BRAVE AND COURAGEOUS THINGS
Joan Furey and two adopted pets. Behind her is the building in which she and several other Army nurses lived at the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, its thin walls reinforced by sandbags against the mortar and rocket fire that hit the compound from time to time.
SECOND LIEUTENANT JOAN FUREY had wanted to be a nurse ever since she was a small child in Brooklyn when she and her older sister watched a movie on television called So Proudly We Hail! It starred Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake as three of the nurses who faced enemy fire while ministering to American forces on Bataan and Corregidor during World War II. “It was probably the first time in my life that I realized that women could do brave and courageous things,” she remembered. “It wasn’t just something men could do. That was a pretty dramatic experience for me.”
She was the second of five children of a grocer who, along with four of his seven brothers, served in the armed forces in World War II. A book about his infantry unit rested on the living room coffee table. His Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster hung on the wall. From earliest childhood, Furey remembered, she’d been “aware of the whole issue of service in our family.”
Four of her high school classmates were drafted and sent to Vietnam while she was attending nursing school at Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island. One was killed at Khe Sanh. The student protesters who took over the Columbia University campus in the spring of 1968 filled her with contempt. “They were going to this great school,” she said, “and had all this money and shouldn’t be acting out like this. If America was in Vietnam, we must be there to do good. I felt that as an American I had a responsibility to do something. I made the decision, and on my way home from work I stopped at the Army recruiter’s office in Patchogue and said, ‘Hi, I’m a nurse. I want to go to Vietnam.’ Needless to say, they said, ‘Okay, sign right here.’ When she got home and told her parents what she’d done, there was silence at first. “My mother began to cry. Even my father got a tear in his eye. They were very frightened but very proud.”
Volunteering to become a nurse in Vietnam was not a cause for universal admiration, Furey recalled. “There were people in those days who thought, ‘Well, if you’re in the military, you either must be out to get a husband or get a man, or you’re gay.’ It never occurred to those people that you might make that choice because you really wanted to make a difference, that you could be motivated by patriotism.”
Some eleven thousand American women would serve in the military in Vietnam, eight out of ten of whom were nurses. Ten nurses died in country, eight women and two men: seven were killed in air accidents; two died from illness; and one, First Lieutenant Sharon Lane, was killed by an enemy rocket that hit the ward in which she was working at Chu Lai.
Joan Furey was assigned to the intensive care unit of the three-hundred-bed 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, in the heart of the Central Highlands. The hospital itself, she remembered, was “better than I’d expected”: semipermanent Quonset huts linked by covered walkways and adjacent to a helipad where patients arrived by chopper.
She quickly became accustomed to the facilities, but nothing in civilian life could have prepared her for what she saw and did over the next twelve months. Wounded men, mostly belonging to the Fourth Infantry Division, the Mobile Strike Force Command of the Special Forces, and the indigenous mountain people who fought alongside them, were choppered in at all times of the day and night. “Amputations, dismemberment, head wounds, chest wounds,” she remembered. “Some were blinded or had their faces blown off—and all of them were my age or younger.” One man had been pulled from his tent by a tiger and badly mauled. Women and children caught in the crossfire or burned by napalm or phosphorous were flown in for treatment, too. So were North Vietnamese soldiers and NLF guerrillas—one less than fifteen years old—who sometimes spat at the medical personnel trying to save their limbs or lives.
Helicopter-borne wounded arrive at the hospital.
A triage officer stationed outside the operating room made the grim decisions as to who might be saved and those for whom there was no hope.
“I think one of the things that initially was so difficult was what we called ‘expectant’ patients—expected to die,” Furey remembered. “These were patients who, it was determined, had no chance to survive. But they weren’t dead yet. So somebody had to take care of them. Now, you’re given a patient who is breathing but you’re not supposed to do anything for him except try to make him comfortable. That’s just contrary to everything you emotionally want to do. One day, they brought in a young soldier who had a head injury. He had a large field dressing on the back of his head. They said, ‘He’s expectant.’ That was written on his tag, which meant you don’t give him blood. His pupils were fixed and dilated. I kind of freaked out and I decided, ‘No, they’re wrong.’ I was going to take care of this patient. I told the corpsman to get me blood. And he’s saying, ‘Well, Lieutenant, this patient is expectant. You’re not supposed to be using blood.’ I said, ‘Get me the blood.’ He went and got it and I hung the blood on the patient and I decided to change his dressing. Meantime, I’m ignoring everything else going on around me. It was like I was in this zone. I took off the dressing. The whole back of his head was gone and all the blood I had been giving him came out. Now, I didn’t freak. I just put a nice dressing back on. It was almost robotic. A friend of mine came over and said to me, ‘You just have to walk away. Come on, you can’t give him any more blood. We have all these other patients.’ And he just walked me out of there. We went out and had a cigarette. A few minutes later we walked right back in and got back to work. You had to learn to be detached, to push down those overwhelming emotions to get the job done.”
The hospital’s main goal was to stabilize each wounded man within three days so that he could be flown to a hospital in Japan for more sophisticated care. Anyone staying longer was likely to develop an infection that might prove fatal. “With every cell in your body you were just focused on taking care of these guys,” Furey remembered. “Sometimes we would try to evac patients who didn’t even meet the criteria for evacuation because we just wanted to get them the hell out of Vietnam.”
The hospital was sandwiched between the Pleiku Air Base and the American communication center for the Central Highlands and so frequently found itself in danger from mortar and rocket fire. As soon as the red-alert siren was heard, Furey recalled, “if we had empty beds we’d grab mattresses off them, pull the side rails up, and put them over the patients. These were mostly infantry guys lying there practically naked and totally helpless during a rocket attack. They were just terrified. We had flak vests and helmets so we could crawl from one bed to the next and do what we could to help them. They still had pain. Some of them could still hemorrhage. You couldn’t leave them unattended. So we just had to kind of swallow our own fear.
“Being an American woman in a war zone was a very unique thing,” she remembered. “You did become the center of attention. As nurses, we were treated with a great deal of respect, but you also had a lot of pressure on you to fraternize and to socialize and to enter into intimate relationships with the men around you. The older I get the more I see that the relationships brought a piece of sanity into this crazy world that both the men and we were living in. But a lot of women left Vietnam with broken hearts, in one way or the other.
“I did meet a pilot and kind of fell in love. He told me his wife had died in a car accident a couple of years before, and, you know, he talked about the loss and the grieving and da-da-da-da-da-da. One night there was an attack on the air base. I was in bed in our hooch [the wooden hut with a tin roof that housed Furey and several other nurses] when the phone rang and one of the other girls answered it and said, ‘Joan, Becky’s on the phone for you.’
“So I answered, and she says, ‘Joan. I just want you to know that so-and-so came in. He’s very, very badly injured.’
“She told me. And then she said, ‘I think there’s something else you need to know.’
“I said, ‘What’s that?’
“ ‘His next of kin is his wife.’ ”
He was now in the ICU. Furey’s shift started there at seven a.m. “So I had to go,” she recalled. “It wasn’t like I could say, ‘Oh, I think I’d like to have the day off.’ You don’t get to do that. So I went. He had a massive crushing injury to the back and shoulders. And he was in and out of consciousness. I went over to see him. And, you know, what can you say? You have someone who’s critically injured and you just found out that there’s been this incredible betrayal. And—it was so many years ago—but I really think that he did look up and just say, ‘I’m sorry.’ And what could I say? But I remember just feeling so violated and betrayed by this. It was like everything else in Vietnam.”
BY MAY 1969, it was clear to Richard Nixon that something new was needed if his hope of bringing a swift end to the war that had destroyed his predecessor was going to be fulfilled. Moscow had not persuaded Hanoi to soften its negotiating stance. News of the supposedly clandestine ongoing bombing of enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia had embarrassed the administration but was doing little to slow the North’s preparations for further offensives. Accelerated pacification and the Phoenix Program were showing some signs of progress but had neither eradicated the Viet Cong infrastructure they were meant to destroy nor appreciably bolstered support for the Saigon regime.
Like Lyndon Johnson, the new president put as bright a public face on things as he could. The military and diplomatic team in Saigon was “especially fine,” he told Time magazine; President Thieu was an able leader, and, militarily, “There is light at the end of the tunnel. If we are losing the war we are losing it in the U.S., not Vietnam.” But privately, he knew, as Johnson had known, that he faced three seemingly unsolvable problems: Hanoi would not settle for less than communist control of all of Vietnam, from the Chinese border to the Ca Mau Peninsula; Saigon remained incapable of defending itself on its own; and Americans were no longer willing to go on indefinitely supporting an apparently endless war. The latest Gallup poll had found that a majority of those responding—52 percent—now believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.
Henry Kissinger hoped he could persuade the enemy to accept a “two-tiered” approach to the talks in Paris: while Washington and Hanoi worked out the details of a mutual withdrawal of “external forces”—allied and North Vietnamese—from the South, Saigon and the NLF could negotiate a settlement to the civil war between them. (If those negotiations failed, at least the Americans could come home.)
Neither North nor South liked the American plan. Although Hanoi was participating in the peace talks, communist leaders treated the negotiation as “talking while fighting”—an opportunity to gauge the enemy’s intentions while preparing for a new offensive. In public, they insisted that mutual withdrawal was impossible because, they claimed, there were no North Vietnamese forces in the South. Instead, the Americans would have to pull out all of their forces and remove the hated “Thieu-Ky clique” before any agreement could be reached.
President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam was equally displeased by Kissinger’s plan. He wanted the North Vietnamese out of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Only when that was achieved would he be willing to permit individual members of the NLF to participate in South Vietnamese political life—and then only if they renounced communism. To make his stance clear he had billboards set up setting forth his position:
Everything is negotiable. Everything except my four “No”s.
One, coalition government. Not negotiable.
Two, territorial integrity. Not negotiable.
Three, the Communist Party in the Republic of Vietnam. Not negotiable.
Four, neutralism. Not negotiable.
Even had Thieu been tempted to yield on any of these points, the generals who backed him would not have allowed him to waver. If there was so much as a hint of a coalition government, Vice President Ky warned, “there would be a coup inside ten days.”
On May 14, Nixon spoke to the country for the first time about Vietnam. He portrayed himself, as he often did, as above politics: “The easy thing to do,” he claimed, would be to “simply order our soldiers home,” but to do so, he claimed, would constitute a “betrayal” of his presidential responsibilities. He had “ruled out,” he said, “a one-sided withdrawal.” Instead, he proposed an eight-point program that included mutual troop withdrawal, followed by internationally supervised elections that would include “each significant group” in South Vietnam and would allow its people to adopt any form of government they freely chose. Further, the United States had no objection to unification “if that turns out to be what the people of South Vietnam and North Vietnam want.”
Henry Kissinger said Nixon’s offer represented a “quantum advance” over Washington’s earlier proposals. Hanoi did not agree: it was a “farce,” the North Vietnamese delegates said; they were prepared to stay in Paris “until the chairs rot” and the Americans came to their senses.
President Thieu was dismissive too. The U.S. proposal negated two of his “no”s, he believed: it failed to bar the NLF from the “significant” groups permitted to participate in elections, and it implied that if the communists won seats in the National Assembly the result might be a coalition government. There’d been no time for his government to object to any of Nixon’s proposals, South Vietnamese ambassador Bui Diem recalled, “only to accept them. The game of imposition and attempted finesse that would become the Nixon administration’s trademark in dealing with its ally had begun with a bang.” Thieu asked for a personal meeting with Nixon. “The policies of the two nations cannot be solved very easily over 100,000 miles of water,” he said.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
THAT SPRING, still struggling with the losses and dislocation suffered during Tet and its successor offensives, the communists had officially altered their strategy. “Never again and under no circumstances are we to risk our entire military force for just an offensive,” COSVN decreed in April. “On the contrary we should endeavor to preserve our military potential for further campaigns.” A few weeks later, COSVN’s orders were still more explicit: “We secure victory not through a one-blow offensive, and not through a phase of attack, not even through a series of attacks culminating in a final kill….Victory will come to us, not suddenly, but in a complicated and torturous way.” With the talking continuing in Paris, and with their own conventional forces in need of rebuilding and resupply, it seemed wisest for the communists to limit most of their battlefield activity to small-scale mortar and sapper attacks. The result would be an overall lull in the fighting that would last, with some grisly exceptions, for several months.
Earlier that same spring, General Creighton Abrams had issued a new MACV Objectives Plan, meant to provide guidelines for fighting his “one war.” Its basic premise was that American patience with the war was thinning fast. “Time…is running out,” it said, and set June 30, 1972—before the U.S. presidential and congressional elections would be in full swing—as the date that “should mark the termination of major commitment of military resources in Vietnam. Additional time for achieving a ‘win’ beyond that date cannot be reasonably expected.”
Medical personnel check the weight of a North Vietnamese soldier at one of many clinics hidden along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, part of the intricate enemy infrastructure U.S. commanders tried again and again to disrupt.
Battle would always remain a key component of MACV strategy, but Abrams hoped to deemphasize his command focus on enemy Main Force units and the “preoccupation” with body counts and instead renew emphasis on “meaningful, continuing security for the Vietnamese people in expanding areas of increasingly effective civil authority.” Destruction of the “Viet Cong infrastructure,” already under attack by accelerated pacification and the Phoenix Program, was to be stepped up still further, because without it enemy units “cannot obtain intelligence, cannot obtain food, cannot prepare the battlefield, and cannot move unseen.” Moreover, there should be the closest possible coordination with South Vietnamese forces, while the use of American firepower needed to be curtailed so as not to kill or injure or force from their homes the people whose independence U.S. forces were defending.
Some U.S. commanders enthusiastically adopted Abrams’s principles, and there was some evidence that they were working. When a seasoned NLF cadre whose responsibility had been to block the ARVN from reaching unpacified areas in My Tho instead was captured by them, he was remarkably candid with his captors: there was no question that accelerated pacification was having “a powerful negative impact” on the NLF, he said. “During the Tet Offensive, [our] plan was to seize land and expand out from it like an oilspot. Unexpectedly, the pacification program shrank these areas bit by bit, like a piece of meat drying in the sun….Both cadres and people lost their confidence gradually, until…the cadres and units fled from one place to another, but there were no safe havens….The situation…deteriorated alarmingly, just like soap bubbles exposed to the sunlight….We felt really let down. My life was miserable and my struggle was really worthless. I couldn’t hold the territory and I myself had to be exiled like a sacrificial beast.”
Not all of Abrams’s commanders were persuaded by his fresh precepts. They resented being told to cut back on firepower; its lavish use had spared American lives, they insisted. One commander denounced what he called the “primitivization” of U.S. armed forces. “I’ll be damned,” another said, “if I permit the United States Army, its institutions, its doctrine, and its tradition to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.” A third objected to what he dismissed as “windshield wiper tactics…going, going, going back and forth to keep the countryside clear.”
When the colonel who headed the task force that drew up the MACV plan was sent to brief General Julian Ewell, mastermind of Operation Speedy Express and now in command of II Field Force, things didn’t go well. “Ewell sat there during the briefing,” his visitor recalled. “He chewed up and spat out an entire yellow pencil in the course of listening. When it was over he stood up, turned around to his staff, and said, ‘I’ve made my entire career and reputation by going 180 degrees counter to such orders as this,’ and walked out.”
Nor was the zeal for body counts ever wholly exorcized. “Our battalion commander, in my opinion, is a very poor leader,” a radio operator in the Ninth Infantry Division complained to an Army historian in April 1969. “Very poor. Every fifteen minutes he’s on the horn asking me what the body count is….He never fails. I don’t even need a watch out there in the field because I know every fifteen minutes the man is going to be on the horn asking where his body count is.”
A squad of Ninth Infantry troopers crosses an irrigation canal in the Mekong Delta, on the lookout for the enemy. “You weren’t seeking anybody out,” one veteran recalled. “They were there. If they came to you, you had a chance, but there was very little seeking out of Charlie. Charlie knew where you were before you knew where he was.”
While emphasizing pacification, Abrams had never stopped urging his generals to engage with enemy Main Force units whenever they could be found, and so when intelligence revealed renewed North Vietnamese activity in the A Shau Valley—a twenty-eight-mile-long natural funnel, leading from a terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail along the Laotian border toward the cities of Hue and Quang Tri and Danang—elements of the 101st Airborne, the Ninth Marines, and the First ARVN Division were helicoptered in on May 10 with orders to disrupt the communist buildup and destroy the crack Twenty-ninth North Vietnamese regiment known as “the Pride of Ho Chi Minh,” which was said to be camping there. In overall charge was Major General Melvin Zais, commanding general of the 101st Airborne and a veteran of mountain combat in the Maritime Alps during World War II.
Hamburger Hill: In the midst of a bamboo thicket at the foot of the hill, a trooper from the 101st Airborne, photographed at the instant he is hit in the back by enemy shrapnel
The valley was a beautiful but forbidding place—steep slopes covered with double-canopy forest and all-but-impenetrable stands of bamboo that led up to five-thousand-foot ridgelines. The northeast and southwest monsoons overlapped here, so clouds routinely hung over the valley and some 120 inches of rain drenched its walls each year. The valley floor and lower slopes were covered with eight-foot stands of sawtooth elephant grass, honeycombed with ancient animal trails and leech-filled streams and ponds. “Over 97 percent of the snakes in the A Shau are deadly poisonous,” the Army warned. “The other three will eat you.”
Under fire, paratroopers land higher up the slope.
The valley had long been an enemy staging area, and U.S. forces had been sent in to clear it out five times over the past three years, seizing vast quantities of supplies only to find them replenished a few weeks or months later. Operation Delaware Valley, the previous spring, had cost 142 American lives and left 731 wounded. During the fifty-six-day Operation Dewey Canyon that had begun in late January, 130 Marines died and nearly 1,000 more were wounded.
This time, paratroopers belonging to the Third Battalion of the 187th Infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne came in contact with what they initially thought was a relatively small enemy force—no more than a company—dug in high on a steep, thickly forested stand-alone peak that dominated the north end of the valley. In fact, more than two enemy battalions were waiting for them. The local hill people called the hill “Dong Ap Bia”—“the mountain of the crouching beast”—and it was tagged on U.S. maps as Hill 937, but it would be remembered as “Hamburger Hill” because of all the men ground up trying to take it.
It took the better part of eleven days. Although they were eventually reinforced, three companies of the 187th did the bulk of the fighting, led by Lieutenant Colonel Weldon F. Honeycutt, a famously aggressive officer known by his radio moniker, “Blackjack.” Ten assaults were beaten back. The fighting was furious—sometimes so loud and relentless that radios proved useless. Five times U.S. gunships misdirected their fire, killing and wounding Americans. By the 17th, Honeycutt’s battalion had been reduced to below 50 percent combat readiness: two companies had lost half their men, two others had lost eight out of ten. General Zais proposed to pull them back and send others up the slope. Honeycutt talked him out of it; it would be bad for his men’s morale, he said, for anyone else to seize the summit.
Tending to the wounded in a torrent on May 21, the day after the summit of Hamburger Hill was finally taken. Even some senior officers questioned the wisdom of sending soldiers up the slope again and again. “We can get ourselves into another Korean War situation if we keep losing men on hills that don’t have to be taken today or tomorrow,” one colonel said. “What’s wrong with cordoning off a place and pounding the hell out of it [with B-52s]?”
Meanwhile, word of the ongoing battle had reached Saigon—prolonged large-unit combat was now a rarity in Vietnam—and reporters began flying in to cover the big story. On the 18th, Honeycutt’s exhausted men fought their way back up the hill, only to have a sudden rainstorm turn the slope into a muddy quagmire in which it was impossible to maintain one’s footing. Jay Charbutt of the AP interviewed exhausted men of the 101st Airborne as they slid back down the hillside.
The paratroopers came down from the mountain, their green shirts darkened with sweat, their weapons gone, their bandages stained brown and red—with mud and blood. Many cursed Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, who sent three companies to take this 3000-foot mountain just a mile east of Laos and overlooking the shell-pocked A Shau Valley. They failed and they suffered. “That damn Blackjack won’t stop until he kills every one of us,” said one of the 40 to 50 101st Airborne troopers who were wounded.
Charbutt’s report was syndicated to newspapers throughout the United States. To many readers it epitomized the apparent pointlessness of so much of the fighting in Vietnam.
Three days later, U.S. and ARVN forces finally fought their way to the hilltop, after it had been pounded by 20,000 artillery rounds, 1 million pounds of bombs, and 152,000 pounds of napalm. An ARVN unit got to the top first but was hastily ordered to withdraw so that the survivors of Blackjack Honeycutt’s outfit could have the honor of being the first to reach the summit. They found the enemy bunkers mostly empty. The North Vietnamese had slipped down the backside of the mountain and vanished into Laos. One weary GI nailed the cardboard bottom of a C ration carton, with “Hamburger Hill” written on it, to a charred tree trunk. Another American stopped to scrawl a question, “Was It Worth It?”
Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts did not think so. It was “senseless and irresponsible to continue to send our young men to their deaths to capture hills and positions that have no relation to ending this conflict,” he said. “President Nixon has told us…that we seek no military victory, that we seek only peace. How then can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times or more, until soldiers themselves question the madness of the action?…I would ask him now to issue new orders to the field—orders that would spare American lives and…advance the cause of peace.” Even The Wall Street Journal called for reducing the level of violence in Vietnam.
General Zais saw nothing to apologize for. “That hill was in my area of operations, that was where the enemy was, that’s where I attacked him,” he said. “If I find him on any other hill in the A Shau Valley, I assure you I’ll attack him….You can’t go into the A Shau and leave the hills alone….If we just sit, they try to overrun us. They’d kill us. It’s just a myth that we can pull back and be quiet and everything will settle down….They’d come in under the wire and they’d drop satchel charges on our bunkers and they’d mangle and maim and kill our men. The only way I can in good conscience lead my men and protect them is to insure that they’re not caught up in that kind of a situation.”
A reporter pointed out that 72 U.S. soldiers had died taking the mountain and 372 more had been wounded. Zais said that he “didn’t consider [those casualties] high at all.” The bodies of 633 enemy troops had been found on the battlefield, and it was assumed that many more had been dragged away. That was a ten-to-one kill ratio, he said, “a tremendous, gallant victory. We decimated a large North Vietnamese unit and people are acting as if it were a catastrophe….I’ve never received orders to hold down casualties. If they wanted to hold down casualties then I’d be told not to fight.”
But “they” did now want American casualties held down, and General Zais’s public pugnacity did not make the administration’s job easier. “We’re fighting a limited war,” an anonymous official told The New York Times. “Now clearly the greatest limitation is the reaction of the American public. They react to the casualty lists. I don’t understand why the military doesn’t get the picture. The military is defeating the very thing it most wants—more time to gain a stronger hand.” And when the public learned in early June that U.S. commanders had chosen to abandon the mountain for which so many American lives had been sacrificed and that North Vietnamese troops were once again occupying the hillside bunkers as if no battle had ever taken place, the public clamor for a new policy intensified.
Hamburger Hill had not been the most costly engagement of the war, but it marked a milestone, nonetheless. It would be the last large-scale battle after which body count and kill ratios would be offered as the official measure of success.
CALCULATING THE COST
The June 27 issue of Life, including the names and photographs of all 242 Americans who had died in Vietnam during the week of May 28–June 3, caused a sensation. It included an excerpt from a letter evidently written during the battle for Hamburger Hill—“I’m writing in a hurry,” it said. “I see death coming up the hill.” So a good many readers confused that costly battle with the casualties the issue chronicled. (In fact, only five of those whose images appeared in the magazine had been mortally wounded on those slopes.) “It was an issue to make men and women cry,” David Halberstam recalled: it “probably had more impact on antiwar feeling than any other piece of print journalism” during the war; “almost nothing else…brought the pain home quite so fully.”
On the NBC Nightly News, two days after the Life issue appeared, anchor David Brinkley introduced his report of the week’s casualty statistics by paraphrasing President Nixon, who had said at his latest news conference that “the only thing that had been settled when he came into office was the shape of the table.” “Well,” Brinkley continued, “in the five months since then, they have used the table in the shape agreed on, settled nothing, and in Vietnam the war and the killing continues. Today in Saigon they announced the casualty figures for the week. And, though they came in the form of numbers, each one of them was a man, most of them quite young, each with hopes he will never realize, each with families. Anyway, these are the numbers….”
THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO
PRESIDENT NIXON reluctantly agreed to see the increasingly anxious president of South Vietnam. His first thought was to meet Thieu in California, but he felt that antiwar demonstrations there might embarrass them both. Thieu suggested Honolulu, but Nixon didn’t want to stage their meeting in the same place where Thieu had first met Lyndon Johnson. Nixon finally chose Midway Island, a tiny isolated coral atoll in the western Pacific. It had lent its name to the great U.S. naval victory fought nearby during World War II, but had since become little more than a refueling stop, best known as the home of tens of thousands of black-footed albatrosses whose eccentric, rattling, head-bobbing mating dance and comically awkward attempts to take flight gave them their nickname, “gooney birds.”
President Thieu had been delighted by Nixon’s election victory. “This is nice,” he’d told an aide when he heard the results. “Now at least we have bought ourselves some time.” And he’d initially hoped that during his meeting with the president he could take advantage of the gratitude he was sure the new U.S. president must be feeling for his last-minute behind-the-scenes help in defeating Hubert Humphrey. But, as Bui Diem wrote, it quickly became clear “that [the Americans] wanted to use Midway for one purpose only: to get Thieu’s formal consent on troop withdrawals. It would be the briefest of talks (five hours all told) at an obscure place, meant solely as a ceremonial gesture of agreement on one issue.”
That issue was Nixon’s unilateral decision to announce that he was going to withdraw twenty-five thousand U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of August, and perhaps eighty thousand more by the end of the year. Even before his election, Nixon remembered, “it was no longer a question of whether the next president would withdraw troops but of how they would leave and what they would leave behind.” Despite the president’s recent pledge that the United States would never withdraw unilaterally, he and his closest advisers believed they would eventually have to do just that, whether or not South Vietnam was ready to defend itself. They differed only as to when to begin and at what pace they should proceed. Henry Kissinger was for going slow. “Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public,” he warned at a meeting of the National Security Council. “The more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, a former Wisconsin congressman with seventeen years of experience on Capitol Hill and a seasoned politician’s keen understanding of the steady pace at which patience with the war was fraying there, was eager to get on with it. The defense budget was far too high, he believed—and he would impose cuts even as the fighting continued in Vietnam—while the war’s prolongation threatened to undercut the rest of the president’s agenda just as it had weakened his predecessor’s Great Society. The president himself seemed most concerned with the potential domestic impact of bringing soldiers home. With talks under way in Paris and a new administration in charge, the antiwar movement was still relatively quiescent. Sam Brown, an antiwar activist who had headed Youth for McCarthy in 1968, explained the reasons for temporarily lying low: “There was a political sense that you couldn’t attack [Nixon] until he’d been in office long enough that he owned the war. To go after him [during the winter] would have been silly. People would have looked at you and said, ‘Wait a minute. This guy says he’s got a plan. Let’s give him a chance.’ ” A sign of apparent progress like a presidential announcement of a troop withdrawal could help keep the protest movement under control, at least for a time.
President Thieu and Nixon meet the press at Midway Island: “I know that you are going to go,” Thieu told the U.S. president privately, “but before you go, leave something for us as friends. Leave something to help me out.”
En route to his meeting with Thieu, Nixon stopped in Honolulu to give his Vietnam commander new marching orders. “It was painful to see General Abrams,” Henry Kissinger remembered, “epitome of the combat commander, obviously unhappy, yet nevertheless agreeing to a withdrawal of 25,000 combat troops. He knew then that he was doomed to a rearguard action, that the purpose of his command would increasingly become logistic redeployment, not success in battle. He could not possibly achieve the victory that had eluded us at full strength while our forces were constantly dwindling.”
President Johnson’s mission statement had called upon MACV to “defeat” the enemy and “force” him to withdraw from South Vietnam. Nixon’s was far more modest. In the end, Nixon reiterated, the war would have to be won or lost by the South Vietnamese themselves. To that end, Abrams was to “provide maximum assistance to strengthen” Saigon’s forces so that they could eventually take over from his, speed up still further the pace of pacification, and reduce the flow of men and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Meanwhile, he was to do all he could to “hold down” American casualties. U.S. losses like those suffered on the slopes of Hamburger Hill must never happen again.
When the president told the general he planned to bring the first troops home as early as July, Abrams asked for more advance warning in the future; the whole process should be at least “reasonably deliberate,” he said, and he hoped to be consulted and “given a chance [to express his concerns] as the services cut and run.” He thought the South Vietnamese might possibly one day be able to defeat the NLF, but he saw no possibility that without continued American support they could ever defeat both the NLF and the North Vietnamese. Still, he would do his best to carry out the president’s wishes. “I do not want to be an obstructionist to this thing,” Abrams explained to an associate. “It’s going to happen whether you and I want it to happen or not…but I want it to be done in a way that does not completely bug out on the Vietnamese and leave them flat and unable to defend themselves.”
Nixon and his five hundred–person entourage of officials, security men, journalists, and hangers-on moved on to Midway on June 8, just in time to greet President Thieu and his entourage, who arrived aboard a chartered Pan American jet flying an American flag on one side of the cockpit and a South Vietnamese flag on the other. The Marine band from Pearl Harbor was there to play the national anthems of both countries. More than twenty limousines had been flown in from Washington to ferry the two presidential parties around an island that measured less than three square miles.
Nixon and Thieu were all smiles in public. In private, within the freshly painted naval commander’s house where their meeting was held, things were tense. The American president explained that he was under such enormous pressure from Congress, the press, and the antiwar movement to demonstrate real progress in Vietnam that he had no choice but to begin bringing some troops home. It was just a ploy, he assured Thieu, an effort to buy time. America was not abandoning its ally. He continued to insist that he would never settle for anything less than mutual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese forces; by the time the last U.S. troops went home, he assured Thieu, the North Vietnamese would long since have left South Vietnamese soil. To show his continuing support for the Saigon regime, Nixon promised four years of “military Vietnamization” to ready South Vietnamese forces, followed by four more years of “economic Vietnamization” during his second term.
Thieu had known of Nixon’s decision in advance—news of it had been leaked to the press—and understood that it was irrevocable. He therefore didn’t formally object, though he did ask that in order to minimize panic among the South Vietnamese, when Nixon made his announcement he would say he was “redeploying” troops rather than “withdrawing” them. It was his hope, Thieu said, that the war would eventually end as the Korean War had ended, with a DMZ separating the two antagonists and a large residual U.S. force to ensure that the North did not invade the South. In addition, he asked that Washington arm and train two new mobile South Vietnamese divisions capable of coping quickly wherever northern aggression occurred.
Nixon would not commit himself. Instead, he said he had made another nonnegotiable decision—to start secret high-level talks, separate from the ongoing Paris negotiations between Washington and Hanoi. Thieu had no objection, he said, provided he was consulted as they went along.
Once their conversation had ended, Nixon and Thieu were driven to an airplane hangar where more than 150 members of the White House press corps were waiting. The American president told them he was redeploying twenty-five thousand men within thirty days—and that he was doing so at the “recommendation” of President Thieu and General Abrams. (This last, the president later admitted, was something of a “diplomatic exaggeration”; neither man wanted him to do it.)
Flying home, Kissinger recalled, “Nixon was jubilant. He considered the announcement a political triumph. He thought it would buy him the time necessary for developing our strategy. His advisers, including me, shared his view. We were wrong.”
Aboard Thieu’s plane headed for Saigon, the South Vietnamese president did his best to seem pleased at how things had gone, but he was worried. When a friend asked him why he hadn’t objected to the American president’s plan, he was bleakly philosophical. “When Nixon decides to withdraw, there is nothing I can do,” he said. “Just as we could do nothing about it when Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson decided to come in. Once you know you cannot change the American decision, it is better to make the best of it.”
Despite Nixon’s assurances, Thieu understood that the troop withdrawal signaled there was no going back. The situation reminded him of a Vietnamese saying: “If the head slides through easily, the tail will follow.” “Perhaps most of all,” Bui Diem recalled, Thieu “rankled at having been compelled to meet with Nixon in this desolate and gooney bird–ridden place. As did we all. It was impossible not to reflect on the difference between the treatment we were receiving and that accorded the North Vietnamese by the Russians. We knew that in private the Soviets referred to the northerners as ‘those stubborn bastards,’ but in public, at least, Moscow rolled out the red carpet for visitors from Hanoi. Yet our own meetings were relegated to such places as…Midway, almost as if we were regarded as lepers by those in whom we had placed our security and with whom we shed so much blood. Circumstances forced us to swallow such things, but we did not forget them….Thieu especially did not forget.”
News of Nixon’s plan to reduce the American presence in South Vietnam reaches Saigon on the front page of the semi-official Saigon Times, June 9, 1969. “The magic word is ‘Vietnamization,’ ” wrote The New Yorker’s Robert Shaplen, “which may be defined as a process surrounded by difficulties comparable to those of carrying out a successful heart transplant.”
Thieu’s confidence in Washington was shaken further not long after Nixon got back to Washington. Former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford had just published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he urged the president to pull 100,000 combat troops out of Vietnam by the end of the year and commit to bringing them all home by the end of 1970. When he was asked about it at a press conference, Nixon said that he planned to make another decision to withdraw troops as early as August, provided there was evidence of real progress both in Paris and in building up South Vietnamese forces, and hoped to “beat Mr. Clifford’s timetable.” Asked if he was “wedded” to the Saigon government, he added that, while “there is no question about our standing with President Thieu,” the United States would never grant veto power to any foreign government.
The same week that Nixon and Thieu met on Midway Island, eighty-eight representatives of the NLF and other allied anti-Thieu organizations gathered in a hastily constructed meeting hall hidden in the forest on the Cambodian border. Their objective was to form a new Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) to compete with the hated Saigon regime, and replace the NLF at the Paris peace talks. NLF Main Force units formed a perimeter to safeguard the meeting. Banners proclaimed “Strengthen the Great United Solidarity” and “South Vietnam Is Independent, Democratic, Peaceful, and Neutral.” The president of the NLF presided alongside the president of the Alliance of National, Democratic, and Peace Forces—a recently formed noncommunist organization that worked with the NLF but many of whose members worried that too-great reliance on the North was undercutting the struggle’s southern character.
Between ranks of uniformed NLF guards, members of the new Provisional Revolutionary Government enter the hastily constructed meeting hall on the Cambodian border in which the PRG was formed, June 8, 1969.
The object of the gathering in part was to “upstage” the Midway meeting, explained Truong Nhu Tang, a prominent alliance leader who agreed to serve as justice minister in the new shadow government. But there was more to it than that. “Our goal was to influence public opinion: domestically, where a noncommunist government would give us added credibility with the South Vietnamese populace; internationally, where we would be able to compete with Saigon for formal recognition (and the potential support that would come with it); and in the United States, where we would enhance our claim of representing the southern people, giving the peace movement additional ammunition….From here on in we would be able to wage full-scale diplomatic warfare.”
Tang was a nationalist, not a communist. A French-trained banker and businessman who loathed what he called the “Saigon dictatorship,” he had helped found the NLF in 1960 and had endured several years in a South Vietnamese prison for opposing the Thieu regime. He saw the PRG as a vehicle for achieving southern independence, from Hanoi as well as from Washington—a “coalition government…immune to outright North Vietnamese domination.” (Madame Nyuyen Thi Binh, the PRG’s foreign minister, who soon took over from the chief delegate to the Paris peace talks, was less naive about its provenance; after the war she admitted that “real decision making regarding the negotiations” always came from Hanoi.) Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong immediately sent telegrams declaring the the PRG was henceforth to be considered “the legal government and the true representative of the people of South Vietnam.” Within a day or two, the Soviet Union, China, and their communist allies had followed suit.
B-52s at Andersen Air Force Base on the island of Guam prepare to fly to targets in South Vietnam, some 2,500 miles away.
The PRG constructed a thatched-hut capital of sorts along the Vam Co River, just a few miles south of COSVN headquarters and close enough to the Cambodian border to make escape across the border easy. Food was scarce, so guerrilla hunting parties emptied the surrounding jungles of wildlife. “Elephants, tigers, wild dogs, monkeys,” Tang recalled, “none of them were strangers to our cook-pots.” U.S. B-52s were an ever-present threat, he remembered. “From a kilometer, the shockwaves knocked their victims senseless. Any hit within a half kilometer would collapse the walls of an unreinforced bunker, burying alive the people cowering inside….It was something of a miracle that from 1969 through 1970, the attacks, though they caused significant casualties generally, did not kill a single one of the military or civilian leaders in the headquarters complexes.” Part of the explanation was that as soon as Soviet trawlers plying the South China Sea detected bombers flying from Okinawa and Guam they contacted COSVN, which, in turn, relayed the message to those in harm’s way in time for them to take shelter.
“Hours later,” Tang remembered, “we would return to find…that there was nothing left. It was as if an enormous scythe had swept through the jungle, felling the giant teak trees like grass in its way, shredding them into billions of scattered splinters. On these occasions—when the B-52s had found their mark—the complex would be utterly destroyed: food, clothes, supplies, documents, everything. It was not just that things were destroyed; in some awesome way they had ceased to exist. You would come back to where your lean-to and bunker had been, your home, and there would simply be nothing there, just an unimaginable landscape gouged by immense craters. The terror was complete. One lost control of bodily functions as the mind screamed incomprehensible orders to get out. On one occasion a Soviet delegation was visiting our ministry when a particularly short-notice warning came through. When it was over, no one had been hurt, but the entire delegation had sustained considerable damage to its dignity—uncontrollable trembling and wet pants: the all-too-outward signs of inner convulsion. The visitors could have spared themselves their feelings of embarrassment; each of their hosts was a veteran of the same symptoms.”
STAND TALL AND BE PROUD
The homecoming parade honoring the first U.S. troops brought back from Vietnam ends in front of the Seattle Public Library, July 10, 1969. Moments after this photograph was taken, an angry supporter of the war ripped down the large banner that read, “WELCOME HOME. WE’LL STAY IN THE STREETS TILL ALL THE G.I.S ARE HOME.”
LINED UP on the baking tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Air Base on July 8, 1969, 814 men of the Third Battalion, Sixtieth Infantry, of the Second Brigade of the Ninth Infantry Division, waited for permission to board nine C-141 Starlifter transport planes. They were bound for McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington—and home. They were the first of the 25,000 U.S. troops President Nixon had promised to withdraw from Vietnam by summer’s end.
Some of the men couldn’t believe their luck. “I don’t think anybody is going to believe it until they get back,” one platoon sergeant said. “You ain’t never lucky until you leave this place.”
Young Vietnamese women held up signs reading, “Farewell to the Old Reliables,” the division’s cherished nickname. Actually, fewer than two hundred of the men present had fought with the division’s Third Battalion. When the transfer order came, those with time left to serve in Vietnam had been moved to other outfits, their places filled with men ready to rotate home. General Abrams had hoped that in the interest of unit cohesion units would be redeployed as intact outfits with the men currently assigned to them. But long-standing military policy held that the only “fair and equitable” method of deciding who was to go home first was to choose those individual soldiers who had served longest in the field. Tradition prevailed, and commanders would soon find themselves without their most experienced troops. “Our fear was that the turbulence would be so high that units would become ineffective,” said a member of Abrams’s staff. “And that’s what happened. I believe it caused most of the indiscipline in units which plagued us later.” In the end, he continued, that decision “caused leaders to go forth to battle daily with men who did not know them and whom they did not know.”
The men lined up on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut did not concern themselves with questions of policy. They were just eager to be on their way out of Vietnam. A second group of young women hung plastic garlands around their necks and handed each man a folded South Vietnamese flag. General Abrams called them a “credit to your generation.” President Thieu helicoptered in to express his country’s gratitude, handed out cigarette lighters emblazoned with his signature and seal of office, and expressed the hope that one day the men might come back to South Vietnam as tourists.
Following their eighteen-hour flight, they received an all-American welcome at McChord. A brass band played “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” One hundred Little Leaguers in uniform greeted them. So did Miss Tacoma. “You men can stand tall and be proud,” General William Westmoreland told them. “You can look any man in the eye knowing that you have served your country when you were called.” An elderly woman moved through the crowd of happy friends and family members with a picture of her son, asking the returning men if they’d known him. He had been killed in Vietnam the year before.
Most of those who turned out in the rain that day, like this weeping woman, were just glad to see the soldiers return.
Thousands of people turned out to cheer the men as they paraded for eight blocks through downtown Seattle. It rained steadily. The soldiers didn’t mind: “We would have marched in snow,” one captain said. Pretty girls threw them roses. Antiwar demonstrators across the street from the reviewing stand set up in front of the public library did their best to drown out Stanley R. Resor, the secretary of the army, chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “Bring them all home now!” Some in the crowd shouted back, “Go home, you commies!” Others held up a sign saying, “Students for Victory in Vietnam.” But there was no violence.
Afterward, the men boarded buses that were to take them to a salmon bake organized by local people. As they pulled away, demonstrators held up the two-fingered peace sign, hoping the returning soldiers would respond in kind. Some men on each bus did, and, a reporter noted, “one GI reached under the collar of his fatigues, pulled out the three-pronged peace symbol hanging from his neck and waved it with a sly grin.”
The promise of Vietnamization had not persuaded the peace movement that an end to the war was any nearer. “It seemed that [Nixon] was going to get out of Vietnam as slowly as possible,” Sam Brown said, “while selling the idea that he was getting out as fast as possible.” With other veterans of the McCarthy campaign, Brown set up a “Vietnam Moratorium Committee” and opened an office in Washington, D.C., to begin planning an ongoing monthly series of nationwide protests against the war to begin on October 15. It was their goal, Brown told the press, to demonstrate to the country that the young people who wanted an end to the war were not “crazy radicals” but “your sons and daughters.”
WHAT ARE WE FIGHTING FOR?
THOMAS JOHN VALLELY was born in Boston, the son of a judge, and brought up in the suburb of Newton. Undiagnosed dyslexia kept him from doing well in school. “I was not a good student, but I was ambitious,” he remembered. “I did not have a lot of options. My father had been a naval officer in the Second World War. I used to wear his flight jacket around the house and I began to think, ‘Okay, this is how I’m going to create a path forward for myself. I’m going to go to Vietnam and I’m going to try to excel there and be a hero.’ ”
Marine radio operator Tom Vallely in South Vietnam. Going to war, he remembered, “is not a pleasant experience. But there’s some camaraderie and there’s friendship and there’s smiling and there’s laughter—and at the same time great sadness. I don’t know how to describe it better than that.”
The Marine Corps gave him a chance to start over. “America always did good,” he believed, “and I wanted to do good. Like the people that went to World War II, I would get to wear the uniform, do something people would respect. Part of going to war in Vietnam I enjoyed. If you survive, it’s quite thrilling. It’s the history of the world. Where I was, survival was an issue. There were times I would have loved to have been in the National Guard. Period.” By the summer of 1969, Vallely was a radio operator in the Marine Corps, part of a massive search-and-clear mission in Quang Nam Province in the northern part of South Vietnam.
On August 13, his company was ambushed and came under heavy machine gun fire. “It was a grab-’em-by-the-belt type of situation,” he remembered. “We lost a lot of people, so did they. Lot of people lying around.”
Vallely radioed for reinforcements. Then he picked up a rifle and ammunition from a wounded Marine and, firing as he went, took up a position no more than ten feet from an enemy machine gun. He hurled a smoke grenade to mark its position, and then, as enemy fire swept back and forth across the field, he moved from Marine to Marine, pointing out targets among the trees and encouraging his comrades.
For his “conspicuous gallantry,” Tom Vallely was awarded the Silver Star.
“You want to tell your grandchildren it has a lot to do with courage,” he recalled. “But it’s really quite reactive. It’s survival. There’s no choice there. You react or you’re not going to have grandchildren.”
Two days after the battle in which Tom Vallely distinguished himself, and while half a million Americans were still in Vietnam, roughly the same number of young Americans gathered on a dairy farm in upstate New York for a music festival—“Woodstock Music and Art Fair, an Aquarian Exposition.” For three days, a muddy six-hundred-acre dairy farm near the little town of Bethel was transformed into the third largest city in the state. Everyone who was anyone in the world of American rock and roll and popular music performed: Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Sly and the Family Stone, the Who and the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash—and Country Joe & the Fish, whose “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” became a singalong favorite of the antiwar movement.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.
High times at Woodstock: “Everyone was fist pounding and angry about the war,” the singer Stephen Stills remembered, “and our music gave them something to do besides just be mad at everything.”
“We used to think of ourselves as little clumps of weirdos,” Janis Joplin recalled. “But now we’re a whole new minority group.” The antiwar activist Bill Zimmerman and his girlfriend of the time were there and were inspired: “That many people celebrating the new rock music, and the new culture growing up around it, made us feel that our point of view was on the ascendancy, and that despite our differences with the larger society, history might be on our side.” Some four hundred people were treated for drug or alcohol overdoses, but not a single act of violence was reported.
The New York Times was scornful at first: “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?…The adults who helped create the society against which these young people are so feverishly rebelling must bear a share of the responsibility for this outrageous episode….The dreams of marijuana and rock music…had little more sanity than the impulses that drove lemmings to the sea. They ended up in a nightmare of mud and stagnation.” But the next day, the Times had reconsidered: “The rock festival begins to take on the quality of a social phenomenon….And in spite of the prevalence of drugs it was essentially a phenomenon of innocence.”
“The late ’60s,” Air Force pilot Merrill McPeak recalled, “were a kind of confluence of several rivulets. There was the antiwar movement itself, the whole movement towards racial equality, the environment, the role of women. And the anthems for that counterculture were provided by the most brilliant rock and roll music that you can imagine. I don’t know how we could exist today as a country without that experience—with all of its warts and ups and downs—that produced the America we have today, and we are better for it. And I felt that way in Vietnam. I turned the volume up on all that stuff. That, for me, represented what I was trying to defend.”
By the spring of 1970, American and South Vietnamese forces had sprayed some twenty million gallons of herbicides over roughly one-quarter of South Vietnam—and border areas in Laos and Cambodia, as well. The idea had been to reduce casualties by clearing areas around U.S. installations and denying crops and forest cover to the elusive enemy. Five million acres of upland forest and 500,000 acres of crops were destroyed, but more than 3,000 villages were also sprayed. One RAND study found that for every ton of rice denied to the NLF, five hundred civilians went hungry.
The most frequently used chemical was Agent Orange. Its manufacturers were aware that it contained a toxic chemical—dioxin—that in large doses caused birth defects in mice and produced a disfiguring skin disease in men and women who came in contact with it. But they kept those facts from the Defense Department.
From the first, Hanoi accused the United States of waging chemical warfare. MACV dismissed the charges as propaganda. But at home, environmentalists eventually convinced the administration that the chemicals present in Agent Orange presented such serious potential hazards to humans and to the environment that they should be banned from use on American farms.
On April 15, over the objections of the military, President Nixon ordered an end to all herbicide operations in Vietnam by the end of the year. The ecological damage herbicides did to Vietnam is undeniable; the amount of damage it did to Vietnamese civilians and American military personnel would be the subject of angry debate for decades to come.
An NLF guerrilla poles himself through a denuded forest on the Ca Mau Peninsula after it had been sprayed. Mangroves traditionally provide protection from serious flooding during tropical storms and seasonal monsoons.
Two Fairchild C-123K Provider aircraft blanket a mangrove forest, twenty miles southeast of Saigon, with Agent Orange.
A TOTALLY DIFFERENT ARMY
MERRILL McPEAK was clear about what he was fighting for. Others serving in Vietnam were no longer sure. Vincent Okamoto remembered the difficulty many of the men he knew had in defining their mission. “When a nineteen-year-old high school dropout says, ‘Why are we here?’ ” he recalled, “the standard response, at least on an official level, was, ‘To prevent international communism from conquering the world.’ The men would say, ‘Hey, that’s bullshit.’ The other reason put forth, at least in the latter days of the war, was to maintain America’s international credibility with our allies, and our enemies. No nineteen-, twenty-year-old kid wants to die to maintain the credibility of Richard Nixon. And so, within a relatively short time, the guys were saying, ‘Look, we shouldn’t be here, but we are. So my only function in life is to try and keep you alive, buddy; and to keep my precious ass from being killed; and then to go home, and forget about this.’ ”
“If Nixon is going to withdraw, then let’s all go home now,” one First Infantry Division soldier told a reporter. “I don’t want to get killed buying time for the gooks.” A medic in the First Cavalry, serving his second tour in Vietnam, said, “The first time I was here, we were more aggressive. Then people felt that if we really went at it, we could finish the war. Now we know that it will go on after we leave, so why get killed?”
“I was there for about eighteen months, from May of ’69 until November, ’70,” remembered Wayne Smith, an African American medic from Providence, Rhode Island, who served with the Ninth Infantry in the Mekong Delta. “The morale was terrible. No one wanted to be the last guy to die in Vietnam. The military broke down. It wasn’t about this nonsensical ‘pacification of the enemy’ or ‘Vietnamization,’ or winning the so-called ‘hearts and minds.’ It was about trying not to let any of my men be the last one to die on that shitty piece of earth. That’s how most of us thought.”
Worried commanders, including General Abrams, called it “short-timers’ fever.” It was not the only problem now plaguing U.S. forces. “Vietnam was a microcosm of everything that was happening in America,” Smith recalled. “It was all happening in Vietnam, really, in one way, shape, or form.” An earlier generation of African American soldiers, who saw in the military advantages not easily found in civilian life, had often swallowed racial slights in the interest of advancement. But the young draftees who had now followed them to Southeast Asia were different. The urban rebellions of 1967 and 1968, anger and anguish at the death of Dr. King, the rise of the Black Power and Black Panther movements—all found echoes among American forces in Vietnam.
The Confederate battle flag on the wall of Annie’s Bar, run by a Vietnamese woman not far from the Danang Air Base, signaled that it catered to a mostly white clientele.
Sergeant Allen Thomas Jr. was an African American lifer who served three tours in Vietnam. In 1965, he remembered, “war was what the military did, and I was anticommunist so I pretty much supported the war.” When he returned in 1967, things had already begun to change: “It was a lot of draftees….There was more disobedience. Third tour was just survival, everybody just wanted to stay alive.”
“There were very serious racial issues,” Wayne Smith recalled. “But what it was largely was summed up by, ‘Hey, I’m here in Vietnam. No one’s going to call me a nigger. I’m not going to take any shit from anybody.’ I mean it was almost that simple. I remember talking with friends about whether African Americans should serve in Vietnam or not. That was a big question for me, too. I was of two minds like so many young African Americans. Should we kind of adhere to the philosophy of Dr. King—of passive resistance but also of participation, to serve with white Americans? Or should we follow the next generation like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael? Those conversations were everywhere. And I remember some brothers being very militant. And sometimes the loud voice simply dominated. I was very confused, I will tell you.”
Off-duty at Chu Lai, African American Marines offer Black Power salutes at an outdoor bar that caters predominantly to them.
African American grievances were many. Only roughly 2 percent of the officer corps was black. Black personnel caught flouting military discipline were far more likely than whites to be jailed or court-martialed. Adherents of the Nation of Islam incarcerated in the Army prison at Long Binh were forbidden Korans. “Black men didn’t want to get skinhead haircuts like the Army liked,” Sergeant James T. Gillam of the Fourth Infantry Division remembered. “They wanted to grow an Afro. Some officers wouldn’t allow even a little one, yet white guys could have a ‘Beatle’ haircut.” “Black is Beautiful” stickers were ordered removed from inside foot lockers while white soldiers were allowed to display the Confederate flag. “I mean, of all things to have over here, man,” one black GI complained. “There ought to be some goddamn law to outlaw them goddamn flags. The fucking Confederacy is gone.” Hoping to ease tensions, the Pentagon had the Stars and Bars banned. But when southern congressmen complained, permission was granted to fly state flags that included versions of it, a distinction lost on embittered African American troops, some of whom now flew green-and-black Black Power flags of their own.
Some African American soldiers wove “slave bracelets” from black bootlaces, carried ebony canes with carved Black Power fists as handles, and created elaborate, time-consuming “dap” handshakes that symbolized the special bond between black troops and often angered white troops waiting behind them in the chow line. In May 1969 at Cam Ranh Bay, two white sailors burned a twelve-foot cross in front of a mostly black barrack. At Chu Lai the same month black soldiers beat up white officers who had refused to pick them up in jeeps. Black self-defense groups were formed—the Blackstone Rangers, De Mau Mau, Ju Ju—in order to present a united front against white groups claiming to be linked to the Ku Klux Klan. There were fights over women and name-calling and whether soul or country music should be played on the jukebox.
The Army inspector general’s report for 1969–1970 listed well over two hundred serious racial incidents in Vietnam. Eighty percent were concentrated in “built-up military bases.” In the field, things were still different. James Gillam’s war was fought in the Central Highlands, where survival depended on sticking together: “I had people in my unit, in my squad and in my platoon, who were racists, or who were racially inexperienced,” he recalled. “There were black people from Harlem who had never really dealt with white people. There were people in my unit from odd corners of the South who had never seen a live black person. And there I am, a squad leader, and this guy from Arkansas told me he would not carry the radio for me. He said, ‘I will not follow you like Cheetah follows Tarzan. It’s not going to happen, Sarge.’ He’s a PFC. I’m a buck sergeant. And I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be a really long year.’ He evolved a little bit. He kind of got the idea that the enemy’s bullets are color-blind. They would shoot anybody, not just me. So we ended up actually getting along after a couple of weeks.”
GIs smoke marijuana at an off-base apartment in Saigon in 1971. By then, one study found, some 15 percent of the U.S. forces in South Vietnam had become addicted to heroin, which was cheap, pure, and ubiquitous.
Race friction affected black and white troops alike. So did frustration. “There is malaise among the troops in Vietnam,” a Newsweek reporter noted. “Hatred for the war runs deep, especially among the younger draftees. As more and more younger soldiers arrive from the U.S., the antiwar spirit mounts. And at a time when the Administration seems bent, however cautiously, on withdrawal from Vietnam, the soldier inevitably asks himself why he should risk his neck in a war nobody wants to win.”
With the possibility of a traditional victory on the battlefield growing steadily slimmer, the niceties of military discipline struck many as pointless. Some took to wearing helmets emblazoned with “Fuck the Green Machine,” their derisive term for the military. To a good many it all seemed senseless. “Charlie had a philosophy,” one GI remembered. “I would wonder what provoked a woman or a little kid to get out there and fight…unless they honest to God felt that their beliefs were right. It was scary to me, waking me up, making me ask what I was doing there. I mean, what were we doing there?”
Anxiety, alienation, longing for home—all played their parts. The desertion rate climbed: in 1965 just fifteen soldiers per thousand had deserted, fewer than had done so in Korea; by 1972, the rate would be seventy per thousand, the highest in U.S. history. The rate of alcoholism rose. So did marijuana use. Some units were permanently split between “juicers” and “dopers.”
Marijuana was grown everywhere in Vietnam and sold almost everywhere, too. “When a man is in Vietnam,” a brigade officer reported, “he can be sure that no matter where he is, who he is with, or who he is talking to, there are probably drugs within twenty-five feet of him.” An MACV investigation found that nearly every shop of any kind in Saigon sold it. Children stationed along the roadside outside military installations offered loose “number one cigarettes” to any soldier passing by. More sophisticated salespersons peddled for just five dollars sealed cartons of Salems and Kools in which every cigarette had been meticulously refilled with pot. A 1967 study found that 29 percent of returning soldiers admitted to having smoked marijuana in Vietnam at least once, but only 7 percent had done so more than twenty times. By 1969, fully half were smoking it, and 30 percent considered themselves heavy users.
“We’d get together in a hooch or sometimes we’d sneak out to this Buddhist temple near the base,” one soldier remembered. “It was very powerful stuff and everybody got real happy. At first we’d laugh and joke and talk about silly shit. But after a while it got real mellow and we might even talk about things that bothered us. Or we’d lay back and get off on the designs in the temple. Most of the time I hated everything about Vietnam. But when I was stoned I could really appreciate the beauty of the country. You’d look out over the valley and everything seemed really peaceful. And even if there was a firefight going on out in the jungle we wouldn’t think, ‘Hey, there are people getting blown away out there.’ It was more like, ‘Wow, man, take a look at those colors!’ ”
Since its earliest days in Vietnam, the U.S. military had complained that the ARVN too often seemed to lack the motivation needed to engage the enemy. Now, the same complaint was being lodged against some American outfits. “Back in 1967,” one colonel said, “officers gave orders and didn’t have to worry about the sensitivities of the men and find new ways of doing the job. Otherwise you can send the men on a search mission, but they won’t search.”
War and peace: U.S. tankers waiting for ARVN forces to drive the enemy toward them south of the DMZ show sympathy with the antiwar movement back home. Even General Creighton Abrams admitted privately, “I need to get this army home to save it.”
They called it “sandbagging.” Ordered to patrol an area, men would head out into the countryside, settle down somewhere just out of sight of their superiors, and then radio back false coordinates that suggested they were climbing hills, crossing streams, sweeping jungles. “Whenever we can get away with it,” one young lieutenant admitted, “we radio the old man [the commander] that we are moving our platoon forward….But if there is any risk of getting shot at, we stay where we are until the choppers come to pick us up.”
Officers who pushed their men too hard now sometimes did so at their peril. Beginning in the summer of 1969, there began to be reports of “fragging”—the murder or attempted murder by enlisted men of their fellow soldiers, mostly junior officers and noncommissioned officers—usually by way of fragmentation grenades. Most fragging took place behind the lines, among noncombat support units, usually the violent outcome of arguments over race or women or drugs or simple personal dislike rather than the war itself.
But some fraggings were battle related. After Hamburger Hill, parties unknown were said to have advertised a $10,000 bounty in the underground newspaper GI Says for the fragging of Blackjack Honeycutt, who had ordered his men up that bloody slope too many times. Colin Powell, then a major in the Twenty-third Infantry Division stationed at Duc Pho, made a point of moving his cot every night, both to thwart enemy informants who might be following him and to “rule out attacks on authority from within the battalion itself.”
“It was a totally different army than what we sent to Vietnam in 1965,” Vincent Okamoto remembered. “The new lieutenant comes in, all gung-ho for body count. He wants contact. He goes crazy, and says, ‘I want a volunteer for this, I’ll commit you to this.’ That new gung-ho officer is a clear and present danger to the life and limb of the grunts. The men would give subtle hints, like a little note saying, ‘We’re going to kill your ass if you keep this up.’ Or instead of a fragmentation grenade, they might throw a smoke grenade in an officer’s hooch or bunker. And if they didn’t correct their behavior and outlook, yeah, they would frag them.”
The problem grew so serious at one point that American military commanders stopped issuing grenades for a week throughout Vietnam and then ordered shakedown inspections to search for unregistered ordnance.
The number of fraggings increased as U.S. forces dwindled between 1969 and 1971. By the time the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam in 1973 the Army had investigated nearly eight hundred cases.
I HAVE SEEN THE ENEMY, HE IS ME, JUST LIKE ME
In the spring of 1970, Specialist Stuart Ness from Portland, Oregon, was serving with Company A, First Battalion, Sixty-first Infantry, Fifth Infantry Division, just south of the DMZ. “We would go out for two or three weeks at a time on search-and-destroy missions,” he remembered, “always searching during the day, finding nothing, setting up a perimeter at night, waiting for you-know-who.” One night he was on guard in his foxhole manning a .50-caliber machine gun when he spotted the silhouette of a North Vietnamese soldier some distance away. He radioed in and was told to take one shot. He switched from automatic to single and squeezed the trigger. The man fell.
Exhausted North Vietnamese troops pause along a jungle path just below the DMZ. The sight of their obvious weariness was thought likely to damage morale back home, so this photograph was not published during the war.
As soon as the sun was up, Ness’s platoon searched the area and found the dead soldier, shot through the chest. “He was young like us,” Ness recalled, “and had a fairly new uniform.” It was clear that he had not been in battle long. In his backpack they found a couple of pairs of clean socks, a brand-new 9mm Chinese-made pistol still in its wax wrapping, and a diary in Vietnamese with only a single entry. Army intelligence translated it and gave him a copy. He hopes to someday take a copy of it to the Vietnam memorial in Washington as a tribute to the North Vietnamese soldier. Whenever he reads it, he says, he realizes “I have seen the enemy, he is me, just like me.”
Already I’ve been to the battle-field, however, there is one matter which I find a little strange. Our enemy has already lost many killed in battle, but never have I seen even one [American] body on the battlefield. According to what I have been told by persons in battle, “When the enemy counterattacked, we shot many. With much merit they tried to crawl up and pull back their dead.” As for American soldiers, I don’t understand what ideals they were equipped with, as they were very loyal to their comrades.
Our comrades were sacrificed, their bodies will arrive today; for seven days already since [they were] killed we have not been able to carry the bodies out. On the weakening battlefield, I sit upon the defensive bunker, my head in my palms, not having a mat to cover my body, while at this time the commanding cadre here still relax, play chess, and laugh. Why do they build fame and position for themselves upon the bones and blood of other people? They look for one more star on their chests and our brothers endure hardships, sacrificing people by the hundreds. They have killed our friends, caring nothing for life.
Our comrades are very young, hungry, beautiful. But look!
“They are going the wrong way. Where are they going?
In the direction of 100 men, resting 1,000 years.
Where are they going? The green and sad forest.
Tell me the location—red earth—B-52?
Brothers, as you go, will there be a tomorrow?”
Our Party lacks wisdom. They use the objective of struggling for party membership, certificates of commendation and decorations in order to excite our Party members to go eagerly to dangerous areas, so that in the end they’ll receive the certificate of death. Because there is no one to carry them out, our wounded brothers must also be sacrificed.
Our Chairman Ho has said for the soldiers who are still living: “The resistance must be prolonged further, we must sacrifice many more people, much more property.” Sacrifice many more people, more property? How many more lives will have to be sacrificed before this country will be liberated? How many young men remain for Vietnam to send to the battlefield to achieve the future victory? The bodies of thousands of young men have already been left lying in the green forests of a strange land, thousands of children have said farewell to their families and now have said goodbye forever to their homeland. Our country is miserable because of this war. And how many more brave men will yet go to quell revolt to make the country peaceful?
DON’T CALL US COWARDS
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ELI P. HOWARD JR., commander of the Third Battalion of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, was a career soldier with a fierce reputation and a forbidding manner, heartily disliked by the draftees he ordered into battle again and again. “He was trying to make a name for himself,” Sergeant John Borrelli of A Company recalled. “Body count was his goal. He made us dig up North Vietnamese graves to count bodies. If you didn’t get enough body count, you didn’t get clean clothes, maybe you didn’t get enough rations to eat. If intelligence said there’s a buildup of North Vietnamese in a particular area, without checking into it, he’d load you on helicopters and combat-assault you into the middle of it.”
Once he’d promised his men hot pizza if they scored any confirmed kills and was furious when he found out that a freshly arrived lieutenant had rounded up several men of military age rather than shoot them. The company’s nickname was the “Alpha Annihilators,” Howard reminded the men. “Do you know the definition of ‘annihilator’? It’s not going to do any good to send these people in for interrogation, so they can come right back out here and shoot at you again.”
“Howard,” Borrelli recalled, “was what we all considered to be the most miserable son-of-a-bitch we ever met. The general consensus was he needs to go.” Some of the men in Alpha Company were said to have paid a “Kit Carson”—a South Vietnamese scout—$400 to dress as a guerrilla and shoot Colonel Howard as he stepped off his helicopter. “For a few dollars,” Borrelli remembered, “this guy would go kill his mother and father.” The would-be assassin opened fire with an AK-47 as Howard stepped off a helicopter. He riddled the chopper but somehow missed the colonel. “After that,” the sergeant said, “Howard was not a happy man. He went airborne, and sent a message down to the company commander, ‘Your men just tried to kill me. You will pay for that.’ He combat-assaulted us into the Song Chang River Valley thirty miles south of Danang between, I believe it was, two regiments of North Vietnamese. It was a payback mission.”
Private Lester Beaupré from Caribou, Maine, and brand-new to Alpha Company arrived just in time to go along. “They gave me an M16, a hundred rounds of ammo, and put me on a helicopter,” he recalled. “I see this valley coming up, and I could see tracers coming up. The chopper was coming down backwards and we were probably like sixteen feet off the ground. I’m sitting there, and I heard somebody say—I thought he said, ‘Hump!’—but it was ‘Jump!’ And he took his foot and he stuck it in my back and kicked me off the helicopter. So I landed on the ground on all fours. I fell right next to a foxhole and this big guy reached up, grabbed my leg, and pulled me down in. I stayed there for most of that day. I was looking at the ‘old’ guys, who had been there a while, and I said, ‘Wow!’ They were dirty, their eyes were set deep in their heads, they were scary looking. Within a month I ended up looking like them. It didn’t take too long to get old there.”
A soldier holds the hand of a dying member of his squad, mortally wounded during savage fighting in the Hiep Duc Valley in the summer of 1969.
Three members of A Company (top to bottom) Sergeant John Borrelli (smoking a cigarette), Private Lester Beaupré (facing the camera), and Private James Bryant. The men of A Company remembered they’d burned one village so often that when one elderly woman saw them coming she would torch her home herself.
“For five days,” Borrelli recalled, “we had to try to fight our way out. They slaughtered us. It was terrible. Everybody that walked point got killed or wounded. No food, no water, no sleep.”
On August 19, a helicopter carrying Commander Howard and seven others dipped down too close to a hidden North Vietnamese position on the terraced slope of a hill labeled 102 on Army maps and was shot from the sky. Howard and everyone else aboard were killed. When the news reached the men of Alpha Company, they cheered, Borrelli remembered. “Then a message comes in to us, ‘Saddle up, move out.’ ” They were to go and find Howard’s body. “Well, we’d just given a big ‘Hurrah.’ We didn’t care if they ate him. We didn’t want to go looking for him.”
They went anyway. One hundred and nine of them—nearly half of whom were “green seeds,” new to combat—were choppered into the valley where hundreds of soldiers belonging to the Third North Vietnamese regiment were waiting for them, hidden in spider holes and deep bunkers reinforced with logs and skillfully masked by brush and banana leaves. Two men were killed and ten were wounded the first day. At midday, the heat rose to 110 degrees. Enemy ground fire was so thick at first that helicopters were unable to reach them with food or water. “We had one and a half cans of C rations in three days,” one man recalled.
Enemy fire seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “You just couldn’t see them,” a medic remembered. “I saw two guys die right there in front of me and I couldn’t get to them. I was pinned down. I said I couldn’t get to them, so my buddy moved out toward them maybe three yards and he got a bullet in the head….Those guys—the North Vietnamese—were right beside us and we couldn’t shoot back.” At night, mortar shells fell among the men.
On the third day, helicopters flying low and racing over the terrain to elude enemy fire managed to drop ammunition, water, and crates of rations. Most of the water containers burst. Ammunition and ration cases broke open and scattered between Company A and the enemy bunkers. “The dinks got some of that stuff,” a private remembered, “but at least we each had one whole can of Cs that night.”
On the fourth afternoon they finally fought their way up Hill 102 through a labyrinth of bunkers. When they reached the top, there were just forty-six of them. Eight had been killed. Fifty-five had been wounded or had collapsed from heatstroke. The exhausted survivors weren’t sure they’d killed a single enemy soldier. No one claimed even to have seen one.
From his headquarters on a hilltop across the valley, the battalion’s new commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Bacon, radioed fresh orders: as soon as it was light, he said, Alpha Company was to head down the hillside again to gather up the bodies of the last two men killed.
Kept from sleep by still another mortar attack, the men talked among themselves all night. Sergeant Borrelli remembered how the men felt: “We follow orders all the time. We go out in small numbers, in platoon-size elements of under thirty guys looking for trouble. It’s stupid. But we do it. Now it was time an outfit stood up and said, ‘You’re killing men for no good reason. And that’s it. If you want to put us in jail, put us in jail. I’ll go. I’ll have a place to lay down every night, three meals a day. It’s got to be better than being shot at every day and watching my friends die.’ ”
By the time morning came, five men—all of them short-timers—had been designated to speak for the whole company. They told Lieutenant Eugene Schurtz Jr.—a recent ROTC graduate, just three weeks in country—that it would be suicidal to fight their way back down that hill again. Instead, they wanted a helicopter so they could explain their need for reinforcements to the Army inspector general.
Schurtz radioed to Lieutenant Colonel Bacon, now at the helicopter crash site helping to gather up what was left of Colonel Howard and his companions. “I’m sorry, sir,” Schurtz said, “but my men refused to go.”
“Repeat that, please,” Bacon said. “Have you told them what it means to disobey orders under fire?”
He had, and they understood it, Schurtz said, but “some of them have simply had enough—they are broken. These are boys who have only ninety days left. They want to go home in one piece.”
Bacon wanted to know if only enlisted men were involved. What about the squad and platoon leaders?
“That’s the difficulty we have,” Schurtz answered. “We’ve got a leadership problem. Most of our squad and platoon leaders have been killed or wounded.”
Bacon told Schurtz to talk to his men again. “Tell them that to the best of our knowledge the bunkers are now empty. The enemy has withdrawn. The mission of A Company today is to recover their dead. They have no reason to be afraid.” Schurtz was to ask for a show of hands to see if the five designated soldiers really spoke for the whole company.
Robert Bacon, who ordered A Company back into the valley, photographed earlier in the war
Schurz conferred again with his men, then got back on the radio with Bacon. “They won’t go, Colonel,” he said. He hadn’t dared ask for a show of hands for fear they’d all stick together, “even though some might prefer to go.”
Bacon sent a helicopter to the ridgeline carrying three emissaries with orders to “give them a pep talk and kick them in the ass.” Sergeant Okey Blankenship, a combat veteran from Panther, Virginia, got there first.
“One of them was crying,” Blankenship recalled. They were exhausted, they said, couldn’t take more nighttime mortar attacks or daytime firefights with an invisible enemy. They needed rest and food and reinforcements and mail from home. “One of them yelled at me that his company had suffered too much and that it should not have to go on,” Blackenship said. “I answered him that another company was down to fifteen men [and] was still on the move…I lied to him, and he asked me, ‘Why did they do it?’ ”
“Maybe they’ve got something a little more than what you’ve got.”
“Don’t call us cowards,” the soldier said, running toward Blankenship, fist cocked. “We are not cowards.”
Memories differ as to what happened next. One member of the company remembers the overwrought soldier striking Blankenship. Others recall that the sergeant simply turned his back and walked away. Whatever happened, in the end the weary men gathered up their weapons and staggered back down the hill to bring their friends’ bodies back for burial. The enemy had slipped away. Sergeant Borrelli and some of the other men resented the way their actions were portrayed in some later accounts. “There wasn’t a coward standing there,” Borrelli recalled. “And it just aggravates me to listen to the stories, over the years, that have called us cowards. It’s absolutely not the case. We just were beat. We never should have had to go back down. But we did go back down.”
No one in A Company was charged with mutiny. No direct order had actually been disobeyed. The whole business was over in less than an hour. Lieutenant Schurtz was given a desk job but not reduced in rank. There would be clearer cases of combat refusal in the months to come. The Department of the Army would cite more than 380 court-martial cases involving “acts of insubordination, mutiny and willful disobedience” in 1970 alone. And in April of that year, John Laurence and a CBS camera crew would be on hand when the men of Charlie Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, First Air Cavalry Division, returning from a patrol, refused a direct order to return to a landing zone by the same jungle path they’d followed after landing on it, for fear of being ambushed. “I’m not going to walk there,” one GI said on camera. “Nothing doing….It’s a suicide walk. We’ve had too many companies, too many battalions want to walk the road. They get blown away.” By then such events were so common that Stars and Stripes could run a front-page headline, “TROOPS PRAISED FOR BALKING AT CO’S ORDER,” along with an interview with the deputy commander of the brigade that praised the men’s “common sense.” “Thank God,” he said, “we’ve got young men who question. The young men in the Army today aren’t dummies, they are not automatons. They think.”
But because the story of Company A took place relatively early in the game and because the journalists Peter Arnett and Horst Faas had been with Colonel Bacon and overheard the early-morning radio exchange, it became headline news—the first hint that GIs in Vietnam were growing increasingly reluctant to follow orders without question.
James Reston of The New York Times saw in the story of A Company a metaphor for what was becoming of the war:
The President is no longer saying that military victory in Vietnam is “vital” to the national interest. He is not claiming that a compromise or even a defeat in Vietnam would result in the loss of Southeast Asia….Accordingly, battle for bunkers in the Songchang Valley are tactical moves in the President’s strategy of retreat. He is asking Company A to fight for time to negotiate a settlement with Hanoi that will save his face but may very well lose their lives. He is also carrying on the battle in the belief, or pretense, that the South Vietnamese will really be able to defend their country and our democratic objectives when we withdraw, and even his own generals don’t believe the South Vietnamese will do it. It is a typical strategy and the really surprising thing is that there have been so few men, like the tattered remnants of Company A, who have refused to die for it….
The more the President says he’s for peace, the more troops he withdraws from Vietnam, the more he concedes that Southeast Asia is not really vital to the security of the United States, the harder it is to ask for the lives of the men of Company A. They may not be typical, but they are a symbol of his coming dilemma. He wants out on the installment plan, but the weekly installments are the lives of one or two hundred American soldiers, and he cannot get away from the insistent question: Why? To what purposes? The breaking point comes in politics as it came to Company A, and it is not far off. What will now be gained by this incessant killing? And how will the President or anybody else explain or excuse it?
THE DOUBTS James Reston expressed about South Vietnam’s ability to survive on its own were widely shared in Washington and Saigon.
“I don’t think any of us thought of Vietnamization as a winning strategy,” Leslie Gelb, then at the Pentagon, remembered. “I think we thought of it as the way to extricate ourselves from the war. And if we could help the South Vietnamese in the process, that would be a damn good bonus.”
A good many U.S. servicemen felt the same way. “The reason I was ordered home early,” Merrill McPeak remembered, “was because President Nixon announced the policy of Vietnamization. Now, Vietnamization was a lie, but it had an element of truth in it. We were leaving, and that sealed the South’s fate. I knew it. And I think anybody who was conscious, who could see what was going on, knew it.”
In Saigon, Duong Van Mai Elliott recalled, “when Nixon announced the phased withdrawal, turning over the fighting to the Vietnamese, which was something the French had tried before—they called it ‘jaunissement,’ ‘yellowizing’ the war—we knew the Vietnamese army was not up to fighting this war. If they couldn’t do it with the Americans, how were they going to do it without the Americans?”
Vietnamization was little more than a gamble, as Henry Kissinger wrote: “Henceforth, we [the United States] would be in a race between the decline of our combat capabilities and the improvement of South Vietnamese forces, a race whose outcome was at best uncertain.”
The word “Vietnamization” itself angered many South Vietnamese. Who, they asked, did the Americans think had been fighting the communists all these years? “It was the Vietnamese who had sacrificed and suffered most,” a former ARVN general wrote. “Vietnamization was not a proper term to be used,…especially when propaganda was an important weapon.” Another commander remembered that “we officers felt [it] was just a way for the U.S. to get out…and [leave] the South Vietnamese armed forces to take the responsibility for defeat.” Some dismissed the program as the “U.S. Dollar and Vietnamese Blood-Sharing Plan.”
But as U.S. soldiers began to leave South Vietnam in ever-greater numbers—Nixon would announce the redeployment of 35,000 more men in September, an additional 50,000 in December, with more announcements expected to follow—American weaponry and materiel poured in: 855,000 individual and crew-served weapons, 1,880 tanks and armored vehicles, 44,000 radio sets, 1,000 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and so many thousands of jeeps and trucks that one congressman complained that U.S. taxpayers were being asked to “put every South Vietnamese soldier behind the wheel.” American taxpayers would also ensure that South Vietnam’s defense forces—the Regional and Popular Forces as well as the ARVN—expanded to more than a million men by 1973, that the South Vietnamese air force grew six times in size from its 1964 figure, and that the South Vietnamese navy came to command a fleet of 1,700 vessels, large and small. Washington also funded the construction of 200,000 homes for military dependents in an effort to reduce the startling number of annual desertions—125,000 in 1969, 150,000 the following year—and raised soldiers’ pay 19 percent in a losing effort to outstrip the rampant inflation fueled by the infusion of millions of GI dollars into the economy.
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the Nixon administration’s most consistent advocate of Vietnamization
Hanoi professed to be unimpressed by what it called “puppetization.” “It is nothing but hackneyed juggling,” said the North Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong. “To use Vietnamese to fight Vietnamese is indeed an attractive policy for the United States. When one has money and guns, can there be a better way to reach one’s aims than simply to distribute money and guns? Unfortunately, in the present epoch, such a paradoxical move is flatly impossible….Certainly there is no means, no magic way, to ‘ize’ the war into something other than the most atrocious and most abominable war in history.”
South Vietnamese officers in training to take over from the Americans
Skeptics on the allied side remained dubious, too. “It didn’t make any sense,” Neil Sheehan remembered, “because we tried that in 1962 and ’63. We were just giving them more furniture. The people in charge hadn’t changed.” Fifteen years after the French war ended, and despite elections and the adoption of a constitution that had seemed to promise a larger role for civilians in South Vietnam’s political life, the country was still run by a military clique whose members perpetually jockeyed for power, and its armed forces were still led by forty-odd generals, most of whom had fought for France and none of whom was interested in expanding their ranks, for fear of losing their share of the profits and power.
General Abrams labored mightily to improve training. Instructors who had never been in battle were slowly replaced by combat veterans. Efforts were made to bridge the gulf between the poor peasant draftees who made up the bulk of the enlisted men and the upper-class officers who too often scorned them.
American and South Vietnamese units had undertaken joint operations in the past, but U.S. forces had almost invariably played the lead role. Now Abrams ordered much closer integration, convinced that the only way to increase South Vietnamese combat readiness was to provide what one grateful South Vietnamese commander called “on-the-job or in-action training in which U.S. units performed the role of instructor by giving real-life positive examples of combat actions and counteractions.” ARVN commanders had to unlearn some American lessons, too. Easy access to U.S. air and artillery power had shaped the way the South Vietnamese had come to wage the ground war. “It had become common practice for infantry units to hold back,” Major General Nguyen Van Hinh remembered, “wait for the target to be torn apart by fire, and then just move in to count the bodies.” That access would gradually disappear, and South Vietnamese forces would have to learn to make do without it. “Damnit,” General Abrams told members of his staff, “they’ve got to learn they can’t do it all with air [power]. They’ve got to do it on the ground, with infantry. If they don’t, it’s all in vain.”
A squadron of U.S. helicopters, newly given to the South Vietnamese, approaches an airstrip near Vi Thanh in the Mekong Delta, prepared to pick up ARVN troops and ferry them into action.
South Vietnamese were still too often commanded by officers who owed their position to family or political connections rather than military skill and who prized personal wealth above patriotism. Some commanders kept the names of hundreds of “ghost” soldiers on their rosters—dead men or deserters or people who had never existed—so that they could pocket their salaries every month. Others happily accepted bribes from other men who also remained on the rosters but were not required actually to serve. One U.S. adviser denounced the “incompetence, corruption, timidity, and…Mandarin attitude of…officers who have absolutely no concern for the welfare of their men.” But there were also ARVN officers, like a regimental commander with whom adviser James Willbanks worked in the Eighteenth ARVN Division, who paid the living expenses of his men’s widows out of his own pocket.
Some commanders still remained unwilling to risk their reputations by aggressively moving against the enemy: the Twenty-second ARVN Division claimed to have set up eighteen hundred ambushes in three months—and to have killed just six enemy soldiers.
There were other problems. The military was riddled with enemy agents; the CIA estimated in 1970 that there could be as many as thirty thousand of them. The language barrier often distorted communication between South Vietnamese commanders and the U.S. advisers assigned to them. Those advisers were rapidly rotated in and out; one veteran ARVN officer remembered having had to get to know forty-seven of them over the course of the war. The shiny new military equipment looked impressive when it arrived on the loading docks but quickly came up against the lack of replacement parts and a country-wide dearth of mechanics trained to maintain it; by late 1971, six thousand pages of instruction manuals for helicopter repair would remain untranslated and half of South Vietnam’s choppers could not safely leave the ground.
Men of the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment fold the U.S. flag before turning over Black Horse Base Camp, forty miles east of Saigon, to the South Vietnamese.
Despite the skepticism of many within MACV, and in the face of continuing corruption and often weak leadership, some ARVN units proved outstanding in combat, among them the First Division that General Abrams would choose to take over from the Americans below the DMZ because, he said, they were “the strongest and best.”
U.S. troops may have been showing ever-increasing signs of demoralization—no GI wanted to be the last to die in a losing cause—but the danger to them was always finite; they knew when they were going home. ARVN troops had no such luxury. Drafted at eighteen, they were to serve until their thirty-eighth birthday and had little choice except to persevere in what seemed to be an endless war. At least one U.S. adviser to an ARVN unit, secure in the likelihood that he’d be safely out of the war within twelve months, felt himself “not fit to polish their boots.”
GO FOR BROKE
SHORTLY AFTER Nixon returned from his meeting with President Thieu at Midway in June, he had declared the door to peace open and invited “the leaders of North Vietnam to walk with us through that door.” They had not done so. There was a relative lull in the fighting in South Vietnam as the communists rebuilt and reconfigured their forces, but their posture in Paris remained unchanged.
Nixon feared that if real progress toward a settlement was not made soon, “Johnson’s war” would become his. To move things along—and to do so before antiwar students returned to school and antiwar congressmen and senators got back to Capitol Hill—the president “resolved to ‘go for broke,’ ” he wrote, “in the sense that I would attempt to end the war one way or the other—either by negotiated agreement or by an increased use of force….I decided to set November 1, 1969—the first anniversary of Johnson’s bombing halt—as the deadline for what would in effect be an ultimatum to North Vietnam.”
Ho Chi Minh (left) and North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong confer in Ho’s garden, not long before his death.
On July 15, Nixon sent a carefully worded letter to Ho Chi Minh. “I realize that it is difficult to communicate meaningfully across the gulf of four years of war,” he said. “But precisely because of this gulf, I wanted to take this opportunity to reaffirm in all solemnity my desire to work for a just peace….As I have said repeatedly, there is nothing to be gained by waiting….You will find us forthcoming and open-minded in a common effort to bring the blessings of peace to the brave people of Vietnam. Let history record that at this critical juncture, both sides turned their face toward peace.” But, he warned, American patience was running out. Unless there was a breakthrough in the negotiations by November, he would have no choice but to take “measures of great consequence and force.”
On August 4, in an apartment building on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, Henry Kissinger held a secret talk with two North Vietnamese negotiators—the first in a series of clandestine meetings that would continue off and on for three frustrating years. The North Vietnamese remained immovable. Kissinger repeated the warning already conveyed to Ho Chi Minh; if there was no change in their position by the deadline he’d set, President Nixon would be forced to “consider steps of grave consequence.”
A few days later, the fighting in South Vietnam flared up again. Mortar and sapper attacks hit more than one hundred American and South Vietnamese installations. “The most generous interpretation of these attacks,” Kissinger remembered, “could not avoid the conclusion that Hanoi did not believe in gestures, negotiation, goodwill or reciprocity.”
On August 30, Nixon received a response to his earlier letter, signed by Ho Chi Minh. It was courteous. He acknowledged that the United States needed to emerge from the conflict with “honor,” and said he was “deeply touched at the rising toll of death of young Americans”—though he also said that U.S. “governing circles,” not the Vietnamese, were responsible for them. But there was not a hint of compromise. The Vietnamese people were “determined to fight to the end.” To achieve what Nixon had called “a just peace…the United States must cease the war of aggression, withdraw their troops from South Vietnam, and respect the right of the population of the South and of the Vietnamese nation to dispose of themselves without foreign influence.” Nothing less would do. No mention was made of the deadline Nixon had set and Kissinger had reiterated.
It is not clear whether or not Ho Chi Minh personally wrote the letter Nixon received—though there is no reason to suppose he did not share its defiant spirit. But he was said to be seventy-nine now—like so much about him, the precise date of his birth was shrouded in mystery—and other leaders had long since assumed the day-to-day power he once had wielded. His lungs were congested. He had developed an irregular heartbeat. At 9:45 in the morning on September 2—the twenty-fourth anniversary of the declaration of Vietnamese independence he had read out in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square—he died.
One hundred and twenty-one countries sent official condolences. Washington said nothing but did call a one-day bombing halt in the South. North Vietnam went into mourning. Ho Chi Minh had been “Uncle Ho” for decades, after all, the living embodiment of the struggle against the French, the Saigon government, and then the Americans. More than 100,000 people attended his funeral. “I was so emotional when I went past Uncle Ho’s coffin,” General Dong Sy Nguyen recalled. “I couldn’t believe that he was gone. I myself, and the entire nation, had put all of our hopes and our trust in him. This was a deeply painful moment for me, and for the country.” Plans for a mausoleum were quickly drawn up, and specially trained embalmers from the Mausoleum Group, the same Moscow laboratory that had worked on the corpses of Nikolai Lenin and Josef Stalin, were flown in to prepare his body for perpetual viewing.
Some in Washington hoped a struggle for power within the politburo might now weaken Hanoi’s willingness to resist, but it was quickly clear from a memorial speech Le Duan made before the National Assembly that nothing had changed. North Vietnam, he promised, would dedicate itself unwaveringly to Ho’s final wishes—to defeat the American aggressors, liberate the South, and unify the country.
Meanwhile, Kissinger—refusing to believe that “a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point,” and convinced that the United States needed to make good on Nixon’s threat by striking a “savage, punishing blow” to Hanoi—had secretly put his staff to work drawing up a plan calculated to do as much damage as possible to North Vietnam in just four days. Code-named “Duck Hook”—for reasons no one could later quite remember—the plan included massive B-52 attacks on Hanoi and twenty-eight other sites, the mining of Haiphong and other ports, and the bombing of the railroad lines that led to China. According to some Kissinger aides—though not Kissinger himself—a tactical “nuclear device” was to block passes between North Vietnam and China.
If Hanoi failed to make serious diplomatic concessions after this four-day assault, it was to be followed by another and another until they did. Contingency plans called for these later attacks to include destruction of the Red River dikes, sure to flood vast areas and drown countless civilians, and a full-scale invasion of the North.
Nixon seemed to like the plan at first. He dropped hints that something big was going to happen on November 1 in talks with foreign leaders and with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. William Rogers and Melvin Laird first learned of it from reading a newspaper column and were appalled. They pleaded with the president not to undertake it. There was no assurance it would work—there were few industrial targets left to bomb, blockades were never complete, no one could predict how Moscow or Beijing would react—but it was certain to inflame the antiwar movement, further divide the country, and endanger the Nixon presidency. Far better to reemphasize the importance of Vietnamization, they urged.
Nixon took their views under advisement. On September 16 he announced that another 40,500 troops would be on their way home by December 15. Three days later, in hopes of calming the campuses and undercutting the upcoming Moratorium protests scheduled for October 15, he announced that he was canceling the draft calls for November and December, lifting the threat of conscription from anyone older than twenty, and planning to implement a simple lottery system; those who drew high numbers would no longer have a personal stake in the debate over the war.
As October 15 drew closer, the president grew more and more concerned about the Moratorium’s potential impact. It was, after all, to be the first national demonstration directed at him personally. A column by David Broder was anxiously passed around the White House: “It is becoming more obvious every passing day that the men and the movement that broke Lyndon B. Johnson’s authority in 1968 are out to break Richard M. Nixon in 1969. The likelihood is great that they will succeed again, for breaking a President is, like most feats, easier to accomplish the second time around.” Nixon considered holding a press conference during the evening news hour on the day of the demonstration to deflect attention from the marchers, and he had his aides talk with Reverend Billy Graham about declaring a National Day of Prayer “to show our sympathy with peace.”
Some advisers warned him to be respectful of those preparing to march. Instead, asked for his opinion about them at a televised press conference, he was dismissive. “I understand that there has been and continues to be opposition to the war in Vietnam on the campuses, and also in the nation,” he said. “As far as this kind of thing, we expect it. However, under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.” “Nixon goofed,” one Moratorium organizer said. “It sounded like he didn’t care what the American people thought.”
On the eve of the Moratorium, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong sent a message applauding “peace- and justice-loving American personages” for their efforts to end the U.S. “aggressive war,” and ending, “May your fall offensive succeed splendidly.” Nixon sent Spiro Agnew out to demand that the Moratorium’s organizers “repudiate the support of the totalitarian government which has on its hands the blood of forty thousand Americans.”
But nothing the Nixon administration could do dampened the enthusiasm of those participating in the Moratorium. It was the largest outpouring of public dissent in American history up to that time. More than two million people are thought to have taken part in cities and towns all across the country. Church bells tolled. The names of the dead were read aloud. Organized and orchestrated by believers in the two-party system, it was peaceful, middle-class, carefully focused on ending the war. “It’s nice,” one marcher said, “to go to a demonstration without having to swear allegiance to Chairman Mao.”
Colleges canceled classes. More than a thousand high schools took part. Two hundred thousand people marched in Manhattan. The college-age children of Nixon’s two closest aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, marched on their campuses. So did Melvin Laird’s son. Spiro Agnew’s fourteen-year-old daughter wanted to join the crowd but was forbidden to do so by her father. Carol Crocker, whose views on Vietnam had steadily shifted since her brother Mogie had been killed there, marched with friends from Goucher College in Baltimore. “I’d never been with that many people at one time, just the energy of the crowd itself was tremendous,” she remembered. “I wondered if everybody was in it for the right reasons. I wasn’t there to drink or smoke pot. Not in those situations. This to me was serious business. This was the business of living life. This was not a party. I didn’t just want to be with the crowd. I didn’t just want to make noise. I wanted to make a difference. And I, in no way, wanted to dishonor my brother.”
In Washington, D.C., one thousand House and Senate staffers stood on the Capitol steps in silent protest of the war. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke before a crowd of fifty thousand at the Washington Monument and then led thousands of silent marchers holding candles streaming past the White House, where Nixon sat alone, writing notes to himself on a yellow pad: “Don’t get rattled—don’t waver—don’t react.”
That evening all three networks offered ninety-minute reports on events around the country. On CBS, Walter Cronkite declared the Moratorium “historic in its scope. Never before had so many demonstrated their hope for peace.”
Organizers were already planning a second Washington demonstration in mid-November. It was meant to last two days, and they hoped for still bigger crowds.
In the face of that kind of opposition, Duck Hook was shelved. “The Moratorium had undercut the credibility of the ultimatum,” Nixon recalled; a dramatic escalation of the war would “risk a major American and worldwide furor and still not address the central problem of whether the South Vietnamese were sufficiently confident and prepared to defend themselves against a renewed communist offensive at some time in the future.”
Instead, Nixon asked for television time on the evening of November 3 for a major address on Vietnam. Rumors spread that he was going to announce a breakthrough in Paris, a massive troop withdrawal, perhaps even an agreement on a ceasefire. The president spent several days at Camp David, working and reworking what he wanted to say, but when the time came to deliver the speech there was little in it that was new. He said again that ending the war at once would be “the easy and popular course to follow,” but that to do so would “result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but throughout the world.” Therefore, the United States planned to fight on until either the communists agreed to negotiate a fair and honorable peace or South Vietnam proved capable of defending itself on its own—whichever came first. The rate at which Americans would continue to come home would be dictated by the pace of Vietnamization, the level of enemy activity, and progress at the negotiating table. American casualties and enemy infiltration were down. South Vietnam’s armed forces were bigger, better armed, better trained. Sixty thousand U.S. troops were already home or on their way. More were going to follow. All that was needed was patience on the part of the American people. “And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support,” Nixon said. “I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris. Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”
The Moratorium crowd blankets the Washington Mall, October 15, 1969.
Men of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade on combat patrol near Chu Lai wear black armbands in support of the demonstrations back home.
By and large, the press was unenthusiastic. “It was a speech that seemed designed not to persuade the opposition, but to overwhelm it,” wrote James Reston, “and the chances are that this will merely divide and polarize the debaters in the United States, without bringing the enemy into serious negotiation.” The president would dispatch his vice president to attack his critics: they were “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” Agnew said, “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “rotten apples.”
The general public’s support for the speech was overwhelming. A Gallup telephone poll taken immediately afterward showed that 77 percent of those called approved of the president’s message. A more sophisticated survey taken by the Gallup organization a few days later found that Nixon’s overall approval rating had jumped from 52 to 68 percent. Most Americans still wanted to get out of Vietnam, but they wanted to do so as a matter of policy rather than collapse. Three hundred House members cosponsored a resolution of bipartisan support for the president’s stand and more than half the members of the Senate signed a letter saying more or less the same thing. The White House orchestrated an elaborate behind-the-scenes campaign to rally public support, but even when those efforts were discounted, the outpouring was remarkable: fifty thousand telegrams and thirty thousand letters overwhelmingly backing the president. “We’ve got the liberal bastards on the run now,” Nixon told his aides, “and we’re going to keep them on the run.”
On September 2, 1969, the same day Ho Chi Minh died, an unusual press conference was held at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Two ailing ex-prisoners of war, Robert Frishman and Douglas Hegdahl, who had recently been escorted home by the antiwar activist Rennie Davis, spoke in public for the first time about the treatment they and their fellow prisoners had received at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Hanoi continued to insist that although they still considered American prisoners war criminals, they were invariably treated “humanely.” Navy Lieutenant Frishman did most of the talking, refuting that claim by listing the abuse he and others had endured: the withholding of mail and lack of medical care, long periods of solitary confinement, torture, and forced “confessions.”
Petty Officer Second Class Douglas Hegdahl was quiet and self-effacing. Unlike most American prisoners, who had been shot from the sky, he had been rescued from the sea. Serving aboard the USS Canberra, he’d disobeyed orders and crept up on deck to watch a night bombardment. As he stepped past a five-inch gun, it discharged. He lost his footing and fell into the Gulf of Tonkin. The warship steamed away into the darkness. Vietnamese fishermen picked him up and turned him over to the authorities, who thought him so clueless that his North Vietnamese guards called him “the incredibly stupid one.” But once released, he turned out to be a gold mine of information. To the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” he had memorized the names of more than two hundred prisoners. Thanks to him, scores of American families would find out for the first time that their sons and husbands and fathers were still alive. Within a few days of the press conference, Hanoi’s treatment of the prisoners began to improve—“a lot less brutality,” one captive remembered, “and larger bowls of rice.”
The Johnson administration had generally downplayed the prisoner issue, hoping quiet diplomacy might bring the men home. Beginning earlier in the year, the Nixon administration had begun a “go public campaign,” meant to put the plight of American prisoners and those unaccounted for at the center of things—and to provide a continuing rebuke to those in the antiwar movement who seemed more sympathetic to North Vietnamese civilians than they were to U.S. servicemen.
Nixon vowed that there could be no peace until all U.S. prisoners had come home and Hanoi had provided a strict accounting of those missing in action. No one knew how many there were. Most prisoners were held in or around Hanoi, but other American captives, like Hal Kushner, were struggling to survive in makeshift jungle camps in South Vietnam.
The administration worked closely with groups of POW wives, including the largest, the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, headed by Sybil Stockdale, the wife of the senior-most POW, Navy Commander Jim Stockdale. More than fifty million POW/MIA bumper stickers would be sold during the war. Five million Americans began wearing tin or copper bracelets engraved with a missing man’s name and date of loss.
“As long as the North Vietnamese have any Americans,” Nixon said, “there will be Americans in South Vietnam and enough Americans to give them an incentive to release the prisoners.” Eventually, the journalist Jonathan Schell wrote, “many people…following the president’s lead,…began to speak as though the North Vietnamese had kidnapped four hundred Americans and the United States had gone to war to retrieve them.”
Douglas Hegdahl sweeps his Hanoi prison courtyard.
“At the outset,” Henry Kissinger wrote, the go public campaign “rallied support at home, though in later years it was turned against us, as the prisoners became an added argument for unilateral withdrawal.” There was a flaw built into the administration’s relentless emphasis on POWs: Nixon could end the draft and withdraw every single U.S. soldier on his own, but he would never be able to solve the problem of the prisoners and the missing without the cooperation of Hanoi.
“If it is true that [the POWs] will not be released until the U.S. gets out,” one prisoner’s wife would ask, “then why don’t they set a date and get out now?”
ONLY A STONE WOULDN’T BE TERRIFIED
“I was seventeen years old and living in Hanoi when Ho Chi Minh died,” recalled the former North Vietnamese infantryman and postwar novelist known as Bao Ninh. (His real name is Hoang Phuong.) “To us he was the father of the Vietnamese nation.” The city was “a sea of mourning people. I had never seen my father crying, but he cried that day. My mother and our neighbors also cried.”
Bao Ninh had been born in a bomb shelter in Nghe An Province during the French war in 1952. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father a soldier in the Viet Minh. Both were communists, and in 1954 they’d settled in Hanoi, moving to the countryside from time to time when it seemed likely that U.S. bombers were on the way. At fifteen, Bao Ninh saw an American pilot shot down over a nearby lake and joined the crowd that surrounded him when he was brought to shore; later, he learned from Radio Hanoi that the captured pilot was Naval Commander John S. McCain III, son of the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe, Admiral John S. McCain Jr.
On September 6, 1969—just four days after Ho’s death—Bao Ninh joined the army. “At the recruiting station they had singers and poets, working up the spirit of those signing up,” he remembered. “There were two types of people—those full of anti-American spirit, signing their forms in their own blood. And those like me. We were told to go and went.” Political ideology had little to do with his decision to sign up. He just thought he should do his duty to the country, just as his father had—and he hoped wearing a uniform would impress girls. He and his fellow soldiers would go into battle dutifully shouting, “For socialism, we should advance!” because the political officers insisted that they do so. But his notion of what life would be like under socialism was fuzzy: there would be no rich and poor, he guessed; everyone would be equal. “The Americans thought we were followers of Marxism,” he recalled. “They were wrong. We fought for our country, so that there would be no more bombing, no more wars, so that parents wouldn’t have to leave their homes, there would be no more people killed, there would be no more of the fire and smoke of war.”
After three months of combat training—half as much as earlier soldiers had received—he and his comrades in the Twenty-seventh Glorious Youth Brigade boarded a train for the city of Vinh, north of the DMZ. From there they set out for the South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, keeping to narrow forest footpaths rather than following the wider truck routes subject to frequent bombing. He traveled light: Bao Ninh recalled carrying only three sets of Chinese-made uniforms and a soft hat, five stolen U.S. grenades, rubber sandals, ammunition, and his AK-47.
The brigade’s destination was the province of Kon Tum in the heart of the Central Highlands. It took nearly four months to reach it. There, and in adjacent jungle-covered provinces, Bao Ninh would find himself fighting the enemy for six years—first the Americans and South Vietnamese combined, and then the South Vietnamese alone. For six months he was a stretcher bearer. Then he became a rifleman.
It was a war of logistics: “The Americans dropped bombs so that we would have nothing to eat. Their hope was that we would starve and have to surrender. Not a kilogram of rice reached the Central Highlands. But they didn’t understand Vietnamese soldiers. We produced the rice ourselves. I’d been a high school student in the city but now I became a farmer. It wasn’t enough. We were in a constant state of hunger. All the army gave us was salt.
“I’m sure being an American soldier wasn’t enjoyable. Life could be miserable. But they never starved. When they were wounded, they got first aid. If they caught malaria, they got medicine. If a soldier was killed, his body was not left in the jungles. It was picked up by a helicopter. When we seized the position of an American unit, we looked for their food first of all. It was called ‘C rations,’ in a small bag. A regular soldier’s bag was like the food you carried for a picnic. It contained everything you could enjoy.”
His first contact with the enemy was farcical. He and a friend blundered into a clearing just as three equally startled Americans emerged from the jungle on the other side. Everyone opened fire—and then ran. “We shot at one another only to escape,” he recalled. “There was no hero in that clash.”
There were few heroes in those that followed, either, and the sheer scale of American destructiveness was daunting. “If they noticed a movement in the forest,” Bao Ninh remembered, “the Americans would fire hundreds of shells to eliminate the forest. It was American wealth. In the dry season if a cluster of napalm bombs were dropped, the jungle would turn into what we called a ‘sea of fire.’ Can you imagine a sea of fire? It’s impossible to describe the horror.” When bombing or shelling began, the men split into three-man groups so that only so many, huddled in trenches and bomb shelters, might be killed at once. But when the bombs started falling, Bao Ninh remembered, “only a stone wouldn’t be terrified.”
“From 1970 on,” he recalled, “our enemy on the battlefield was the army of South Vietnam. The tragedy of the war was the Vietnamese killing each other. The firepower was still American, but the flesh and blood was Vietnamese. A South Vietnamese soldier was not different from me in any way. He had the same good and bad points as mine. We ate the same rice, drank the same water. We shared the same culture, listened to the same music. We read the same books, used the same alphabet. I was cowardly in one way, and he was cowardly in the same way. I was brave in one way, and he was brave in the same way. No difference. We called them ‘puppets.’ They called us ‘Viet Cong.’ They were just labels. It was a civil war.”
Bao Ninh, photographed after the war
DAYS OF RAGE
As organizers worked out the last details for the peaceful nationwide Moratorium, members of a radical breakaway faction of the Students for a Democratic Society—the “Weathermen,” so called from a line in a Bob Dylan song, “You don’t need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows”—called for more violent action. It was now a real revolutionary’s duty to shed his or her “white-skin privilege,” they argued, join a global Third World revolution, and violently overthrow “the AmeriKKKan empire.” “Kill all the rich people,” said Bill Ayers, one of their leaders. “Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home. Kill your parents, that’s really where it’s at.”
Less interested in ending the war than in sparking a violent revolution, they called for four “Days of Rage” in Chicago. Their leaders assumed that thousands would rally to their cause. Only a few hundred did. On Monday, October 6, they blew up a statue in Haymarket Square that honored seven policemen killed by an anarchist’s bomb in 1884. (It would be reconstructed—and blown up again by the Weathermen the following year.) Two nights later, wearing gas masks, motorcycle helmets, and goggles, and armed with chains, brass knuckles, and lead pipes, they gathered in Lincoln Park, where the police had waded into demonstrators during the Democratic convention the year before. “If you have anything short of a mortal wound,” one of their leaders shouted, “you are expected to fight on,” then sent them out into the streets of the wealthy nearby neighborhood called the Gold Coast, breaking shop windows and car windshields, assaulting passersby, and charging police barriers. Three nights later, they did it again, breaking their way through the Loop this time. Before it was all over, 6 had been shot and 287 had been arrested, some more than once. Seventy-five policemen had been injured, and a city attorney had been paralyzed for life. “I don’t know what your cause is,” a Chicago citizen told one would-be revolutionary as he was shoved into a paddy wagon, “but you have just set it back a hundred years.” Fred Hampton, Chicago chairman of the Black Panthers—himself soon to be murdered in his bed by local police—denounced the Weathermen as “anarchistic, opportunistic…Custeristic.”
In March 1970, in a town house in Greenwich Village, three members of what was now called the Weather Underground inadvertently blew themselves up while making pipe bombs with which they had planned either to kill people at Columbia University or slaughter everyone attending an Army noncommissioned officers’ dance at Fort Dix. “The best to be said for the Weathermen,” Todd Gitlin wrote, “is that for all their rant and bombs, in eleven years underground they killed nobody but themselves.” (Eight years after the war had ended, four ex-members did kill a guard and two police officers while robbing a Brinks truck.)
During the 1969–70 academic year, there would be some 250 major bombings and attempted bombings in the United States, most of them the work of lone wolves. Courthouses, induction centers, and ROTC buildings were favorite targets. So were Manhattan corporate headquarters—IBM, Safeway, Socony-Mobil. University libraries were hit, too, and at Stanford University an anti-ROTC crowd set a fire that destroyed the life’s work of a visiting Indian anthropologist.
Bill Zimmerman deplored what the members of the Weather Underground and their mimics were doing to the reputation of the peace movement, but he understood the atmosphere that had helped produce it: “Nineteen sixty-nine was the year in which most of us were most alienated and felt most like revolutionaries, and it led to a lot of crazy responses. I wanted the country to undergo a radical transformation, a redistribution of wealth and power. But to try to bring that about through armed struggle in the United States was insane. These were all infantile fantasies that people came to out of the frustration of not having a workable strategy for ending the war.”
Weathermen, helmeted and ready to wreak havoc in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Behind them is the pedestal of the statue honoring the Chicago police, which they’d already destroyed.
A SYSTEMATIC HOMICIDE
NO PROVINCE had suffered more during the American war than the coastal province of Quang Ngai. More than 70 percent of its villages had been shelled by Navy ships, bombed, bulldozed, or burned to the ground, and more than 40 percent of its people had been forced into refugee camps before Private Tim O’Brien from Worthington, Minnesota, got there in 1969. “It was a province that was viewed much as, I guess, many Americans might view redneck America,” he remembered. “Sort of country bumpkins. They may have been country bumpkins, but they were fiercely independent.”
O’Brien served in Alpha Company, Third Platoon, Fifth Battalion, Twenty-third Americal Division, headquartered at a landing zone called Gator—“thirty or forty acres of almost-America,” he remembered, with hot showers and cold beer. “There was no sense of mission. There was no sense of daily purpose. We didn’t know why we were in a village, what we were supposed to accomplish. So we’d kick around jugs of rice and search houses and frisk people, not knowing what we were looking for and rarely finding anything. And somebody might die, one of our guys, and somebody might not. Then we’d come back to the same village a week later or two weeks later and do it all over again. It was like chasing ghosts.”
An American APC accidentally crushed one man from O’Brien’s company. An enemy grenade skittered off O’Brien’s helmet and exploded, wounding a GI standing a few feet away. But mines and booby traps were the greatest menace, he remembered. “Somewhere around 80 percent of our casualties came from land mines of all sorts. I’d always thought of courage as charging enemy bunkers or standing up under fire. For me, just to get up in the morning in Vietnam and look out at the land and think, ‘In a few minutes I’ll be walking out there and will my corpse be there? Or there? Will I lose a leg out there?’ Just to walk through Quang Ngai day after day from village to village and through the paddies and up into the mountains, just to make your legs move, was an act of courage that if, say, you were living in Sioux City, it wouldn’t be courageous to walk to the grocery store or down Main Street and just have your legs go back and forth. But in Vietnam, for me, just to walk felt incredibly brave. I would sometimes look at my legs as I walked, thinking, ‘How am I doing this?’ ”
Back in the spring, Tim O’Brien’s outfit had been sent into an area of operations the Americans called “Pinkville”—so called because it was colored pink on Army maps—clusters of villages that included a hamlet they called My Lai 4. “We hated going there,” he recalled. “When we’d get the word, ‘You’re headed for “Pinkville,” ’ one guy would say to another, ‘Somebody’s going to die’ or ‘Somebody’s going to lose a leg.’ We were terrified of the place. It was littered with land mines. The expressions on the villagers’ faces, including children of, say, five or six years old, had a mixture of hostility and terror. I can’t say many villagers anywhere received us with open arms. But this place was special. And I remember talking to fellow soldiers thinking, ‘What is it with this place?’ And then about three-quarters of the way through my tour in Vietnam the story of the My Lai massacre broke.”
On November 12, 1969—nine days after Nixon urged his fellow countrymen to be patient and three days before the second Moratorium was slated to begin—the Dispatch News Service in Washington moved a story by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Thirty-five newspapers across the country picked it up. Twenty months earlier, on the morning of March 16, 1968, as the American public was focused on Khe Sanh and the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, 105 men from a rifle company belonging to the Americal Division, and led by Lieutenant William Calley, had been ordered to helicopter into the hamlet of My Lai 4. Since arriving in Vietnam, Calley’s company had lost twenty-eight men to mines and booby traps and unseen snipers. Two days earlier, a popular squad leader had been killed. They had been told that a unit of Main Force Viet Cong—perhaps two hundred men—was waiting for them, and they were eager for revenge.
The company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, gave his men a pep talk the evening before they boarded their choppers. The men later failed to agree on his exact wording, but most remembered it this way:
Charlie Company begins its combat assault on My Lai.
“Our job is to go in rapidly and to neutralize everything. To kill everything.”
“Even women and children?”
“I mean everything.”
When they landed in the hamlet, they received no hostile fire—though in the confusion of their landing, accompanied by U.S. artillery and helicopter fire, some of them may have thought they did—and they certainly encountered no enemy soldiers. Instead, over the next four hours, Medina, Calley, and their men rounded up and systematically murdered more than four hundred defenseless old men, women, children, and infants. Many of the women and girls were raped or sodomized before they were shot. Eighteen of the dead were pregnant. Fifty of them were three years old or younger.
An Army photographer named Ronald Haeberle, assigned to provide morale-boosting images for Army publications, wandered through the scene photographing the dead as well as those about to die. His images, published later in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and then in Life, did more than any written words could to bring home to the American public the horror of what had happened.
There would have been still more slaughter had a helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson Jr. not landed between the men and some of their intended targets and ordered his crew to open fire on their fellow Americans if they did not stop shooting civilians.
At the same time, just a mile or so away, the second platoon from the same task force murdered nearly one hundred more villagers.
Huddled together, women and children watch their killers approach.
Tim O’Brien read Seymour Hersh’s article at LZ Gator. “Suddenly,” he remembered, “it was like a window shade going up and there’s light, and we understood what had engendered this horror in these kids’ faces and the fear and the hatred. A hundred and some American soldiers in four hours or so, butchering innocent people in all kinds of ways—machine-gunning them and throwing them in wells and scalping them and killing them in ditches and taking a lunch break and then doing it some more. A systematic homicide.”
Mike Wallace of CBS tracked down and interviewed former Private First Class Paul Meadlo, who had taken part in the killing and had had his foot blown off the next day—a sign, he had come to believe, of God’s unhappiness with him for what he’d helped to do.
A small boy tries to shield his still smaller sibling from American fire.
MIKE WALLACE: How many people did you round up?
PAUL MEADLO: Well, there was about forty to forty-five people that we gathered in the center of the village. And we placed them in there, and it was like a little island, right there in the center of the village, I’d say.
WALLACE: What kind of people—men, women, children?
MEADLO: Men, women, children.
MEADLO: Babies. And we all huddled them up. We made them squat down and Lieutenant Calley came over and said, “You know what to do with them, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes.” So I took it for granted that he just wanted us to watch them. And he left, and came back about ten or fifteen minutes later and said, “How come you ain’t killed them yet?” And I told him that “I didn’t think you wanted us to kill them, that you just wanted us to guard them.” He said, “No, I want them dead.”
WALLACE: He told this to you, or to you particularly?
MEADLO: Well, I was facing him. So, but the other three, four guys heard it and so he stepped back about ten, fifteen feet, and he started shooting them. And he told me to start shooting. So I started shooting, I poured about four clips into the group….
WALLACE: And you killed how many at that time?
MEADLO: Well, I fired my automatic. So…you just spray the area on them and so you can’t know how many you killed because it comes out so doggone fast. So I might’ve killed ten or fifteen of them.
WALLACE: Men, women, and children?
MEADLO: Men, women, and children.
WALLACE: And babies?
MEADLO: And babies. Why did I do it? Because I felt like I was ordered to do it. And it seemed like—Well, at the time I—felt like I was doing the right thing. I really did. Because, like I said, I lost buddies, I lost a good—damn good—buddy—Bobby Wilson—and it was on my conscience….So after I done it, I felt good. But later on that day it was getting to me….
WALLACE: It’s so hard, I think, for a good many Americans to understand that young, capable, brave American boys could line up old men, women, children, and babies and shoot them down in cold blood. How do you explain that?
MEADLO: I wouldn’t know.
An old man hauled from his home waits to be killed
Charlie Company taking a lunch break, just a few yards from a heap of corpses. There would be more murders after lunch.
LEFT AND RIGHT Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina being booked for war crimes
The killing of civilians has happened in every war. In Vietnam, it was not policy or routine, but it was not an aberration, either. Still, the scale and deliberateness and intimacy of what happened at My Lai was different. “They were killing Vietnamese point-blank with rifles and grenades,” Neil Sheehan recalled. “They were murdering them directly. They weren’t doing it with bombs and artillery. If they’d been doing it with bombs and artillery, nobody would have said a word, because that was going on all the time.”
Not every soldier participated in the killings that day. Some led villagers to safety. But a failure of military leadership at nearly every level had created the conditions that made the massacre possible.
What had happened at My Lai may have shocked the American public. But it was not news to the Army. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who had tried to stop the massacre, reported what he had seen. So did at least five other pilots. The word went steadily up the chain of command—all the way to the division commander, Major General Samuel W. Koster. No one took any action. Instead, the brigade log was falsified to say that 128 Viet Cong had been killed by U.S. artillery. The slaughter was covered up. The Army Public Information Office released a widely disseminated story that described an operation that “went like clockwork” in which the “jungle warriors” of the Eleventh Brigade had killed 128 Viet Cong in a running “day-long battle,” chalking up the largest body count in the brigade’s history. On the strength of reports like these, General Westmoreland had sent his official congratulations.
Later, back in the States, a former Army corporal named Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard about what had happened from several men who had been there, wrote letters describing the killings to the president, the secretary of defense, and more than two dozen other high-ranking officials. Later, a reporter would ask him why he’d done so. “I guess I just wrestled with my own conscience to try to decide what action to take,” he said. “I had to do something. I couldn’t just rest with this knowledge for the rest of my life….I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”
President Nixon’s first reaction when he heard the story was to investigate those who reported the killing. He demanded to know who was backing them: “It’s those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it,” he was sure of it. He instructed his aides to “discredit witnesses,” investigate Seymour Hersh and Mike Wallace, “get ring-wingers with us,” and “get out the facts about [communist] atrocities at Hue.” Defense Secretary Laird said he wished he could “sweep the whole thing under the rug,” but knew he couldn’t. Eventually, General Westmoreland assigned Lieutenant General William R. Peers, a veteran of thirty months as a troop commander in Vietnam with a reputation for fairness and objectivity, to head a panel to look into the matter. He was told to confine his probe to questions of a cover-up, not to delve into the event itself. He ignored those instructions and eventually found that thirty persons, including the division commander, Major General Koster, had either conspired to conceal atrocities or had committed them. In announcing his findings, General Peers had wanted to call what had happened at My Lai what it clearly had been—a “massacre.” His superiors made him use the phrase “a tragedy of major proportions.” In the end, the Army would indict twenty-five officers and men, including the leader of the first platoon, Lieutenant William Calley.
My Lai: Ronald Ridenhour, whose conscience did not allow him to remain silent about what he’d heard had happened in the hamlet
Pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who saved some civilians by putting his helicopter down between them and U.S. troops
Lieutenant General William R. Peers, who led the Army investigation
A WHOLE NEW LEVEL
Participants in the antiwar “March of Death” pass the White House, each pausing to speak the name of someone who had died in Vietnam. “No problems at the White House,” H. R. Haldeman noted in his diary that night. “Just single file of candle carriers with name placards of war dead….Mostly solemn and quiet. P[resident] not interested, spent two hours at the bowling alley.”
ON THURSDAY EVENING, November 13, the day after the My Lai story ran in newspapers across the country, more than forty thousand people began gathering at Arlington National Cemetery for what was called a “March of Death.” For thirty-eight straight hours and in the face of biting cold and gusts of driving rain, they streamed in single file across the Arlington Bridge and on into the heart of the nation’s capital. A placard hung from each marcher’s neck bearing the name of someone who had been killed in the war, and when they passed the White House they shouted it out. Most marchers were young, but here and there were older people—parents or family members, presumably—who had asked for particular names. (Thirty-odd names had tactfully been withdrawn when families objected to their being displayed.) The long procession ended at the Capitol, where each placard was slipped into a wooden coffin.
On Saturday, the 15th, the second Moratorium began. It would be different from the first. The organizers of the first Moratorium—Sam Brown and other veterans of the McCarthy campaign—had succeeded in attracting to the antiwar movement people made uneasy by the radical voices and street violence that had been so prominent at the Pentagon march in 1967 and in the streets of Chicago in 1968. But this occasion would be less predictable. They had formed a wary alliance with the New Mobilization Committee (the MOBE), itself a loose and fractious coalition of sixty-odd antiwar organizations, ranging all the way from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship to the Socialist Workers Party. Its leaders, some belonging to the Old Left, some to the New, were pledged to nonviolence, but some of their members were not.
On the eve of the demonstration four Weathermen turned up at the Moratorium office to suggest that a contribution of $20,000 for legal fees incurred following the recent Days of Rage they’d staged in Chicago might prevent violence the next day in Washington. Unwilling to accede to what they saw as blackmail, the Moratorium leaders sent them away.
The crowd that gathered on the Mall the next morning was enormous—estimated at 800,000 by its organizers and by the White House at 250,000—and overwhelmingly peaceful. Democratic senator George McGovern and Republican senator Charles Goodell of New York spoke. Pete Seeger led the crowd in chorus after chorus of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Hawkers sold out their stock of buttons reading “Effete Snobs for Peace.” Buses parked bumper to bumper formed an impenetrable wall around the White House, and three hundred airborne troops were quietly stationed in the adjacent Executive Office Building just in case there was trouble. President Nixon claimed that he was too busy watching football on television to pay attention.
The second Moratorium Against the War, November 15, 1969, drew the largest crowd ever seen in Washington up to that time.
This time there was trouble on the periphery. Helmeted militants tried to get into the South Vietnamese embassy and, when tear gas drove them back, ran up and down Connecticut Avenue smashing windows. As the speeches ended, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman began leading several thousand people toward the Justice Department.
Jeremy Larner, a speechwriter for Senator McCarthy in 1968, now returned to freelance writing, caught up with Hoffman as they marched.
“What do you think of all this, Abbie?”
“This is more moral,” he says, surveying the sea of heads and hair, “but Woodstock had more dope.”
Abbie is more impressed, he tells me, with the people who, it is alleged, have decided to protest the war by setting off bombs in New York business buildings. “They’re heroes,” he grins at me. “Kids will see that and get more committed—on a whole new level.”
I guess we get to some new level right after the assembly, when a battalion of militants—the “Mad Dogs,” they call themselves—marches across the Mall to the Justice Department wearing helmets and carrying knapsacks full of rocks and bottles. These are the mixed media with which they will try to make the march their own.
At the Department building the cops hold back while MOBE marshals try to call off the Mad Dogs. This gives the Dogs a chance to incite the spectators: “Who’re you with, the people or the pigs?” (That’s “people” as in “the streets belong to the people,” “people” meaning “us.”) While the marshals argue, the militants break windows, plant Vietcong flags, explode paint bombs and perform various other death-defying stunts bringing us nearer each day to the brave new world. Then it’s tear gas time again, and cops in gas masks march in solid rows down one block at a time, once more avoiding contact except where absolutely forced upon them.
There is one more thing left to prove. As demonstrators and bystanders run in panic, Mad Dogs loft bottles which fall among the crowd. That will show them what the cops are like! A screaming girl beats girlishly on the face of a bottle-thrower, collapses sobbing in the street. Mad Dogs pull out phony bandages, wrap their heads and yell for the crowd to “make a stand” as it retreats block by block from Constitution Avenue. They leave some windows broken in the shopping district: one belongs to a black-owned baby-clothes store. What are the political reactions, I wonder, of the shoppers who are gassed? Are they “people,” as in “power to the people”?
The Dogs move on to Union Station, where they throw bottles at trainloads of marchers who will not “stay and fight.”
Despite the violent actions of a few, the next morning’s New York Times story about the demonstrations read “Generally Peaceful.” “The October Moratorium proved that the peace movement was respectable,” Jeremy Larner concluded. “The November Moratorium proved the movement could survive the threat of violence.”
Nonetheless, plans for a December Moratorium were scrapped. “October was too big for our own good,” Sam Brown said. “It would have been healthier and simpler for us to start slowly and grow month by month.” The president’s November 3 speech had done its work, another organizer admitted: “It was a moral disaster, but it was very brilliant and it will make us lie low for a few months”—until people began to see that it was just “a public relations cover-up for a continued war.” The organizers of the Moratorium worked to keep the movement alive on a local level. The MOBE broke into its constituent parts.
Meanwhile, the Washington demonstration had struck a chord among some U.S. troops in Vietnam. Fifteen marines patrolled near Danang with black armbands as a sign of solidarity. Captain Alan Goldstein, an Army dentist at Long Binh, collected 136 names on a petition in support of the Moratorium. “I said I believed that everybody should take a stand on this,” he recalled. “ ‘If you want the war to end, sign this.’ All of a sudden, I’m getting letters from Army people stateside asking to be put on the list. One West Point guy went back to his commander and the guy says, ‘This is pretty close to treason. Sign this and you can kiss your career goodbye.’ I mean, these guys have a lot at stake and they’re signing it.”
And on Thanksgiving Day, there was a demonstration at the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, as well, where medical personnel and a handful of patients had resolved to fast rather than enjoy the traditional holiday dinner as if all were right with the world. “On Thanksgiving,” Joan Furey recalled, “the Army did what the Army does—they’re going to bring in turkey; they’re going to bring in mashed potatoes and apple pie, and whatever. By this point, a lot of us were very, very cynical about the war and what was going on. ‘Don’t give me this Thanksgiving nonsense, you know. This is all crazy.’ And so we decided that we would have a fast for peace. They actually called it ‘John Turkey Day.’ But we weren’t going to make a big deal about it. We knew there were going to be TV people there. A couple of the organizers were looking for people to talk on camera. They came to me. I said, ‘No. Look, I’m going to fast and do my thing.’ I said, ‘But I really don’t want to be involved with any media.’ ”
That morning, Furey was on duty in the ICU when one of her patients took a sudden turn for the worse. “Some patients, they just get into your heart,” she remembered. “His name was Timmy. I think he was eighteen. I had been taking care of him for a couple of days. He had a gunshot wound to the chest. It was really touch and go with him, but he had seemed to be stabilizing. Then, he started to get shocky, had trouble breathing. So I called the doc. They rushed him into the operating room. I had a rule, I didn’t go into the OR. I went to triage in the ER. I did the ICU. But you’re not going to get me inside the OR. But for some reason I wanted to go in with this patient. The surgeon cut into his chest. And put a tube in there. And what came out of his chest…he had a massive infection in his chest and around his thoracic cavity and his lung. I knew it was unlikely he was going to survive an infection like that. And I just lost it. I just got so angry at all of it—at the uselessness of it all. I remember walking out of the OR, ripping off my gown, ripping off my mask. I walked outside and asked, ‘Where are those reporters?’ ”
An ABC camera crew was waiting. “I’m just fasting against any type of war or hostility that brings needless injury to innocent people all over the world,” she said into the camera, “not just Vietnam but everywhere, including the United States of America.” Later, Furey made a holiday call to her parents back home on Long Island. They hadn’t seen her on television, her mother said, “but one of the neighbors had called and said she saw you on the evening news and that you were demonstrating against the war. What was that about?’’ “These were my World War II patriotic parents, who were not going to understand,” Furey recalled. “I mean, ‘You don’t demonstrate against the war in a war zone.’ But by that time, of course, I had the attitude, ‘What are they going to do? Send me to Vietnam?’ ”
ARE WE BOUND TO FIGHT FOREVER?
When Nurse Joan Furey took part in a Thanksgiving Day fast at the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku in 1969, her parents back on Long Island were startled—neither she nor they had had much sympathy with antiwar protestors before she’d gone to Vietnam. Their daughter wrote home to explain what she’d done. Her mother thought the letter was so eloquent and she was so proud of her daugher, that she saw that it was published in the local paper, The Port Jefferson-North Shore Record.
Dear Mom & Dad,
By now I’m sure you’ve heard of our Thanksgiving Day fast, and my part in it. The information that has flowed back to us from the States leads me to believe that much was left out. Knowing how people react to it, I’m going to try & explain to you the motives behind it and the part I played. I do not wish for you to think of me as an extremist, and I believe you have the right to know exactly what happened and why.
One year ago I volunteered to come to Vietnam because I knew that my skills as a nurse were needed and I strongly believed I had an obligation to my country and to the young men who are fighting over here. During the ten months I have been here those beliefs have been fortified rather than destroyed. But Vietnam has opened my eyes to the destruction of war. I have lived with it, worked with it, and viewed it all too often. Due to my profession I get a very narrow look at the glory of war. After the battle, after the heroics, when the fight is finished—that is when I and the other medical people work. We are the clean-up committee.
Day after day, week after week, 10, 11, 14, 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, we work with the injured & maimed. We see our country’s young men come through the doors of this hospital—many that do will never be quite the same again, for the loss of a limb or two & sometimes three, the destruction of a face or the ruination of a mind, will hinder their growth in our society. Right alongside of them come the women and children & young men of this country we are in, in the same condition only with nothing to return to—no home or family or modern medical facility to rehabilitate them. Destroyed not by the U.S. forces but by the enemy we are fighting. Many of them may have helped the “G.I.” in the next bed to safety or saved him from an ambush, or maybe the “G.I.” did the same for him. And, all you can think to yourself is, Why? For what purpose is man so bent on destroying himself?
Can I ever explain the feeling one has after taking care of a young 19-year-old fellow for 20, 25 days, progressing toward health only to have him relapse. To work with a group of people to bring him back from the edge, so he can go home to his 18-year-old wife, and then to stand by helpless & watch him die—knowing that nothing in this world can save him—no prayers, no tears, & no medicine. To stand in the emergency room & maybe lend a hand if needed & see five men 21 to 39 years of age brought in, burned beyond recognition so that even their dog tags can’t be read. Injuries, that in the U.S. would be considered priority cases & here they must wait for five other patients because “they are not that bad.” To look up as the doors open and another patient is wheeled in from surgery & wonder if it will ever end? And then go home at the end of a long day & read about our home, that we all want to go back to, and what do we read? Riots, killing, theft, etc. After a while there is only one question to ask—Why?
This question is being asked more and more as my year comes to an end. For destruction is the rule, not the exception in war.
Why is it necessary for man to constantly be at war? Why can’t we live together peacefully? Today is the anniversary of Pearl Harbor—how far have we come? Are we bound to fight forever?
Will my children be destined to fight and die in another land, at another time, for another reason? Or if things continue as is—will they die in America, in our own country? Will they hate and be hated so much that they must fight for the right to live? Will there be no place on this earth that man can live without battle? What is the misery gene in our makeup? Is there nothing we can do? Are we destined to destroy ourselves, the way other worlds have before us? .
That is why I fasted—peacefully—There were no demonstrations here—it was an individual thing and yes I took part in it. I took part because I am a concerned American, because I love my country and I love people and I don’t wish to spend the rest of my life watching us destroy each other—in Vietnam, in Africa, in Egypt, Israel, Nigeria, Europe and the United States. I took part in it because it was a sacrifice—a very small one—granted but it was presented as an offering for something better. A belief that the God I have believed in since childhood is not dead, but as alive as the people in this world make Him.
We are about to celebrate His birth, and people will join together in groups to sing carols, “Peace on Earth Good Will to Men.” How easy it is to sing, how hard it is to practice.
Yes, I fasted for an end to war, for the end of destruction, needless death and bitter hate. Yes I fasted for Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men. There is nothing left to do!
Joan Furey at work
THE BRAVEST THING
MARINE CORPORAL JOHN MUSGRAVE had very nearly died in combat below the DMZ in the autumn of 1967. Wounded in the jaw and shoulder, his ribs shattered, lung pierced, nerves cut, he had spent seventeen months in Navy hospitals. He was now enrolled at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. But wherever he went, the war was never far away. “Let’s just say that being a Marine combat veteran on a college campus in 1969 and 1970 wasn’t a real good thing to be if you wanted to get dates and be popular,” he recalled. “When I came home, it seemed like I didn’t have anything to give to anybody else. And the peace movement for a while got real nasty calling veterans ‘babykillers.’ It did more than piss us off. It broke our hearts. What were they thinking? You don’t turn your backs on your warriors. I didn’t trust anybody anymore. Just my family.”
John Musgrave and a girlfriend at Baker University
Musgrave was so hurt by the way some people treated him that he volunteered to return to Vietnam. The Marines turned him down because of his injuries, and asked him to help recruit men, instead. He did for a time, but when students asked him questions about the war he couldn’t answer, he also began to read about how and why it was being fought. “I had friends in country on a second tour, and I still considered myself a Marine. But the more I read the less I found myself able to defend our presence there. So then I just stopped talking to everybody.”
He gradually came to feel as if he were being torn in two, and was still haunted by the memory of those Marines who had died while he had lived.
“I was dating my .45 in those years,” he remembered. “Coming home at night after drinking and pressing it up against my temple or putting it under my chin, wondering if this was going to be the night I was going to have the guts to do it.
“One night I had a round chambered and I’d taken the safety off. And I thought, I’m really going do it tonight, you know. Like, whew, I’m really going to do it. I had two dogs and I’d let my dogs out. And they jumped on the front door and scratched. They wanted in. And I put the safety back on the pistol and set it down and went and let them in. And they were so open in their love for me that I literally said out loud, ‘Whoa, if I really want to do this I can do it tomorrow.’ And I put the pistol in the drawer, and I think that was the closest I came. I think maybe I would have killed myself that night. But something as simple as my dogs wanting back in stopped that thought. I’m really glad that it didn’t happen. But at the time it just made so much sense.”
It was Richard Nixon’s troop withdrawals that finally turned Musgrave against the war. “If it ain’t worth winning,” he thought to himself, “it ain’t worth dying for.” His loyalty to the Marines would not yet let him express his opposition in public, but he did tell a campus antiwar meeting that they should stop acting as if they didn’t give a damn about the men who had been asked to fight—and received a standing ovation.
Jack Todd’s shift in attitude took time as well. While attending the University of Nebraska, he had undergone Marine officer training and hoped to become a platoon leader in Vietnam, but he’d damaged his knees while running track in high school and in the end the Marines processed him out as “NPQ”—Not Physically Qualified. He believed that that exempted him from having to take part in a war he was coming to see as immoral. That had not been an easy conclusion for him to reach: his uncle had been fired on at Pearl Harbor; a cousin had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day; another had fought his way ashore on Guadalcanal; and still another had been killed during a kamikaze attack. But he denounced the war as editor of The Daily Nebraskan, and took part in antiwar demonstrations on and off campus. After he was graduated, he began work as a reporter on The Miami Herald.
Then, in the autumn of 1969, two full years after the Marines had let him go, he was stunned to receive a draft notice from the Army. He considered going to Canada then; he had the romantic notion that he might land a job on the Toronto Star, the newspaper that had first hired Ernest Hemingway. But his Cuban-born girlfriend was not willing to go with him. So he quit his job and drove to his parents’ home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. “I reported for my physical and showed them my discharge from the Marine Corps,” he recalled, “and I remember a sergeant saying, ‘But you were discharged from an officer program. We’re drafting you as a private.’ ”
One evening while he was home he visited a high school friend named Sonny Walter, who had just been discharged from the Army after a year in Vietnam. That was “the turning point for me,” he recalled. “He took me down to his basement and showed me some horrible pictures of Vietnam from his service there.” Three dead GIs zipped into body bags. Grinning soldiers with what Todd remembered as “dead eyes,” wearing necklaces of severed ears. Enemy sappers—or what was left of them—hanging from the perimeter wire. Another GI holding up a severed head for the camera. “His portrayal of the war was as a complete unbridled nightmare,” Todd remembered. “He had tears in his eyes, pleading with me not to go. He even offered to drive me to Canada. All wars are horrifying, but Vietnam had very unique ways of being horrifying. And he really brought it home for me. I think everything that happened after that had its seeds in that evening.”
Todd reluctantly reported for basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, in November. “Morale just could not have been worse. It seemed to include even the sergeants and the officers. Nobody wanted to go to Vietnam. America just seemed to have shifted from the Woodstock high of the summer to this sort of bitter Nixonian low.” Todd and another member of his unit began to talk at night about what it meant to be true to one’s conscience. They read Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, and Mahatma Gandhi. Those opposed to war on religious grounds could apply for conscientious objector status. But because Jack Todd also questioned the existence of God, that avenue was closed to him. “There were really two choices. It was go to jail or go to Canada. And, for me, going to jail—that one, I couldn’t face.” His mother was frail with periodic heart trouble; he believed seeing her son led off to prison might kill her. “So I went to Canada,” he recalled. “I remember that last beautiful drive, from Seattle to Vancouver, all the towering Douglas firs along the road. It was January 4, 1970. After we crossed the border, it was a breeze, they just sort of waved us through and I remember just looking in the rearview mirror, thinking, ‘Man, there goes my country. I’ll never see it again.’ I get called a coward all the time. It took me a long time not to feel that what I had done was cowardly, because I still had that ingrained military feeling inside. Now I think that was the bravest thing I ever did.”
The Cambodian incursion: Targets of U.S. and ARVN troops would include communist supply bases just inside Cambodia as well as the supposed locations of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the headquarters from which the war in the South was directed, and the jungle-built capital of the newly created Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG).
ON FEBRUARY 21, 1970, in a modest workman’s house in an industrial suburb of Paris, Henry Kissinger began a new series of secret negotiations—talks so secret neither the secretary of state nor the secretary of defense nor the head of the CIA nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff was told about them. His negotiating partner from now on would be Le Duan’s close political ally, Le Duc Tho. He was a white-thatched veteran of the nationalist struggle—he’d joined the revolution at sixteen and endured ten years in a French prison—and was invariably courteous but also doctrinaire and uncompromising. Kissinger and Nixon had hoped that the uptick in the polls that followed the president’s November speech might have nudged the North closer to compromise. It had not. The sole “reasonable” solution to the war, Le Duc Tho reiterated, was total American acquiescence in Hanoi’s terms—unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces on a fixed deadline and the dissolution of the “warlike” Saigon regime. He dismissed as “dribbles” the fact that more than 100,000 Americans had now gone home, and was openly scornful of the whole concept of Vietnamization. “Before there were over a million U.S. and puppet troops, and you failed,” he said. “How can you succeed when you let the puppet troops do the fighting…how can you win?”
Kissinger admitted that he had no answer.
Twenty months had now gone by since Nixon’s inauguration, and peace seemed no nearer. Thwarted in his desire to strike a bold blow against the North, frustrated at the continuing impasse in Paris, and angered by the antiwar demonstrations that had undermined his ultimatum, the president searched for another opportunity to make the kind of dramatic show of force he thought would force Hanoi to make the concessions that would lead to peace.
Cambodia would provide it. Its politics were intricate and little understood in Washington, but for years, Prince Sihanouk had struggled to keep his country out of the war that had torn Vietnam apart. It was a delicate, demanding business. Officially neutral, he permitted North Vietnam and the NLF to establish military bases in his country so long as they did not venture too far into its interior and provided only limited support for the Khmer Rouge, the native communist movement that threatened his regime, but he also had raised no objection to Nixon’s decision to bomb those same bases so long as he could claim to know nothing about it.
Then, in March 1970, while Sihanouk was overseas on a diplomatic mission, the right-wing prime minister, General Lon Nol, and a coterie of like-minded generals seized power and promptly ordered all NLF and North Vietnamese forces out of Cambodian territory. Nixon, caught by surprise but eager to take advantage of the new situation, immediately dispatched arms to the undermanned, underequipped Cambodian army.
For years, the American military had wanted permission to cross the Cambodian border and clean out the enemy sanctuaries there. Now, Nixon would give them their chance. It would help a friendly government survive and, more important from the administration’s point of view, it would buy more time for Vietnamization. “This,” Nixon told Kissinger, “is what I’ve been waiting for.”
On April 19, he announced the largest troop withdrawal yet—150,000 Americans would be returning home over the next twelve months. The message seemed to be that Vietnamization was proceeding on schedule, that the president’s plan was working. But shortly afterward he told H. R. Haldeman, “Cut the crap out of my schedule, I’m taking over here. Troop withdrawal was a boy’s job. Cambodia is a man’s job.” Since he knew the secretaries of defense and state would oppose his decision, they were not to be consulted.
As the planning went forward, Nixon became tense and agitated, had trouble sleeping, drank heavily in the evenings, and wrote himself notes to keep his courage up—“Need for Self-Discipline in all areas. Polls v. right decision. Dare to do it right—alone.” He repeatedly watched the film Patton, in which George C. Scott, playing the World War II hero and standing before a giant American flag, intoned lines he especially liked: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war…because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”
TOP AND BOTTOM South Vietnamese troops move into Cambodia. They had been told to expect fierce opposition. Instead, for the most part, the enemy simply slipped deeper into the interior, where neither U.S. nor ARVN troops could follow, and then returned to reclaim their bases when the Americans and South Vietnamese withdrew.
It was hateful to Nixon, too. Twice in recent months, the Democratic-controlled Senate had rejected his nominees for the Supreme Court. Sending troops into Cambodia would be a chance, he said, to show “those Senators…who’s really tough.” He knew that what he was about to do would reawaken the relatively dormant antiwar movement but professed not to care: since he knew he was “going to get unshirted hell for doing this at all,” he said, he might as well “go for all the marbles.”
U.S. troops on their way out of the Memot Rubber Plantation in the Fishhook region of Cambodia, where COSVN was believed to have been hiding. Although the communist headquarters was targeted many times during the war, it was never found, let alone destroyed.
And so, on the evening of April 30, just eleven days after his withdrawal announcement had seemed to imply that the war really was winding down, he told a vast television audience that he was widening it. Using a pointer, he showed his audience the main targets of the joint American and South Vietnamese operations already under way—two jagged salients that jutted out into South Vietnam—the Parrot’s Beak and the Fishhook—just thirty-three and fifty miles from Saigon, respectively. Fifty thousand American troops were to clean out the Fishhook sanctuaries and seize the COSVN headquarters located there, while thirty thousand ARVN troops with U.S. air support would storm into the Parrot’s Beak.
“This is not an invasion of Cambodia,” he said—the White House had already told the press it preferred the word “incursion.” American and South Vietnamese troops would not push farther than thirty-five miles into Cambodian territory and would pull back once their goals had been accomplished. He would rather be a “one-term president,” he said, “than see this Nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.” He made it appear that the survival of American civilization itself somehow hinged on the success of this operation.
My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions, which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed….If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.
The morning after the speech, the president visited the Pentagon for a briefing. He was still keyed up. “Let’s blow the hell out of them,” he said. Afterward, a reporter recorded his exchange in the corridor with a young secretary whose husband was serving in Vietnam and who wept as she told him, “I loved your speech, Mr. President. It made me proud to be an American.”
“I wrote that [speech] for those kids out there,” he told her. “I have seen them. They’re the greatest. You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are, burning up the books, storming around about this issue…you name it. Get rid of the war and there will be another one. Then out there [in Vietnam], we have kids who are just doing their duty. And I have seen them. They stand tall, and they are proud.”
National Guardsmen with bayoneted rifles stand by as the ROTC building in Kent, Ohio, goes up in flames, May 2, 1970. A small group of militants had set the blaze, but thousands of students turned out to watch the fire, and some hurled rocks at the guardsmen.
Overnight, the antiwar movement came to life again. How could sending troops into another country in Southeast Asia help bring peace to the region? Three of Henry Kissinger’s closest aides had resigned in protest before the mission began, warning that there would be “blood in the streets” if it went forward. Fifty junior State Department employees signed a letter of protest. The presidents of thirty-seven universities warned the White House of trouble to come. Student strikes were scheduled at more than one hundred schools. Nixon was unmoved: “Don’t worry about divisiveness,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Having drawn the sword don’t take it out—stick it in hard. Hit them in the gut.”
On the afternoon of May 4, Nixon was sitting alone in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House when H. R. Haldeman stepped in. He looked “agitated,” Nixon recalled. Haldeman said he had just read over the wires that the National Guard had opened fire on student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio.
The president paled. “Are they dead?” he asked.
Haldeman said he was afraid so. Nixon was “very disturbed,” Haldeman noted in his diary. “Afraid his decision set it off, and that it is the ostensible cause of the demonstrations there….[He] kept after me all the rest of the day for more facts. Hoping rioters had provoked the shooting, but no real evidence they did, except throwing rocks at the National Guard. Talked a lot about how we can get through to the students, turn this stuff off.”
In his memoirs, Nixon would write that “those few days after Kent State were amongst the darkest of my presidency.” He couldn’t stop thinking about his own daughters and the dead students’ grieving parents, he wrote. But at the time he issued an official statement startling in its coldness: “This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.”
The facts of what had happened emerged slowly. Two evenings earlier in Kent, Ohio, a large throng of young people—most of them Kent State students, some motivated by anger at the president’s speech, many simply full of beer and irate when local police closed all the downtown bars early—ran through the downtown streets breaking forty-seven store windows and injuring a policeman. The mayor, alarmed at what was happening and persuaded that the SDS was somehow behind the disturbance, called the Republican governor, Jim Rhodes, and asked him to send in the National Guard.
A student throws back a tear gas grenade on the Kent State University campus on the morning of May 4. The National Guard commander had urged them, “For your own safety, go to your homes and dorms.” The students felt they were home, that it was the guardsmen who were out of place. “Pigs off campus!” they shouted.
Guardsmen arrived the next evening—too late to stop a crowd from setting the ROTC building on fire—and moved onto the campus, where they forbade any “gathering”—by which, one officer said, they meant any group larger than three persons. Governor Rhodes came to Kent, too. Locked in a close senatorial primary race, he saw in the town’s troubles an opportunity to out-tough-talk his opponent. Radical outside agitators were to blame, he said. They were “worse than the Brown Shirts and the Communist elements…we are going to eradicate the problem. We are not going to treat the symptoms.”
On Monday morning, some three thousand students were gathered on the Commons. Some were simply moving from class to class. Others planned to attend a rally called to protest Nixon’s widening of the war and the presence of the National Guard on campus. The guardsmen’s weapons were loaded with live ammunition, though no one in the crowd knew it. The students were ordered to disperse. They stood their ground. Tear gas scattered some of them. Others gave the troops the finger. One waved a black anarchist flag.
The guardsmen seemed to fall back. But then, members of Troop G wheeled around and opened fire on students gathered in and around a parking lot. Sixty-seven rounds in thirteen seconds killed two young women and two young men, one of whom had been an ROTC scholarship student and had simply been an onlooker. Nine more students were wounded; one was permanently paralyzed.
G Troop opens fire. The mystery of who ordered them to do so has never been solved. “Everything happened so fast,” one of the guardsmen remembered. “It was like a car wreck.”
Several hundred angry, grieving students sat down and demanded to know why the guardsmen had fired on their friends. An officer ordered them to “disperse or we will shoot again.” Only the anguished pleas of geology professor Glenn Frank averted further tragedy. “I am begging you right now,” he told the students, his voice breaking. “If you don’t disperse right now, they’re going to move in, and it can only be a slaughter. Would you please listen to me? Jesus Christ. I don’t want to be a part of this.” The crowd melted away.
The father of one dead girl was quoted as saying, “my child is not a bum.” During the days that followed, more than four million college students all across the country would demonstrate against the war. Four hundred and forty-eight campuses closed down.
Tim O’Brien had served his time in Vietnam, come home, and was living in St. Paul, Minnesota. “There was a huge march after the Kent State shootings,” he recalled, “and I joined the march, just as a body, not a leader. I wasn’t vocal at all. But I just wanted to put my body amidst these hundred thousand. That same march I was doing in Vietnam—that had seemed senseless and purposeless and without direction—here it felt sensible and purposeful and with direction, heading for that state capitol to say ‘No.’ ”
Students at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge protest the killings. More than one-third of the nation’s college students boycotted classes that spring.
“I was so angered by what had happened, I felt so alienated from my own government,” Bill Zimmerman recalled. He was then between jobs and living in Boston. “In retrospect I know the government didn’t order the execution…but at the time it certainly looked as though we had evolved to a point where the government was ready to kill protesting students. And that so outraged me I joined another antiwar demonstration, in Cambridge this time. Several people threw Molotov cocktails into the ROTC building, and I was a member of the crowd holding the cops and the firemen off so the building would burn. We failed. Eventually, they were able to save the building. Obviously, burning down a building wasn’t going to stop the war and it wasn’t going to gum up the war machine. But having just seen those kids killed at Kent State, we felt we had to do something to respond and the ROTC building was a target of opportunity. That’s how we reacted. It wasn’t strategic, it was emotional.”
The ROTC offices at Northwestern might have burned, too, but for the intervention of a student leader. Professor Sam Hynes remembering stepping out of the library a day or two after Kent State and “looking across a meadow that lay in front of the library called Deering Meadow. There was this little bump on Deering Meadow. You wouldn’t call it a hill anywhere except in Cook County. But we called it a hill. And on top of the hill students and faculty members had set up a microphone and loudspeakers. And there was a professor, a young professor of mathematics, as I remember, who was haranguing the audience in a speech full of obscenities to show how passionate he was about this issue. And suddenly along the back of the crowd opposite where I was, a line of people appeared. They were all carrying flaming torches and chanting, ‘Burn the ROTC. Burn the ROTC.’ ”
Eva Jefferson saw them, too. The African American Air Force officer’s daughter who had entered college uninterested in the Vietnam War, and convinced her government would never lie, was now the student body president. “There were never mass demonstrations at Northwestern,” she remembered. “That just never happened. I really think it was because kids had been murdered. We wanted to be peaceful; we wanted to be very militant about thinking the war was wrong; we wanted to say killing kids was bad. But we also didn’t want the buildings burned down.”
Eva Jefferson, student body president at Northwestern University, pleads for calm in the aftermath of Kent State.
“Eva Jefferson was up there on the mound in charge of this whole thing,” Sam Hynes remembered, “and she simply took the microphone away from the professor and said calmly, ‘Proctors, would you go out and put those torches out?’ ” Jefferson herself remembered things slightly differently, but the impact of her words was the same. “Now I can hardly believe that I did this,” she recalled, “but I said something to the effect of, ‘These torches remind me of other times and other places. Please do not burn the building down.’ And they stopped.”
For some veterans home from the war, the Kent State killings awakened memories they’d tried to forget. Former Marine Corporal Bill Ehrhart was now a student at Swarthmore College, near his hometown in eastern Pennsylvania, when he saw the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph that showed a girl howling in anguish as a student bled to death in the Kent State parking lot. “I just looked at this thing,” he recalled. “And I came unglued. I don’t know how long I sat down on the curb. I don’t know if I was there for fifteen minutes or an hour and a half. Just had a breakdown. Just crying, sobbing uncontrollably. All I could think was it’s not enough to send us halfway around the world to die, now they’re killing us in the streets of our own country. I have to do something. And finally, when I finally cried myself out, I got up and I joined the antiwar movement.”
John Musgrave was still attending Baker University when he heard what had happened “I thought, my God, we’re killing our own children now,” he recalled. “We’ve really gone mad. That’s when I was hiding from things. I wasn’t in anybody’s movement then. I was just drinking. But that was one of the things that told me America needed a wake-up call.”
The administration braced for trouble. The New MOBE, a hastily thrown together coalition of antiwar groups, called for a mass protest in Washington on Saturday May 9. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were expected. Truckloads of National Guardsmen were spirited into the basements of government buildings in case there was violence. Buses again encircled the White House; security officials feared that demonstrators were planning to jump the fence so they could be martyred on the lawn.
On Friday evening, the president sought to defuse things by holding a press conference in the East Room. Twenty-four of the twenty-six questions he answered had to do with Cambodia and the student protests. He was sweating and visibly unsettled. He claimed that the incursion had bought six or eight months for the South Vietnamese to further strengthen their forces, pledged that all U.S. troops would be pulled out before long, and said that he shared the demonstrators’ desire for peace—but that if he were to do what they wanted and withdraw from Vietnam, the communists would “massacre the civilians there by the millions.”
Then he retired to the residence, where, “agitated and uneasy,” as he said himself, and fortified by Scotch, he made forty-seven telephone calls, including seven to H. R. Haldeman and eleven to Henry Kissinger. He went to bed, couldn’t sleep, and suddenly announced at 4:22 a.m. that he wanted to show the Lincoln Memorial to his valet, Manolo Sanchez. The Secret Service scrambled to organize a limousine. Aides rushed to catch up with it. So did the president’s physician.
Students in sleeping bags around the memorial woke to find the thirty-seventh president of the United States among them. He told them he could understand their hatred of the war—he had himself once been “as close to being a pacifist as anybody could be”—but that he hoped that hatred “would not turn into a bitter hatred of our whole system, our country, and everything it stood for.”
“I hope you realize we are willing to die for what we believe in,” one student said. He did, Nixon answered, but “we [are] trying to [build] a world in which you will not have to die for what you believe in, in which you are able to live for it.”
Then, leaving the startled demonstrators behind, Nixon and Sanchez drove to the Capitol building, where the president led his valet onto the House floor, then moved on again to have breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel before reluctantly heading back to the besieged White House.
“Very weird,” Haldeman wrote that night. “P. completely beat and just rambling on. I’m concerned about his condition. The decision, the speech, the aftermath, killings, riots, press, etc., the press conference, the student confrontation have all taken their toll, and he has had very little sleep for a long time and his judgment, temper and mood suffer badly.”
In the aftermath of Kent State, President Nixon appointed William Scranton, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, to head the presidential Commission on Campus Unrest. “Don’t let higher education off with a pat on the ass,” Nixon told Scranton; instead of giving in to student protestors, he said, “faculties should toss them out.” Nixon saw the commission primarily as a public relations ploy: he wanted open hearings, he told Haldeman, “because it keeps the student unrest issue alive through the summer and works to our advantage.” And he wanted to be sure “some really horrible types testify.”
But Scranton took the job seriously. Among the witnesses he called was Eva Jefferson, the president of the Northwestern student body who, during the strike on her campus after Kent State, had kept other students from setting fire to the ROTC building. Radical friends had told her not to bother testifying; they said it would simply legitimize a government inquiry. But she had come anyway, she said, because she felt “that we have to keep trying to get our voices heard.” If change didn’t come, if the commission made solid recommendations and the administration did not act on them, she warned, “you are going to radicalize people….People are going to see more and more that they can’t get anything done through the system…and the only way the system is going to move…is to blow up buildings.”
Her earnest eloquence caught the public’s attention, and in September, David Frost invited Eva Jefferson and Vice President Agnew to appear together on his television program.
Agnew, in the midst of a countrywide congressional campaign in which he sought to paint the antiwar movement as dangerously radical, saw an opportunity to accuse Jefferson of having encouraged violence.
She would have none of it. “What I attempted to do before the Scranton Committee,” she said, “was to explain what could motivate someone to blow up a building. I did not say I endorse this, and if you read my testimony quite carefully, you’ll know that I didn’t. And it’s this type of just picking up on what allegedly I said instead of really studying what I said, that really disturbs me….You’re making people afraid of their own children. Yet they’re your children, they’re my parents’ children, they’re the children of this country….There’s an honest difference of agreement on issues, but when you make people afraid of each other, you isolate people. Maybe this is your goal. But I think this can only have a disastrous effect on the country.”
“Let me say first that isolating people is not my goal,” Agnew responded. “If that were true, I wouldn’t be here tonight….Let me take exception to that oft-repeated rationale that violence is the only way to get results.”
Jefferson did not back down: “I was trying to explain to you the rationale of some students who are openly revolutionary,” she answered. “You’re not listening to what I’m saying.”
Agnew wasn’t interested in listening. “Dividing the American people has been my main contribution to the national political scene,” he once boasted. “I not only plead guilty to this charge, but I am somewhat flattered.”
“Nixon and Agnew hoped to politically benefit from making us out to be these scary, horrible, violent people,” Jefferson remembered many years later. “We weren’t. We were against the war. We thought the war was wrong. We thought we were lied to. And we were in the streets. America has always had a rich tradition of protests. We were founded by protesting England. So to make people afraid of their kids I think was wrong. But that’s what they were about. They were fearmongers.”
Spiro Agnew. Antiwar leaders, he said, were “political hustlers…who would tell us our values are lies” and “If, in challenging them we polarize the American people, I say it is time for a positive polarization….It is time to rip away the rhetoric and divide on authentic lines.”
THE TIME HAS COME TO DRAW THE LINE
ON MAY 6, three days before the president’s early-morning visit to the Lincoln Memorial, a small group of medical students had gathered in Battery Park at Manhattan’s southern tip to protest the war and the Kent State shootings. One of them entered a nearby construction site and tore down an American flag the steelworkers had set up there to express their solidarity with the administration. “The steelworkers piled out…and pitched into [the students],” one eyewitness remembered. “Several were beaten up, though nothing much about it got into the papers.”
That same afternoon, another group of students marched up Broadway toward city hall, chanting as they walked: “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.”
Pete Hamill, a columnist for the New York Post, reported what some onlookers had to say: “ ‘Listen to their language,’ said a 40-ish man in a wrinkled suit standing next to me. ‘Those goddam bums should be shot, I wish to Christ I was in the National Guard.’ ‘What would you do?’ I asked him. ‘Shoot them, mow them down. If they don’t like this country let them go back to goddamned Russia.’ ”
From a building at the corner of Maiden Lane, steelworkers rained beer cans and clumps of asphalt down on the marchers. Hamill asked the police officer in charge of the parade’s escort why he wasn’t sending his men up to make arrests. “Don’t worry about it,” the officer answered, indicating the marchers, “these bums don’t respect anything.”
The angry onlookers and the hostile policeman were not alone. Despite the invasion of Cambodia, despite the killings at Kent State and the countrywide student demonstrations that had followed them, the president’s approval rating had actually risen, and fully half the country approved of the Cambodian operation. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of those responding blamed the students for what had happened at Kent State; only 11 percent blamed the guardsmen. Residents of Kent filled the local newspaper with letters commending the National Guard and condemning the students: they were “surly, foul-mouthed, know-nothing punks,” one letter writer said. “Live ammunition!” another wrote. “Well, really, what did they expect, spitballs?” The parents of the dead ROTC student received a flood of mail from strangers suggesting that “the police and army [should] kill a lot more students,” that they should be grateful their boy was dead since he’d been “just another communist.” Eventually, an Ohio grand jury would hand down twenty-five indictments, mostly Kent State students and not a single guardsman.
On May 8, demonstrators had returned to Lower Manhattan. Perhaps one thousand young people, mostly from New York University and Hunter College, gathered in the morning at Broad and Wall Streets to hear speakers call for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and Cambodia. Around noon, some two hundred construction workers wearing hard hats and carrying wrenches and steel bars, some wrapped in American flags, suddenly appeared and closed in from four sides, chanting, “All the way, USA,” and “Love it or leave it!”
Some steelworkers later said they’d been offered a bonus by their bosses if they would “break some heads”; Mayor John Lindsay would blame Peter J. Brennan, the president of the New York Building and Construction Trades Council, for the violence that followed, and there were hints that White House aides may have been involved behind the scenes as well. But the men needed little urging. “A lot of these guys feel they have legitimate grievances,” one witness explained. “They are almost the only segment of the population government hasn’t paid much attention to. People whom they feel beneath them, the blacks and Puerto Ricans, for instance, demonstrate and get attention. The college kids, the more violent of them, spit on the flag and burn buildings; others demonstrate and cause upheavals and they, too, get attention. These construction men got the feeling they were in a kind of limbo, with nobody paying much attention to them. Obviously, there is a lot of frustration here.”
“Don’t try and fight them,” one protestor said when he realized the rally was surrounded by hard hats. “The police are here to protect us.”
But they didn’t protect them. Instead, most stood back and watched while the workers charged into the crowd, beating men and women alike. Watching from the windows above, office workers cheered and threw streams of ticker tape and data-processing punch cards.
More hard hats poured into the area, many from the site of the new Twin Towers. They ripped down the Red Cross flag from historic Trinity Church, where injured students were being treated at an impromptu first-aid station, invaded two dormitories at Pace University, beating students and smashing windows, and stormed into city hall demanding that the American flag, flying at half-staff by order of Mayor Lindsay as part of a “Day of Reflection,” be hauled back up again.
Manhattan construction workers rush antiwar demonstrators on Wall Street, May 8, 1970. Peter Brennan, the head of their union, praised his men. “They did it because they were fed up with violence by antiwar demonstrators, by those who spat on the American flag.”
When an assistant to the mayor tried to stop a steelworker from attacking a student who was already being beaten by three other workers, she remembered, “He yelled at me, ‘Let go of my jacket, bitch’; and then he said, ‘If you want to be treated like an equal, we’ll treat you like one.’ Three of them began to punch me in the body. My glasses were broken. I had trouble breathing, and I thought my ribs were cracked.” Some seventy demonstrators were treated for injuries, some of them serious.
A few days later, Peter Brennan called for a mass rally to “show our support for our country and our boys in Asia,” meant to “let anti-Americans know where the construction workers stand.” Almost every construction site in the city closed down so that more than 100,000 hard hats, along with longshoremen, tradesmen, and office workers, could march up Broadway beneath a forest of American flags.
“Thank God for the hard hats,” Nixon said, and invited the rally’s leaders to the White House, where they presented him with a flag pin and a hard hat. Later, he would make Peter Brennan his secretary of labor.
The antiwar demonstration in Washington on May 9 had drawn somewhere between fifty thousand and seventy-five thousand people, mostly young, mostly peaceful. Peaceful demonstrations took place in other cities, too. But there was arson at campuses all across the country that day—Colorado State and Long Island University, the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan, East Carolina University and Concordia Teachers College in River Forest, Illinois.
Two hundred and eighty-one ROTC buildings had been attacked during the first six months of the year; an average of four had been set ablaze every day since the Cambodian incursion began. According to the Treasury Department, between January 1, 1969, and mid-April 1970, there had been 4,330 bombings in the United States and another 1,475 attempted bombings, most employing Molotov cocktail–style incendiaries as well as explosives. Perpetrators ranged from gangsters and Klansmen to African American extremists and right-wing Minutemen, but more than half of the bombings that had been solved stemmed from campus disorders.
Tens of thousands of building trades workers march on New York’s city hall to show their support for the war, and call for the impeachment of Mayor John Lindsay because he had lowered the flag to half-staff after the killings at Kent State, May 20, 1970.
Like his predecessor in the White House, Richard Nixon was convinced that foreign agents—Russian, Cuban, North Vietnamese, he wasn’t sure which—were behind much of the American opposition to the war. And, like Johnson, he was furious when no American intelligence agency seemed able to come up with the evidence to prove him right. On June 5, he called in the heads of all the U.S. spy agencies—the FBI, CIA, NSA, and military intelligence—and, as one of them recalled, “chewed our butts.” Then he presented a plan, drawn up by a zealous young aide named Tom Charles Huston, that would give the White House control over all intelligence gathering and officially sanction all manner of illicit activity, including warrantless wiretaps, the opening of private mail, and “black bag jobs”—surreptitious break-ins to install taps and bugs on people the White House deemed dangerous. The FBI was already doing most of those unlawful things—and more—under a draconain program called COINTELPRO, while the CIA was illegally opening mail under its own Operation Chaos.
J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the FBI, pronounced the plan unworkable—largely because it would have undermined his own authority. Attorney General John Mitchell thought it was unnecessary. The president reluctantly withdrew it. But his frustration with antiwar demonstrators did not subside. “We have to find out who controls them,” he told an aide. “Get our guys to rough them up at demonstrations.”
On June 30, the president announced that the last American soldiers had pulled out of Cambodia; South Vietnamese troops would remain there for another three weeks. He assured the country that it had been “the most successful operation of this long and difficult war,” but its results were actually mixed. Sixteen million rounds of ammunition had been seized; so had 45,000 rockets, 62,000 grenades, 3,000 individual weapons, and 14 million pounds of rice. Almost 12,000 bunkers were destroyed and 16,000 acres of jungle cleared. The important port of Sihanoukville was closed; the North would now have to move its heavy weapons down the Ho Chi Minh Trail instead of trucking them overland to communist base camps. Because it would force North Vietnam to take months to rebuild its Cambodian bases, the operation also secured precious time for Saigon to strengthen its forces, but it did not secure South Vietnam’s western border and enemy forces were soon slipping back and forth across it just as they always had. Communist agents had forewarned the enemy. Both COSVN and the jungle capital of the new Provisional Government managed to slip away northward while communist troops fled eastward and Hanoi resolved to provide far greater support for the Khmer Rouge, expanding a civil war that would eventually lead to one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.
The incursion had alarmed America’s allies abroad: a secret poll taken by the U.S. Information Service in four European and four Asian countries showed that American prestige had fallen alarmingly in recent weeks. And it had galvanized the growing opposition on Capitol Hill. On June 30, the Senate had voted 58–37 to bar further funding for Americans fighting in Cambodia without congressional approval. It was a largely symbolic gesture—the last U.S. troops had already withdrawn across the border back into South Vietnam, and the House would vote the measure down a few days later—but it represented the first time either chamber had voted to limit a commander in chief’s war-making power.
On August 24, four antiwar protestors set off a bomb intended to destroy the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. It killed a postdoctoral student named Robert Fassnacht and injured four other people, none of whom had anything to do with that institution. Eight days later, Senator George McGovern made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in favor of an amendment to an appropriations bill he and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon had introduced, setting December 31, 1971, as the final date for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand Americans to an early grave,” he said. “This chamber reeks of blood….Do not talk about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam because it is not our blood that is being shed….So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: ‘A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.’ ”
Nixon warned the senators that if they tied his hands the responsibility for “an ignominious American defeat” would be theirs, and the amendment was defeated 55–39—but a Gallup poll taken three weeks later showed that well over half the American people had supported it. It was clear that the president had begun to run out of support on Capitol Hill—just “one step ahead of the sheriff,” he said.
Nixon had hoped that his apparent willingness to widen the war and the damage the Cambodian incursion would do to the enemy’s logistical base would force concessions from Hanoi. They did not. Instead, facing congressional elections that fall, Nixon would feel the need to make an important concession of his own. He had already begun to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops without the reciprocal North Vietnamese withdrawal upon which he’d once insisted. Now he called for a ceasefire in place and a total halt on U.S. bombing throughout all of Indochina as a first step toward peace. The Senate adopted a resolution that called the president’s new initiative “fair and equitable.” President Thieu was alarmed; he thought his steadily strengthening forces would eventually be able to eliminate the NLF but doubted they could ever defeat the combined communist forces. It didn’t matter: Hanoi rejected the proposal the next day.
Meanwhile, Nixon was preoccupied by the upcoming congressional elections. The president who had urged Americans to “lower our voices” was now determined to do all he could to raise them. He wanted both to add to Republican numbers in Congress and to defeat candidates in both parties who criticized his conduct of the war.
The vice president was to be the tip of the spear. Agnew was “the perfect spokesman to reach the silent majority,” Nixon said, and advance men were instructed to make sure demonstrators—preferably waving NLF flags—could get close enough to him to anger the “disaffected Democrats,…blue-collar workers…and working-class white ethnics” Nixon hoped to win over. “If an egg is thrown and hits the vice president—all the better,” the president said. “If the vice president were slightly roughed up by those thugs, nothing better could happen for our cause.” And “if anybody so much as brushes against Mrs. Agnew, tell her to fall down.”
Outside an auditorium in San Jose, California, President Nixon climbs onto his limousine and dares antiwar demonstrators to do their worst.
Nixon himself campaigned in ten states and in San Jose, California, on October 29, seemed to take his own advice. A big hostile crowd gathered outside the municipal auditorium in which he was speaking and began banging on the closed doors. “We wanted some confrontation and there were no hecklers in the hall,” Haldeman wrote in his diary that evening, “so we stalled the departure a little so they could zero in outside and they sure did.” Leaving the auditorium, the president stepped up onto the hood of his limousine and raised his arms in the “V” sign he’d learned from President Eisenhower and had made his own. “That’s what they hate to see!” he told an aide. It “made them mad,” Haldeman continued. “They threw rocks, flags, candles, etc., as we drove out, after a terrifying flying wedge of cops opened up the road.” Nixon seemed delighted. “So far as I know,” he wrote, “this was the first time in our history that a mob had physically attacked the President of the United States.”
Nixon ended the campaign with a harsh assault on the antiwar movement: “Let’s recognize these people for what they are. They are not romantic revolutionaries. They are the same thugs and hoodlums that have always plagued the good people….For too long, and this needs to be said and said now and here, the strength of freedom in our society has been eroded by a creeping permissiveness in our legislatures, in our courts, in our family life, and in our colleges and universities. For too long, we have appeased aggression here at home, and, as with all appeasement, the result has been more aggression and more violence. The time has come to draw the line.”
In the end, drawing the line did not work. The Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate but lost nine in the House. Nixon’s reaction was to double down. “Politics over the next two years is not a question of bringing in the blacks and liberal senators and make them feel they are ‘wanted,’ ” he told Haldeman. “It’s going to be cold steel.”
SEEING AMERICANS AGAIN
BY BAO NINH
IFIRST VISITED the United States in the summer of 1998, when I was invited to attend a literary conference in Montana with four other Vietnamese writers. We flew from Hanoi to Taiwan to Los Angeles. As we crossed the Pacific Ocean, passing through many time zones, I buried myself in sleep and woke up only when the plane hit the tarmac. At passport control, we found ourselves in a huge hall, and I was abruptly taken aback: there were Americans all around us, lots of them! I will never forget that strange feeling. It was bizarre, unbelievable, surreal, that I, a veteran of the Vietnam People’s Army, was in the United States, surrounded by Americans.
The first time I ever saw Americans was when I was twelve years old. It wasn’t actually blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans that I was seeing up close. The Americans I saw that day were F-4 Phantom bombers, brutally attacking small towns on the shore of Ha Long Bay. It was August 5, 1964, and I was at the beach on a school trip, swimming with my classmates. That was right after the Tonkin Gulf incident, the day American President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his decision to expand the war throughout Vietnam.
After that day my life, the lives of my parents, brothers and sisters, the lives of all Vietnamese, were completely turned upside down. From then on, we lived under a sky that was almost always ablaze with the roar of jets, bomb blasts, and sirens. Bomb shelters were dug along all the streets and beneath every house in Hanoi. Electricity and running water were in short supply. We dimmed the lights at night. Food, clothing and fuel, paper, books, and other necessities of life were rationed, but there wasn’t enough of anything to meet the needs of the people. There were long lines outside stores. Children sixteen and younger were evacuated to the countryside, separated from their parents. It was not so different from the experiences of British children in London in 1940, but the children of Hanoi endured all of this much longer—from 1964 to 1973—and our life during wartime was tougher.
My family was originally from Dong Hoi, a small town in central Vietnam so flower-filled it was called “the Town of Roses.” In 1946, most of my extended family moved to Nghe An, in North Vietnam, where I was born in 1952. In 1954, after the Geneva Accords, my parents moved to Hanoi. In the early days of the bombing, our village of Dong Hoi was almost completely leveled; all that remained was the charred wall of our church and the tower of a water reservoir. Bombs and artillery from the American Seventh Fleet killed thirty-two people in my extended family in 1965 alone.
Still, as far as I can remember, in spite of the death and destruction, people did not seem demoralized. Contrary to what the Pentagon expected, the relentless bombing motivated many of us to join the military. I wanted to sign up in September 1969, a few months before my eighteenth birthday. Why? I wanted to fight foreign aggression, to be an honorable man, and to be a good citizen. My parents urged me to go to college and refused to sign the form to permit me to enlist at seventeen. But I was determined, and in the end, they gave in. My mother cried when she signed the papers.
By then the war had already been going on for five years, and the level of violence was at its peak. In 1969, no one in Hanoi really believed what the official government propaganda had been telling us about the war. When I volunteered, I had no illusions about my fate. I was not brave or fast or especially creative. I was not a warrior. I knew I had little chance of surviving. Nevertheless, regardless of whatever happened to me, I was sure that the Vietnamese people would defeat any aggressor, and that we would reunify the country. I didn’t think we would win a victory like my father’s generation had at Dien Bien Phu, and I also understood that the Americans were many times stronger than the French. But I strongly believed, as did most of my comrades, what President Ho had told us many times—that eventually the United States would give up and go home.
In January 1970, after three months of boot camp, where we were taught to use AK-47s, RPGs, and hand grenades, our unit set off on the long march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Central Highlands. We arrived in Kon Tum in May and were dispersed to different combat units. I was assigned to the Tenth Division, Battalion Two, directly under the Board of Commanders of B3 Front. (In 1973, I was transferred to Battalion Five, Regiment Twenty-four, and served there until the end of the war.) The enemies we faced in the Central Highlands when I was there were the Twenty-second and Twenty-third South Vietnamese Divisions and the American Fourth Infantry and First Air Cavalry Divisions.
In 1970, when Richard Nixon began Vietnamization, which many mockingly said would change only “the skin color of the corpses,” the United States gradually reduced the number of their troops in our country. But the fierceness of the war did not diminish in the slightest, nor did the American presence on the battlefield. Every minute, every hour, it seemed, they were there, flying ten thousand meters above the earth in B-52s and pouring bombs down on us, raining 105mm, 155mm, and 175mm artillery shells on us from miles away. A single B-52 attack or artillery barrage could level a mountain, fill a river with mud, turn a rain forest to ash. I was a scout and rarely had the chance to exchange fire directly with American soldiers. Instead, I mostly observed them from afar through my binoculars. But I did regularly see some Americans at close range—the crews of armed helicopters. Our troops exchanged fire with them daily as they clung to the doors of their Cobras and Hueys and fired machine guns at us. The OH-6 scout helicopters were easiest to spot. They flew just over the tops of trees and hovered a couple of meters above our hiding places. The crews fired their M16s or threw grenades at us, taking the chance that we might shoot them down with our AK-47s or submachine guns. Those adept and courageous fighters sometimes flew so low we could see their faces and make out the color of their hair, sometimes even their eyes.
The last time I caught sight of American combat troops close up, on the ground, was late one morning in April 1971, near An Khe Pass. I saw a platoon of airborne troops on patrol on Highway 19. They seemed relaxed, not particularly cautious, walking down the road in single file, skirting the edge of their base. They didn’t know there were three of us scouts silently following their every move, monitoring them from behind thick camouflage on a hill about one hundred meters off the road, and they had absolutely no idea that a strongly armed NVA unit was waiting for them at the bend of the road half a kilometer ahead. To this day, I see them clearly in my mind, as if they were right in front of me. I especially remember a radio operator carrying a PRC-25 backpack radio. I can’t understand why as radio operator he wasn’t beside the company commander, but instead was pulling up the rear, trailing behind the group. He seemed nonchalant, with no bulletproof vest, no helmet, no M16 or grenade launcher, just the radio on his back. He had short brown hair, no beard or moustache. Through my binoculars I saw that he was chewing something, probably gum. He was just ambling along, kicking an empty Coke can as he walked. Fifteen minutes later the sound of gunfire told me his platoon had walked into our ambush.
I never found out what happened to that radio man, have no idea whether he made it or not. In 1998, during my first trip to the United States, whenever I was visiting a university or high school and saw young boys and girls in auditoriums and hanging out on the lawns, I would see again the face of that young soldier, hear the clatter of that empty Coke can on the road. He was just like a kid on the way home to his mother after school, playing with whatever he happened to come across.
It’s been a long time, but I still have nightmares from the war. I still hear the hiss of hundreds of bombs being dropped from B-52s, the roar of artillery barrages and the thrum of the helicopters’ rotors. I still see platoons of American Marines in bulletproof vests and helmets jumping out of Chinooks, brandishing their M16s. Worst of all, I can’t forget the dreadful nightmare of dioxin. In the spring of 1971, when we were stationed west of Kon Tum, we were sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange. I didn’t know if the Americans on those C-123 Caribous knew anything about the terrible toxicity of the liquid they sprayed, or if only the chemical companies that manufactured it knew. We understood all too well its horrible destructive force. As soon as the Caribous passed over us, the sky would turn dark with a strange, thick, milky rain. The jungle canopy broke apart, ulcerated, and fell to the ground. Leaves, flowers, fruits, even twigs, all silently dropped. Green leaves turned black, crumpled. Grass withered and died. I witnessed many cruel scenes in the war, but that brutal massacre of nature is what comes back to me most often and disturbs my sleep.
The last time I saw Americans was in the final days of the war. We had advanced deep into Saigon and made it almost all the way to Tan Son Nhut airport. The Americans I saw in April 1975, like the ones I first saw in August 1964, were in the air, flying above us in F-4 Phantoms. But this time, they were covering the retreat of all remaining American military, civilian, and diplomatic personnel from South Vietnam. The last American was evacuated from Saigon in the early morning of April 30, 1975, and by noon the Saigon regime announced its surrender. The brutal war that had seemed for so long as if it would never end was finally over.
My unit stayed in Saigon for a few weeks, until mid-May 1975, and then we were sent back to the Central Highlands, given the task of searching for the bodies of our comrades who had been killed, and collecting their remains. At the end of that year, after six years in the South, I went home. I don’t know the overall survival statistics, but out of the twenty-five boys from my high school who went to war, eleven were killed. Of the three young men from my apartment building in Hanoi who enlisted with me, I was the only one to return.
Now, twenty-three years after I made it back home, I was seeing Americans. I will never forget the days we spent in the large university auditorium at the conference in Missoula, Vietnamese and American veteran writers sitting side by side, discussing our countries’ literatures, sharing our work. Literature really does have its own magic. In Missoula I heard for the first time the famous verses of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song,” translated into Vietnamese and read for us by the poet Nguyen Duc Mau. Longfellow’s words resonated beautifully with the conference’s atmosphere: friendship, love of life, and peace. In the same spirit, Professor Philip West, the director of the Mansfield Center, read an English translation of “Visit to Khan Xuan Temple” by the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong. Tranquil afternoon of spring on pavilion site. Light in heart and clear in mind. The verses of the Vietnamese poet, a nineteenth-century contemporary of Longfellow’s, sounded to me like music, soaring into the peaceful Missoula air. Although I did not speak English, I could still feel the spirit of the poems the Americans had written and were reading to us. When I met those writers, I tried my best to keep my astonishment to myself. Was Kevin Bower, this quiet man with a warm friendly smile who’s squeezing my hand, really a machine gunner in the First Air Cavalry Division in An Khe? What could novelist Larry Heinemann have in common with a combat soldier in the Twenty-fifth Tropical Lightning Division who fought in the bloody battles in Tay Ninh? How could Bruce Weigl, the author of such romantic verse, be a soldier who had helped relieve the horrific siege of Khe Sanh?
The conference also included veterans who came from all over Montana to witness the exchange of American and Vietnamese writers, and to see us, their former enemies. Marmon Momaday, a Native American Cheyenne, told me so when we shook hands. He’d been in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and fought near Dak To. The sheriff of Missoula, Peter Lawrenson, served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972 as an adviser to the ARVN in Kon Tum. When he found out I was a veteran of the Tenth NVA Division, which he had fought, he greeted me as a long-lost friend. During our time in Montana, Sheriff Lawrenson drove us around the state to Helena, Great Falls, Billings. In Missoula, we were taken to the memorial to soldiers who had been killed in Vietnam. It was a week after Memorial Day, and lots of people were still visiting the site. At the foot of the large stone slab engraved with names of the fallen, people had left some flowers, a postcard, a class picture, an old notebook or diary, a military compass, a 1966 issue of Stars and Stripes, a flask with two tiny glass cups, and a vintage Zippo lighter. There was also a birthday cake with candles on top. The Missoula memorial was much smaller than the Wall in Washington, D.C., but the sorrow and compassion it evoked in visitors was no different. Most, I assumed, probably knew the men whose names were carved into the stone, but there were also visitors from other places. I met a retired teacher and mistook her for the mother of a fallen soldier. My interpreter explained that she came from San Francisco, and had taught high school in Missoula for years. Whenever she returned, she would visit her “Tommy” at the memorial. He was one of her students, had graduated in 1970, and was immediately drafted. The next summer, his family received a death notice. He was killed less than a year after graduation. Why was his life so short? At eighteen, he had finished high school, become a soldier, and after six months of hard training, had boarded a plane with his friends, flown halfway around the world, landed somewhere in Vietnam, maybe Danang, put on a bulletproof vest and helmet, and taken a rifle to the battlefield. An inexperienced soldier, maybe he was killed in the first few minutes of his first battle. I wondered if that unfortunate student had been able to celebrate his nineteenth birthday, whether he had been in Vietnam long enough even to see the sun rise?
On that trip, we spent more than a month in America, traveling from Montana to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Everywhere we went, from the conference to meetings with publishers, bookstores, and readers, we were welcomed with open arms. The warmth and friendship of Americans toward us Vietnamese writers evoked my sympathy for the people and the country today, and made me think about the unjustness and cruelty of the war the United States had prosecuted in Vietnam twenty-five years earlier.
I was forty-six, and I understood very well the inexorable passage of time. As months and years passed, the war had steadily receded. It didn’t seem to cast much of a shadow on daily life in America, or in Vietnam. The wounds it inflicted seemed mostly to have scarred over. But throughout my visit to America, the memories of the war that I had buried for so long came back, clearer and sharper than before. Even today, the war still comes back to me, spreads its wings over my daily life and my writing. Like anyone who has lived through war, I dream that future generations will one day be at peace, will abandon the weapons of war. But I know my dream is impossible. As a writer and especially as a veteran, I know that underneath the beautiful green meadows of peace are mountains of bones and ashes from previous wars, and, most awful to contemplate, the seeds of future wars.
My generation, the people who lived through the Vietnam War, learned a great deal from our miserable and tragic experience. I wonder whether the lessons we absorbed at such tremendous cost are being passed on to future generations? If they are not understood, or if they are forgotten, are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes, commit the same crimes, repeat the same disasters, spread the same sorrows?