How the US lost the war in Vietnam
Chapter 1 of 12
I served 5 years on SEA battlefields.
Went over initially as 22 year old 2nd Lt Platoon leader in the 1st Division and saw a year’s combat action NW of Saigon, in the Tay Ninh, Minh Thanh, Cu Chi area.
In 1971 I returned as a CIA paramilitary case officer working with the Hmong upcountry Laos. In one significant battle our rag-tag 4,000 man CIA army under command of Hmong war lord Vang Pao beat 27,000 NVA in the Battle for Skyline Ridge.
After the Lao cease fire and the pull-out from Vietnam of the US military I was transferred to the delta of South Vietnam where I liaised with the ranking ARVN commanders south of Saigon.
This included General Tran Van Hai, the ARVN 7th Division commander, whose Hqs was located on the Cambodian border underneath the Parrot’s beak (not far from where it all started with the first major battle of the US supported South Vietnamese Army against the communist Viet Cong in Ap Bac).
Across from Hai’s forces in a Cambodian sanctuary was a staging area for the North Vietnamese. Soon after Ban Me Thuit fell in early 1975, it began to swell with North Vietnamese who were certainly intent on moving to the under belly of Saigon… when the communist would launch its final assault to take the country.
Hai’s forces were the only opposition between this developing communist assault unit and Saigon.
I would meet Hai two and sometimes three times a week.
And he hated me and the US gov’t I represented to have put him and his men in this untenable position. We had blundered our mission to South Vietnam from start to the soon to be finish, he said.
How could we go from the best Army in the world in 1945, when we beat the Germans and the Japanese to getting our asses whipped by little North Vietnam… and in goin’ about that getting so many of his countrymen killed. “How did this happen, Mr. CIA man?” He asked again and again.
I had no answer then, but I certainly gave his questions serious thought… especially after my final evacuation from Vietnam, two days after the American Embassy was evacuated…
Nothing in my on-the-ground experience in SEA helped explain how this happened.
The question has been a haunting load I’ve carried since… especially poignant when you know that Hai committed suicide rather than flee South Vietnam… his sacrifice clearly due a failed US strategy in SEA.
I have spent some long time searching for the answer to Hai’s questions and I’d like to share with you some of my findings.
To get at the full story on how the US lost in Vietnam you must exam history back to the early 1900s….
Japan annexed Korea in 1904, before WW I.
Summer of 1914 Hungarian/Austrian Archduke assassinated in Sarajevo, Serbia
August 1914 Britain declares war on Germany.
August 1914 German attack and defeat Russian Army at Tannenberg, Poland
September 1914 Germany attacks France
October 31, 1914 Japan attacks and captures Tsingtao, China … and uses the world’s preoccupation with the war in Europe to expand its sphere of influence in China. Japanese navy also uses WW I to expand Japan control of Pacific islands.
Battle rages across Europe in 1915 and 1916.
April 6, 1917 US declares war on Germany.
The very next month May 25, 1917 the term “TOTAL WAR” appears to describe the strategy of this on-going fight (before WW I became its designation)… Folkestone, England was bombed by German Gotha airplanes leading to 95 civilian casualties while 195 were injured. The concept of strategic bombing of purely civilian targets introduced “Total War” into the lexicon of “military execution of a gov’t foreign policy.”
June 1917 First American troops arrive in France. By 1918, 10,000 US soldiers a day were arriving to fight the Germans and November 1918 Germany signs armistice.
War I was over.
Chapter 2 of 12
When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin assumed power in Russia.
Japanese Army invades Manchuria in 1931 and declares war on China in 1937.
Hitler came to power in German in 1933 and invades Poland in 1939.
1941 The Soviet Union's Comintern sends Ho Chi Minh, its long time communist agent, to North Vietnam. No evidence he ever disengaged from Soviet employment
Japan attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
German declared war on the US December 11, 1941.
In the World War that is to ensue, the battles between Germany and Russia constituted the largest military confrontation in the history of mankind. The battles were characterized by “total war” of unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres.
Majority of all Germans soldier casualties in WW II were lost on its eastern front. 2,000,000.
Poland which was invaded and occupied by Germany (from which they launched their attacks on Russia), suffered 6,000,000 killed, mostly civilian.
Soviet Union lost 10 million soldiers in the war and altogether suffered 25,000,000 casualties.
China lost 14,000,000 civilians and soldiers in the war mostly to the Japanese.
2,000,000 German soldiers killed on Eastern Front
6,000,000 Poland (20% of their population)
500,000 Japan in China , (mostly against the Chinese National forces of Chiang Kai-shek)
47,500,000 total Germany-Russia… China-Japan
Total: 80,000,000 killed in WW II
(US casualties: 418,000 or ½ of 1 %)
With German spent in its unsuccessful attack on Russia, and with the power of Japan slowly eroded by its Army’s efforts to win the war for China… the defeat of the axis forces was assured.
Not to take away from Roosevelt’s political/civilian war managers in the US, Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton in Europe and MacArthur in the Pacific – and the great, great contribution by the US grunt ….. but pls understand that German and Japan losses to Russia and China contributed greatly to our ultimate win.
February 1945 German defeat seems assured. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin meet at Yalta. Stalin had previous promised at some future date to join the fight against Japan in a previous conference in Beriut, Lebanon. In Yalta Stalin laid out his conditions for assisting the US to defeat Japan.
At the time Roosevelt’s war planners were thinking in terms of one million allied soldiers dying in an invasion of Japan and the US President desperately sought Stalin’s help in sharing this cost. In private meetings with Stalin – greatly influenced by Ambassador Averell Harriman, the US Ambassador to Russia at the time – Roosevelt agreed to terms which would as a direct consequence deliver mainland China to the communist.
These secret agreements – which should have taken congressional approval, and at the very least the approval of Chiang Kai-shek, where written to Stalin’s satisfaction and were unannounced to even Roosevelt’s cabinet. The written agreement which the US President signed was hand carried back to the US and put in a White House safe, not to be revealed until after Roosevelt’s death two months later. The Yalta agreement with Stalin was one of the worst deals the US every made, and history should hold Averell Harriman accountable. The only other bad deal that compares with this is Averell Harriman forcing and protecting the ’62 Geneva Accords on the US, which made the Vietnam War unwinnable for US forces.
April 1945 Roosevelt dies and is succeeded by Truman.
May 7, 1945 Germany surrenders
End July 1945 Potsdam. Stalin confirms his intentions to fight against Japan. He showed no surprise when Truman explained the US development of the Atomic Bomb, and discussed its possible use on the Japanese mainland. (Stalin had already received detailed intelligence on the US Manhattan project and had themselves started their own development of atomic armament).
Stalin and Truman make plans to jointly occupy Korea following the defeat of Japan. Soviet troops will occupy the northern portion of the country and the United States will take the southern half.
August 6, 1945 “Little Boy” dropped on Hiroshima
August 8, 1945 Russia declares war on Japan and invades Manchuria per plans laid out at Yalta. Unknown to the free world Russia strips Manchuria of its cash and heavy equipment. It also positions its forces so as to impede Chiang Kai Shek's forces from moving into the area, but at the same time facilitates the communinist force of Mao ZaDong to move north.
August 9, 1945 “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki
August 15, 1945 Japanese Emperor surrenders on public radio
WW II over.
Chapter 3 of 12
What next for the US?…
Public outcry: “Bring the boys home.”
In WDC the thought was, “What’s our post WW II foreign policy.. post atomic bomb (PAB)?”
The Marshall plan was basically unaffected by PAB thinking. Europe was used to putting themselves back together after wars… all those castles and fortress are testament to many previous fights/wins/losses. The history of Europe is noted for fighting wars and making peace and redrawing new national boundaries afterwards.
In the Far East, first thought was to support the Soviet-approved US State Department-suggested division of Korea at the 38th parallel. Soviet forces that had moved through Korea in the attacks on Japanese soldiers early August 1945, moved down to the vicinity of the 38th and stopped. US Army forces came up to the southern part of this DMZ in early 1946. It was the first appearance of US troops ever on the Korean peninsula.
George Kennan – Princeton (1925)
In 1946 the WDC discussion about the PAB era of foreign affairs found some solutions with arrival of George Kennan’s famous “long telegram” from the US Embassy in Moscow. It suggests a policy of “containment” of the Soviets to avert another “Total War.” Telegram was persuasively written and got much circulation among strategists in the Pentagon and White House.
September 18, 1947 CIA created as a follow on to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WW II. MacArthur argued it should be under the control of the Pentagon. J. Edgar Hoover argued that it should be under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
September 1947 Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) founded in Soviet Union. Took up where Comintern had left off (when this organization was suspended in WW II) to promote worldwide communist movement. by any means possible. The organization cultivated communist insurgents in most non-communist countries of the world.
DMZ established in Korea and US troops withdraw from the peninsula beginning 1947 leaving South Korea under the US aligned Syngman Rhee with US State Department responsible for post-war supervision.
Shyskov Kim Il Sung
In North Korea, first supreme commander was Russian General Shyskov 1946-1947 who instigated land reform that took all land ownership from the public and transferred it to the gov’t.
Then in 1947 Kim Il Sung was appointed President by the Soviet Embassy… Most suggest Kim was a combined product of Cominform, Shyskov and Stalin. Korean was not Kim’s first language, because in his first taped speech he had difficulty speaking the language. (He was most probably Russian of Korean ethnicity). The name Kim Il Sung was taken from a Korean resistant leader killed towards the end of WW II. One Soviet official said they made President Kim Il Sung from “nothing.”
Truman elected President over Dewey Nov 2, 1948
His closest advisers were….
.Dean Acheson – Yale (1915 Skull and Bones) Sec of State. Known for Marshall Plan/Truman Doctrine/NATO. Very close to Averell Harriman.
Robert Lovett – Harvard (1921) Yale (1918) Sec of Defense (formerly War). Took over when Louis Jackson was fired because he couldn’t get along with Acheson and Harriman. Especially Harriman. Helped create CIA, NATO. Known as the architect of the “Cold War.” Out of Harvard went to work for Brown Brothers Harriman on Wall Street where he was spotted by Averell Harriman
John McCloy - Harvard (1921) Ass’t Sec of Defense War Dept. official and later US official to Germany. Spotted by Averell Harriman in the private sector and invited into top level of US gov’t.
“Chip” Bohlen – Ambassador to Moscow. Harvard (1927). Interpreter for Roosevelt at Yalta. (The third American in the private meetings with Stalin. Harriman was the second). Followed Kennan in Russia. Kept US foreign affair dialogue focused on Russia.
Averell Harriman – Yale (1913 Skull and Bones) Ambassador to Moscow 1943-1946. After he left Moscow as US Ambassador, great seal bug discovered over his desk. He was central to most foreign policy decisions made by the US from WW 2 to VN war. Held sway over the majority of other Truman advisers. Was directly responsible for the firing of Johnson as Sec of Defense and MacArthur as Commander of UN forces in Korea.
US has only had five 5 Star US Army Generals, all produced during WW II
5 Star General Hap Arnold who held the joint positions of 5 Star General of the Army and 5 Star General of the Air Force. He was taught how to fly planes by the Wright Brothers, and was the first of 3 pilots in the US military. He went on to build the aviation division in the US military and in WW II led the 2.5 million men in the US military air corps with 75,000 planes. He retired from the military in 1946 for health reasons and died 4 years later.
The remaining 4 greatly impacted reworked US military strategy after WW II
5 Star General George Marshall - Sec of Defense and State
Significant leadership in US Military European campaign of WW II. Marshall Plan. Opposed US involvement to support Chiang Kai-shek in China. In fact ordered a cease fire in China, which Chiang observed and Mao didn’t. This eventually greatly influenced a Mao victory.
5 Star General Omar Bradley Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff
“Set your course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship” soft spoken and polite. Objected to dismantling of US military after WW II.
5 Star General MacArthur Operated under Total War ideals and refused to obey Truman’s “containment” and “limited War” restraints. His position was “no substitute for Victory.”
5 Star General Eisenhower who made peace possible when he became President in 1952
Who didn’t like Truman or later Kennedy or later Johnson
Chapter 4 of 12
August 29, 1949 Soviet explode a nuclear device, dubbed “Joe 1”
Discussions continue in what would be National Security Council policy paper 68 as the US road map for US foreign affairs' way-ahead. Kennan “containment” policy dominated… any reasoning of “military confrontation” eventually brought the discussion on the end game to “total war”… however now with Little Boy and Joe 1 being part of the “total war” make up, then “annihilation” and “mutual annihilation” entered the equation.
Oct 1, 1949 Mao declared Chairman of the newly constituted PRC (People’s Republic of China). Chiang Kai-shek and National Army flee to Taiwan.
6 December 1949 Mao takes a private train to Moscow ostensibly to celebrate Stalin birthday in December.
January 12, 1950 – Acheson’s speech to WDC press club on US defense lines around the world (“containment”) …. that did not include SEA, Taiwan or Korea. His speech was in preparation for National Security Council (NSC) - 68 signing.
January 14, 1950 Ho Chi Minh declares DRV (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) is the rightful gov’t of Vietnam. End January he arrives in Moscow for talks with Mao and Stalin. Among things Stalin said was for China to provide North Vietnam with war supplies for the North Vietnamese to expand communist influence in SEA…. and Russia would re-supply China with new stuff.
March 7 1950 Kim Il Sung travels to Moscow. Stalin does not coordinate with Mao but orders Kim’s North Korean Army invasion of the south.
14 April 1950 Top Secret NCS report 68, outlining way-ahead objectives and programs for US Security, officially approved by President Truman. 5 years in the making. Kennan’s “Containment” proposal is key.
May 1950, Syngman Rhee conservatives lose many seats in South Korean assembly to anti-Rhee moderates. Communist party strong in South Korea but does not maintain contact with North Korea.
May 1950, Mao agrees with Kim’s plan to invade the south. Does not think US will get involved.
Certainly he knew
1) about the US defensive line Acheson drew that outlined the countries the US pledged to defend… did not include Korea.
2) He knew that the US did not have a history of involvement on the peninsula (’46-’47).
3) Had only around 500 soldiers on the ground in Korea.
4) And he knew that backing up these soldiers, the US had gone from 8,000,000 men in uniform at the end of WW II, to now 5 years later, to around 1,500,00 men worldwide… an 82% percent drop in US military strength.
5) And had not interfered when the communist were taking over China.
Considering these 5 reasons Mao saw no reason to think the US could or would commit to the defense of South Korea.
25 June 1950 Nine North Korean divisions (75,000 soldiers) invade South Korea. Orders to launch attacks arrived at front line North Korean units written in Russia.
This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War.
Chapter 5 of 12
27 June Pres. Truman after meeting with advisers commits US to keep South Korea soldiers and officials from being pushed into the sea. He turns to MacArthur, in Japan nearby, and tells him to do something.
28 June 1950 North Korean forces capture Seoul and execute South Korean officials and intelligentsia.
5 July 1950 the Battle of Osan, was the first significant American engagement of the Korean War, involved the 540-soldier Task Force Smith, which was a small forward element of the 24th Infantry Division which had been flown in from Japan. Results: 180 dead, wounded, or taken prisoner. The KPA progressed southwards, forcing the 24th Division’s retreat to Taejeon where they suffered 3,602 dead and wounded and 2,962 captured, including the Division’s Commander, Major General William F. Dean.
US military reserves mobilized in the US.
North Korea forces pushed down to Pusan but cannot break the defensive perimeter of the newly created US 8th Army under command of General Walker.
North Korean supply lines – that traverse Seoul – become over-extended.
July MacArthur visits Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa.
23 August meeting in Tokyo to decide where and how to invade Korea . MacArthur’s magnificent 25 minute speech. Inchon – against the opinion of all but MacArthur – it is.
August 27 to September 16 heaviest fighting of the Korean War as North Koreans suffers heavy casualties trying human wave assaults to break General Walker’s Pusan perimeter.
15 September 1950 1st Marine Division and 7th US Army Division invade Inchon. 75,000 soldiers and 261 ships.
Seoul recaptured by end of the month, cutting North Korean supply lines.
MacArthur and Truman Wake Island 15 October 1950
Tens of thousands of North Koreans were cut off in the south of the Korean peninsula. Maybe 30,000 made their way back to North Korea, but thousands were captured and sent to POW camps on Koje-do Island in the South China Sea. Also sent to those camps were some South Korean communist, and people policed up on the battlefield whose allegiance could not be determined. Most troubling were North Korean agitators who allowed themselves to be captured so as insight insurrection in the POW camps
7 October, with President Truman approval (and with General Marshall encouragement to “do what was necessary”) MacArthur forces launch across the 38th parallel to find and kill the North Korea Army that remains in North Korea.
Stalin encourages Mao to react. Chinese leadership, in turn, says any movement by US army up to their border will not be tolerated.
Truman tells MacArthur to advance North with Republic of South Korea (ROK) forces in the lead.
Although there is convincing evidence that China has moved great armies from encampments across from Taiwan to Manchuria, MacArthur does not believe Chinese will attack US forces in Korea.
He persists in this view despite mounting evidence that the Chinese are moving from Manchuria into North Korea.
Mid November his forces – with many US Marine and Army troops in the lead – reach the Yalu.
Final assault to the Yalu of UN forces begins 24 November, which MacArthur described to Washington as a “reconnaissance in force.”
25 November MacArthur’s Army is attacked by 300,000 Red Chinese and is forced back to the 38th parallel. This is the largest ambush of US troops in the history of the US.
MacArthur alone must be held accountable for this battlefield miscalculation and lack of intelligence.
Truman does not allow
1) MacArthur war planes to blow the four main bridges across the Yalu, that the Chinese need to support their assaults.
2) He does not allow him to hit resupply depots inside China.
3) He does not allow his Air Force to chase – in hot pursuit – Soviet or Chinese planes that head back to skies over China.
Truman takes the position not to support MacArthur's request because he and his military advisors do not want to compound the military blunder of US caught in such a deadly ambush, with more unsound tactical decisions from MacArthur... that would in effect put the US at war with China.
Truman does mention possible use of atomic bombs and in fact sends some atomic armament to the area.
US forces are pushed south by the Chinese, they push back to re-take Seoul, and dig in – facing each other near the 38th parallel. Minor scuffles ensue. (Seoul lost, retaken, lost, retaken in 1950)
The Red Chinese are far south from their border, have taken severe casualties – and like the North Koreans before them – are now beginning to strain their supply lines, even with the help of Soviet rail…
1 February Soviet suggest peace talks in Korea. UN agrees that a peaceful solution should be sought and talks tentative set for August 1951. There is a momentary pause for the Red Chinese and the North Korean to regroup.
24 March MacArthur frustrated with Washington obvious focus on “limited” verse “total war” – it’s efforts to seek “armistice” rather than “victory.” Especially now when he has the Red Chinese at a great disadvantage. So without consulting Washington – issues an ultimatum to Mao to pull his forces back north across the Yalu or face the sure destruction of his army.
5 April MacArthur writes Congress about the problems he faces with the Truman administration.
11 April 1951. Truman fires MacArthur.
19 April 1951 MacArthur returns home and speaks to joint session of Congress. The famous “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” or “No substitute for Victory” speech. Crowds were along the road in Tokyo as he left for home. Crowds were at the airport in the States when he arrived. Crowds were along the route he took to Capitol Hill and massive crowds were at the ticket tape parade in NYC on the 20th. … which was the largest parade of its kind, every.
Despite MacArthur’s popularity, “Limited War” and civilian control of US military prevail.
It is the end of “Total War.” Ends “No substitute for Victory” on the battlefield.
Truman and his 6 wise men and two of the 5 star Generals, understood the bigger picture of efforts to engage China, and stop this new country of half a billion people from bonding with the Russian confederation. Because if China and Russia act as one, the world balance of power shifts to them.
[MacArthur was surely a better General than Truman was a President, certainly when comparing MacArthur’s WW II and Inchon successes against Truman very low approval numbers during his presidency. Truman's very limited efforts to support Chiang Kai-shek was spun by the GOP as the main reason the communist won In China. Dean Acheson was accused of being a Communist sympathizer.]
Fight intensifies along 38th parallel as peace talks set up in Panmunjom.
First talks are 10 July, 1951. Chief US Negotiator Admiral C. Turner Joy arrives first day to take a seat across from the Chief North Korean negotiator, General Nam Il. His seat is several inches lower than the North Korean. The silly, gamed negotiations have begun.
Eisenhower comes into office in 1952 and visits Korea as the seemly endless contested peace talks continue. POW returns become big issue, after our WW II mistakes in forcibly repatriating Russian soldiers captured by the Germans – even though they begged not to be returned to Russia… because, as they feared, most were sent after their forced repatriation for the rest of their lives to special isolation camps. Continuing Chinese/North Korean Koje-do POW camp covert/propaganda ops (especially their command of compound 76) impacts talks at peace table.
5 March 1953 Stalin dies.
April 17, 1953 Completely ignored in the US press…. the Viet Minh invaded Laos.
(DBP = Dien Bien Phu)
Sam Noua captured after 1,500 man French relief column pulled out. Sop Noa and Moung Khuoa held for 40 days before being destroyed. 316th NVA division used 200,000 porters bring supplies down from China for the 148th to use in their push towards Laung Prabaung.
27 July 1953 Korean Armistice signed. Korean War for all intents and purposes is over. It was, however, according to U.S. General Mark Clark, “…an armistice without victory.”
He, like MacArthur, did not understand that the principle of “no substitute for Victory” ran against WDC “containment” thinking. His comments reflect US military thinking pre-Little Boy and Fat Man. It was before the idea sunk in with the US military that the best long term maneuvering out there in the world should be in such a way as to prevent a Beijing and Moscow alliance.
POW swap in October 1953, though some issues.
Convocation called in Geneva, Switzerland the spring of 1954 – away from Korea – to resolve these issues. Strong Chinese and Soviet Union representation. Since the U.S. did not recognize the communist government of Mao Zedong (represented by Chou En-Lai), General Bedell Smith represented the United States at the conference table; the U.S. Secretary of State spent time standing in the halls. The British, who chaired the conference, and the French had complicated long-standing difference of policies that bubbled below the surface throughout the conference.
Chapter 6 of 12
1954 build up around French blocking position at Dien Ben Phu.
France is tired of fighting (it’s goin’ on a 14 years, near a million casualties in WW II and 90,000 in Vietnam). Country looks to Geneva to handle consequence of fight for Dien Ben Phu. If Vietnamese win, France prepared to throw in the towel.
Eisenhower wanted to support the French at Dien Ben Phu, but especially England argued against getting involved. CAT’s “Earthquake” McGoon’s death.
17 May 1954, French surrender at Dien Bien Phu.
In France, change of gov’t. New people in Paris give all rights back to Vietnam.
In Geneva 1) France, 2) China, 3) USSR, 4) US, 5) England, 6) Cambodia, 7) Laos, 8) the Viet Minh and 9) the gov’t of South Vietnam consider other options in Vietnam. (one report is that China said no to offering all of Vietnam to the Vietnamese in an effort to appease the U.S. A sinister thought is that even at this point, monolithic Moscow wanted to entice the US into another Korea like dust up in the far east.)
The Accords, heavily influenced by the unified Communist representatives, were hastily negotiated and drafted. Parts were so vaguely and haphazardly written as to be almost unintelligible. Some parts were translated into different languages to mean different things.
Final Accords from April 26 to July 20, 1954 conference.
1) Vietnam will be divided at the 17th parallel. Vietnamese had 300 days to decide where they wanted to settle.
2) Elections to be held in 1956 to unite the country.
3) Laos and Cambodia free to form their own gov’t and decide their own fate.
US and gov’t of South Vietnam did not sign, because the majority of the Vietnamese live in North Vietnam. Elections would surely go their way.
But President Eisenhower liked the overall results. With the DMZ in place at the 17th parallel it bottled up North Vietnam. If Laos was denied to the North Vietnamese, they only had the 60 mile DMZ front to invade. Laos created a natural bottle for the North Vietnamese, Eisenhower was fond of saying and it was up to South Vietnam to keep the cork in the bottle.
Deny Laos to the North Vietnamese… Eisenhower’s people would say… and we stop communism from spreading in SEA… and there becomes no problem with our support of a free and democratic South Vietnam – it is worth our time and money and the risk of US prestige, because we can “contain” the communist behind their own border… if we deny them Laos.
Eisenhower’s people must have also thought that denying Laos to the North Vietnamese fell in line with NSC – 68 thinking on containment.
Immediately after the conference, the United States promised $100 million to help start up a government in South Vietnam and in doing that, took the initiative — and seemed to take responsibility — to protect democracy in SEA.
Like Hitler in 1939, Time magazine featured Ho Chi Minh on its cover on November 22, 1954. The lengthy accompanying article profiled the new North Vietnamese president in glowing rhetoric. “Ho Chi Minh, dedicated Communist,” the article read, “is a matchless interplay of ruthlessness and guile.”
On 4 April 1955, five months after TIME magazine ran with another picture of Ho Chi Minh on its cover, with a supporting article that emphasized his charisma, the magazine ran a cover picture of Ngo Dinh Diem. The cover story was rich with colorful language of how bad this leader of free South Vietnam was.
The media was picking sides. International media soon followed the TIME opinion, emphasizing “Good Ho, Bad Diem.”
Diem, a Roman Catholic in what was an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, encouraged Vietnamese Catholics living in Communist North Vietnam to take advantage of the 300-day free pass period allowed by the Geneva Accords and move south.
Nearly one million Catholics took advantage and moved.
At the same time, some 90,000 Communists in the south went north, although as many as 10,000 committed Viet Minh fighters were instructed by Hanoi to quietly remain behind.
One of the first pieces of business under the new Vietnamese government in Hanoi was to create the National Liberation Front (NLF) to continue the fight for South Vietnam.
In the south the communist guerrilla organization eventually became known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), which the Americans and Diem referred to as Viet Cong (VC), an abbreviation of Viet-nam Cong-san (or Vietnamese Communists).
To maintain contact between the VC and the NLF, the trail that ran through Laos around the 17th parallel DMZ was expanded with use.
Belying Ho’s carefully constructed façade of the kindly and gentle “Uncle Ho,” the new administration – to clearly establish its authority — massacred North Vietnamese by the thousands in a Soviet-style “land reform” campaign. As a consequence many non-Catholic Vietnamese families also fled to South Vietnam.
In fact land reform in North Vietnam was very similar in style and the way it was implemented with that of North Korea in 1946/1947 by Soviet General Sheykov and upheld by Kim Il Sung.
In the United States, President Eisenhower followed events in Vietnam closely and supported Ngo Dinh Diem’s vigorous anti-communist campaigns launched in late 1954. To help Diem’s effort to pacify the countryside U.S. military advisers arrived in South Vietnam in February 1955. Diem himself was advised by U.S. Air Force Col. Edward G. Lansdale, who was attached to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Diem came from the same region of North Central Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh (Nghe An) but was a very different character from his rival. Educated by the French, Diem was a devout Catholic who had studied for the priesthood and had a Catholic bishop brother. His base morality, however, was impacted by his understanding of Confucianism and the way traditional Asian society worked. For example, Diem assigned most high level government positions to close friends and family members including his younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was his closest adviser.
Though the brothers professed a kind, benevolent government the realities were almost always a heavy-handed, brutal, unsympathetic response to any dissent against the Diem’s family-led regime.
There was always a culture gulf between the urban, Catholic, western-educated, light skinned Diem and the dark skinned, Buddhist farmers who made up most of the South Vietnamese citizenry.
Some in the U.S. government became concerned that Diem did not have any staying power because his civilian support was primarily in the upper region of his country. He was encouraged to win the “Hearts and Minds” of the farmers in the delta and around Saigon rather than just brutally impose his government’s will everywhere.
By the end of 1955, Diem ran Saigon and his government was in control of other populated areas throughout most of South Vietnam. However under Diem the countryside fell more and more under VC control because
1) the warlords didn’t channel rural support up to the government in Saigon and
2) because of Diem’s minority Catholic beliefs, his suspected control by the west and
3) his meager efforts to identify with the common people around Saigon and in the delta,
This was not initially apparent to Vietnam observers half-way round the world in Washington.
Although Ho Chi Minh remained president of the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, he supposedly turned over day-to-day responsibilities to others, due what was said to be his old age and “failing health.” He was the face of North Vietnam however and remained active internationally promoting a unified Vietnam.
It was almost as if he was manipulated by the unseen hands of his communist mentors in Moscow to the same extent Diem in the south was responsible to Washington.
In May 1959 Ho authorized the creation of the 559th Transport Group to make improvements to the trail around the 17th parallel. A multitude of pathways were built alongside the original road, through the thick vegetation and rugged terrain. Eventually the total length of all the different side trails to the route would be approximately 12,000 miles and would include an oil pipeline, way stations, foot paths and roads that supported heavy vehicles. 99 % of this complex roadway system was in Laos and Cambodia.
Group 559 (which means 5th month of 1959) was set up entirely of Southern Viet Minh soldiers from Region 5 area (and specifically from the area from Nha Trang-Binh Dinh up to Danang) who had regrouped to North Vietnam. The first commander of Group 559, Colonel Vo Bam, was a native of Quang Ngai Province in South Vietnam and is the individual most responsible for the expansion of the route. He started with less than one thousand workers but by 1973 Group 559 had just over 100,000 personnel working the trail, making improvements and moving material up and down from North Vietnam to sanctions in Laos and Cambodia.
PAVN Colonel Vo Bam
With the new transport pathway in place more than 4,000 Vietnamese soldiers, originally born in the south, were sent from North Vietnam to infiltrate back into their home regions of South Vietnam.
As 1960 broke, the conflict in Vietnam was gaining major international attention and a world-wide protest movement began. Rallies were held in support of the VC and the rhythmic chant “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” rang out at peace marches.
In the face of all this gathering international attention Diem did not rise to the challenge. He never gave the impression to foreign observers that he was capable of winning the support of the majority of the people in South Vietnam… or that he really represented the citizenry.
Unlike North Vietnam, there was a very limited sense of nationalism. Instead there was discouragement about the future viability of a South Vietnam. At every turn Diem’s family-run government was found to be corrupt and, as time went on, ineffective.
Discouraged, but undeterred in its commitment to support Diem’s regime, on May 5, 1960, the United States announced the increase in the number of military advisers in South Vietnam from 327 to 685 men.
In November 1960 a failed coup against President Diem by disgruntled South Vietnamese Army officers brought on a harsh crackdown against all perceived “enemies of the state.” Over 50,000 people were arrested; many tortured and killed.
Note: Panhandle of Laos was formerly part of Thailand, until French re-drew the border to add the land east of Mekong to their protectorate of Laos. It was legitimized by the French-Siamese Conflict of 1893.
And as Eisenhower was coming to the end of his 8 years as President, Diem continued to struggle as the US’s hope in Saigon, and land locked Laos was proving to be an almost unsolvable problem in his highest priority “deny Laos” strategy.
1) The gov’t was corrupt and inept; nobody had any experience running a free and independent country.
2) all the world powers were meddling in everyone’s business,
3) There were problems with the leader the US helped put in power – Souvanna Phoma – and his two brothers… one who claim to head the Communist Pathet Lao,
4) the counter unification moves of the power brokers in the panhandle who were tied in with Thai officials,
5) and maybe the most glaring problem for Eisenhower was the fact that the Lao Army was one of the worst Armies in the world, beat in every skirmish with the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong.
Eisenhower sent White Star SF military advisers to Laos, beefed up the CIA effort there, funneled money into Savannkhet’s Phoumi Nosavan… with no apparent success.
Laos didn’t seem impressed that so much was being made of them… that Laos was being mentioned in war rooms in Moscow and Washington. It just lay there in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, so un-unified and un-coordinated it simply couldn’t do anything. In the north the hills tribesmen were called Meo, or roughly “savages.” The people in the south panhandle had been part of Thailand up until the late 1800s and had Thai roots/language. The Lao epicenter around Vientiane and Laung Prabang only had a small group of leaders, who did not unite the mountain “savages” with their countrymen, the former Thais, in the panhandle.
The situation had so many loopy moving parts and was so confusing that in the late 1950s a foreign diplomat said, “If you think you know what’s happening in Laos, you just don’t know the facts.”
By comparison, the new gov’t and military in Saigon, firmly under Diem’s control, looked better. Corrupt but looked good. Their administration had been trained by the French and knew how to showcase their start-up government and Army to American officials. Plus the Saigon night life appealed to visitors from Washington… no small item. They wanted to come back.
Then 1960. Lao Neutralist (communist-leaning) Captain Kong Le and Royal Lao Army (FAR) General Phoumi Nosovanh fought an artillery battle for Vientiane, Laos. Kong Le finally retreated to the Plain of Jars (PDJ), a breathtakingly beautiful 250 square-mile high-mountain plateau 100 miles northeast of Vientiane, and, with North Vietnam Army help, took control of the entire PDJ.
Both the neutralist and communist forces received substantial air support from the Soviet Air Force based out of Hanoi. With first Xam Nua and then the PDJ controlled by anti-west armies, the future of an independent Royal Lao Government was in doubt. Denying Laos to the communist was becoming more and more problematic.
CIA Case Officer Stu Methven met Hmong FAR Army General Vang Pao (Vang Pao) northeast of the PDJ. Vang Pao had been an officer in the French/Lao forces in the early 1950s and, in fact, had been part of a French relief column on the fringe of Dien Bien Phu at the time of the French defeat in 1954.
Vang Pao had become a significant, effective tribal and military leader of the mountain people in the Lao northeast. He impressed the CIA man with the potential of his Hmong hills tribesmen, to challenge the increasing North Vietnamese control of the Lao northeast.
One of Eisenhower’s last bits of business was to grant CIA covert ops to work with Vang Pao and local forces around the PDJ to fight the Kong Lee and communist forces which were developing permanent positions there.
November 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon for the US Presidency.
Chapter 7 of 12
19 January 1961, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration as the 35th President of the US, there was a meeting convened in the White House to discuss the situation in Laos and what Eisenhower had in mind. Eisenhower was accompanied by Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury Robert B. Anderson. Herter and Gates did most of the talking, according to Kennedy later. Kennedy was accompanied by Sec of State designate Dean Rusk, Sec of Defense designate Robert S. McNamara, and Secretary of the Treasury designate C. Douglas Dillon. Each of the principals also brought a staff aide to the meeting: White House chief of staff Gen. Wilton B. Persons, in Eisenhower’s case, and Washington attorney Clark M. Clifford, in Kennedy’s. 10 people in the room.
Clifford’s Memo for the Record reported that while Herter and Gates spoke the most, at the end…
President Eisenhower stated that Laos is the present key to the entire area of South East Asia. If Laos were lost to the Communists, it would bring an unbelievable pressure to bear on Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam.
President Eisenhower stated that he considered Laos of such importance that if it reached the stage where we could not persuade others to act with us, then he would be willing, “as a last desperate hope, to intervene unilaterally.”
A memo by Persons said as much, but in his memo he quoted the popular phrase Eisenhower often used that if Laos contained North Vietnam it would cause a “bottle” effect that South Vietnam would keep corked.
Robert S. McNamara’s notes as McGeorge Bundy put it in an August 24, 1965 memorandum to President Johnson, did “not correspond . . . to Dean Rusk’s recollections of the meeting.” If fact McNamara’s notes read: “President Eisenhower advised against unilateral action by the United States in connection with Laos.”
Whatever the intent, whatever the language, in the end Eisenhower said – like a military man – that Laos should be denied to the North Vietnamese. Kennedy apparently heard that as a politician.
McNamara apparently didn’t hear it all. Nothing he did later as Sec of Def indicates that he was aware of Eisenhower’s advice. There had been no mention by Eisenhower of the US fighting in South Vietnam.
The next day — January 20, 1961 — John Fitzgerald Kennedy declared in his inaugural address as the 35th U.S. president “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to insure the survival and the success of liberty.”
A few days later – to counter Kennedy’s inaugural promises — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pledged support to all “wars of national liberation” throughout the world… which specifically included the North Vietnam insurgency in South Vietnam.
Despite the well-intended advice from Eisenhower and the grand inaugural rhetoric, the youthful Kennedy administration was inexperienced in matters regarding Southeast Asia. When Eisenhower left office, most of the Republican government office-holders left with him and there weren’t many experienced institutional carry-overs – or SEA experts – in Democrat Kennedy’s Camelot court. War planning went from men experienced in war… to inexperienced but very bright people. And subsequently top level military either went along with their civilian superiors, or were retired/fired.
Robert Strange McNamara – Harvard MBA 1939 Sec of Defense.
President of Ford Motor Company 1960. McNamara left the office of Sec of Defense on February 29, 1968… within the month of the Tet Offensive… probably he was fired.
McGeorge Bundy – (Yale 1940 Skull and Bones) Chairman of the National Security Council
Re-organized the National Security Council to prevent easy access by the military Joint Chiefs of Staff. He and McNamara spoke for the military. Left office in Jan 1966 to become President of Ford Motor Company.
Walt Rostow – Followed Bundy as NSC chief in 1966. Yale 1940. Was rumored to take his orders from Harriman more so than from President Johnson.
Bobby Kennedy – Harvard 1948 Attorney General
Kennedy asserted his view that the Johnson administration deviated from his brother’s policies in Vietnam, and said the view that Americans were fighting to end communism in Vietnam was “immoral”. On February 8, 1968, Kennedy delivered an address in Chicago, Illinois where he critiqued Saigon “government corruption” and expressed his disagreement with the Johnson administration’s stance that the war would determine the future of Asia.
Dean Rusk – Rhodes Scholar U of Cal/Berkley 1940
Sec of State Long Time State official. Was with State Dept group that suggested dividing Korea at the 38th parallel. Sec of State 1961 to 1969. Saw his role to support the President, both Kennedy and Johnson.
Lyndon Johnson – Texas State Vice President Long time politician. Hated by most in the Kennedy family, but necessary for JFK to win the 1960 elections. In office was greatly influenced by McNamara.
Averell Harriman – Yale (Skull and Bones) Ambassador at Large.
Prominent as diplomat and advisor in the Truman administration. Business man and former New York governor. Arranged the Geneva Accords in 1962 that allowed for a protected Ho Chi Minh Road and enemy sanctions in Laos and Cambodia.
Awarded the Soviet Union’s Order of the Patriotic War, First Degree, in 1985, almost exactly ten years after the US Embassy in Saigon was evacuated.
William Sullivan – Harvard 1947. Ass’t to Harriman and Ambassador to Laos. In one of his first assignments to Bkk he met with the Viet Cong in northern Thailand. He was subsequently selected by Harriman to work with him in meetings with the Soviets in Geneva in 1962. And most important: He was the US Ambassador to Laos from 1964 until 1969, when he waged more war against the US military ops in Laos than he participated in any coordinated effort to help the US military in its support of the South Vietnamese and its fight with North Vietnam. He insisted on compliance with the Geneva Accords of ’62 that he helped create. As Ambassador he would take the 2nd and 3rd hand word of known communist sympathizers that US planes bombed civilian areas of Laos to summarily castigate the US Air Force.
Historians are more and more coming to the conclusion that he in Vientiane and Harriman in Washington were obstructionist in efforts for the US to win a military victory in SEA.
Sullivan worked with Kissinger in 1973 to close out the major American involvement in Vietnam.
He was the US Ambassador when the US Embassy in Saigon was evacuated, and told the State Department in Washington that the Philippines could NOT take South Vietnamese refugees. He told the US Navy to turn South Vietnamese boats back to Vietnam and to tell the people trying to escape the communist, to “go back home.”
He went on to be the last US Ambassador to Iran, though because he pointedly did not carry out President Carter’s specific instructions in his (US) dealing with the Shad ( was reported saying that HE thought the will of the Iranian people was with the Irian Muslim Clerics) , he was recalled shortly before the Iranians took over the US Embassy. Was quoted in retirement (See Roger Warner’s Shooting at the Moon) that it was appropriate we left Vietnam “with our tails between our legs,” because we should have lost. He said the US had an inflated opinion of its righteousness at the time.
GEN George H. Decker Lafayatte College (worked his way through college). Army Chief of Staff from October 1, 1960 September 30, 1962. Soon after JFK came to office he told the new president that we should go into Laos with the intention to fight and win the war there. USAF Curtis LeMay agreed. This advice lost out to McNamara’s “counterinsurgency” ideas for South Vietnam.
Curtis LeMay Ohio State (worked his way through college) USAF Chief of Staff from June 30, 1961 January 31, 1965 Tough. “Bomb ‘um back to the stone age.” “Don’t give an inch.” If problems are unsolvable in Laos, we’d do the job from the air.
.General David M. Shoup DePauw University Commandant of the Marine Corps from January 1, 1960 December 31, 1963. Recipient of the Medal of Honor. Shoup was strongly opposed to military intervention in Indochina from the beginning. In 1961, when the Pathet Lao threatened the American-backed government of Laos, he rejected calls for armed intervention. He opposed any plans for combat in Vietnam, and later said “every responsible military man to my knowledge” was against the war there as well.
GEN William C. Westmoreland West Point. A favorite of McNamara’s, in January 1964, he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. As the head of the MACV he was known for highly publicized, positive assessments of U.S. military prospects in Vietnam. However, as time went on, the strengthening of communist combat forces in the South led to regular requests for increases in U.S. troop strength, from 16,000 when he arrived to its peak of 535,000 in 1968 – shortly after TET – when he left, promoted to Army chief of staff. But his removal was seen – like McNamara removal as punishment for allowing TET.
Summation of views of Kennedy’s civilian and military advisors
For a strong military stand in Laos: Decker and LaMay
For counterinsurgency in South Vietnam: McNamara, Bundy, Rostow and Westmoreland
For not deploying US military in South Vietnam: Shoup
For not deploying US military to SEA at all: Robert Kennedy
For going to lose: Harriman and Sullivan
Kennedy had strained relations generally with the Joint Chiefs of Staff due Cuba and, reluctant to take their advice, turned to McNamara, Harriman and Bundy…
Despite Eisenhower’s recommendation that Laos should be the focus of United States’ involvement in southeast Asia due its pivotal, strategic location, McNamara made a strong case to Kennedy that our focus should be on South Vietnam itself. For the following reasons:
1) Diem’s government administrators had, for the most part, been trained by the French, and seemed to understand the western principles of organization and how to take meetings. They were easy to deal with.
2) The South Vietnamese president was a Catholic, like our president. Washington and Saigon operated by committee and trusted in God.
3) The South Vietnamese military looked sharp on the parade field. They were marketed as competent the take the fight to the Viet Cong “insurgency.”
4) The Lao government in Vientiane, by comparison, was inept.
5) The Lao military was among the worst in the world and almost all other government departments didn’t work.
6) And Laos was land locked. When McNamara’s logistic strategists and academic theorists looked at supporting a military effort in SEA, they saw an extensive coast line in South Vietnam with some deep water ports already in place. But with Laos, the only protected way to get troops or supplies in was through Thailand and then hundreds of miles inland. Coming into a Lao battlefield through Vietnam was not considered.
7) Plus the South Vietnam citizenry, especially Saigon night people, had had extensive dealings with the French. They knew how to make the Americans who came early, very comfortable. Generally speaking, U.S. advisers who came once, wanted to go back. Especially the bachelors.
8) South Vietnam was bucolic and exotic… about as good a place to have a war as any place in the world.
South Vietnam became the land where the US threw down the gauntlet. This we will protect it said….for organizational and political rather than tactical military reasons. It just made more sense to McNamara and his “best and brightest” he brought from the private sector.
Almost operating separately from the Joint Chief of Staff… but supported by NSC chief McGeorge Bundy, McNamara argued for “counterinsurgency” in South Vietnam… to win the hearts and minds of the common folk out in the country. He was supported in the field by General Westmoreland, who McNamara had recommended to head up military affairs in South Vietnam. Harriman offered no comment.
So the NSC 68 ideas of countering communist with “containment” gave way to “counterinsurgency.” NSC resolutions of the past were not as often quoted as foundations for Kennedy’s foreign policies.
Also this, since “counterinsurgency” by definition allowed as how the enemy was not “contained” any more. The term “limited war” was phased in to change US war policy. Our foreign policy had become something of a crossword puzzle.
And in this “limited war” Westmoreland said initially that it was not a war of attrition, but to appease his WDC bosses he came around to accepting the intent of that tactic. The allies of South Vietnam that he commanded would try to kill more North Vietnamese than they would kill of the allies.
An enormously bad strategy because the North Vietnamese had an almost limitless supply of young solders… plus if ever the ravages of war tipped in the allies favor, North Vietnam could conceivable called on the Chinese for a million or more replacements. The attrition war favored the North Vietnamese.
This war of attrition resonated with some in the Pentagon because it came from bedrock military thinking that won World War II, when the war machines at America’s disposal were like scythes cutting the enemy down.
In South Vietnam however, those machines were not as adapt. When fighting was in among the citizenry. Or in the jungle under two and three layers of foliage, artillery and mortar didn’t help much. And the aircraft which had won the skies and brought the angry wrath of American military might down on our enemies in World War II were very little help on the jungle floor and in times of bad weather.
Plus North Vietnam was not an industrialized country. They had few targets for our bombers.
There was the assumption of U.S. superiority due its combat equipment, although this inventory was meant for a different type fight.
This was apparently lost on the U.S. military industrial complex that promoted big-cost war machines… and…. on the “best and brightest” who simply didn’t know better and were intent on re-inventing war in the age of Aquarius.
Also to make this war acceptable to the U.S., men who would fight it, tour of duties were set for 12 months. This meant part of the fighting forces was always just learning their way…. there were always “new guys” to be trained. Small U.S. military units were never given the time to learn how to fight together in Southeast Asia. And for war managers we could just go on and on with the war.
An assessment of the communist insurgency in South Vietnam and Diem’s inability to effect positive political change caused the new Kennedy administration pause. In the White House, colored maps showed rural areas under Diem’s control; colors that seemed to change only when Diem moved his soldiers. The colored maps were very significant in the same way the Johnson’s TV news watch became significant.
Kennedy increased economic and military aid and sent additional military advisers along with American helicopter units to transport and direct South Vietnamese troops in battle. This move necessarily involved Americans in combat operations. Kennedy justified the expanding U.S. military role as a means “To prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam which is in accordance with a policy our government has followed since 1954.”
The nuances of this new way to word our involvement spoke volumes for Kennedy’s justification for the US military continuing in Vietnam. “We’re doing this because that’s the way it has been done since ‘54” isn’t good foreign policy management. Even despite what McNamara and Rostow and Taylor were saying, that we were doing good.
The war was not goin’ good in 1961.
Chapter 8 of 12
Master philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz emphasized almost a century and a half earlier that because war is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it both in magnitude and also in duration. He went on to say, Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced.
None of that thinking was around Kennedy’s start up White House. Plus there a political/military stand-off in Berlin.
Then in mid-April the unsuccessful U.S-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was crushed, which created international jitters and led to dramatic nuclear missile standoff between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
Vietnam was not the only game in town for this new team to handle.
Chapter 9 of 12
To distract from the bad Europe/Cuba news and to re-enforce U.S. commitments in SEA, in May 1961 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited President Diem in South Vietnam and hailed the embattled leader as the “Winston Churchill of Asia.”
Also in May 1961 President Kennedy sent 400 American Green Beret “Special Advisers”’ to South Vietnam initially to help train South Vietnamese soldiers in “counter-insurgency”… but then their role expanded to include the establishment of Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs) often made up of fierce mountain men known as the Montagnards. These groups established a series of fortified camps strung out along the mountains to thwart infiltration by North Vietnamese. No long term mission to their deployment. No strategic connection to NSC 68. Was, however, an incremental increase in our human investment in South Vietnam.
The most significant event in the month of May, after the Bay of Pigs failure, was Kennedy’s dispatch of Ambassador-at-Large Averell Harriman to Geneva to meet with a Soviet delegation to discuss diplomatic solutions to the continuing violation of the Lao border.
Harriman told Kennedy that to “deny” Laos to the North Vietnamese was doable with diplomacy, convincing Kennedy that he had the necessary cachet with Russian leadership to get the job done with chit chat with the Russian leadership emissaries in Geneva. It was worth a try, he said. The Soviets had agreed to the meetings. This had the potential, according to Harriman to avoid loss of American lives half way round the world in the Lao outback.
Once on the ground in Switzerland, Harriman and his deputy, Department of State Ambassador William Sullivan, established a strong personal and working relationship with Soviet representatives and almost immediately significant movement was made on common ground to establish an international agreement on Laos’ neutrality.
While this warm and fuzzy relationship was being established, in early June, President Kennedy met with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. This first time contact between the two men didn’t go well for the west as Khrushchev bullied the new U.S. president for most of the two day conference; often bellicose, he slammed Kennedy from pillar to post on most every issue. The only thing they agreed on was the on-going talks between Harriman and Georgi M. Pushkin in Geneva on the possibilities of striking some accord on Laos.
This maybe should have raised flags with Kennedy advisers that there could be something going on regarding the negotiations on Laos that might have been to the communist advantage.
Harriman was to say later that his main official business in Geneva was to find some diplomatic alternative to war in Laos, because he thought that SEA was only a regional dust-up and almost an incidental side bar to the direct threat to U.S. security posed by the aggressive Soviet war machine in Europe. He even allowed that the Soviets were making nice over Laos to divert U.S. attention from their ambitions in/around Berlin.
In the early fall of 1961 top Kennedy aides, Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow, visited Vietnam for a first hand assessment of the SEA situation. Rostow reported when they got back that, “If Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult to hold Southeast Asia.” He advised Kennedy to expand the number of U.S. military advisors and to send 8,000 combat soldiers to South Vietnam.
Defense Secretary McNamara recommended, instead, a massive show of force by sending six divisions (200,000 men) to Vietnam.
The president decided against both Rostow’s and McNamara’s commitment of big-army, however.
By the end of 1961, the U.S. military presence in Vietnam would reach 3,200 advisers; plus that year alone, South Vietnam received $200 million in military equipment and economic aid.
On the other side, Viet Cong had killed some 4,000 South Vietnamese officials during the year. The White House SEA map showed that the communists controlled much of the South Vietnamese countryside, with safe sanctions for their military across the border in Cambodia/Laos and an elaborate logistic pipeline down to the South Vietnam battlefield… with an unending train of supplies coming into North Vietnam from Russia and China. It was a South Vietnam battlefield that greatly favored the communist North Vietnam.
Going into 1962, there were almost no success stories of Buddhist peasants in the rural south being pacified and going from communist to Diem’s control. Only boots or sandals on the ground made any difference. The colored maps in the White House were changing often, in favor of the bad guys.
“Counterinsurgency” was not working.
And the cost to America of maintaining South Vietnam’s 200,000 man army and managing the overall conflict in Vietnam rose to nearly a million dollars per day.
And coordinated anti-war rallies began on U.S. college campuses.
And the fight for South Vietnam was worldwide news, and people, including the media, were taking sides… more and more supporting North Vietnam or what Vice President Lyndon Johnson had called that “damn little piss-ant country.”
In South Vietnam in March 1962 Operation Sunrise began the Strategic Hamlet Resettlement program in which scattered rural populations in South Vietnam were moved into fortified villages defended by local militias. Good idea that had worked in Malaysia during the communist “Emergency.” However over 50 of these new hamlets were soon infiltrated and taken over by Viet Cong who killed and otherwise intimidated village leaders.
As a result, Diem ordered bombing raids against suspected Viet Cong-controlled villages which further eroded support for his administration. It also resulted in growing VC propaganda that Diem was a puppet of the Americans so, in fact, the US was responsible for the bombings, as well as the unpopular and badly run resettlement program.
This was at a time some newly created battalion-size Viet Cong units were moving with impunity as a show of force in central Vietnam and in the delta. Against this backdrop, Defense Secretary McNamara during a South Vietnam visit in May 1962 reported to the press that, “we are winning the war.”
McNamara was often not entirely correct in his public statements, his presentations to Congress, to the President and to the joint Chief of Staff in the pentagon.
By spring of 1962 U.S. diplomat W. Averell Harriman’s pursuit of Soviet support for accords on Lao neutrality was coming to a conclusion in Geneva. The experienced senior US diplomat was convinced that maintaining Lao peace through diplomatic negotiations served US best interests in its overall dealings with Russia. Europe remained, to his mind, the industrial world’s critical terrain where the most important Soviet/US equities were involved. SEA, Harriman thought, was a regional fight, a civil war, in a small country on the other side of the world… and did not pose threats to US security.
Sometime in the spring, the lead Soviet representative to the talks, Georgi M. Pushkin, said privately that the Soviet Union would take the responsibility to make China and North Vietnam abide by any accords reached in Geneva.
23 July 1962, with hardly any press coverage, the Declaration on the Neutrality of Laos was signed by the U.S. and 13 other nations. It prohibited foreign armies from operating inside Laos and gave 75 days for all foreign military to be out of the country.
The U.S. and the Soviets complied. North Vietnam did not. Plus the NVA 559th Transport unit – noncombatants – increased their efforts to constructive the Ho Chi Minh superhighway inside Laos and inside Cambodia.
Challenged on this again and again, North Vietnam either did not respond or denied their “troops” were in Laos. (In 1963 Harriman went to Russia to ask after the promise he had received from Pushkin that Russia would be responsible for China’s and North Vietnam’s compliance, but Khrushchev would not discuss the subject. He was told that Pushkin had died of natural causes and there was no record of his private conversations with Harriman and Sullivan.)
Some have suggested that with the Ho Chi Minh trail in place and protected from western troops by the Geneva Accords, the war in the south was unwinnable. That the North Vietnamese did not honor their signature on the Accords almost wasn’t relevant.
Going into 1963 the US military presence in Vietnam had reached 11,000. However the VC operating from bases in the Mekong Delta and Central highlands were controlling the time and place of most contact with South Vietnamese forces; like the French before them, the ARVN were spending more and more of its time reacting to VC initiatives.
In early January 1963, ARVN went on the offensive in what would be their first big battle against the Viet Cong.
An American radio-intercept aircraft located a Viet Cong radio transmitter in the hamlet of Ap Tan Thoi in Dinh Tuong Province just below the Parrot’s Beak on the Cambodian/Vietnam border. It was a small village that sat like an island in a sea of rice paddies and delta mud. A small farming settlement called Ap Bac was located on the only road into Ap Than Thoi from the southeast.
The attack was launched at 0400 hours on 2 January and… the ARVN lost, beaten by possibly 350 VC who had dug in around the two villages. 83 South Vietnamese were killed and more than a hundred wounded. Five US helicopters were shot down; three American pilots killed.
The battlefield was close to Saigon and was inspected by journalist the following morning. By that night the VC victory was front page news in the US.
In an assessment of the battle, US John Paul Vann found that the 7th Division had orders from Diem to be cautious and to avoid casualties. This order created combat timidity that clearly contributed to the lack of forceful South Vietnamese military leadership on the battlefield around Ap Bac. It was also apparent that there had been a breakdown in communications between the different South Vietnamese units, which, among other things, resulted in late artillery support and an indecisive commitment of the tracks.
John Paul Vann’s subsequent book, “A Bright Shining Lie” about the incorrect US gov’t’s reporting that the war was going well, was not taken seriously by the US gov’t.
Then this: on Jun 11, 1963 Thich Quang Duc, a 66-year-old Buddhist monk, sets himself afire in protest of the South Vietnamese government, its religious intolerance and its discriminatory policies. In the following months, other Buddhists would follow his example and self-immolate to demonstrate against the regime.
In a press conference at the time, President John F. Kennedy recommitted the US to support South Vietnam. “To withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Vietnam, but Southeast Asia. So we are going to stay there.” But privately Kennedy was deeply affected by the horrific, continuing Buddhist monks’ suicides.
Diem responded to the unrest by imposing martial law. Some South Vietnamese Special Forces controlled by Diem’s younger brother, Nhu, waged violent crackdowns against Buddhist sanctuaries in Saigon, Hue and other cities. These crackdowns in turn soon encompassed other issues which sparked more anti-Diem demonstrations…. loud protests that were heard in Washington.
As the overall situation worsened, high level talks in the White House focused on the need for a regime change in South Vietnam.
August 26, 1963 President Kennedy met with his top aides to begin discussions over whether the U.S. should support or initiate efforts to oust Diem. Those discussions came to a conclusion three days later when Ambassador Lodge sent a message from Saigon stating “…there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration.”
During a subsequent TV news interview with Walter Cronkite, President Kennedy laid out results of his recent deliberations on South Vietnam. He described Diem as “out of touch with the people” and added that South Vietnam’s government might regain popular support “with changes in policy and perhaps in personnel.” But also during this interview Kennedy was unequivocal about the US commitment to stay the course of stopping the communist insurgency in South Vietnam.
September 2, 1963 the CBS eye blinked open and CBS Evening News became network television’s first half-hour weeknight news broadcast that highlighted the Kennedy interview.
The “Evening News with Walter Cronkite” proved to be an enormous success, what with the exotic, catastrophic struggle in South Vietnam played out in front of Americans as they sat down to their evening meal. Live coverage of self-immolations made for absorbing TV.
A month later the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, told the press that the Kennedy administration intended to withdraw most American forces from South Vietnam by the end of 1965. Unconnected to any other reporting, that statement demonstrated a significant creditability gap between information released by the U.S. government in Washington and what journalists were coming to know as the actual situation in Vietnam.
And it demonstrated how McNamara – an extraordinarily persuasive individual – sometimes just talked and made up things as he went along.
In October 1963 Ambassador Lodge informed President Kennedy that a coup against Diem, discussed by some ARVN leaders months before, appeared imminent.
This scenario was well received at the White House, in that the generals would appear to be acting on their own without any apparent U.S. involvement. President Kennedy gave his approval and the CIA in Saigon signaled the conspirators.
At 1:30 p.m. 1 November the coup began as mutinous troops roared into Saigon, surrounded the presidential palace and seized police headquarters.
Diem and his brother Nhu, trapped inside the palace, rejected all appeals to surrender. Diem telephoned the rebel generals and attempted, but fails, to talk them out of the coup. Diem then called Lodge and asked “…what is the attitude of the United States?” Lodge responded “…it is four thirty a.m. in Washington, and the U.S. government cannot possibly have a view.”
At 8 p.m., Diem and Nhu slipped out of the presidential palace unnoticed and went to a safe house in the suburbs. During the night one of Diem’s aides betrayed this location and it was surrounded.
As the sun was breaking over the city, Diem and Nhu offered to surrender and were subsequently taken into custody by rebel officers and placed in the back of an armored personnel carrier. While en-route back to Saigon’s center city, the vehicle stopped and Diem and Nhu were assassinated.
Saigon at first celebrated Diem’s death, but it was short lived. The coup resulted in a power vacuum in which a series of pretenders to head the South Vietnamese government came and went under the existing military junta. Viet Cong used the unstable political situation to increase its hold over the rural population of South Vietnam to nearly 40 percent.
On November 22, 1963 three weeks after Diem’s assassination, President John F. Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas.
Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th U.S. President.
Two days into office, Lyndon B. Johnson was quoted as saying that “strength” and “determination” must be used in the battle to stop communist aggression in SEA. President Johnson promised Ambassador Lodge in Washington that he would not lose Vietnam.
So the guide-on words for our military went
From “total war”
to “limited war”
to “flexible response”
to “war of attrition”
to “strength and determination”
to “Vietnamization” and
finally “You’re on your own. Good bye.”
March 6, 1964 – Defense Secretary McNamara visited South Vietnam and stated that Gen. Khanh, Diem’s successor “has our admiration, our respect and our complete support…” and added that, “We’ll stay for as long as it takes. We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents.”
Following his visit, McNamara advised President Johnson to increase military aid to shore up Khanh’s recast South Vietnamese military.
McNamara and Bundy’s support for our efforts in South Vietnam and their all-in on Vietnam attitude competed with Harriman’s contention that whatever happened in SEA posed no threat to US security or standing in the world.
March 17, 1964 – Bundy’s U.S. National Security Council recommended the bombing of North Vietnam but President Johnson hesitated. Also in March, aides begin work on a Congressional resolution supporting the President’s “strength” and “determination” initiatives in Vietnam. That petition was shelved temporarily due to lack of support in the Senate… but the language would be used later as the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Many close to Johnson even pushed for the situation in South Vietnam to be ‘Americanized’ giving the US gov’t greater control of how the war was actually being fought. Just go over and win the thing – get it out of the way – and come back home so that Johnson could focus on his “Great Society” domestic programs.
Spring of 1964 some 1,000 students gather in New York City to protest the Vietnam War. Twelve burned their selective service registration cards—draft cards—in a symbolic gesture of opposition to the war.
The cost to America of maintaining South Vietnam’s army and managing the overall conflict in Vietnam under Johnson rose to two million dollars per day, almost twice what it had been a few years before.
Laos had become a side show…. there was a seasonal exchange of territory in the NE between the CIA supported Hmong irregular army and the communist, often Pathet Lao forces filled with North Vietnamese advisers and soldiers. Efforts by overland patrols to monitor traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south were always challenged by aggressive North Vietnamese road guard units.
Political instability in Saigon and frosty relations with the US in its new strength and determination mode would continue for a year. In mid-summer General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was appointed as the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. During his one year tenure, Taylor would have to deal with constant rumors of coups and five successive governments.
Reflecting the general conservative, America-is-the-best-country-in-the-world mood of the voters, Senator Barry Goldwater was chosen as the Republican nominee for president at the Republican National Convention in July. A virulent anti-communist, Goldwater’s campaign rhetoric would impact general White House war planning because Johnson did not want to appear to be ‘softer on Communism’ than his adversary.
Chapter 10 of 12
2 August 1964 the US destroyer USS Maddox, operating in the Gulf of Tonkin 10 miles off the coast of North Vietnam, was engaged by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In the resulting sea battle one US aircraft was damaged, the US destroyer was hit by a small rocket and the three North Korean torpedo boats damaged, one possibly sunk.
Two days later, on 4 August, possibly precipitated by false radar images, another “provocation” was reported by the US Navy in the same area off North Vietnam.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommended a retaliatory bombing raid against North Vietnam. President Johnson concurred and North Vietnam oil facilities and naval targets were summarily attacked by 64 U.S. Navy fighter bombers.
Two Navy jets are shot down during the bombing raids, resulting in the first American prisoner of war, Lt. Everett Alvarez, who was taken to what would be called “Hanoi Hilton” by the nearly six hundred American airmen who would become POWs.
August 5, 1964 – In this election year, opinion polls indicate 85 percent of Americans supported President Johnson’s bombing decision. Numerous newspaper editorials also come out in support of the President.
With that public support in mind Johnson’s aides, including Defense Secretary McNamara, went to Congress to lobby for a resolution to give the President a free hand in Vietnam.
August 6, 1964 – During a meeting in the Senate, McNamara was confronted by Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon who had been advised that the Maddox was not the victim of an “unprovoked” attack but in fact had been involved with South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnam at the time. McNamara responded that the U.S. Navy “…played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…”
This may not have been entirely true.
On 7 August 1964, US Congress approved what was called the Gulf of Tonkin resolution… giving the President authority “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces.
It passed unanimously in the House and 98-2 in the Senate. The only Senators voting against the Resolution were Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening of Alaska who said “all Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy.”
October 1964 – The first North Vietnamese combat unit was sent south.
October 16, 1964 – Two months after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, China tested its first nuclear bomb and had, by this time, massed troops along its border with Vietnam, probably in sword rattling response to increased US military activity in the south.
November 3, 1964 – With 61 percent of the popular vote, Lyndon B. Johnson was elected President of the United States in a land-slide victory. Democrats also achieve big majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate. The Democrats considered the vote to be a mandate to remain tough against communism and firm in the face of challenges in a changing world.
To up the ante in South Vietnam, Johnson increased the number of US military advisers to 15,000.
At the same time, 10,000 NVA soldiers arrived in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail, carrying sophisticated weapons provided by China, thought ultimately from the Soviet Union. They shored up Viet Cong battalions with new soldiers and experienced North Vietnamese leaders.
At the White House, President Johnson’s top aides recommended gradual escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam to put teeth in Johnson’s strength and determination policy.
At the beginning in 1965, Washington launched Operation Rolling Thunder, a USAF bombing campaign into North Vietnam in retaliation for the Saigon Christmas eve bombing and general North Vietnam support to the Viet Cong.
In taking his oath of office January 20, 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson declared, “We can never again stand aside, prideful in isolation. Terrific dangers and troubles that we once called “foreign” now constantly live among us…” possibly alluding to Ho Chi Minh supporters in the US.
January 27, 1965 – National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, sent a memo to the President stating that America’s limited military involvement in Vietnam was not succeeding, and that the U.S. has reached a ‘fork in the road’ in Vietnam. The US must either escalate or withdraw. One or the other.
National Security Advisor Bundy visited South Vietnam in early February 1965. In North Vietnam, Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin coincidentally arrived in Hanoi at the same time. During his talks with the communist leadership, Kosygin promised to provide all military equipment the North Vietnamese needed to carry their fight to the South Vietnamese and the Americans in the south.
The next day President Johnson told his National Security advisers, “I’ve had enough of this,” and approved Operation Flaming Dart, the surgical bombing of a North Vietnamese army camp near Dong Hoi.
The press made Flaming Dart public news though Johnson made no statements one way or the other concerning the new bombing initiative. It wasn’t necessary. Opinion polls taken in the U.S. shortly after the bombing indicate a 70 percent approval rating for the President and an 80 percent approval of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
Johnson by this time had a three TV console built in the Oval Office and at night during network news, he would sit in front of the TVs watching with rap attention during summaries of his day’s activities, going from one network to the other; the TVs playing out his history-making emergence as C in C of the war in SEA. The commentators were his allies, or his enemies. Certainly Johnson considered their remarks, grades on his performance.
February 22, 1965 – General Westmoreland, military commander of US forces in Vietnam, requested two battalions of U.S. Marines to protect the American air base at Da Nang from 6000 Viet Cong massed in the vicinity. The President approved his request, despite the “grave reservations” of Ambassador Taylor. The old General turned diplomat did not necessarily believe – at that time – in the escalation of US field troops in SEA, warning that America may be about to repeat the same mistakes made by the French in sending ever-increasing numbers of soldiers into the Asian jungle quagmires.
Also about this time the first U.S. air strikes were launched against the Ho Chi Minh trail. Throughout the war, the trail was heavily bombed by American planes… although all evidence seems to indicate that this bombing did little to halt the ant-like flow of soldiers and supplies from the North.
The majority of bombs dropped in South Vietnam were against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army positions but as collateral damage, 3 million civilians were dislocated. In North Vietnam, military targets included fuel depots and factories. The North Vietnamese reacted to the air strikes by decentralizing their factories and supply bases, thus minimizing their vulnerability to bomb damage. North Vietnam was not an industrialized nation anyway, and had little in the way of legitimate targets for US air ordinance.
Early March 1965 two US marine battalions of about 3,500 men landed at China Beach to defend the USAF air base at Da Nang. It was the place the French military had landed almost one hundred years before.
The US was now fully committed to a war at the cost of US soldiers on the ground.
March 29, 1965 – Viet Cong sappers bombed the U.S. embassy in Saigon. As if to say, “Tonkin Bay, Schumckin Bay. Don’t matter. Come on. Come on America. We sure aren’t afraid of you!!!”
April 1, 1965 – At the White House, President Johnson authorizes two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel to Vietnam. He also gave Westmoreland the authority to commit American troops to combat patrols.
April 7, 1965 – President Johnson delivered his ‘Peace without Conquest” speech at Johns Hopkins University offering Hanoi “unconditional discussions” to stop the war in return for massive economic assistance in modernizing both North and South Vietnam. Though Johnson was quoted as saying …. “this offers Ho a deal he can’t refuse”… his peace overtures were quickly rejected.
Johnson seems to have been locked in on North Vietnamese as the real enemy… when this deal he offered was something the Russian could refuse… Remember sappers had defiantly attacked the US Embassy the week before.
Probably the communist had made a connection between their bold in-your-face sapper attack on the US Embassy, with the US suddenly talking “Peace.”
17 April 1965 in Washington 15,000 students gather to protest the U.S. bombing campaign. The protests themselves were becoming the news as much as the war. Plus around the world, people were taking sides… for/against the war, for/against the protestors. In that sense the conflict had become a world war.
In Honolulu later in the spring Johnson’s top aides, including McNamara, Gen. Westmoreland, Gen. Wheeler, McGeorge Bundy, and even Ambassador Taylor, meet and agree to recommend to the President sending another 40,000 combat soldiers to Vietnam. Johnson advisers had taken the fork in the road.
May 3, 1965 – The first U.S. Army combat troops, 3,500 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, arrived in Vietnam.
May 13, 1965 – A bombing pause was announced by the U.S. in the hope that Hanoi would now negotiate. There would be six more pauses during the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign, all with same intention.
However each time, the North Vietnamese ignored the peace overtures and instead used the pause to repair air defenses and send more troops and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. North Vietnam was not going to be distracted by peace offerings or psyops… they were in to win… and world opinion was starting to side with them as the great under-dog to the God almighty US.
May 19, 1965 – U.S. bombing of North Vietnam resumed.
June 18, 1965 – Nguyen Cao Ky took power in South Vietnam as the new prime minister with Nguyen Van Thieu functioning as official chief of state. There had been 10 separate South Vietnamese government in 20 months.
This leadership of this new regime was relatively stable and straight forward with the US but the old problems of an unresponsive and corrupt civilian and military hierarchy remained. US in-country advisers suggested Thieu and Ky adopt a ‘Pacification’ program to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the people.
‘Pacification’ became a sub-category in the strength and determination lexicon of Johnson’s South Vietnamese program.
But that didn’t mean psyops and civil affairs wasn’t on the front burner of the American or South Vietnamese effort. It obviously had little impact against the North Vietnamese and, anyway, American policy could only handle so many objectives and were now committed – like the North Vietnamese – to winning the war militarily.
Finally… on Wednesday July 28, 1965, during a noontime press conference, President Johnson took a position in front of a single TV camera. His thinning hair slicked back, his floppy ears looking like butterfly wings on either side of his big head, his jowls sagging off his bulbous nose, his face somber… he drawled, “My fellow Americans… (To paraphrase the first part of his long speech… “For me as your President and C of C of the US military – to absolutely, no-kidding-around, militarily put a stop to this communist aggression in SEA”)… I have today ordered to Viet-Nam the Air Mobile Division and certain other forces…”
I was at the bar when a Fort Benning Officer club annex when a replay of that announcement was played on the CBS evening news. Everyone in the bar cheered. A Colonel bought a round of drinks and the bar buzzed with excitement. Men came in from the dining room and were told the news. Others scurried out, some to make telephone calls, others, especially those from the Air-Mobile Division, left for their units.
I had just received my Infantry 2nd Lt Commission from Officer Candidate School. Assigned to the 1st US Division, fit and proud, I knew I would be soon goin’ to war as well and I felt privileged to be a part…smiling, anxious for the adventure.
Two month shy of 10 years later, I would be on a US merchant marine ship, the last out of South Vietnam.
Chapter 11 of 12
We lost in Vietnam, it seems to me, because:
1) Little Boy and Fat Man, then “Joe – 1” and finally the Chinese bomb, changed the way the US went to war. “Total War” was not acceptable anymore. Call it what you may but if future sword rattling and military huffing and puffing went the way of each of the belligerent countries trying to one-up the other as for readiness and potency…. then “annihilation” or “mutual annihilation” became part of the equation, especially with China and Russia both armed with nuclear stuff. The US was not as protected by the Pacific and Atlantic as they had been before.
2) Red China coming to power and hunkering down with Stalin in Moscow potentially swung the balance of power in the world towards the communist. Our military actions in Korea should not force a Moscow/Chin alliance.
3) The Truman/MacArthur confrontation in Korea transferred the lead on all military strategy to the White House. If our military leaders had a problem with that, they were retired.
4) Kennan’s “Containment” (and NSC 68) trumped the US military’s bedrock “No substitute for Victory.” “Total War” was off the table as a consideration by the politicians in the White House. The Korean “Armistices” necessarily followed.
5) Stalin-inspired Cominform was created in 1947 to expand communism and Stalin’s influence through-out the world… in any means possible. From this point forward the US imposed NSC 68 guidelines were used in reaction to communist initiatives around the world…. It did not however make much of the Soviet ability to make war using proxies, or using devious covert methods.
6) When the French lost to the Communist at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Eisenhower, the old war horse, saw what to him was an easy way to handle communist aggression thereafter in SEA: Deny Laos to the North Vietnamese. Already use to the containment idea, Eisenhower’s plan tracked with NSC 68.
7) Kim Il Sung was not a native Korean. Ho Chi Minh was an almost 20 year veteran of Cominform predecessor Comintern and was certainly responsive to Cominform guidance. Stalin had a copy of NSC 68 what with Philby at the British Embassy. He also had a map, he clearly understood US SEA thinking was tied to politics.
8) Overthinking President Kennedy and Eisenhower, Ambassador Harrison went to Geneva and struck a deal with the Russians that
a] denied any allied military involvement in Laos and
b] allowed, even protected, communist use of Laos for sanctions and as a means to carrying the fight in South Vietnam. This completely shut out NSC 68 options in Southeast Asia.
9) To insure this arrangement – that so greatly helped the communist – Harrison was able to send his deputy, William Sullivan, to be the US Ambassador to Laos to enforce US compliance.
10) Gulf of Tonkin was misrepresented to congress which allowed Johnson and his advisors war-making authority… which prompted him to impose the idea of “strength and determination.” Rather than a policy based on US resources, and solid understanding of SEA. Decision to come out hard against the communist was based on election year politics.
11) With Laos supplying PAVN soldiers down to the battlefield along the full length of South Vietnam, communist were gradually winning the hearts and minds of the people in the South Vietnamese country side, and – when pressed – would retreat to sanctions inside Laos and Cambodia. Diem was incapable of developing support from South Vietnamese commoners.
12) Secretary of State McNamara - supported by NSC Bundy and Rostow – constructed a porous battlefield in SEA that used his “counter-insurgency” ideas and tactics. Combined with Harriman Geneva ’62 accords, Eisenhower’s advised “Denying Laos to the North Vietnamese” was off the table.
13) One year tour of duty in SEA established,
14) “War of attrition” became Westmoreland’s poor addition to shaky US war plans.
15) Weapons in the US armory were not suited for jungle combat. Big battleship and big bombers gave civilians around McNamara inflated ideas of the US war capabilities. While it worked in theory with Westmoreland’s “War of Attrition” the US war stuff was only marginally effective in “countering insurgency” and was of no use in winning the hearts of minds of the people.
16) World press and the world youth turned against the American Goliath prosecution of little ol’ Ho.
17) No comment from Johnson until two months after Tet. In his first TV appearance end March he sued for peace with the communist and said he would not be running for the Presidency in the fall. The war was over, but like in Korea, the majority of the dying was yet be done.
18) Conclusion was inevitable… I switched the lights out when I left at the war’s end.
But the bottom line is this… While Cominform tactics and effective use of proxies and poor anti-communist leadership may have won the battle for the communist in Vietnam, that thinking lost the world for the Soviets. When the US pulled out of Vietnam in the spring of 1975, the best and the brightest in Russia worked in its military/industrial complex… so they had this big army, and big logistical command and all this military stuff, and their military ended up down in Afghanistan, where they got their shirts ripped…
Also consider this, when the US left Vietnam in 1975, the Soviets had one (1) computer in the private sector. One. Coupled with their defeat in Afghanistan, Reagan’s strong, no nonsense attitude (maybe including “Spy Wars”) the Russian went bankrupt in the late 1980s.
No question, we won the Cold War.
No world Armageddon… no “mutual annihilation” although the US faced one of the world most savage leader ever in Joseph Stalin who was packing nuclear. He would have used “Joe-1” without a second’s thought as to its inhumanity if he thought he’d get net advantage…
We got through that nuclear mind field and today enjoy the highest quality of life ever seen on the face of this good earth.
We’re still great… and still have depth in our collective souls … a strong sense of citizenship.
Duty, Honor and County
Chapter 12 of 12
WW I – “Total War” in Europe
While the world seems absorbed there, Japan expands into China
WW II – Germans, Poles, Soviet and Chinese suffer 50 million casualties fighting each other.
US’s 418,000 is ½ of one percent of the total 80 million killed in the war.
Little Boy and Fat Man Atomic bombs.
Ho Chi Minh after 20 years as a Communist Comintern agent, returns to North Vietnam
1946 – US searches for new foreign policy in the nuclear age. Kennan’s Containment is the accepted strategy. In the war equation, Containment replaces Total War as the most sensible way forward… Because Total War now with the atomic bomb could mean annihilation.
1947 – Cominform created in Moscow to advance communism by any means possible through the world.
Kim Il Sung assumes office as leading communist in North Korea. He is certainly a product of Cominform.
1948 – Truman elected President with Averell Harriman as his most influential advisers.
1949 – Soviets explode their first atomic device Joe 1.
Mao’s communist party takes control of China
1950 – NSC – 68 approved which clearly identifies lines in which US prepared to contain Communism. In the Far East Korea, Formosa and SEA not included inside the US containment line…
25 June nine divisions of North Koreans invade South Korea.
Pusan perimeter in the very south east of the peninsula.
15 September Inchon Invasion
7 October MacArthur forces move north of 38th to the Yalu before being thrown back to the 38th by 300,000 Red Chinese.
1951 – Clash when Truman – who seeks Containment (and certainly no war with Red China over North Korea) and MacArthur – who insists on Total War victory.
Truman fires MacArthur, forever more establishing the President as the functional C in C, with war planning moved from the Pentagon to the White House.
1953 – Viet Minh invade Laos.
1954 – French lose at Dien Bien Phu.
Geneva Accords separates Vietnam at 17th Parallel.
President Eisenhower likes the outcome BECAUSE
Deny Laos to the North Vietnamese and South Vietnam safe.
1959 – Work on Ho Chi Minh trail expands with formation of the 559th Engineer regiment under Vo Bam’s command.
1961 – 19 January meeting day before Kennedy inaugurated.
Deny Laos to the North Vietnamese was emphasized.
McNamara apparently didn’t hear.
Bay of Pigs and Kennedy loses confidence with military. Depends more and more on McNamara and Bundy
1962 – Harriman and Sullivan’s Geneva Accords signed. Ho Chi Minh (or Vo Bam’s) Trail protected from the US military.
McNamara pushes South Vietnam as the battlefield… over Laos as Eisenhower recommended
McNamara’s “Counter Insurgency” and “flexible response” push Containment off the table.
1963 – Diem and Kennedy both assassinated
Johnson becomes President much influenced by McNamara
1964 – Westmoreland chosen by McNamara to lead US forces in South Vietnam
1965 – Big Army to South Vietnam
Strength and Determination
War of Attrition
1968 – TET
Johnson – sensitive to media reports – is beat and sues for peace.
Westmoreland returns to the States
1969 – “Pacification.”
1971 – “Vietnamization”
1973 – US troops withdraw
1975 – Ban Me Thuot falls
I meet with South Vietnamese General Hai who poses the question …. how did this all happen?
I have the long answer for Hai. We lost South Vietnam to the communist because of the wrong headedness of Harriman and McNamara. And the subsequent, blind policy acquiescence of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and especially Johnson.
But we won the Cold War – the Soviet Union went down to Afghanistan after 1975, got its shirts ripped by the underdeveloped CIA-supported Mujahedeen, pulled back and in the early 90s declared the country bankrupt.
But really, we brought the Soviet bear to its knees through our policy of containment and the information highway seeping around the Iron Curtain into the belly of the beast.
And we averted an Atomic War.
Please read the introduction to my The Vietnam War Its Ownself for more details.