” reported Time magazine, “ARVN bore the brunt of the early fighting with bravery and elan, performing better than almost anyone would have expected.”7 Nobody mentioned that the ARVN had achieved these results without modern weapons that could match those of the enemy.

In February 1968 retired Army General Bruce C. Clarke made a trip to Vietnam. Afterward, Clarke wrote up a trip report which, by way of General Earle Wheeler, made its way to President Lyndon Johnson. Clarke stated in the report that “the Vietnamese units are still on a very austere priority for equipment, to include weapons.” That adversely affected both their moral and effectiveness, he observed. “Troops know and feel it when they are poorly equipped.”

After reading the report, LBJ called Clarke to the White House to discuss his findings. Then, recalled Clarke, “within a few days of our visit to the White House a presidential aide called me to say the President had released 100,000 M-16 rifles to ARVN.”8 President Johnson referred to this matter in his dramatic 31 March 1968 speech. “We shall,” he vowed, “accelerate the re-equipment of South Vietnam’s armed forces in order to meet the enemy’s increased firepower.”9 It was about time.

Clarke made another visit to Vietnam in August 1969, when he “found that the ARVN had 713,000 M-16s and other equipment and had made great progress since 1968 Tet.”10 Now ARVN, and the Territorial Forces, were getting not only the most modern rifles, but also M-79 grenade launchers, M-60 machine guns, and AN/PRC-25 radios, equipment the U.S. forces had had all along.

U.S. divisions were not only better armed, but larger than South Vietnam’s, resulting in greater combat capability. While he was serving as deputy U.S. commander, recalled his aide-de-camp, General Abrams “had a study done of comparative combat power of U.S. and South Vietnamese divisions. It turned out to be something like sixteen to one due to the superior firepower possessed by the U.S. units. Abrams used that as a point to try to get more resources into the ARVN divisions.”11

To the further disadvantage of the South Vietnamese, during these early years the U.S. hogged most of the combat support that increased unit effectiveness. This included such things as allocation of B-52 bombing strikes, provision of helicopter and fixed-wing gunship support, artillery, and intra-theater troop transport.

Abrams noted that during the period of the enemy’s “Third Offensive” in August and September 1968 “the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined.” In the process, he noted, they also “suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action.” This was a function, he told General Wheeler, of the fact that the South Vietnamese “get relatively less support, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than US forces, i.e., artillery, tactical air support, gunships and helilift.”12

Under these conditions of the earlier years, criticism of South Vietnamese units was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given little to work with, outgunned by the enemy, and relegated to what were then viewed as secondary roles, South Vietnam’s armed forces missed out for several years on the development and combat experience that would have greatly increased their capabilities.

Later Robert McNamara, who as Defense Secretary had presided over the American war effort in those same years, wrote disparagingly of the Vietnamese, earning a searing rebuke from William Colby. “He should not be contemptuously slandering Vietnamese who gave their lives and efforts to prevent Communist rule,” wrote Colby, “but who saw their great-power protector wash its hands of them because of the costs of McNamara’s failed policies. The cause,” affirmed Colby, “was indeed ‘noble.’ America fought it the wrong way under McNamara, and lost it in good part because of him.”13

* * *
Chunk 2: Tet 1968

The widespread fighting at Tet of 1968 was ARVN’s first great test. To the surprise of many, it turned in a valorous performance. Later, at West Point to receive the Thayer Award, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker took the opportunity to praise this accomplishment. “The Vietnamese armed forces,” he noted, “though below strength, fought well—as General Abrams said, they fought probably better than they thought they could. There were no uprisings or defections, the government did not fall apart. On the contrary,” recalled Bunker, “it reacted strongly, quickly and decisively. It set about the task of recovery with great energy.”14

The outstanding performance of South Vietnamese forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968 was absolutely crucial to their country’s future. “The result,” observed Ambassador Bunker, “was to set in motion a whole series of developments which contributed significantly to the strengthening of the government, to increasing the confidence of the people in its ability to cope with the enemy, and to a determination by the government to take over more of the burden of the war.”15

John Paul Vann agreed, saying in 1972 that Tet had “precipitated those actions which have now paid off so handsomely in government expansion of control in South Vietnam.” Vann cited full manpower mobilization, permitting expansion of the armed forces as U.S. troops were withdrawn, and emphasized in particular increases in the Territorial Forces which provided for an enduring government presence in the countryside.16

At the time of the enemy’s “Third Offensive” in the autumn of 1968, having by then taken command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Abrams cabled General Earle Wheeler and Admiral John McCain. “I am led to the conclusion that the cited results,” referring to a recent six-week period during which the ARVN had killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined, “indicate progress in ARVN leadership and aggressiveness.” Abrams also commented on the price the ARVN was paying for these successes. “The lower ratio of enemy to friendly KIA, which I attribute in part to thinner combat support,” he said, “is a further argument for expediting the upgrading of ARVN equipment.”17

When senior American and South Vietnamese officials met on Midway Island in June 1969, a prominent topic was expansion and upgrading of South Vietnam’s armed forces. An initial increase in structure to 820,000—later to expand to 1.1 million as a result of this and subsequent agreements—was approved, “along with projects to equip the RVNAF with new weapons such as the M-16 rifle, M-60 machine gun and LAW rocket,” recalled ARVN Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho.18 That such weapons as the M-16 were still being negotiated at this late stage shows how long the South Vietnamese had been left to fight underarmed in comparison to the enemy.

* * *
Sidebar: Some Comparisons

Here are some of the things the ARVN did not do:

+ Have as many as fifty men a day desert while under the direct supervision of their commander-in-chief. That was General George Washington’s army at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778.19

+ Have to put artillery into the streets to quell civilian anti-draft riots. That was what President Abraham Lincoln was forced to do in New York City in April 1865 during the American Civil War.

+ Show up for the climactic battle of the war at about half strength because of desertions. That was American General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. “He expected to find 160,000 soldiers, but instead found only 85,000 because 75,000 had deserted. During the [American] Civil War, the average Union desertion rate was 33 percent, and for the Confederates, 40 percent.”20

+ Conduct a general strike in which soldiers in half the divisions of the army refused to attack. That was the French Army in 1917, after which 554 soldiers were condemned to death by courts-martial and 49 were actually shot.21

+ Be unique in having some units fail in the face of the enemy. On Bougainville during World War II Company K of the U.S. 25th Infantry “broke and ran.” Commented historian Geoffrey Perret: “There was hardly a division in the Army that didn’t have at least one company that had done the same.”22

+ Have a unit in which its assistant division commander was relieved, four senior staff were fired, two of the original battalion commanders were captured, and the remaining nine were replaced. That was the U.S. 36th Infantry Division at Salerno in World War II.23

+ Conduct an unrelenting campaign of shelling, assassinations, kidnapping, and impressment against innocent civilians. That was the work of the communist enemy throughout the Vietnam War.

+ Commit massacres of friendly civilian elements such as those at Thuy Bo and My Lai. Those were the deeds of American troops in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968.

Additional examples could be amassed almost without limit. The point is that, in comparison to other forces both then and historically, the ARVN during its war conducted itself respectably and loyally, attributes for which it has never gotten the credit it deserves.

Documentation of individual ARVN heroism and professional performance is abundant, although thus far little used by historians and all but ignored by journalists. In the National Archives are the records of thousands and thousands of U.S. awards to South Vietnamese for valor and service.24

Such heroism and devotion to duty are revealed as all the more admirable when it is considered that many South Vietnamese soldiers spent a decade or more at war, in many cases essentially their entire adult (and adolescent) lives. As one insightful American once observed, the South Vietnamese had no DEROS (the “date eligible for return from overseas” of Americans on a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam). Instead, they soldiered on, year after year after year, with incredible devotion and stoicism. Many, after the communist “liberation” of the south, spent another decade or more struggling to survive the ordeal of incarceration by the communists in the murderous so-called re-education camps.25

* * *
Chunk 3: Territorial Forces

Following the enemy’s offensive at the time of Tet 1968, the American command changed. General Creighton Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and brought to bear a much different outlook on the nature of the war and how it should be prosecuted. Abrams stressed “one war” of combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnam’s armed forces, giving those latter two long-neglected tasks equal importance and priority with military operations.

Those military operations also underwent dramatic change. In place of “search and destroy” there was now “clear and hold,” meaning that when the enemy had been driven from populated areas those areas were then permanently garrisoned by allied forces, not abandoned to be reoccupied by the enemy at some later date. In perhaps the most important development of the entire war, greatly expanded South Vietnamese Territorial Forces took on that security mission.

Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh called “expansion and upgrading of the Regional and Popular Forces” “by far the most important and outstanding among US contributions” to the war effort.26 Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong noted that such achievements as hamlets pacified, the number of people living under GVN [Government of Vietnam] control, or the trafficability on key lines of communication were possible largely due to the unsung feats of the RF and PF.”27

When General Abrams arrived in Vietnam in May of 1967, the South Vietnamese armed forces consisted of army, navy, marine and air force elements. Separate and apart were what were called the Territorial Forces, consisting of Regional Forces and Popular Forces. These latter were dedicated to local security, with the Regional Forces under control of province chiefs and the Popular Forces answering to district chiefs.

These Regional Forces and Popular Forces, which remained in place in their home areas, were what put the “hold” in “clear and hold” operations. By 1970 they had grown to some 550,000 men and, integrated at that time into the regular armed forces, constituted more than half the total strength.

By coincidence, last evening Bing West and another guest were on the PBS “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” to talk about the current situation in Iraq. One of them cited “Condeleeza Rice’s concept of ‘clear and hold.’ “ If anyone cared to trace the etymology of that concept they would find a straight shot from the Territorial Forces in South Vietnam to General Creighton Abrams to General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study to Colonel Jasper Wilson.

As early as October 1968 William Colby, newly installed as deputy to General Abrams for pacification support, explained the importance of these elements: “For territorial security, our main focus is on improvement of the Regional and Popular Forces, which are almost half of the army now.” “We started last October. General Abrams had a conference here, identified some thirty steps to take,” including “sending out small military advisor teams to work with the RF companies and PF platoons. We now have some 250 of those five-man teams scattered around the country.”

Three months later Colby noted the rapid buildup of and the improved training and armament being provided the RF and PF: “There’re about 91,000 more of them today than there were a year ago.” About 100,000 now had M16s, which they didn’t have a year ago. And 350 advisory teams were living and working with RF and PF units.

Abrams had, soon after taking command, deliberately channeled the new rifles to these elements. “The RF and PF, a year ago,” he said in August 1969, “received the highest priority of anybody. That’s where the first M16s went, before ARVN.” “They’ve been given, for over a year, the very highest priority. And, to be perfectly frank, it’s like anything else. I mean, you put your money in soldiers’ deposits, you get 10 percent [interest] and so on. Goddamn it, we made an investment here, and there ought to be—. That’s priority, above anybody else in the country, over a year ago!”

As the RF and PF improved in capabilities—and performance— Abrams wanted to see them get credit for what they were accomplishing. “One thing I’ve been chafing under,” he said at the WIEU, “—when we brief visitors, the role of the RF and PF in this war is substantially submerged.

There’s a tendency to talk about the ARVN, and for some time now the RF and PF have borne the brunt of casualties and this sort of thing, and the toll that they’re exacting from the enemy is substantial —I mean, if you just want to deal in that sort of thing. But if we get talking about the security of the people this is a big part of this whole thing. This is where it is.”

About that same time he took a stance prompted by the good performance of these elements: “I don’t know if I would really favor any more rifle companies in the ARVN. If the manpower was available, I think the investment in Territorial Forces would be of greater value.”

At the end of 1969 Abrams, contemplating a chart displaying “the trend in what’s happened the last three or four months in who’s making a contribution—weapons, KIA,” had this to say: “It’s kind of interesting. In terms of results, which is enemy killed, weapons captured, caches, and so on, the ARVN contribution stayed at about the same—26 percent, 27 percent. And U.S. and Free World percent has gone down. And, at least percentage-wise, that slack has been taken up by the Territorial Forces. And this has happened since August.”

Someone: “It’s the nature of the war.”

Abrams: “Yes, that’s right. But it’s also—you know, I was always wondering about what the hell would we get for that investment in those 300,000 M16s—you know, all that? Well, it’s commencing to show.”

They were hanging on to those weapons, too. As Bill Colby pointed out in July 1970, for the Territorial Forces the weapons gained/lost ratio was then about three enemy weapons taken for every friendly weapon lost; five years ago just the opposite had been the case.

Abrams’s comment: “Territorial Forces?” “Ah, these rabbits are coming along good!” And finally, at a Commanders WIEU in October 1971: “One of the things that, and it’s been for a long time, the RF and PF are carrying the major burden of the war.”

Senior Vietnamese officers agreed. “Gradually, in their outlook, deportment, and combat performance,” said Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, “the RF and PF troopers shed their paramilitary origins and increasingly became full-fledged soldiers.” So decidedly was this the case, Truong concluded, that “throughout the major period of the Vietnam conflict” the RF and PF were “aptly regarded as the mainstay of the war machinery.”28

Expanded in numbers and better armed and better trained, the Territorial Forces came into their own, earning the respect of even so tough a critic as Lieutenant General Julian Ewell. “They were the cutting edge of the war,” he said admiringly.

* * *
Chunk 4: Perennial Problems

Three important problems confronted the ARVN throughout the war: insufficient qualified leadership, widespread corruption, and desertions.

Leadership in adequate amounts of sufficient quality continued to be a problem for ARVN throughout the war. Given the continuing expansion of the forces, finally reaching a peak of 1.1 million men, the situation could not have been otherwise. Combat losses, themselves a testimonial to South Vietnam’s small unit leaders, of course further aggravated the shortages caused by expanding the structure.

Strenuous training and recruitment campaigns were undertaken to produce new leaders and move up those proved effective in combat. After Lam Son 719, for example, General Abrams attended a ceremony in Hue. “It really was something,” he later told the staff. “They had a promotion thing, and noncoms got promoted. And noncoms to aspirants. And aspirants that had been noncoms going to first lieutenant. And President Thieu said up there that this was just a token—that there were 5,000 promotions involved, down right in the ranks. And these promotions are real battlefield promotions.”

Abrams liked what he had seen. “They’re what happened in Laos,” he noted. “And I just don’t know of any way to get to a military organization any better than going down and promoting some guys that did a good job.”29 (This approach of developing effective leaders from scratch was also undertaken with respect to elected civilian hamlet and village officials, who were put through a course in the training center at Vung Tau designed to help them develop the management and leadership skills they would need to do their jobs.)

Some of South Vietnam’s most senior leaders were among the least forgiving critics of the leadership. Wrote General Cao Van Vien after the war: “During the decade I served as chairman of the RVNAF Joint General Staff, I had witnessed all the successes and failures of our leadership. Even though this leadership had done its best, it still proved inadequate for this most difficult episode of our nation’s history.”30

Desertions from ARVN divisions also plagued the South Vietnamese throughout the war. Significantly, however, these were not desertions to join the other side, but largely to escape combat or just to go home. They differed radically from the cases of deserters from the Viet Cong and NVA. Ralliers to the government from the enemy side in many cases became part of the allied armed forces. Deserters on the allied side, in contrast, often rejoined their own side at a local level. As Anthony Joes observed, this phenomenon constituted “a shift of manpower from the army to the militia. Among the militia units defending their native villages or provinces,” he noted, “desertion rates were close to zero, despite casualty rates higher than ARVN’s.”31

Corruption was another problem never really solved, although the impact of it on the outcome of the war was never as significant as critics claimed. General Cao Van Vien, however, concluded: “As to corruption, although it was not directly accountable for the collapse of the nation, its effect certainly debilitated professional competency and[,] by extension, the war effort.”32

CIA’s Tom Polgar commented perceptively on the matter, arguing that the country “could have survived with a corrupt South Vietnamese government, just as the Philippines survived with a corrupt Philippine government—or South Korea does—or Thailand—or anywhere. In any country where you do not pay your civil service adequately, you can expect corruption,” said Polgar. “It’s a way of life.” But, he continued, “that was not the trouble. The trouble was that there was just no margin in the resources of that government to cope with a military invasion.”33

Colonel William LeGro, who was there until the last days with the Defense Attaché Office, agreed. “Corruption was not the cause of the collapse,” he stated. “The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause.” LeGro added one further observation: “We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese.”34

* * *
Sidebar: Nguyen Van Thieu

This sidebar is about the late Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s former President and de facto commander-in-chief of its armed forces.

President Thieu led his country during years of exceptional difficulty. While fighting against an external invasion and an internal insurgency, both supported and supplied by China and the Soviet Union, he put in place elected governments from the national level down through villages and hamlets, greatly expanded and—with American materiel and advisory support—improved the armed forces as they progressively took over the entire combat burden from withdrawing U.S. forces, personally led a pacification program which rooted out the covert infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the rural population, instituted genuine land reform which gave 400,000 farmers title to 2.5 million acres of land, and organized four million citizens into a People’s Self-Defense Force armed with 600,000 weapons.

Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, who headed the American embassy in Saigon for six years, saw a great deal of Nguyen Van Thieu and formed some settled judgments of the man and his performance. “He has handled problems with a very considerable astuteness and skill,” Bunker observed. “He is an individual of very considerable intellectual capacity. He made the decision in the beginning to follow the constitutional road, not to rule with a clique of generals, which many of them expected he would do. He has been acting more and more like a politician [Bunker meant this as a compliment], getting out into the country, following up on pacification, talking to people, seeing what they want.” Bunker approved, and on another occasion compared the President to his principal rival for political leadership. “I thought that Thieu was a wiser, more solid person,” Bunker stated.35

Thieu was also realistic, telling Ambassador Bunker that “unfortunately we do not have many real generals who know how to command more than a division,” a category in which he modestly but accurately included himself.36

Given that most of the administrative ability in his country resided in the military establishment, and most of the political power as well, Thieu was agonizingly constrained in replacing the corrupt and the incompetent in high places, and likewise felt himself obliged to retain some who were loyal, if not all that able. Early in his presidency Thieu explained the situation to a senior American officer who reported the conversation this way: “Judging a wholesale purge of South Vietnamese officers as simply impossible, Thieu warned that each major command change would have to be carefully planned and orchestrated. The army could not be removed from politics overnight. The military establishment had been and still was his major political supporter and the only cohesive force holding the country together.”37

Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams understood this, and were both patient and sympathetic, but they also made very pointed recommendations about senior officers who were not measuring up. Often their advice was accepted, even if some time elapsed while the political groundwork was laid. Over time, then, some major changes took place in South Vietnamese leadership, both civil and military, sometimes forced by battlefield crises. But there was never a wholesale housecleaning, nor could there have been. Not only would political chaos have resulted, but the requisite numbers of more viable replacements were simply not available. Producing them in the necessary abundance would have taken more time than there turned out to be.

The top Americans recognized President Thieu’s importance in, particularly, the pacification campaign. Abrams observed that “he knows more about pacification than any other Vietnamese” and William Colby called him “the number one pacification officer.” A history of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff identified as Thieu’s most important attribute that “he recognized clearly the cardinal importance of the pacification campaign and of the establishment of effective institutions of local government.”38

On a number of occasions Thieu invited Ambassador Bunker to go along on visits to the countryside, where Bunker heard him emphasize restoring local government, holding village and hamlet elections, training local government officials, and land reform. At Vung Tau 1,400 village chiefs, representing about three-quarters of all the villages in South Vietnam, went through training during the first nine months of 1969. President Thieu visited every one of those classes, giving the village chiefs the incomparable cachet of being able to go home and speak about what “President Thieu said to me—.” By late 1969 the situation had improved so dramatically that John Paul Vann, the legendary figure who played a prominent role in the pacification campaign, would tell an audience at Princeton that the “U.S. has won the military war, and is winning the political war via Thieu.”39

In April 1968 President Thieu, against the advice of virtually all his advisors, activated what was called the People’s Self-Defense Force. Thieu argued that “the government had to rest upon the support of the people, and it had little validity if it did not dare to arm them.” Ultimately some four million people, those too old or too young for regular military service, were enrolled in the self-defense force and armed with 600,000 weapons. Establishing conclusively that the Thieu government did have the support of its own people, the self-defense forces used those weapons not against their own government but to fight against communist domination.

In document after document the enemy kept predicting and calling for a “popular uprising” amongst the South Vietnam, but in fact there was never any popular uprising in support of the enemy in South Vietnam. To any objective observer that does not seem too surprising in view of the enemy’s record, year after year, of assassinations, kidnappings, terror bombings, impressments, and indiscriminate shellings of population centers throughout South Vietnam, actions hardly calculated to win the hearts and minds of the victims.

In October of 1971, in the midst of a bitter war, President Thieu ran unopposed for reelection. Many criticized him for that, suggesting that his victory was somehow not legitimate given the absence of opposition. But in that election, despite enemy calls for a boycott and warnings that voters would be targetted, an astounding 87.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and 91.5 percent of them cast their ballots for President Thieu. (Some 5.5 percent handed in invalid ballots.)40 That constituted the largest voter turnout in Vietnamese history. If it didn’t matter (since there was no opposition), or if the people did not approve of Thieu’s leadership, why would they turn out in droves, often at real or potential personal risk, to express their support for his reelection? The answer is that, various critics notwithstanding, a very large majority of his countrymen valued Thieu’s service and wished to see him continue in office.

“The basic fact of life,” said John Paul Vann in January 1972, “and it is an inescapable one, is that the overwhelming majority of the population—somewhere around 95 percent—prefer the government of Vietnam to a communist government or the government that’s being offered by the other side.”41

Sadly, many South Vietnamese today are critical in their outlook on President Thieu. I have spoken about this with many Vietnamese friends now living in America. Recently one man in particular, an intelligent and educated person, shocked me by saying that the Vietnamese think President Thieu lied to them. I asked him in what way. “He knew the Americans were going to abandon us, and he didn’t tell us that,” responded my friend.

I find that a harsh judgment, and a debatable one. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker recalled personally giving President Thieu three letters from President Nixon in which “he made a commitment” to come to the assistance of South Vietnam “in case of any major violation of the treaties by the other side.” But, observed Bunker, “the Congress…made it impossible to carry out those commitments.” The result? “I think really it was a betrayal of the South Vietnamese,” Bunker stated unequivocally.42 It is difficult for me to understand how President Thieu could be expected to have foreseen such an ignominious course of American action.

Mr. Thieu resigned the presidency a few days before the fall of Saigon, hoping to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the war. In his valedictory, he was understandably bitter about the outcome of the long years of struggle. That performance alone should serve to demonstrate that he was as stunned as any that the sometime American ally would, in a time of such crisis, turn its back on South Vietnam (and on all the sacrifices Americans had made there).

My view is that Nguyen Van Thieu performed heroically over long years of an extremely difficult war, in the process earning—whether he is accorded them or not—the respect and gratitude of all those who wished South Vietnam well.

* * *
Chunk 5: Lam Son 719

Virtually all accounts of Lam Son 719, ARVN’s 1971 incursion into Laos, depict it as a devastating defeat for the South Vietnamese. The reality, however, is quite different. We now know, thanks to the Abrams tapes and other sources, that the North Vietnamese were badly hurt by the operation, further delaying their readiness to mount a major offensive against the South and providing additional time for Vietnamization to succeed.

At the WIEU on 30 January the first indications that the enemy sensed an impending cross-border operation were reported. That was eight days before the operation was scheduled to begin. “COMINT [communications intelligence] reveals the enemy’s concern over anticipated friendly operations in northern MR-1 [Military Region 1] and the contiguous areas of Laos,” reported a briefer. Messages intercepted since 24 January reflected enemy concern that South Vietnamese forces “might strike across the border in an effort to interdict the enemy’s logistic corridor system.” There were other indications that the enemy was concerned about an amphibious invasion of North Vietnam, about an invasion of Laos from carriers standing off the coast, and so on.43

On 8 February ARVN elements crossed the border into Laos, using the east-west axis of Route 9. The attacking force comprised armor, airborne, ranger, marine and infantry units. By the end of the first week some 10,600 ARVN troops were in Laos. At the same time, two other ARVN cross-border operations involving 19,000 troops continued in Cambodia.44

When Admiral McCain, the CINCPAC, came out for a briefing on 19 February, the briefer told him that “in Laos, the ground contacts have remained at a relatively light level, with company-size and smaller contacts reported throughout the AO. Also, attacks by fire have remained at a relatively low level.” As of that date MACV was carrying six enemy regiments committed against ARVN forces in Laos. No American forces were permitted on the ground in Laos, but U.S. elements flying air support had thus far lost 21 helicopters while flying nearly 7,000 sorties. (By the end of the operation, six weeks later, losses would have risen to 108 for a loss rate of 21 per 100,000 sorties.)45

Major General William E. Potts, the MACV J-2, summed up for Admiral McCain: “The real significance of that Lam Son operation is the enemy has everything committed, or en route, that he has, with the exception of the 325th Division and the 9th Regiment out of the 304th. So if they’re hurt, he’s really going to be beat for a long time.” Added General Abrams: “And of course we’re trying to welcome them all, best we can.”46

Still, by 20 February, nearly two weeks into the operation, only six enemy regiments were committed in the Lam Son AO. In fact, stated the briefer at a Commanders WIEU on that date, “the first significant enemy counterattack occurred on the night of 18 February.” Meanwhile ARVN had about an equivalent force, eighteen battalion-size task forces, continuing search and clear operations.47

General Abrams emphasized to the staff and subordinate commanders the importance of giving the South Vietnamese every thing they needed to succeed in this crucial battle. “It’s an opportunity to deal the enemy a blow which probably hasn’t existed before as clearly cut in the war,” he stressed. In a comment that would later prove significant, when certain recriminations were advanced in Washington, Abrams also noted: “The risks in getting it done were all known and understood in the beginning, and it was felt that it was time to take the risks.” Ambassador Bunker then reviewed all the elements taken into account in the course of such an evaluation during his recent visit to Washington.48

By 24 February MACV was still carrying six enemy regiments (a figure increased to seven three days later) in the Lam Son AO and the briefer at an update for General Abrams stated that four enemy battalions, of the eighteen subordinate to the committed regiments, were believed to have been rendered combat ineffective. As of that date enemy KIA were estimated at 2,191, while ARVN had sustained 276 KIA.49

At this point, just over two weeks into the operation, a serious crisis of helicopter availability suddenly arose. Route 9, the east-west highway leading into the area of operations, had turned out to have many deep cuts, some reaching a depth of twenty feet, rendering the road much less useful for resupply than anticipated. In particular the 5,000-gallon fuel tankers proved unable to negotiate the route. Aerial resupply had had to take up the slack, which was in turn putting an extremely heavy burden on the helicopter fleet. Apparently intensive management and maintenance got the situation corrected, for when Lieutenant General Julian Ewell, not noted for an uncritical attitude, later visited, he reported “their OR [operational readiness] rate when I was up there Sunday was 79 percent, which I considered astronomical.”50

Simultaneously a major enemy attack, including tanks, overran Objective 31 and a brigade headquarters of the 1st ARVN Division located there. Subsequently enemy losses in that attack were reported as 250 KIA and 15 tanks destroyed against 13 friendly KIA, 39 WIA, and three armored personnel carriers damaged.51

Another enemy regiment was assessed as committed by 1 March, bringing the total to eight (and of the 24 battalions they constituted the equivalent of six were considered combat ineffective). Observed General Abrams: “It’s still a hell of a struggle.” At an update on 4 March the briefer recalled that the first indications of the enemy’s shifting to an offensive posture had come on 11 February, but that it was not until 18 February that the first major enemy counterattack occurred. Now the enemy was considered to have lost the equivalent of seven maneuver battalions in personnel losses, while his remaining tanks were down to 65-70 from an original 100.52

At this point the enemy was assessed as having approximately 13,000 combat forces in the area of operations, plus 8,000-10,000 rear service personnel. Opposing them ARVN had sixteen maneuver battalions.53

When a prisoner from the 24B Regiment described heavy casualties suffered in fighting along Route 92 north of Ban Dong, MACV J-2 reduced the enemy’s effective strength by two more battalions, for “a total of 10 battalions effectively lost out of the 30 battalions of the 10 regiments committed against ARVN forces in the entire AO.” Said General Abrams, “I’m just more and more convinced that what you’ve got here is maybe the only decisive battle of the war.” Added General Potts: “He’s lost half of his tanks, half of his AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and 10 of his 30 battalions.”54

At a Commanders WIEU on 20 March Ambassador Bunker described Lam Son 719, then winding down, as “extremely helpful, this whole operation.” General Abrams responded: “It was a hard fight, but its effects for the rest of this year, I think, are going to be substantial. He [the enemy] committed a lot to that Lam Son operation, and it’s getting pretty badly hurt.”55

Just how badly was summarized on 23 March, by which time the enemy had committed an eleventh regiment. The briefer reported that nine of the eleven regiments had received heavy casualties and estimated that the enemy retained the equivalent of only 17 maneuver battalions (of the 33 committed), and that he had also lost some 3,500 rear service elements.56 When this was subsequently briefed at a WIEU, Potts added: “That’s not just ineffective battalions, sir. That’s a complete loss of those battalions.”57

The South Vietnamese also experienced severe losses, including a reported 1,446 KIA and 724 MIA.58 Much equipment was also destroyed or left behind in Laos during a somewhat precipitous final withdrawal. And in his after action assessment Lieutenant General Sutherland noted that “a long-standing shortfall has been the RVNAF staff capability to conduct timely preplanning and coordination of air assets and both air and ground fire support means, but they have learned a great deal on this operation.”59

The South Vietnamese public’s support for the operation turned out to be extraordinary. When Sir Robert Thompson visited in late March, he was briefed on results of a survey just taken in 36 provinces. The results were 92 percent in favor of operations such as Lam Son 719, 3 percent opposed, and the rest no opinion. That represented the highest percentage ever recorded on any question on any of these periodic surveys.60

Altogether ARVN operated for 42 days in Laos. MACV’s modest summary, rendered for the visiting Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor in late April, was that the operation “tested RVNAF against a determined enemy in cross-border operations, and undoubtedly interrupted his [the enemy’s] supply schedule.”61 In the United States the operation was widely proclaimed a disaster for the South Vietnamese. Hanoi’s propagandists were only too glad to agree.

Abrams, however, perceived the results of the operation as decisive in favor of the South Vietnamese. “It’s gone over [beyond] the point,” he observed, “where I think the North Vietnamese can be successful against them. The war won’t stop, but North Vietnam has now got a much tougher problem than they ever had before.”62

* * *
Chunk 6: A War That Was Won

Contrary to what most people seem to believe, the new approach during the Abrams era succeeded remarkably. And, since during these later years American forces were progressively being withdrawn, more and more it was the South Vietnamese who were achieving that success.

As control of more and more territory was seized from the enemy, large numbers of enemy “rallied” to the allied side. This reached a peak of 47,000 in 1969, with another 32,000 crossing over in 1970.63 Given the authorized 8,689 strength of a North Vietnamese Army division,64 this amounted to enemy losses by defection equivalent to about nine divisions in those two years alone.

There came a point at which the war was won. The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won. The reason it was won was that the South Vietnamese had achieved the capacity to, with promised American support (similar to the support still being rendered to American allies in West Germany and South Korea), maintain their independence and freedom of action.

As early as late 1969 John Paul Vann, a senior official in the pacification program, wrote to former Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to say that “for the first time in my involvement in Vietnam, I am not interested in visiting either Washington or Paris because all of my previous visits have been with the intention of attempting to influence or change the policies for Vietnam. Now I am satisfied with the policies. In spite of ourselves,” Vann wrote with impressive prescience, “I believe we are accomplishing our objectives, that we will practically eliminate the tragedy of additional US deaths in Vietnam beyond 1972 and that the costs of the war (a war which I think will continue indefinitely) will be drastically reduced and will eventually be manageable by the Vietnamese with our logistical and financial assistance.”65

Besides taking over combat responsibilities from the departing Americans, the South Vietnamese had to deal with multiple changes in policy. General Abrams was clear on how the South Vietnamese were being asked to vault higher and higher hurdles. “We started out in 1968,” he recalled. “We were going to get these people by 1974 where they could whip hell out of the VC—the VC. Then they changed the goal to lick the VC and the NVA—in South Vietnam. Then they compressed it. They’ve compressed it about three times, or four times—acceleration. So what we started out with to be over this kind of time”—indicating with his hands a long time—“is now going to be over this kind of time”—much shorter.

“And if it’s VC, NVA, interdiction, helping Cambodians and so on— that’s what we’re working with. And,” Abrams cautioned, “you have to be careful on a thing like this, or you’ll get the impression you’re being screwed. You mustn’t do that, ‘cause it’ll get you mad.”66 Among the most crucial of the policy changes was dropping longstanding plans for a U.S. residual force to remain in South Vietnam indefinitely in a solution comparable to that adopted in western Europe and South Korea.

After a three-year absence from Vietnam, Thomas J. Barnes returned to work in the pacification program in the autumn of 1971. “I have been struck by three principal improvements,” he told General Fred Weyand, “rural prosperity, the way the Regional and Popular Forces have taken hold, and growing political and economic autonomy in the villages. One of our greatest contributions to pacification has been the re-establishment of the village in its historic Vietnamese role of relative independence and self-sufficiency.”67

Even earlier, in mid-March 1971, it was apparent that it was the South Vietnamese who were carrying the combat load. “The emphasis General Abrams is putting on it now is almost a hundred percent towards pacification and into this saturation campaign,” a briefer told Lieutenant General Ewell. “We’re just about out of business in large U.S. force operations.” 562

Testimony from the enemy side was confirmatory of what the South Vietnamese had achieved. “In Nam Bo,” wrote Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu in a book published by Hanoi’s World Publishing House, “by the end of 1968 the strategic hamlets and contested areas had been reoccupied by the Saigon army.” And: “By the end of 1968, we had suffered great losses.” And: “The enemy concentrated its forces to pacify the rural areas, causing great difficulties to us in 1969-1970.” “Since the introduction of U.S. troops into South Vietnam, we had never met with so many difficulties as in these two years. Our bases in the countryside were weakened, our positions shrank. Our main [force] troops were decimated and no longer had footholds in South Vietnam and had to camp in friendly Cambodia.” And finally: “We fell into a critical situation in the years 1969, 1970, 1971. From the second half of 1968 on, the enemy concentrated their attacks against the liberated zone to annihilate and drive away our main forces.”68

In January 1972 Vann told friends that “we are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen. Today there is an air of prosperity throughout the rural areas of Vietnam, and it cannot be denied. Today the roads are open and the bridges are up, and you run much greater risk traveling any road in Vietnam today from the scurrying, bustling, hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than you do from the VC.” And, added Vann, “this program of Vietnamization has gone kind of literally beyond my wildest dreams of success.”69 Those were South Vietnamese accomplishments.

* * *
Chunk 7: 1972 Easter Offensive

The widespread success of Vietnamization and the pacification program in South Vietnam meant that, by 1972, it had become apparent to the enemy that some alternative approach must be found for conduct of the war. That revised approach was revealed in what came to be known as the Easter Offensive. “No longer,” wrote Douglas Pike, “was it revolutionary war. Rather it became, in General Giap’s eyes, a limited, small-scale, conventional war, more like the Korean War than anything Vietnam had ever seen.”70

In January 1972 John Paul Vann, on a brief leave in the United States, described for an academic audience the situation then pertaining in South Vietnam. “These people now have recourse to their own elected hamlet and village officials, as the economy has improved, as security has improved, as the war has shifted out of South Vietnam and into Cambodia and Laos…the basic fact of life, and an inescapable one, is that the overwhelming majority of the population—somewhere around 95 percent—prefer the government of Vietnam to a communist government or the government that’s being offered by the other side.”71

The PAVN history of the war reveals that “the combat plan for 1972 was approved by the Central Military Party Committee in June 1971.” The stated goal was “to gain decisive victory in 1972, and to force the U.S. imperialists to negotiate an end to the war from a position of defeat.”72

Pike graphically described the offensive as anything but limited from the North Vietnamese perspective, “a maximum strike…in men, weapons and logistics. By mid-summer all 14 PAVN divisions were outside of North Vietnam. PAVN was employing more tanks than in the ARVN inventory. PAVN had more long-range artillery than ARVN and was lavish in expenditure of ordnance.”73

When, in late March of 1972, the enemy mounted a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the equivalent of twenty divisions, a bloody pitched battle ensued. The enemy’s “well-planned campaign” was defeated, wrote Douglas Pike, “because air power prevented massing of forces and because of stubborn, even heroic, South Vietnamese defense. Terrible punishment was visited on PAVN troops and on the PAVN transportation and communication matrix.” But, most important of all, “ARVN troops and even local forces stood and fought as never before.”74

The North Vietnamese Army suffered more than 100,000 casualties in its attacking force of 200,000—perhaps 40,000 killed—and lost more than half its tanks and heavy artillery. It took three years to recover sufficiently from these losses to mount another major offensive, and in the meantime General Vo Nguyen Giap found himself eased out as NVA commander. By way of contrast, the South Vietnamese lost some 8,000 killed, about three times that many wounded, and nearly 3,500 missing in action.

General Giap had been proceeding on flawed premises and paid a horrific price for his miscalculations. Pike concluded that Giap “underestimated the determination and effective resistance which he would be offered by the South Vietnamese. He underestimated ARVN’s staying power.”75

Later critics said that South Vietnam had thrown back the invaders only because of American air support. Abrams responded vigorously to that. “I doubt the fabric of this thing could have been held together without U.S. air,” he told his commanders. “But the thing that had to happen before that is the Vietnamese, some numbers of them, had to stand and fight. If they didn’t do that, ten times the air we’ve got wouldn’t have stopped them.”76

The critics also disparaged South Vietnam’s armed forces because they had needed American assistance in order to prevail. No one seemed to recall that some 300,000 American troops were stationed in West Germany precisely because the Germans could not stave off Soviet or Warsaw Pact aggression without American help. Nor did anyone mention that in South Korea there were 50,000 American troops positioned specifically to help South Korea deal with any aggression from the north. And no one suggested that, because they needed such American assistance, the armed forces of West Germany or South Korea should be ridiculed or reviled.

Only South Vietnam (which by now was receiving only air support, not ground forces as in Germany and Korea) was singled out for such unfair and mean-spirited treatment.

South Vietnam did, with courage and blood, defeat the enemy’s 1972 Easter Offensive. General Abrams had told President Thieu that it would be “the effectiveness of his field commanders that would determine the outcome,”77 and they had proven equal to the challenge. South Vietnam’s defenders inflicted such casualties on the invaders that it was three years before North Vietnam could mount another major offensive. By then, of course, dramatic changes had taken place in the larger context.

The extent to which the ARVN had become a professional, agile and determined military shield for its country has for long been obscured by negative accounts, amounting to slander, from those who opposed American involvement in the war, or at least their own involvement, or who favored the communist side. Contrary evidence abounds, much of it to be found in the battlefield performance of the late spring and summer of 1972.

* * *
Chunk 8: Abandonment

This chunk deals with the situation after the Paris Accords were signed in January 1973. To induce the South Vietnamese to agree to the terms, viewed by them as fatally flawed in that they allowed the North Vietnamese to retain large forces in the South, President Nixon told President Thieu that if North Vietnam violated the terms of the agreement and resumed its aggression against the South, the United States would intervene militarily to punish them for that. And, said Nixon, if renewed fighting broke out, the United States would replace on a one-for- one basis major combat systems (tanks, artillery pieces, and so on) lost by the South Vietnamese, as was permitted by the Paris Accords. And finally, said Nixon, the United States would continue robust financial support for South Vietnam. In the event, the United States defaulted on all three of these promises.

Meanwhile North Vietnam was receiving unprecedented levels of support from its patrons. From January to September 1973, the nine months following the Paris Accords, said a 1994 history published in Hanoi, the quantity of supplies shipped from North Vietnam to its forces in the South was four times that shipped in the entire previous year.78 Even so that was miniscule compared to what was sent south from the beginning of 1974 until the end of the war in April 1975, a total during those sixteen months, reported the Communists, that was 1.6 times the amount delivered to the various battlefields during the preceding thirteen years.79

If the South Vietnamese had shunned the Paris agreement, it was certain not only that the United States would have settled without them, but also that the U.S. Congress would then have moved swiftly to cut off further aid to South Vietnam. If, on the other hand, the South Vietnamese went along with the agreement, hoping thereby to continue receiving American aid, they would be forced to accept an outcome in which North Vietnamese troops remained menacingly within their borders. With mortal foreboding, the South Vietnamese chose the latter course, only to find—dismayingly—that they soon had the worst of both, NVA forces ensconced in the south and American support cut off.

Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird explained the consequences. For two years after signing of the Paris Accords, he wrote, “South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy. Peace talks continued between the North and the South until the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding. The Communists walked out of the talks and never returned. Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun. We saved a mere $257 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973.”80

Many Americans would not like hearing it said that the totalitarian states of China and the Soviet Union had proven to be better and more faithful allies than the democratic United States, but that was in fact the case. William Tuohy, who covered the war for many years for the Washington Post, wrote that “it is almost unthinkable and surely unforgivable that a great nation should leave these helpless allies to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese,” but that is what we did.81

Until the progressive and draconian reductions in assistance began to have drastic effects, the South Vietnamese fought valiantly. In the two years after the January 1973 signing of the Paris Accords, South Vietnamese forces suffered more than 59,000 killed in action, more in that brief period than the Americans had lost in over a decade of war. Considering that such losses were inflicted on a population perhaps a tenth the size of America’s,82 it is clear how devastating they must have been, and the intensity of the combat that produced them.

Merle Pribbenow has pointed out that North Vietnam’s account makes it clear that during the 55 days of the final offensive much hard fighting took place. This is a tribute to the South Vietnamese, who had to know at that point what the eventual outcome would inevitably be. Noted PAVN Lieutenant General Le Trong Tan, during the final campaign “our military medical personnel had to collect and treat a rather large number of wounded soldiers (fifteen times as many as were wounded in the 1950 border campaign, 1.5 times as many as were wounded at Dien Bien Phu, and 2.5 times as many as were wounded during the Route 9-Southern Laos campaign in 1971.” Pribbenow calculates that “this would put PAVN wounded at 40,000-50,000 at the very minimum, and possibly considerably higher, not the kind of losses one would expect in the total ARVN ‘collapse’ that most historians say occurred in 1975.”83

Colonel William LeGro served until war’s end with the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Saigon. From that close-up vantage point he saw precisely what had happened. “The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause” of the final collapse, he observed. “We did a terrible thing to the South Vietnamese.”84

Near the end, Tom Polgar, then serving as CIA’s Chief of Station, Saigon, cabled a succinct assessment of the resulting situation. “Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt,” he reported, “because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam’s war- making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China.”85

The aftermath of the war in Vietnam was as grim as had been feared. Seth Mydans writes perceptively and compassionately on Southeast Asian affairs for The New York Times. “More than a million southerners fled the country after the war ended,” he reported. “Some 400,000 were interned in camps for ‘re-education’—many only briefly, but some for as long as seventeen years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in ‘new economic zones’ in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty.”86

Former Viet Cong Colonel Pham Xuan An later described his immense disillusionment with what a communist victory had meant to Vietnam. “All that talk about ‘liberation’ twenty, thirty, forty years ago,” he lamented, “produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”87

North Vietnamese Army Colonel Bui Tin has been equally candid about the outcome of the war, even for the victors. “It is too late for my generation,” he says, “the generation of war, of victory, and betrayal. We won. We also lost.”88

The price paid by the South Vietnamese in their long struggle to remain free proved grievous indeed. The armed forces lost 275,000 killed in action.89 Another 465,000 civilians lost their lives, many of them assassinated by Viet Cong terrorists or felled by the enemy’s indiscriminate shelling and rocketing of cities, and 935,000 more were wounded.90

Of the million who became boat people an unknown number, feared to be many, lost their lives at sea.91 In Vietnam perhaps 65,000 others were executed by their self-proclaimed liberators. As many as 250,000 more perished in the brutal ‘reeducation’ camps. Two million, driven from their homeland, formed a new Vietnamese diaspora.

No assessment of the ARVN would be complete without some mention of its expatriate veterans, and their families, who have made new lives in America. That is yet another story of heroism, determination, and achievement. Having learned only too well the nature of their supposed “liberators” during long years in which they had systematically murdered, wounded, kidnapped and impressed many thousands of South Vietnamese civilians, the populace fled in large numbers as resistance collapsed

Fortunately many made their way to new lives, and to freedom. America is blessed with perhaps a million expatriate Vietnamese, a rich accretion to our culture and our material well-being. With incredible industry and determination, these new Americans have educated their children, nurtured their families, and made full use of the opportunities this country provides all who are willing to work for them. These are the same people who populated the ranks of the ARVN, and who for year after bloody year fought for freedom in their country of origin. We abandoned them then, and their sacrifices went forfeit, but there may be some measure of atonement in our accepting them here in subsequent years.

* * *

By way of conclusion, I will just state my conviction that the war in Vietnam was a just war fought by the South Vietnamese and their allies for admirable purposes, that those who fought it did so with their mightiest hearts, and that in the process they came very close to succeeding in their purpose of enabling South Vietnam to sustain itself as a free and independent nation. A reporter once remarked that General Creighton Abrams was a man who deserved a better war. I quoted that observation to General Abrams’s eldest son, who immediately responded: “He didn’t see it that way. He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.” So do I.

All told, the balance sheet on ARVN, to include very prominently the Regional and Popular Forces integrated into the army in 1970, is positive. The victory ultimately was not won, but the spirit and dedication and courage and determination of those who sought it have found productive new soil here in America. We are all the better for it.

Lewis Sorley served in Vietnam as executive officer of a tank battalion operating in the Central Highlands. A third-generation graduate of the United States Military Academy, he also holds a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. During two decades of military service he led tank and armored cavalry units in the United States and Germany as well as Vietnam, served in staff assignments in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, and was on the faculties at West Point and the Army War College.

He is the author of two biographies, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times and Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command, and a history entitled A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. He has also transcribed and edited Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972.

1 Douglas Pike, “Bibliography: Periodicals,” Indochina Chronology (April-June 1999), p. 1.
2 James Webb, “History Proves Vietnam Victors Wrong,” Wall Street Journal (28 April 2000).
3 Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, Jr., The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972 (Washington: Department of the Army, 1975), p. 101.
4 Lieutenant General Fred C. Weyand, Senior Officer Debriefing Report, CG II Field Force, Vietnam, 29 March 1966 – 1 August 1968, MHI [U.S. Army Military History Institute] files.
5 Message, Abrams to Johnson, MAC 5307, 040950Z June 1967, CMH [U.S. Army Center of Military History] files.
6 Lieutenant General Duong Van Khuyen, RVNAF Logistics (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), p. 57.
7 Time, 19 April 1968.
8 Letter, General Bruce C. Clarke to Brigadier General Hal C. Pattison, 29 December 1969, Clarke Papers, MHI.
9 As quoted in Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the War in Vietnam, 1960-1968, Part III (Washington: JCS Historical Division, 1 July 1970), p. 51-7.
10 Letter, General Bruce C. Clarke to Brigadier General Hal C. Pattison, 29 December 1969, Clarke Papers, MHI.
11 Brigadier General Zeb B. Bradford, Jr., Interview, 12 October 1989.
12 Message, Abrams to Wheeler and McCain, MAC 13555, 071007Z October 1968, CMH files.
13 William E. Colby, “Vietnam After McNamara,” The Washington Post (27 April 1995).
14 Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Thayer Award Address, West Point, New York, as printed in the Congressional Record (28 May 1970), p. E4732.
15 Ibid.

16 John Paul Vann, Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
17 Message, Abrams to Wheeler and McCain, MAC 13555, 071007Z October 1968, CMH. 18 Brigadier General Tran Dinh Tho, The Cambodian Incursion (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), p. 2.
19 Thomas Fleming, Society of the Cincinnati Lecture, Washington, D.C., 28 October 2005.
20Anthony Joes, Resisting Rebellion (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), p. 139. Joes cites as sources Bruce Catton, Glory Road, pp. 102 and 255, and Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 131.
21 John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 329-331. 22 Geoffrey Perret, There’s a War to Be Won (New York: Ivy Books, 1991), p. 453.
23 Ibid., p. 205.
24 Message, Cliff Snyder, National Archives, to Sorley, 20 May 2002: “We have 123 boxes of Awards to Vietnamese and Free World Military Forces, 1965-1970. We also have 62 boxes under Awards to Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Personnel, 1971- 1973. Lastly, we have the MACV general orders themselves, 48 boxes for 1964-1973. Each box may contain up to 1,000 pages.”
25 An example is Colonel Cau Le, regimental commander of the 47th ARVN Infantry Regiment, who spent a dozen years in combat and another thirteen years (five of them in solitary confinement) as a prisoner of the communists and was awarded the U.S. Silver Star and Bronze Star Medal for valorous combat leadership. Le and his family established a new life in America after his wife, Kieu Van, had worked as a nurse to support their five children until her husband’s release from captivity. See Robert F. Dorr and Fred L. Borch, “U. S. Medals,” Army Times (13 March 2006), p. 52.
26 General Cao Van Vien et al., The U.S. Adviser (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1980), p. 142.
27 Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong, Territorial Forces (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1978), p. 134.
28 Ibid., p. 34.
29 General Creighton Abrams at Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 18 April 1971, in Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), p. 592.
30 General Cao Van Vien, Leadership (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981), p. 170.
31 Joes, Resisting Rebellion, p. 138.
32 Vien, Leadership, p. 169.
33 Thomas Polgar, as quoted in J. Edward Lee and Toby Haynsworth, ed., White Christmas in April (New York: Peter Lang, 1975), p. 73.
34 Colonel William LeGro, as quoted in Lee and Haynsworth, White Christmas in April, p. 67.
35 Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, Oral History Interview, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, p. I:11.
36 Quoted in Jeffrey J. Clarke, Advice and Support: The Final Years (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1988), p. 312.
37 As reported by Major General George I. Forsythe following a 20 January 1968 meeting with President Thieu, quoted in Clarke, Final Years, p. 307.
38 Joint Chiefs of Staff, The History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, p. 52-43.
39 Notes by Vincent Davis of a telecon during which Vann described his 15 December 1969 presentation at Princeton, Vann Papers, Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.
40 Lester A. Sobel, ed., South Vietnam: U.S.-Communist Confrontation in Southeast Asia, Volume 6: 1971 (New York: Facts on File, 1973), p. 211.
41 Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers.
42 Ellsworth Bunker Interview, Duke University Living History Project, Durham, North Carolina, 2 March 1979.
43 Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 30 January 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 525.
44 Ibid., COMUS Update, 16 February 1971, p. 535.
45 Ibid., COMUS Briefing with Admiral McCain, 19 February 1971, and Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 27 March 1971, pp. 535, 577. A number of years later Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post (18 May 1995) in which he said: “I was privileged to command the American helicopter force that supported Lam Son 719, and I directed the study and analysis of its helicopter support. Herein, I report the correct figures of American helicopters lost to hostile action during that operation.” Berry continued: “The U.S. Army’s after-action analysis shows that 107 helicopters were lost to hostile action during Lam Son 719. These losses occurred during 353,287 sorties and 134,861 flying hours.”
46 Ibid., COMUS Briefing with Admiral McCain, 19 February 1971, p. 537.
47 Ibid., Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 20 February 1971, pp. 538- 539.
48 Ibid., p. 542.
49 Ibid., COMUS Update, 24 February 1971, pp. 543-544.
50 Ibid., Lieutenant General Ewell Update, 16 March 1971, p. 562.
51 Ibid., COMUS Update, 4 March 1971, p. 551.
52 Ibid., COMUS Update, pp. 550-551.
53 Ibid., COMUS Update, p. 551.
54 Ibid., COMUS Update, pp. 557-558.
55 Ibid., Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 20 March 1971, pp. 564- 565.
56 Ibid., COMUS Update, 23 March 1971, p. 566.
57 Ibid., Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 27 March 1971, p. 577.
58 Message, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland to Abrams, QTR 0567, 281140Z March 1971, Special Abrams Papers Collection, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
59 Message, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland to Abrams, QTR 0446, 211040Z March 1971, Special Abrams Papers Collection.
60 COMUS with Sir Robert Thompson, 25 March 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 569.
61 Ibid., Secretary of the Army Brief, 26 April 1971, p. 608.
62 Ibid., COMUS with Sir Robert Thompson, 25 March 1971, p. 570.
63 Major General Nguyen Duy Hinh, Lam Son 719 (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979), p. 5.
64 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, trans. Merle L. Pribbenow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), p. 29.
65 John P. Vann, Letter to Henry Cabot Lodge, 9 December 1969, Vann Papers.
66 Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 30 October 1971, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 686.
67 Message, Barnes to Weyand, PKU 0378, 100736Z March 1972, MHI files.
68 Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu, Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris (Hanoi: World Publishing House, 1996), pp. 66-67.
69 Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers. Vann suggested that, to put Vietnam in perspective, it was useful to know that during 1971 there were 1,221 U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam and during the same year 1,647 people were killed in New York City.
70 Douglas Pike, “A Look Back at the Vietnam War: The View from Hanoi,” Paper Written for the Vietnam War Symposium, The Wilson Center, Washington, D.C., 7-8 January 1983, p. 17.
71 John Paul Vann, Remarks, Lexington, Kentucky, 8 January 1972, Vann Papers.
72 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, p. 283.
73 Douglas Pike, “The View from Hanoi,” p. 17.
74 Douglas Pike, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (Novato: Presidio Press, 1986), p. 225. 75 Douglas Pike, “The View from Hanoi,” p.17.
76 Commanders Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update, 22 April 1972, in Sorley, Vietnam Chronicles, p. 826.
77 Message, Abrams to Laird, MAC 04039, 020443Z May 1972, CMH files.
78 Military History Institute of Vietnam, Victory in Vietnam, p. 338.
79 Ibid., p. 350.
80 Melvin R. Laird, “Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2005), p. 26.
81 The Washington Post (28 December 1968).
82 James L. Buckley, “Vietnam and Its Aftermath,” in Anthony T. Bouscaren, ed., All Quiet on the Eastern Front (Old Greenwich: Devin-Adair, 1977), p. 84.
83 Merle L. Pribbenow, Message to Sorley, 1 May 2002. The estimates of wounded cited are from Lieutenant General Le Trong Tan, Several Issues in Combat Guidance and Command (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House, 1979), p. 353.
84 In Lee and Haynsworth, p. 67.
85 As quoted in Todd, Cruel April, p. 145.
86 Seth Mydans, “A War Story’s Missing Pages,” The New York Times (24 April 2000).
87 Vietnam Magazine (August 1990), p. 6.
88 The Boston Globe (30 April 2000).
89 Colonel Stuart Herrington, “Fall of Saigon,” Discovery Channel, 1 May 1995.
90 Douglas Pike, PAVN, p. 310n5.
91 Australian Minister for Immigration Michael MacKellar was quoted as saying that “about half the boat people perished at sea,” basing this conclusion on “talks with refugees and intelligence sources.” Thus, he said in 1979, “we are looking at a death rate of between 100,000 and 200,000 in the last four years.” The Age Newspaper, The Boat People: An Age Investigation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 80. According to James Banerian, the International Red Cross estimated that 300,000 boat people perished in their attempts to reach safety. Losers Are Pirates, p. 2.

How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam

By Robert Elegant
Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90
Republished with permission from the author

IN THE EARLY 1960s, when the Viet Nam War became a big story, most foreign correspondents assigned to cover the story wrote primarily to win the approbation of the crowd, above all their own crowd. As a result, in my view, the self-proving system of reporting they created became ever further detached from political and military realities because it instinctively concentrated on its own self-justification. The American press, naturally dominant in an “American war,” somehow felt obliged to be less objective than partisan, to take sides, for it was inspired by the engagé “investigative” reporting that burgeoned in the United States in these impassioned years. The press was instinctively “agin the government”—and, at least reflexively, for Saigon’s enemies.

During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the “native” guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.

Since I am considering causes rather than effects, the demoralization of the West, particularly the United States, that preceded and followed the fall of South Viet Nam is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, interesting to wonder whether Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran would have occurred if Saigon had not fallen amid nearly universal odium—that is to say, if the “Viet Nam Syndrome,” for which the press (in my view) was largely responsible, had not afflicted the Carter Administration and paralyzed American will. On the credit side, largely despite the press, the People’s Republic of China would almost certainly not have purged itself of the Maoist doctrine of “worldwide liberation through people’s war” and, later, would not have come to blows with Hanoi if the defense of South Viet Nam had not been maintained for so long.

The Brotherhood

“You could be hard about it and deny that there was a brotherhood working there, but what else could you call it?” This is a question that Michael Herr asked in his Dispatches,1 a personally honest but basically deceptive book.

“But . . . all you ever talked about was the war, and they would come to seem like two different wars at the same time. Because who but another correspondent could talk the kind of mythical war you wanted to hear described?”

I have added the italics, for in the words “mythical” and “wanted” the essential truth is laid bare. In my own personal experience most correspondents wanted to talk chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war. Even newcomers were precommitted, as the American jargon has it, to the collective position most of their colleagues had already taken. What I can only call surrealistic reporting constantly fed on itself, and did not diminish thereby, but swelled into ever more grotesque shapes. I found the process equally reprehensible for being in no small part unwitting.

John le Carré (whose extravagant encomium adorns the cover of the Pan edition of Dispatches: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our times”) is, I feel, too clever a writer to believe he painted an even proximately accurate picture of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1972). But he brilliantly depicted the press corps and the correspondents’ Asia, an encapsulated, self-defining world whirling in its own eccentric orbit. Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.

Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.

To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent’s life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was “home” rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.

It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents’ reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.

[Illegible] conclusion, most correspondents were in one respect, very much the ambitious soldiers they derided. A tour in Viet Nam was almost essential to promotion for a U.S. Regular Army officer, and a combat command was the best road to rapid advancement. Covering the biggest continuing story in the world was not absolutely essential to a correspondent’s rise, but it was an invaluable cachet. Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women, and children were being killed; fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action—rather than a mere observer—by influencing events directly.

Journalists, particularly those serving in television, were therefore, like soldiers, “rotated” to Viet Nam. Few were given time to develop the knowledge, and indeed the intellectual instincts, necessary to report the war in the round. Only a few remained “in country” for years, though the experienced Far Eastern correspondents visited regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Not surprisingly, one found that most reporting veered farther and farther from the fundamental political, economic, and military realities of the war, for these were usually not spectacular. Reporting Viet Nam became a closed, self-generating system sustained largely by the acclaim the participants lavished on each other in almost equal measure to the opprobrium they heaped on “the Establishment,” a fashionable and very vulnerable target.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For some journalists, perhaps most, a moment of truth through self-examination was never to come. The farther they were from the real conflict, the more smugly self-approving they now remain as commentators who led the public to expect a brave new world when the North Vietnamese finally “liberated” South Viet Nam. Even those correspondents who today gingerly confess to some errors or distortions usually insist that the true fault was not theirs at all, but Washington’s. The enormity of having helped in one way or another to bring tens of millions under grinding totalitarian rule—and having tilted the global balance of power—appears too great to acknowledge. It is easier to absolve one’s self by blaming exclusively Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger.

I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. “I’m ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam,” he told me recently. “But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of ’60s journalism—the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what’s happened now, I’m ashamed of my ignorance—and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese….”2

As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979): “Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there.

Those of us who had wanted to find out knew of the evil nature of the Hanoi regime. We knew that, in 1956, close to 50,000 peasants were executed in North Viet Nam. We knew that after the division of the country nearly one million North Vietnamese had fled to the South. Many of us have seen the tortured and carved-up bodies of men, women, and children executed by the Viet Cong in the early phases of the war. And many of us saw, in 1968, the mass graves of Hue, saw the corpses of thousands of civilians still festively dressed for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

Why, for heaven’s sake, did we not report about these expressions of deliberate North Vietnamese strategy at least as extensively as of the My Lai massacre and other such isolated incidents that were definitely not part of the U.S. policy in Viet Nam?

What prompted us to make our readers believe that the Communists, once in power in all of Viet Nam, would behave benignly? What made us, first and foremost Anthony Lewis, belittle warnings by U.S. officials that a Communist victory would result in a massacre?

Why did we ignore the fact that the man responsible for the executions of 50,000 peasants, Truong Chinh, was—and still is—one of the most powerful figures in Hanoi. What made us think that he and his comrades would have mercy for the vanquished South Vietnamese? What compelled, for example, Anthony Lewis shortly after the fall of Saigon to pat himself on the shoulder and write, “so much for the talk of a massacre”?

True, no Cambodian-style massacre took place in Viet Nam. It’s just that Hanoi coolly drives its ethnic Chinese and opponents into the sea.

Are we journalists not in part responsible for the death of the tens of thousands who drowned? And are we not in part responsible for the hostile reception accorded to those who survive? Did we not turn public opinion against them, portraying them, as one singularly ignoble cartoon did in the United States, as a bunch of pimps, whores, war profiteers, corrupt generals, or, at best, outright reactionaries?

Considering that today’s Viet Nam tragedy may have a lot to do with the way we reported yesterday’s Viet Nam tragedy, considering that we journalists might have our fair share of guilt for the inhuman way the world treats those who are being expelled by an inhuman regime which some of us had pictured as heroic, I think at least a little humility would be in order for us old Viet Nam hands. . . .”

Journalistic institutions are, of course, rarely afflicted by false modesty. They have not disclaimed credit for the outcome of the war, and their representatives have taken public bows for their successful intervention. The multitude of professional prizes bestowed upon the “big-story” coverage of Viet Nam certainly implied approval of the general effort.

However, the media have been rather coy; they have not declared that they played a key role in the conflict. They have not proudly trumpeted Hanoi’s repeated expressions of gratitude to the mass media of the non-Communist world, although Hanoi has indeed affirmed that it could not have won “without the Western press.” The Western press appears either unaware of the direct connection between cause (its reporting) and effect (the Western defeat in Viet Nam), or strangely reluctant to proclaim that the pen and the camera proved decisively mightier than the bayonet and ultra-modern weapons.

Nor have the media dwelt upon the glaring inconsistency between the expectation they raised of peaceful, prosperous development after Saigon’s collapse and the present post-war circumstances in Indochina. Unquestionably, a number of those approvingly characterized by the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as “critics of the American war” have protested against brutal repression in Cambodia. Some (including Lewis, and the French journalist Jean Lacouture3) even confessed that their expectations of the consequences of a Communist victory in Cambodia were mistaken. But none, to my knowledge, has suggested that he might have erred fundamentally in his vehement and total opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina. Instead, most partial confessions have concluded with renewed denunciations of American actions.

Jean Lacouture did offer a public mea culpa for having championed the Khmer Rouge. Reviewing a book on “Democratic Kampuchea,” he confessed:

“Francois Ponchoud’s Cambodia, Year Zero can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. . . . And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan, the ‘socialist’ Khmer who now bars foreign observers from Cambodian soil. His people remain in terror-stricken confinement, one of his regime’s more rational decisions: for how could it let the outside world see its burying of a civilization in prehistory, its massacres? . . .”

An illuminating example is Anthony Lewis, whose horror over abuses of American power apparently led him to the conclusion that similar abuses by America’s opponents were not worth noting. Having earlier found almost as much to praise in Hanoi as to condemn in Saigon, Lewis was belatedly moved to outrage by Lacouture’s observations—Jean Lacouture’s chief qualification was apparently his having been so spectacularly wrong about the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory.

“. . . Those of us who had been critics of the war [Lewis wrote] may have felt skeptical about some of the Cambodian reports because they came from right-wing4 quarters that had been indifferent to the misery inflicted on Cambodia by American bombers. But these explanations wither in the presence of Jean Lacouture. He is a leading French expert on Indochina. And he was a profound critic of the American war.”

The reporters—and even the contrite Jean Lacouture—have continued to disregard the testimony regarding earlier North Vietnamese coercion offered by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former chief-of-state. Sihanouk complained in 1973 that he had been forced to tolerate North Viet Nam using Cambodia as a supply route, training camp, and proving ground for its forces in South Viet Nam, although he knew the massive incursion was destroying his country. Preoccupied with their condemnation of U.S. intervention in Indochina, the “critics of the American war” have virtually ignored Sihanouk’s indictment of the North Vietnamese just as they have ignored the fact that Sihanouk had, albeit under duress, tolerated American bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia, the “unilateral action” for which those critics still pillory Henry Kissinger.5

The same critics were not outraged at the final conquest of South Viet Nam in 1975 by columns of Russian-built tanks supported by batteries of Russian-made artillery. (That was Hanoi’s second try; the first, in 1972, failed because the Saigon régime was still supported by U.S. air power and was still receiving adequate U.S. war matériel.) These righteous critics have taken little note of the detailed description of that final conquest published by North Viet Nam’s Senior General Van Tien Dung in the spring of 1976. General Dung’s account (128 single-spaced pages in English translation) proudly affirmed that the assault was ordered by the Political Bureau of the Labor (Communist) Party of North Viet Nam, planned by the Labor Party’s Central Military Affairs Committee, commanded by Northern generals, supplied from the North, and mounted by regular divisions of the People’s Army of the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam.

Even before General Dung’s report, it should have been clear that the remnants of the Viet Cong—the southern “guerrilla force” made up primarily of Northerners—were inherently capable neither of maneuvering 700 tanks in conventional formations nor, for that matter, of building and operating the double pipeline that fueled those tanks with petroleum from the North. Just as they subsequently passed over General Dung’s explicit revelations, the “critics of the American war” ignored such empirical evidence that Saigon fell, not to an indigenous people in arms, but to an external invasion mounted by vanguard cadres who consider themselves ideologically superior to their Southern compatriots.

To take note of these obtrusive facts would have called into question the very nature of the war in Indochina—as it would to have taken note of them during the conflict. Any searching analysis of fundamental premises has remained as unthinkable to “the critics” as it was during the fighting. They have remained committed to the proposition that the American role in Indochina was totally reprehensible and inexcusable, while the North Vietnamese role—and, by extension, the roles of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos—was righteous, magnanimous, and just. Even the growing number who finally deplored the repressive consequences of the totalitarian victory could not bring themselves to re-examine the premises that led them to contribute so decisively to those victories. Thus William Shawcross, before his sententious book, Sideshow,6 wrote of the Communists’ reshaping of Cambodian society: “The process is atrociously brutal.” Although “the Khmer people are suffering horribly under their new rules,” this is how Shawcross unhesitatingly assigned the ultimate blame:

“They have suffered every day of the last six years–ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States has ever pursued: the ‘Nixon-Kissinger doctrine’ in its purest form. . .”

The Eye of the Beholder

Most correspondents on the scene were not quite as vehement. But they were moved by the same conviction of American guilt, which was so fixed that it resisted all the evidence pointing to a much more complex reality. Employed in the service of that crusading fervor was, for the first time, the most emotionally moving medium of all.

Television, its thrusting and simplistic character shaping its message, was most shocking because it was most immediate. The Viet Nam War was a presence in homes throughout the world. Who could seriously doubt the veracity of so plausible and so moving a witness in one’s own living room?

At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera’s lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of million throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.

A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and “dared” them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived “event” when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.

The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could “prove” either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent’s inclination.7

In fairness, a number of newspaper correspondents also endorsed Sihanouk’s contention that there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Since the correspondents had seen no invaders, there were, patently, no invaders to be seen. The assumption of omniscience that lay behind so much of the coverage of Indochina remains awe-inspiring.

One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.

That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the “Ho Chi Minh Trails” was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command’s first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a “South Vietnamese rout” were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.

On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging “mere scratches.” He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then “swarm aboard a helicopter”; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated “scratches” could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service’s world-wide clients. If it had been “moved on the wire,” it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.

Television reports had one distinct advantage. A picture of nothing was, obviously, more convincing than a printed report of nothing.

One of the most persistent “horror stories” was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.

One such “incident,” staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam,8 which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage.9

Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.

The Imaginary General

Such skewed reporting occurred frequently; it was sometimes major and sometimes trivial. Since I am discussing motivations, not drawing up any kind of indictment, a catalogue of such incidents would be superfluous. But a few striking examples may help to make the general point. First, the case of the imaginary general told by a British colleague.

An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as “the Continental Shelf.” His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent’s last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).

“Of course,” he told his questioner, “1 cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up.” The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent’s book.

Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the “war freaks” who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines’ peril; and then file stories that “bore little or no relation” to what he—and they—had seen. They didn’t want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.

Instructive on a larger scale is the contrast between the coverage of the American massacre at My Lai and the Viet Cong massacre at Hue. At My Lai, a junior American officer allowed his men to kill dozens of presumably uninvolved farmers in full violation of standing orders. At Hue, the former imperial capital, the Viet Cong killed several thousand community leaders, including a number of Europeans, in accordance with standing orders to “destroy the bourgeoisie.” The U.S. military’s attempt to suppress reports of the My Lai massacre, of course, made it even worse when the story was finally released by the Dispatch News Agency, a curious organization that came into existence in Viet Nam with unknown financial backing and vanished once its purpose of opposing the war had brought Hanoi victory. But the Hue massacre was, somehow, uninteresting. Few correspondents reported that clear signal of the real policies the North Vietnamese would pursue once they had conquered the South.

By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a “non-event.” Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander’s order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.

“Do not, repeat do not, attack,” the colonel directed. “They’re using women and children as shields.”

Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.

Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.

Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968.10 Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross’s Sideshow or Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

The Power of Self-Deception

Nowadays, Jean Lacouture, Anthony Lewis, and William Shawcross (among some other “Viet Nam veterans”) clearly feel deceived or even betrayed by the Communists of Indochina; yet surely, they voluntarily adopted the ideological bias that allowed Hanoi to deceive them. The Vietnamese Communists—unlike their Cambodian confreres—had, after all, openly declared their intention of imposing totalitarian rule upon the South. Why, then, were the “critics of the American war” so genuinely surprised by the consequences? More crucially, why did a virtual generation of Western journalists deceive itself so consistently as to the nature of the “liberation” in Indochina? Why did the correspondents want to believe in the good faith of the Communists? Why did they so want to disbelieve the avowed motives of the United States? Why did so much of their presumably factual reporting regularly reflect their ideological bias?

The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be “a critic of the American war.”

Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy’s ebullient “New Frontiersmen,” who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon’s dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.

The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.

The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded “critics of the American war” with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with “the herd of independent minds,” if he did not support the consensus.

The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press’s view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.

Three Wars

World War II was generally considered a crusade against evil. Allied and Soviet atrocities normally went unreported, since their publication to the world would have besmirched the anti-Nazi crusade. The bestial aims and deeds of the Nazis, reinforced by the bestial deeds of the Japanese, compelled correspondents and officials to agreement on the nature of the war and, therefore, to substantial agreement on the way it was fought. The press might criticize tactical errors; it might even cavil at certain strategic decisions. But it was bent neither upon revealing every possible error or mis-statement made by the authorities nor upon questioning their fundamental purposes.

The Korean War was not a universal crusade. A few correspondents questioned the wisdom of committing U.S. troops to the peninsula, while many questioned the strategic decisions of General Douglas MacArthur (particularly his dash to the Yalu, which directly challenged the Chinese, whose industrial plexus lay in Manchuria just across that river). The character and administration of President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea were often criticized by those correspondents whose interest extended beyond military hostilities. Nonetheless, a limited consensus did exist. No one—except the Stalinists—doubted seriously that North Korea had attacked South Korea. Aside from those ideologues, no one contended that the Pyongyang régime was an exemplar of virtue simply because it opposed the Seoul régime, whose faults were manifest. Moved neither by basic antagonism towards official aims nor by unthinking commitment to those aims, a surprisingly youthful press corps offered surprisingly objective reports. Aside from a marked weakness in covering internal politics in both the South and the North—a weakness that presaged a disastrous disability in Indochina—Korea was, in my view, the best-covered American war of modern times. Besides, the conflict was, by and large, straightforward and simple to understand.

Indochina was never simple or straightforward but was arcane even before the commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afterwards, it became so complex that it was virtually impossible to understand it in all its ramifications; and, I must add, it was absolutely impossible to convey those ramifications to the public. Today I recall with chagrin my rather condescending amusement when a television producer argued in the mid-1960s: “We shouldn’t be in Indochina because the American people can’t understand the war—and the people won’t support a war they can’t understand.” He was, of course, right (even if the American press helped to prevent any proper understanding).

Though simplistic television coverage accelerated and intensified popular disillusionment, it was not the decisive factor in determining the collective opinion of the press. The television people went along with the fashion; they did not set the fashion or formulate its conventional wisdom. In any event, Viet Nam was covered by a press corps that was bitterly distrustful of Washington and harshly antagonistic towards Saigon. The press consistently magnified the allies’ deficiencies—and displayed almost saintly tolerance of those misdeeds of Hanoi it could neither disregard nor deny.

It is possible that the “Viet Nam Syndrome” will recur; it is not unlikely that Western foreign policy, with the United States as its faltering—or even resurgent—leader, will again be forced to operate in an environment dominated by a hostile press. The personal experience of one journalist is not normally pertinent to such a high political question. However, I was, as a correspondent and commentator, perforce a participant as well as an observer in the Viet Nam imbroglio from 1955 to 1975. When “the media became the war,” everyone associated with the media became part of the war, however reluctantly. An account of my experience, therefore, may illuminate this discussion and help the reader weigh my historical assessments.

From 1955 through 1965 I was opposed to U.S. military intervention despite my personal sympathy for the Indochinese peoples. Having in 1955 sailed from Haiphong in the North to Saigon with several thousand among almost a million refugees from the Democratic Republic, I was moved by their justified fears. Besides, I detested Hanoi’s Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, I felt that Indochina was a strategic backwater that should not be transformed into a vital interest by committing regular American troops to a disadvantageous Asian battlefield. Because of my concern with the effect of events in Indochina upon developments in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia I did, however. feel that the West should not turn its back on Indochina, though it should avoid entrapment.

Such reservations made me popular neither with official Americans nor with those journalists who urged deeper involvement. Many correspondents and commentators were enthusiastic about the creeping U.S. commitment, while the administration of President Kennedy reacted strongly to my judgment (in Newsweek in late 1961) that President Ngo Dinh Diem could not preserve South Viet Nam. In December 1962, when I was stationed in Europe, a Newsweek cover story concluded that Diem was doing well and that the Kennedy commitment to Indochina was fundamentally sound. That replay of the optimistic Washington view was published over my editorial opposition. (I was, incidentally, not in Indochina during the battles between Diem and the dissident Buddhists, or during the succession of short-lived regimes that followed Diem’s murder.)

When I returned early in 1966, matters were radically altered. The United States had in 1965 brought in major armed units to prevent the South’s collapse under the North’s intensified subversion. Despite the U.S. intervention, that collapse had clearly only been forestalled, not averted. Direct involvement had, moreover, made Indochina an area of primary strategic interest to the United States in the eyes not only of apprehensive allies but of potential enemies as well. The United States was committed to the enterprise that had earlier broken the French will, that is, preventing Communist conquest of Indochina.

China was already launched upon the cataclysmic “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a virtual civil war fought to determine whether Maoists or moderates would rule the world’s most populous country. Foreign policy was already a major Chinese issue, and the collapse of South Viet Nam would have strengthened the extremists, who advocated internal suppression and China’s diplomatic isolation. While continuing to urge U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic, I felt that American firmness in Indochina had to demonstrate to the Maoists that guerrilla warfare could not prevail. Otherwise, the People’s Republic might espouse a wholly Maoist foreign policy, that is, dedicate herself to “world-wide liberation through people’s [guerrilla] wars.”

Moreover, Peking had just exploded its first “atomic device.” The prospect of a messianically Maoist China brandishing an increasing nuclear arsenal appeared a threat to the survival of civilization.

If Hanoi were blocked in South Viet Nam, I contended, the more cautious moderates would in the long term triumph in Peking, and the threat of a holocaust would recede. After all, Mao believed (as he told Edgar Snow) that a nuclear war would “destroy the world . . . but not us.”

China, of course, worked out well. The danger of nuclear war has receded. Today Peking stands against Soviet expansionism—in good part because what happened in Indochina before 1975 intensified the Sino-Soviet conflict and contributed to the destruction of Mao’s strategic doctrine of “the inevitable victory of people’s war.”

But there was, in 1966, no justification for even guarded optimism regarding South Viet Nam’s prospects, and there was to be no such basis until mid-1968. My first report from Saigon after four years of absence described the shocking confusion—in both purpose and execution—of the already bloated American establishment, as well as its isolation from the realities of both the villages and the ministries of Viet Nam. But Washington had forced its own hand; South Viet Nam, defended by the Americans, had become a major piece on the international chessboard. The United States had, I felt, no choice but to remain until the South Vietnamese could effectively defend themselves—or the global balance of power altered radically.

That attitude was not shared by a new corps of foreign correspondents who were newcomers to Asia, though most experienced correspondents agreed. (It did improve my relations with American officialdom, a boon that made me somewhat uneasy.) Having been called a “Communist sympathizer” for advocating recognition of “Red China” in the early 1950s, I was attacked as a “journalistic storm-trooper” for arguing that we could not simply disengage from Indochina in the late 1960s. (Reverse McCarthyism? Perhaps.)11

The Reasons Why

The main question persists. Why was the press—whether in favor of official policy at the beginning or vehemently against the war at the end—so superficial and so biased?

Chief among many reasons was, I believe, the politicization of correspondents by the constantly intensifying clamor over Viet Nam in Europe and America. Amateur (and professional) propagandists served both sides of the question, but the champions of Hanoi were spectacularly more effective. They created an atmosphere of high pressure that made it exceedingly difficult to be objective.

In Korea, senior officers who were incensed by unfavorable reports would sometimes demand: “Who are you for—the Communists or us?” Most correspondents were detached and could answer honestly: “Personally for the U.N. and the United States, but professionally for neither side. Just trying to tell the true story….” In Viet Nam that response was virtually impossible amid growing Western horror at the “dirty, immoral war.” Correspondents were almost compelled to become partisans, and most became partisans for Hanoi, or, at least, against Saigon and Washington.

Revulsion in Europe and America sprang as much from the nature of the correspondents’ reporting as it did from the belligerents’ direct manipulation of public opinion. Some of my senior colleagues had learned wisdom on a hundred battlefields, having covered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the Viet Minh campaign against the French, and the Indonesian revolt against the Dutch. I had at least been through Korea, the Malayan “Emergency,” and the fighting between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists for Quemoy. But most correspondents had never seen war before their arrival in Indochina. Many confused the beastliness of all war with the particular war in Indochina, which they unthinkably concluded was unique in human history because it was new to them.

This much must be said: the best of their reporting accurately conveyed the horror of war—all war. Yet it presented the suffering, barbarism, and devastation as somehow peculiar to Indochina. It almost made it appear that other wars had been fought by mailed champions on fields remote from human habitation while in Indochina, for the first time, carnage brutally involved both massed military formations and the civilian populace. Since a guerrilla war is inherently not as destructive as a conventional war, human suffering and material devastation had, in reality, been markedly greater in Korea than in Viet Nam—and much, much greater on both Asian and European fronts in World War II.

Because Viet Nam did not attract many senior correspondents for extended tours, at any given time a majority of the correspondents were new to the complexities of Indochina. Some could not even look after themselves in combat, the sine qua non of a successful—and surviving—war correspondent.

One afternoon in May 1968, when the Viet Cong were attacking the outskirts of Saigon, six young correspondents piled into a single mini-taxi to drive to the shifting “front.” They were startled when advised to take two or three taxis so that they could get out faster if they came under fire. A tall, rotund neophyte wearing a scarlet shirt paraded up and down the road the Viet Cong were attacking. He was dismayed by the pained abhorrence with which South Vietnamese paratroops regarded him, until it was explained that he was drawing rocket fire. The six clustered around a twenty-four-year-old U.S. first lieutenant, just out of the Military Academy at West Point, who was struggling to communicate with the Vietnamese major commanding and, simultaneously, to direct the gunships that swooped low, firing their machine-guns. While shells burst around them, the correspondents tried to interrogate the lieutenant on the morality of the U.S. presence in Indochina.

A Naive Expectation

Many newcomers were shocked to find that American and Vietnamese briefing officers did not always tell them the truth even about a minor tactical situation. Despite their pose of professional skepticism, in their naiveté they expected those officers to tell not merely the truth but the whole truth. Far from feeling the deep mistrust of officialdom they affected, the newcomers were dismayed by the briefing officers’ inability (or unwillingness) to confide in them unreservedly. Older correspondents did not expect candor from briefing officers. They had learned several wars earlier that the interests of the press and the interests of the military did not normally coincide. They also knew that the briefing officers were themselves often uninformed—concerned, perhaps sometimes excessively, for military secrecy—and resentful of correspondents’ badgering.

Nevertheless, the candor of U.S. officers astonished experienced correspondents from other nations. Shortly before he was killed in another war, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times reported with amazement the reception given several British correspondents who arrived unannounced at an American airfield. Though he obviously wished them a thousand miles away, the U.S. colonel in command not only made them welcome but answered all their questions. If it had been a British airfield, Tomalin observed, the group would not have been allowed to land—and if it had landed would have been bustled off within minutes. No supporter of the U.S. endeavor in Indochina, Tomalin marveled at the openness with which the foolish Americans conducted their wars.

Senior U.S. officers did, of course, lie to make a case or extemporized when they did not know the answers. From those practices sprang the bitterness that corroded relations between the press and officialdom. No one likes to be treated as a fool even in the best of causes (and no one thought Indochina was the best of causes). The military were in turn bitter at the unfairness they attributed to correspondents.

Beyond the unremitting drumfire of mutual criticism, two matters rankled particularly: the “Body Count,” which for the press notoriously symbolized the military’s callousness; and the unavoidably misleading maps delineating the areas under the control of Saigon or the Viet Cong. The military said they released estimates of enemy casualties after each action primarily because correspondents demanded concrete evidence of the progress of a war that was not fought along clearly demarcated battlelines. The officers contended that the maps, which could in no wise accurately depict a hazy, fluid situation, were prepared at the correspondents’ request. Officialdom felt there was too much, rather than too little, openness in Viet Nam.

Oscillating between excessive candor and bald falsification, U.S. public-relations policies made the press and the authorities not merely adversaries but enemies. However paradoxically, some of the most popular officials were the most mendacious. A senior public-affairs officer who always had an answer for the press once offered an eloquent analysis of Hanoi’s weakness based on a captured Viet Cong order. Since his projection of a general Viet Cong retreat seemed askew, even on the basis of that document, I checked with .a number of specialists on North Viet Nam available in Saigon. The official, I found, had consulted no specialist but had offered his own off-hand analysis—presumably to hold his credulous audience. Gratuitous contributions to confusion in Viet Nam itself were much surpassed by the egregiously misleading opinions offered in Washington.

Esoterica like “enemy intentions,” however, did not interest one group of correspondents. They were moved primarily by neither the horror nor the portentousness but by the thrills of Indochina. They were nicknamed “the war freaks,” since they were fascinated by the atmosphere rather than the substance of the war. Cambodia was a favorite resort of theirs. It offered a dangerous little war, abundant opium, marijuana, and heroin, as well as the gracious Royale Hotel, its French cuisine unspoiled by the American incursions that had ruined Saigon’s restaurants. Reflecting the delight of the war freaks, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches that he never went to bed once in Saigon not “stoned,” and added: “Viet Nam was our substitute for a happy childhood.” One’s first war, the veterans could have told him, is usually an extension of—if not necessarily a substitute for—a happy childhood.

Official deceit was thus exacerbated by incompetent journalism.12.] While complaining about the press, many U.S. officials, who knew they were fighting “a media war,” sought to manipulate—rather than inform—correspondents. But they were not skilled at manipulation. While complaining about the government’s duplicity, many editors assigned correspondents who were not qualified to fill a normal foreign post, much less to thread the labyrinthine complexities of the Indochina War. Some editors told their correspondents what they wanted, while many correspondents had made up their own minds before they arrived “in country.” Only a few, I trust, were in the unhappy position of the correspondent of an aggressively liberal U.S. FM-radio station who, as he confided to me, was told: “Not every story has to be anti-war.”

A Crippling Ignorance

Beyond the pressures exerted upon them, most correspondents—serving six-month to two-year tours—were woefully ignorant of the setting of the conflict. Some strove diligently to remedy that crippling deficiency by reading widely and interviewing avidly. Many lacked the time or the inclination to do so—or any real awareness of how crippling their ignorance was to them professionally. Most, as I have noted, knew little about war in general from either experience or study—and less about the theory or practice of guerrilla war. They were untutored not only in the languages but also in the history, culture, ethnography, and economics of Indochina, let alone of China and Asia. Since so many were also untroubled by acquaintance with Marxist theory or practice and were hazy about the international balance of power, they were incapable of covering effectively a conflict involving all those elements.

Not even the “old hands” were necessarily well qualified to cover the conflict—who could have been? Arthur Waley?—but, considering our divergent backgrounds and political convictions, the old hands’ general agreement about the nature of the war was remarkable. Most deplored the ineffectiveness and the corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, but judged native (i.e., Southern) disaffection incapable of mounting an armed rebellion without direction, reinforcement, and weapons from the North. Most concurred with the thesis Robert Shaplen advanced in The Lost Revolution (1966), agreeing that ineffectual leadership had failed to foster latent nationalistic and reformist enthusiasm in the South, by default ceding those dynamic forces to the North. We did not deceive ourselves that the South enjoyed even marginally good government; but we believed that Northern rule would be much worse for the mass of the people.13 management. Recently the Government in Hanoi has admitted planning effort and introduced incentives for private enterprise in both industry and agriculture The collectivization of agriculture in the south has also been stopped. There it a rice surplus in the south but the Government appears unable to transport it to the north and those who need it in the south cannot afford to buy it….

During the Viet Nam decade a whole American generation of journalists and intellectuals unlearned the experience of Stalinist society—its incomparable inefficiency; its thick-headed, dogmatic compounding of error and miscalculation; and, not least (so obvious in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.), its intolerable burden of a costly military machine superimposed on an old-fashioned, hard-pressed, “underdeveloped” economy. As Shawcross notes, with a vague touch of bitterness:

The other principal cause of Viet Nam’s food shortage—and that which most angers potential Western donors—is its diversion of resources to the military. About 47% of the national budget is now said to be spent on defense.

] We knew that the North and the South, though not necessarily two separate countries, were distinct entities because of the strong regional feelings of the Vietnamese. Although most of us had opposed major U.S. involvement, we saw no way the United States could withdraw unilaterally.

Needless to say, even we old hands were not always accurate in our reporting or correct in our judgments. Reacting against the spate of negative reports, I myself tended to emphasize the positive aspects, sometimes excessively. No more than the newcomers were the old hands immune to irritation at the duplicity of the American establishment, though we were not as dependent upon press officers. That irritation undoubtedly affected our reporting; so did smoldering anger (which sometimes flared into fury) at the Vietnamese, who were always difficult, often unavailable, regularly evasive, and routinely deceitful. But the old hands knew they had to live and work with the Vietnamese, and they understood the insecurity that haunted Saigon officials. After generations of colonial rule and internal conflict, no Vietnamese really trusted any other Vietnamese except those within his immediate family (and them neither invariably nor wholly). The newcomers either could not or would not understand what moved the Vietnamese or why they so often seemed to be behaving so badly.

The atmosphere “in country” was heavily oppressive, as was our awareness that we were writing for a public that had virtually prejudged the war. My Lai was not reported at the time because the military effectively camouflaged that atrocity. Other allied excesses were reported, while many reverse My Lais were not reported; and Viet Cong atrocities were often discounted. Myths flourished because of the journalists’ bias and the contempt they felt for the Vietnamese.

By innuendo and mis-statement the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam was reduced in the public eye to a corrupt rabble, far, far less effective than the Republic of Korea Army during the earlier war. In reality, the ARVN was strikingly more effective than the ROKA had been; but correspondents were friendly to the ROKA and antagonistic to the ARVN.

That tale of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers bandaging non-existent wounds in order to be evacuated as casualties was just one example. That graphic and erroneous story reinforced the general impression that the cowardly South Vietnamese were unwilling to fight in defense of their own cause. That misleading conclusion undoubtedly encouraged U.S. reluctance to supply Saigon’s forces adequately after the American withdrawal. That reluctance, which contributed decisively to the final collapse, was then “proved” correct.

Despite their own numerous and grave faults, the South Vietnamese were, first and last, decisively defeated in Washington, New York, London, and Paris. Those media defeats made inevitable their subsequent defeat on the battlefield. Indochina was not perhaps the first major conflict to be won by psychological warfare. But it was probably the first to be lost by psychological warfare conducted at such great physical distance from the actual fields of battle—and so far from the peoples whose fate was determined by the outcome of the conflict.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome”

When I drafted this article, I had not intended to dilate upon the possible consequences in the future of the new role of the press in war. Those consequences seemed too obvious. Besides, I did not wish to arouse contention but to evoke dispassionate consideration. After all, the passage of time should by this time have appreciably cooled the intense emotion that moved both the reluctant supporters and the vehement critics of the “American war.”

I felt, moreover, that I had adequately demonstrated that the press acted—and could well again act—as a multiplier of the prejudices of the Western intelligentsia, whose tender conscience moves it to condemn the actions of its own side while condoning related deeds of enemies who are either “immature” or “feel themselves threatened.” It did not, for example, seem necessary to demonstrate at length that World War II could well have been lost by the Allied powers if the press had wished—and been allowed—to denounce almost all the purposes and virtually the entire conduct of that conflict. (Surely, for example; Churchill would have been prevented from helping Greece—because of Metaxas.) It did not seem necessary to labor the obvious point that no Western power can conduct a foreign policy that, of necessity, relies in part on the threat of military power and, upon occasion, on the exercise of military power if the media reflexively denounce almost any use of armed force. I believed it would suffice to offer the brief warning already stated above: Western foreign policy could again be forced to operate most precariously in an environment dominated by a hostile press. It did not, finally, seem necessary to point out that the effective prohibition of limited, conventional war by an inflamed public opinion could lead to either political surrender or nuclear holocaust.

Since the article was written, events have denied me the luxury of refraining from underlining the obvious. The predicament I suggested was likely has already become a reality. It is exemplified in El Salvador, about which, I must acknowledge, I know nothing directly, and indirectly no more than any other reasonably diligent reader of the press. Nonetheless, the recrudescence of the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the media is not merely unmistakable, but distressingly blatant.14

“Viet Nam” has become not merely an invidious comparison but a magical incantation. The woolly-minded need only declare vehemently that El Salvador is already—or could become—”another Viet Nam” for the enterprise to be condemned and, probably, blighted. Throughout the Western world, commentators and reporters have invoked the specter of Viet Nam to arouse detestation of a Washington initiative. That rush of the journalistic lemmings includes not only the heavyweights of the media but many cartoonists and, as well, humorists like Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, whose satire is often striking and effective. Prominent among the lemmings are television personalities like Jon Snow of Britain’s ITV, who recently presented one film “report” that continually cut from vaguely delineated political and military developments to heart-rending scenes in a refugee camp. In that and a drum beat of subsequent “reports” the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: U.S. policy was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Viet Nam. And “Viet Nam” had become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced, of course, by the United States.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome” is compounded of a variety of symptoms, none unique in itself, but unprecedented in combination and devastating in their totality. Wars have been badly reported in the past. Facts have been mis-stated, and their interpretation has been biased. Emotions have been deliberately inflamed, and reporters have ridden to fame on waves of misrepresentation. But never before Viet Nam had the collective policy of the media—no less stringent term will serve—sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the victory of the enemies of the correspondents’ own side. Television coverage was, of course, new in its intensity and repetitiveness; it was crucial in shifting the emphasis from fact to emotion. And television will play the same role in future conflicts—on the Western side, of course. It will not and cannot expose the crimes of an enemy who is too shrewd to allow the cameras free play.

As long as the “Viet Nam Syndrome” afflicts the media, it seems to me that it will be virtually impossible for the West to conduct an effective foreign policy. It is apparently irrelevant that the expectations of paradise after Hanoi’s victory evoked by “the critics of the American war” became the purgatory the Indochinese people have suffered. Just as many denizens of the antebellum American South did not know that “Damyankee” was really two words, an entire generation in Europe and the United States behaves as if “the dirty, immoral war in Viet Nam” were an irrefutable and inseparable dogma. Merely equate El Salvador (or any other American intervention) to Viet Nam—and not only the American public but all “liberal” Europeans will condemn it without reservation. That is all they need to know. In its final effect—what has over the last decade been called “the paralysis of political will”—it will make it especially difficult for the United States to honor any political commitment anywhere in the world where small and threatened nations may expect American support for their independent existence. Before they fall to an aggressor, they will have been victimized by “the Viet Nam Syndrome.”

It has long appeared to me that the medical and legal professions enjoy one enormous advantage. If they err, doctors and lawyers may be blamed. Yet, except in the most flagrant cases, the client or the patient pays them again for correcting their mistakes—if they can, and if he can. But the media on Viet Nam, it has become blatantly obvious, have enjoyed even greater advantages. Even in the most flagrant cases, they have not been blamed. They have, rather, been acclaimed for their errors. Who can, ultimately, prove it otherwise? The peoples of the non-Communist world have paid dearly for these errors—and may well continue to pay.