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International Socialist Review Issue 40, March–April 2005

Vietnam: The War the U.S. Lost:
From Quagmire to Defeat


Part One: From the French Conquest to the Overthrow of Diem
Part Two: From the overthrow of Diem to the Tet Offensive

THE YEAR following the Tet Offensive of 1968 was the bloodiest year of the American war in Vietnam. As revenge for the humiliation they suffered during Tet—when national liberation forces launched a coordinated military assault involving 70,000 troops on dozens of cities—the United States unleashed a frightening wave of destruction. Despite the huge military cost of Tet to the National Liberation Front (NLF), it was clear that the Tet Offensive had destroyed the ability of the United States to effectively prosecute its war in Vietnam. In response, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. In a close race against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon was elected president, in part because he implied that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker,” he said in his inaugural speech.1 It is a testament to the political quandary that the American ruling class found itself in that an anticommunist militarist could package himself as a “peace” candidate.

By 1971, more than 71 percent of Americans told pollsters that Vietnam was a “mistake,” while 58 percent regarded the war as “immoral.” And a clear majority believed that all U.S. troops should be removed by the year’s end. The U.S. Senate barely defeated a bill sponsored by Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield to bring all GIs home by December 31, 1971.2 Yet despite all the talk of peace, the war would continue for another four years. Almost as many Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon’s presidency as in the Johnson years.

How does one explain this? The incoming Nixon administration set itself the goal of bringing the American war in Vietnam to an end without it being seen as a defeat for U.S. imperialism. In attempting to achieve this, Nixon would not only raise to new heights the destruction the U.S. would inflict on Vietnam, but he would widen the war into neighboring countries.

These war policies revived and deepened the antiwar movement in the United States. The antiwar movement would surge to the zenith of its strength, while soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel began to rebel in larger numbers. A special commission appointed by Nixon to assess unrest on the campuses following the invasion of Cambodia, led by William Scranton, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, argued that the country was “so polarized” that the division in the country over the war was “as deep as any since the Civil War” and declared that “nothing is more important than an end to the war” in Vietnam.3 It was the strength of this opposition that not only led to the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, but also to the adoption of repressive measures by an increasingly paranoid Nixon administration that would lead to its own downfall.

The destruction of Cambodia

I would rather be a one-tern President and do what I believe is right than be a two-term President at the cost of seeing America becoming a second-rate power and to see this -nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.
—President Richard Nixon, 19704

While Nixon hoped that history would bestow the title of “peacemaker” on him, in private he was adamant that he would “not be the first president of the United States to lose a war.” Nixon was just as committed to maintaining an anticommunist state in South Vietnam as his predecessors. To maintain this state, the NLF and the North Vietnamese would have to be crippled beyond any ability to threaten the Saigon government. This was the “peace with honor” that Nixon talked about—in essence a peace on the terms of the United States. “Nixon’s secret peace plan was turning out to be just another way to continue fighting the war.”5 He justified military escalation by arguing that acting like a “madman” was the best way to end the war. “I call it the madman theory,” he said. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached a point where I might do anything to stop the war.”6

The co-architect of the Nixon administration’s policies in Indochina was Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger were both acutely aware that the political ground had shifted since the Tet Offensive. Kissinger, writing in Foreign Affairs in January 1969, described the Tet Offensive as the “watershed of the American effort. Henceforth, no matter how effective our actions the prevalent [American] strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.”7 One part of the strategy ultimately settled on was called “Vietnamization”—U.S. ground forces would be slowly withdrawn and the ground war would be turned over to the South Vietnamese, backed by massive U.S. air power and logistics. The second part would be to spread the war and intensify the air war. Indeed, officials told the New York Times that Cambodia was a laboratory to “test public acceptance” of the plan to substitute “attack planes for foot soldiers.”8

Since its independence and declared neutrality in the 1950s, Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who kept the Americans at arms length. The eastern fringe of Cambodia, along the South Vietnamese border, had become a refuge for NLF soldiers, as the U.S. bombing of the Vietnamese countryside made life increasingly unbearable. North Vietnamese soldiers were also forced deeper into Cambodia from the Ho Chi Minh trail, which snaked through southern Laos, also to escape the around-the-clock U.S. bombing. The stated goal of the invasion was to destroy what the American military believed to be the military headquarters of the entire NLF/NVA (North Vietnamese Army) operation in South Vietnam, what they called the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN). The COSVN was portrayed as the equivalent of a giant jungle version of the Pentagon. In fact, no such thing existed.

The secret bombing of Cambodia ran from March 1969 until August 1973. Nixon set up an elaborate system of deception to hide the bombing campaign from the public, the media, and Congress.9 Revealing what can only be described as a cannibalistic mindset, the first raids were called “Breakfast,” followed by “Dinner,” “Snacks,” and “Dessert,” while the entire operation was known as “Menu.” During the first fourteen months of the campaign, the U.S. conducted more than 3,630 B-52 raids dropping over 110,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia. When the bombing ended, the U.S. had dropped a total of 257,465 tons of explosives on Cambodia.10 “The effect on the war in Vietnam was nil;” according to historian Marilyn Young, “the effect on Cambodia was devastating.”11 Cambodia had begun its descent into hell that would culminate with the triumph of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1975.

Despite the bombing of Cambodia, the NLF and the North Vietnamese didn’t come “begging for peace.” In their frustration with the failure of the bombing campaign in Cambodia, Nixon and Kissinger decided to turn their sights directly on North Vietnam with an intensity that would exceed all previous levels of destruction. “I refuse to believe,” Kissinger remarked, “that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.”12 In September 1969, he gave the following instructions to his staff:

It shall be the assignment of this group to examine the option of a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam. You start with no preconceptions at all. You are to sit down and map out what would be a savage blow.13[Italics in original.]

The name of Kissinger’s plan—again, for whatever bizarre reason—was “Duck Hook.” It was a wide-ranging plan that included “a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of its dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”14

The “illusion of peace” was beginning to fade. To placate antiwar sentiment at home and restlessness among the troops, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 of them in June 1969. Despite this token gesture, the antiwar movement, which had been on hiatus for nearly a year, planned nationwide demonstrations on October 15, the first Vietnam Moratorium Day. On that day more than 100,000 rallied in Boston, and Coretta Scott King led a march of 30,000 past the White House in a silent candlelight procession. In an unprecedented outpouring of public dissent, marches and demonstrations involving more than two million people took place in communities across the country.15 This was followed on November 15 by the largest demonstrations in U.S. history, when more than a million people marched against the war in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Despite repeated denials to the contrary, the Nixon White House was shaken by these demonstrations. Already in July 1969, Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense, announced the Nixon Doctrine, a policy of limited involvement of American ground forces in foreign wars. Laird explained that under the new doctrine “indigenous manpower [would be] organized into properly equipped and well-trained armed forces with the help of materiel, training, technology and specialized military skills furnished by the United States.”16

Nixon announced a further withdrawal of 35,000 troops in September. On November 3, on the eve of another round of mass demonstrations, the president announced that Vietnamization would be speeded up. As Christmas approached, he declared another 50,000 troops were to be withdrawn. In Seymour Hersh’s biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power, he puts forward a convincing case that the mass demonstrations of October and November 1969 prevented Nixon and Kissinger from implementing Operation Duck Hook. The troop withdrawals, however, were so agonizingly slow that they satisfied no one—neither the antiwar movement nor the restless American troops in Vietnam.

These tumultuous events had certainly shaken the Nixon administration and forestalled some of their worst plans for the Vietnamese, at least for the moment. However, the devastation continued.

The CIA, for example, implemented a new “pacification” program called “Operation Phoenix” in the aftermath of Tet, the goal of which was to destroy the NLF “infrastructure.” While the program murdered many real NLF activists, it effectively targeted anyone who was sympathetic to the NLF or critical of the regime in the South. Organized under CIA director William Colby, Phoenix agents assassinated at least 20,000 (though many were killed based upon vendettas and grudges), 28,000 more were captured, and 17,000 allegedly “defected.”17 U.S. forces involved in the program say that the they would lead teams of mercenaries into villages not only to kill or kidnap “suspects,” but to collect loot.18 Colby boasted that Phoenix killed 60,000 NLF activists.19 This secret torture and assassination program had a devastating impact on local NLF activity.

Torture was used systematically by U.S. forces. Military intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne described the use of torture he witnessed in Vietnam:

The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainees ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage) of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages.… The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to…both the woman’s vagina and the men’s testicles [to] shock them into submission.20

One soldier recounted to journalist Mark Baker what happened to three Vietnamese detainees taken for a ride in a helicopter with a U.S. intelligence officer:

The first gook wouldn’t talk. Intelligence gives you a signal, thumb towards the door, and you push the guy out…. If the second guy didn’t look like he wants to say something, or he’s lying, the intelligence officer says, “This guy’s out the door.” You kick him out…. The last prisoner is crying and he’s…talking Vietnamese like crazy.… Before we get back to the base camp, after this guy do [sic] all the talking, and the intelligence officer document everything, they kick him out the door anyway.21

It appeared that Nixon, once again, as in the spring of 1970, was finally turning the war over to the South Vietnamese and the television news helped create this illusion. Av Westin, an executive producer of ABC News, following the line of the Nixon White House, told his Saigon bureau to put this spin on all its stories: “We Are on Our Way Out of Vietnam.”22 In mid-April 1970, Nixon announced that 150,000 more combat troops were leaving Vietnam.

However, behind the scenes Nixon and Kissinger were one again planning another dramatic escalation of the war. In March 1970, Prince Sihanouk was toppled in a coup by his prime minister, the pro-American General Lon Nol. Cambodia now had a government that would do Nixon’s bidding. On April 30, 1970, Nixon appeared on national television and announced that U.S. forces were invading Cambodia, though in his speech announcing it he referred to the invasion as an “incursion” to “guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs,” by wiping out enemy “sanctuaries.”23

The country literally exploded in rage. Within four days of the announced invasion, strikes were in progress at more than a hundred campuses. Symbols of the military were under attack everywhere, especially ROTC buildings on campuses. Then the anger spread beyond the campuses. “It was something I’d never seen before…,” remembered one activist in New York:

I could feel the polarization. You could cut that with a knife in society, it was so incredible.… On that day or two after the Cambodian invasion, this whole city was filled with thousands of people all over the street debating. You could just go from group to group arguing.24
Nixon was at first exuberant. Then on May 4, exhausted National Guardsmen, who had spent the previous days attempting to break a wildcat Teamsters strike, fired on and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, wounding nine others. The country was stunned, and student strikes and protests spread to more than 1,300 colleges and universities. Ten days later, two Black students were killed and twelve wounded by police at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Many of the leading newspapers thought that the country was coming apart. A nervous Nixon appeared at a press conference on May 8 and announced that the U.S. would be out of a Cambodia by June 30.25

If there was a high point reached by the antiwar movement, it was the massive response to the invasion of Cambodia. Yet it left many people dissatisfied. Nixon was still in power, and the war continued with no end in sight. How would the war come to an end?

The GI rebellion

All the foregoing facts—and many more dire indicators of the worst kind of military trouble—point to widespread conditions among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by the French Army’s Nivelle mutiny of 1917 and the collapse of the Tzarist armies in 1916 and 1917.
—Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr., Armed Forces Journal, June 197126

The U.S. entered the war in Vietnam with the most powerful military in the world, but within a few years this very same military was in a state of disarray, disintegration, and rebellion. This GI rebellion progressively undermined the ability of the U.S. to defeat the NLF and the North Vietnamese, and was certainly an important factor in Nixon’s decision to draw down troop levels. How could an army break down so quickly? “From the very beginning of the military escalation in Vietnam, soldiers began to question the wisdom of the conflict and acted to oppose it. They learned from the bitter experience of war itself,” writes historian Richard Moser.27 Soldiers were increasingly angered, according to historian Christian Appy, by the “contradictory ground” dividing “the official justifications of the war expressed by American policymakers and the war as it was actually lived by the soldiers.”28

For the soldiers of the overwhelmingly working-class army, the war was a huge shock. They were trained to believe that the U.S. was a moral, democratic nation, a “liberator of oppressed people” confronting a worldwide communist conspiracy, and that struggles for national liberation like that in Vietnam were part of this grand communist conspiracy emanating from Moscow and Beijing.

Soldiers expected a war between professional armies in set-piece battles like the ones they thought were fought by their fathers in the Second World War. What they found themselves doing was fighting a peasant army of young men and women—a total war against an entire population motivated by hatred of the U.S. occupation and of its puppet regime. American soldiers burned down villages, destroyed large areas of the countryside, killed large numbers of NLF soldiers, and engaged in wanton brutality against civilians. As one soldier put it, “I wondered how people would feel in Pittsburgh if the Vietnamese came over in B-52s and bombed them.”29 American soldiers were trained to believe that such atrocities were only committed by America’s “enemies,” but now they were doing those same horrible things in the name of America.

According to Appy, “In the earlier years, the central thrust of disenchantment concerned the strategic aims of the war and the lack of convincing signs of progress. Among those who fought in latter years…there was a more widespread sense of the war’s pointlessness.”30 Before Tet, opposition to the war inside the military rested on the shoulders of courageous individuals who in every case were severely punished. In June 1965, Captain Richard Steinke, a West Point graduate stationed in Vietnam refused to board an aircraft taking him to a remote Vietnamese village. “The Vietnamese war,” Steinke said “is not worth a single American life.”31 He was court-martialed and dismissed from the army. In February 1966, a decorated ex-Green Beret Master Sergeant Donald Duncan, who left Vietnam the previous September, published a powerful indictment of the war in Ramparts magazine. Duncan was a militant anticommunist when he arrived in Vietnam, but his experience there transformed his view of the war. Duncan wrote,

I had to accept that…the vast majority of people were pro-Viet Cong and anti-Saigon. I had to accept also that the position, “We are in Vietnam because we are in sympathy with the aspirations and desires of the Vietnamese people,” was a lie. If this is a lie, how many others are there.32
The Fort Hood Three, a trio of U.S. Army privates—James Johnson, Dennis Mora, and David Samas—refused to serve in Vietnam. They were signalers with the 2nd Armored Division stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. One was Black, one Puerto Rican, and one Lithuanian-Italian, all from poor, working-class families. Denouncing the war as “immoral, illegal, and unjust,” they were arrested, court-martialed, and imprisoned.33 In 1967, Dr. Howard Levy, who came from a left-wing family in New York and who had attended socialist meetings before being drafted into the army, refused to train the Green Berets at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Levy argued that the Green Berets were “murderers of women and children” and “killers of peasants.” He was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty-seven months in a military prison. The colonel who presided at Levy’s court-martial said: “The truth of the statements is not an issue in this case.”34

“The individual acts multiplied,” according to radical historian Howard Zinn,

a black private in Oakland refused to board a troop plane to Vietnam, although he faced eleven years at hard labor. A navy nurse, Lieutenant Susan Schnall, was court-martialed for marching in a peace demonstration while in uniform, and for dropping antiwar leaflets from a plane on navy installations…. Two black marines, George Daniels and William Harvey, were given long prison sentences (Daniels, six years, Harvey, ten years, both later reduced) for talking to other black marines against the war.35

Combat experience had an even greater impact on others. Declared Bill Ehrhart, a marine in Vietnam:

In grade school we learned about the redcoats, the nasty British soldiers that tried to stifle our freedom…. Subconsciously, but not very subconsciously, I began increasingly to have the feeling that I was a redcoat. I think it was one of the most staggering realizations of my life.36
When combat experience was combined with the influence of civil rights and Black power movements opposed to the war, the effect was even more explosive. As one Black soldier recounted: “Most of the people like me were naive…but at the same time, the Black Panther organization, the Muslims, the Kings didn’t feel that we should be out there participating [in the war]…we didn’t feel we were fighting for our country; half the brothers felt it wasn’t even our war and were sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh.”37 Such sentiments grew in tandem with the escalation of struggles of Blacks on the home front.

After Tet, individual resistance evolved into an outright rebellion that crippled the American military machine. Then, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, according to author Michael Herr, “intruded on the war in a way no other outside event had ever done.”38 One Black veteran remembers thinking: “If they kill a preacher, what are they going to do to us, even though we’re over here fighting for them.”39

Antiwar activity among soldiers took many forms—participating in antiwar marches, putting out antiwar newspapers on bases, desertion, sabotage, avoiding combat, acts of mutiny, and the killing of unpopular officers. The first to organize were Vietnam veterans after they returned home. Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was founded in 1967 by Jan Barry, who had been stationed in Vietnam in 1963. He was disturbed by what he called America’s “colonial military policy” in Vietnam, and later dropped out of West Point to pursue a writing career. Barry first participated in antiwar activity when he marched in the 1967 Spring Mobilization to End War in Vietnam, when more than 300,000 people marched and rallied at the UN.

During 1967 and 1968, hundreds of veterans joined VVAW, but the organization all but collapsed into Eugene McCarthy’s failed campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1968. The group revived in 1969 and 1970 as a result of a political awakening of Vietnam veterans around such issues as their ill treatment at Veteran Administration (VA) hospitals, the public exposure of war crimes committed at My Lai, and the killing of antiwar demonstrators at Kent and Jackson State following Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in 1970.40 VVAW moved from being a single-issue organization—end the war—to a multi-issue movement around the class issues of Vietnam veterans.

This revival also brought in new members who came from mostly working-class families and who had experienced some of the most intense combat of the war. The most famous were Ron Kovic, whose life was depicted in the film Born on the Fourth of July, and Al Hubbard, a Black veteran who brought the need to address the racist treatment of Black soldiers and veterans to VVAW. John Kerry, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic candidate for president, also joined during this time, but what made him so different was that he was from such a wealthy background, and had connections to the upper levels of the Democratic Party through family and friends. Vietnam Veterans Against the War would organize two historic events in 1971 that catapulted the organization into the leadership of the antiwar movement—the Winter Soldier Investigation into war crimes in Vietnam and the march on Washington called Dewey Canyon III.

While VVAW was growing at home, it also had active duty members in Vietnam—combat soldiers, for whom resisting the war was literally a life-and-death issue, and they started taking action to save their lives. Some walked away—deserted. That was the biggest problem that the U.S. military faced after Tet—simply holding their forces together. “The number of draft evaders and resisters was dwarfed by the number of deserters from the active duty armed forces,” according to historian Bruce Franklin.41 The Defense Department recorded 503,926 “incidents of desertion” from July 1, 1966, to December 31, 1973, while in 1971 alone 98,324 servicemen deserted. This means that during the course of the war in Vietnam, nearly the same number of men deserted the armed forces as the total number of American soldiers stationed in Vietnam at the war’s height. In 1970, the army experienced 65,643 desertions, the equivalent of four infantry divisions. Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., chief of naval operations dramatically proclaimed, “We have a personnel crisis that borders on a disaster.”42

“During 1969–1972 commanders who continued to pressure their men for high body counts were almost universally detested,” writes Appy.43 Those who could not walk away from the war began to mutiny or kill or injure officers who sent them into dangerous combat missions. In August and September 1969, two infantry units mutinied after suffering heavy casualties in previous actions.44 “During the next two years, the press published numerous reports of entire units refusing direct combat orders, and the public actually got to see two incidents of rebellion on network television,” writes Franklin.45

The killing of officers, known as “fragging,” skyrocketed in the last three years of the war. The army reported 126 fraggings in 1969, 271 in 1970, and 333 in 1971. Fraggings actually increased during the time that the number of U.S. troops dropped from 500,000 to 200,000. Over 80 percent of fragging victims were officers or non-commissioned officers (NCOs). The term fragging originally came from the use of fragmentation grenades but then was applied generally to the warning or killing of officers and NCOs. “By mid-1972, the Pentagon was officially acknowledging 551 incidents of fragging with explosive devices, which left more than 86 dead and more than 700 wounded.”46 These Pentagon--provided figures are probably an underestimation of the number of officers killed by their own troops.47

African-American soldiers faced racism in the military not only from the officer corps, but also from racist white soldiers. On the night of King’s assassination, for example, white GI’s at Cam Ranh Bay celebrated by donning KKK outfits and parading around the base. That same night there were rebellions by Black soldiers at U.S. military bases around the world. In 1970, Wallace Terry conducted a survey of 392 African-American enlisted men for Time and the Washington Post. The survey revealed that 64 percent believed that their “fight was in the U.S.,” not Vietnam. Eighty-three percent believed that America “is in for more racial violence,” and 50 percent said they would use weapons “in the struggle for their rights in the U.S.”48 Even more ominously for the American ruling class, “A significantly high percentage promised to carry home the lessons that they learned in self-defense and Black unity to…the Black Panther Party.”49 Vietnam had created sympathy for revolutionary politics among a large layer of Black soldiers.

While the U.S. ground troops were being rapidly withdrawn in 1971–1972, the Vietnam vets were moving into leadership of the antiwar movement at home. Winter Soldier, the name given to the VVAW’s war crimes investigation, was the term Tom Paine used for soldiers who stayed the course during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The “new winter soldiers,” as they saw themselves, would end the war by exposing U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. Al Hubbard said that the purpose of the Winter Soldier Investigation was to show that “My Lai was not an isolated incident,” but “only a minor step beyond the standard official United States policy in Indochina.”50 The Winter Soldier Investigation took place in Detroit from January through February 1971. During that weekend more than 100 American veterans from Vietnam testified to war crimes that they had participated in or witnessed. Another 500 to 700 veterans came to listen to the testimony from all across the country.51

It was painful, gut-wrenching, tear-filled testimony that riveted and shocked everyone present. Veterans testified to committing or witnessing rape, the routine killing of civilians, and mass murder. Sgt. Jamie Henry, who testified to witnessing the murder of nineteen women and children during his tour of duty, explained: “You are trained ‘gook, gook, gook’ and once the military has got the idea implanted in you that these people are not humans…it makes it a little bit easier to kill ‘em.”52 Hundreds of veterans joined VVAW after the hearings, and Winter Soldier Investigations modeled on Detroit were held in many other cities around the country. Senators and congressmen publicly called for official investigations into the charges that Winter Soldier raised.

Then came Dewey Canyon III. Named after two failed invasions of Laos by the U.S. and South Vietnam armies, it was described by VVAW as a “limited incursion into the country of Congress.” It would be five days of demonstartions, from April 19 to 23, 1971, to protest the war and the treatment of veterans. As many as 2,000 Vietnam veterans spent five days harassing the political establishment in Washington. They sat in at the Supreme Court to protest the illegality of the war. They humiliated prowar senators, such as the late, racist bigot, Strom Thurmond. Veterans and Gold Star mothers—as those who’d lost children are called—made their way into Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath for the American dead in Vietnam.

Jan Barry presented a list of sixteen demands from VVAW to a Congressional delegation which included: “immediate, unilateral, unconditional withdrawal” of all U.S. forces from Indochina; amnesty for all Americans who refused to fight in Vietnam; a formal inquiry into war crimes; and improved veterans’ benefits.53 There were two high points to Dewey Canyon III. One was John Kerry’s powerful speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he ended by asking, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How can you ask a man to die for a mistake?”54

The second, and far more important event was the ceremony on Capital Hill where vets returned their medals to the U.S. government in great anger and eloquence. Jack Smith, a highly decorated ex-marine sergeant, was the first to go. He said his medals were a “symbol of dishonor, shame and inhumanity.”55 He offered an apology to the Vietnamese people, “whose hearts were broken, not won” because of “genocide, racism and atrocity.” Hundreds followed him.

Sometimes relatives would come up, with or without medals to present.… A fifty-six-year-old WWII vet, Gail Olson, too overcome to speak, played a faltering taps on his bugle; then explained he wished to honor all who died in Vietnam, including his son William. He tried to say something on behalf of the children of Vietnam, but could not continue, and ended by saying he prayed for peace. He had put tears in the eyes of some of the fiercest-looking vets. Two Gold Star mothers came up next. “I am here to join all of these men,” said one of them. “In each one of them I see my son.”56
One vet threw his Purple heart toward the Capitol building and said, “I hope I get another one fighting these fuckers.”57

Dewey Canyon III was the lead story every night on the television news and on the front page of newspapers across the country. The face of the antiwar movement had completely changed for millions of people.

By 1971, the ruinous state of the American Army in Vietnam was clear for all to see. The senior commanding officer of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams declared, in a state of mad frustration, “Is this a god-damned army or a mental hospital? Officers are afraid to lead their men into battle, and the men won’t follow. Jesus Christ! What happened?”58 The June 1971 issue of the Armed Forces Journal published an article by Colonel Robert Heinl called “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” where he declared that:

The morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed forces are, with few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not mutinous.59

From the fall of Saigon to Watergate

You know they could hang people for what’s in here.
—former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara on the Pentagon Papers60

Vietnamization was a strategy that was doomed to fail. Why? It had already been tried. The war was “Americanized” in 1965 precisely because the first attempt at Vietnamization—the notion of creating a stable, pro-U.S. puppet regime in the South after the 1954 Geneva peace agreement—had failed so miserably. Its failure was rooted in the corrupt, pro-landlord nature of the Saigon regime. It had no mass social base, and its demoralized troops were no match for the highly motivated nationalist forces. By falling back on a policy that had been discarded, the U.S. was admitting defeat.

The U.S. was now losing a war before the eyes of the world. According to liberal historian Stanley Karnow, “Nixon and Kissinger desperately needed a drastic new initiative”61 to detract from their failures. This “new initiative” turned out to be the invasion of another neighboring country—Laos—to sever the Ho Chi Minh trail. The U.S. was going to rely heavily on South Vietnamese troops with heavy U.S. air, artillery, and logistical support—a major test of Vietnamization. In February 1971, 15,000 South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos in an operation called Lam Son 719. The U.S. Air Force flew 8,000 aerial sorties in support of the invasion. They advanced about a dozen miles into Laos without much opposition, then they were hit with a major counteroffensive by five divisions of the North Vietnamese Army. It immediately became a major rout, with the South Vietnamese Army fleeing back to South Vietnam, losing seventy-one tanks and 127 armored personnel carriers on the way. More than 2,500 South Vietnamese troops were killed and several thousand wounded, and the U.S. lost 107 helicopters. The Laos debacle proved that even with U.S. air and logistical support, the South Vietnamese Army was a useless fighting force. There was a rapid disintegration of the U.S. position in Vietnam during the remaining two years of the war. By the end of 1971, there were 185,000 troops, down from 335,000 in 1970. The U.S. did, however, still have its B-52s, which killed many people but had little impact on the fighting capacity of the Vietnamese people.62

Increasingly, mainstream commentators began to use the term “quagmire” in reference to the war, describing the war as a mistake and a disaster. Whole sections of the established ruling class began jumping ship.63

The summer of 1971 also witnessed an important political event that would eventually destroy the Nixon presidency. In June 1971, the New York Times started publishing a secret government history of the Vietnam War that has come to be known as the Pentagon Papers. Originally commissioned by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to chronicle the history of presidential decision making toward Vietnam, the study documented three decades of deceptions and lies that made up the history of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia.

McNamara declared the study classified and allowed only a limited print run. Daniel Ellsberg was a former Defense Department analyst and McNamara “whiz kid” in the Johnson administration, who now worked for the semi-governmental think tank, the Rand Corporation.64 He turned hard against the war and turned the study over to the New York Times after Senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.) refused to hold hearings on it. Nixon exploded and tried to prevent the Times and other newspapers from publishing the history. The Supreme Court ruled against Nixon and the Pentagon Papers were published.

In response, Nixon would take the first steps down the road to self-destruction. He ordered his staff to put together a secret intelligence unit, only answerable to him, to plug “leaks” in the government. Known as the “plumbers,” they were to carry out a criminal spree against the political enemies of Richard Nixon. “Without the Vietnam War there would have been no Watergate,” according to Robert Haldeman, the former chief of staff to Nixon.65 The Nixon White House was already well suited to persecute their political enemies. “If you can’t lie,” Nixon once told a friend, “you’ll never get anywhere.”66 Egil Krogh, a White House staffer, summed up well the Nixon White House mindset, “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy. As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.”67 Nixon was frightened that Ellsberg had information on his policies, particularly the ongoing secret bombing of Cambodia. Neil Sheehan, the Times reporter who Ellsberg turned the Pentagon Papers over to, wrote in his introduction to them, “The leaders of the United States for the past six years at least, including the incumbent President, Richard Milhous Nixon, may well be guilty of war crimes.”68 The break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex a year later was part of a vast operation by Nixon to suppress dissent.

While Vietnamization was failing and the Pentagon Papers shook the country, Nixon was planning a series of foreign policy initiatives that he hoped would shift the global balance of power in favor of the United States and, specifically, weaken North Vietnam in future negotiations. He held high profile summits in Beijing and Moscow. In February 1972 he made his famous trip to China, and then went to Moscow several months later, where he signed an arms control agreement with the Russians. These initiatives were brilliant public relations ploys by the Nixon administration packaged as “peace efforts.” In fact, what Nixon really wanted was to promote greater international rivalry by making an alliance with China against Russia. Nixon also wanted to get Russia and China to pressure North Vietnam to settle on terms more favorable to the Americans. Secret negotiations to end the war between the U.S. and North Vietnam had taken place at various times with little progress since Nixon came into office.

Nixon’s “opening” of China was greeted enthusiastically by the majority of Americans, who believed that it make the world a safer place to live in. It was these initiatives along with the continued decline of U.S. troops in Vietnam that were major contributing factors to Nixon’s landslide election win in November 1972.

Sensing that Nixon’s initiatives could weaken the support of their Russian and Chinese allies, and seeing the weakening position of the U.S. on the ground in Vietnam (by June 1972, only 47,000 U.S. troops remained), the North Vietnamese leadership planned a major offensive for the spring of 1972. On March 30, 1972, a combined force of 200,000 NVA and NLF troops rolled across the demilitarized zone and swept the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) aside, destroying what little faith there was left in Vietnamization. The goal of the Spring Offensive was to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Despite American air power, the ARVN retreated, and by early April Saigon lost control of Quang Tri province. By May 1, the NLF flag flew over the capital city and the road to Hue was open. The offensive was so effective that the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, believed that “the whole thing may well be lost.”69 The NLF recaptured territory in Quang Ngai province and the Mekong Delta. It was only the most vicious application of American air power that prevented the collapse of the Saigon government. At the Battle of Kontum in the central highlands, in one three-week period, more than 300 B-52 strikes took place. Quang Tri province got the same treatment, with U.S. air power reducing cities to rubble. U.S forces hit the North with 700 B-52 raids in April, including a sustained forty-eight-hour attack on Hanoi and Haiphong.

The U.S. and North Vietnam went back in secret to the negotiating table in May 1972 and continued to meet throughout the summer. The American team was led by Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese by Le Duc Tho. In the past, negotiations stalled on two key issues—the “mutual withdrawal” of American and North Vietnamese troops from South Vietnam, and the status of the Thieu government in Saigon. The breakthrough came when the U.S. dropped its demand for the North Vietnamese to withdraw its troops from South Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese dropped their demand for the removal of Thieu and called for recognition of two political entities: Saigon and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the NLF. Kissinger accepted the draft and set up a timetable for the formal signing in Hanoi. But Nixon believed that he could get a better deal after the coming election and wanted to forestall signing the treaty.

Following Nixon’s landslide election, Kissinger met with Le Duc Tho and demanded further concessions. The North Vietnamese said no and began to evacuate children and the elderly from Hanoi and readied their air raid shelters.70 Nixon then began what has gone down in history as the “Christmas bombings.” Beginning on December 18, 1972, with a day off for Christmas, Nixon unleashed ten days of B-52 strikes on Hanoi and Haiphong. The U.S. dropped 36,000 tons of bombs on factories, railroad yards, and bus stations; Hanoi’s largest hospital was bombed, as well as the residential neighborhood of Kheim Thien.71 While half of the population of Hanoi was evacuated, more than 2,000 civilians died. John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq and then a member of the National Security Council, wryly commented, “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.”72 But the peace treaty signed by the U.S., North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the NLF’s Provisional Revolutionary Government was essentially the same one that Nixon had already agreed to before the Christmas bombing.

On January 23, 1973, the treaty ending the American war in Vietnam was signed in Paris. The last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in March 1973. Historian Marilyn Young sums up Nixon’s war in Vietnam:

Between 1969 and 1972, as Nixon made war in the name of peace, 15,315 Americans, 107,504 Saigon government troops, and an estimated 400,000+ DRV and NLF soldiers died in combat. There are no reliable statistics on civilian dead and wounded, though one source estimated 165,000 civilian casualties in South Vietnam for each year of Nixon’s presidency.73
Facing impeachment for his involvement in Watergate, Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. American allies in the Saigon government would survive only a little longer. In April 1975, the remnants of the Saigon government surrendered to the invading forces of the NVA. Thirty years of war was over. The U.S. had suffered a humiliating defeat before the eyes of the world. One of the poorest countries on earth had defeated the greatest military power in modern history. <

b>The legacy of Vietnam

A large percentage of Americans have traditionally regarded wars of colonialism or economic expansion as unjust. To the extent that an American soldier perceives a war to be motivated by these factors, he will also perceive hierarchical demands [of officers and politicians] to be illegitimate.
—Major Stephen D. Wesbrook, “The Potential for Military Disintegration,” 198374

There are so many cartoons where people, oppressed people are saying, “Is it Vietnam yet?”—hoping it is and wondering if it is. I want to assure you it isn’t.
—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld75

For thirty years, from 1945 to 1975, the U.S. attempted to prevent the nationalist forces in Vietnam from coming to power. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 after a nine-year war, the U.S. engineered the partitioning of Vietnam into a “communist” North and an “anticommunist” puppet regime in the South. For ten years the U.S. tried to stabilize a government in Saigon that was intensely unpopular with the mass of the people. In 1965, the U.S. invaded to prevent the NLF from coming to power.

U.S. officials did not anticipate the scale and scope of the war on which they were embarking. Another decade of escalating war followed, involving as many as half a million troops at its height.

The U.S. dropped three times as many bombs on Vietnam than dropped by all the armies of the Second World War. More than three million Vietnamese were killed, and at least as many were wounded, along with almost 60,000 U.S. soldiers.76 According to Marilyn Young,

9,000 out of 15000 hamlets, 25 million acres of farmland, 12 million acres of forest were destroyed, and 1.5 million farm animals had been killed; there were an estimated 200,000 prostitutes, 879,000 orphans, 181,000 disabled people, and 1 million widows; all six of the industrial cities in the North had been badly damaged, as were provincial district towns, and 4,000 out of 5,800 agricultural communes. North and south the land was cratered and planted with tons of unexploded ordnance, so that long after the war farmers and their families suffered serious injury as they attempted to bring the fields back into cultivation. Nineteen million gallons of herbicide had been sprayed on the South during the war, and while the longer-term effects were unknown in 1975,… severe birth defects and multiple miscarriages were apparent early on.77

When the U.S. invaded South Vietnam, it was seen as a virtually invincible power that could impose its will on most of the world through direct military intervention or through the use of its vast economic leverage. Its humiliating retreat from Vietnam demonstrated that even as mighty a power as the U.S. could be defeated. The Vietnamese forces won independence not because it militarily defeated the United States, but because it was able to drain the will of the U.S. to continue fighting. Though the U.S. won every major military engagement in Vietnam, it was forced to retreat because the political cost of victory became too high, as millions of Americans (workers, citizens, and soldiers alike) turned against the war. The U.S. was defeated in Vietnam because it lost the war in the Mekong Delta and at home. This defeat, in turn, created the “Vietnam Syndrome”—a reticence on the part of the U.S. to engage in direct military intervention around the world.

Often the student movement alone is given credit for ending the war. It is true that the student movement played an important role in radicalizing millions against the war and the American trade-union leadership, led by George Meany, supported the war. But working-class Americans from the very beginning of the war were extremely uneasy about the war, and later polls showed that workers opposed the war in larger numbers than any other group. Moreover, when working-class opposition to the war found another expression—through the GI rebellion—the U.S. ruling class was forced to withdraw its ground forces and bring the war to an end.

In the end, it was these three elements that combined to defeat the U.S. in Vietnam: a strong national resistance movement in Vietnam; the development of a mass antiwar movement at home; and the almost complete breakdown of the fighting capacity of the American soldier as a result of the experience of combat combined with GI rebellion.

For those who have become radicalized by Bush’s war and occupation of Iraq, the question of whether Iraq is the “next Vietnam” is now a life and death question for hundreds of thousands of people. The answer is that it could be. That will be determined by two forces, the Iraqi people and the American working class. Can the Iraqi people build a movement that can defeat the American military machine? Will American workers bear the cost of the war in Iraq with their lives and a declining standard of living at home? The questions can only be resolved through mass struggle in Iraq and in the United States. The greatest lesson from the Vietnam War is that this can happen, but only through the determined struggle of millions of people.

Joe Allen is a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago and a long-time member of the International Socialist Organization.

1 Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (Vintage: New York, 1975), 26.
2 Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (Viking: New York, 2003), 393.
3 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1986), 626.
4 Quotes from Nixon’s speech are taken from “Rationale for the Invasion of Cambodia,” (April 30, 1970) in Marvin E. Gettleman, Marilyn Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds. Vietnam and America (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 452–55.
5 Marilyn Young, The Vietnam War 1945–1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 246.
6 Ibid., 237.
7 Quoted in Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York: Summit Books, 1983), 47–48.
8 Quoted in William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 214.
9 Though the Nixon administration was unable to keep the Cambodian invasion a secret, all military personnel involved in it were instructed to not talk about it, and to evade press inquiries about it. For a complete account of the destruction of Cambodia, see William Shawcross.
10 James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 418.
11 Young, 238.
12 Quoted in Hersh, 126.
13 Ibid.
14 Young, 239.
15 Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 371.
16 Quoted in Young, 240.
17 Young, 213.
18 Gibson, 300.
19 Karnow, 602.
20 Young, 213. The best history of the program is Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (, 2000).
21 Quoted in Gibson, 185–86.
22 Ibid, 245.
23 The U.S., of course, had huge “sanctuaries” for prosecuting its war in Vietnam, with bases through out the Pacific, including in Thailand and Guam.
24 Quoted in Wells, 421.
25 Ibid, 420–27.
26 Quoted in Col. Robert D. Heinl, “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” in Vietnam and America, 335.
27 Richard Moser, The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 41.
28 Christian Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 1993), 207.
29 Ibid., 255.
30 Ibid., 208.
31 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Perennial Classics, 1999), 492–93.
32 Donald Duncan, “The whole thing was a lie!,” Ramparts, February 1965.
33 Zinn, 493.
34 Ibid. For a thorough treatment of the bizarre nature of the Levy trial see Robert Sherrill’s Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music (New York: Perennial, 1971).
35 Zinn, 493.
36 Moser, 41.
37 Appy, Working Class War, 224.
38 Young, 231.
39 Ibid.
40 See Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 22–54.
41 H. Bruce Franklin, Vietnam and other American Fantasies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 61.
42 Quoted in Col. Robert D. Heinl, 335.
43 Appy, Working Class War, 231.
44 Ibid.
45 Franklin, 63.
46 Ibid, 64.
47 See Joel Geier, “Vietnam: The Soldiers’ Rebellion,” International Socialist Review 9, Fall 1999.
48 Quoted in Hunt, 133.
49 Ibid., 134.
50 Young, 256.
51 See Gerald Nicosia, Home to War (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 84–97.
52 Young, 256.
53 Nicosia, 111.
54 Quotes from Kerry speech in “Vietnam Veterans Against the War: Testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee” (April 22, 1971), in Vietnam and America, 455–62.
55 Nicosia, 141.
56 Ibid., 142.
57 Ibid.
58 Appy, Patriots, 395.
59 Heinl, 326.
60 Young, 211.
61 Ibid., 626.
62 “Twenty-seven months of bombing of North Vietnam,” noted a CIA report, “have had remarkably little effect on Hanoi’s overall strategy in prosecuting the war,” quoted in Shawcross, 210. Yet as the war progressed, U.S. B-52 air strikes increased massively.
63 See Gibson, chapter 15.
64 For the full story about the Pentagon Papers, see Ellsberg’s own recently published memoirs, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (New York: Viking Adult, 2002).
65 Fred Emery, Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon (New York: Touchstone, 1994), 8.
66 Karnow, 577.
67 Ibid., 634.
68 Young, 260.
69 Ibid., 270.
70 For a complete account of the peace negotiations see Gareth Porter, A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).
71 Appy, Patriots, 396.
72 Quoted in Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter, The Palace File: Vietnam’s Secret Documents (New York: Perennial Library, 1986), 146.
73 Young, 280.
74 Stephen D. Wesbrook, “The Potential for Military Disintegration,” in Sam C. Sarkesian, ed., Combat Effectiveness (Beverly Hills, Ca.: Sage Publications, Inc., 1980), 270–71.
75 Quoted in the New York Times, July 1, 2003.
76 In 1995, Agence France Presse reported that the government of Vietnam had issued statistics citing that throughout the twenty-one years of war in Vietnam (1954–1975), five million Vietnamese died. For a partial translation of the report, see
77 Young, 302.
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