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The Vietnam War: Realities, Myths and Misconceptions

The General Andrew J. Goodpaster Lecture
Presented at the Meeting of the American Veterans’ Institute
Army-Navy Club
Washington, DC
3 June 2014

John F. Guilmartin, Jr.

Conventional wisdom holds the Vietnam War to be the most divisive and controversial war in our history, second only to the Civil War. That view enjoys support from all points of the political compass and all segments of the body politic, from the intelligentsia and media pundits to military veterans and everything between. For once conventional wisdom is right… except that there is no consensus on why conventional wisdom is right. Indeed, within the political and ideological spectrum just outlined there are starkly different interpretations of why the war was fought, how, and to what effect. That, I submit, is important, for if we are to draw meaningful lessons from the Vietnam War we must first understand it.

From whence comes understanding? The answer is history, and there we encounter immediate difficulty for the history of the Vietnam War is fraught with divisiveness, controversy and incoherence that rivals that of the war itself. The cause lies in the manner in which the history was written.

The first drafts of the histories of our previous wars were written by historians based on official records, supplemented by memoirs of senior leaders and intelligence on enemy capabilities and intentions that came to hand during and immediately after the war. The result—call it the orthodox interpretation—generally followed government policy. Then, as sources surfaced that were unavailable to the first wave of historians, new interpretations emerged. Call the resultant interpretations revisionist. Historians tested revisionist insights, and if they were valid incorporated them into their work and the quality of the history improved. That, at least, is how it worked in the past.

In contrast, the first draft of the history of the Vietnam War was written by journalists during the early stages of our military involvement. Moreover, the journalists in question were not detached observers, but were engaged in turning American public opinion against South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Far from accepting the validity of our government’s policy, the authors of the first daft rejected it, beginning with support of the Diem regime, as they labeled it… and I should explain at this point the difference between a regime and a government: A government is a regime of which the writer approves. A regime is a government of which the writer does not approve.

Preeminent among the journalists in question were Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press; Neill Sheehan of United Press International; David Halberstam of The New York Times; Peter Arnett of Associated Press; and Stanley Karnow who reported for Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post and NBC News.

The journalists’ campaign against Diem bore fruit, turning the Kennedy administration against him, leading to his overthrow and murder in a November 1963 coup implicitly endorsed by President Kennedy. Contrary to the journalists’ expectations, Diem’s removal did not lead to an improvement in the political and military situation. Instead, political chaos and military incoherence ensued, leading to the near collapse of South Vietnam in 1964 and massive American military intervention from the spring of 1965.

By then, the journalists’ revisionist interpretation had become orthodoxy, turning the usual process on its head. The new orthodoxy was well entrenched by the time of Diem’s fall and had been embraced by the bulk of the intelligentsia and the nascent but growing anti-war movement. It has showed remarkable staying power, the more so as it informed two popular television histories: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, for which Peter Arnett was Chief Correspondent; and the Public Broadcasting Service series, Vietnam: A Television History, for which Stanley Karnow was Chief Correspondent. Both debuted in 1983, as did Karnow’s book Vietnam: A History, based on research for the PBS series. To the best of my knowledge, that book remains the most published and widely-read work on the subject in English and, together with the two television series, effectively forms the basis of what most Americans know—or think they know—about the war.

The underlying narrative in all these works holds that America’s military engagement in Vietnam was unjust, unnecessary and unwinnable. I am painting in the broadest of strokes and some orthodox works are more nuanced, but I am confident that my generalization is accurately descriptive of main stream orthodoxy. Beyond rejecting the validity of American policy, the orthodox interpretation is America-centric, holding that everything of consequence that happened did so as a result of American initiative. By contrast, Vietnamese are portrayed as stereotypes: passive peasant-victims; doughty Viet Cong; well-motivated and disciplined North Vietnamese regulars; brutal and corrupt ARVN (soldiers of the Army of [South] Vietnam); and so on. As is usually the case, there are elements of truth in these stereotypes, but there is much more to it than that.

Let me begin with the circumstances in 1960-1963 during which the orthodox interpretation was forged. The journalists who gave it birth had little if any previous experience in Vietnam. Much of their information concerning South Vietnamese society and politics came from Vietnamese journalist Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer who later became chief of Time magazine’s Saigon bureau. As we now know, An was a communist agent of influence. We can be sure that he spoon-fed his interpretations of the Diem government’s crackdown on Theravada Buddhist demonstrations to his American colleagues: Karnow and Halberstam were particularly dependent on him.[1] It was, of course, reportage of the crackdown that led to the Kennedy administration’s decision to support Diem’s overthrow. American media coverage of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks as an act of protest—coverage that was orchestrated by the communists, Buddhists, or both—was the tipping point.

News of An’s role as an agent of influence did not emerge until after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, by which time the orthodox interpretation had gained general acceptance within academia and the mainstream news media. In the meantime, the imbedded notion that our military policy—citing a more extreme anti-war characterization—was one of atrocity, had gained legitimacy if not universal acceptance. In a gentler interpretation, we were doing more harm to the people of Vietnam (Cambodia was seldom mentioned and Laos largely ignored) with unrestrained firepower than would result from communist victory.

But what if Diem had been unjustly pilloried? What if his policies had, on the whole, been well-suited for the circumstances? What if our military policies, from beginning to end, were more humane than those of the enemy? If that were the case, then our failure to prosecute the war more aggressively after Diem’s overthrow and our abandonment to communist rule of the peoples of formerly-French Indochina was itself a crime. That was—and is—a difficult pill for exponents of the orthodox interpretation to swallow, hence the historiographical impasse.

To be sure, there were revisionist rebuttals, notably Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam published in 1978. More recently, Mark Moyer’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, a strong but not uncritical defense of Diem and his policies, appeared in 2006. Both works accuse the orthodox interpretation of being dead wrong on every matter of substance and have, predictably, been greeted more with derision than rebuttal.

In addition, a handful of authors writing in English approached the war from non-American perspectives. Douglas Pike, the only American scholar to write about the war during the war using Vietnamese sources, published extensively on the Vietnamese communist party and its military arm, producing Viet Cong (1969) and PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (1986) in addition to numerous journal articles.[2] He dismissed the orthodox interpretation as irrelevant and was ignored by its exponents. Peter Dunn, The First Vietnam War (1985) addressed the earliest stages of the conflict in southern Vietnam from the British perspective. Bernard Fall, Austrian by birth, French by upbringing and American by higher education wrote prolifically on Vietnam from a French perspective. His Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, dealing respectively with the French phase of the war and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, are classics. Both appeared during the American phase of the war and the second, 1964, edition of Street Without Joy covered the American experience to date. Though Fall had a great deal to say about the American conduct of the war prior to his death in 1967 he was thinly reviewed in American scholarly journals[3], no doubt because his interpretations didn’t fit the orthodox mold. A staunch anti-communist, he criticized American policy not on the basis of its supposed immorality, but its ineffectiveness. I would add as an afterthought that the French have done a better job of documenting and analyzing their phase of the war than we Americans have done for ours.

How do we sort this out?

Turning first to realities, the Vietnam War was a major episode in world history. French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 marked the end of Western colonial empires. To be sure, we had agreed to give ours up, promising before World War II to grant the Philippines independence in 1946. The British gave up India in 1947 and Indonesia threw off Dutch rule to become an independent nation that same year. The Portuguese—remarkably—hung on until 1974, but Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the end.

American failure in Vietnam, marked by the fall of Saigon in 1975, saw the waning of the pax Americanus that had prevailed since the end of World War II. America would soldier on as the World’s policeman, but with diminished authority and credibility. Of arguably equal importance, our experience in Vietnam changed the way in which we Americans view our government, with trust giving way to eternal suspicion. Finally, the Vietnam War was a major campaign in the Cold War, though to what effect is a matter of debate. Did Soviet expenditures in support of North Vietnam—which were considerable—start the Soviet economy down the slope to collapse? This old soldier would like to think so, but the matter is up for grabs.

Now for myths and misconceptions. The orthodox interpretation holds that the underlying cause of the war was Vietnamese abhorrence of foreign domination, beginning with the thousand year struggle to throw off Chinese rule, followed by a renewed struggle for independence fueled by hatred of French colonialism, indeed, hatred of all foreign domination including American. After repeated failures to overthrow the French, this nationalist motivation found its opportunity in 1940 in the aftermath of France’s defeat by Germany and its direction in the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, portrayed as a nationalist first and a communist second. A pivotal factor in these developments, one glossed over in the orthodox interpretation, was Japanese intervention, beginning with military occupation of strategic points in French Indochina in September 1940, an occupation that first undermined the colonial regime’s credibility and then destroyed the regime itself.

Fueled by the peasantry’s acceptance of communist policy—land redistribution was the key issue—and given teeth by Vo Nguyen Giap’s training program and communist discipline, the anti-French resistance morphed into the militarily formidable Vietminh, a nationalist front organization with communist leadership at the top, and progressed from guerrilla resistance in 1941-45 to victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

In fact, the thousand year struggle was real, but consisted almost entirely of Vietnamese civil wars with one side accepting Chinese rule and the other opposing it. Significantly, when the anti-Chinese faction won, the victorious leader invariably petitioned the Chinese emperor for recognition.

Resentment of French rule, though by no means universal, was deep and real. So, too, was communist skill at forging guerrilla resistance and—the critical point—at determining when to engage in open revolt. That point, however, was determined not by the Vietnamese communists but by the Japanese Army in a March 1945 coup de main that disarmed and incarcerated the French security forces and colonial army. That gave the Vietminh, hard pressed by the French up to that point, breathing room and released from prison a thousand or so trained and indoctrinated communist cadres who went quickly to work organizing—and intimidating—the rural masses. To their credit, the communists moved swiftly to exploit the opportunity presented them by the Japanese, but it was the Japanese who created the opportunity, a point on which the orthodox interpretation is silent.

During this interval Ho Chi Minh and his group moved their base of operations from China into Vietnam and from April 1945 obtained American backing in money, materiel, and, in mid-July, the OSS equivalent of a Special Forces A team parachuted into the wilds of northwestern Tonkin.

Ho portrayed his organization as anti-Japanese to secure American support, but Vietminh operations against the Japanese were minimal. In fact the Japanese Army, in anticipation of defeat, had thrown its support to the Vietminh, meaning—as the Japanese surely knew—the communists. An American officer who parachuted into Ho’s base in midJune stated that the Vietminh were backed by the Japanese, who supplied them with arms and ammunition from captured French stocks.[4]

When World War II was brought to an abrupt and unexpected end by the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Communists were ready to act, pulling the Vietminh in their wake. With remarkable prescience, Ho had earlier called for a Communist Party Congress that convened at his headquarters on 13 August, only four days after the Nagasaki bomb. It was followed by a Vietminh Congress from the 16th through the 18th. At Ho’s bequest, the Congresses declared Vietnam independent and declared war on Japan… ironically in that the Japanese had already notified American authorities of their willingness to surrender.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s Committee for Hanoi, meeting in secret and acting independently of Ho and the Party leadership, had decided that the moment for insurrection was near at hand. The moment came on August 17th when an armed propaganda team hijacked a mass rally of the Civil Servants Commission called to support independence under the Japanese-installed government of Emperor Bao Dai. Taking over the podium, the communists called for total independence and led a mass march on the Governor General’s palace. In the wake of the hijacking, the Communist leadership called for a general uprising. It went down on the 19th with columns marching on the Governor General’s Palace and the barracks of the Garde Indochinoise, the Bao Dai government’s army, where they took control of stores of arms and ammunition. Precisely how that transpired is unclear—Peter Dunn’s sources say it was by pre-arrangement with the Japanese—but it is apparent on the face of it that the Japanese backed the coup that gave the Vietminh control of Hanoi.[5] It was a major communist victory, the first of the war, and essential to all that followed.

Nor did Japanese support for the Vietminh end there. Japanese Army “deserters” joined the Vietminh in significant numbers, including a military advisory group of 4,000 to 1,500 men—the numbers are in dispute—under a Lieutenant Colonel Mukayama.[6]

Ho Chi Minh’s famous proclamation of Vietnamese independence on September 2nd, using words that drew liberally from the American Declaration of Independence, formalized what had already transpired. The presence on stage behind the podium of members of a newly-arrived OSS team under Major Archimedes Patti reinforced the impression of American support.

There is considerable irony in the fact that Ho and the communists—who were not yet in full control of the Vietminh—had gained their first, essential, victory with American aid, more apparent than real, and Japanese aid, more real than apparent.

A persistent myth holds that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist who turned to the communists when the United States failed to recognize and support his government. In fact, it is clear from a cursory review of his résumé that Ho was a dedicated Marxist-Leninist revolutionary from the start.[7] Any doubts on this score can be seen in his March 1953 initiation of an “Identification of Class Enemies” campaign, a land redistribution program modeled after Stalin’s kulak (rich peasant) purges of the 1930s. Based on the dubious notion that there were significant class differences among the Vietnamese peasantry in the north, it empowered local tribunals that identified “rich peasants”, “reactionaries” and landowners, many of whom were summarily executed and their land seized [8] At its peak, the program took on the aspects of a witch hunt, sparking open rebellion in Nghe Anh Province in the autumn of 1956, over a year after French defeat and the separation of Vietnam into North and South. It is noteworthy that the uprising took place in that part of Vietnam that had been under communist control the longest. The uprising was put down by the People’s Army of Vietnam with considerable bloodshed.

The Identification of Class Enemies program was called off and Ho Chi Minh publicly apologized for its excesses on national radio. There followed a “Rectification of Errors” campaign accompanied by a wave of bitter recrimination as unjustly accused survivors were released from prison.

In the ensuing chaos, the Party recalled Le Duan from the south, where he was orchestrating resistance to the Diem government, and installed him as Party Secretary in which post he became North Vietnam’s leader, reducing Ho to a largely ceremonial role. This episode is significant for revealing the actual attitudes of Vietnamese peasants toward land redistribution and collectivation. It is also important for placing in power Le Duan, who used aggressive prosecution of the war in South Vietnam as a rallying point for political unity, a point for which we are indebted to recent work by historian Lien-Hang Nguyen.[9]

A byproduct of Le Duan’s consolidation of power was the elimination of any serious possibility of a negotiated settlement to the American phase of the war, for he was adamantly opposed to accepting anything less than a unified Vietnam under communist control. That is Hang Nguyen’s conclusion and I believe correct.

 

More myths and misconceptions with an emphasis on the American phase of the war:

Myth: It was a guerrilla war, a central tenant of the orthodox interpretation. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. While it is true that guerrilla warfare—revolutionary war is a more accurate characterization, for propagandization and coercion were at least as important to communist theory and practice as small war tactics—went far to bleed French resources and exhaust American patience, the communists repeatedly turned to large-scale conventional operations as the key to victory as communist doctrine said they must. That was true of the French phase of the war where the Vietminh mounted four major conventional offensives, two of them abject failures, before victory in thoroughly conventional battle at Dien Bien Phu.[10] During the American phase, the communists mounted massive conventional offensives during the 1965 Pleiku Campaign, the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 Easter Offensive, the first producing an equivocal outcome and the second two unequivocal communist defeats.[11]

Next in our list of myths, “The sorry little bastards won’t fight”—meaning the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, or ARVN—is one of the most pernicious. It has its origins in the reaction of the first wave of American military advisors to what they perceived as a lack of aggressiveness among their Vietnamese charges. From their perspective, that was no doubt true. Heirs of a tradition of willingness to accept casualties in return for immediate tactical gain, they found themselves dealing with an army that was in it for the long haul in a war in which clear cut tactical victories were rare.[12] Their complaints were echoed by politicians of hawkish and dovish persuasion alike: “Why should American boys die for Vietnam when Vietnamese boys won’t die for Vietnam?” was the cry. In fact Vietnamese boys did die for their country, and in huge numbers.

The official ARVN casualty toll for the American phase of the war—not counting the final year for which records were not kept—was 1,394,000 including 224,000 killed in action.[13] Given South Vietnam’s population of about fourteen million, an equivalent share of America’s populace of some two-hundred million would have been 3,200,000 killed-in-action. Nor is the myth vitiated by mere numbers. The quality of leadership at corps and division level deteriorated in the chaos following the widespread purge of loyalist officers following Diem’s overthrow and the ARVN had its share of marginal units, but by and large elite units—Airborne, Marines, Ranger battalions and, later, the 1st Division—put in exemplary performances and ordinary units fought well more often than not. That includes elements of the oft-derided Regional Forces/Popular Forces (local militia, the so-called “Ruff-Puffs”), right up to the bitter end. To be sure, some units dissolved in the chaos of the final, overwhelming, 1975 invasion, undercut by drastic cutoffs in ammunition allowances and the reduction of South Vietnamese air power’s effectiveness by Soviet-provided surface-to-air missiles, but the ARVN put in some of the finest combat performances in the annals of warfare during the awful spring of 1975. A case in point is the 9-20 April Battle of Xuan Loc on the eastern approaches to Saigon, where the ARVN 18th Division reinforced by the remains of the Airborne Brigade fought a reinforced North Vietnamese corps with massive armor support to a bloody standstill despite artillery inferiority.[14] Another case in point is the last stand on Tan Son Nhut Airfield of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, who fought on after the departure of the last Americans, taking out T-55 tanks with unguided, shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets until they ran out of ammunition.

Myth: Our bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail was unnecessary at best and inhumane at worst. This myth is closely linked to the “It was a guerrilla war” myth. If it were, in fact, a guerilla war, then the logistical requirements of communist forces in the South would have been satisfied by locally-obtained food and captured arms and munitions and little external supply would have been needed. This belief at times bled over into American intelligence estimates. A May 1966 appraisal endorsed by Secretary of Defense McNamara held that the external re-supply requirements of communist forces in the south could be met by seven 21/2 ton trucks a day.[15] That, of course, was utterly untrue. In fact, the supposed insurgency in the south was dependent on arms, supplies and reinforcement from the North from the beginning, unequivocally from 1959 (the opening of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the overland route through Laos) and preemptively so from 1964.

The critical importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the communist war effort is emphasized in Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975, published in 1994 and released in English translation in 2002[16], a significant embarrassment to exponents of the orthodox interpretation. Selected passages underline the critical importance of maintaining the flow of men and materiel from China and the port of Haiphong through North Vietnam and down the Trail to the South. They also underline the impressive scale of resources devoted to maintaining the flow.[17] Nor were those resources limited to surface-to-air missile batteries, an air defense radar net, MiG jet fighters, anti-aircraft guns, road repair crews, earth-moving equipment and the maintenance of a large truck fleet. “Peace feelers”, advanced in exchange for bombing halts, were an integral and successful element of communist strategy. So were attempts to influence US media coverage of our bombing.

The latter focused on our bombing of targets in North Vietnam, and had the dual purpose of making our bombing appear inhumane on the one hand and ineffective on the other. Perhaps the most egregious example involves December 1966 reportage from Hanoi by New York Times assistant managing editor Harrison Salisbury in which he stated that we were “dropping an enormous weight of explosives on purely civilian targets.” He further stated that “on-the-spot inspection indicates that American bombing has been inflicting considerable civilian casualties in Hanoi and its environs for some time.”regious example involves December 1966 reportage from Hanoi by New York Times assistant managing editor Harrison Salisbury in which he stated that we were “dropping an enormous weight of explosives on purely civilian targets.” He further stated that “on-the-spot inspection indicates that American bombing has been inflicting considerable civilian casualties in Hanoi and its envions for some time past”,[18] In fact, contrary to his representations, Salisbury was not an eye-witness. Moreover, much of his copy was written by Australian communist Wilfred Burchett, Salisbury’s “facilitator” during his visit to North Vietnam, and copied from official North Vietnamese press releases.[19]

Another telling example can be found in the New York Times lead editorial for Sunday, February 4th 1968. Written four days after the start of the communist 1968 Tet Offensive, the editorial proclaimed that if the “spectacularly successful Tet offensive had proved anything it was that the bombing of North Vietnam had failed to reduce either the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.”[20] As we now know and as some journalists realized at the time, the offensive was a military disaster for the communists. The prominence given to discrediting the bombing as opposed, for example, to excoriating the misguided and politically-motivated optimism in LBJ’s, McNamara’s and Westmoreland’s public statements in the months before the Tet Offensive or extolling the fighting spirit of the Viet Cong and NVA suggests an eagerness to influence our policy in a way most likely to be helpful to the communist cause.

Next on our parade of myths: The news media did not lose the war. This myth reflects the belief that waning support for our war effort by the American public, and ultimately by our political leadership, was based on an accurate appraisal of military failure and the immorality of our policies rather than on biased and negative media coverage. Belief in this myth was and is a staple of the orthodox interpretation and an article of faith to the bulk of the intelligentsia, to mainstream media pundits and among the anti-war faithful. In a neat bit of intellectual ju-jitsu, exponents of the orthodox interpretation reverse the polarity, portraying as a myth revisionist arguments that the news media did play a central role in losing the war.

The data relevant to supporting or debunking this myth is enormous, and I turn to my own observations to condense the argument. I enrolled as a graduate student in history at Princeton University under Air Force sponsorship in the autumn of 1967. I had returned from my first Southeast Asia combat tour in the summer of 1966 and had spent the intervening year as a flight instructor at the Air Rescue Service Combat Crew Training School where I kept track of current intelligence. As soon as my fellow graduate students recovered from the shock of having a combat veteran in their midst, they asked me what I thought about the debate about the war, very much a hot topic on campus. I responded that I would be happy to tell them about the war on the ground in Southeast Asia, but that they would not learn about it from coverage in what we have come to call the mainstream media, meaning in context the New York Times, the AP and UPI wire services and ABC, CBS and NBC television news. “The debate,” I said, “is not about the war at all. It’s about who should run the country based on what foreign policy assumptions.” Today, over forty-five years later, I stand by that characterization.

To hold my own in the ensuing discussions, for the next two and a half years I tracked on a daily basis relevant coverage in the New York Times and watched the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news roundups (in those days, they were only thirty minutes long and aired in sequence). Coverage of the war on the ground in Southeast Asia was short on operational and strategic context and long on details that called into question the morality and effectiveness of our commitment. The adverse effects of American firepower on the civilian populace were highlighted. Communist atrocities were downplayed or ignored. The classic example of the latter, and a telling one, is the contrast between the extensive coverage given to the My Lai massacre and the sketchy coverage accorded the Hue massacres, where communist forces during the 1968 Têt Offensive rounded up and executed some six thousand civilians.

It seemed clear at the time, and is clearer in retrospect, that the mainstream media were unwilling to publicize unsavory aspects of communist policy. An example from February 1968 makes the point: Viewing the disinterment of a mass grave containing victims of the Hue massacre, West German journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto in company with American journalist Peter Braestrup encountered an American television crew standing idly by. It was clear from the condition of the corpses that many of the victims had been buried alive. “Why?” asked Braestrup, “don’t you film this?” “We are not here to film anti-Communist propaganda” said the camera man [21], a small, but telling detail.

I should add that Braestrup, Saigon Bureau Chief of the Washington Post at the time, broke ranks with his mainstream colleagues by publishing a thorough, critical account of media coverage of the 1968 Têt Offensive, The Big Story (1977).[22] It is worth noting that Braestrup, in contrast to his media colleagues, was a combat veteran, having served as a Marine infantry officer in Korea.

Braestrup’s critique applies to media coverage of the entire war, both because the deficiencies in reportage and interpretation in coverage of the 1968 Têt Offensive were representative of coverage of the war as a whole, and because coverage of the 1968 Têt offensive played a major role in turning public opinion against support of our military effort in Vietnam. The attack on the US Embassy by Viet Cong sappers was portrayed as representative of the success of the entire offensive while the rapid reassertion of government control throughout South Vietnam was essentially ignored.[23] The battle for Hue—the only significant communist success in the first wave attacks, though in the end a communist defeat—was hardly typical of the fighting in general, but received extensive coverage… and here I would dispel another myth: that “television brought the war into our living rooms.”

There is an element of truth in this myth in that discussion of the war was ubiquitous in television news coverage. That having been said, coverage of the war on the ground was minimal. The period of my survey saw considerable footage of stretchers being loaded on to and off of helicopters, typically with an audio gunfire background (in my judgment mostly dubbed in), and early morning interviews of dazed survivors of nearly-overrun fire bases by freshly helicoptered-in reporters, but little to no actual combat footage. Tellingly, the US media all but ignored the ARVN.

In fact, Têt 1968 was a massive defeat for the communist forces, whose few and ephemeral successes in the first phase (January through early March) were overshadowed in operational reality by staggering losses, particularly in the second and third phases (May and August), and particularly among the Viet Cong, who were effectively eliminated as a military factor in the war. That was not the impression conveyed by mainstream media coverage.

The turning point came on 27 February when CBS television anchor man Walter Cronkite, just having returned from a whirlwind tour of South Vietnam, during which he witnessed evidence of the Hue massacres, pronounced on the evening news that

It now seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation: and for every means we have to escalate the enemy can match us.[24]

He went on to add that “the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people.” President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, famously commented to Press Secretary George Christian, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”[25] Whatever the verdict on Johnson as a war leader, his political instincts with regard to voter sentiment were keen, amounting in this case to an accurate prophecy… albeit a self-fulfilling one that Johnson made good by announcing on 31 March a bombing halt against targets in northern North Vietnam, his decision to enter into negotiations with the North Vietnamese and his decision not to run for reelection. By that time, our political leadership had overwhelmingly endorsed the media interpretation and the rest is history.

I will conclude with a final myth, one derived from those discussed above and revealing in its content: that the outcome of the war was not so horrible for the peoples of Indochina. Though rarely stated so baldly, this myth was embraced in the bulk of the immediate post-war media coverage. Eventually, promulgation of this myth was suppressed by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but only after extended delay.

The mainstream media covered the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people (though not the reasons for it), but they had little to say about Vietnam’s “reeducation camps” and for four years turned a blind eye to the horrors of Khymer Rouge rule in Cambodia. This despite the fact that the realities of the Killing Fields and The Year Zero were amply reported in Thailand and thus known to the international community including media representatives. I was stationed in Thailand at the time, and my specific reference is to coverage in the Bangkok Post, a first-rate English language newspaper which I read on a daily basis from the spring of 1975 until late December.

To appreciate the extent of the American media’s blind eye to events in Cambodia some background is in order. The area of western Cambodia contiguous to Thailand, the Battembang Rice Triangle, had never been under communist guerrilla influence and there was considerable cross-border commerce. In addition, Buddhist shrines to the north of the triangle attracted a steady flow of Thai pilgrims. When Phnom Penh fell to the communists on 17 April, considerable numbers of Thais were caught inside Cambodia. Through the spring and into the fall, survivors worked their way out, bringing with them eyewitness accounts of the horrors of Khymer Rouge rule: forced relocation of urban dwellers to “new economic zones”, executions of the educated, of Buddhist monks, of eyeglass wearers and so on. Their accounts were credible and well-reported in the Thai-language press as well as the Post.[26] Beyond the ability to assign numerical estimates to the Khymer Rouge death toll, I have learned nothing about the Year Zero and Killing Fields since. Coverage by the mainstream media—perhaps I should say recognition—began only after the escape from Cambodia in October of 1979 of New York Times reporter Sydney Schamberg’s Khymer cameraman Dith Pran.

Might a reluctance to admit that they played a major role in prompting American withdrawal from the war leading to the terrible carnage that followed help to explain media silence on the issues in question? I leave it to you, the reader, to decide.

What are we to make of our catalogue of realities and myths?

Returning to my opening comments, if we are to learn from history, we must get it right. In conslusion, I ask you, the reader, to reflect on the number of major foreign policy decisions by our government in the post-Vietnam era—not all with happy consequences—that appear to have been driven by acceptance of the lessons of the orthodox interpretation of the Vietnam War.

 

John F. Guilmartin, Jr.

Columbus, Ohio

[1] An was not the only such agent, though far and away the most influential one. Members of the Saigon intelligentsia, who loathed Diem and assiduously courted American journalists, contributed as well. Another was ARVN officer Albert Pham Ngoc Thao who served in various senior positions including province chief and head of the Strategic Hamlet Program. As a province chief, he appears as a source in Malcolm Browne, The New Face of War (Indianapolis and New York, 1965), the first of the journalist-historians’ work published between hard covers.

[2] Pike, a Foreign Service Officer, first attracted public notice with his analysis of the massacre of civilians by communist forces in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

[3] A student in my summer 1998 graduate seminar on the history of the Vietnam War at Ohio State University did a literature search for reviews of Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place in the standard scholarly journals, e.g. American Historical Review and Journal of American History, and came up with remarkably few reviews—from memory no more than half a dozen—and those were tepid.

[4] Peter Dunn, First Vietnam War, 412. The officer was almost certainly Major Dan Phelan of the China-based 14th Air Force AGAS (Air Ground Aid Service) who worked with Charles Fenn, the OSS agent responsible for arranging OSS support for Ho and the Vietminh. See also Dixee BartholomewFeis, The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan, 220221, photos from the National Archives, Green Belt, Maryland, of the arrival in August 1945 of the first armed Vietminh in Hanoi. Vietminh in the photos whose weapons can be identified are armed with French 7.5 mm rifles, specifically the Mousqueton d’Artillerie Modèle 1892 and the Fusil des Tirallieurs Indo-Chinois Modèle 1902. The one soldier with an automatic weapon is carrying a Chateralleault Fusil Mitrailleur; Ian Hogg and John Weeks, Military Small Arms of the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1973), 3.053.06; Hogg and Weeks, The Encyclopedia of Infantry Weapons of World War II (New York, 1977), 101.

[5] Archimedes Patti, Why Viet Nam? 16667, Dunn, First Vietnam War, 17.

[6] James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi, Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War (New York, 1999), 3839, cited in James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower In Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists (Lawrence, Kansas: 2003), 43.

[7] See Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh: the Missing Years, 1919-1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Based on extensive research in Soviet and French Archives including files of the Comintern and Sûreté, Quinn-Judge thoroughly documents Ho’s ideological background and proclivities.

[8] Fall, Two Viet Nams, 155. A case can be made for class differences among the Vietnamese peasantry in the south, where a small class of relatively well-to-do landlords and a large body of landless peasants existed, but that was most assuredly not the case in the north where the vast majority of peasants—Fall says 98%—owned the land they worked.

[9] Le Duan’s role as a power behind the scenes and exponent of a hard line on the war in the South was long suspected, but not the extent to which he became effective dictator. Lien-Hang Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (2012).

[10] These were a major failed offensive in the south in August 1950, the destruction of French forces along the Chinese border in October 1950; the failed attempt to break into the Red River Delta in January-June 1951; and the 1952-1953 Winter-Spring offensive into Laos. To this we can add the conventional response to the November 1951-February 1952 French Hoa Binh offensive in the north.

[11] The October-November 1965 Pleiku Campaign, chronicled in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s, We Were Soldiers Once and Young and in the Mel Gibson move We Were Soldiers Once culminated in American defensive victory at LZ X-Ray and defeat at LZ Albany (not addressed in the Gibson movie). The campaign’s outcome was equivocal in that both the US and North Vietnamese abandoned overtly aggressive orientations in its aftermath.

[12] We do not ordinarily think of American military commanders as prone to accept heavy casualties, but it is a matter of record. In World War II American commanders were routinely willing to accept casualties that their British colleagues considered unacceptable. The same contrast applied to American and Australian forces in Vietnam.

[13] John F. Guilmartin, “Casualties”, Stanley I. Kutler, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (New York, 1996), 103-105.

[14] George J. Veith and Merle Pribbenow, “‘Fighting Is an Art”: The Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s Defense of Xuan Loc, 9-21 April 1975”, Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (January 2004), 163-213.

[15] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, 1989), 134-35.

[16] (Merle L. Pribbenow, tr. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas), originally published in Vietnamese as History of the People’s Army of Vietnam (Hanoi, Vietnamese Ministry of Defense Military History Institute).

[17] Victory in Vietnam, 52-54, 168-69, 225-26, 242 and 261-68.

[18] New York Times, December 25 and 27, 1966, quoted in Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 45.

[19] Robert Manne, Agent of Influence: The Life and Times of Wilfred Burchett, Mackinzie Paper No. 13 (Toronto, 1989), 48-50. Burchett was involved in exploiting American POWs in communist hands in Korea and Vietnam and played a major role in actress Jane Fonda’s notorious 1972 visit to North Vietnam.

[20] Paraphrased in Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 123.

[21] Uwe Siemon-Netto, Duc: A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (July 10, 2013), 211-13.

[22] The Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, 2 vols. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977).

[23] See Donald M. Bishop’ review of The Big Story, “The Press and the TET Offensive: A Flawed Institution Under Stress”, Air University Review (November-December 1978).

[24] Quoted in Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 47.

[25] Quoted in Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War, The History, 1945-1975 (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1988), 486.

[26] Speaking only minimal Thai and reading it not at all, I was kept informed by Captain Daniel Jacobowitz, USAF, and his wife Saifon, a native Thai speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vietnam War: Realities, Myths and Misconceptions
The General Andrew J. Goodpaster Lecture

Presented at the Meeting of the American Veterans’ Institute
Army-Navy Club

Washington, DC

3 June 2014

 

 

John F. Guilmartin, Jr.

 

 

 

 

Conventional wisdom holds the Vietnam War to be the most divisive and controversial war in our history, second only to the Civil War. That view enjoys support from all points of the political compass and all segments of the body politic, from the intelligentsia and media pundits to military veterans and everything between. For once conventional wisdom is right… except that there is no consensus on why conventional wisdom is right. Indeed, within the political and ideological spectrum just outlined there are starkly different interpretations of why the war was fought, how, and to what effect. That, I submit, is important, for if we are to draw meaningful lessons from the Vietnam War we must first understand it.

From whence comes understanding? The answer is history, and there we encounter immediate difficulty for the history of the Vietnam War is fraught with divisiveness, controversy and incoherence that rivals that of the war itself. The cause lies in the manner in which the history was written.

The first drafts of the histories of our previous wars were written by historians based on official records, supplemented by memoirs of senior leaders and intelligence on enemy capabilities and intentions that came to hand during and immediately after the war. The result—call it the orthodox interpretation—generally followed government policy. Then, as sources surfaced that were unavailable to the first wave of historians, new interpretations emerged. Call the resultant interpretations revisionist. Historians tested revisionist insights, and if they were valid incorporated them into their work and the quality of the history improved. That, at least, is how it worked in the past.

In contrast, the first draft of the history of the Vietnam War was written by journalists during the early stages of our military involvement. Moreover, the journalists in question were not detached observers, but were engaged in turning American public opinion against South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. Far from accepting the validity of our government’s policy, the authors of the first daft rejected it, beginning with support of the Diem regime, as they labeled it… and I should explain at this point the difference between a regime and a government: A government is a regime of which the writer approves. A regime is a government of which the writer does not approve.

Preeminent among the journalists in question were Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press; Neill Sheehan of United Press International; David Halberstam of The New York Times; Peter Arnett of Associated Press; and Stanley Karnow who reported for Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post and NBC News.

The journalists’ campaign against Diem bore fruit, turning the Kennedy administration against him, leading to his overthrow and murder in a November 1963 coup implicitly endorsed by President Kennedy. Contrary to the journalists’ expectations, Diem’s removal did not lead to an improvement in the political and military situation. Instead, political chaos and military incoherence ensued, leading to the near collapse of South Vietnam in 1964 and massive American military intervention from the spring of 1965.

By then, the journalists’ revisionist interpretation had become orthodoxy, turning the usual process on its head. The new orthodoxy was well entrenched by the time of Diem’s fall and had been embraced by the bulk of the intelligentsia and the nascent but growing anti-war movement. It has showed remarkable staying power, the more so as it informed two popular television histories: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, for which Peter Arnett was Chief Correspondent; and the Public Broadcasting Service series, Vietnam: A Television History, for which Stanley Karnow was Chief Correspondent. Both debuted in 1983, as did Karnow’s book Vietnam: A History, based on research for the PBS series. To the best of my knowledge, that book remains the most published and widely-read work on the subject in English and, together with the two television series, effectively forms the basis of what most Americans know—or think they know—about the war.

The underlying narrative in all these works holds that America’s military engagement in Vietnam was unjust, unnecessary and unwinnable. I am painting in the broadest of strokes and some orthodox works are more nuanced, but I am confident that my generalization is accurately descriptive of main stream orthodoxy. Beyond rejecting the validity of American policy, the orthodox interpretation is America-centric, holding that everything of consequence that happened did so as a result of American initiative. By contrast, Vietnamese are portrayed as stereotypes: passive peasant-victims; doughty Viet Cong; well-motivated and disciplined North Vietnamese regulars; brutal and corrupt ARVN (soldiers of the Army of [South] Vietnam); and so on. As is usually the case, there are elements of truth in these stereotypes, but there is much more to it than that.

 

Let me begin with the circumstances in 1960-1963 during which the orthodox interpretation was forged. The journalists who gave it birth had little if any previous experience in Vietnam. Much of their information concerning South Vietnamese society and politics came from Vietnamese journalist Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer who later became chief of Time magazine’s Saigon bureau. As we now know, An was a communist agent of influence. We can be sure that he spoon-fed his interpretations of the Diem government’s crackdown on Theravada Buddhist demonstrations to his American colleagues: Karnow and Halberstam were particularly dependent on him.[1] It was, of course, reportage of the crackdown that led to the Kennedy administration’s decision to support Diem’s overthrow. American media coverage of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks as an act of protest—coverage that was orchestrated by the communists, Buddhists, or both—was the tipping point.

News of An’s role as an agent of influence did not emerge until after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, by which time the orthodox interpretation had gained general acceptance within academia and the mainstream news media. In the meantime, the imbedded notion that our military policy—citing a more extreme anti-war characterization—was one of atrocity, had gained legitimacy if not universal acceptance. In a gentler interpretation, we were doing more harm to the people of Vietnam (Cambodia was seldom mentioned and Laos largely ignored) with unrestrained firepower than would result from communist victory.

But what if Diem had been unjustly pilloried? What if his policies had, on the whole, been well-suited for the circumstances? What if our military policies, from beginning to end, were more humane than those of the enemy? If that were the case, then our failure to prosecute the war more aggressively after Diem’s overthrow and our abandonment to communist rule of the peoples of formerly-French Indochina was itself a crime. That was—and is—a difficult pill for exponents of the orthodox interpretation to swallow, hence the historiographical impasse.

To be sure, there were revisionist rebuttals, notably Guenter Lewy’s America in Vietnam published in 1978. More recently, Mark Moyer’s Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, a strong but not uncritical defense of Diem and his policies, appeared in 2006. Both works accuse the orthodox interpretation of being dead wrong on every matter of substance and have, predictably, been greeted more with derision than rebuttal.

In addition, a handful of authors writing in English approached the war from non-American perspectives. Douglas Pike, the only American scholar to write about the war during the war using Vietnamese sources, published extensively on the Vietnamese communist party and its military arm, producing Viet Cong (1969) and PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (1986) in addition to numerous journal articles.[2] He dismissed the orthodox interpretation as irrelevant and was ignored by its exponents. Peter Dunn, The First Vietnam War (1985) addressed the earliest stages of the conflict in southern Vietnam from the British perspective. Bernard Fall, Austrian by birth, French by upbringing and American by higher education wrote prolifically on Vietnam from a French perspective. His Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, dealing respectively with the French phase of the war and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, are classics. Both appeared during the American phase of the war and the second, 1964, edition of Street Without Joy covered the American experience to date. Though Fall had a great deal to say about the American conduct of the war prior to his death in 1967 he was thinly reviewed in American scholarly journals[3], no doubt because his interpretations didn’t fit the orthodox mold. A staunch anti-communist, he criticized American policy not on the basis of its supposed immorality, but its ineffectiveness. I would add as an afterthought that the French have done a better job of documenting and analyzing their phase of the war than we Americans have done for ours.

How do we sort this out?

Turning first to realities, the Vietnam War was a major episode in world history. French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 marked the end of Western colonial empires. To be sure, we had agreed to give ours up, promising before World War II to grant the Philippines independence in 1946. The British gave up India in 1947 and Indonesia threw off Dutch rule to become an independent nation that same year. The Portuguese—remarkably—hung on until 1974, but Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the end.

American failure in Vietnam, marked by the fall of Saigon in 1975, saw the waning of the pax Americanus that had prevailed since the end of World War II. America would soldier on as the World’s policeman, but with diminished authority and credibility. Of arguably equal importance, our experience in Vietnam changed the way in which we Americans view our government, with trust giving way to eternal suspicion. Finally, the Vietnam War was a major campaign in the Cold War, though to what effect is a matter of debate. Did Soviet expenditures in support of North Vietnam—which were considerable—start the Soviet economy down the slope to collapse? This old soldier would like to think so, but the matter is up for grabs.

Now for myths and misconceptions. The orthodox interpretation holds that the underlying cause of the war was Vietnamese abhorrence of foreign domination, beginning with the thousand year struggle to throw off Chinese rule, followed by a renewed struggle for independence fueled by hatred of French colonialism, indeed, hatred of all foreign domination including American. After repeated failures to overthrow the French, this nationalist motivation found its opportunity in 1940 in the aftermath of France’s defeat by Germany and its direction in the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, portrayed as a nationalist first and a communist second. A pivotal factor in these developments, one glossed over in the orthodox interpretation, was Japanese intervention, beginning with military occupation of strategic points in French Indochina in September 1940, an occupation that first undermined the colonial regime’s credibility and then destroyed the regime itself.

Fueled by the peasantry’s acceptance of communist policy—land redistribution was the key issue—and given teeth by Vo Nguyen Giap’s training program and communist discipline, the anti-French resistance morphed into the militarily formidable Vietminh, a nationalist front organization with communist leadership at the top, and progressed from guerrilla resistance in 1941-45 to victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

In fact, the thousand year struggle was real, but consisted almost entirely of Vietnamese civil wars with one side accepting Chinese rule and the other opposing it. Significantly, when the anti-Chinese faction won, the victorious leader invariably petitioned the Chinese emperor for recognition.

Resentment of French rule, though by no means universal, was deep and real. So, too, was communist skill at forging guerrilla resistance and—the critical point—at determining when to engage in open revolt. That point, however, was determined not by the Vietnamese communists but by the Japanese Army in a March 1945 coup de main that disarmed and incarcerated the French security forces and colonial army. That gave the Vietminh, hard pressed by the French up to that point, breathing room and released from prison a thousand or so trained and indoctrinated communist cadres who went quickly to work organizing—and intimidating—the rural masses. To their credit, the communists moved swiftly to exploit the opportunity presented them by the Japanese, but it was the Japanese who created the opportunity, a point on which the orthodox interpretation is silent.

During this interval Ho Chi Minh and his group moved their base of operations from China into Vietnam and from April 1945 obtained American backing in money, materiel, and, in mid-July, the OSS equivalent of a Special Forces A team parachuted into the wilds of northwestern Tonkin.

Ho portrayed his organization as anti-Japanese to secure American support, but Vietminh operations against the Japanese were minimal. In fact the Japanese Army, in anticipation of defeat, had thrown its support to the Vietminh, meaning—as the Japanese surely knew—the communists. An American officer who parachuted into Ho’s base in midJune stated that the Vietminh were backed by the Japanese, who supplied them with arms and ammunition from captured French stocks.[4]

When World War II was brought to an abrupt and unexpected end by the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Communists were ready to act, pulling the Vietminh in their wake. With remarkable prescience, Ho had earlier called for a Communist Party Congress that convened at his headquarters on 13 August, only four days after the Nagasaki bomb. It was followed by a Vietminh Congress from the 16th through the 18th. At Ho’s bequest, the Congresses declared Vietnam independent and declared war on Japan… ironically in that the Japanese had already notified American authorities of their willingness to surrender.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party’s Committee for Hanoi, meeting in secret and acting independently of Ho and the Party leadership, had decided that the moment for insurrection was near at hand. The moment came on August 17th when an armed propaganda team hijacked a mass rally of the Civil Servants Commission called to support independence under the Japanese-installed government of Emperor Bao Dai. Taking over the podium, the communists called for total independence and led a mass march on the Governor General’s palace. In the wake of the hijacking, the Communist leadership called for a general uprising. It went down on the 19th with columns marching on the Governor General’s Palace and the barracks of the Garde Indochinoise, the Bao Dai government’s army, where they took control of stores of arms and ammunition. Precisely how that transpired is unclear—Peter Dunn’s sources say it was by pre-arrangement with the Japanese—but it is apparent on the face of it that the Japanese backed the coup that gave the Vietminh control of Hanoi.[5] It was a major communist victory, the first of the war, and essential to all that followed.

Nor did Japanese support for the Vietminh end there. Japanese Army “deserters” joined the Vietminh in significant numbers, including a military advisory group of 4,000 to 1,500 men—the numbers are in dispute—under a Lieutenant Colonel Mukayama.[6]

Ho Chi Minh’s famous proclamation of Vietnamese independence on September 2nd, using words that drew liberally from the American Declaration of Independence, formalized what had already transpired. The presence on stage behind the podium of members of a newly-arrived OSS team under Major Archimedes Patti reinforced the impression of American support.

There is considerable irony in the fact that Ho and the communists—who were not yet in full control of the Vietminh—had gained their first, essential, victory with American aid, more apparent than real, and Japanese aid, more real than apparent.

A persistent myth holds that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist who turned to the communists when the United States failed to recognize and support his government. In fact, it is clear from a cursory review of his résumé that Ho was a dedicated Marxist-Leninist revolutionary from the start.[7] Any doubts on this score can be seen in his March 1953 initiation of an “Identification of Class Enemies” campaign, a land redistribution program modeled after Stalin’s kulak (rich peasant) purges of the 1930s. Based on the dubious notion that there were significant class differences among the Vietnamese peasantry in the north, it empowered local tribunals that identified “rich peasants”, “reactionaries” and landowners, many of whom were summarily executed and their land seized [8] At its peak, the program took on the aspects of a witch hunt, sparking open rebellion in Nghe Anh Province in the autumn of 1956, over a year after French defeat and the separation of Vietnam into North and South. It is noteworthy that the uprising took place in that part of Vietnam that had been under communist control the longest. The uprising was put down by the People’s Army of Vietnam with considerable bloodshed.

The Identification of Class Enemies program was called off and Ho Chi Minh publicly apologized for its excesses on national radio. There followed a “Rectification of Errors” campaign accompanied by a wave of bitter recrimination as unjustly accused survivors were released from prison.

In the ensuing chaos, the Party recalled Le Duan from the south, where he was orchestrating resistance to the Diem government, and installed him as Party Secretary in which post he became North Vietnam’s leader, reducing Ho to a largely ceremonial role. This episode is significant for revealing the actual attitudes of Vietnamese peasants toward land redistribution and collectivation. It is also important for placing in power Le Duan, who used aggressive prosecution of the war in South Vietnam as a rallying point for political unity, a point for which we are indebted to recent work by historian Lien-Hang Nguyen.[9]

A byproduct of Le Duan’s consolidation of power was the elimination of any serious possibility of a negotiated settlement to the American phase of the war, for he was adamantly opposed to accepting anything less than a unified Vietnam under communist control. That is Hang Nguyen’s conclusion and I believe correct.

 

More myths and misconceptions with an emphasis on the American phase of the war:

Myth: It was a guerrilla war, a central tenant of the orthodox interpretation. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. While it is true that guerrilla warfare—revolutionary war is a more accurate characterization, for propagandization and coercion were at least as important to communist theory and practice as small war tactics—went far to bleed French resources and exhaust American patience, the communists repeatedly turned to large-scale conventional operations as the key to victory as communist doctrine said they must. That was true of the French phase of the war where the Vietminh mounted four major conventional offensives, two of them abject failures, before victory in thoroughly conventional battle at Dien Bien Phu.[10] During the American phase, the communists mounted massive conventional offensives during the 1965 Pleiku Campaign, the 1968 Tet Offensive and the 1972 Easter Offensive, the first producing an equivocal outcome and the second two unequivocal communist defeats.[11]

Next in our list of myths, “The sorry little bastards won’t fight”—meaning the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, or ARVN—is one of the most pernicious. It has its origins in the reaction of the first wave of American military advisors to what they perceived as a lack of aggressiveness among their Vietnamese charges. From their perspective, that was no doubt true. Heirs of a tradition of willingness to accept casualties in return for immediate tactical gain, they found themselves dealing with an army that was in it for the long haul in a war in which clear cut tactical victories were rare.[12] Their complaints were echoed by politicians of hawkish and dovish persuasion alike: “Why should American boys die for Vietnam when Vietnamese boys won’t die for Vietnam?” was the cry. In fact Vietnamese boys did die for their country, and in huge numbers.

The official ARVN casualty toll for the American phase of the war—not counting the final year for which records were not kept—was 1,394,000 including 224,000 killed in action.[13] Given South Vietnam’s population of about fourteen million, an equivalent share of America’s populace of some two-hundred million would have been 3,200,000 killed-in-action. Nor is the myth vitiated by mere numbers. The quality of leadership at corps and division level deteriorated in the chaos following the widespread purge of loyalist officers following Diem’s overthrow and the ARVN had its share of marginal units, but by and large elite units—Airborne, Marines, Ranger battalions and, later, the 1st Division—put in exemplary performances and ordinary units fought well more often than not. That includes elements of the oft-derided Regional Forces/Popular Forces (local militia, the so-called “Ruff-Puffs”), right up to the bitter end. To be sure, some units dissolved in the chaos of the final, overwhelming, 1975 invasion, undercut by drastic cutoffs in ammunition allowances and the reduction of South Vietnamese air power’s effectiveness by Soviet-provided surface-to-air missiles, but the ARVN put in some of the finest combat performances in the annals of warfare during the awful spring of 1975. A case in point is the 9-20 April Battle of Xuan Loc on the eastern approaches to Saigon, where the ARVN 18th Division reinforced by the remains of the Airborne Brigade fought a reinforced North Vietnamese corps with massive armor support to a bloody standstill despite artillery inferiority.[14] Another case in point is the last stand on Tan Son Nhut Airfield of the 81st Airborne Ranger Group, who fought on after the departure of the last Americans, taking out T-55 tanks with unguided, shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets until they ran out of ammunition.

Myth: Our bombing of North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail was unnecessary at best and inhumane at worst. This myth is closely linked to the “It was a guerrilla war” myth. If it were, in fact, a guerilla war, then the logistical requirements of communist forces in the South would have been satisfied by locally-obtained food and captured arms and munitions and little external supply would have been needed. This belief at times bled over into American intelligence estimates. A May 1966 appraisal endorsed by Secretary of Defense McNamara held that the external re-supply requirements of communist forces in the south could be met by seven 21/2 ton trucks a day.[15] That, of course, was utterly untrue. In fact, the supposed insurgency in the south was dependent on arms, supplies and reinforcement from the North from the beginning, unequivocally from 1959 (the opening of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the overland route through Laos) and preemptively so from 1964.

The critical importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the communist war effort is emphasized in Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975, published in 1994 and released in English translation in 2002[16], a significant embarrassment to exponents of the orthodox interpretation. Selected passages underline the critical importance of maintaining the flow of men and materiel from China and the port of Haiphong through North Vietnam and down the Trail to the South. They also underline the impressive scale of resources devoted to maintaining the flow.[17] Nor were those resources limited to surface-to-air missile batteries, an air defense radar net, MiG jet fighters, anti-aircraft guns, road repair crews, earth-moving equipment and the maintenance of a large truck fleet. “Peace feelers”, advanced in exchange for bombing halts, were an integral and successful element of communist strategy. So were attempts to influence US media coverage of our bombing.

The latter focused on our bombing of targets in North Vietnam, and had the dual purpose of making our bombing appear inhumane on the one hand and ineffective on the other. Perhaps the most egregious example involves December 1966 reportage from Hanoi by New York Times assistant managing editor Harrison Salisbury in which he stated that we were “dropping an enormous weight of explosives on purely civilian targets.” He further stated that “on-the-spot inspection indicates that American bombing has been inflicting considerable civilian casualties in Hanoi and its environs for some time.”regious example involves December 1966 reportage from Hanoi by New York Times assistant managing editor Harrison Salisbury in which he stated that we were “dropping an enormous weight of explosives on purely civilian targets.” He further stated that “on-the-spot inspection indicates that American bombing has been inflicting considerable civilian casualties in Hanoi and its envions for some time past”,[18] In fact, contrary to his representations, Salisbury was not an eye-witness. Moreover, much of his copy was written by Australian communist Wilfred Burchett, Salisbury’s “facilitator” during his visit to North Vietnam, and copied from official North Vietnamese press releases.[19]

Another telling example can be found in the New York Times lead editorial for Sunday, February 4th 1968. Written four days after the start of the communist 1968 Tet Offensive, the editorial proclaimed that if the “spectacularly successful Tet offensive had proved anything it was that the bombing of North Vietnam had failed to reduce either the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.”[20] As we now know and as some journalists realized at the time, the offensive was a military disaster for the communists. The prominence given to discrediting the bombing as opposed, for example, to excoriating the misguided and politically-motivated optimism in LBJ’s, McNamara’s and Westmoreland’s public statements in the months before the Tet Offensive or extolling the fighting spirit of the Viet Cong and NVA suggests an eagerness to influence our policy in a way most likely to be helpful to the communist cause.

Next on our parade of myths: The news media did not lose the war. This myth reflects the belief that waning support for our war effort by the American public, and ultimately by our political leadership, was based on an accurate appraisal of military failure and the immorality of our policies rather than on biased and negative media coverage. Belief in this myth was and is a staple of the orthodox interpretation and an article of faith to the bulk of the intelligentsia, to mainstream media pundits and among the anti-war faithful. In a neat bit of intellectual ju-jitsu, exponents of the orthodox interpretation reverse the polarity, portraying as a myth revisionist arguments that the news media did play a central role in losing the war.

The data relevant to supporting or debunking this myth is enormous, and I turn to my own observations to condense the argument. I enrolled as a graduate student in history at Princeton University under Air Force sponsorship in the autumn of 1967. I had returned from my first Southeast Asia combat tour in the summer of 1966 and had spent the intervening year as a flight instructor at the Air Rescue Service Combat Crew Training School where I kept track of current intelligence. As soon as my fellow graduate students recovered from the shock of having a combat veteran in their midst, they asked me what I thought about the debate about the war, very much a hot topic on campus. I responded that I would be happy to tell them about the war on the ground in Southeast Asia, but that they would not learn about it from coverage in what we have come to call the mainstream media, meaning in context the New York Times, the AP and UPI wire services and ABC, CBS and NBC television news. “The debate,” I said, “is not about the war at all. It’s about who should run the country based on what foreign policy assumptions.” Today, over forty-five years later, I stand by that characterization.

To hold my own in the ensuing discussions, for the next two and a half years I tracked on a daily basis relevant coverage in the New York Times and watched the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news roundups (in those days, they were only thirty minutes long and aired in sequence). Coverage of the war on the ground in Southeast Asia was short on operational and strategic context and long on details that called into question the morality and effectiveness of our commitment. The adverse effects of American firepower on the civilian populace were highlighted. Communist atrocities were downplayed or ignored. The classic example of the latter, and a telling one, is the contrast between the extensive coverage given to the My Lai massacre and the sketchy coverage accorded the Hue massacres, where communist forces during the 1968 Têt Offensive rounded up and executed some six thousand civilians.

It seemed clear at the time, and is clearer in retrospect, that the mainstream media were unwilling to publicize unsavory aspects of communist policy. An example from February 1968 makes the point: Viewing the disinterment of a mass grave containing victims of the Hue massacre, West German journalist Uwe Siemon-Netto in company with American journalist Peter Braestrup encountered an American television crew standing idly by. It was clear from the condition of the corpses that many of the victims had been buried alive. “Why?” asked Braestrup, “don’t you film this?” “We are not here to film anti-Communist propaganda” said the camera man [21], a small, but telling detail.

I should add that Braestrup, Saigon Bureau Chief of the Washington Post at the time, broke ranks with his mainstream colleagues by publishing a thorough, critical account of media coverage of the 1968 Têt Offensive, The Big Story (1977).[22] It is worth noting that Braestrup, in contrast to his media colleagues, was a combat veteran, having served as a Marine infantry officer in Korea.

Braestrup’s critique applies to media coverage of the entire war, both because the deficiencies in reportage and interpretation in coverage of the 1968 Têt Offensive were representative of coverage of the war as a whole, and because coverage of the 1968 Têt offensive played a major role in turning public opinion against support of our military effort in Vietnam. The attack on the US Embassy by Viet Cong sappers was portrayed as representative of the success of the entire offensive while the rapid reassertion of government control throughout South Vietnam was essentially ignored.[23] The battle for Hue—the only significant communist success in the first wave attacks, though in the end a communist defeat—was hardly typical of the fighting in general, but received extensive coverage… and here I would dispel another myth: that “television brought the war into our living rooms.”

There is an element of truth in this myth in that discussion of the war was ubiquitous in television news coverage. That having been said, coverage of the war on the ground was minimal. The period of my survey saw considerable footage of stretchers being loaded on to and off of helicopters, typically with an audio gunfire background (in my judgment mostly dubbed in), and early morning interviews of dazed survivors of nearly-overrun fire bases by freshly helicoptered-in reporters, but little to no actual combat footage. Tellingly, the US media all but ignored the ARVN.

In fact, Têt 1968 was a massive defeat for the communist forces, whose few and ephemeral successes in the first phase (January through early March) were overshadowed in operational reality by staggering losses, particularly in the second and third phases (May and August), and particularly among the Viet Cong, who were effectively eliminated as a military factor in the war. That was not the impression conveyed by mainstream media coverage.

The turning point came on 27 February when CBS television anchor man Walter Cronkite, just having returned from a whirlwind tour of South Vietnam, during which he witnessed evidence of the Hue massacres, pronounced on the evening news that

It now seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation: and for every means we have to escalate the enemy can match us.[24]

He went on to add that “the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people.” President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, famously commented to Press Secretary George Christian, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”[25] Whatever the verdict on Johnson as a war leader, his political instincts with regard to voter sentiment were keen, amounting in this case to an accurate prophecy… albeit a self-fulfilling one that Johnson made good by announcing on 31 March a bombing halt against targets in northern North Vietnam, his decision to enter into negotiations with the North Vietnamese and his decision not to run for reelection. By that time, our political leadership had overwhelmingly endorsed the media interpretation and the rest is history.

I will conclude with a final myth, one derived from those discussed above and revealing in its content: that the outcome of the war was not so horrible for the peoples of Indochina. Though rarely stated so baldly, this myth was embraced in the bulk of the immediate post-war media coverage. Eventually, promulgation of this myth was suppressed by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but only after extended delay.

The mainstream media covered the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people (though not the reasons for it), but they had little to say about Vietnam’s “reeducation camps” and for four years turned a blind eye to the horrors of Khymer Rouge rule in Cambodia. This despite the fact that the realities of the Killing Fields and The Year Zero were amply reported in Thailand and thus known to the international community including media representatives. I was stationed in Thailand at the time, and my specific reference is to coverage in the Bangkok Post, a first-rate English language newspaper which I read on a daily basis from the spring of 1975 until late December.

To appreciate the extent of the American media’s blind eye to events in Cambodia some background is in order. The area of western Cambodia contiguous to Thailand, the Battembang Rice Triangle, had never been under communist guerrilla influence and there was considerable cross-border commerce. In addition, Buddhist shrines to the north of the triangle attracted a steady flow of Thai pilgrims. When Phnom Penh fell to the communists on 17 April, considerable numbers of Thais were caught inside Cambodia. Through the spring and into the fall, survivors worked their way out, bringing with them eyewitness accounts of the horrors of Khymer Rouge rule: forced relocation of urban dwellers to “new economic zones”, executions of the educated, of Buddhist monks, of eyeglass wearers and so on. Their accounts were credible and well-reported in the Thai-language press as well as the Post.[26] Beyond the ability to assign numerical estimates to the Khymer Rouge death toll, I have learned nothing about the Year Zero and Killing Fields since. Coverage by the mainstream media—perhaps I should say recognition—began only after the escape from Cambodia in October of 1979 of New York Times reporter Sydney Schamberg’s Khymer cameraman Dith Pran.

Might a reluctance to admit that they played a major role in prompting American withdrawal from the war leading to the terrible carnage that followed help to explain media silence on the issues in question? I leave it to you, the reader, to decide.

What are we to make of our catalogue of realities and myths?

Returning to my opening comments, if we are to learn from history, we must get it right. In conslusion, I ask you, the reader, to reflect on the number of major foreign policy decisions by our government in the post-Vietnam era—not all with happy consequences—that appear to have been driven by acceptance of the lessons of the orthodox interpretation of the Vietnam War.

 

John F. Guilmartin, Jr.

Columbus, Ohio

[1] An was not the only such agent, though far and away the most influential one. Members of the Saigon intelligentsia, who loathed Diem and assiduously courted American journalists, contributed as well. Another was ARVN officer Albert Pham Ngoc Thao who served in various senior positions including province chief and head of the Strategic Hamlet Program. As a province chief, he appears as a source in Malcolm Browne, The New Face of War (Indianapolis and New York, 1965), the first of the journalist-historians’ work published between hard covers.

[2] Pike, a Foreign Service Officer, first attracted public notice with his analysis of the massacre of civilians by communist forces in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

[3] A student in my summer 1998 graduate seminar on the history of the Vietnam War at Ohio State University did a literature search for reviews of Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place in the standard scholarly journals, e.g. American Historical Review and Journal of American History, and came up with remarkably few reviews—from memory no more than half a dozen—and those were tepid.

[4] Peter Dunn, First Vietnam War, 412. The officer was almost certainly Major Dan Phelan of the China-based 14th Air Force AGAS (Air Ground Aid Service) who worked with Charles Fenn, the OSS agent responsible for arranging OSS support for Ho and the Vietminh. See also Dixee BartholomewFeis, The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan, 220221, photos from the National Archives, Green Belt, Maryland, of the arrival in August 1945 of the first armed Vietminh in Hanoi. Vietminh in the photos whose weapons can be identified are armed with French 7.5 mm rifles, specifically the Mousqueton d’Artillerie Modèle 1892 and the Fusil des Tirallieurs Indo-Chinois Modèle 1902. The one soldier with an automatic weapon is carrying a Chateralleault Fusil Mitrailleur; Ian Hogg and John Weeks, Military Small Arms of the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 1973), 3.053.06; Hogg and Weeks, The Encyclopedia of Infantry Weapons of World War II (New York, 1977), 101.

[5] Archimedes Patti, Why Viet Nam? 16667, Dunn, First Vietnam War, 17.

[6] James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi, Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War (New York, 1999), 3839, cited in James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson, Airpower In Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists (Lawrence, Kansas: 2003), 43.

[7] See Sophie Quinn-Judge, Ho Chi Minh: the Missing Years, 1919-1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Based on extensive research in Soviet and French Archives including files of the Comintern and Sûreté, Quinn-Judge thoroughly documents Ho’s ideological background and proclivities.

[8] Fall, Two Viet Nams, 155. A case can be made for class differences among the Vietnamese peasantry in the south, where a small class of relatively well-to-do landlords and a large body of landless peasants existed, but that was most assuredly not the case in the north where the vast majority of peasants—Fall says 98%—owned the land they worked.

[9] Le Duan’s role as a power behind the scenes and exponent of a hard line on the war in the South was long suspected, but not the extent to which he became effective dictator. Lien-Hang Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (2012).

[10] These were a major failed offensive in the south in August 1950, the destruction of French forces along the Chinese border in October 1950; the failed attempt to break into the Red River Delta in January-June 1951; and the 1952-1953 Winter-Spring offensive into Laos. To this we can add the conventional response to the November 1951-February 1952 French Hoa Binh offensive in the north.

[11] The October-November 1965 Pleiku Campaign, chronicled in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s, We Were Soldiers Once and Young and in the Mel Gibson move We Were Soldiers Once culminated in American defensive victory at LZ X-Ray and defeat at LZ Albany (not addressed in the Gibson movie). The campaign’s outcome was equivocal in that both the US and North Vietnamese abandoned overtly aggressive orientations in its aftermath.

[12] We do not ordinarily think of American military commanders as prone to accept heavy casualties, but it is a matter of record. In World War II American commanders were routinely willing to accept casualties that their British colleagues considered unacceptable. The same contrast applied to American and Australian forces in Vietnam.

[13] John F. Guilmartin, “Casualties”, Stanley I. Kutler, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (New York, 1996), 103-105.

[14] George J. Veith and Merle Pribbenow, “‘Fighting Is an Art”: The Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s Defense of Xuan Loc, 9-21 April 1975”, Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 1 (January 2004), 163-213.

[15] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York, 1989), 134-35.

[16] (Merle L. Pribbenow, tr. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas), originally published in Vietnamese as History of the People’s Army of Vietnam (Hanoi, Vietnamese Ministry of Defense Military History Institute).

[17] Victory in Vietnam, 52-54, 168-69, 225-26, 242 and 261-68.

[18] New York Times, December 25 and 27, 1966, quoted in Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 45.

[19] Robert Manne, Agent of Influence: The Life and Times of Wilfred Burchett, Mackinzie Paper No. 13 (Toronto, 1989), 48-50. Burchett was involved in exploiting American POWs in communist hands in Korea and Vietnam and played a major role in actress Jane Fonda’s notorious 1972 visit to North Vietnam.

[20] Paraphrased in Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 123.

[21] Uwe Siemon-Netto, Duc: A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (July 10, 2013), 211-13.

[22] The Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, 2 vols. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1977).

[23] See Donald M. Bishop’ review of The Big Story, “The Press and the TET Offensive: A Flawed Institution Under Stress”, Air University Review (November-December 1978).

[24] Quoted in Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 47.

[25] Quoted in Philip Davidson, Vietnam at War, The History, 1945-1975 (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1988), 486.

[26] Speaking only minimal Thai and reading it not at all, I was kept informed by Captain Daniel Jacobowitz, USAF, and his wife Saifon, a native Thai speaker.