Tag Archives: War in Vietnam

Why is the War in Vietnam Important?


The War in Vietnam is not important because it was an interesting war that captured the attention of the country and led to the amazing period of the 60s in which a lot of young people like me grew up. It was all of those things to those of us who lived through it, even on the far distant sidelines of Canada. But there was more to it than that.

The War in Vietnam is important because of what it revealed about not just America, but the so-called free world. That includes us in Canada. This was the world of the west led initially by Europe and then the United States. It was the part of the world that was accustomed to having its way. It was accustomed to telling others what to do. It is important for what happens today.

If the west thought it should be allowed to colonize countries around the world that is just the way it was. Everyone had to accept that as just and reasonable—no matter how unjust and unreasonable it was. Europe was that way and then America took over for Europe when Europe faltered. Nowhere was that shown better (really worse!) than Vietnam.

Of course those attitudes continue to this day. Look at North Korea.  The major powers of the west have nuclear weapons. One country has even used them. What gives these countries the right to tell North Korea you can’t have nuclear weapons? I would hate to see more countries get nuclear weapons, but I can see why some countries want them.  A nuclear non-proliferation treaty was negotiated years ago. In that agreement many countries agreed to refrain from getting nuclear weapons, but those countries that already had them like the United States, England, Russia etc. agreed to negotiate seriously to eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenal. After all why should other countries agree to refrain from acquiring them when so many countries have them?  The countries that had them have reneged on the agreement. They have not negotiated seriously for their elimination. As a result they have no right to deny them to North Korea, even though I wish North Korea would not get them. I fear that might be all it takes for other countries to get them too.

During the course of the Vietnam War, that wonderful politician Wayne Morse of Oregon knew this and understood this. It did not matter that every single politician, except him and one other, supported the Tonkin Resolution to authorize the President in effect to conduct a war in a far off country in the manner of his choosing. If it was not right he would not support it. He would proudly tell the truth no matter how unpopular it was. He spoke truth to power.

When we were young we watched the Dick Cavett Show on television nearly every evening. It was a ritual. My friends and I sat in our modest rental homes with our black and white rented television set and watched Dick Cavett interview an amazing array of interesting guests. Mainly they were celebrities but Cavett managed to get the best out of them.

The War in Vietnam was a frequent topic on his show. The War in Vietnam permeated so much of society it was difficult to avoid talking about it. One of his more interesting guests was an American Senator. Probably as old as I am now come to think of it. He was wise in other words. He was an old guy.  That older politician one of only two American Senators and Congressmen and women to vote against the Tonkin Bay resolution.   He was Senator Wayne Morse. I will comment more on that resolution later, but for now just read what he said.

This is what Senator Morse said on the Dick Cavett Show on ABC TV to explain his no vote against the Tonkin Bay resolution (That resolution authorized President Johnson to do almost anything he wanted to do in Vietnam):

If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.

Throughout the decades of the War in Vietnam America was led by political and military leaders who felt no shame about lying to Americans or the world. They could do that because they were the good guys. Good guys lie but they do that for the good of all.

That was bad when the Americans had Presidents like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, but it is many times worse when America is led by a President who has brought lying to an astonishing new level, like their current President. It was dangerous then; it is absolutely terrifying now.

It is like political leaders such as Judge Roy Moore of Alabama who is a good “Conservative Christian.” Because he is such a good conservative Christian it does not matter to many of his supporters that he may be a serial child molester in the Malls of Alabama. Because he is a good Christian whatever he does must be right.

Now we know, because of the War in Vietnam, that our leaders are not always good. Sometimes they are the bad guys. The War in Vietnam is important because it teaches us things about today. We should not forget the lessons that were learned the hard way. The very hard way.

I wonder if there is anyone around in the Republican Party to speak the truth to President Donald Trump. Perhaps John McCain, but he is not well He spoke up against Nixon. I don’ t see too many around of that quality today. That’s a pity

Do Good Guys commit Atrocities?

Dennis Stout,  a member of theAmerican  First Brigade of the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War, was asked on the Ken Burns Television series if he had seen any atrocities on the part of American soldiers. He admitted he had. Stout was from Phoenix Arizona and had served 9 months in combat from 1966 to September 1967, but he had been there for a year. He spent most of his time with a small handpicked group of soldiers called Tiger Force. They spent weeks at a time in the jungle. They were “intended to out guerilla the guerillas.”

Tiger Force fought in 6 different provinces of Vietnam, repeatedly suffering heavy losses. As Rion Causey told it, “If you suffer losses and you lost your best friend it’s the officers who say no you can’t do that. If you do it then there’s consequences. But if the officers include a platoon leader and the Battalion commander are telling you that this is what you are supposed to do then it gets completely out of hand.”

Some at McV, an important base camp for American and South Vietnamese forces, realized that such a freewheeling outfit would be difficult to control. “But General Westmoreland and commanders in the field admired Tiger Force for its reliable ferocity.”

In the summer of 1967 Tiger Force was sent to the Song Ve Valley. The entire population had already been herded from their homes and crowded into a refugee camp. Some had come back to resume their farming life that they had traditionally done. “The valley had been officially declared a ‘Free-fire zone’ and Tiger Force’s officers took that literally. “There are no friendlies,” one lieutenant told us, “shoot anything that moves.” With a license like that from officers it is hardly surprising that atrocities occurred. How could they not?

“Over several months they killed scores of unarmed civilians. Among them were two blind brothers, an elderly Buddhist monk, women, children, and old people hiding in underground shelters, and 3 farmers trying to plant rice. All were reported as enemy killed in action.” These were atrocities, pure and simple.

Tiger Force was not the only platoon Dennis Stout witnesses that crossed the line. He also discovered a case where a Vietnamese girl was kept for 2 days and raped, and then on the 3rd day killed. She was raped by everyone in the platoon except for a medic, Dennis Stout, and possibly one other member. Every other member of that platoon raped her. According to the U.S. Army website a platoon contains between 16 and 40 soldiers. That is a lot of rapes even on the low end of the scale.

Stout complained to the Battalion Sergeant Major about the rape (he should really say rapes), but he explained that these things happened in wars all the time. He was told not to mention it and that it was a common occurrence. Stout also complained to the Chaplain who made an independent investigation. He found that this was true. The two of them then went to see the Sergeant Major who told the Chaplain to stick to religion and told Stout that he did not have to return for the next engagement.

Years later another soldier came forward with allegations of war crimes. An Army investigation found probable cause to try 18 members of Tiger Force for murder or assault. They found that soldiers had cut the throat of a woman and killed her. They also cut off the ears and killed 10 farmers before they stopped shooting. They also scalped a soldier. “But no charges were ever brought. The official records were buried in the archives.”

James Willbanks of the U.S. Army opined that all of them should have been charged with murder. “They should have all gone to jail. They were all guilty of murder. At the same time, I felt that incident was an aberration, not the norm, tarred all veterans, and there are 100s of thousands of veterans who went and did their duty as honorable as they possibly could and they are tarred with the same brush.”

Some people learned some important things about war. As one Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes, said,


One of the things I learned in the war is that we are not the top species on the planet because we are nice. We are a very aggressive species. It is in us. And people talk a lot about the military turns kids into killing machines and stuff. I have always argued it is just finishing school. What we do in civilisation is that we learn to inhibit and rope in these aggressive tendencies. And we have to recognize them. I worry about a whole country that doesn’t recognize it, because I think of how many times we get ourselves in scrapes as a nation because we are always the good guys. Sometimes I think that if we thought we weren’t always the good guys we might actually get in less wars.


Sometimes we have to take a hard look at ourselves. We owe it to ourselves; we owe to those who come after us.


Are we always the good guys?


The American Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded that the President of South Vietnam Diêm (Our son-of-a-bitch) dismiss his brother who had been responsible for the raids on monks that disturbed people from around the world, but particularly Americans who were supporting the South Vietnamese regime.

Lodge also began to explore the possibility of a coup. The Americans were not shy about sponsoring coups in allied countries. They have done it in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, and many other countries. Why not Vietnam too? While John F. Kennedy was on vacation, the American Under Secretary authorized a cable to Lodge approving a coup.

Kennedy actually had not wanted a coup. He thought his advisors had opposed a coup. It turned out they had supported it without his knowledge. As a result the Americans supported a coup against their own ally. When Kennedy was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and told him, unless Diêm changes his ways or “there is a change in personnel there is little chance in wining the war in Vietnam,” that certainly could have been interpreted as support for a coup.

Many of Kennedy’s advisors, including his Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, and the head of the CIA all counseled Kennedy against a coup. None of them liked Diêm, but they saw no realistic alternative. That is a lesson American Presidents have forgotten in many countries including Iraq and Libya. Disposing of an unattractive leader serves no useful purpose if the replacement is just as bad or even worse.

Former American Ambassador to Vietnam, Fritz Nolting, who had served in that capacity from 1961 to 1963 warned that if Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother were gone there was no one in South Vietnam capable of taking over from them. He said, if we got rid of them we would be saddled with a descending cycle of mediocre generals. Was he ever right!

Other advisors on the other hand thought it would be impossible for the South Vietnamese government to last under Ngô Dinh Diêm’s leadership. Kennedy told Lodge, as a result that the Generals of South Vietnam should be warned that the United States did not want to stimulate a coup but would not thwart one either. In other words, the Americans would acquiesce in a coup, but did not want to be held responsible for it. That’s the way it is usually done–they act like weasels. The Generals took this as a blessing to plan a coup.

Kennedy later confided in his personal notes, that the almost inadvertent authorization of a coup was a mistake. He should have had a full round table discussion on the subject.

As a result, on November 1, 1963 the plotting South Vietnamese Generals led a coup in South Vietnam against President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother.   According to Lodge, that day every South Vietnamese he saw had a big smile on his wife. No one supported Diêm. He had burned too many bridges (or should I say too many monks?). Lodge believed that after the coup the chances of winning the war had greatly improved. Kennedy was not so sure. That might have been true, if the replacement for Ngô Dinh Diêm was much better. Sadly, Nolting was right, the General that replaced him was also incompetent. Kennedy was also appalled that the coup led to the assassination of Diêm and his brother.

The brutal murder of the South Vietnamese President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his equally corrupt brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 2, 1963 was a major turning point in the war in Vietnam. Until that time the Americans had been mainly “advising” the government of Vietnam in its war against the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army. At that time the U.S. had “only” 16,000 troops in Vietnam. Those troops helped to train the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) but also accompanied them on actual helicopter raids deep into enemy territory. It really was more than advising. It was engaging in battle, but it was done covertly.

When American casualties increased, and images of those dead were regularly seen on American television it became increasingly difficult to sell the American public on the idea that these were just advisors. After the assassination of the Diêm brothers, American policy in Vietnam took a dramatic turn. President Kennedy was also assassinated 3 weeks later and Lyndon Johnson became the new President. Johnson tried to follow Kennedy’s low-key approach to Vietnam until 1964 when American participation in the war increased sharply.

After the coup the question the Americans had to ask was whether or not the Generals would be able to create a stable democracy. Kennedy asked that question, but because he died 18 days later, he never really got an answer. Lyndon Johnson would have to deal with the issue.

Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter, was a perceptive commentator on the War in Vietnam. He pointed out that Americans thought they were an exception to history. They could never back the wrong side in a war. Americans are the good guys. They are always the good guys, Americans thought. Yet Sheehan said, “But the War in Vietnam proved we were not an exception to history.”

Johnson had opposed the coup that deposed Diem, thinking it would make a bad situation worse. That is exactly what it did. As Le Quan Cong, a VC soldier said, when Diem was killed the Vietcong was very excited. They thought they were about to liberate the whole country. They attacked night and day. As he said, “More and more puppet soldiers surrendered. More and more young people joined our forces.”

By then, “40% of the countryside and 50% of the people were effectively in the hands of the Vietcong.” Meanwhile the Generals that had overthrown Diem were bickering among themselves rather than concentrating on the war effort. As Robert Rheault of the American Special Forces said, “The assassination of Diem set in motion a series of coups each government was less effective than the one before it.” It was just as Nolting had predicted.

In January 1964 General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support, completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.

Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” That immediately destroyed their credibility. One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.

What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those American felt they could never sever that connection. Why were they not able to say, “you know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives. We would love to help but just can’t do it.” After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say thanks for not wasting any more lives of their young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon committing themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it. Inertia is a powerful force.

This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is nearly endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing it.

I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.

Sadly the answer is clear–we are not always the good guys. In fact we often not the good guys.


America has had a bad history of supporting brutal dictators around the world. This is a policy it still engages in to this day. Take a lot at the Saudi Arabian regime for one example. Names that spring to mind include Noriega in Panama, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, but the list is much longer than that. It would take a long time to list them all.

I think Antonio Somoza President of Nicaragua, one of the most brutal dictators ever supported by the U.S. was one of these brutes about whom an American diplomat said, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” This was all part of Real Politick. If a political leader opposes our enemy he must be good enough to support. This was common in American foreign policy in the Cold War, but it has been part of that policy forever. Often that policy stinks. In South Vietnam that guy was President Diem. He was our son-of-a-bitch.

On June 10, 1963 journalist Malcolm Brown received an anonymous tip that something big was about to happen the next day in Saigon. So Brown went out with his camera, ready for anything. He had been told where to go and he went there. As it turned out a 73-year old Buddhist monk set himself on fire at a busy intersection and died a horrible death. Brown caught it all on film. The photo appeared around the world. I remember seeing it in Canada. It was hard to believe that anyone would do that to himself. Imagine the excruciating pain of the death. As he burned another monk chanted, “a Buddhist monk becomes a martyr.” He repeated it over and over.

President Kennedy acknowledged “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Malcolm Brown won the Pulitzer Prize for the image. The monk’s death increased international pressure on the Diêm regime to announce reforms to mollify the Buddhists, but his promised reforms were never implemented.

This self-sacrifice caught the attention of the world. What were the South Vietnamese and their allies doing that would make a monk do that? Neil Sheehan said that he saw a poor woman take off her gold rings and drop them into a bucket for resistance. When he saw that, Sheehan said to himself, “This regime is over.” That was in 1963!

Contrast that with the reaction by Ngô Dinh Diêm’s sister. She clapped her hands gleefully at the sight of the burning monk and cheered. She said if she had been there she would have given the monk a match! She was power hungry, even though her husband was the leader of the secret police.

The martyr inspired others to immolate themselves as well. Soon people around the world began to realize that these Buddhists were serious. These were powerful statements. These images caused many students and Roman Catholics and others to join the rebels’ cause. It seemed noble. The South Vietnamese cause seemed crass and corrupt in comparison.

Activist Bill Zimmerman said that the civil rights movement had set the standard in the American South as to how people—ordinary people—who believed in a cause that was just could stand up to injustice. Anti-war activists learned a lot from the Civil Rights activists.

Anti-war activists, like Bill Zimmerman, were inspired by American Civil Rights activists who had allowed themselves to be beaten up or attacked by dogs or hit by the police. It was hard not to respect people who went that far. Then they saw a monk in Vietnam cover himself with gasoline and burn himself to death. That was a big step up. It was an extraordinary act of rebellion that inspired activists around the world.

During this time tensions increased between the Americans and the politician they had decided to support– Ngô Dinh Diêm. I day before a new Ambassador arrived in Saigon, after promising the Americans he would take no further repressive actions against the Buddhist minorities, he cut off power to the American officials and sent hundreds of special forces into Buddhist pagodas and brutally rounded up 1,400 Buddhist monks, students, and other rebels. It was hardly surprising that the Americans lost a lot of confidence in the leader they were supporting with large sums of money. Was this the democracy they wanted? When Americans complained Diêm went even farther, he declared martial law and authorized to shoot anyone on the streets after 9 p.m.

It was not just the Americans who were upset with Diêm. Everyone was mad at him. He closed universities, then other schools and even arrested students.

The world wondered, who were the Americans supporting in this war? Were they supporting the right side? Was the son-of-a-bitch worth it?


What happens when Military Leaders Lie?


The Ken Burns documentary series The War in Vietnam has a lot to say about war and lying. They go to together like love and marriage. Maybe better.

In June 1967, First Lieutenant Matt Harrison was appointed to be part of a group of an elite unit ready to rush anywhere that they were needed. They were called “General Westmoreland’s Fire brigade.” Harrison thought he was uniquely qualified to lead a troop. He and 2 of his friends were idealists and “Boy Scouts.” He really believed that there was nothing more important than what he was going to be doing in the War in Vietnam.

Perhaps the first day that he was there, an American soldier showed him what he thought was a bunch of dried apricots on a leather thong. He was puzzled–until he realized that these were desiccated human ears. Gruesome Souvenirs. Until then, “I knew theoretically what it meant to be in a war, but of course no one can really understand it until they’ve done it.” Reality behind the ideals had set in. This incident reminded me of Kurz in the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad with his ring of human heads. To Conrad, this was the reality behind the ideals of European colonization. Reality was very different from noble ideals.

On June 21, 1967, just a few days after joining his combat troop, Matt Harrison was leading his men down a mountain side to rescue (he hoped) a platoon of American soldiers on a trail where they had encountered a much larger heavily armed troop of North Vietnamese soldiers. Harrison’s men could not get down because the way was barred by enemy soldiers. During the night, Harrison’s men could hear screams of soldiers and wounded down the mountain. By dawn the North Vietnamese soldiers melted away and Harrison and his men went down to find the American soldiers. “Out of 137 men of Alpha company on the mountain, 76 lay dead. 43 had been shot in the head at close range. Ears had been cut from some. Eyes gouged out. Ring fingers missing. 23 more men were wounded. Harrison found his classmates Richard Hood and Donald Judd among the dead.”

As Harrison said, “This was my introduction to war. This was my welcome to Vietnam. We spent the rest of the day putting those bodies into body bags and getting them out of there. Getting killed is forever. That was something I had known theoretically, but I now understood particularly when I put my 2 classmates in body bags, I said I had gone to school with for 4 years and who were good friends and who just a week before we had been drinking beer and ribbing each other, and these guys were now gone.”

Matt’s Company–Charley Company–found just 9 or 10 Vietnamese bodies. The company was sent to find more bodies. The American senior officers needed their body count. But the soldiers never located more bodies. Matt believed they did not locate more bodies because they were not there, but the military leaders were reluctant to accept that the Americans could suffer such heavy losses without inflicting more damage on the enemy. “To admit that a rifle company in the 173rd had been wiped out by the North Vietnamese was not something our leaders were prepared to do. So we had to sell ourselves and we had to sell the public on the idea that we had inflicted casualities on the North Vietnamese as severe as they had inflicted on us.” It did not matter that it was not true. The leaders wanted it to be true. An American news reporter was told that the rifle company had killed 475 enemy soldiers and of course the reporter believed that and reported it accordingly to the American public. Everyone believed it, but it was a lie. It was fake news.

“When another officer suggested to General Westmoreland that the figures seemed too high to be believable, he replied. ‘Too late; its already gone out.”

As Harrison said,


A couple of days after the battle, Westmoreland came up to speak to us as what we thought of as his brigade, and he hopped up on the hood of a jeep in very crisp fatigues looking every inch the battle Commander and gave us a pep talk, and told us how proud he was about the magnificent job we had done. But by then I had more than just a suspicion that this was the fairytale. That Westmoreland was wrong, and I didn’t know whether he knew he was wrong or he believed what he was being told and wanted to believe, but this was the first time that I had to come to grips with the fact that leadership was either out of touch, or was lying. [1]


It is never good for morale when soldiers start to realize that their leaders are lying to them. Naturally they wonder why? They wonder what is the real truth?

What is the effect of military leaders like Westmoreland sanctioning lies to the American public? Do those false reports go on to the civilian leaders of the military? Was McNamara being fed lies too? How about Johnson? Lies from the military raise many troubling issues. How fair is it for fighting men and women and their families who are laying their life on the line for what they really believe is a noble cause to be lied to? What gives the military leaders that right?

Westmoreland who had already said he could win the war in 3 years now sent an urgent cable to Washington asking for 200,000 more troops. This request came as a shattering blow to Robert McNamara the Secretary of Defence. He offered his President two options: try again to negotiate a settlement with North Vietnam or accede to Westmoreland’s request for more soldiers. Even at that, McNamara was gloomy. He said even then, “the chances of victory might be no better than 1 in 3.”

Under such circumstances was it not absolute madness to even consider sending more men? Yet Johnson’s military advisors in Washington, led by McNamara, these men–the best and the brightest–voted to send more men. Even when the Secretary of Defence believed they had a mere 1 in 3 chances of winning the war!

As Karl Marlantes said,



My bitterness about the political powers at the time, was first of all the lying. I mean I can understand a policy error that is incredibly painful and kills a lot of people, a mistake made with noble hearts…Then you read that by 1965 McNamara knew by 1965 that the war was unwinnable. That was 3 years before I was there. That’s what makes me mad. Making a mistake–people can do that, but covering up mistakes then you are killing people for your own ego. That makes me mad.


         Me too!

How would you feel if you had been sent to a war where the leaders thought there was just a 1 in 3 chance of winning the war, but they kept that pessimism secret and told rosy lies instead? How would you feel if your son or daughter was sent to fight a war 6,000 miles away to keep Communists out of that country when there was such a poor chance of winning the war?


[1] Matt Harrison, The Vietnam War (2017) produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS

The Tonkin Bay Resolution


When Lyndon Johnson became President after John Kennedy died, he realized that knew new plans and new strategy were urgently needed. The U.S. was getting mired in a war it did not need and Johnson did not want. But he felt he was stuck with it. He chose General Westmoreland to lead the American war effort in Vietnam. He had been a decorated military leader in Korea and Johnson chose him personally. He also replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador with General Maxwell Taylor.

By the end of his first year as President, his cabinet and top military generals recommended that he increase the number of American military “advisors” in Vietnam from 16,000 to 23,400 by the end of 1964.

Johnson wanted to gradually increase military pressure on the North. Soon Johnson authorized American aircraft to bomb neighbouring Laos. He allowed American vessels to oversee shelling of coastal bases of the North. Of course, all of this was conducted in secret. “The American people were not to be told. It was an election year.” So the truth was withheld from them.

Misleading the public about critically important matters like war, is abhorrent. It makes one extremely wary of politicians. How can they possibly justify withholding the facts from the people who will have to pay the ultimate price for the decisions the politicians make? Or withholding the truth from parents who see their children volunteer to serve their county in war. No one has the right to withhold relevant information to them, least of all one’s elected officials.

Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the President that they were fighting on the North’s terms. They urged much more massive and dramatic action. They wanted air strikes on the north and the deployment of American forces in South Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. Johnson refused believing such aggressive action would pull China into the war just as such actions had pulled them into the Korean War in 1950.

Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the election blamed Johnson for holding back and doing nothing about Communist aggression. On July 30, 1964 South Vietnamese ships under the direction of the US military shelled two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tiny North Vietnamese navy was on high alert. As the television series said,


What followed was one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history. On the afternoon of August 2nd the destroyer USS Maddox was moving slowly through international waters in the Gulf on an intelligence gathering mission in support of further South Vietnamese action against the north. The Commander of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat squadron moved to attack the Maddox. The Americans opened fire and missed. North Vietnamese torpedoes also missed, but US planes from an American carrier in the bay damaged two of the North Vietnamese boats and left a third dead in the water. Ho Chi Minh was shocked to hear of his Navy’s attack and demanded to know who had ordered it. The officer on duty was officially reprimanded for impulsiveness. No one may ever know who gave the order to attack. To this day, even the Vietnamese cannot agree but some believe it was Le Duan.


Many like Huy Duc a North Vietnamese soldier believed that the North Vietnamese leader who was gradually taking over from Ho Chi Minh wanted to “elevate the war.” Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers, like Nguyen Ngoc, believed that had this not been done the North would have achieved victory in 1965. They already had much of the countryside and the government would likely have collapsed within a year if the Americans had not intervened with a large military force, as they did. However, as we know, these actions drew the Americans in and drew them in big time. Johnson ignored military advice and did not retaliate immediately. However he warned the North that any more unprovoked military attacks against Americans would bring them into the war. He failed to mention of course to the American people that the actions of the North were not unprovoked. They had been provoked by shelling of he South Vietnamese forces. “Both sides were playing a dangerous game.” And, of course, in war dangerous games often lead to violence. I hope the current American President appreciates this, but I seriously doubt it. Trump like so many American Presidents before him is filled with hubris about how easily it will be for the US with all its weaponry to win any war it chooses to engage in.

On August 4, 1964 the American radio operators mistranslated North Vietnamese radio traffic and concluded that a new military operation was imminent. It was not. They were actually getting ready for attacks from the South. Although no attack occurred, hyper alert Americans convinced themselves wrongly that an attack had occurred. Johnson was told an attack had “probably occurred” and decided it should not go unanswered.

Johnson, in announcing relation against this aggression by the North said it would be limited because “Americans know, though others seem to forget, the risks of widening war. We still seek no wider war,” he said. After that, for the first time, American pilots dropped bombs on North Vietnam.

2 months earlier, Johnson had asked McGeorge Bundy one of his military advisors to draft a resolution for Congress to authorize the President to use force in against the North Vietnamese. He now sent that to Congress. The Tonkin Bay incident was what he needed to ask Congress for authorization by way of that draft resolution to deal with aggression against the US by North Vietnam. As a result he got the famous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress which as Johnson said, was “like my Grandma’s nightshirt, it covers everything.”

Johnson was waiting for the right time to send a message to North Vietnam that we are ready and serious to deal with North Vietnam by supporting South Vietnam. As James Willbanks, an American military commander said, “That message was sent; I think we misread the enemy, because they are just as serious as we are.”

I think Willbanks was wrong. The North Vietnamese were more serious. Much more serious. The Americans talked a great line. They spent a lot of money. They sacrificed a lot of lives, but eventually they cried ‘Uncle.’ The North Vietnamese never did. They defeated the greatest military power in the history of the world! They could only do that with more grit, more determination, and more intelligence. In all of these the Americans were second rate, no matter how loud their barrage of patriotic words.

On August 4, 1964 the Tonkin Resolution was passed by a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate and in the House it received unanimous approval. When it comes to aggressive military measures, the President of the United States usually gets his way. And he did again. Overnight Johnson’s approval rating for handling the war jumped from 42% to 72%. Even doves considered him measured and reasonable compared to Goldwater who seemed extreme. “The American public believed their President.” Even though he had not been entirely honest with them.

Of course North Vietnam did not believe Johnson. They were not convinced that he sought no wider war. They decided to escalate their efforts in the south before the American sent in their own combat troops. For the first time Hanoi started sending North Vietnamese troops into the south out of the paths they had hacked out of the Laotian jungle–the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war was ramping up.

It was really a small incident, but it was the first that had pitted North Vietnamese forces against US Forces. It is not without significance that this was just before a Presidential election that Lyndon Johnson wanted to win. Just like Kennedy had wanted to win and just like Nixon would want to win after him. Johnson wanted to show that the Vietnamese that America was strong. He wanted to show Americans that he was strong. He wanted to appear decisive.

The Tonkin Bay resolution is seen by many now as the crucial resolution that got America mired in the war in Vietnam. It was the basis–the legal basis–for all that happened from the American perspective.

Of the two dissenting votes one was given by an amazing American. This was Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon. He was interviewed by Dick Cavett. When I was in college we would watch the Dick Cavett show nearly every night. Cavett had intended to have a late night entertainment talk show but he and his viewers were attracted to controversial subjects. None was more controversial than the War in Vietnam. Morse was able to speak the truth to power, when almost no one else was able to do that. He was one of the only 2 Senators that failed to support the resolution. These are the powerful words he said on that show that day,


If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.


Dick Cavett later described that show with obvious pride. Cavett said the audience fell dead silent when Morse spoke about why we were so mistaken about this war. Cavett believed that Senator Morse was a great man. “He would be almost the definition of one.” It is not easy to say ‘No” when all around you are clamoring for war. Morse could do that. What a pity that more political leaders were not able to hear him.

On November 1, 1964 the North Vietnamese forces shelled an American air base in the south. 5 Americans died, 30 were wounded, and 5 B-57 bombers were destroyed on the ground, and 15 more were damaged. The Joint Chiefs recommended the President authorize an immediate all out air attack on 94 targets in the north and to send in regular marine units, not as advisors but as combat forces. Johnson refused to this 2 days before the election. Johnson won the election by a landslide.

As soon as the election was over, Johnson approved what he called “a graduated response.” These included limited air attacks along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and tit for tat attacks on North Vietnamese targets. He did not want to launch sustained attacks on the North until the South got their own house in order. In private, Johnson doubted that air power alone would ever work. He believed that eventually he would have to send in ground troops. He did not say so publicly. Again, the President did not tell the whole truth. And young men and young women volunteered to risk their lives to support their government. But their decisions to volunteer were made without knowing the truth. That should be a war crime.

Brave Words From Political Leaders


On December 20, 1960, the day I turned 12 years old, Le Duan organized the National Liberation Front (‘NLF’) composed of various groups in North Vietnam that were dedicated to getting rid of President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s regime in the south and, to effect the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government and the reunification of North and South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had never liked the division of the country after the defeat of the French in the colonial war. They accepted that division reluctantly.

Frankly, there was nothing unreasonable about that goal. Vietnam had been one country until the Geneva accords of 1954 and the government of the south was corrupt, undemocratic, and unpopular. What gave the colonial powers like France and the United States, their patron, the right to divide the country?

The NFL called their forces the Peoples’ Liberation Armed Forces, but their enemies in the south preferred a more disparaging name—i.e. Communist Traitors to the Vietnamese Nation or Vietcong or V.C.

Like English Prime Minister Churchill at Dunkirk, the Vietcong leaders said that they would fight the South Vietnamese regime to the last person. Those are brave words. Yet there were many times in the 14 years that followed that this proved to be true. No matter how heavy their casualties they always kept coming back for more. Their dedication and determination was extraordinary. The Americans were stunned. It was the sort of dedication that few soldiers have unless they are defending their homeland. The people agreed with their leaders that they would fight to the last man, but they really had no idea at the time how heavy a price they would have to pay to fight as promised, against the regime in the south, after it obtained the support of the most wealthy nation on earth equipped with the most advanced and expensive weaponry known to man. Their task was immense. “History will judge if the sacrifice was worth the war, for that war turned out to astonishingly brutal.”

President John F. Kennedy also eloquently described the American resolve once the Americans got into combat: “Let every nation now, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any force, to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”

Thus with the statements from their leaders the two sides were irrevocably bent on a war to the finish, no matter what the cost. That cost on both sides, but particularly the north would be immense. The cost of course was born on both sides by the fighting men and women as well as civilians. It was not born on either side personally by the political leaders who pronounced the brave words. As is so often the case the leaders utter fierce and brave words, but they are seldom the ones who must pay the awful price. That falls to others.

There are many problems with brave words uttered by political leaders far from the front where people are dying. Often they are made to win favor with the people back home who are lusting for war. They are lusting for war, but they want others to fight that war. Often those people uttering brave words are political leaders whose own children are also far from the war front, safe in comfortable schools or places like the National Guard.

More important even than that however is the fact that such brave words make any kind of negotiated peace very difficult to achieve. No one negotiates with the devil. That’s one reason why we must always be wary of demonizing the enemy. That’s one reason why we must always be wary of brave words from our leaders. When it comes to leaders there are many  things we should worry about, this is just one of them.


Lying Presidents


Soon after Kennedy was inaugurated as President in 1961, one of the first things he did was to quietly increase the number of American military “advisors” that would be helping the South Vietnamese. Often these were combat soldiers in everything but name. He did not want Americans to know what was going on. Within 2 years of taking office the number of advisors increased to 11,300. Such numbers allowed them to give a lot of “advice.” These advisors were officially allowed to teach the South Vietnamese forces and even accompany them into battle. Most now agree that this was a violation of the Geneva Accords that had been negotiated in 1954. This was not the first nor the last time that the United States chose to ignore international law. Obedience to international is what they expect of others. It is not what they demand of themselves.

Of course, Kennedy was not entirely truthful with the American public about what he was doing in Vietnam. This started what became a long-standing tradition among American Presidents. If the truth would hurt policy, ignore it, conceal it or lie about it. Kennedy was fearful that Americans would not be support a more active role in Vietnam. So President Kennedy did what all his successors in office did—he lied. He said there were no American combat troops in Vietnam, when there really were.

Lying to the American public and then asking them to put themselves or their children in harm’s way is about the worst thing a President can do. And they all did it. All the Presidents involved in the war did it from Kennedy to Nixon. It is like going to a doctor who recommends dangerous surgery. You are entitled to the know the truth so that you can freely make an informed decision. This is what the American Presidents did not allow Americans to do. This was a major crime.

In the spring of 1962 President Kennedy told a friend “we don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. These people hate us, but I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the people to re-elect me.” These were amazing words, but they were never told to the public. In fact they were highly similar to words that Richard Nixon would late use to describe his predicament. Kennedy may have been more attractive than Nixon, but was he morally better? Over and over again American Presidents continued fighting a losing war for fear of being defeated at the next election. They did that despite misgivings (or worse) about the chances of success. They did that despite giving no hint of their true feelings to the young men and women or their parents or loved ones, who were being asked to put their lives at risk in a cause that was dubious at best. In the case of each of those Presidents who were less than truthful they have earned our scorn and forfeited our respect.

You will be Known by Your Friends


It did not take long for the French Colonial War to end after the debacle at Dien Bien Phu. The signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords followed soon after that. In those accords, France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, while agreeing that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel. Control of the north which was to be called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was given to Ho Chi Minh the leader of the Viet Minh. The south became the Republic of Vietnam, nominally under Emperor Bao Dai, and by its existence it prevented Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country.

Ngô Dinh Diêm  (the US-supported President of the first Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) refused to allow elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference. In time this led to what we now call the Vietnam War. The people did not want him as a dictator. He never had much support, except from the U.S., the friend of dictators around the world. As a result the U.S. supported a leader of Vietnam who refused to permit fair and free elections. This was the “democratic” state the Americans fought for and sacrificed nearly 60,000 lives. Did this ever make sense?

My mother used to say to me that I would be known by my friends. That is a lesson the U.S. had not learned. Of course it still has not learned that lesson as we can see from the brutal regimes it continues to support around the world.


The March of Folly


While the French were conducting and losing the colonial war in Vietnam, they tried to get more help from the Americans, but the U.S. Congress refused to increase their help. Senator John F. Kennedy long before he became President, said, ‘before the U.S. agrees to commit to increasing military help to the French, the Vietnamese should be granted independence as the French were fighting a colonial war that was bitterly unpopular with the Vietnamese people.’ It did not make sense for the Americans to enter the fray in defence of the colonial powers. After all they had similarly revolted against European imperialism and now it was the turn of the Vietnamese. They supported the wrong side! Kennedy understood this long before he became President. Why did he forget it when he became President? This was a pattern that was repeatedly repeated by American Presidents.

Barbara Tuchman described this in her aptly titled book The March of Folly. This is what she said,


All the conditions and reasons precluding a successful outcome were recognized or foreseen at one time or another during the thirty years of our involvement. American intervention was not a progress sucked step by step into an unsuspected quagmire. At no time were policy-makers unaware of the hazards, obstacles, and negative developments. American intelligence was adequate, informed observations flowed steadily from the field to the capital, special investigative missions were repeatedly sent out, independent reportage to balance professional optimism—when that prevailed—was never lacking. The folly consisted not in pursuit of a goal in ignorance of the obstacles but in persistence in the pursuit despite accumulating evidence that the goal was attainable, and the effect disproportionate to the American interest and eventually damaging to American society, reputation, and disposable power in the world.

The question is why did the policy-makers close their minds to the evidence and its implications? This is the classic symptom of folly: refusal to draw conclusions from the evidence, addiction to the counter-productive.[1]


The French colonial war ended shortly after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords. France agreed to withdraw its forces from all its colonies in French Indochina, while stipulating that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Viet Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam, nominally under Emperor Bao Dai, preventing Ho Chi Minh from gaining control of the entire country The refusal of Ngô Dinh Diêm  (the US-supported President of the first Republic of Vietnam [RVN]) to allow elections in 1956, as had been stipulated by the Geneva Conference, eventually led to the Vietnam War.

John F. Kennedy and all of his advisors were profoundly affected by what had happened in the Second World War. His advisors included Dean Rusk, Walter Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor and above all Robert McNamara. McNamara had been President of the Ford Motor Company and gave up a lucrative job to serve his country. He was a pioneer in systems analysis. These men (and interestingly they were all men) were among those that David Halberstam called “The Best and the Brightest.”    Based on their experience or knowledge of World War II, all of Kennedy’s advisors believed, a dictator had to be stopped in his tracks. Appeasement would lead to disaster they all believed. Appeasement was intolerable.

David Halberstam was a journalist who wrote a book with that title in 1972 well before the war was over but long after it was realized by nearly everyone that it was a disaster. He focused his book on the foreign policy that was crafted by academics and intellectuals who were part of Kennedy’s administration. Some called them at the time “whiz kids,” though few were kids. They were leaders of industry and academia that John F. Kennedy persuaded to join his administration. Halberstam referred to some of their policies as “brilliant policies that defied common sense.” Often their advice ran directly counter to advice Kennedy got from career American Department of State employees.

It must be remembered that Kennedy was a young President who had narrowly defeated a much more experienced political opponent, Richard M. Nixon, the former Vice-President of the United States. The first couple of months of his administration were disastrous. Kennedy had approved the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that turned into a complete debacle. Many Americans believed that Khrushchev the Premier of the archrival Soviet Union, had bullied Kennedy at a Summit meeting. Kennedy failed to stop the Soviets from building the Berlin Wall. Kennedy also failed to intervene to stop Communist insurrection in Laos. Americans hate to think of a leader as weak. To many it looked like Kennedy was a weak President.

Kennedy did not want to seem weak. Many Americans called their new President immature, weak, and unable to stop the mounting Communist threat. He was of course, the youngest President ever at 43 years of age. Kennedy was, as a result eager to prove that he was a tough and capable leader of the country. All of these antecedents helped to position Kennedy for disaster in Vietnam.

There were even more factors that led to the ultimate debacle that was the War in Vietnam. For one thing there was politics. The Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had “lost” China to the Communists, and it did not want to be said about it that it also lost Vietnam.

While Kennedy was getting advice from his inner ring of the Whiz Kids instead of the State Department that was not entirely because he preferred his specifically selected inner advisors. It was also because the State Department had been decimated by the McCarthy era when the government was forced to shred experts on Vietnam and its surrounding countries. As a result Kennedy did not have the benefit of as many career diplomats as he should have. This is not entirely dissimilar to the situation of Donald Trump whose current Secretary of State has been doing his best to cut down the State Department. As a result Trump has to rely more on private advisors than I would say he should.

Apparently there was an early study that indicated the United States would have to commit close to one million U.S. troops to completely defeat the Viet Cong. However it was inconceivable that the administration would be able to convince the American Congress or the U.S. public to deploy that many soldiers.

At all times the Americans were concerned about how their actions would influence the Chinese and Russians. The Americans, like the Chinese, had recently completed a costly war in Korea and had little taste for doing that again. The Americans were also worried that any precipitous actions by them would repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift. They liked that rift and wanted to see it maintained not repaired.

Very importantly the American military in conformity to the long standing military tradition that armies should prepare to fight the last war instead of the next war, the American military was not prepared for a long and guerrilla war. And as we all know, that is precisely what they faced in Vietnam.

Apparently some of the American war games indicated that a gradual escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. Every year nearly 200,000 North Vietnamese came of draft age and could be sent into the meat grinder of the war if necessary. As a result as some pundit pointed out, the Americans and their allies in the South would be “fighting the birthrate”. Johnson as well wanted to concentrate on other important issues when he came to power such as Civil Rights laws and establishment of the Great Society. He really did not want to get bogged down in a war in Vietnam that he had not started but he was stuck with.

Of course as happens in wars—as always seems to happen in wars—there was the effect of inertia. Wars develop their own inertia. Once the Americans committed to sending troops they did not want to lose the war. Better to send more troops than face the difficult task of explaining why any forces had been sent at all. Political and military leaders continually worried about being accused of throwing good money after bad, and more lives after those that had already died.

Thus were aligned the forces that encouraged more war with more soldiers.

For all of these reasons (if these should be sanctioned by calling them reasons) John F. Kennedy in 1961 confided to an aide that he could only make so many concessions and still swim. Too many concessions made it certain that he would be considered weak. And that would not do. For all of these reasons, Kennedy felt that he must act in South Vietnam. He could not acquiesce with business as usual. He could not stomach one more loss to the Communists.

For all of these reasons Kennedy thought he had no choice but to commit ground forces to fight in Vietnam and stop aggression from the north despite his initial assessment that this was foolish. As a result he set aside his earlier sound judgment that it made no sense for the Americans to fight in Vietnam.

This is the mistake that each President made in Vietnam. Each one of them started his first term asserting he would not do exactly what he ended up doing. With Kennedy that mistake was to commit ground troops when he had earlier correctly assessed that this would be hopeless. This is the precise mistake Barbara Tuchman referred to in her book and aptly called “the March of Folly.” It was exactly that.

Kennedy had earlier said that he would refuse to send troops because sending the first troops was like taking a first drink. There would inevitably be demands for more drinks. Over and over again the American Presidents made the same mistake and paid the same horrific price and it always led to tragic consequences.

John Gray, the relentless pessimist, was right; President Barack Obama who vowed not to do anything stupid, was right. Donald Trump who promised not to get involved in foreign adventures and abandoned that position within weeks of assuming office is nuts, but his initial position was right.

As a result of many factors, the young President Kennedy, against his initial better judgment, got lured into the War in Vietnam. As the Burns film said, “Over the next 3 years the United States would struggle to understand this complicated country it had come to save, fail to appreciate the enemies resolve, and misread how the South Vietnamese people really felt about their government. The new President would find himself caught between the momentum of war and the desire for peace, between humility and hubris, between idealism and expediency, between the truth and lies.




[1] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly, (1984) p. 234