Sunday, November 13, 2011

America's War in Vietnam: Personal Reminiscence from a Kid Stateside

'America lost the Vietnam War because we never cared to understand the Vietnamese people or our own motives for fighting the war.  Our national myth convinced us we were morally superior. Our technology made us feel invincible. Our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedure. It was not a winning combination."--Loren Baltz, author of "Backfire: The Myths That Made Us Fight, The Illusions That Helped Us Lose... " (1985, Ballentine Books)

   It found it off-putting one day about a decade ago when the business I was working at received boxes of salable goods marked "Made in Vietnam".  This was hardly noticed by anyone or worth commenting about.

 It was for me a realization that a great deal of time had passed and, like many of America's wars, what seemed a desperate and intractable struggle of earlier days was now old news. 

The picture to the right here is of myself (the little brat in the green Army uniform) posing with my older brother Robert--in blue--in 1967 or 68 at my aunt's house in South San Francisco.

 Bob was home from Vietnam, "in country" after a tour with the Air Force as a helicopter air/sea rescue gunner.  He brought home some gifts for the family,  including the uniform I'm wearing--long lost--and a black-cloth map of Southeast Asia I wish I still had which showed all the places that the USA had bases in South Vietnam as well as the flags of the other nations (Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, et al.) in the longest war in American history.


Until the one in Afghanistan.  

  He would go back to Asia, specifically Clark Field in the Philippines for a couple more year-end tours before returning stateside with a Filipino wife and a new baby.  I have never talked to Robert much about the war.  I'm sure I asked him, but he would change the subject. How could a kid raised in a suburb in California know what it was like to fire a "50 Cal" machine gun at enemy soldiers from the door of a Huey helicopter?


    I remember my father, an ex-Marine, adamant against the war, angry at how Lyndon Johnson--a man he voted for in 1964 for President---couldn't or wouldn't start bringing home troops from a war he regarded as a civil war we had no business being directly involved in for his stepson--or any other American--to be involved in risking his life over.  

When a neighbor--an older World War II vet who had liberated many a wine cellar in Normandy and might have taken a shot or two at the odd German-- once asked my father how we could possibly get troops out of  South Vietnam, to turn our backs, I heard my father  reply "Same way they got in, Joe. Get some ships and planes, and get them out!" 


Joe--a next-door neighbor whose kids I played with--- voted for Richard  Nixon in 1968. My dad and mom supported the first anti-war Democratic candidate, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota--he had the guts to challenge Lyndon Johnson for his re-election and his good results in a early primary in New Hampshire drove Johnson from the race. Later Robert Kennedy, smelling blood as only a Kennedy could, entered the race. 

 McCarthy was no Bobby Kennedy.  Nobody was.  


 RFK  had changed his mind about the sense of fighting a land war in southeast Asia, or at least stopped supporting a war he didn't believe in.  This was about the same time--1966--that Secretary of Defense Bob MacNamara decided the war was un-winnable.  The difference was that the Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Johnson didn't  make his change of mind known until he wrote a book in 1993.  Too late, Secretary McNamara, too bad you didn't tell the American people your doubts back then.    

RFK's assassination--the night he won the California Primary in June 1968, after my parents had a house party for those who supported the winner and after I went to bed thinking Kennedy was going to win the nomination and woke up to hear he was near death--ended that dream.


 This brought my parents and millions of other anti-war voters and activists back to supporting McCarthy.  But it was too late --LBJ's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, had the delegates and the Democratic big shots behind him.  The Chicago convention was a terrible event--a flat-out "police riot" and the beatings and cracking of heads of demonstrators made it clear this was like no war in 20th century American history, maybe ever.  


Humphrey, The "Happy Warrior" who stood up for Civil Rights for blacks in the 40's before it was popular in his  party but was still hostage to the Cold War hysteria of the 1950's ,  couldn't or wouldn't separate himself from President Johnson's policies in the campaign. 

  Enough anti-war voters stayed home that November and Richard Nixon was elected.   This began the "Vietmanization Program" of Nixon and Kissinger and the long, slow "peace with honor" with-drawl of American troops.   This was punctuated by stepped-up bombing campaigns over civilian targets in North Vietnam, an invasion of Cambodia and more bombing, all part of the American strategy of a "peace  process" that moved like a snail in Paris. 

What did a kid my age think about all this?  Mostly I thought like my parents did, this was th wrong war i nthe wrong place at the wrong time,  but I also wondered if  the war would still be going on after I turned eighteen?  Would the kids in my class be scambling around a jungle playing an endless game of death on another people's turf?  It would give pause to any partriotic young rascal to at least wonder "why?"


    In the meantime much of what I learned about the war came from magazines, the local newspaper, stray remarks at school like a  teacher of mine who broke down in anger unexpectedly when she was trying to explain top a combined fifth grade class at a school assembly why the Paris Peace Talks were taking so long.

"How can so many people die while these old men fight over what shape the negotiating table should be?" I remember Mrs. Carrington, a stork-like woman with a pile of reddish-brown hair on her head, suddenly said.  It was a bold thing to say for a public school teacher at an assembly with lots of little "Nixon kids" to go home to their parents and tell about it. So far as I know though nothing came of it.  It was 1971-72 by then and a lot of parents,  like my friends' dad, old Joe O'Leary, --were coming,  too late-- to their senses.   

"This ain't World War Two, George," my dad said Joe told him at some restaurant the O'Learys  and the Noakes' parents went to after the political and personal rift between the male heads of household were healed by the wives and by current events.  We were all Americans after all, and this was a a long, long war and how many more kids were going to be fled into the maw of mechanized war?  How many more scenes of Vietnamese mothers crying over kids killed in bombing raids were people supposed to see on television?   How many protesters needed to be arrested? How many times would Congress refuse to support Nixon's war anymore, even though some of these same Congressmen and Senators had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964? 

It's estimated that 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War from 1959--1973, mostly after 1965.  Another 9,000 ex-soldiers committed suicide within five years after the war.      


 Casualties for Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians on both sides of the DMZ, killed by all combatants, are  estimated by a French news agency at 4 million.        

We are doing business with Vietnam now the same way we did business with Germany and Japan and ,a bit later on , our national nemesis, "Red" China.  When I held that box of clothes I knew then the war conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Nixon said  we couldn't lose was just a dead letter. American business was doing business again.    

PS:   There are two brief video clips in the first two comments boxes here, showing in part how the war  in Vietnam was presented to Americans at home.  I think anyone interested in that sort of thing--propaganda and journalism in war-- should take a look at the stark contrasts between these two presentations.


  1. How the USO/NBC and Bob Hope presented the war in 1968

  2. A CBS Documentary from 1969-70, "HIll 943". I remmember watching this one, but I forgot the title until was reshown on a cable station a few years ago. I did remember the men taking the hill, going back down, taking it again...what a strategy!

  3. It seems to me that the current war in the Middle East is very much like the war in Nam. We will lose for the same reasons and because our troops and the nation have been deluded into believing we fight for freedom instead of for vested commercial interests. Every man and woman killed has been lost for nothing. This war isn't anything like WWII when battles were truly fought for freedom.

  4. I agree Stephen. What the hell was the point, really? Thanks for your comments.

  5. I just watched that documentary on the "HILL" where they named it Hamburger Hill on the history channel.
    The viet nam war was a waste of human lives and so is this one in Iraq and Afghanastan. both are a loss of way too many lives for no good reason that I can see. I feel that we should not interfere in other countries lives. Let them live the way they want. We cant have it our way everytime we decide a country needs to be a democracy. Let the people of that country decide like Egypt did and now Libya. We need to concentrate on this country and this country's people and do for it rather than spend money over seas on people who hate us.

  6. I think the more people can step back and look at the situation in most parts of the world, like the Middle East, Marty, the less likely it is we will be stampeded as have been in the past into these wars.

    As you say, we are a nation of finite resources and our time as the world's global cops-on-the-beat should be over.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. Only if cool heads prevail know how some want to invade just anywhere and everywhere...they are war mongerers and will never change...and you know which party I am talking about.

  8. Yes, it's curious and frightening to hear some of the GOP leaders talk so blithely about attacking or invading Iran, Marty.

    This was a country our leaders of both political parties completely misunderstood in the late 1970's, the way we underestimated and were just plain ignorant of Vietnam in the early 60's. Carter and Reagan and their respective followers talked like the Shah of Iran was going to be there forever. And now we are supposed to just bomb, bomb Iran into giving up its nuclear programs? Like we bombed the leaders in North Vietnam into giving up on fighting the South?

    There are apparently still people in power who feel we are the big dogs in a only unipolar world...and this is scary.

  9. You remind me of these lines from this song from the seventies sung by Roger Whitaker:

    "Now if you load your rifle right
    And if you fix your bayonet so
    And if you kill that man, my friend,
    The one we call the foe,
    And if you do it often, lad,
    And if you do it right
    You'll be a hero overnight
    You'll save your country from her plight
    Remember God is always right
    If you survive to see the sight
    A friend now greeting foe..."

    It was after the war in Vietnam that our government back then decided Aotearoa/New Zealand would no longer follow the US or even the UK blindly into any war. Sadly that decision has nor been badly eroded, thanks to our current ass-licking government.

    I am impressed with your parents. Now I know where your strong values came from and why I feel so honoured to be numbered as one of your contacts. This post has brought tears to my eyes as I remember all the young men I knew who were also fed into Vietnam like lambs to the slaughter, and the people of Vietnam whose lives were trashed also and you know as I do, that nothing has changed - merely the venue.

    Arohanui Doug.

  10. Thanks so much Iri Ani for contributing such appropriate lyrics to this blog. Funny how a bit of poetry can sometimes say as much as chapters of prose in any non-fiction book.

    I didn't mention here as I should have the men killed and wounded and those women who risked their lives to nurse them in the armies of New Zealand, and Australia, Phillipines, South Korea, et al.

    I think I said in an earlier blog you wrote that I had no idea New Zealnd had conscripted men to fight back in Vietnam then, or how the war affected the people there. America's involvement in the war and the protests at home seem to suck the air out of seeing anything like the larger picture of the other SEATO nations and what was happening to the people there.

    I feel equally honored to be a contact, Iri Ani, and think myself lucky indeed to have learned as much as I have from your blogs over the recent past. And thank you for mentioning my parents so postively. I know you would have liked both of them had fate made such communication possible.

    Nothing has changed it seems. We can only hope enough people learn more about the follies of the past or, as George Santanaya said (paraphrased ), 'those who do not learn from history will be doomed to see it repeated."

    Best wishes.

  11. I think you know where I stand on this Doug.
    Time to bring the troops home? I think so, then perhaps we can get on with healing the mess left behind.

    Oops, was that my utopia peeking out?

  12. Doug everyone thinks that only America went into it....
    Silent very silent and never even hits the radar in these time
    Canada went in there with a "silent" group of special forces
    the finding was that it was far so Canada kept a manadate to
    oversee all bases while this took place - yet if anyone ever says
    that Canada was never in's entirely of the radar.

    That is the truth.

  13. Don't worry Jim, it happens to a lot of us after witnessing a war that 's gone on too long. .

  14. I believe you, Jack. I also know Great Britain was more involved in the Vietnam War than as advertised, according to Mark Curtis 2006 book, "The Great Deception", using recently declassified government documents.

    "The British government has never admitted that British forces fought in Vietnam, yet the files confirm that they did, even though several remain censored. In August 1962, the Military Attache in Saigon, Colonel Lee, wrote to the War Office in London attaching a report by someone whose name is censored but who is described as an advisor to the Malayan government, then still a British colony. This advisor proposed that an SAS team be sent to Vietnam. Lee said that was unacceptable owing to Britain’s position as Co-Chair of the Geneva Agreement but then wrote:

    "Other covert aid provided by Britain included secret British air flights from Hong Kong to deliver arms, especially napalm and five-hundred-pound bombs...

    ‘It is …clear that there is enormous scope for assistance of a practical nature on the lines of that already being undertaken by the Americans. Thus it is strongly recommended that such British contribution [sic] as may be feasible be grafted onto the American effort in the field, particularly in view of their shortage of certain types of personnel. The ideal solution might be to contribute a number of teams to operate in a particular area fully integrated into the overall American and Vietnamese plan. The civil side could be composed of carefully selected Europeans and Malayans with suitable experience, and the military element could be drawn from the SAS regiment which operated for many years amongst the Aborigines in Malaya." Suitable steps could doubtless be taken to give them temporary civilian status. Although we should have to rely on the Americans to a great degree for logistic support, it might still be possible to provide a positive contribution in this field such as specialised equipment. A less satisfactory solution might be to integrate certain specialists into existing or projected American Special Forces Teams, although the main disadvantage here, particularly on the Aborigine side would lie in the fact that many of the experienced Malayan personnel would not speak English and would have to rely on the British element as interpreters when dealing with the Americans.’"

    My thanks to Aaran Ardvark for informing me of these declassifications and books.


  15. As a child in grade school I remember having to watch a movie in which LBJ said "Why Vietnam?". I think this was it. But I was none too old so I can't be sure. I share it as another example of the propaganda that we were exposed to.

  16. I just watched this movie below, I was too young to really understand anything back then, but this movie has sure opened my eyes to why we went to war in Vietnam....those Chinese sure had and still have their finger in everything dont they? Supplying bombs and missles and support to the north and corrupting anything they could...just like now! What a sad state of affairs back then and even today with China and other communist nations.

  17. Mary Ellen--I'd never seen this film before, so thanks for putting a link to it here. The film leaves out a lot of important details, as good propaganda does. In the 50's,for instance, after the French defeat in what was called Indo-China, Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Ridgeway opposed putting American combat forces into a land war in Southeast Asia.

    The "Munich Pact-1938 " model has been used over and over by foreign policy hawks to justify wars including an attempted all-out war against Nicaragua in the 1980's--which didn't become a major conflict--and in Iraq, where, obviously, it did in 2003.

    The problem here is that this model assumes every anti-Washington dictator in the world is another Adolph Hitler, even if they lead a country like Nicaragua which had only a few million people or an area like Vietnam, where the civil war in that country was fought by an agarian people who had little industrial power and represented no threat to the United States. Our potential enemies, Russia or China, didn't use ground troops in Southeast Asia. So why the hell did we have troops there? I would say, as others have said, that we over learned the lesons of Munich. We went forth "to slay dragons"

    Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk underestimated the NVA and the Vietcong and their drive to unite the country. South Vietnam was a collection of corrupt, tinpot governments whic h had little power beyond saigon. I gather form what I;ve read that the Vietnamese as a people, North or South, didn't want or nor were willing to fight for the American style of government.

    Many Ameircans thought these Asians were a "small people", and many disrespected our Saigon allies as little people. We were ignorant of their national culture and thought the Hanoi government could be bought off or pulverized and the war sold as a crusade against Moscow and Mao.

    I believe the great American film director John Ford made this film. This film is similar to other material I've seen about World War II and I assume that was his template.

    Thanks for showing this film. It was well worth seeing.

  18. No question that the Chinese supplied the North, Marty. I'm sure they were more than happy when American became so directly involved in this region. The sad irony is that China and Vietnam went to war in 1979, one more war in a conflict that had gone on and off for centuries before the French and later we arrived.

  19. Your welcome Doug. The indoctrination with this propaganda as a child did not stop me from being "anti war" as a teen with a peace sign on all apparel. Nor did it stop me from being awfully quiet but not supportive of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. I do not mean to be non supportive of our military and I do appreciate what all they sacrifice but I do not want them put in harms way either. Vietnam brings up memories of sadness for me. So many of our young men ruined both emotionally and physically. As in all wars. We need to find a better way to resolve our disagreements.

  20. A set of opinions I totally share Mary Ellen. One cannot think of the Vietnam War without sadness.

  21. Good picture by the way, a little bit of history in one image Doug.

  22. Hadn't quite thought of it all that way, AA.

    It's a torrent of irony of Amazonian proportions!

    ...and something that gave John La Carre and other writers connected to the "spy game" material for quite a few novels.

  23. Sounds like you had some a very hardscrabble life in those days, AA. Having read and seen the conflicts outside the embassy in newsreels and such I can only stand and commend you for fighting the good fight in as non-violent as possible against a war that most of your countrymen probably gave a pass to as long as they didn't see their own boys sent to the war.

    (I gather a lot of Wilson's support for the US effort in Vietnam was largely unknown by the public in 1968.)

    I wonder if you ran across many American ex-pats involved is those demonstrations?

  24. Yes, I came across that one little "snapshot" in my parents old grey photo album when I was looking for something else. It gave birth to these reflections in the blog.

    I guess, AA, if you live long enough you're going to be a little part of history like it or not.

  25. I don't think the Vietnam experience ever did provide a recovery, AA. I think it ended a lot of public faith in government (on the Left) for our generation as well as the generation of men who did the fighting or waited for their husbands and brothers to come home. Those on the Right have tried to revive it, but they aren't many of them in my mind who believed in a "civic society". That is perhaps the easiest way to explain why the corporate monsters have so much power in our country--an inbred cynicism among the public that was honed by the bad news coming from the rice paddies and mountain "firebases" of Vietnam.

    Yeah, Jerry Rubin: the Yippie turned Yuppie. If he hadn't died I'd make a scornful remark here about how he came across in interviews in the late 70's.

    I hope you will see the second Obama term will be an improvement over his first , and anti-war feeling will prevail, but at the same time I can't see putting much faith in any leaders at this juncture. I feel America still being tugged rightwards by the "zombies", fat-cat lobbyists and the revolving door between Washington, DC and Wall Street. But the counterculture is being reborn right now I think and its leaders are not among the movers and shakers in the two-party system,which for now is how it should be.

  26. They certainly are the models for what we are seeing today on the streets of New York City, Berkeley and Seattle, et al, even though many protesters and their supporters might not realize this.

    You'd think almost five decades after the hair-trigger edge of doom events of October 1962 and the clear limits of "nuclear deterrent" in a proliferation of national programs...we have become a collection of citizens of various nations caught in a kind of collective terror.

    You simply cannot have such destructive power in the hands of stewards of any one government or private entity. To me that persoinification can be best seen as the message of Stanley Kubrick's film "Dr. Strangelove" (1963), my best one-off artistic insight into the real madness of believing and trusting people in brass hats and war rooms with the fate of the human race.

    What was once considered idealistic is, to me, increasingly simply pragmatic. We have to somehow get beyond nuclear weapons before people can have the peace of mind to make humane decisions about leadership and how to treat neighbors in other nations.

    Thanks for bringing so much to this discussion, AA.

  27. I remember this era very well Doug - that of Vietnam as Washington requested that Canada (like cousins) were requested to come into America and train as Canada on the record never went to Vietnam yet many Canadians via Norad which is Air Force came in to oversee the command of many bases. I myself will never forget as a kid watching from Syracuse which was an operative base at the time - to see those of which were coming back on the television was something which was explained to me later. But it is history and what we have going on now is a far different situation. On the record Canada never went into this war yet several were called by Ottawa and requested to aid and assist within a capacity within America and as mentioned like cousins we did. I don't believe that ever hits the internet board yet within this era there was a unity within the military. I know it well as I was raised there only due to the fact that the premise was my father as well as several others - to come within America and aid. That is what they did. And that is true history Douglas.

  28. Interesting for me, Jack, in the last couple years to learn more and more about the "secret history" of the Vietnam War as in regard to President Johnson's efforts to drag other NATO countries into the fray one way or another.

  29. At this time there really were not many options to do otherwise Douglas. The most important things is the value of which that we did. I would think that the very same would have been done for Canada by way of the USA in fact the fact is that there is a standing agreement between these two nations to protect and service each other. It really comes down to the time of the war 1812.

    Where afterwards there is and has never been any two countries which have had an ordeal and then came to be the best of allies for each other. Ironically as it is.

  30. I was reading an interesting book on American foreign policy Jack. ONe ofthethings that waspointed out was this mutual defense idea. It started after the War of 1812 but it wasn't consolidated according to this author until after the American Civil War when Great Britain and US officals signed an accord Washignon in effect made a treaty with the that acknowledged:

    1) Britian was the surpeme sea power and the United States had no interest in challenging her sea power.

    2) That Canada should be made a dominion and no major military forces from the UK would be put there.

    Hence all could pursue the common cause of making the United States and Britain the major powers in the Atlantic/ Western world. The British aquiesence in supprting the Confederate cotton power that fed their tectile mils in the Midlands led to the building of war ships for the Confederacy. When the Union Army won the war, they asked for reperations from Britain.

    At the Washington Conference, the matter was settled: the British Navy would rule the oceans as a premier power and the American eagle would not be challenged from the north. Britian would keep a small land force in Canada. This left Washington free to take greater control in Latin America and the Caribbean, the climax of which of course was the Spanish-American War in 1898. This war by America against a third rate crumbling empire (Spain) made America a power in Cuba and the Phillipines, the latter with the tacit support of Great Britain, which helped the American Navy by letting Admiral Dewey's fleet use Hong Kong as a base to attack Spainish forces in Manila Bay.

    Fifty years earlier in 1845, the United States and Britain ratified the 49th Parallel as the common border between Canada and America west of the Great Lakes.

    Once that was settled the Americans were free to attack Mexico and extend our "Manifest Destiny" southwards and westwards. The British didn't care at this point, having lost a long-shot chance to bring Texas into her empire.

    So the Vietnam experience with the predominently English-speaking empires working in tacit tandem, it turns out , was nothing new really.

  31. Your pissed off with me. Doug. I would hope this does continue as I have always regarded you as a friend.

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  34. I'm not at all mad at you, Jack. I'm sorry I gave that impression. My comments were meant to pass on information.

  35. Good information and I know that Doug. As well as I do respect you. You leave all your favorites unchecked - smart man.