The first major battle between U.S. and with North Vietnamese forces took place in Ia Drang Valley in mid-November 1965. The U.S. First Calvary Division, venturing deep into the Central Highlands, found itself surrounded by NLF-NVA forces. In the ensuing four-day combat, one out of every four American soldiers was killed or wounded. Up to that point, 1,100 Americans had been killed. The Ia Drang mission added 234 more. The U.S. command claimed victory, as an estimated 3,500 NLF-NVA soldiers were reportedly killed. Two weeks later, however, Secretary of Defense McNamara sent a top-secret memo to President Johnson predicting that, just “to hold our present geographical positions,” the U.S. would need the “addition of 28 U.S. battalions,” or about 200,000 troops. McNamara’s early optimism never returned after the Ia Drang Valley battle.
Dropped into war zones, without knowledge of the Vietnamese language and with little, if any, understanding of local culture, U.S. soldiers had problems distinguishing enemy from neutral from friend. They often became frustrated when making no contact with enemy soldiers for long periods, then seemingly out of the blue were interrupted by violent surprise attacks. Daily treks through insect-filled jungles in the heat and humidity also took a toll on GI nerves. In numerous documented cases, their frustrations were taken out on civilians. The approved routine of burning of huts, destruction of villages, and terrorizing of residents could and did lead to unauthorized sexual assaults, random shootings, and even massacres such as that in My Lai. Heonik Kwon lists thirteen large-scale massacres, including some by South Korean troops; Nick Turse, in Kill Anything That Moves, documents more. Even in villages with decent relations with local U.S. forces, other mobile U.S. forces were known to violently intervene.
With the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution enacted, Johnson had the power to expand the war as he saw fit. His strategy was to increase it in stages, allowing the DRV and NLF to capitulate to U.S. demands at any pause. If they did not, the U.S. would increase the punishment. That fall, Johnson expanded the war in the south without fanfare, increasing U.S. bombing runs, building and expanding air bases, dispatching three additional regiments (about 4,500 soldiers), lifting restrictions on the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus (napalm was already in use), and expanding the area of “free-fire zones” to encompass larger sections of the countryside, including heavily populated areas. It was still not enough. On October 31, 1964, the NLF used captured American mortars to attack the U.S. air base at Bien Hoa, destroying five B-57 bombers and badly damaging thirteen more; four Americans were killed and thirty wounded.
Lack of loyalty to the Diem government was more subtly apparent in the unwillingness of ARVN soldiers to fight. They were supposed to fight to the death for the government of South Vietnam (GVN), in a Washington-scripted play that divided the Vietnamese people into “good” non-communists and “evil” communists. Yet most had no cause for animosity toward the communist-led NLF and only wanted to survive and be paid. Hence when called to action, the results were often disappointing to U.S. military advisers. A case in point was the battle of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, in which 350 lightly armed guerrillas routed a larger force of 2,000 ARVN soldiers equipped with Colt AR-15 rifles and light-weight jungle radios, and backed by aircraft and armored vehicles. The ARVN had one of the highest desertion rates in the history of modern warfare. Sixty-five percent of ARVN soldiers were forcibly conscripted, and many ARVN officers were patronage appointees who served the French and used their positions for personal gain.
Among the factors contributing to the killing of civilians were the bureaucratic labeling of whole districts as NLF territory and thus free-fire zones; a “body count” reward system that identified civilians killed as communist guerrillas; lack of official accountability such that the generals did not want to know about, report, or investigate civilian casualties; psychological factors including revenge, sadism, racism, and boredom, any of which might impel a soldier to slay or rape civilians; a military culture that encouraged racist views of Asians and Vietnamese, commonly referred to as “gooks”; and the massive firepower readily available to U.S. soldiers that killed indiscriminately.
The issue was hardly settled. None of the great powers officially recognized the government of Ho Chi Minh and the French were intent on restoring their empire in Southeast Asia. In late September 1945, with the support of British administrators in southern Vietnam, French troops engineered a coup d’état in Saigon, forcing the Viet Minh to flee the city and regroup in the countryside or retreat to the north. More French troops soon arrived, 13,000 of whom were transported by a dozen U.S. Merchant Marine ships. In the first American protest against U.S. policy in Vietnam, some American sailors wrote letters to members of Congress and newspaper editors objecting to their mission. On November 2, the crew of the Winchester Victory sent a cablegram to President Harry Truman criticizing the use of “this and other American vessels for carrying foreign combat troops to foreign soil for the purpose of engaging in hostilities to further the imperialist policies of foreign governments when there are American soldiers waiting to come home.”
The general consensus among American historians is that the American War in Vietnam was a “mistake,” although interpretations differ as to what exactly this means. This essay takes the view that the ‘mistake” was a product of U.S. global ambitions and misperceptions that developed in the aftermath of World War II and were compounded over time. It probes deeply into the origins and nature of the war, making it a long article for a website (about 70,000 words), with about one-third devoted to the antiwar movement at home (Part IV). A half-century of excellent scholarship on the Vietnam War is drawn together and frequently cited in this essay.
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War, in any sense, changes how a person thinks, feels, and acts on different things in their lives.
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