1 hour ago – The fourth installment in a planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is vintage Robert Caro: enormously detailed, personality driven, …
Newly released records show that L.B.J., for all his political canniness and cunning, never managed U.S. foreign policy well-even excluding the Vietnam War.
Johnson in front of Junction Elementary School, which he attended as a child. Click here to see a photo gallery of his journey to the White House.
The fourth installment in a planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson is vintage Robert Caro: enormously detailed, personality driven, power obsessed. The book begins with Johnson riding high as majority leader in the U.S. Senate during the 1950s, then follows him as he crashes to earth as vice president, shorn of power and, in power’s absence, self-respect. Caro lingers on every embarrassment of the vice presidency, a period of humiliation for Johnson that ended only when President John F. Kennedy was killed and Johnson ascended to the Oval Office.
Readers who have followed Caro’s work, beginning with The Power Broker, his biography of the grandiose New York City urban planner Robert Moses, have been repeatedly reminded that power is his primary concern. For Caro, Johnson is thus the perfect subject: a man whose entire life was devoted to the pursuit of power. Yet Caro has always been rather vague about what, exactly, power is. He is more concerned with what power does than with what it is. “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals,” Caro writes. He uses Johnson’s power as a searchlight to explore the recesses of his subject’s character; he is after Johnson the man more than Johnson the leader. And because he is more interested in what power does than in what power is, he is also more interested in what power does to Johnson than in what Johnson does with power.
“A tall, gangling youth, humiliated and ridiculed during an impoverished boyhood in a tiny, isolated Texas Hill Country town,” as Caro describes him in the biography’s second volume, Johnson began his climb in college, shamelessly cultivating relationships with anyone who could help him get ahead. After graduating, he entered politics, working in Texas state government and ultimately winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937. Throughout his ascent, Johnson demonstrated an uncanny ability to accrue ever more influence and, as Caro writes, “an utter ruthlessness in destroying obstacles in that path, and a seemingly bottomless capacity for deceit, deception and betrayal.” In a fraud-filled election in 1948, Johnson won a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he later became majority leader and revealed what Caro terms “a genius for manipulation and domination for the sake of his ambition, and for power for its own sake.”
In Caro’s telling, power’s most consistent purpose for Johnson was to assuage his youthful hurt, to fill an empty place in his soul. In truth, Johnson exaggerated his childhood deprivations; he had never been as poor as he liked to let on. But whether merited or not, his sense of his own suffering inspired in him a strong compassion for others that coexisted with his more venal qualities — and represented another purpose for his power. In the Senate, Caro writes, Johnson “displayed a capacity for achievement on behalf of the dispossessed.” These dual purposes — Caro uses the image of two threads, one dark and one bright — drew Johnson forward. The dark thread informed Johnson’s siding with southern segregationists until the late 1950s, when the bright thread emerged during the contest for the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The fight for that measure fills 500 pages of Caro’s third volume, and it shows Johnson at the peak of his legislative skills: wheedling, promising, threatening, cajoling. (“The Great Cause” is what Caro titled that section of the third volume, and the cause was indeed great. But one has to ask whether the result — a voting rights law so toothless that it barely increased black participation in southern politics — warrants all the attention.)
In the most recent volume, Caro weaves the dark and bright threads tightly together. The dark Johnson bemoans his emasculation as vice president, longing for the power that will restore his self-esteem. The bright Johnson emerges from Kennedy’s shadow ready to act on behalf of those who need his help. In one scene, Johnson huddles with advisers just days after Kennedy’s death. He is going to give a speech, and he wants to emphasize civil rights. The advisers explain how stubborn the resistance to civil rights is and how Johnson might break his presidency trying to win a hopeless battle. “Well,” Johnson replies, “what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Presumably, readers will learn Caro’s answer to that question in the fifth and final volume. But given the frequent foreshadowing in the first four volumes, it is reasonable to guess that the bright thread will produce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and certain measures of the Great Society, starting with Medicare. The dark thread will lead Johnson into Vietnam, with dire results for the country and for Johnson’s presidency. And the two threads together will continue to define Johnson’s character.
MAKE THEM WANT WHAT YOU WANT
Caro’s belief in the revelatory potential of power is a perfectly appropriate viewpoint for a biographer. Caro is not a political scientist, and the fact that his work does not fully address the nature of power is not necessarily a flaw. Yet one of the most fascinating aspects of Johnson’s presidency was the way in which it displayed quite clearly what power is, what it can accomplish, and what it cannot.
In domestic politics, presidents rarely wield independent power; what they wield, if they are effective, is influence. Power is the capacity to make people do what they don’t want to do; influence is the ability to make them want what you want, at least temporarily. Johnson did the latter, at times too well. Much of the Great Society legislation, for example, now seems to embody the sort of hubris that gave liberalism a bad name, and its overreach paved the way for the Reagan counterrevolution of the 1980s. But two aspects of the Great Society — civil rights reform and Medicare — have lasted, and they would have been much slower in coming without Johnson’s remarkable persuasiveness. The first president elected from the old Confederacy since the Civil War, Johnson shamed his fellow southerners into accepting that the days of segregation had passed. On Medicare, Johnson beat back complaints that it was socialistic and lined up interest groups that had a stake in the single-payer program.
In international affairs, presidents do exercise power, preeminently in their capacity as commander in chief. To have at one’s disposal the most formidable military in world history, with the potential to annihilate a large part of the human race, is to wield power greater than that possessed by any emperor, tsar, or dictator. And yet the most striking characteristic of U.S foreign relations during the Johnson years was the diminishing efficacy of American power.
As Caro makes clear, principally by omission, Johnson’s quest for power had nothing to do with foreign policy; his passions and instincts were wholly domestic. This is odd for a man who revered President Franklin Roosevelt, in that Roosevelt’s greatest contribution to the institutional power of the presidency was not the New Deal but the postwar international order he guided into existence and the agencies and bureaus he and Congress established to direct it. After 1945, every president was, whether he liked it or not, the most important single figure in world affairs. Johnson understood this at a rational level, but he didn’t act on it, and he entered the White House woefully unprepared to lead the U.S. alliance system.
During the 1960s, that system was in special need of creative leadership. Johnson inherited a daunting portfolio of U.S. commitments to Cold War allies in every region of the world and to international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. No one had designed this new international system whole; it grew by accretion. But its foundational premise was that U.S. resources were effectively infinite: that Washington would appropriate whatever was necessary to meet the country’s commitments and that the U.S. economy could deliver what the government appropriated. Presidents occasionally worried about overcommitment; Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look” emphasis on nuclear weapons over conventional arms was intended to contain defense spending lest it unduly burden the economy. But Eisenhower lost his battle with the Pentagon, and military spending continued to rise.
By the time Johnson became president, the country’s commitments were greater than ever and still growing. South Vietnam was a resource sinkhole that got deeper and wider by the month. Israel was becoming an ally in all but name. The weapons judged necessary to maintain the credibility of the United States’ treaty promises were growing ever more expensive. At the same time, the United States’ share of the world economy was shrinking.
Every generation gains its impressions of the world at a formative age. In private life, this typically occurs in childhood. In public life, it happens in early adulthood. Johnson’s generation came of age in the 1940s, when the United States dominated the global economy as no country ever had before (or would after). In 1945, the United States’ industrial output roughly matched that of the rest of the world combined. This heady position owed much to the prowess and ingenuity of American industrialists and workers in constructing the most powerful economic engine in world history. But it owed equally to the efficiency of U.S. soldiers (and of the soldiers of the United States’ wartime allies) in destroying the industrial plants of the Axis countries. Power is always comparative, and American power at the end of World War II was so commanding because the United States’ potential competitors were so weak. Germany and Japan were devastated; France, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were exhausted.
Such an anomalous condition couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Germany and Japan recovered to become direct economic competitors to the United States. The Soviet Union competed militarily — and hence economically, in an indirect manner, by prompting Washington to devote resources to defense that might have been employed otherwise. By the 1960s, the United States had to work harder and harder simply to keep from sliding backward.
POWERFUL, NOT OMNIPOTENT
That was the world Johnson inherited on Kennedy’s assassination. It was a world he largely ignored during the transition period described in the final portion of Caro’s latest volume, which concludes with Johnson’s State of the Union address in January 1964. Yet through Vietnam, the world soon forced itself on his attention, ultimately derailed his domestic plans, and, in effect, ended his presidency.
That Vietnam is Johnson’s main foreign policy legacy is all the more unfortunate because he proved, on the whole, an able custodian of the American-made international order. He failed as commander in chief; the Vietnam War was a debacle for which he bore primary responsibility. Yet in the grand scheme of world affairs, Vietnam turned out to be a sideshow: a tragic one, disrupting and prematurely ending many thousands of lives, but a sideshow nonetheless. The United States lost the war, but defeat produced none of the terrible global or even regional consequences Americans had fought to avert. American power had proved unavailing, but the world, after a moment of silence, yawned.
Johnson fared much better elsewhere, responding to an anti-American rebellion in the Dominican Republic in 1965, a war between India and Pakistan that same year, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in ways that affirmed the credibility of U.S. power without provoking the Soviets into testing it head-on. Perhaps the greatest challenge to Johnson’s international leadership came from within the heart of the Western alliance. Charles de Gaulle had chafed at the dominant role of the United States in Europe since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. After becoming president of France a decade later, he began to look for ways to knock the United States down a few notches. In 1966, he announced that France would withdraw its armed forces from NATO’s unified command. As a result, NATO would have to remove its headquarters from Paris, and all foreign troops, particularly U.S. ones, would be forced to evacuate the country.
Johnson’s top advisers urged him to strike back at the French president. “De Gaulle is trying to gut us,” warned Walt Rostow, his national security adviser. Secretary of State Dean Rusk drafted a strongly worded speech for Johnson condemning the French move as jeopardizing Western unity and defense. But Johnson refused to take de Gaulle’s bait. “When a man asks you to leave his house, you don’t argue,” he said. “You get your hat and go.” Johnson understood that de Gaulle was within his legal rights in asserting French sovereignty. More to the point, he appreciated that de Gaulle’s move was mostly political theater. The United States remained as vital to France’s security as ever. Should a war with the Soviet bloc break out, Johnson’s military advisers assured him, the French would quickly recoordinate with NATO.
In fact, they never uncoordinated. Johnson’s public patience with de Gaulle spared other NATO members from having to choose sides, and it allowed French military officials, through a series of quiet agreements with their U.S. counterparts, to continue to plan jointly with NATO. The Atlantic alliance outlived de Gaulle, Johnson, and finally the Soviet Union, which had been the aim all along.
Johnson’s several successes in foreign policy and his one big failure point to two conclusions. The first is that military power can easily be overrated. U.S. leaders, including Johnson, deployed massive military force in Vietnam to no avail. The second conclusion, a corollary to the first, is that diplomacy often works better than force. The immediate rejoinder to this is that the threat of force is what gives diplomacy its bite. But Johnson’s experience shows that this is not always the case. When India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, both sides fought with weapons provided by the United States, a shared dependency that ultimately allowed Johnson to force the two sides into a cease-fire. But neither country worried that the United States would actually use its military force to prevent it from going to war or to stop the fighting. Likewise, U.S. diplomacy was an important factor in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but the specter of U.S. military force had no effect on Arab or Israeli thinking during the conflict. And if U.S. military power moved de Gaulle, it was merely to provoke him to take destabilizing actions.
Americans like to think of their country as the most powerful in the world, and so it has been for three-quarters of a century. But being the most powerful is a far cry from being omnipotent. Johnson discovered this in the 1960s and made the best of it — which, on balance, was surprisingly good. Compared to then, the United States today is even less powerful relative to the rest of the world, which makes Johnson’s lesson all the more pertinent.
The Rise and Fall of American Imperialism
All wars are bad. We do enter a war. B war. C war ad infinitum.
Americans were blamed for not entering forign wars at one time. Why bother with some or other regional problems, I say.
Not for the Military-Industrial combine of America. For them, making arms, deadly arms, super secret and double-deadly arms is just a business. Such criminal forces put pressure on elected representatives, Congress, Senate and their State cousins for a foreign policy, specially tailored for this criminal cartel, so that they remain pink, Oops, Green, dollar-green.
Vitnam war was as crazy as a Korea war. Korean war did not change anything radically. North Korea is, still, a thorn in the side of Uncle Sam. Luckily, Vitnam is glad that they are free and willing to pick and choose their friends, allies and business partners.
America’s excesses in Vietnam are well documented, Agent Orange created a massive destruction of Vietnam jungles. Vietnam was bombed out of land. They called it carpet bombing. Inhuman war over what? Chinese communists controlling Vietnam?
Cold war with USSR, China lasted decades. America has newer and deadlier chemical weapons, automatically controlled pilotless Drones. America has a tried and trusted method of supporting the dissidents of a chosen country. CIA never stopped assassinations. Pentagon has gone wild and woolly over future war over Iran‘s nuclear research.
When will all this irresponsible carnage of the innocent humans going to stop?
…and I am Sid Harth@gosumercogito.blogspot.com
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|Part of the Cold War and the Indochina Wars|
A Bell UH-1D helicopter piloted by Major Bruce P. Crandall climbs skyward after discharging a load of U.S. infantrymen on a search and destroy mission
|Anti-Communist forces: Republic of Vietnam
Republic of Korea
Kingdom of LaosSupported by:
Republic of China
|Communist forces: Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Pathet LaoSupported by:
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
People’s Republic of China (to 1968)
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Republic of Cuba
|Commanders and leaders|
| Ngô Đình Diệm
Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Nguyễn Cao Kỳ
Cao Văn Viên
Lyndon B. Johnson
| Hồ Chí Minh
Võ Nguyên Giáp
Hoàng Văn Thái
Văn Tiến Dũng
Trần Văn Trà
Nguyễn Văn Linh
Nguyễn Hữu Thọ
Republic of Vietnam: 850,000
United States of America: 536,100
Free World Military Forces: 65,000
Republic of Korea: 50,000
Commonwealth of Australia: 7,672
Kingdom of Thailand, Philippines: 10,450
New Zealand: 552
Democratic Republic of Vietnam: 287,465 (January 1968)
People’s Republic of China: 170,000 (1969)
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: 3,000
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: 300–600
|Casualties and losses|
| Republic of Vietnam
361,000-2,000,000 civilian dead; military dead: 220,357 (lowest est.) – 316,000 dead (highest est.); 1,170,000 wounded
58,220 dead;[A 2] 303,644 wounded[A 2]
Republic of Korea
5,099 dead; 10,962 wounded; 4 missing
Commonwealth of Australia
521 dead; 3,000 wounded
37 dead; 187 wounded
Kingdom of Thailand
Kingdom of Laos
30,000 killed, wounded unknownTotal dead: 426,228 – 2,381,228 (2,000,000 South civilians)
Total wounded: ~1,490,000+
| North Vietnam & NLF
50,000-2,000,000 civilian dead;
1,176,000 military dead or missing; 600,000+ wounded
People’s Republic of China
1,446 dead; 4,200 wounded
Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
16 deadTotal dead: 1,227,452-3,177,462 (50,000–2,000,000 North civilians)
Military dead: ~1,177,462 )
Total wounded: ~604,200+
|Vietnamese civilian dead: 411,000 – 4,000,000
Cambodian civilian dead: 200,000 – 300,000*
Laotian civilian dead: ~20,000 – 200,000*
Total civilian dead: – 631,000 – 4,500,000
Total dead: – 1,653,740 – 5,558,690* indicates approximations, see Casualties below
For more information see Vietnam War casualties
The Vietnam War[A 3] was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955[A 1] to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries. The Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a lightly armed South Vietnamese communist-controlled common front, largely fought a guerrilla war against anti-communist forces in the region. The Vietnam People’s Army (North Vietnamese Army) engaged in a more conventional war, at times committing large units into battle. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search and destroy operations, involving ground forces, artillery, and airstrikes.
The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment. The North Vietnamese government and Viet Cong viewed the conflict as a colonial war, fought initially against France, backed by the U.S., and later against South Vietnam, which it regarded as a U.S. puppet state. American military advisors arrived in what was then French Indochina beginning in 1950. U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with troop levels tripling in 1961 and tripling again in 1962. U.S. combat units were deployed beginning in 1965. Operations spanned international borders, with Laos and Cambodia heavily bombed. American involvement in the war peaked in 1968, at the time of the Tet Offensive. After this, U.S. ground forces were gradually withdrawn as part of a policy known as Vietnamization. Despite the Paris Peace Accords, signed by all parties in January 1973, fighting continued.
U.S. military involvement ended on 15 August 1973 as a result of the Case–Church Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress. The capture of Saigon by the Vietnam People’s Army in April 1975 marked the end of the war, and North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year. The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities (see Vietnam War casualties). Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from less than one million to more than five million. Some 200,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–200,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict.[A 2]
Names for the War
Various names have been applied to the conflict. Vietnam War is the most commonly used name in English. It has also been called the Second Indochina War, and the Vietnam Conflict.
As there have been so many conflicts in Indochina, this conflict is known by the name of their chief opponent to distinguish it from the others. Thus, in Vietnamese, the war is known as Chiến tranh Việt Nam (The Vietnam War), or as Kháng chiến chống Mỹ (Resistance War Against America), loosely translated as the American War.
The main military organizations involved in the war were, on one side, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the U.S. military, and, on the other side, the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) (also known as the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA), and the Viet Cong, or National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), a South Vietnamese communist guerrilla force.
Background to 1949
France began its conquest of Indochina in the late 1850s, and completed pacification by 1893. The Treaty of Huế, concluded in 1884, formed the basis for French colonial rule in Vietnam for the next seven decades. In spite of military resistance, most notably by the Can Vuong of Phan Dinh Phung, by 1888 the area of the current-day nations of Cambodia and Vietnam was made into the colony of French Indochina (Laos was added later). Various Vietnamese opposition movements to French rule existed during this period, such as the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang who staged the failed Yen Bai mutiny in 1930, but none were ultimately as successful as the Viet Minh common front, which was founded in 1941, controlled by the Indochinese Communist Party, and funded by the U.S. and the Chinese Nationalist Party in its fight against Japanese occupation.[A 4]
During World War II, the French were defeated by the Germans in 1940. For French Indochina, this meant that the colonial authorities became Vichy French, allies of the German-Italian Axis powers. In turn this meant that the French collaborated with the Japanese forces after their invasion of French Indochina during 1940. The French continued to run affairs in the colony, but ultimate power resided in the hands of the Japanese.
The Viet Minh was founded as a league for independence from France, but also opposed Japanese occupation in 1945 for the same reason. The U.S. and Chinese Nationalist Party supported them in the fight against the Japanese. However, they did not have enough power to fight actual battles at first. Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh was suspected of being a communist and jailed for a year by the Chinese Nationalist Party.
Double occupation by France and Japan continued until the German forces were expelled from France and the French Indochina colonial authorities started holding secret talks with the Free French. Fearing that they could no longer trust the French authorities, the Japanese army interned them all on 9 March 1945 and assumed direct control themselves through their puppet state, the Empire of Vietnam, under Bảo Đại.
During 1944–1945, a deep famine struck northern Vietnam due to a combination of bad weather and French/Japanese exploitation. 1 million people died of starvation (out of a population of 10 million in the affected area). Exploiting the administrative gap that the internment of the French had created, the Viet Minh in March 1945 urged the population to ransack rice warehouses and refuse to pay their taxes. Between 75 and 100 warehouses were consequently raided. This rebellion against the effects of the famine and the authorities that were partially responsible for it bolstered the Viet Minh’s popularity and they recruited many members during this period.
In August 1945, the Japanese had been defeated and surrendered unconditionally. In French Indochina this created a power vacuum, as the French were still interned and the Japanese forces stood down. The Viet Minh stepped into this vacuum and grasped power across Vietnam in the August Revolution, largely supported by the Vietnamese population. After their defeat in the war, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) gave weapons to the Vietnamese, and kept Vichy French officials and military officers imprisoned for a month after the surrender. The Việt Minh had recruited more than 600 Japanese soldiers and given them roles to train or command Vietnamese soldiers.
Ho Chi Minh declared the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam before a crowd of 500,000 in Hanoi on 2 September 1945. In an overture to the Americans, he began his speech by paraphrasing the United States Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness.
However, the major allied victors of World War II, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, all agreed the area belonged to the French. As the French did not have the ships, weapons, or soldiers to immediately retake Vietnam, the major powers came to an agreement that British troops would occupy the south while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the north. Nationalist Chinese troops entered the country to disarm Japanese troops north of the 16th parallel on 14 September 1945. When the British landed in the south, they rearmed the interned French forces as well as parts of the surrendered Japanese forces to aid them in retaking southern Vietnam, as they did not have enough troops to do this themselves.
Following the party line from Moscow, Ho Chi Minh initially attempted to negotiate with the French, who were slowly re-establishing their control across the country. In January 1946, the Viet Minh won elections across central and northern Vietnam. On 6 March 1946, Ho signed an agreement allowing French forces to replace Nationalist Chinese forces, in exchange for French recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a “free” republic within the French Union, with the specifics of such recognition to be determined by future negotiation. The French landed in Hanoi by March 1946 and in November of that year they ousted the Viet Minh from the city. British forces departed on 26 March 1946, leaving Vietnam in the hands of the French. Soon thereafter, the Viet Minh began a guerrilla war against the French Union forces, beginning the First Indochina War.
The war spread to Laos and Cambodia, where Communists organized the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Serei, both of which were modeled on the Viet Minh. Globally, the Cold War began in earnest, which meant that the rapprochement that existed between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during World War II disintegrated. The Viet Minh fight was hampered by a lack of weapons; this situation changed by 1949 when the Chinese Communists had largely won the Chinese Civil War and were free to provide arms to their Vietnamese allies.
Exit of the French, 1950–1954
In January 1950, the communist nations, led by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), recognized the Viet Minh‘s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi, as the government of Vietnam, while non-communist nations recognized the French-backed State of Vietnam in Saigon, led by former Emperor Bảo Đại, as the Vietnamese government the following month. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 convinced many Washington policymakers that the war in Indochina was an example of communist expansionism directed by the Kremlin.
PRC military advisors began assisting the Viet Minh in July 1950. PRC weapons, expertise, and laborers transformed the Viet Minh from a guerrilla force into a regular army. In September 1950, the United States created a Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) to screen French requests for aid, advise on strategy, and train Vietnamese soldiers. By 1954, the United States had supplied 300,000 small arms and spent US$1 billion in support of the French military effort, shouldering 80 percent of the cost of the war.
There were also talks between the French and Americans in which the possible use of three tactical nuclear weapons was considered, though reports of how seriously this was considered and by whom are even now vague and contradictory. One version of the plan for the proposed Operation Vulture envisioned sending 60 B-29s from U.S. bases in the region, supported by as many as 150 fighters launched from U.S. Seventh Fleet carriers, to bomb Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap‘s positions. The plan included an option to use up to three atomic weapons on the Viet Minh positions. Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave this nuclear option his backing. U.S. B-29s, B-36s, and B-47s could have executed a nuclear strike, as could carrier aircraft from the Seventh Fleet.
U.S. carriers sailed to the Gulf of Tonkin, and reconnaissance flights over Dien Bien Phu were conducted during the negotiations. According to U.S. Vice-President Richard Nixon, the plan involved the Joint Chiefs of Staff drawing up plans to use three small tactical nuclear weapons in support of the French. Nixon, a so-called “hawk” on Vietnam, suggested that the United States might have to “put American boys in”. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower made American participation contingent on British support, but London was opposed to such a venture. In the end, convinced that the political risks outweighed the possible benefits, Eisenhower decided against the intervention. As an experienced five-star general, Eisenhower was very wary of getting the United States involved in a land war in Asia.
The Viet Minh received crucial support from the Soviet Union and PRC. PRC support in the Border Campaign of 1950 allowed supplies to come from the PRC into Vietnam. Throughout the conflict, U.S. intelligence estimates remained skeptical of French chances of success.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French involvement in Indochina. Giap’s Viet Minh forces handed the French a stunning military defeat, and on 7 May 1954, the French Union garrison surrendered. Of the 12,000 French prisoners taken by the Viet Minh, only 3,000 survived. At the Geneva Conference, the French negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Viet Minh, and independence was granted to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th parallel, and under the terms of the Geneva Accords, civilians were to be given the opportunity to move freely between the two provisional states for a 300-day period. Elections throughout the country were to be held in 1956 to establish a unified government. Around one million northerners, mainly minority Catholics, fled south, fearing persecution by the communists following an American propaganda campaign using slogans such as “The Virgin Mary is heading south”, and aided by a U.S. funded $93 million relocation program, which included ferrying refugees with the Seventh Fleet. It is estimated that as many as two million more would have left had they not been stopped by the Viet Minh. The northern, mainly Catholic refugees were meant to give the later Ngô Đình Diệm regime a strong anti-communist constituency. Diem later went on to staff his administration’s key posts mostly with northern and central Catholics.
In addition to the Catholics flowing south, up to 130,000 “Revolutionary Regroupees” went to the north for “regroupment,” expecting to return to the south within two years. The Viet Minh left roughly 5,000 to 10,000 cadres in the south as a “politico-military substructure within the object of its irredentism.” The last French soldiers were to leave Vietnam in April 1956. The PRC completed its withdrawal from North Vietnam at around the same time. Around 52,000 Vietnamese civilians moved from south to north.
In the north, the Viet Minh ruled as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and engaged in a drastic land reform program in which more than 100,000 perceived “class enemies” were executed. In 1956, leaders in Hanoi admitted to “excesses” in implementing this program and restored a large amount of the land to the original owners.
The south, meanwhile, constituted the State of Vietnam, with Bảo Đại as Emperor and Ngô Đình Diệm (appointed in July 1954) as his prime minister. In June 1955, Diem announced that the scheduled 1956 elections would not be held, claiming South Vietnam had rejected the Geneva Accords from the beginning and was therefore not bound by them. “How can we expect ‘free elections’ to be held in the Communist North?” he asked. President Eisenhower echoed senior U.S. experts when he wrote that, in 1954, “80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh” over Emperor Bảo Đại.
From April to June 1955, Diem (against U.S. advice) eliminated any political opposition in the south by launching military operations against the Cao Dai religious sect, the Hoa Hao sect of Ba Cut, and the Binh Xuyen organized crime group (which was allied with members of the secret police and some military elements). As broad-based opposition to his harsh tactics mounted, Diem increasingly sought to blame the communists.
In a referendum on the future of the State of Vietnam on 23 October 1955, Diem rigged the poll supervised by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and was credited with 98.2 percent of the vote, including 133% in Saigon. His American advisers had recommended a more modest winning margin of “60 to 70 percent.” Diem, however, viewed the election as a test of authority. Three days later, he declared South Vietnam to be an independent state known as the Republic of Vietnam (ROV), with himself as president.
The ROV was created largely because of the Eisenhower administration’s desire for an anti-communist state in the region. The domino theory, which argued that if one country fell to communism, then all of the surrounding countries would follow, was first proposed as policy by the Eisenhower administration. It was, and is still, commonly hypothesized that it applied to Vietnam. John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator, said in a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam: “Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.”
Diem era, 1955–1963
A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was fervently anti-communist, nationalist, and socially conservative. Historian Luu Doan Huynh notes that “Diem represented narrow and extremist nationalism coupled with autocracy and nepotism.” As he was a wealthy Catholic, many ordinary Vietnamese viewed Diem as part of the elite who had helped the French rule Vietnam; Diem had been interior minister in the colonial government. The majority of Vietnamese people were Buddhist, and were alarmed by actions such as Diem’s dedication of the country to the Virgin Mary.
Beginning in the summer of 1955, Diem launched the “Denounce the Communists” campaign, during which communists and other anti-government elements were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, or executed. He instituted the death penalty against any activity deemed communist in August 1956. The regime branded its opponents Viet Cong (“Vietnamese communist”) to degrade their nationalist credentials. As a measure of the level of political repression, about 12,000 suspected opponents of Diem were killed between 1955 and 1957 and by the end of 1958 an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed.
In May 1957, Diem undertook a ten-day state visit to the United States. President Eisenhower pledged his continued support, and a parade was held in Diem’s honor in New York City. Although Diem was publicly praised, in private Secretary of State John Foster Dulles conceded that Diem had been selected because there were no better alternatives.
Future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote that the new American patrons of the ROV were almost completely ignorant of Vietnamese culture. They knew little of the language or long history of the country. There was a tendency to assign American motives to Vietnamese actions, and Diem warned that it was an illusion to believe that blindly copying Western methods would solve Vietnamese problems.
Insurgency in the South, 1954–1960
President Eisenhower noted that had the Geneva Accords been held, “possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for Communist Ho Chi Minh” and the government quickly became more repressive and unpopular. The Diem government had largely failed in implementing a land reform program for the peasants of South Vietnam (90% of the population) which along with “Peace, security, freedom, [and] their standard of living” was the peasants’ prime concern according to specialist Philippe Devillers. Among the changes the government altered the tenant structure to competitive bidding which led to more tenant insecurity. Only 10% of the tenants benefited from the program and were oftentimes northerners, refugees, or Catholics which created more animosity among the Vietnamese. In 1959 the program became inoperative and by 1960, only 2% of the landowners owned 45% of the land.
The South government used widespread repression, between 1954 and 1960 it captured 50,000 prisoners and had put them into “political reeducation camps” as part of the Denunciation of Communists Campaign. In 1959 British specialist PJ Honey was invited to examine the camps and concluded after interviewing rural Vietnamese that “the consensus of the opinion expressed by these peoples is that…the majority of the detainees are neither communists nor pro-communists.”
According to the Pentagon Papers the prisons were “little more than concentration camps for potential foes of the government” and used torture regardless of whether they were communist or not. The Diem government had also abolished elections for village councils out of fear of large amounts of Viet Minh candidates winning and replaced administrative village autonomy with government officials.
This had an effect, between 1954 and 1957 there was large scale random dissidence in the countryside which the Diem government managed to successfully quell. In early 1957 South Vietnam had its first peace in over a decade. However, by mid-1957 through 1959 incidents of violence increased but the government “did not construe it as a campaign, considering the disorders too diffuse to warrant committing major GVN resources.” By Early 1959 however, Diem had considered it a campaign and implemented Law 10/59, which made political violence punishable by death and property confiscation. There had been some division among former Viet Minh whose main goal was to hold the elections promised in the Geneva Accords, leading to “wildcat” activities separate from the other communists and anti-GVN activists.
In December 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was formally created consisting of all anti-GVN activists and included non-communists. According to the Pentagon Papers, the NLF “placed heavy emphasis on the withdrawal of American advisors and influence, on land reform and liberalization of the GVN, on coalition government and the neutralization of Vietnam.” Often the leaders of the organization were kept secret.
North Vietnam interference?
Very little evidence points to organization or interference on the part of North Vietnam. As the Pentagon Papers point out, “No direct links have been established between Hanoi and perpetrators of rural violence.” As Kahin and Lewis point out:
Contrary to United States policy assumptions, all available evidence shows that the revival of the civil war in the South in 1958 was undertaken by Southerners at their own—not Hanoi’s—initiative…Insurgency activity against the Saigon government began in the South under Southern leadership not as a consequence of any dictate from Hanoi, but contrary to Hanoi’s injunctions.
Similarly, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. states that “it was not until September, 1960 that the Communist Party of North Vietnam bestowed its formal blessing and called for the liberation of the south from American imperialism”.
During John F. Kennedy’s administration, 1961–1963
In the 1960 U.S. presidential election, Senator John F. Kennedy defeated Vice-President Richard Nixon. Although Eisenhower warned Kennedy about Laos and Vietnam, Europe and Latin America “loomed larger than Asia on his sights.” In his inaugural address, Kennedy made the ambitious pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” In June 1961, he bitterly disagreed with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev when they met in Vienna to discuss key U.S.-Soviet issues.
The Kennedy administration remained essentially committed to the Cold War foreign policy inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. In 1961, the U.S. had 50,000 troops based in Korea, and Kennedy faced a three-part crisis – the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and a negotiated settlement between the pro-Western government of Laos and the Pathet Lao communist movement. These made Kennedy believe that another failure on the part of the United States to gain control and stop communist expansion would fatally damage U.S. credibility with its allies and his own reputation. Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” and prevent a communist victory in Vietnam. He told James Reston of The New York Times immediately after his Vienna meeting with Khrushchev, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”
In May 1961, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and enthusiastically declared Diem the “Winston Churchill of Asia.” Asked why he had made the comment, Johnson replied, “Diem’s the only boy we got out there.” Johnson assured Diem of more aid in molding a fighting force that could resist the communists.
Kennedy’s policy toward South Vietnam rested on the assumption that Diem and his forces must ultimately defeat the guerrillas on their own. He was against the deployment of American combat troops and observed that “to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.” The quality of the South Vietnamese military, however, remained poor. Bad leadership, corruption, and political promotions all played a part in emasculating the ARVN. The frequency of guerrilla attacks rose as the insurgency gathered steam. While Hanoi’s support for the NLF played a role, South Vietnamese governmental incompetence was at the core of the crisis.
One major issue Kennedy raised was whether the Soviet space and missile programs had surpassed those of the United States. Although Kennedy stressed long-range missile parity with the Soviets, he was also interested in using special forces for counterinsurgency warfare in Third World countries threatened by communist insurgencies. Although they were originally intended for use behind front lines after a conventional invasion of Europe, Kennedy believed that the guerrilla tactics employed by special forces such as the Green Berets would be effective in a “brush fire” war in Vietnam.
Kennedy advisers Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended that U.S. troops be sent to South Vietnam disguised as flood relief workers. Kennedy rejected the idea but increased military assistance yet again. In April 1962, John Kenneth Galbraith warned Kennedy of the “danger we shall replace the French as a colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” By 1963, there were 16,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam, up from Eisenhower’s 900 advisors.
The Strategic Hamlet Program had been initiated in 1961. This joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program attempted to resettle the rural population into fortified camps. The aim was to isolate the population from the insurgents, provide education and health care, and strengthen the government’s hold over the countryside. The Strategic Hamlets, however, were quickly infiltrated by the guerrillas. The peasants resented being uprooted from their ancestral villages. In part, this was because Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a Diem favourite who was instrumental in running the program, was in fact a communist agent who used his Catholicism to gain influential posts and damage the ROV from the inside.
The government refused to undertake land reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords. Corruption dogged the program and intensified opposition.
On 23 July 1962, fourteen nations, including the People’s Republic of China, South Vietnam, the Soviet Union, North Vietnam and the United States, signed an agreement promising the neutrality of Laos.
Coup and assassinations
- See also: Kennedy’s role, 1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt, 1962 South Vietnamese Independence Palace bombing, Huế Phật Đản shootings and Xa Loi Pagoda raids
The inept performance of the South Vietnamese army was exemplified by failed actions such as the Battle of Ap Bac on 2 January 1963, in which a small band of Viet Cong beat off a much larger and better equipped South Vietnamese force, many of whose officers seemed reluctant even to engage in combat. The ARVN were led in that battle by Diem’s most trusted general, Huynh Van Cao, commander of the IV Corps. Cao was a Catholic who had been promoted due to religion and fidelity rather than skill, and his main job was to preserve his forces to stave off coups; he had earlier vomited during a communist attack. Some policymakers in Washington began to conclude that Diem was incapable of defeating the communists and might even make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. He seemed concerned only with fending off coups, and had become more paranoid after attempts in 1960 and 1962, which he partly attributed to U.S. encouragement. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, “Diem wouldn’t make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with…”
Discontent with Diem’s policies exploded following the Huế Phật Đản shootings of majority Buddhists who were protesting against the ban on the Buddhist flag on Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. This resulted in mass protests against discriminatory policies that gave privileges to the Catholic Church and its adherents. Diem’s elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the Archbishop of Huế and aggressively blurred the separation between church and state. Thuc’s anniversary celebrations shortly before Vesak had been bankrolled by the government and Vatican flags were displayed prominently. There had also been reports of Buddhist pagodas being demolished by Catholic paramilitaries throughout Diem’s rule. Diem refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take responsibility for the deaths. On 21 August 1963, the ARVN Special Forces of Colonel Le Quang Tung, loyal to Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, raided pagodas across Vietnam, causing widespread damage and destruction and leaving a death toll estimated to range into the hundreds.
U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change during the middle of 1963. The United States Department of State was generally in favor of encouraging a coup, while the Defense Department favored Diem. Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem’s younger brother Nhu, who controlled the secret police and special forces was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression and more generally the architect of the Ngo family’s rule. This proposal was conveyed to the U.S. embassy in Saigon in Cable 243.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was in contact with generals planning to remove Diem. They were told that the United States would not oppose such a move nor punish the generals by cutting off aid. President Diem was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on 2 November 1963. When he was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that Kennedy “rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face.” He had not approved Diem’s murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them. Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that “the prospects now are for a shorter war”.
Following the coup, chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and increased its support for the guerrillas. South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the Americans; whatever the failings of Diem, his credentials as a nationalist (as Robert McNamara later reflected) had been impeccable.
U.S military advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. They were, however, almost completely ignorant of the political nature of the insurgency. The insurgency was a political power struggle, in which military engagements were not the main goal. The Kennedy administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification and “winning over the hearts and minds” of the population. The military leadership in Washington, however, was hostile to any role for U.S. advisers other than conventional troop training. General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory by Christmas 1963. The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that “the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort”.
Paramilitary officers from the CIA’s Special Activities Division trained and led Hmong tribesmen in Laos and into Vietnam. The indigenous forces numbered in the tens of thousands and they conducted direct action missions, led by paramilitary officers, against the Communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese supporters. The CIA also ran the Phoenix Program and participation Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MAC-V SOG), which was originally named the Special Operations Group, but was changed for cover purposes.
Lyndon B. Johnson escalates the war, 1963–1969
Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), as he took over the presidency after the death of Kennedy, initially did not consider Vietnam a priority and was more concerned with his “Great Society” and progressive social programs. Presidential aide Jack Valenti recalls, “Vietnam at the time was no bigger than a man’s fist on the horizon. We hardly discussed it because it was not worth discussing.”
On 24 November 1963, Johnson said, “the battle against communism… must be joined… with strength and determination.” The pledge came at a time when Vietnam was deteriorating, especially in places like the Mekong Delta, because of the recent coup against Diem. Johnson had reversed Kennedy’s disengagement policy from Vietnam in withdrawing 1,000 troops by the end of 1963 (NSAM 263 on 11 October), with his own NSAM 273 (26 November) to expand the war.
The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members headed by General Duong Van Minh—whom Stanley Karnow, a journalist on the ground, later recalled as “a model of lethargy.” Lodge, frustrated by the end of the year, cabled home about Minh: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?” His regime was overthrown in January 1964 by General Nguyen Khanh. However, there was persistent instability in the military as several coups—not all successful—occurred in a short space of time.
On 2 August 1964, the USS Maddox, on an intelligence mission along North Vietnam’s coast, allegedly fired upon and damaged several torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was reported two days later on the USS Turner Joy and Maddox in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky. Lyndon Johnson commented to Undersecretary of State George Ball that “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish.”
The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes, prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 5 August 1964, signed by Johnson, and gave the President power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. Although Congressmen at the time denied that this was a full scale war declaration, the Tonkin Resolution allowed the President unilateral power to launch a full scale war if the President deemed necessary. In the same month, Johnson pledged that he was not “… committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land.”
An undated NSA publication declassified in 2005, however, revealed that there was no attack on 4 August. It had already been called into question long before this. “Gulf of Tonkin incident“, writes Louise Gerdes, “is an oft-cited example of the way in which Johnson misled the American people to gain support for his foreign policy in Vietnam.” George C. Herring argues, however, that McNamara and the Pentagon “did not knowingly lie about the alleged attacks, but they were obviously in a mood to retaliate and they seem to have selected from the evidence available to them those parts that confirmed what they wanted to believe.”
“From a strength of approximately 5,000 at the start of 1959 the Viet Cong’s ranks grew to about 100,000 at the end of 1964…Between 1961 and 1964 the Army’s strength rose from about 850,000 to nearly a million men.” The numbers for U.S. troops deployed to Vietnam during the same period were quite different; 2,000 in 1961, rising rapidly to 16,500 in 1964.
A Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, moves an alleged NLF activist to the rear during a search and clear operation held by the battalion 15 miles (24 km) west of Da Nang Air Base.
The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam. On 2 March 1965, following an attack on a U.S. Marine barracks at Pleiku, Operation Flaming Dart (initiated when Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin was at a state visit to North Vietnam), Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc Light commenced. The bombing campaign, which ultimately lasted three years, was intended to force North Vietnam to cease its support for the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) by threatening to destroy North Vietnam’s air defenses and industrial infrastructure. As well, it was aimed at bolstering the morale of the South Vietnamese. Between March 1965 and November 1968, “Rolling Thunder” deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs.
Bombing was not restricted to North Vietnam. Other aerial campaigns, such as Operation Commando Hunt, targeted different parts of the NLF and VPA infrastructure. These included the Ho Chi Minh trail, which ran through Laos and Cambodia. The objective of forcing North Vietnam to stop its support for the NLF, however, was never reached. As one officer noted “this is a political war and it calls for discriminate killing. The best weapon… would be a knife… The worst is an airplane.” The Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force Curtis LeMay, however, had long advocated saturation bombing in Vietnam and wrote of the Communists that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.
Escalation and ground war
After several attacks upon them, it was decided that U.S. Air Force bases needed more protection. The South Vietnamese military seemed incapable of providing security. On 8 March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the American ground war. U.S. public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment.
In a statement similar to that made to the French almost two decades earlier, Ho Chi Minh warned that if the Americans “want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea.” As former First Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co has noted, the primary goal of the war was to reunify Vietnam and secure its independence. The policy of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was not to topple other non-communist governments in South East Asia.
The Marines’ assignment was defensive. The initial deployment of 3,500 in March was increased to nearly 200,000 by December. The U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission. In December, ARVN forces suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Bình Giã, in a battle that both sides viewed as a watershed. Previously communist forces had utilized hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, however at Binh Gia they had defeated a strong ARVN force in conventional warfare. Tellingly, South Vietnamese forces were again defeated in June, at the Battle of Đồng Xoài.
Desertion rates were increasing, and morale plummeted. General William Westmoreland informed Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Jr., commander of U.S. Pacific forces, that the situation was critical. He said, “I am convinced that U.S. troops with their energy, mobility, and firepower can successfully take the fight to the NLF [National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam].” With this recommendation, Westmoreland was advocating an aggressive departure from America’s defensive posture and the sidelining of the South Vietnamese. By ignoring ARVN units, the U.S. commitment became open-ended. Westmoreland outlined a three-point plan to win the war:
- Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.
- Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would end when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.
- Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.
The plan was approved by Johnson and marked a profound departure from the previous administration’s insistence that the government of South Vietnam was responsible for defeating the guerrillas. Westmoreland predicted victory by the end of 1967. Johnson did not, however, communicate this change in strategy to the media. Instead he emphasized continuity. The change in U.S. policy depended on matching the North Vietnamese and the NLF in a contest of attrition and morale. The opponents were locked in a cycle of escalation. The idea that the government of South Vietnam could manage its own affairs was shelved.
The one-year tour of duty deprived units of experienced leadership. As one observer noted “we were not in Vietnam for 10 years, but for one year 10 times.” As a result, training programs were shortened.
South Vietnam was inundated with manufactured goods. As Stanley Karnow writes, “the main PX [Post Exchange], located in the Saigon suburb of Cholon, was only slightly smaller than the New York Bloomingdale’s…” The American buildup transformed the economy and had a profound effect on South Vietnamese society. A huge surge in corruption was witnessed.
Washington encouraged its SEATO allies to contribute troops. Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines all agreed to send troops. Major allies, however, notably NATO nations Canada and the United Kingdom, declined Washington’s troop requests. The U.S. and its allies mounted complex operations, such as operations Masher, Attleboro, Cedar Falls, and Junction City. However, the communist insurgents remained elusive and demonstrated great tactical flexibility.
Meanwhile, the political situation in South Vietnam began to stabilize with the coming to power of Prime Minister Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and figurehead Chief of State, General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, in mid 1965 at the head of a military junta. This ended a series of coups that had happened more than once a year. In 1967, Thieu became president with Ky as his deputy, after rigged elections. Although they were nominally a civilian government, Ky was supposed to maintain real power through a behind-the-scenes military body. However, Thieu outmanoevred and sidelined Ky by filling the ranks with generals from his faction. Thieu was also accused of murdering Ky loyalists through contrived military accidents. Thieu, mistrustful and indecisive, remained president until 1975, having won a one-man election in 1971.
The Johnson administration employed a “policy of minimum candor” in its dealings with the media. Military information officers sought to manage media coverage by emphasizing stories that portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media’s coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap developed.
Having lured General Westmoreland’s forces into the hinterland at Khe Sanh in Quảng Trị Province, in January 1968, the NVA and NLF broke the truce that had traditionally accompanied the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday. They launched the surprise Tet Offensive in the hope of sparking a national uprising. Over 100 cities were attacked, with assaults on General Westmoreland’s headquarters and the U.S. Embassy, Saigon.
Although the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were initially taken aback by the scale of the urban offensive, they responded quickly and effectively, decimating the ranks of the NLF. In the former capital city of Huế, the combined NLF and VPA troops captured the Imperial Citadel and much of the city, which led to the Battle of Huế. Throughout the offensive, the American forces employed massive firepower; in Huế where the battle was the fiercest, that firepower left 80% of the city in ruins. During the interim between the capture of the Citadel and end of the “Battle of Huế”, the communist insurgent occupying forces massacred several thousand unarmed Huế civilians (estimates vary up to a high of 6,000). After the war, North Vietnamese officials acknowledged that the Tet Offensive had, indeed, caused grave damage to NLF forces. But the offensive had another, unintended consequence.
General Westmoreland had become the public face of the war. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine three times and was named 1965′s Man of the Year. Time described him as “the sinewy personification of the American fighting man… (who) directed the historic buildup, drew up the battle plans, and infused the… men under him with his own idealistic view of U.S. aims and responsibilities.”
In November 1967 Westmoreland spearheaded a public relations drive for the Johnson administration to bolster flagging public support. In a speech before the National Press Club he said that a point in the war had been reached “where the end comes into view.” Thus, the public was shocked and confused when Westmoreland’s predictions were trumped by Tet. The American media, which had been largely supportive of U.S. efforts, rounded on the Johnson administration for what had become an increasing credibility gap. Despite its military failure, the Tet Offensive became a political victory and ended the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who declined to run for re-election. Johnson’s approval rating slumped from 48 to 36 percent.
As James Witz noted, Tet “contradicted the claims of progress… made by the Johnson administration and the military.” The Tet Offensive was the turning point in America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It had a profound impact on domestic support for the conflict. The offensive constituted an intelligence failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Journalist Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed officer, saying of Bến Tre (laid to rubble by U.S. firepower) that “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it” (though the authenticity of this quote is disputed). According to one source, this quote was attributed to Major Booris of 9th Infantry Division.
Westmoreland became Chief of Staff of the Army in March, just as all resistance was finally subdued. The move was technically a promotion. However, his position had become untenable because of the offensive and because his request for 200,000 additional troops had been leaked to the media. Westmoreland was succeeded by his deputy Creighton Abrams, a commander less inclined to public media pronouncements.
On 10 May 1968, despite low expectations, peace talks began between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations stagnated for five months, until Johnson gave orders to halt the bombing of North Vietnam. The Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was running against Republican former vice president Richard Nixon.
As historian Robert Dallek writes, “Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam divided Americans into warring camps… cost 30,000 American lives by the time he left office, (and) destroyed Johnson’s presidency…” His refusal to send more U.S. troops to Vietnam was seen as Johnson’s admission that the war was lost. It can be seen that the refusal was a tacit admission that the war could not be won by escalation, at least not at a cost acceptable to the American people. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara noted, “the dangerous illusion of victory by the United States was therefore dead.”
Nixon Doctrine / Vietnamization
Severe communist losses during the Tet Offensive allowed U.S. President Richard Nixon to begin troop withdrawals. His plan, called the Nixon Doctrine, was to build up the ARVN, so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam. The policy became known as “Vietnamization“. Vietnamization had much in common with the policies of the Kennedy administration. One important difference, however, remained. While Kennedy insisted that the South Vietnamese fight the war themselves, he attempted to limit the scope of the conflict.
Nixon said in an announcement, “I am tonight announcing plans for the withdrawal of an additional 150,000 American troops to be completed during the spring of next year. This will bring a total reduction of 265,500 men in our armed forces in Vietnam below the level that existed when we took office 15 months ago.”
On 10 October 1969, Nixon ordered a squadron of 18 B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons to race to the border of Soviet airspace to convince the Soviet Union that he was capable of anything to end the Vietnam War.
Nixon also pursued negotiations. Theater commander Creighton Abrams shifted to smaller operations, aimed at communist logistics, with better use of firepower and more cooperation with the ARVN. Nixon also began to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. This policy helped to decrease global tensions. Détente led to nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers. But Nixon was disappointed that the PRC and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese with aid. In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at age seventy-nine.
The anti-war movement was gaining strength in the United States. Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” of Americans to support the war. But revelations of the My Lai Massacre, in which a U.S. Army platoon raped and killed civilians, and the 1969 “Green Beret Affair” where eight Special Forces soldiers, including the 5th Special Forces Group Commander were arrested for the murder of a suspected double agent provoked national and international outrage.
Beginning in 1970, American troops were being taken away from border areas where much more killing took place, and instead put along the coast and interior, which is one reason why casualties in 1970 were less than half of 1969′s totals.
The secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos
Prince Norodom Sihanouk had proclaimed Cambodia neutral since 1955, but the communists used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence, because he wished to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The Vietnamese communists were no longer welcome. President Nixon took the opportunity to launch a massive secret bombing campaign, called Operation Menu, against their sanctuaries along the Cambodia/Vietnam border.
This violated a long succession of pronouncements from Washington supporting Cambodian neutrality. Richard Nixon wrote to Prince Sihanouk in April 1969 assuring him that the United States respected “the sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia…” In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by his pro-American prime minister Lon Nol. The country’s borders were closed, while U.S. forces and ARVN launched incursions into Cambodia to attack VPA/NLF bases and buy time for South Vietnam.
The invasion of Cambodia sparked nationwide U.S. protests. Four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest in Ohio, which provoked public outrage in the United States. The reaction to the incident by the Nixon administration was seen as callous and indifferent, providing additional impetus for the anti-war movement.
In 1971 the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times. The top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by the Department of Defense, detailed a long series of public deceptions. The Supreme Court ruled that its publication was legal.
The ARVN launched Operation Lam Son 719 in February 1971, aimed at cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. The ostensibly neutral Laos had long been the scene of a secret war. After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated in a confused rout. They fled along roads littered with their own dead. When they ran out of fuel, soldiers abandoned their vehicles and attempted to barge their way on to American helicopters sent to evacuate the wounded. Many ARVN soldiers clung to helicopter skids in a desperate attempt to save themselves. U.S. aircraft had to destroy abandoned equipment, including tanks, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Half of the invading ARVN troops were either captured or killed. The operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. As Karnow noted “the blunders were monumental… The (South Vietnamese) government’s top officers had been tutored by the Americans for ten or fifteen years, many at training schools in the United States, yet they had learned little.”
In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. The U.S. troop count was further reduced to 196,700, with a deadline to remove another 45,000 troops by February 1972. As peace protests spread across the United States, disillusionment and ill-discipline grew in the ranks.
Vietnamization was again tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam. The VPA and NLF quickly overran the northern provinces and in coordination with other forces attacked from Cambodia, threatening to cut the country in half. U.S. troop withdrawals continued. But American airpower came to the rescue with Operation Linebacker, and the offensive was halted. However, it became clear that without American airpower South Vietnam could not survive. The last remaining American ground troops were withdrawn in August.
1972 election and Paris Peace Accords
The war was the central issue of the 1972 presidential election. Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, campaigned on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, continued secret negotiations with North Vietnam’s Lê Ðức Thọ. In October 1972, they reached an agreement.
However, South Vietnamese President Thieu demanded massive changes to the peace accord. When North Vietnam went public with the agreement’s details, the Nixon administration claimed that the North was attempting to embarrass the President. The negotiations became deadlocked. Hanoi demanded new changes.
To show his support for South Vietnam and force Hanoi back to the negotiating table, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II, a massive bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong 18–29 December 1972. The offensive destroyed much of the remaining economic and industrial capacity of North Vietnam. Simultaneously Nixon pressured Thieu to accept the terms of the agreement, threatening to conclude a bilateral peace deal and cut off American aid.
On 15 January 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” were signed on 27 January 1973, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was declared across North and South Vietnam. U.S. POWs were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and South. The Paris Peace Accords stipulated a sixty-day period for the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. “This article”, noted Peter Church, “proved… to be the only one of the Paris Agreements which was fully carried out.”
Opposition to the Vietnam War: 1962–1975
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Some advocates within the peace movement advocated a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. One reason given for the withdrawal is that it would contribute to a lessening of tensions in the region and thus less human bloodshed. Early opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam was centered around the Geneva conference of 1954. American support of Diem in refusing elections was thought to be thwarting the very democracy that America claimed to be supporting. John Kennedy, while Senator, opposed involvement in Vietnam.
Opposition to the Vietnam War tended to unite groups opposed to U.S. anti-communism, imperialism and colonialism and, for those involved with the New Left such as the Catholic Worker Movement, capitalism itself. Others, such as Stephen Spiro opposed the war based on the theory of Just War. Some wanted to show solidarity with the people of Vietnam, such as Norman Morrison emulating the actions of Thích Quảng Đức. Some critics of U.S. withdrawal predicted that it would not contribute to peace but rather vastly increase bloodshed. These critics advocated U.S. forces remain until all threats from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had been eliminated. Advocates of U.S. withdrawal were generally known as “doves”, and they called their opponents “hawks“, following nomenclature dating back to the War of 1812.
High-profile opposition to the Vietnam War turned to street protests in an effort to turn U.S. political opinion. On 15 October 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium attracted millions of Americans. The fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University led to nation-wide university protests. Riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. After explosive news reports of American military abuses, such as the 1968 My Lai Massacre, brought new attention and support to the anti-war movement, some veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Anti-war protests ended with the final withdrawal of troops after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. South Vietnam was left to defend itself alone when the fighting resumed. Many South Vietnamese subsequently fled to the United States.
Exit of the Americans: 1973–1975
The United States began drastically reducing their troop support in South Vietnam during the final years of “Vietnamization“. Many U.S. troops were removed from the region, and on 5 March 1971, the United States returned the 5th Special Forces Group, which was the first American unit deployed to South Vietnam, to its former base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. [A 5]
Under the Paris Peace Accords, between North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Lê Ðức Thọ and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and reluctantly signed by South Vietnamese President Thiệu, U.S. military forces withdrew from South Vietnam and prisoners were exchanged. North Vietnam was allowed to continue supplying communist troops in the South, but only to the extent of replacing materials that were consumed. Later that year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kissinger and Thọ, but the Vietnamese negotiator declined it saying that a true peace did not yet exist.
The communist leaders had expected that the ceasefire terms would favor their side. But Saigon, bolstered by a surge of U.S. aid received just before the ceasefire went into effect, began to roll back the Vietcong. The communists responded with a new strategy hammered out in a series of meetings in Hanoi in March 1973, according to the memoirs of Trần Văn Trà.
As the Vietcong’s top commander, Trà participated in several of these meetings. With U.S. bombings suspended, work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other logistical structures could proceed unimpeded. Logistics would be upgraded until the North was in a position to launch a massive invasion of the South, projected for the 1975–76 dry season. Trà calculated that this date would be Hanoi’s last opportunity to strike before Saigon’s army could be fully trained.
In the November 1972 Election, McGovern lost 49 of 50 states to Richard Nixon, who was re-elected U.S. president. Despite supporting Nixon over McGovern, many American voters split their tickets, returning a Democratic majority to both houses of Congress.
On 15 March 1973, U.S. President Richard Nixon implied that the United States would intervene militarily if the communist side violated the ceasefire. Public and congressional reaction to Nixon’s trial balloon was unfavorable and in April Nixon appointed Graham Martin as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Martin was a second stringer compared to previous U.S. ambassadors and his appointment was an early signal that Washington had given up on Vietnam. During his confirmation hearings in June 1973, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger stated that he would recommend resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. On 4 June 1973, the U.S. Senate passed the Case-Church Amendment to prohibit such intervention.
The oil price shock of October 1973 caused significant damage to the South Vietnamese economy. The Vietcong resumed offensive operations when dry season began and by January 1974 it had recaptured the territory it lost during the previous dry season. After two clashes that left 55 South Vietnamese soldiers dead, President Thiệu announced on 4 January that the war had restarted and that the Paris Peace Accord was no longer in effect. There had been over 25,000 South Vietnamese casualties during the ceasefire period.
Gerald Ford took over as U.S. president on 9 August 1974 after President Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal. At this time, Congress cut financial aid to South Vietnam from $1 billion a year to $700 million. The U.S. midterm elections in 1974 brought in a new Congress dominated by Democrats who were even more determined to confront the president on the war. Congress immediately voted in restrictions on funding and military activities to be phased in through 1975 and to culminate in a total cutoff of funding in 1976.
The success of the 1973–74 dry season offensive inspired Trà to return to Hanoi in October 1974 and plead for a larger offensive in the next dry season. This time, Trà could travel on a drivable highway with regular fueling stops, a vast change from the days when the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a dangerous mountain trek. Giáp, the North Vietnamese defense minister, was reluctant to approve Trà’s plan. A larger offensive might provoke a U.S. reaction and interfere with the big push planned for 1976. Trà appealed over Giáp’s head to first secretary Lê Duẩn, who approved of the operation.
Trà’s plan called for a limited offensive from Cambodia into Phuoc Long Province. The strike was designed to solve local logistical problems, gauge the reaction of South Vietnamese forces, and determine whether U.S. would return to the fray.
On 13 December 1974, North Vietnamese forces attacked Route 14 in Phuoc Long Province. Phuoc Binh, the provincial capital, fell on 6 January 1975. Ford desperately asked Congress for funds to assist and re-supply the South before it was overrun. Congress refused. The fall of Phuoc Binh and the lack of an American response left the South Vietnamese elite demoralized.
The speed of this success led the Politburo to reassess its strategy. It was decided that operations in the Central Highlands would be turned over to General Văn Tiến Dũng and that Pleiku should be seized, if possible. Before he left for the South, Dũng was addressed by Lê Duẩn: “Never have we had military and political conditions so perfect or a strategic advantage as great as we have now.”
At the start of 1975, the South Vietnamese had three times as much artillery and twice the number of tanks and armoured cars as the opposition. They also had 1,400 aircraft and a two-to-one numerical superiority in combat troops over their Communist enemies. However, the rising oil prices meant that much of this could not be used. They faced a well-organized, highly determined and well-funded North Vietnam. Much of the North’s material and financial support came from the communist bloc. Within South Vietnam, there was increasing chaos. Their abandonment by the American military had compromised an economy dependent on U.S. financial support and the presence of a large number of U.S. troops. South Vietnam suffered from the global recession that followed the Arab oil embargo.
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On 10 March 1975, General Dung launched Campaign 275, a limited offensive into the Central Highlands, supported by tanks and heavy artillery. The target was Buôn Ma Thuột, in Đắk Lắk Province. If the town could be taken, the provincial capital of Pleiku and the road to the coast would be exposed for a planned campaign in 1976. The ARVN proved incapable of resisting the onslaught, and its forces collapsed on 11 March. Once again, Hanoi was surprised by the speed of their success. Dung now urged the Politburo to allow him to seize Pleiku immediately and then turn his attention to Kon Tum. He argued that with two months of good weather remaining until the onset of the monsoon, it would be irresponsible to not take advantage of the situation.
President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, a former general, was fearful that his forces would be cut off in the north by the attacking communists; Thieu ordered a retreat. The president declared this to be a “lighten the top and keep the bottom” strategy. But in what appeared to be a repeat of Operation Lam Son 719, the withdrawal soon turned into a bloody rout. While the bulk of ARVN forces attempted to flee, isolated units fought desperately. ARVN General Phu abandoned Pleiku and Kon Tum and retreated toward the coast, in what became known as the “column of tears”.
As the ARVN tried to disengage from the enemy, refugees mixed in with the line of retreat. The poor condition of roads and bridges, damaged by years of conflict and neglect, slowed Phu’s column. As the North Vietnamese forces approached, panic set in. Often abandoned by the officers, the soldiers and civilians were shelled incessantly. The retreat degenerated into a desperate scramble for the coast. By 1 April the “column of tears” was all but annihilated.
On 20 March, Thieu reversed himself and ordered Huế, Vietnam’s third-largest city, be held at all costs, and then changed his policy several times. Thieu’s contradictory orders confused and demoralized his officer corps. As the North Vietnamese launched their attack, panic set in, and ARVN resistance withered. On 22 March, the VPA opened the siege of Huế. Civilians flooded the airport and the docks hoping for any mode of escape. Some even swam out to sea to reach boats and barges anchored offshore. In the confusion, routed ARVN soldiers fired on civilians to make way for their retreat.
On 25 March, after a three-day battle, Huế fell. As resistance in Huế collapsed, North Vietnamese rockets rained down on Da Nang and its airport. By 28 March 35,000 VPA troops were poised to attack the suburbs. By 30 March 100,000 leaderless ARVN troops surrendered as the VPA marched victoriously through Da Nang. With the fall of the city, the defense of the Central Highlands and Northern provinces came to an end.
Final North Vietnamese offensive
With the northern half of the country under their control, the Politburo ordered General Dung to launch the final offensive against Saigon. The operational plan for the Ho Chi Minh Campaign called for the capture of Saigon before 1 May. Hanoi wished to avoid the coming monsoon and prevent any redeployment of ARVN forces defending the capital. Northern forces, their morale boosted by their recent victories, rolled on, taking Nha Trang, Cam Ranh, and Da Lat.
On 7 April, three North Vietnamese divisions attacked Xuan Loc, 40 miles (64 km) east of Saigon. The North Vietnamese met fierce resistance at Xuan Loc from the ARVN 18th Division, who were outnumbered six to one. For two bloody weeks, severe fighting raged as the ARVN defenders made a last stand to try to block the North Vietnamese advance. By 21 April, however, the exhausted garrison were ordered to withdraw towards Saigon.
An embittered and tearful President Thieu resigned on the same day, declaring that the United States had betrayed South Vietnam. In a scathing attack, he suggested U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tricked him into signing the Paris peace agreement two years ago, promising military aid that failed to materialise. Having transferred power to Tran Van Huong, he left for Taiwan on 25 April. At the same time, North Vietnamese tanks had reached Bien Hoa and turned toward Saigon, brushing aside isolated ARVN units along the way.
By the end of April, the ARVN had collapsed on all fronts except in the Mekong Delta. Thousand of refugees streamed southward, ahead of the main communist onslaught. On 27 April 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon. The city was defended by about 30,000 ARVN troops. To hasten a collapse and foment panic, the VPA shelled the airport and forced its closure. With the air exit closed, large numbers of civilians found that they had no way out.
Fall of Saigon
Chaos, unrest, and panic broke out as hysterical South Vietnamese officials and civilians scrambled to leave Saigon. Martial law was declared. American helicopters began evacuating South Vietnamese, U.S., and foreign nationals from various parts of the city and from the U.S. embassy compound. Operation Frequent Wind had been delayed until the last possible moment, because of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin‘s belief that Saigon could be held and that a political settlement could be reached.
Schlesinger announced early in the morning of 29 April 1975 the evacuation from Saigon by helicopter of the last U.S. diplomatic, military, and civilian personnel. Frequent Wind was arguably the largest helicopter evacuation in history. It began on 29 April, in an atmosphere of desperation, as hysterical crowds of Vietnamese vied for limited space. Martin pleaded with Washington to dispatch $700 million in emergency aid to bolster the regime and help it mobilize fresh military reserves. But American public opinion had soured on this conflict.
In the United States, South Vietnam was perceived as doomed. President Gerald Ford had given a televised speech on 23 April, declaring an end to the Vietnam War and all U.S. aid. Frequent Wind continued around the clock, as North Vietnamese tanks breached defenses on the outskirts of Saigon. In the early morning hours of 30 April, the last U.S. Marines evacuated the embassy by helicopter, as civilians swamped the perimeter and poured into the grounds. Many of them had been employed by the Americans and were left to their fate.
On 30 April 1975, VPA troops overcame all resistance, quickly capturing key buildings and installations. A tank crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace, and at 11:30 am local time the NLF flag was raised above it. President Duong Van Minh, who had succeeded Huong two days earlier, surrendered. His surrender marked the end of 116 years of Vietnamese involvement in conflict either alongside or against various countries, primarily China, France, Japan and United States.
Other countries’ involvement
People’s Republic of China
In 1950, the People’s Republic of China extended diplomatic recognition to the Viet Minh‘s Democratic Republic of Vietnam and sent weapons, as well as military advisors led by Luo Guibo to assist the Viet Minh in its war with the French. The first draft of the 1954 Geneva Accords was negotiated by French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai who, fearing U.S. intervention, urged the Viet Minh to accept a partition at the 17th parallel.
China’s ability to aid the Viet Minh declined when Soviet aid to China was reduced following the end of the Korean War in 1953. Moreover, a divided Vietnam posed less of a threat to China. China provided material and technical support to the Vietnamese communists worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Chinese-supplied rice allowed North Vietnam to pull military-age men from the paddies and to impose a universal draft beginning in 1960.
In the summer of 1962, Mao Zedong agreed to supply Hanoi with 90,000 rifles and guns free of charge. Starting in 1965, China sent anti-aircraft units and engineering battalions to North Vietnam to repair the damage caused by American bombing, rebuild roads and railroads, and to perform other engineering works. This freed North Vietnamese army units for combat in the South.
Sino-Soviet relations soured after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In October, the Chinese demanded North Vietnam cut relations with Moscow, but Hanoi refused. The Chinese began to withdraw in November 1968 in preparation for a clash with the Soviets, which occurred at Zhenbao Island in March 1969. The Chinese also began financing the Khmer Rouge as a counterweight to the Vietnamese communists at this time. China’s withdrawal from Vietnam was completed in July 1970.
The Khmer Rouge launched ferocious raids into Vietnam in 1975–1978. Vietnam responded with an invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge. In response, China launched a brief, punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
Soviet ships in the South China Sea gave vital early warnings to NLF forces in South Vietnam. The Soviet intelligence ships would pick up American B-52 bombers flying from Okinawa and Guam. Their airspeed and direction would be noted and then relayed to COSVN headquarters. COSVN using airspeed and direction would calculate the bombing target and tell any assets to move “perpendicularly to the attack trajectory.” These advance warning gave them time to move out of the way of the bombers and while the bombing runs caused extensive damage, because of the early warnings from 1968–1970 they did not kill a single military or civilian leader in the headquarter complexes.
The Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam with medical supplies, arms, tanks, planes, helicopters, artillery, anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment. Soviet crews fired USSR-made surface-to-air missiles at the B-52 bombers, which were the first raiders shot down over Hanoi. Fewer than a dozen Soviet citizens lost their lives in this conflict. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian officials acknowledged that the Soviet Union had stationed up to 3,000 troops in Vietnam during the war.
Some Russian sources give more specific numbers: the hardware donated by the USSR included 2,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery guns, over 5,000 anti-aircraft guns, 158 surface-to-air rocket launchers. Over the course of the war the Soviet money donated to the Vietnamese cause was equal to 2 million dollars a day. From July 1965 to the end of 1974, fighting in Vietnam was attended by some 6,500 officers and generals, as well as more than 4,500 soldiers and sergeants of the Soviet Armed Forces. In addition, military schools and academies of the USSR began training Vietnamese soldiers – more than 10 thousand people.
As a result of a decision of the Korean Workers’ Party in October 1966, in early 1967 North Korea sent a fighter squadron to North Vietnam to back up the North Vietnamese 921st and 923rd fighter squadrons defending Hanoi. They stayed through 1968, and 200 pilots were reported to have served.
In addition, at least two anti-aircraft artillery regiments were sent as well. North Korea also sent weapons, ammunition and two million sets of uniforms to their comrades in North Vietnam. Kim Il-sung is reported to have told his pilots to “fight in the war as if the Vietnamese sky were their own”.
The extent of manpower contributions to North Vietnam by the communist Republic of Cuba, under Fidel Castro, is still a matter of debate. Then and since, the communist Vietnamese and Cuban governments have not divulged any information on this matter. There are numerous reports by former U.S. prisoners of war that Cuban military personnel were present at North Vietnamese prison facilities during the war, and that they participated in torture activities, in what is known as the “Cuba Program”. Witnesses to this include Senator John McCain, 2008 U.S. Presidential candidate and former Vietnam prisoner of war, according to his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers. That there was at least a small contingent of Cuban military advisors present in North Vietnam during the war is without question. Some, notably Vietnam War POW/MIA issue advocates, claim evidence that Cuba’s military and non-military involvement may have run into the “thousands” of personnel.
On the anti-communist side, South Korea had the second-largest contingent of foreign troops in South Vietnam after the United States. In November 1961, Park Chung Hee proposed South Korean participation in the war to John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy disagreed. On 1 May 1964 Lyndon Johnson requested South Korean participation. The first South Korean troops began arriving in 1964 and large combat battalions began arriving a year later, with the South Koreans soon developing a reputation for effectiveness. Indeed arguably, they conducted counterinsurgency operations so well that American commanders felt that Korean area of responsibility was the safest.
Approximately 320 thousand South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam, each serving a one year tour of duty. Maximum troop levels peaked at 50 thousands in 1968, however all were withdrawn by 1973. About five thousand South Koreans were killed and 11 thousands were injured during the war. South Korea killed 41 thousand Viet Congs. United States paid South Korean soldiers USD 236 million for their service in Vietnam, and South Korean GNP increased five-fold during the war.
Australia and New Zealand
Australia and New Zealand, close allies of the United States and members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the ANZUS military co-operation treaty, sent ground troops to Vietnam. Both nations had gained experience in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare during the Malayan Emergency and World War II. Their governments subscribed to the Domino theory. Australia began by sending advisors to Vietnam in 1962, and combat troops were committed in 1965. New Zealand began by sending a detachment of engineers and an artillery battery, and then started sending special forces and regular infantry which were attached to Australian formations. Australia’s peak commitment was 7,672 combat troops and New Zealand’s 552. More than 60,000 Australian personnel were involved during the course of the war, of which 521 were killed and more than 3,000 wounded. Approximately 3,000 New Zealanders served in Vietnam, losing 37 killed and 187 wounded. Most Australians and New Zealanders served in the 1st Australian Task Force in Phước Tuy province.
Some 10,450 Filipino troops were dispatched to South Vietnam. They were primarily engaged in medical and other civilian pacification projects. These forces operated under the designation PHLCAG-V or Philippine Civic Action Group-Vietnam.
Thai Army formations, including the “Queen’s Cobra” battalion, saw action in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1971. Thai forces saw much more action in the covert war in Laos between 1964 and 1972, though Thai regular formations there were heavily outnumbered by the irregular “volunteers” of the CIA-sponsored Police Aerial Reconnaissance Units or PARU, who carried out reconnaissance activities on the western side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Since November 1967, the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan secretly operated a cargo transport detachment to assist the United States and the ROV. Taiwan also provided military training units for the South Vietnamese diving units, later known as the Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai (LDMN) or Frogman unit in English. In addition to the diving trainers there were several hundred military personnel. Military commandos from Taiwan were captured by communist forces three times trying to infiltrate North Vietnam.
Canada and the ICC
Canada, India and Poland constituted the International Control Commission, which was supposed to monitor the 1954 ceasefire agreement. Officially, Canada did not have partisan involvement in the Vietnam War and diplomatically it was “non-belligerent“. Victor Levant suggested otherwise in his book “Quiet Complicity: Canadian Involvement in the Vietnam War” (1986).
Women in Vietnam
During the Vietnam War, women served on active duty doing a variety of jobs. Early in 1963, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) launched Operation Nightingale, an intensive effort to recruit nurses to serve in Vietnam. Most nurses who volunteered to serve in Vietnam came from predominantly working or middle class families with histories of military service. The majority of these women were white Catholics and Protestants. Because the need for medical aid was great, many nurses underwent a concentrated four-month training program before being deployed to Vietnam in the ANC Due to the shortage of staff, nurses usually worked twelve-hour shifts, six days per week and often suffered from exhaustion. First Lieutenant Sharon Lane was the only female military nurse to be killed by enemy gunfire during the war on 8 June 1969.
At the start of the Vietnam War, it was commonly thought that American women had no place in the military. Their traditional place had been in the domestic sphere, but with the war came opportunity for the expansion of gender roles. In Vietnam, women held a variety of jobs which included operating complex data processing equipment and serving as stenographers. Although a small number of women were assigned to combat zones, they were never allowed directly in the field of battle. The women who served in the military were solely volunteers. They faced a plethora of challenges, one of which was the relatively small number of female soldiers. Living in a male-dominated environment created tensions between the sexes. While this high male to female ratio was often uncomfortable for women, many men reported that having women in the field with them boosted their morale. Although this was not the women’s purpose, it was one positive result of the their service. By 1973, approximately 7,500 women had served in Vietnam in the Southeast Asian theater. In that same year, the military lifted the prohibition on women entering the armed forces.
American women serving in Vietnam were subject to societal stereotypes. Many Americans either considered female in Vietnam mannish for living under the army discipline, or judged them to be women of questionable moral character who enlisted for the sole purpose of seducing men. To address this problem, the ANC released advertisements portraying women in the ANC as “proper, professional and well protected.” (26) This effort to highlight the positive aspects of a nursing career reflected the ideas of second-wave feminism that occurred during the 1960s–1970s in the United States. Although female military nurses lived in a heavily male environment, very few cases of sexual harassment were ever reported. In 2008, by contrast, approximately one-third of women in the military felt that they had been sexually harassed compared with one-third of men.
Unlike the American women who went to Vietnam, Vietnamese women fought in the combat zone as well as provided manual labor to keep the Ho Chi Minh Trail open; they also worked in the rice fields to provide food for their families and the war effort. Women were enlisted in both the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the VietCong guerrilla force in South Vietnam.
Nguyen Thi Dinh was an example of a woman who had fought most of her adult life against foreign forces in her country. She was a member of the Vietminh fighting against the French and was imprisoned in the 1940s but on her release continued to fight and led a revolt in 1945 in Ben Tre and also in 1960 against Diems government. In the mid 1960s, she became a deputy commander of the Viet Cong, the highest ranking combat position held by a woman during the war.
Nguyen Thi Duc Hoan, who would later go on to be an actress-director, also joined the fight at a young age and would later become a guerrilla fighter against the Americans, at the time her own daughter was training in the militia.
Communist forces were principally armed with Chinese and Soviet weaponry though some Viet Cong guerrilla units were equipped with Western infantry weapons either captured from French stocks during the first Indochina war or from ARVN units or requisitioned through illicit purchase. The ubiquitous Soviet AK-47 was widely regarded as the best assault rifle of the war and it was not uncommon to see U.S. special forces with captured AK-47s. The American M16, which replaced the M14, was considered more accurate and was lighter than the AK-47 but was prone to jamming. Oftentimes the gun suffered from a jamming flaw known as “failure to extract,” which meant that a spent cartridge case remained lodged in the chamber after a bullet flew out the muzzle. According to a congressional report, the jamming was caused primarily by a change in gunpowder which was done without adequate testing and reflected a decision for which the safety of soldiers was a secondary consideration. The heavily armored, 90 mm M48A3 Patton tank saw extensive action during the Vietnam War and over 600 were deployed with US Forces. They played an important role in infantry support though there were few actual tank versus tank battles. The M67A1 flamethrower tank (nicknamed the Zippo) was an M48 variant used in Vietnam. Artillery was used extensively by both sides but the Americans were able to ferry the lightweight 105 mm M102 howitzer by helicopter to remote locations on quick notice. With its 17-mile (27 km) range, the Soviet 130 mm M-46 towed field gun was a highly regarded weapon and used to good effect by the NVA. It was countered by the long-range, American 175 mm M107 Self-Propelled Gun. The United States had air superiority though many aircraft were lost to surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. U.S. air power was credited with breaking the siege of Khe Sanh and blunting the 1972 Communist offensive against South Vietnam. At sea, the U.S. Navy had the run of the coastline, using aircraft carriers as platforms for offshore strikes and other naval vessels for offshore artillery support. Offshore naval fire played a pivotal role in the Battle for the city of Hue, providing accurate fire in support of the U.S. counter-offensive to retake the city. The Vietnam War was the first conflict that saw wide scale tactical deployment of helicopters. The Bell UH-1 Iroquois was used extensively in counter-guerilla operations both as a troop carrier and a gunship. In the latter role, the “Huey” as it became affectionately known, was outfitted with a variety of armaments including M60 machineguns, multi-barreled 7.62 mm Gatling guns and unguided air-to-surface rockets. The Hueys were also successfully used in MEDEVAC and search and rescue roles.
Events in Southeast Asia
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, on 17 April 1975. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge enacted a genocidal policy that killed over one-fifth of all Cambodians, or more than a million people. After repeated border clashes in 1978, Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) and ousted the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.
In response, China invaded Vietnam in 1979. The two countries fought a brief border war, known as the Third Indochina War or the Sino-Vietnamese War. From 1978 to 1979, some 450,000 ethnic Chinese left Vietnam by boat as refugees or were expelled across the land border with China.
The Pathet Lao overthrew the royalist government of Laos in December 1975. They established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. From 1975 to 1996, the United States resettled some 250,000 Lao refugees from Thailand, including 130,000 Hmong.
More than 3 million people fled from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, many as “boat people“. Most Asian countries were unwilling to accept refugees. Since 1975, an estimated 1.4 million refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries have been resettled to the United States, while Canada, Australia, and France resettled over 500,000.
Effect on the United States
In the post-war era, Americans struggled to absorb the lessons of the military intervention. As General Maxwell Taylor, one of the principal architects of the war, noted, “First, we didn’t know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean War, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies… And we knew less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It’s very dangerous.”
Some have suggested that “the responsibility for the ultimate failure of this policy [America’s withdrawal from Vietnam] lies not with the men who fought, but with those in Congress…” Alternatively, the official history of the United States Army noted that “tactics have often seemed to exist apart from larger issues, strategies, and objectives. Yet in Vietnam the Army experienced tactical success and strategic failure… The…Vietnam War…legacy may be the lesson that unique historical, political, cultural, and social factors always impinge on the military…Success rests not only on military progress but on correctly analyzing the nature of the particular conflict, understanding the enemy’s strategy, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of allies. A new humility and a new sophistication may form the best parts of a complex heritage left to the Army by the long, bitter war in Vietnam.”
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a secret memo to President Gerald Ford that “in terms of military tactics, we cannot help draw the conclusion that our armed forces are not suited to this kind of war. Even the Special Forces who had been designed for it could not prevail.” Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that “the achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was indeed a dangerous illusion.”
Doubts surfaced as to the effectiveness of large-scale, sustained bombing. As Army Chief of Staff Harold Keith Johnson noted, “if anything came out of Vietnam, it was that air power couldn’t do the job.” Even General William Westmoreland admitted that the bombing had been ineffective. As he remarked, “I still doubt that the North Vietnamese would have relented.”
The inability to bomb Hanoi to the bargaining table also illustrated another U.S. miscalculation. The North’s leadership was composed of hardened communists who had been fighting for independence for thirty years. They had defeated the French, and their tenacity as both nationalists and communists was formidable. Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours…But even at these odds you will lose and I will win.”
The Vietnam War called into question the U.S. Army doctrine. Marine Corps General Victor H. Krulak heavily criticised Westmoreland’s attrition strategy, calling it “wasteful of American lives… with small likelihood of a successful outcome.” In addition, doubts surfaced about the ability of the military to train foreign forces.
More than 3 million Americans served in the Vietnam War, some 1.5 million of whom actually saw combat in Vietnam. James E. Westheider wrote that “At the height of American involvement in 1968, for example, there were 543,000 American military personnel in Vietnam, but only 80,000 were considered combat troops.” Conscription in the United States had been controlled by the President since World War II, but ended in 1973.”
By war’s end, 58,220 American soldiers had been killed,[A 2] more than 150,000 had been wounded, and at least 21,000 had been permanently disabled. According to Dale Kueter, “Sixty-one percent of those killed were age 21 or younger. Of those killed in combat, 86.3 percent were white, 12.5 percent were black and the remainder from other races.” The youngest American KIA in the war was PFC Dan Bullock, who had falsified his birth certificate and enlisted in the US Marines at age 14 and who was killed in combat at age 15. Approximately 830,000 Vietnam veterans suffered symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. An estimated 125,000 Americans fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, and approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted. In 1977, United States President Jimmy Carter granted a full, complete and unconditional pardon to all Vietnam-era draft dodgers. The Vietnam War POW/MIA issue, concerning the fate of U.S. service personnel listed as missing in action, persisted for many years after the war’s conclusion.
One of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. military effort in Southeast Asia was the widespread use of chemical defoliants between 1961 and 1971. They were used to defoliate large parts of the countryside. These chemicals continue to change the landscape, cause diseases and birth defects, and poison the food chain.
Early in the American military effort it was decided that since the enemy were hiding their activities under triple-canopy jungle, a useful first step might be to defoliate certain areas. This was especially true of growth surrounding bases (both large and small) in what became known as Operation Ranch Hand. Corporations like Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto were given the task of developing herbicides for this purpose.
The defoliants, which were distributed in drums marked with color-coded bands, included the “Rainbow Herbicides“—Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and, most famously, Agent Orange, which included dioxin as a by-product of its manufacture. About 12 million gallons (45,000,000 L) of Agent Orange were sprayed over Southeast Asia during the American involvement. A prime area of Ranch Hand operations was in the Mekong Delta, where the U.S. Navy patrol boats were vulnerable to attack from the undergrowth at the water’s edge.
In 1961 and 1962, the Kennedy administration authorized the use of chemicals to destroy rice crops. Between 1961 and 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million U.S. gallons (75,700,000 L) of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres (24,000 km2) of crops and trees, affecting an estimated 13% of South Vietnam’s land. In 1965, 42% of all herbicide was sprayed over food crops. Another purpose of herbicide use was to drive civilian populations into RVN-controlled areas.
As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4,000,000 victims of dioxin poisoning in Vietnam, although the United States government denies any conclusive scientific links between Agent Orange and the Vietnamese victims of dioxin poisoning. In some areas of southern Vietnam dioxin levels remain at over 100 times the accepted international standard.
The U.S. Veterans Administration has listed prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, Diabetes mellitus type 2, B-cell lymphomas, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Although there has been much discussion over whether the use of these defoliants constituted a violation of the laws of war, the defoliants were not considered weapons, since exposure to them did not lead to immediate death or incapacitation.
The number of military and civilian deaths from 1955 to 1975 is debated. Some reports fail to include the members of South Vietnamese forces killed in the final campaign, or the Royal Lao Armed Forces, thousands of Laotian and Thai irregulars, or Laotian civilians who all perished in the conflict. They do not include the tens of thousands of Cambodians killed during the civil war or the estimated one and one-half to two million that perished in the genocide that followed Khmer Rouge victory, or the fate of Laotian Royals and civilians after the Pathet Lao assumed complete power in Laos.
In 1995, the Vietnamese government reported that its military forces, including the NLF, suffered 1.1 million dead and 600,000 wounded during Hanoi’s conflict with the United States. Civilian deaths were put at two million in the North and South, and economic reparations were demanded. Hanoi concealed the figures during the war to avoid demoralizing the population. Estimates of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Operation Rolling Thunder range from 52,000 to 182,000. The U.S. military has estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war.
The Vietnam War has been featured heavily in television, film, video games, and literature in the participant countries. The war also influenced a generation of musicians and songwriters in Vietnam and the United States, both anti-war and pro/anti-communist. The band Country Joe and the Fish recorded “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” / The “Fish” Cheer in 1965, and it became one of the most influential anti-Vietnam protest anthems.
Trinh Cong Son was a South Vietnamese songwriter famous for his anti-war songs.
- ^ a b Due to the early presence of American troops in Vietnam the start date of the Vietnam War is a grey zone. In 1998 after a high level review by the Department of Defense (DoD) and through the efforts of Richard B. Fitzgibbon‘s family the start date of the Vietnam War was changed to 1 November 1955. U.S. government reports currently cite 1 November 1955 as the commencement date of the “Vietnam Conflict,” for this was the day when the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Indochina (deployed to Southeast Asia under President Truman) was reorganized into country-specific units and MAAG Vietnam was established. Other start dates include when Hanoi authorized Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam to begin a low-level insurgency in December 1956, whereas some view 26 September 1959 when the first battle occurred between the Communist and South Vietnamese army, as the start date.
- ^ a b c d The figures of 58,220 and 303,644 for U.S. deaths and wounded come from the Department of Defense Statistical Information Analysis Division (SIAD), Defense Manpower Data Center, as well as from a Department of Veterans fact sheet dated May 2010 the CRS (Congressional Research Service) Report for Congress, American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, dated 26 February 2010, and the book Crucible Vietnam: Memoir of an Infantry Lieutenant. Some other sources give different figures (e.g. the 2005/2006 documentary Heart of Darkness: The Vietnam War Chronicles 1945–1975 cited elsewhere in this article gives a figure of 58,159 U.S. deaths, The 2007 book Vietnam Sons: For Some, the War Never Ended gives a figure of 58,226)
- ^ Also known as the Second Indochina War, Vietnam Conflict, American War in Vietnam, and, also in Vietnam, as War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.
- ^ The Việt Nam Ðộc Lập Ðồng Minh Hội had previously formed in Nanjing, China, at some point between August 1935 and early 1936 when the non-communist Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, or Việt Quốc), led by Nguyễn Thái Học, and some members of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) and a number of other Vietnamese nationalist parties formed an anti-imperialist united front. This organisation soon lapsed into inactivity, only to be revived by the ICP and Ho Chi Minh in 1941.
- ^ On 8 March 1965 the first American combat troops the, Third Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division, began landing in Vietnam to protect the Da Nang airport.
- ^ “ALLIES OF THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM”. Retrieved 24 September 2011.
- ^ “Vietnam War : US Troop Strength”. Historycentral.com. Retrieved 17 October 2009.[dead link]
- ^ “Facts about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection”. nps.gov. (citing The first American ground combat troops landed in South Vietnam during March 1965, specifically the U.S. Third Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division, deployed to Vietnam from Okinawa to defend the Da Nang, Vietnam, airfield. During the height of U.S. military involvement, 31 December 1968, the breakdown of allied forces were as follows: 536,100 U.S. military personnel, with 30,610 U.S. military having been killed to date; 65,000 Free World Forces personnel; 820,000 South Vietnam Armed Forces (SVNAF) with 88,343 having been killed to date. At the war’s end, there were approximately 2,200 U.S. missing in action (MIA) and prisoner of war (POW). Source: Harry G. Summers, Jr. Vietnam War Almanac, Facts on File Publishing, 1985.)
- ^ Vietnam Marines 1965–73. Google Books. 8 March 1965. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
- ^ Vietnam War After Action Reports, BACM Research, 2009, page 430
- ^ a b c d Rummel, R.J (1997), “Table 6.1A. Vietnam Democide : Estimates, Sources, and Calculations,” (GIF), Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War, University of Hawaii System
- ^ a b c Agence France Presse 4 April 1995: “The AFP release…says that the Hanoi government revealed on April 3 that the true civilian casualties of the VN war were 2,000,000 in the north, 2,000,000 in the south. Military casualties were 1.1 million killed and 600,000 wounded in 21 years of war (1963–74). These figures were deliberately falsified during the war by the North VN nationalists to avoid demoralizing the population, according to the French article. “
- ^ a b c d Aaron Ulrich (editor); Edward FeuerHerd (producer and director) (2005 & 2006) (Box set, Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Full Screen, NTSC, Dolby, Vision Software). Heart of Darkness: The Vietnam War Chronicles 1945–1975 (Documentary). Koch Vision. Event occurs at 321 minutes. ISBN 1-4172-2920-9.
- ^ America’s Wars (Report). Department of Veterans Affairs. 26 February 2010.
- ^ Anne Leland; Mari–Jana “M-J” Oboroceanu (26 February 2010). American War and Military Operations: Casualties: Lists and Statistics (Report). Congressional Research Service.
- ^ Lawrence 2009, pp. 65, 107, 154, 217
- ^ a b Kueter, Dale (2007). Vietnam Sons: For Some, the War Never Ended. AuthorHouse. ISBN 1-4259-6931-3.
- ^ “Vietnam War Casualties”. Vietnamgear.com. 3 April 1995. Retrieved 17 October 2009.
- ^ Soames, John. A History of the World, Routledge, 2005.
- ^ Dunnigan, James & Nofi, Albert: Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War: Military Information You’re Not Supposed to Know. St. Martin’s Press, 2000, p. 284. ISBN 0-312-25282-X.
- ^ For 2 million estimate see, Shenon, Philip (23 April 1995). “20 Years After Victory, Vietnamese Communists Ponder How to Celebrate”. The New York Times. Retrieved 24 February 2011. for 4 million see Agence France Presse 4 April 1995
- ^ a b Heuveline, Patrick (2001). “The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia.” In Forced Migration and Mortality, eds. Holly E. Reed and Charles B. Keely. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
- ^ a b Marek Sliwinski, Le Génocide Khmer Rouge: Une Analyse Démographique (L’Harmattan, 1995).
- ^ a b Banister, Judith, and Paige Johnson (1993). “After the Nightmare: The Population of Cambodia.” In Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge, the United Nations and the International Community, ed. Ben Kiernan. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies.
- ^ “Official news source use of the name”. Vietnamnews.vnagency.com.vn. 29 October 2009. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- ^ DoD 1998
- ^ Lawrence 2009, p. 20
- ^ James Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945–1990, p. 67 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).
- ^ a b c d e f g h Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954–1960, The Pentagon Papers (Gravel Edition), Volume 1, Chapter 5, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), Section 3, pp. 314–346; International Relations Department, Mount Holyoke College.
- ^ “Vietnam War”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 5 March 2008. “Meanwhile, the United States, its military demoralized and its civilian electorate deeply divided, began a process of coming to terms with defeat in its longest and most controversial war”
- ^ Digital History, Steven Mintz. “The Vietnam War”. Digitalhistory.uh.edu. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Vietnam War Statistics and Facts 1, 25th Aviation Batallion website.
- ^ Kolko, Gabriel Anatomy of War, pp. 457, 461 ff., ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Charles Hirschman et al., “Vietnamese Casualties During the American War: A New Estimate,” Population and Development Review, December 1995.
- ^ Associated Press, 3 April 1995, “Vietnam Says 1.1 Million Died Fighting For North.”
- ^ Warner, Roger, Shooting at the Moon, (1996), pp366, estimates 30,000 Hmong.
- ^ Obermeyer, “Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia”, British Medical Journal, 2008, estimates 60,000 total.
- ^ T. Lomperis, From People’s War to People’s Rule, (1996), estimates 35,000 total.
- ^ Small, Melvin & Joel David Singer, Resort to Arms: International and Civil Wars 1816–1980, (1982), estimates 20,000 total.
- ^ Taylor, Charles Lewis, The World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators, estimates 20,000 total.
- ^ Stuart-Fox, Martin, A History of Laos, estimates 200,000 by 1973.
- ^ Moore, Harold. G and Joseph L. Galloway We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam (p. 57).
- ^ “Asian-Nation: Asian American History, Demographics, & Issues:: The American / Viet Nam War”. Retrieved 18 August 2008. “The Viet Nam War is also called ‘The American War’ by the Vietnamese”
- ^ Ooi, Keat Gin. Southeast Asia: a historical encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to East Timor. ABC-CLIO; 2004. ISBN 978-1-57607-770-2. p. 520.
- ^ Rai, Lajpat. Social Science. FK Publications; ISBN 978-81-89611-12-5. p. 22.
- ^ Dommen, Arthur J.. The Indochinese experience of the French and the Americans: nationalism and communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Indiana University Press; 2001. ISBN 978-0-253-33854-9. p. 4–19.
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 3, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ a b Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 17, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Sophie Quinn-Judge (2003). Ho Chi Minh: the missing years, 1919–1941. C. Hurst. pp. 212–213. ISBN 978-1-85065-658-6.
- ^ Vietnam Vietnam by Spencer Tucker, p. 42, ISBN 0-8131-0966-3 Retrieved 4 June 2011.
- ^ Brocheux 2007, p. 198
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 18, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, pp. 18–19, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ a b Kolko, Gabriel Anatomy of War, p. 36, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 19, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ a b c d e f g h Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 20, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Kolko, Gabriel Anatomy of War, p. 37, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ “ベトナム独立戦争参加日本人の事跡に基づく日越のあり方に関する研究”. 井川 一久. Tokyo foundation. October 2005. Retrieved 10 June 2010.
- ^ “日越関係発展の方途を探る研究 ヴェトナム独立戦争参加日本人―その実態と日越両国にとっての歴史的意味―”. 井川 一久. Tokyo foundation. May 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2010.
- ^ Willbanks 2009, p. 8
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 24, ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, pp. 23–24 ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Willbanks 2009, p. 9
- ^ “Franco-Vietnam Agreement of March 6th, 1946″. Vietnamgear.com. 6 March 1946. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
- ^ “Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Chapter !, Section 2″. Mtholyoke.edu. Retrieved 29 April 2011.
- ^ Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 24 ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ Peter Dennis (1987). Troubled days of peace: Mountbatten and South East Asia command, 1945–46. Manchester University Press ND. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-7190-2205-0.
- ^ a b Neale, Jonathan The American War, p. 25 ISBN 1-898876-67-3.
- ^ a b c McNamara, Argument Without End pp. 377–79.
- ^ Pentagon Papers, Gravel, ed, Chapter 2, ‘U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War’, p. 54.
- ^ a b Ang, Cheng Guan, The Vietnam War from the Other Side, p. 14. Routledge (2002).
- ^ a b “The History Place – Vietnam War 1945–1960″. Retrieved 11 June 2008.
- ^ Herring, George C.: America’s Longest War, p. 18.
- ^ Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 471.
- ^ a b Vietnam The Ten Thousand Day War, Thames 1981, Michael Maclear, p. 57.
- ^ Vietnam at War: The History: 1946–1975, ISBN 978-0-19-506792-7, p. 263.
- ^ Dien Bien Phu, Air Force Magazine 87:8, August 2004.
- ^ a b Vietnam, Routledge, 1999, Spencer Tucker, ISBN 978-1-85728-922-0, p. 76.
- ^ The U.S. Navy: a history, Naval Institute Press, 1997, Nathan Miller, ISBN 978-1-55750-595-8, pp. 67–68.
- ^ The Pentagon Papers. Gravel, ed. vol. 1, pp. 391–404.
- ^ “William C. Jeffries (2006). Trap Door to the Dark Side“. p. 388. ISBN 1-4259-5120-1
- ^ Press release by the Embassy of the Republic of Vietnam, quoted from the Washington, D.C. press and Information Service, vol l. no. 18 (22 July 1955) and no. 20 (18 August 1955), in Chapter 19 of Gettleman, Franklin and Young, Vietnam and America: A Documented History, pp. 103–105.
- ^ Jacobs, pp. 45–55.
- ^ Two Viet-nams by Bernard B. Fall. Praeger, 1964.
- ^ Vietnam Divided by B.S.N. Murti, Asian Publishing House, 1964.
- ^ Robert Turner, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origin and Development, 102 (Stanford Ca: Hoover Institution Press, 1975).
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 238
- ^ Anatomy of a war, Gabiel Kolko, Phoenix press 1994, p. 98.
- ^ 1 Pentagon Papers (The Senator Gravel Edition), 247, 328 (Boston, Beacon Press, 1971).
- ^ John Prados, “The Numbers Game: How Many Vietnamese Fled South In 1954?“, The VVA Veteran, January/February 2005. Retrieved 21 January 2007.
- ^ R.J. Rummel, “Vietnam Democide,” http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.TAB6.1A.GIF
- ^ “Chapter on Vietnamese Democide”http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.CHAP6.HTM
- ^ “50 Years On, Vietnamese Remember Land Reform Terror” http://www.vietamericanvets.com/Page-Records-50YearsLandReform.htmIn
- ^ Rosefielde (2009) Red Holocaust pp. 120–121.
- ^ Christian G. Appy (2008) Vietnam: The Definitive Oral History, Told From All Sides. London, Ebury Press: 46–7.
- ^ Kolko, Gabriel, Anatomy of a War p. 98, ISBN 1-56584-218-9.
- ^ Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mandate for Change. Garden City, New Jersey. Doubleday & Company, 1963, p. 372.
- ^ “Pentagon Papers”. Mtholyoke.edu. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ a b Robert K. Brigham. Battlefield Vietnam: A Brief History.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 224
- ^ Gerdes (ed.) Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: The Vietnam War p. 19.
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End p. 19.
- ^ John F. Kennedy. “America’s Stakes in Vietnam“. Speech to the American Friends of Vietnam, June 1956.
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End pp. 200–201.
- ^ “The Pentagon Papers Gravel Edition Volume 1, Chapter 5, “Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954–1960″”. Mtholyoke.edu. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ Anatomy of a War by Gabriel Kolko, ISBN 1-56584-218-9, p. 89.
- ^ a b Karnow 1991, p. 230
- ^ Excerpts from Law 10/59, 6 May 1959.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 264
- ^ The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 265 – suggested that “Kennedy sidestepped Laos, whose rugged terrain was no battleground for American soldiers.”
- ^ The case of John F. Kennedy and Vietnam Presidential Studies Quarterly.
- ^ Mann, Robert. A Grand Delusion, Basic Books, 2002.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 267
- ^ U.S. Department of Defense, U.S.-Vietnam Relations, vol. 3, pp. 1–2.
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End p. 369.
- ^ John Kenneth Galbraith. “Memorandum to President Kennedy from John Kenneth Galbraith on Vietnam, 4 April 1962.” The Pentagon Papers. Gravel. ed. Boston, Massachusetts Beacon Press, 1971, vol. 2. pp. 669–671.
- ^ “Vietnam War”. Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
- ^ a b International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos.
- ^ Neil Sheehan (1989) A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York, Vintage: 201–66.
- ^ Live interview by John Bartlow Martin. Was Kennedy Planning to Pull out of Vietnam? New York, New York. John F. Kennedy Library, 1964, Tape V, Reel 1.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 326
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 327
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End p. 328.
- ^ a b Demma, Vincent H. “The U.S. Army in Vietnam.” American Military History (1989) the official history of the United States Army. Available online.
- ^ Douglas Blaufarb. The Counterinsurgency Era. New York, New York. Free Press, 1977, p. 119.
- ^ George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. Boston, Massachusetts McGraw Hill, 1986, p. 103.
- ^ Foreign Relation of the United States, Vietnam, 1961–1963. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1991, vol. 4., p. 707.
- ^ U.S. Special Forces: A Guide to America’s Special Operations Units : the World’s Most Elite Fighting Force, By Samuel A. Southworth, Stephen Tanner, Published by Da Capo Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-306-81165-4.
- ^ Shooting at the Moon by Roger Warner – The history of CIA/IAD’S 15-year involvement in conducting the secret war in Laos, 1960–1975, and the career of CIA PMCO (paramilitary case officer) Bill Lair.
- ^ Karnow 1991, pp. 336–339 – Johnson viewed many members whom he inherited from Kennedy’s cabinet with distrust because he had never penetrated their circle early in Kennedy’s presidency; to Johnson’s mind, such as W. Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson spoke a different language.
- ^ Shortly after the assassination of Kennedy, when McGeorge Bundy called LBJ on the phone, LBJ responded: “Goddammit, Bundy. I’ve told you that when I want you I’ll call you.” Brian VanDeMark, Into the Quagmire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 13.
- ^ Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin books, 1983), p. 339. Before a small group, including Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the new president also said, “We should stop playing cops and robbers [a reference to Diem’s failed leadership] and get back to… winning the war… tell the generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word…[to] win the contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy.”
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 339 – talking about the Mekong Delta, that, “At a place called Hoa Phu, for example, the strategic hamlet built during the previous summer now looked like it had been hit by a hurricane…. Speaking through an interpreter, a local guard explained to me that a handful of Vietcong agents had entered the hamlet one night and told the peasants to tear it down and return to their native villages. The peasants complied without question.”
- ^ National Security Action Memorandum NSAM 263 (11 October 1963).
- ^ NSAM 273 (26 November 1963).
- ^ “NSAM 273: South Vietnam”. Retrieved 23 June 2011.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 340 – who quote Minh as enjoying playing tennis more than bureaucratic work.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 341
- ^ Osborn 2002, pp. 84–85
- ^ Gerdes (ed.) Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: The Vietnam War p. 26.
- ^ a b Healy 2009, p. 91.
- ^ Palmer, Dave Richard (1978). Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective. Presidio Press. p. 882. ISBN 0-89141-550-5.
- ^ Shane, Scott (31 October 2005). “Vietnam Study, Casting Doubts, Remains Secret”. The New York Times. Retrieved 27 April 2010.
- ^ Gerdes (ed.) Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: The Vietnam War p. 25.
- ^ George C. Herring, America’s longest war: the United States and Vietnam 1950–1975 (New York: Wiley, 1979), 121.
- ^ a b The United States in Vietnam: An analysis in depth of the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam by George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis, Delta Books, 1967.
- ^ Simon, Dennis M. (August 2002). “The War in Vietnam,1965–1968″. Retrieved 7 May 2009.
- ^ Nalty 1998, pp. 97, 261.
- ^ Earl L. Tilford, Setup: What the Air Force did in Vietnam and Why. Maxwell Air Force Base AL: Air University Press, 1991, p. 89.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 468
- ^ a b Courtwright 2005, p. 210
- ^ Gen. Curtis E LeMay.
- ^ Generations Divide Over Military Action in Iraq. Pew Research Center. October 2002. (archived from the original on 2 February 2008).
- ^ Ho Chi Minh. Letter to Martin Niemoeller. December 1966. quoted in Marilyn B. Young. The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990. New York, New York. Harper, 1991, p. 172.
- ^ McNamara, Argument Without End p. 48.
- ^ a b c McNamara, Argument Without End pp. 349–51.
- ^ Mark Moyar (2006). Triumph forsaken: the Vietnam War, 1954–1965. Cambridge University Press. p. 339. ISBN 978-0-521-86911-9.
- ^ McNeill 1993, p. 58.
- ^ McNeill 1993, p. 94.
- ^ U.S. Department of Defense, U.S.-Vietnam Relations vol. 4, p. 7.
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End p. 353.
- ^ U.S. Department of Defense, U.S.-Vietnam Relations vol. 5, pp. 8–9.
- ^ U.S. Department of Defense, U.S.-Vietnam Relations vol. 4, pp 117–119. and vol. 5, pp. 8–12.
- ^ Public Papers of the Presidents, 1965. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1966, vol. 2, pp. 794–799.
- ^ a b McNamara Argument Without End pp. 353–354.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 453
- ^ a b Karnow 1991, p. 556
- ^ Peter Church. ed. A Short History of South-East Asia. Singapore, John Wiley & Sons, 2006, p. 193.
- ^ Karnow 1991, p. 706
- ^ a b Karnow 1991, p. 18
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End pp. 363–365.
- ^ Anatomy of a War by Gabriel Kolko ISBN 1-56584-218-9 pp. 308–309.
- ^ a b “The Guardians at the Gate”, Time 7 January 1966, vol. 87, no.1.
- ^ a b c d Witz The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War pp. 1–2.
- ^ Larry Berman. Lyndon Johnson’s War. New York, W.W. Norton, 1991, p. 116.
- ^ Harold P. Ford. CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers pp. 104–123.
- ^ Survivors Hunt Dead of Bentre, Turned to Rubble in Allied Raids nytimes.com.
- ^ “Peter Arnett: Whose Man in Baghdad?”, Mona Charen, Jewish World Review, 1 April 2003.
- ^ Saving Ben Tre.
- ^ Sorely 1999, pp. 11–16.
- ^ Gerdes (ed.) Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: The Vietnam War p. 27.
- ^ a b Command Magazine Issue 18, p. 15.
- ^ McNamara Argument Without End pp. 366–367.
- ^ a b “Vietnamization: 1970 Year in Review”. Upi.com. 27 October 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
- ^ “Ho Chi Minh Dies of Heart Attack in Hanoi”. The Times: p. 1. 4 September 1969.
- ^ Jeff Stein, Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992) 60–62.
- ^ Seals, Bob (2007) The “Green Beret Affair”: A Brief Introduction.
- ^ Prince Norodom Sihanouk. “Cambodia Neutral: The Dictates of Necessity.” Foreign Affairs 1958, pp. 582–583.
- ^ quoted in Ross, Russell R., ed. (1987). “Nonaligned Foreign Policy”. Cambodia: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. ISBN 0-7397-2328-6.
- ^ Joe Angio. Nixon a Presidency Revealed. Television Documentary, The History Channel, 15 February 2007.
- ^ USA.gov (February 1997). “The Pentagon Papers Case”. EJournal USA 2 (1). Archived from the original on 12 January 2008. Retrieved 27 April 2010.
- ^ Karnow 1991, pp. 644–645
- ^ “11. The U.S. Army in Vietnam from Tet to the Final Withdrawal, 1968–1975″. American Military History, Volume II, The United states Army in a Global Era, 1917–2003. United States Army Center of Military History. pp. 349–350.
- ^ Peter Church, ed. A Short History of South-East Asia. Singapore. John Wiley & Sons, 2006, pp. 193–194.
- ^ 1969: Millions march in US Vietnam Moratorium. BBC On This Day.
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- Cooper, Chester L. The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam (1970) a Washington insider’s memoir of events.
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- Hammond, William. Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962–1968 (1987); Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1068–1973 (1995). full-scale history of the war by U.S. Army; much broader than title suggests.
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- Karnow, Stanley (1991). Vietnam: A History (1991 ed.). Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-84218-4.; popular history by a former foreign correspondent; strong on Saigon’s plans.
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- Lawrence, Mark Atwood. “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History”, 2008, Oxford University Press.
- Leepson, Marc ed. Dictionary of the Vietnam War (1999) New York: Webster’s New World.
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- McGibbon, Ian; ed (2000). The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-558376-0.
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- Moss, George D. Vietnam (4th ed 2002) textbook.
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- Summers, Harry G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio press (1982), ISBN 0-89141-563-7 (225 pages)
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- Witz, James J. The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (1991).
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- McCain, John. Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir (1999) *Marshall, Kathryn. In the Combat Zone: An Oral History of American Women in Vietnam, 1966–1975 (1987)
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(AFP) – 36 minutes ago
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday said the treatment of returning Vietnam veterans had been a national shame and disgrace and pledged no repeat for US military personnel serving in today’s war zones.
In a speech marking Memorial Day at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, where the names of 58,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines are engraved, Obama said the fallen and those who survived should be proudly honored.
“One of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam — most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there,” he told a crowd that included veterans of the conflict that spiraled out of control in the 1960s.
“You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised.
“You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”
Memorial Day, the annual commemoration of fallen and missing warriors, is a national holiday and Obama spoke as tens of thousands of Americans and tourists paid tribute at the black stone memorial wall over the weekend.
“We can step towards its granite wall and reach out, touch a name,” said Obama, noting that his year marks the 50th anniversary of the conflict’s escalation when major US combat operations were stepped up.
“We honor each of those names etched in stone — 58,282 American patriots. We salute all who served with them. And we stand with the families who love them still.”
Obama said the US Department of Veterans Affairs aimed to ensure that those who survive conflict return home and gain the support needed to lead successful civilian lives, and praised Vietnam veterans for leading that effort.
The US is “helping hundreds of thousands of today’s veterans go to college and pursue their dreams” through the GI Bill, the president said.
“Because of you, across America, communities have welcomed home our forces from Iraq. And when our troops return from Afghanistan, America will give this entire 9/11 generation the welcome home they deserve,” Obama added.
Copyright © 2012 AFP. All rights reserved. More »
By Jennifer Rosenberg, About.com Guide
US riflemen from the 173rd Airborne Brigade charge toward Viet Cong positions, holding machine guns in a wooded area of War Zone D during the Vietnam War. (March 21, 1967)(Photo by U.S. Army/Getty Images)
What Was the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War was the prolonged struggle between nationalist forces attempting to unify the country of Vietnam under a communist government and the United States (with the aid of the South Vietnamese) attempting to prevent the spread of communism. Engaged in a war that many viewed as having no way to win, U.S. leaders lost the American public’s support for the war. Since the end of the war, the Vietnam War has become a benchmark for what notto do in all future U.S. foreign conflicts.Dates of the Vietnam War: 1959 — April 30, 1975
Also Known As: American War in Vietnam, Vietnam Conflict, Second Indochina War, War Against the Americans to Save the Nation
Overview of the Vietnam War:
Ho Chi Minh Comes Home
There had been fighting in Vietnam for decades before the Vietnam War began. The Vietnamese had suffered under French colonial rule for nearly six decades when Japan invaded portions of Vietnam in 1940. It was in 1941, when Vietnam had two foreign powers occupying them, that communist Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh arrived back in Vietnam after spending thirty years traveling the world.Once Ho was back in Vietnam, he established a headquarters in a cave in northern Vietnam and established the Viet Minh, whose goal was to rid Vietnam of the French and Japanese occupiers. Having gained support for their cause in northern Vietnam, the Viet Minh announced the establishment of an independent Vietnam with a new government called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The French, however, were not willing to give up their colony so easily and fought back.
For years, Ho had tried to court the United States to support him against the French, including supplying the U.S. with military intelligence about the Japanese during World War II. Despite this aid, the United States was fully dedicated to their Cold War foreign policy of containment, which meant preventing the spread of Communism. This fear of the spread of Communism was heightened by the U.S. “domino theory,” which stated that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to Communism then surrounding countries would also soon fall. To help prevent Vietnam from becoming a communist country, the U.S. decided to help France defeat Ho and his revolutionaries by sending the French military aid in 1950.
France Steps Out, U.S. Steps In
In 1954, after suffering a decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French decided to pull out of Vietnam. At the Geneva Conference of 1954, a number of nations met to determine how the French could peacefully withdraw. The agreement that came out of the conference (called the Geneva Accords) stipulated a cease fire for the peaceful withdrawal of French forces and the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel (which split the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam). In addition, a general democratic election was to be held in 1956 that would reunite the country under one government. The United States refused to agree to the election, fearing the communists might win.With help from the United States, South Vietnam carried out the election only in South Vietnam rather than countrywide. After eliminating most of his rivals, Ngo Dinh Diem was elected. His leadership, however, proved so horrible that he was killed in 1963 during a coup supported by the United States. Since Diem had alienated many South Vietnamese during his tenure, communist sympathizers in South Vietnam established the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Viet Cong, in 1960 to use guerrilla warfare against the South Vietnamese.
First U.S. Ground Troops Sent to Vietnam
As the fighting between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese continued, the U.S. continued to send additional advisers to South Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese fired directly upon two U.S. ships in international waters on August 2 and 4, 1964 (known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident), Congress responded with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This resolution gave the President the authority to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson used that authority to order the first U.S. ground troops to Vietnam in March 1965.
Johnson’s Plan for Success
President Johnson’s goal for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not for the U.S. to win the war, but for U.S. troops to bolster South Vietnam’s defenses until South Vietnam could take over. By entering the Vietnam War without a goal to win, Johnson set the stage for future public and troop disappointment when the U.S. found themselves in a stalemate with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.From 1965 to 1969, the U.S. was involved in a limited war in Vietnam. Although there were aerial bombings of the North, President Johnson wanted the fighting to be limited to South Vietnam. By limiting the fighting parameters, the U.S. forces would not conduct a serious ground assault into the North to attack the communists directly nor would there be any strong effort to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the Viet Cong’s supply path that ran through Laos and Cambodia).
Life in the Jungle
U.S. troops fought a jungle war, mostly against the well-supplied Viet Cong. The Viet Cong would attack in ambushes, set up booby traps, and escape through a complex network of underground tunnels. For U.S. forces, even just finding their enemy proved difficult. Since Viet Cong hid in the dense brush, U.S. forces would drop Agent Orange or napalm bombs which cleared an area by causing the leaves to drop off or to burn away. In every village, U.S. troops had difficulty determining which, if any, villagers were the enemy since even women and children could build booby traps or help house and feed the Viet Cong. U.S. soldiers commonly became frustrated with the fighting conditions in Vietnam. Many suffered from low morale, became angry, and some used drugs.
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This Day in History
Matthias Rust, a 19-year-old amateur pilot from West Germany, takes off from Helsinki, Finland, travels through more than 400 miles of Soviet airspace,…
The rivalry between the United States and the USSR, known as the Cold War, began after World War II and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War grew steadily during the second half of the 1960s.
The 36th U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson took office in 1963 and is remembered for his social reform measures.
Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, was the first to resign from office.
Did You Know?
According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.
- Roots of the Vietnam War
- Vietnam War: U.S. Intervention Begins
- Vietnam War Escalates
- Strategy of Attrition in Vietnam
Roots of the Vietnam War
During World War II, Japan invaded and occupied Vietnam, a nation on the eastern edge of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia that had been under French administration since the late 19th century. Inspired by Chinese and Soviet communism, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh, or the League for the Independence of Vietnam, to fight both Japan and the French colonial administration. Japan withdrew its forces in 1945, leaving the French-educated Emperor Bao Dai in control of an independent Vietnam. Ho’s Viet Minh forces rose up immediately, seizing the northern city of Hanoi and declaring a Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) with Ho as president.
Seeking to regain control of the region, France backed Bao and set up the state of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in July 1949, with Saigon as its capital. Armed conflict continued until a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 ended in French defeat by Viet Minh forces. The subsequent treaty negotiations at Geneva split Vietnam along the latitude known as the 17th parallel (with Ho in control in the North and Bao in the South) and called for nationwide elections for reunification to be held in 1956. In 1955, however, the strongly anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem pushed Bao aside to become president of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN).
Vietnam War: U.S. Intervention Begins
With the Cold War intensifying, the United States hardened its policies against any allies of the Soviet Union, and by 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower had pledged his firm support to Diem and South Vietnam. With training and equipment from American military and police, Diem’s security forces cracked down on Viet Minh sympathizers in the south, whom he derisively called Viet Cong (or Vietnamese Communist), arresting some 100,000 people, many of whom were tortured and executed. By 1957, the Viet Cong and other opponents of Diem’s repressive regime began fighting back with attacks on government officials and other targets, and by 1959 they had begun engaging South Vietnamese Army forces in firefights.
In December 1960, Diem’s opponents within South Vietnam–both communist and non-communist–formed the National Liberation Front (NLF) to organize resistance to the regime. Though the NLF claimed to be autonomous and that most of its members were non-Communist, many in Washington assumed it was a puppet of Hanoi. A team sent by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to report on conditions in South Vietnam advised a build-up of American military, economic and technical aid in order to help confront the Viet Cong threat. Working under the “domino theory,” which held that if one Southeast Asian country fell to communism, many would follow, Kennedy increased U.S. aid, though he stopped short of committing to a large-scale military intervention. By 1962, the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam had reached some 9,000 troops, compared with fewer than 800 during the 1950s.
Vietnam War Escalates
A coup by some of his own generals succeeded in toppling and killing Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, in November 1963, three weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The ensuing political instability in South Vietnam persuaded Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to further increase U.S. military and economic support. The following August, after DRV torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson ordered the retaliatory bombing of military targets in North Vietnam. Congress soon passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Johnson broad war-making powers, and U.S. planes began regular bombing raids, codenamed Operation Rolling Thunder, the following February.
In March 1965, Johnson made the decision–with solid support from the American public–to send U.S. combat forces into battle in Vietnam. By June, 82,000 combat troops were stationed in Vietnam, and General William Westmoreland was calling for 175,000 more by the end of 1965 to shore up the struggling South Vietnamese army. Despite the concerns of some of his advisers about this escalation, and about the entire war effort as well as a growing anti-war movement in the U.S., Johnson authorized the immediate dispatch of 100,000 troops at the end of July 1965 and another 100,000 in 1966. In addition to the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand also committed troops to fight in South Vietnam (albeit on a much smaller scale).
Strategy of Attrition in Vietnam
In contrast to the air attacks on North Vietnam, the U.S.-South Vietnamese war effort in the south was fought on the ground, largely under the command of General Westmoreland, in coordination with the government of General Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon. In general, U.S. military forces in the region pursued a policy of attrition, aiming to kill as many enemy troops as possible rather than trying to secure territory. By 1966, large areas of South Vietnam had been designated as “free-fire zones,” from which all innocent civilians were supposed to have evacuated and only enemy remained. Heavy bombing by B-52 aircraft or shelling made these zones uninhabitable, as refugees poured into camps in designated safe areas near Saigon and other cities. Even as the body count (at times exaggerated by U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities) mounted steadily, DRV and Viet Cong troops refused to stop fighting, encouraged by the fact that they could easily reoccupy lost territory. Meanwhile, supported by aid from China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam strengthened its air defenses.
By November 1967, the number of American troops in Vietnam was approaching 500,000, and U.S. casualties had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. As the war stretched on, some soldiers came to mistrust their government’s reasons for keeping them there, as well as Washington’s claims that the war was being won. The later years of the war saw increased physical and psychological deterioration among American soldiers, including drug use, mutinies and attacks by soldiers against officers and noncommissioned officers.
Bombarded by horrific images of the war on their televisions, Americans on the home front turned against the war as well: In October 1967, some 35,000 demonstrators staged a mass antiwar protest outside the Pentagon. Opponents of the war argued that civilians, not enemy combatants, were the primary victims and that the United States was supporting a corrupt dictatorship in Saigon.
Impact of the Tet Offensive on Vietnam War
By the end of 1967, Hanoi’s communist leadership was growing impatient as well, and sought to strike a decisive blow aimed at forcing the better-supplied United States to give up hopes of success. On January 31, 1968, some 70,000 DRV forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap launched the Tet offensive (named for the lunar new year), a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam. Though taken by surprise, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to strike back quickly, and the communists were unable to hold any of the targets for more than a day or two. Reports of the attacks stunned the U.S. public, however, especially after news broke that Westmoreland had requested an additional 200,000 troops. With his approval ratings dropping in an election year, Johnson called a halt to bombing in much of North Vietnam in March (though bombings continued in the south) and promised to dedicate the rest of his term to seeking peace rather than reelection.
Johnson’s new tack, laid out in a March 1968 speech, met with a positive response from Hanoi, and peace talks between the U.S. and North Vietnam opened in Paris that May. Despite the later inclusion of the South Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the political arm of the Viet Cong) the dialogue soon reached an impasse, and after an election campaign marred by violence, Republican Richard M. Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey to win the White House.
Vietnam War Ends: From Vietnamization to Withdrawal
Nixon sought to deflate the antiwar movement by appealing to a “silent majority” of Americans who he believed supported the war effort. In an attempt to limit the volume of American casualties, he announced a program of withdrawing troops, increasing aerial and artillery bombardment and giving South Vietnamese control over ground operations. In addition to this policy, which he called “Vietnamization,” Nixon continued public peace talks in Paris, adding higher-level secret talks conducted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger beginning in the spring of 1968. The North Vietnamese continued to insist on complete U.S. withdrawal as a condition of peace, however, and the next few years would bring even more carnage, including the horrifying revelation that U.S. soldiers had massacred more than 400 unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968.
Anti-war protests continued to build as the conflict wore on. In 1968 and 1969, there were hundreds of anti-war marches and gatherings throughout the country. On November 15, 1969, the largest anti-war protest in American history took place in Washington, D.C., as over 250,000 Americans gathered peacefully, calling for withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. The anti-war movement, which was particularly strong on college campuses, divided Americans bitterly. For some young people, the war symbolized a form of unchecked authority they had come to resent. For other Americans, opposing the government was considered unpatriotic and treasonous.
As the first U.S. troops were withdrawn, those who remained became increasingly angry and frustrated, exacerbating problems with morale and leadership. Tens of thousands of soldiers received dishonorable discharges for desertion, and about 500,000 American men from 1965-73 became “draft dodgers,” with many fleeing to Canada to evade conscription. Nixon ended draft calls in 1972, and instituted an all-volunteer army the following year.
In 1970, a joint U.S-South Vietnamese operation invaded Cambodia, hoping to wipe out DRV supply bases there. The South Vietnamese then led their own invasion of Laos, which was pushed back by North Vietnam. The invasion of these countries, in violation of international law, sparked a new wave of protests on college campuses across America, including two at Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi during which National Guardsmen and police killed a total of six student protesters. By the end of June 1972, however, after another failed offensive into South Vietnam, Hanoi was finally willing to compromise. Kissinger and North Vietnamese representatives drafted a peace agreement by early fall, but leaders in Saigon rejected it, and in December Nixon authorized a number of bombing raids against targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. Known as the Christmas Bombings, the raids drew international condemnation.
Legacy of the Vietnam War
In January 1973, the United States and North Korea concluded a final peace agreement, ending open hostilities between the two nations. War between North and South Vietnam continued, however, until April 30, 1975, when DRV forces captured Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City (Ho himself died in 1969). The long conflict had affected an immense majority of the country’s population; in eight years of warfare, an estimated 2 million Vietnamese died, while 3 million were wounded and another 12 million became refugees. War had decimated the country’s infrastructure and economy, and reconstruction proceeded slowly. In 1976, Vietnam was unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, though sporadic violence continued over the next 15 years, including conflicts with neighboring China and Cambodia. Under a broad free market policy put in place in 1986, the economy began to improve, boosted by oil export revenues and an influx of foreign capital. Trade and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S. were resumed in the 1990s.
In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War would linger long after the last troops returned home in 1973. The nation spent more than $120 billion on the conflict in Vietnam from 1965-73; this massive spending led to widespread inflation, exacerbated by a worldwide oil crisis in 1973 and skyrocketing fuel prices. Psychologically, the effects ran even deeper. The war had pierced the myth of American invincibility, and had bitterly divided the nation. Many returning veterans faced negative reactions from both opponents of the war (who viewed them as having killed innocent civilians) and its supporters (who saw them as having lost the war), along with physical damage including the effects of exposure to the harmful chemical herbicide Agent Orange, millions of gallons of which had been dumped by U.S. planes on the dense forests of Vietnam. In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was unveiled in Washington, D.C. On it were inscribed the names of 57,939 American armed forces killed or missing during the war; later additions brought that total to 58,200.
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Experience the sights, the sounds and the stories of the Vietnam War as it has never before been seen.
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Their story is in danger of being lost to history. This six-hour miniseries spans the massive initial troop build-up in 1965 to the fall of Saigon a decade later.
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Vietnam War: Beginning 13 years of commemorating a divisive conflict
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Monday, President Obama began a national commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the Vietnam War. To Vietnam veterans he said, ‘You made us proud, and you have earned your place among the greatest generations.’
By Brad Knickerbocker, Staff writer / May 28, 2012
It’ll last 13 years – the length of time the United States spent building up its major combat presence there to more than half a million troops under three presidents, losing 58,282 American service personnel, battling politically over a war that most Americans eventually rejected, and then disengaging in defeat – hurriedly leaving as North Vietnamese forces swept into what was then Saigon as US helicopters lifted off building tops carrying what few South Vietnamese families they could.
Aside from family and friends (and not all of those), it was years before most Vietnam vets heard a “welcome home” – officially not until the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. And even that was controversial – critics called the stark, black granite wall inscribed with the names of those lost “a black gash of shame.”
As some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did last week, some Vietnam veterans – largely a young and scruffy lot still wearing their jungle fatigues, some bearing the wounds of combat – had tossed their medals over a fence on Capitol Hill in protest. One of the antiwar leaders at the time was a young US Navy lieutenant named John Kerrey, now a veteran US senator.
Members of the Vietnam generation faced “their war” in different ways.
More than 3 million served in Southeast Asia, most of them not draftees but volunteers. Some left the country for Canada and other countries to avoid the draft. Others found legal ways to avoid service. Some (like former president Dick Cheney, who said he had “different priorities” at the time) accumulated multiple deferments. More than 300 professional athletes got Reserve or Guard appointments, including Bill Bradley, Nolan Ryan, and seven members of the Dallas Cowboys. So did former president George W. Bush.
In recent years, there have recurring stories of men who embellish (or flat out lie about) their military experience. The list is uncomfortably long. Actor Brian Dennehy, Toronto Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson, former U.S. Rep. Wes Cooley, Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph Ellis.
Vietnam vet B.G. Burkett, author of “Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History,” claims to have revealed more than 2,000 men who falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam.
In his proclamation for the commemoration, the President hinted at the domestic strife that marked the war, referring to its veterans as those “who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”
“It is never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor,” he said, evoking the call to “separate the warrior from the war,” however long after the fact that would come.
And at “the wall,” he took further note of how many returning vets were treated.
“Often you were blamed for a war you didn’t start,” he said. ”You came home and were sometimes denigrated when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened.”
In many parts of the country today, older Vietnam vets are mentoring young veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping them get through tough economic times and tougher memories of combat.
“It’s here we feel the depth of your sacrifice,” Obama said to the assembled Vietnam vets and their families on Memorial Day. “You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud, and you have earned your place among the greatest generations.”
Then, at their memorial site – Washington’s most-visited place of national historical significance – Obama said the words Vietnam vets typically say to each other: “Welcome home.”
Transcript: President Obama’s Memorial Day remarks at Vietnam War Memorial
Published May 28, 2012
The following are remarks President Obama delivered May 28, 2012, at Memorial Day ceremonies at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
Good afternoon, everybody. Chuck, thank you for your words and your friendship and your life of service. Veterans of the Vietnam War, families, friends, distinguished guests. I know it is hot. (Laughter.) But you are here — to honor your loved ones. And Michelle and I could not be more honored to be here with you.
It speaks to the complexity of America’s time in Vietnam that, even now, historians cannot agree on precisely when the war began. American advisors had served there, and died there, as early as the mid-’50s. Major combat operations would not begin until the mid-’60s. But if any year in between illustrated the changing nature of our involvement, it was 1962.
It was January, in Saigon. Our Army pilots strapped on their helmets and boarded their helicopters. They lifted off, raced over treetops carrying South Vietnamese troops. It was a single raid against an enemy stronghold just a few miles into the jungle — but it was one of America’s first major operations in that faraway land.
Fifty years later, we come to this wall — to this sacred place — to remember. We can step towards its granite wall and reach out, touch a name. Today is Memorial Day, when we recall all those who gave everything in the darkness of war so we could stand here in the glory of spring. And today begins the 50th commemoration of our war in Vietnam. We honor each of those names etched in stone — 58,282 American patriots. We salute all who served with them. And we stand with the families who love them still.
For years you’ve come here, to be with them once more. And in the simple things you’ve left behind — your offerings, your mementos, your gifts — we get a glimpse of the lives they led. The blanket that covered him as a baby. The baseball bat he swung as a boy. A wedding ring. The photo of the grandchild he never met. The boots he wore, still caked in mud. The medals she earned, still shining. And, of course, some of the things left here have special meaning, known only to the veterans — a can of beer; a packet of M&Ms; a container of Spam; an old field ration — still good, still awful. (Laughter.)
It’s here we feel the depth of your sacrifice. And here we see a piece of our larger American story. Our Founders — in their genius — gave us a task. They set out to make a more perfect union. And so it falls to every generation to carry on that work. To keep moving forward. To overcome a sometimes painful past. To keep striving for our ideals.
And one of the most painful chapters in our history was Vietnam — most particularly, how we treated our troops who served there. You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor. (Applause.) You were sometimes blamed for misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised. You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again. (Applause.)
And so a central part of this 50th anniversary will be to tell your story as it should have been told all along. It’s another chance to set the record straight. That’s one more way we keep perfecting our Union — setting the record straight. And it starts today. Because history will honor your service, and your names will join a story of service that stretches back two centuries.
Let us tell the story of a generation of servicemembers — every color, every creed, rich, poor, officer and enlisted — who served with just as much patriotism and honor as any before you. Let’s never forget that most of those who served in Vietnam did so by choice. So many of you volunteered. Your country was at war, and you said, “send me.” That includes our women in Vietnam — every one of you a volunteer. (Applause.) Those who were drafted, they, too, went and carried their burden — you served; you did your duty.
You persevered though some of the most brutal conditions ever faced by Americans in war. The suffocating heat. The drenching monsoon rains. An enemy that could come out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. Some of the most intense urban combat in history, and battles for a single hill that could rage for weeks. Let it be said — in those hellholes like Briarpatch, and the Zoo and the Hanoi Hilton — our Vietnam POWs didn’t simply endure; you wrote one of the most extraordinary stories of bravery and integrity in the annals of military history. (Applause.)
As a nation, we’ve long celebrated the courage of our forces at Normandy and Iwo Jima, the Pusan Perimeter and Heartbreak Ridge. So let us also speak of your courage — at Hue and Khe Sanh, at Tan Son Nhut and Saigon, from Hamburger Hill to Rolling Thunder. All too often it’s forgotten that you, our troops in Vietnam, won every major battle you fought in. (Applause.)
When you came home, I know many of you put your medals away — tucked them in a drawer, or in a box in the closet. You went on with your lives — started families and pursued careers. A lot of you didn’t talk too much about your service. As a consequence, this nation has not always fully appreciated the chapter of your lives that came next.
So let us also tell a story of a generation that came home, and how — even though some Americans turned their back on you — you never turned your back on America. (Applause.) Like generations before you, you took off the uniform, but you never stopped serving. You became teachers and police officers and nurses — the folks we count on every single day. You became entrepreneurs, running companies and pioneering industries that changed the world. You became leaders and public servants, from town halls to Capitol Hill — lifting up our communities, our states, our nation.
You reminded us what it was like to serve, what it meant to serve. Those of you who stayed in uniform, you rose through the ranks, became leaders in every service, learned from your experience in Vietnam and rebuilt our military into the finest force that the world has ever known. (Applause.) And let’s remember all those Vietnam veterans who came back and served again — in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You did not stop serving. (Applause.)
Even as you succeeded in all these endeavors, you did something more — maybe the most important thing you did — you looked after each other. When your government didn’t live up to its responsibilities, you spoke out — fighting for the care and benefits you had earned, and, over time, transforming the VA. And, of course, one of these Vietnam veterans is now our outstanding Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Ric Shinseki. (Applause.)
You looked after one another. You cared for one another. People weren’t always talking about PTSD at the time — you understood it, and you were there for each other. Just as importantly, you didn’t just take care of your own, you cared for those that followed. You’ve made it your mission to make sure today’s troops get the respect and support that all too often you did not receive. (Applause.)
Because of you, because our Vietnam veterans led the charge, the Post-9/11 GI Bill is helping hundreds of thousands of today’s veterans go to college and pursue their dreams. (Applause.) Because of you, because you didn’t let us forget, at our airports, our returning troops get off the airplane and you are there to shake their hands. (Applause.) Because of you, across America, communities have welcomed home our forces from Iraq. And when our troops return from Afghanistan, America will give this entire 9/11 Generation the welcome home they deserve. That happened in part because of you. (Applause.)
This is the story of our Vietnam servicemembers — the story that needs to be told. This is what this 50th anniversary is all about. It’s another opportunity to say to our Vietnam veterans what we should have been saying from the beginning: You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud. You came home and you helped build the America that we love and that we cherish.
So here today, it must be said — you have earned your place among the greatest generations. At this time, I would ask all our Vietnam veterans, those of you who can stand, to please stand, all those already standing, raise your hands — as we say those simple words which always greet our troops when they come home from here on out: Welcome home. (Applause.) Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home. Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home. (Applause.)
Today, we’re calling on all Americans, and every segment of our society, to join this effort. Everybody can do something. Five decades removed from a time of division among Americans, this anniversary can remind us of what we share as Americans. That includes honoring our Vietnam veterans by never forgetting the lessons of that war.
So let us resolve that when America sends our sons and daughters into harm’s way, we will always give them a clear mission; we will always give them a sound strategy; we will give them the equipment they need to get the job done. We will have their backs. (Applause.) We will resolve that leaders will be candid about the risks and about progress — and have a plan to bring our troops home, with honor.
Let us resolve to never forget the costs of war, including the terrible loss of innocent civilians — not just in Vietnam, but in all wars. For we know that while your sacrifice and service is the very definition of glory, war itself is not glorious. We hate war. When we fight, we do so to protect ourselves because it’s necessary.
Let’s resolve that in our democracy we can debate and disagree — even in a time of war. But let us never use patriotism as a political sword. Patriots can support a war; patriots can oppose a war. And whatever our view, let us always stand united in support of our troops, who we placed in harm’s way. (Applause.) That is our solemn obligation. (Applause.)
Let’s resolve to take care of our veterans as well as they’ve taken care of us — not just talk, but actions. Not just in the first five years after a war, but the first five decades. For our Vietnam veterans, this means the disability benefits for diseases connected to Agent Orange. It means job opportunities and mental health care to help you stand tall again. It means ending the tragedy of veterans’ homelessness, so that every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America. You shouldn’t have to fight for a roof over your heads when you fought on behalf of the country that you love. (Applause.)
And when an American does not come back — including the 1,666 Americans still missing from the Vietnam War — let us resolve to do everything in our power to bring them home. This is our solemn promise to mothers like Sarah Shay who joins us today, 93 years old, who has honored her son, Major Donald Shay, Jr., missing in action for 42 years. There she is. Sarah, thank you for your courage. God bless you. (Applause.)
This is the promise we’re fulfilling today to the Meroney family of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Forty-three years after he went missing, we can announce that Army Captain Virgil Meroney, III, is coming home, and he will finally rest in peace. (Applause.)
Some have called this war era a scar on our country, but here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before. (Applause.)
And finally, on this anniversary and all the years to come, let us remember what binds us, as one people. This is important for all of us, whether you fought in the Vietnam War or fought against it, whether you were too young to be shaped by it. It is important that our children understand the sacrifices that were made by your troops in Vietnam; that for them, this is more than just a name in history books. It’s important that we know the lesson of a gift once left at this Memorial.
It was towards the end of the day, and most of the tourists and visitors had departed. And there it was — a football helmet, black with white stripes, and a wristband. And with them was a handwritten note. And it was from a young man, still in high school. And mind you, this was more than two decades after Vietnam. That high school student was born years after the war had already ended. But in that short, handwritten note he captured the reverence — the bonds between generations — that bring us here today.
The letter began, “Dear Vietnam Veterans, here are two things from me to you that I think you should have.” He explained that it was his helmet from midget football and his wristband from his senior year. So today I want to close with the words he wrote:
In these two pieces of equipment, I was allowed to make mistakes, correct them, grow and mature as a person. However, that was on my battlefield. You didn’t get the chance to do that on your battlefield. Some of you were forced to grow up too fast; all of you died too soon. We do have many things in common, though. We both have pride, heart and determination. I’m just sorry you guys had to learn those qualities too fast. That is why I’m giving you what I grew up with. You are true heroes and you will never be forgotten.
That’s from a high school kid, born decades after the end of the war. And that captures the spirit that this entire country should embrace.
Veterans, families of the Vietnam War, I know the wounds of war are slow to heal. You know that better than most. But today we take another step. The task of telling your story continues. The work of perfecting our Union goes on. And decades from now, I hope another young American will visit this place and reach out and touch a name. And she’ll learn the story of servicemembers – people she never met, who fought a war she never knew — and in that moment of understanding and of gratitude and of grace, your legacy will endure. For you are all true heroes and you will all be remembered.
May God bless you. May God bless your families. May God bless our men and women in uniform. And may God bless these United States of America. (Applause.)
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A Member of the World Affairs Councils of America
Lost Peace: Lessons from the Cold War for American Foreign Policy (Note special meeting time. This is an extra meeting to our schedule- No refreshments will be served. The public is invited. Seating on a first come, first served basis.)
Award Wining Author, renowned scholar on the U.S. presidency, and Mark Clark Visiting Professor at The Citadel
Robert Dallek is one of America’s most respected scholars of the presidency and modern American history. He holds the General Mark Clark Chair of History at The Citadel for the Spring 2011 semester, and is the best-selling author of 18 books, including the recent John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, as well as the highly regarded Nixon and Kisssinger: Partners in Power. He has written a biography of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a two-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Dallek is also the author of The American Style of Foreign Policy and Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945 – 1953. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the book on Nixon and Kissinger, and won the Bancroft Prize from the American Historical Association for his biography of FDR.
Since earning his Ph.D. at Columbia University, he has taught history at UCLA and Boston University, and he has served as a visiting professor or instructor at Columbia, Oxford University, Stanford University, the University of Texas, and Dartmouth College. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and past-president of th Society of American Historians.
He is a regular contributor to major newspapers and magazines and has advised documentary filmmakers on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. His television and radio credits include appearances on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR’s All Things Considered, The Daily Show, CNN, Charlie Rose, and the CBS Evening News.
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The Charleston Foreign Affairs Forum was founded in the early 1980s and operated for 20 years under the name Foreign Affairs Forum.
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Dr. Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek is a prominent American historian specializing in American Presidents. He is a Professor of History at Boston University and has previously taught at Columbia University, UCLA and Oxford. He has won the Bancroft Prize and numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching.
He attended the University of Illinois, graduating with a B.A. in history in June 1955. He then spent several years at Columbia University gaining an M.A. in history in February 1957, before finishing his Ph.D in June 1964. While studying for his Ph.D he also taught classes as an Instructor of History at Columbia until 1964.
From 1964 until 1994 he was an Assistant to Full Professor of History at UCLA. By the year 1966 however he became a Graduate Advisor in the department of History at UCLA and served in that position for two years. From 1972 to 1974 he served as Vice Chairman of the Department of History at UCLA. For a time he was at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute as Research Associate, from 1981-1985. In 1993 he was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology and from 1994 to 1995 he was the Harmsworth Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. In 1995 he was awarded an honorary M.A. by Oxford University for his work there. Since 1996 he has been a Visiting Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas. From 1996 he was a Professor of History at Boston University.
Orchid ver. 4.7.6.
The Kennedys at Hyannis Port
Generations of the Kennedy Family
Edward Moore Kennedy
John Francis Fitzgerald
The Third Generation
The Kennedy Wealth
The Kennedys in Politics
The Kennedys and Civil Rights
JFK and Foreign Policy
Is Democracy Finished?
Background Memo on Joe Kennedy
JFK’s Inaugural Speech
JFK on Civil Rights
RFK in Capetown
RFK on the Death of MLK
Ted’s Eulogy for his Brother Robert
Ted Kennedy’s Post-Chappaquidick Speech
Ted Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic Convention
Cast & Crew:
Related Books and Websites
Complete Program Transcript
Interview: Robert Dallek
John F. Kennedy’s Health
John Kennedy had so many different medical problems that began when he was a boy. He started out with intestinal problems… spastic colitis. In 1937 they began giving him steroids. They didn’t know how to dose properly and the steroids caused him to have osteoporosis of the lower back. His back problems were essentially the consequence of the steroids. But he also had Addison’s disease, which was the failure of the adrenal glands to function. They, in essence, shriveled and died. Kennedy’s Medical Treatments
He was on anti-spasmodics. He was on hydrocortisone. He was on testosterone to beef up his weight because the diarrhea, the intestinal difficulties, caused him to lose weight. He was on a variety of antibiotics to combat his periodic prostatitis, urethritis. He was occasionally on sleeping medication, lots of pain killers to deal with his back… As my medical colleague, Jeff Kelman, said when he looked at this list of medications, “My goodness, if he took all of this at once he would have been dead!” So it was really a striking demonstration of how substantial his medical problems were.
Somebody once said that Kennedy was more promiscuous with his physicians than he was with women. He had so many different problems — especially his back caused him such misery, such pain. This “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson, would inject him with a variety of things — including apparently amphetamines. Kennedy, at one point, was told that what he was doing might be dangerous. “I don’t care if it’s horse piss,” he said. “It makes me feel better.”
A Viennese man by the name of Hans Kraus was brought in to consult and he told Kennedy, “If you don’t start exercising and stop taking those Procaine shots in your back and whatever else you’re taking, you are going to end up in a wheelchair. You won’t be able to walk.” He had such misery that he could barely turn over in bed at night; had trouble pulling the sock and shoe on his left foot. Going up the staircase was a trial by fire, out of the eyeshot of the press, of the media, of photographers.
Public Awareness of Kennedy’s Health Problems
During his 1946 campaign, people would see Kennedy was incredibly thin, as a rail, just almost emaciated looking. But a lot of people assumed, “Well he’s just come back from the Navy, from war service. He’ll fill out.”
In 1960 when he and Lyndon Johnson were contesting the presidential nomination, the Johnson campaign released the stories that Kennedy had Addison’s disease, and the Kennedy campaign, led by Bobby Kennedy, denied it. They said,“Oh well, there’s some small deficiency in the adrenal glands and we’re able to take care of it and there’s no danger to his health,” et cetera. So they just downplayed the problems. And then, afterwards, during the interim between his election and his inauguration they released information saying how healthy he was. Some of the medicines he took would give his face a kind of puffy — made him look in some ways not so much puffy as maybe a little too overweight. So it wasn’t clear to people. And also, the way he spoke, and the way he moved, and often when he was out in public, I think he was either wearing a back brace and/or had had shots to ease the back pain. That allowed him to demonstrate a kind of mobility which he really didn’t enjoy.
If the public had known about Kennedy’s ill health he might have been elected to the House, even to the Senate, but I don’t think he ever would have been elected to the presidency. Remember, he’s running in 1960 and he has to shoulder the burden — if he wins — of being the youngest man ever elected in presidential history; and also he’ll be the first Catholic to ever gain the White House. So to add to that the fact that he had Addison’s disease, that he had these terrible problems with his back; that he had colitis, the spastic colitis; that he had prostatitis, urethritis, sinusitis; that he had to take so many medications to cope with his various ailments, I think it would have destroyed his chances at winning the election.
Medications and Kennedy’s Effectiveness
I set the medicine administration records and his health problems down alongside of the various crises he faced — and in particular I looked at the Cuban Missile Crisis — because we have tape conversations over those thirteen days. I found him to be as lucid, as cogent as anyone would have hoped a president would be in such a crisis. So I do not see evidence of his medical problems deterring him from being a highly effective president and manager of a crisis. In fact, my medical colleague, Dr. Kelman, tells me that if he didn’t take these medicines that he never would have been able to perform at as high a level as in fact he performed. And so he needed those medicines, but they were not a deterrent but a helpmate, an aid to being an effective chief executive.
The War in Vietnam
Kennedy sees Vietnam, ten thousand miles away, as a very dangerous place to expand a war. And Maxwell Taylor, his chief of staff, said, “Kennedy had a visceral aversion to putting ground forces into Southeast Asia, into Vietnam.” Kennedy himself said, “This is not like Korea” — in Korea there was a direct act of aggression. This is different. And it’s a kind of subversion, and if we get involved in there it’s not going to be so clear to the public that we should have done this and it could lead to a political breach in the United States.
Also, he instructed Bob McNamara in ’62 to begin planning an exit from Vietnam, and he asked him to do it over a three-year period so we could be out of there by 1965. And McNamara laid out a plan to be out of there by 1968.
But there is other evidence that Kennedy was really doubtful about the wisdom of escalating the war. I think the most telling evidence has to do with the American press corps in Saigon. The press, during Kennedy’s time in office, were critical of American performance in Vietnam and they were pushing the administration to be more effective, to save South Vietnam from Communism and demonstrate that they could be a more effective influence on that conflict. Kennedy was very worried that the stories coming out of Vietnam would force the issue onto the front pages of the newspapers and then compel him to escalate that war. In 1961, ’62, ’63 — I checked the Gallup polls — there are no Gallup polls about Vietnam. The first one is April ’64, and in that poll a cross-section of Americans are asked what they knew about Vietnam and only 37% say they knew anything about this conflict, about this war. So Kennedy has great doubts. November 20, 1963, he’s going off to Texas, he says to his assistant secretary of state, Mike Forrester, “When I come back from Texas we have to review this whole Vietnam issue and talk about how we get out of there.” See, it was including a discussion of how we get out of there… I don’t think he ever would have escalated that war to the degree, to the extent, that Lyndon Johnson did.
If Kennedy Had Lived
If Kennedy had lived, he would have been reelected, surely, in 1964, running against Barry Goldwater. He would have won probably as big a landslide as Lyndon Johnson commanded. He would have carried with him into the House and the Senate majorities comparable to what Johnson had, which were roughly two-thirds Democratic majorities. And Kennedy then would have put across his reform legislation. He had on the table an $11 billion tax cut, federal aid to elementary, secondary and higher education, a civil rights bill, a bill on poverty, a department of transportation, a department of housing and urban development. All that, I think, would have been passed. But those became Lyndon Johnson’s legislative measures. I think one hundred years from now historians will look back and see the presidency of the ’60s as a Kennedy-Johnson presidency. And especially on domestic affairs, Kennedy puts this all on the table, Johnson gets it enacted — surely using Kennedy’s martyrdom, but again — Kennedy would have passed this too.
If he had lived and had all the success in domestic affairs I think he would have matched it, in a sense, in dealing with Vietnam, Cuba. There were back-channel negotiations and discussions going on in the last three months of Kennedy’s presidency about the possibility of getting on better footing…
I don’t want to overstate this point: utopia wasn’t around the corner. But, if he had lived, we would not have had Lyndon Johnson, the credibility gap, I don’t think we would have had the extent of our involvement in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have had Richard Nixon, or Watergate. There would have been other problems, to be sure — there always are — but it wouldn’t have been the problems I’ve just mentioned, and I think maybe there would have been less political cynicism in this country, less alienation from politics than what we’ve experienced over the last forty years.
John F. Kennedy’s Legacy
It’s interesting that over the ’90s more has come out about Kennedy’s womanizing. Much more, particularly with my book, has come out about his health problems, but there seems to be a consistency in the public mind in regarding Kennedy as one of the great presidents in American history. There is something about him that continues to command the loyalty, the approval, of the public.
Part of it was the fact that he was martyred, but that’s not sufficient to explain it because William McKinley was assassinated and forty years later nobody remembered who he was. There’s much more at work here. And I think television is important here. It’s captured him on tape — he’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46… what he came across as was so charismatic, charming, witty, engaging, smart — just an extraordinary personality. And those press conferences he held are captured on tape and have great appeal to people to this day. And also I think he conveyed a kind of hope, a kind of promise to the public, the expectation of a better future. And I don’t think that’s been lost. The country, I think, is still tied to this and remembers him in such fond and positive terms.
My American Experience
We invite you to tell us your own stories – whether you lived through a tumultuous time period or learned about it from a relative, a book or a movie.
Three historical myths have been leading American presidents into folly for nearly a century. Is Obama wise enough to avoid the same fate?
BY ROBERT DALLEK | NOVEMBER 2010
In 1952, British historian Denis William Brogan published a brilliantly perceptive article on “The Illusion of American Omnipotence.” In the midst of the Korean War, Brogan was not only commenting on Americans’ frustration with their inability to prevail decisively against supposedly inferior Chinese and North Korean forces, but also cautioning against other misadventures in which the United States falsely assumed its superpower status assured a military victory in any conflict it chose to fight. Brogan could just as easily have titled his essay “The Omnipotence of American Illusion” in an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of true believers. “Convictions,” the great German philosopher wrote, “are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”
Brogan and Nietzsche might well have been talking about the last 100 years of American thinking about foreign policy and the convictions — or call them illusions — that have shaped it along the way, across administrations led by men as diverse in outlook and background as Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and George W. Bush.
There is certainly much about America’s world dealings in the 20th century that deserves praise: victory in World War II, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, JFK’s diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis, the Camp David peace accords, the Panama Canal treaty, Richard Nixon’s opening to China, and détente with the Soviet Union, to mention the most obvious. But a more rounded view would have to include its many stumbles. Three enduring illusions — a misguided faith in universalism, or America’s power to transform the world from a community of hostile, lawless nations into enlightened states devoted to peaceful cooperation; a need to shun appeasement of all adversaries or to condemn suggestions of conciliatory talks with them as misguided weakness; and a belief in the surefire effectiveness of military strength in containing opponents, whatever their ability to threaten the United States — have made it nearly impossible for Americans to think afresh about more productive ways to address their foreign problems. Call it the tyranny of metaphor: For all their pretensions to shaping history, U.S. presidents are more often its prisoners.
Even Barack Obama, who rode his opposition to the Iraq war into the White House and has kept his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops, is not immune from history’s illusions. How could he be? Domestic politics are as much a part of foreign policy as assessments of conditions abroad. But Obama might yet succeed in fending off such pressures. The president is keenly interested in making the wisest possible use of history, as was evident to me from two dinners 10 other historians and I had with him at the White House over the past two years. For despite the many countercurrents confronting him, Obama was eager to learn from us how previous presidents transcended their circumstances to achieve transformational administrations.
Such lessons must weigh heavily as Obama faces his next momentous decision on what to do in Afghanistan while praying that Gen. David Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq surge, can duplicate the feat before the public’s patience runs out. So far, the president has avoided either fully embracing the Afghan war or calling for outright withdrawal. His commitment of 30,000 additional troops was meant to reassure America’s national security hawks that he is as determined as they are to defend the country’s safety from future attacks. At the same time, his promise to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 suggests his understanding that Afghanistan could be another Vietnam — a costly, unwinnable conflict that could tie the United States down in Asia for the indefinite future. It might also be, of course, that Obama has serious doubts about the value of sending American soldiers to die in a far-off, impoverished land of little strategic value, but understands that simply to walk away from the conflict carries unacceptable political risks, undermining his ability to enact a bold domestic agenda that is central to his administration and his chances for a second term.
Just as President Harry Truman could not ignore the political pressure from the China Lobby to back Chiang Kai-shek’s failing regime against Mao Zedong’s Communists in the middle of the last century, so Obama is mindful of the political risks of appearing irresolute. Already, his predecessor’s U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, has blamed Obama’s Afghan withdrawal timeline for sending “a signal of weakness that our adversaries interpret to our detriment.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney has referred to the president as someone who “travels around the world apologizing.” Bush himself previewed a similar line of attack in a 2008 speech in Israel, in which he criticized Obama and others then calling for engagement with Iran. “We have heard this foolish delusion before,” Bush said. “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
Can Obama escape this trap? To do so, he’ll need to study his predecessors’ mistakes and learn from those few U.S. presidents who managed to avoid being tyrannized by metaphor. And he’ll need to understand how we got here.
AMERICA’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH universalism, the first of the three illusions, began in January 1918 with President Woodrow Wilson’s peace program, his Fourteen Points: the seductive rationalizations for U.S. participation in a “war to end all wars” and make the Western world “safe for democracy.” Such high-minded ends appealed to Americans as validations of the superiority of their institutions. They were enough to convince an isolationist America to sacrifice more than 50,000 lives in the last 19 months of Europe’s Great War. The 20 postwar years, which saw the rise of communism, fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism leading to World War II, gave the lie to Wilson’s dreams of universal peace and self-governance, driving Americans back into their isolationist shell until the attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated that the “free security” provided by vast oceans and weak neighbors no longer guaranteed their country’s safety.
Yet Wilson’s idealistic hopes for a better world did not disappear on the beaches of Normandy or in the caves of Iwo Jima. If anything, World War II reinforced Americans’ unrealistic expectations that they could reduce — if not end — human conflict. Wilsonianism found continuing life in the birth of the United Nations and the triumph of democracy in Germany, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, and parts of Latin America. But Wilson’s vision was again elevated to a sacred doctrine that repeatedly played America false. Eager to believe that World War II would largely cure countries of their affinity for bloodshed, Americans persisted in seeing the Allies — Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States — as permanent friends acting in concert to keep the postwar peace.
The onset of the Cold War brought an abrupt end to these dreams. But convictions about the irresistible attraction of U.S. institutions encouraged the hope that inside every foreigner was an American waiting to emerge, an outlook that shaped American thinking not only during the years of anti-communist struggle, but all the way up to Bush’s rationale for fighting in Iraq. Today, Bush’s prediction that the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s military dictatorship would transform the Middle East into a flourishing center of traditional American freedoms is proving to be as elusive as Wilson’s original grandiose vision. The imperfect U.S.-sponsored regimes in Baghdad — and Kabul too, for that matter — are a far cry from the robust democracies Bush hoped would become the envy of the region. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world,” Bush said in his very Wilsonian second inaugural address, though U.S. military chiefs in Iraq and Afghanistan have since managed to move the goal posts, promising to establish reasonably pro-American governments that can handle their own security.
Most of the evidence, however, points to an unpredictable future for both countries, where political instability, anti-Americanism, and military coups seem unlikely to disappear. It may be that 10 or 20 or 30 years of U.S. stewardship will bring freedom and prosperity to Iraq and Afghanistan, but Americans have limited patience with nation-building that costs them unacceptable amounts of blood and treasure — and often have a better collective sense of what American power can realistically achieve than the government’s best and brightest. They have not forgotten the Vietnam War, even if, at times, their leaders seem to have.
Indeed, Vietnam is always there as a trap for the American leader, a trap set by the deadly and persistent second illusion — that a failure to combat every act of international aggression is tantamount to appeasement, a return to the failed passivity of the 1930s. This illusion has time and again led the United States into unwise and costly military adventures. While Winston Churchill was marvelously right in saying that Britain had a choice between war and dishonor at Munich in 1938 and that Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler would produce both, Munich was never the perfect analogy for dealing with subsequent conflicts, as Churchill himself acknowledged. As he put it in 1950, “The word ‘appeasement’ is not popular, but appeasement has its place in all policy. Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak. Defy the strong.” But for hawks, it is always Munich 1938 — no matter whether the aggressor is Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, or “Baby Doc” Duvalier — and presidents from Truman to Bush have been led by the appeasement metaphor into misjudgments that have harmed the United States and undermined their presidencies.
Truman, for example, justified his decision to enter the Korean War in 1950 as a way to deter the Soviet Union, which he saw as the architect of the conflict, from future acts of aggression that could touch off a World War III. Truman had reason enough to combat Pyongyang’s aggression: South Korea’s collapse would have undermined confidence in America’s determination to defend Japan and Western European allies. Comparisons between Stalin and Hitler and predictions that Korea was the start of a worldwide communist offensive like the Nazi reach for global control, however, were decidedly overdrawn. But the power of the anti-appeasement proposition was so great in 1950 that one can search in vain for dissenting voices.
Had Truman aimed simply to restore South Korea’s independence, his decision to enter the Korean fighting would look much different today. Instead, he chose to follow Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s advice to destroy North Korea’s communist regime by crossing the 38th parallel. It was a blunder based on two false assumptions: that the Chinese would not enter the conflict and that if they did, they would be roundly defeated, with the likely collapse of their communist regime. Instead, China’s direct entry into the war produced a military and political stalemate, delayed a possible rapprochement with Beijing for years, and destroyed Truman’s presidency. With his approval rating falling to 24 percent, he could neither enact his Fair Deal nor maintain public backing for the war.
Roger Viollet/Getty Images
President Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, was another casualty of the Munich analogy. Recalling the political consequences for his party from the 1949 “loss” of China that right-wing Republicans like Joseph McCarthy used to label Democrats as appeasers of Chamberlain scale, he committed the United States to a war in Southeast Asia even more politically destructive to his administration and the country than any act of passivity might have produced. Johnson came to lament Vietnam’s cost to him and his administration, complaining about the “bitch” of a war that distracted him from his true love — building the Great Society.
The failure in Vietnam produced a new metaphor: Fighting a Third World country on hostile terrain was to be avoided at all costs. When George H.W. Bush convinced Congress and the country to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, it was an uphill struggle to persuade Americans that he was not involving them in another Vietnam. Yet he succeeded by invoking that appeasement metaphor yet again: “If history teaches us anything, it is that we must resist aggression or it will destroy our freedoms,” Bush explained in making his case for the war. “Appeasement does not work. As was the case in the 1930s, we see in Saddam Hussein an aggressive dictator threatening his neighbors.” Such overblown warnings were enough to sell the Persian Gulf offensive, but postwar arguments that America had now kicked the Vietnam syndrome were premature — and may have sown the seeds of his son’s disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The third illusion U.S. presidents often hold is that militarized containment — the belief that containing or preventing enemy aggression depends on a military threat to their survival — is the right way to avoid the traps set by the first two. The core conviction here has been that America won the Cold War because it understood that the Soviet Union was intent on world domination and that the best way to counter its ambitions short of all-out war was to contain its reach for control by a combination of economic, political, and military initiatives that would discourage Moscow from aggression and strain its limited resources to the breaking point, forcing communism’s collapse.
From the start, however, containment was a contested doctrine. In his famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946 and “X” article in Foreign Affairs the next year, George F. Kennan, who headed the State Department’s new policy planning staff, counseled the White House to contain Soviet Russia’s “expansionist,” “messianic” drive for world control. Kennan later regretted having stated his views in such evangelistic language; it encouraged anti-communists to take his advice as a call for military as well as political and diplomatic action.
In fact, Kennan never believed that Moscow intended a military offensive against Western Europe. In his judgment, Soviet acts of aggression would take the form of political subversion, calculated steps to bring pro-Soviet governments to power wherever possible as Moscow drove to win what it saw as the inevitable competition between communism and capitalism. Kennan’s formula for victory was economic aid fostering political stability in countries potentially vulnerable to communism’s siren song. He wisely described Soviet communism as a system of state management and controls that would eventually collapse when its inability to meet consumer demands for the sort of material well-being and freedoms enjoyed in the West became evident. Accordingly, he vigorously opposed hawkish Cold War initiatives such as the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, armed intervention in Vietnam, and the development of the hydrogen bomb as needless escalations that would only ensure a harsh Soviet response.
Kennan was a prophet without a following — at least within the U.S. government. Secretary of State Dean Acheson told him to take his Quaker views to a more hospitable setting than he could possibly find in Washington. Kennan found a home in Princeton, N.J., at the Institute for Advanced Study, but vindication would not become fully evident until the close of the Cold War. As his life ended in 2005 at the age of 101, he was convinced more than ever that the tyranny of military containment had done little, if anything, to assure America’s victory in that struggle. He saw the invasion of Iraq as another example of misplaced faith in a military solution to a political problem. In a September 2002 interview, a 98-year-old Kennan described Bush’s talk of a pre-emptive war against Iraq as “a great mistake.”
No postwar U.S. presidents were more mindful of the need to rely on diplomatic and political initiatives in fighting the Cold War than Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. They understood that Truman’s greatest foreign-policy successes were the Truman Doctrine, which committed U.S. financial aid to shoring up Greece and Turkey against communist subversion, and the Marshall Plan, which consisted of multibillion-dollar grants to support European economies as a bar to communist political gains in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Scandinavia.
True, Eisenhower and Kennedy were not averse to using subversion to undermine unfriendly regimes in the Middle East and Latin America, as the historical record demonstrates in U.S. dealings with Iran, Nicaragua, and Cuba during the 1950s and 1960s. Nor were they consistently wise in sanctioning clandestine operations that did not necessarily serve long-term U.S. interests. Both presidents, however, saw the reliance on direct military action to defeat the communists as a step too far. For all the rhetoric in the 1952 campaign about rollback and liberation (Adlai Stevenson has “a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of communist containment,” Richard Nixon taunted), Ike would not unleash America’s military power to oust Kim Il Sung’s communist regime from Pyongyang, as South Korea’s Syngman Rhee and conservative Republicans in the United States urged. Nor would he support Hungary’s attempt to throw off Soviet control in 1956 with armed intervention or rely on more than rhetorical threats to deter the Chinese from attacking Quemoy and Matsu, the islands between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. And he resisted French pressure to intervene with air power to prevent defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the loss of Vietnam, which struck Eisenhower as an effort to involve the United States in a war Paris had already lost and America would not assuredly win.
Kennedy was as cautious as Eisenhower about relying on armed intervention to serve the national interest. Despite intense pressure from U.S. military chiefs in 1961 to rescue the Cuban insurgents at the Bay of Pigs by using American air power against Fidel Castro’s forces, Kennedy rejected a direct U.S. part in the fighting. True, the invaders were U.S. surrogates armed and financed by the CIA, but Kennedy wisely concluded that the price of open U.S. intervention would be greater — a barrage of anti-American propaganda in the Third World — than the embarrassment from a defeat. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the demands on Kennedy from his generals to bomb Soviet missile installations and invade the island to topple Castro were intense. But Kennedy insisted on a “quarantine” and diplomatic solution that, as we know now, saved the world from a devastating nuclear war.
Kennedy was also a reluctant supporter of expanded U.S. military action in Vietnam. At the same time he increased the number of U.S. military advisors in Saigon from roughly 700 to more than 16,000, he saw a commitment of U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam’s defense as a potential trap that could shift the burden of the war to the United States and turn the conflict into another Korea. In the months before he was assassinated in November 1963, he directed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to lay plans for the withdrawal of the advisors. (He also signed on to a coup by South Vietnamese generals against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, aiming to create a more stable political rule that would reduce the need for U.S. military intervention.) We will never know exactly what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam in a second term, but it seems unlikely that he would have followed Johnson’s path. As Kennedy told New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, “United States troops should not be involved on the Asian mainland.” He warned Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and presidential advisor, that sending combat troops to Vietnam would place far greater demands on U.S. commitments than the public would tolerate and would not allow him to sustain public backing for other initiatives his administration might hope to take. The history of LBJ’s presidency fully vindicates Kennedy’s doubts.
Eisenhower and Kennedy have much to teach Obama and anyone else who becomes president; American leaders invariably confront such demands to use military force. The two men could resist that pressure because they were military heroes who could convince the public that they understood the use of armed strength better than domestic hawks urging action. Presidents without military records — like Obama — are at a disadvantage that they need to counter through vigorous rhetoric, a technique deployed with great success by the likes of leaders as varied as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Counter it they must, for the metaphors that have dominated American thinking about foreign affairs over the last hundred years are not simply objects of historical curiosity. As Obama understands, they remain powerful engines of influence on decision-making about vital questions of war and peace. In trying to forge sensible responses to the challenges posed by Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and the persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama knows that the shadows of past failures hang over him, whether the misguided belief in turning authoritarian adversaries into Jeffersonian democrats or the false choice of favoring militant containment over anything that even remotely resembles appeasement. His room to maneuver is therefore limited — at least if he hopes to act with the sort of public support required to put across his domestic agenda while also moving boldly to tame international dangers.
Obama seems keenly aware of the main lesson of Vietnam: Don’t let the appeasement metaphor, cliché, conviction, call it what you will, lock you into an unwinnable war that destroys your presidency. He appreciates that a grand design or strategy in foreign affairs does not readily translate from one crisis to another. Appeasement was a terrible idea in dealing with Hitler, but avoiding it was never the right argument for crossing the 38th parallel in Korea or embroiling the United States in Vietnam. (After all, a stalemate in the first war and a defeat in the second did not deter the United States from winning the larger Cold War.) Nor is Obama persuaded by grand Wilsonian visions of bringing democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan; he has made clear that he does not see military solutions to the problems America faces in those two countries. He has openly described the invasion of Iraq as a “mistake” and seems determined to de-escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as soon as possible.
But no matter how conscious Obama is of the perils of history’s traps, he faces no small challenge in convincing political opponents to relinquish the outworn foreign-policy clichés that have been of such questionable service to America’s well-being. As Germany’s Otto von Bismarck is said to have observed more than 100 years ago, great statesmen have the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. More often than not, however, it is the accepted wisdoms — or the wrong lessons of history altogether — that govern the thinking of publics and the behavior of their leaders.
Gerard Malie/AFP/Getty Images
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With the publication of his magisterial biography of John F. Kennedy, An Unfinished Life , Robert Dallek cemented his reputation as one of the greatest historians of our time. Now, in this epic…
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Review: Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
User Review – Duncan Cameron – Goodreads
It's easy to relate LBJ with the Vietnam war and his succession to power after Kennedy's assasination. What about "The Great Society", "Civil Rights" and "Welfare Reforms", that make USA today, not … Read full review
Review: Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
User Review – Ginta Harrigan – Goodreads
This is a great book about Lyndon Johnson's life from his childhood to his death. Dallek holds nothing back. A great read. Read full review
Editorial Review – Reed Business Information(c) 2003
Few modern presidents have been the subject of as many excellent biographies as Lyndon Johnson, and this abridgment of Dallek's masterly two-volume biography, Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant, is a welcome addition to the literature. Dallek (An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963) offers a rarity-a brief but thorough life of Johnson, now 30 years after his death. This abridgment is aimed at students who may be daunted by Dallek's lengthy two volumes or Robert Caro's projected four-volume investigation. (Caro's third volume, Master of the Senate, received the Pulitzer Prize.) This book is also excellent for all readers who want a refresher or introduction to Lyndon Johnson. Dallek skillfully discusses Johnson's political triumphs (civil and voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education) and failures (Vietnam, the promise to end poverty) and portrays his complex, larger-than-life personality. He concludes that Lyndon Johnson will be remembered as a President who mirrored the best and the worst of his memorable times. See also Irwin and Debi Unger's LBJ: A Life, another worthy one-volume treatment. Dallek's abridgement is no replacement for his two-volumes, based on 14 years of research, but it is a fine addition for all public libraries.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA
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Robert Dallek is Professor of History at Boston University. He is the author of the definitive study, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, which received the Bancroft Prize in American History, and the best-selling An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. A frequent commentator on radio and TV, he lives in Washington, D.C.
Harry S. Truman
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Harry S. Truman
Following in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s footsteps was no small feat, but Harry S. Truman rose to the occasion mightily. In this lucid and concise biography, bestselling presidential biographer Robert Dallek shows how our thirty-third president played such a critical role in shaping our nation as we know it.
Many believed that the former haberdasher and clubhouse politician from Independence, Missouri would be overmatched by the job—but Truman would surprise them all. It was he who ushered America into the nuclear age, established the alliances and principles that would define the Cold War and the national security state, started the nation on the road to civil rights, and won the most dramatic election of the twentieth century—his 1948 “whistlestop campaign” against Thomas E. Dewey.
Truman’s successes didn’t come easy. He clashed with Southerners over civil rights, with organized labor over the right to strike, and with General Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean War. Indeed, he personified Thomas Jefferson’s observation that the presidency is a “splendid misery.” But, as Dallek shows us in Harry S. Truman, it was during his tenure that the United States truly came of age.
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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
I recently finished a very compelling biography of JFK (An Unfinished Life). Being too young to have any experience with his presidency (or life, for that matter), I learned a lot from this book. I know a number of my “conservative” friends would automatically say JFK was a liberal. I suppose he d…more
Pres. Kennedy’s ancestors, both from the father side and the mother side, were Irish Catholics who were drive…more
Now that the threat of Communism is almost gone it would be hard to recognize how difficult and momentous many of his decisions were.
My only complaint is at times the author seemed obsessed about Kennedy’s bowels. This has to do with his he…more
Overall, great read.
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Readers take strong issue with Ross Douthat’s column, “The Enduring Cult of Kennedy.”
November 29, 2011
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January 18, 2011
Books about World War II leaders, the rise of Brazil, Iranian politics and the relationship between India and Pakistan.
January 2, 2011
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted and insulted each other, yet they worked together well.
May 13, 2007
One cannot help regarding his account of the Nixon White House and its handling of the Vietnam War as a kind of parable about the presidency of George W. Bush and its determination to stay the course in Iraq.
April 24, 2007
A new book reveals that the extraordinary relationship between Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger was as much rivalry as partnership.
April 17, 2007
It’s not a straight line from Congressional action to the end of a war. See Vietnam.
April 1, 2007
Conviction of Vice Pres Cheney’s former chief of staff Lewis Libby for lying about disclosure of CIA agent’s name follows trial that Republican strategist Scott Reed says was ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ for Cheney; Cheney was not charged in case but was central figure throughout, fighting criticism that he and Bush took country to war in Iraq on flawed intelligence and showing himself keenly sensitive to his portrayal in media; political question is whether Libby was ‘fall guy’ for powerful, secretiv…
March 7, 2007
Six letters on Iraq conflict; John V Walsh, Jim Quigley and Susan Fiore agree with Maureen Dowd’s assessment in Nov 22 Op-Ed column; Robert Dallek disputes Mark Moyar’s Nov 21 Op-Ed on Vietnam and Iraq, saying US should not have become involved militarily in either case; David Budde and Hugh Crossin say it was distressing to read that Army military police captain has scaled back her goal to simply getting her soldiers home (Nov 19 article); drawing
November 23, 2006
Letter from Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, David Halberstam and 10 other unnamed historians and authors objects to photo of Doris Kearns Goodwin being included with article on increased cheating in American society; defends Doris Kearns Goodwin for her scholarship and integrity; asserts that she did not plagiarize and that her errors in book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys were inadvertent
October 25, 2003
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He attended the University of Illinois, graduating with a B.A. in history in June 1955. He then spent several years at Columbia University, earning an M.A. in February 1957, and a Ph.D. in June 1964. While working on his Ph.D., he was a history instructor at Columbia.
From 1964 until 1994 Dallek advanced from assistant to full professor of history at UCLA. By 1966, he was a graduate advisor in the Department of History at UCLA and served in that position for two years. From 1972 to 1974, he served as Vice-Chair of the UCLA Department of History. From 1981–1985, he was a Research Associate at the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1993, he was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, and from 1994 to 1995 he was the Harmsworth Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. In 1995 he was awarded an honorary M.A. by Oxford University for his work there. Since 1996 he has been a Visiting Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas and a Professor of History at Boston University. In 2004 and 2005, he was Montgomery Fellow and a visiting professor in the history and government departments at Dartmouth College. Since 2007, he has taught courses at Stanford University in California.
Dallek is a member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He ran for the presidency of the organization in 1986 but lost to Betty Miller Unterberger of Texas A&M University, the first woman to hold the top position at a time when the organization was at least 99 percent male in membership.
- Democrat and Diplomat: The Life of William E. Dodd (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968)
- 1898: McKinley’s Decision – The United States Declares War on Spain (New York: Chelsea House, 1969)
- The Roosevelt Diplomacy and World War II (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)
- Western Europe (New York: Chelsea House, 1973)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)
- The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs (New York: Knopf, 1983)
- Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, ISBN 978-0-674-77941-9)
- Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and his Times, 1908–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt as World Leader: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 16 May 1995 (New York: Clarendon Press, 1995)
- Hail to the Chief: The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents (New York: Hyperion, 1996)
- Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and his Times, 1961–1973 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)
- An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 2003)
- Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Lessons from the Lives and Times of Presidents (Richmond, VA: University of Richmond, 2004)
- Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words (with Terry Golway) (Naperville, IL: Soursebooks, Inc., 2006)
- Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007)
- Harry S. Truman (Times Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8050-6938-9)
- The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945–1953 (HarperCollins, 2010, ISBN 978-0-06-162866-5)
- ‘Franklin Roosevelt as world leader’, The American Historical Review, 76 (1971): 1503–1513
- ‘National mood and American foreign policy: a suggestive essay’, American Quarterly, 34 (1982): 229–261
- ‘Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: the making of a tragedy’, Diplomatic History, 20 (1996): 147
- ‘Tales of the tapes’, Reviews in American History, 26 (1998): 333–338
Essays in edited volumes
- American perceptions of the Soviet Union, in Abbott Gleason (ed.), Cold War-Cold Peace: Soviet American Relations, 1933–1983 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975)
- ‘Triumphant America in a shaken world’, in Sanford J. Ungar (ed.), Estrangement: America and the World(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)
- When Presidents Become Weak, in Walter Isaacson (ed.), Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
He appeared on The Daily Show in July 2007. He has made numerous appearances on CNN and on public television and radio.
- ^ “Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations”. shafr.org. Retrieved October 23, 2010.
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Education: Columbia University (1964), Columbia University (1957), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1955)
Awards: Bancroft Prize
Nominations: National Book Award for History (Hardcover), More
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