Category Archives: Vietnam War
The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War- Neil Sheehan, Hedrick Smith, E. W. Kenworthy, Fox Butterfield and James L. Greenfield
The names of the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that are found on the memorial in Washington, D.C., are a reminder of a conflict deemed by many to be the worst the United States has ever been involved in. The withdrawal of U.S. forces in March, 1973, brought a sigh of relief to the American public which had long grown tired of a war with no end in sight. The dark truth which we now know is that we did not by any means accomplish the mission. And the mighty American war machine failed to secure a victory. I have met many veterans of the war and have an uncle who served. What I recall most about all of them is that they do not speak of their experiences while in combat. I know the memories are there and for some of them, they were unable to leave parts of the war behind. Today we call it PTSD, but back then you simply found a way to move forward in life. But why were they in Vietnam to being with? Was the domino effect really a threat to the United States?
On May 11, 1973, Daniel Ellsberg found himself the talk of the town as charges pending against him for espionage were dismissed by U.S. District Judge William Byrne. He had been indicted for leaking what became known as The Pentagon Papers, the subject of this book and the topic of the movie The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The New York Times, after several battles in court, was finally allowed to move forward with its plan to publish The Pentagon Papers and contained in the pages of this book are the documents that the U.S. Government tried in earnest to hide from the American public under the guise of “national security”. Ironically, the facts that are revealed in this book have absolutely nothing to do with national security but rather several presidential administrations that failed to find a workable solution to Indochina.
The late Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) has been called the architect of the war and was loathed by many because of it. However, the title is misleading and in some ways unfair. The war had many architects either by wishful thinking, uncontrolled ego or naiveté. What is truly ironic is that as the war waged on, McNamara became a strong voice of dissent. And in spite of what we have been led to believe, our existence in Indochina began many years before 1965. The story of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is a long tale, filled with hard truths, false truths, deception and ultimately failure. But this is how it happened and why.
The papers are divided into several sections which correspond to a different aspect of the conflict. The administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson are examined to understand what each cabinet did and did not do as it grappled with the growing headache. Step-by-step Southeast Asia opens up as black hole as more advisors are committed, instability rages in South Vietnam and war hawks finally get their wish as the United States jumped nearly feet first into a jungle conflict that proved to be nothing short of disastrous. Rolling Thunder, troop deployments and South Vietnamese politics are just some of the issues that antagonized Washington for nearly a decade.
If you served in Vietnam, I forewarn you that the book might anger you in many ways. For others, this is a critical source of information in order to understand the war from a behind the scenes view. We are often told that the military fights to protect the country and our freedoms that we take for granted. But did a nation over 13,000 miles from U.S. soil really pose a threat to the most powerful nation on earth at the time? And what would we have accomplished if we had in fact won the conflict? Perhaps Vietnam would have become a second Korea, partitioned between a communist controlled North-Vietnam and a U.S. controlled South-Vietnam. Following the U.S. withdrawal, Saigon fell and the North achieved its goal of reunification. Today the war is a distant memory for young Vietnamese but for the older generation, many painful memories remain. The figures in the book are long gone but their actions will stay with us and the Vietnam war will always be a regrettable example of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.
On January 20, 1968, Ron Kovic was shot and critically injured while leading a reconnaissance mission near the village of My Loc north of the Cua Viet River. The injury leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. After being transported back to the United States, he is moved to the Bronx VA hospital and witnesses first had the substandard treatment given to soldiers injured in the conflict. Upon his discharge, the young marine leaves the hospital a changed man forever, no longer an innocent 18-year-old kid with dreams of being a rough and tough marine. As outcry against the war continued to grow and he began to read literature given to him by his cousin’s husband, his views on the war began to change and he eventually became one of the most outspoken anti-war activist in country.
This autobiography is Kovic’s life story and what he has learned before and after Vietnam. The Long Island native of Massapequa, brings us back to a time where communism was the paranoia gripping the country and southeast Asia, the hotbed of U.S. military intervention. The book at times is haunting and reminds the reader of the horrors of war. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he revised the book adding a new foreword. Thirteen years have passed since the invasion of Iraq, but Kovic’s words were prophetic and his wisdom unchallenged. Movies and documentaries sometimes glorify war, but this is the view from a side we often never see. A deeply moving account, Kovic is the living example of the horror of war that can afflict any young man or woman. His story is so moving that in 1989, director Oliver Stone released ‘Born On The Fourth of July’, Kovic’s life story in which he is played by actor Tom Cruise. The film remains a personal favorite and chilling look into a dark side of war.
The late Stanley Kubrick left behind a collection of films that have stood the test of time and have been used as inspiration by filmmakers to this day. Known for such hits as The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, his legacy continues to grow in American cinema. In July, 1987, Warner Brothers released Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s gritty portrayal of the Vietnam War focusing on the Marines and their role in the conflict. The film is considered a classic and the performances by several actors are still revisited today. Presented in two parts, the first shows the young men as they learn to become marines and the second, their experience in the war. The film, as it is widely know, is based on of this novel by the former and late Marine Gustav Hasford (1947-1993).
Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, the short novel pulls the reader in refusing to let go. We are introduced to the characters of Joker, Cowboy, Animal Mother, Rafter Man, Doc Jay and Capt. January, all of whom make an appearance in the film adaptation. The notable differences are the characters of Sgt. Gerheim and Alice. In the film they are changed to Sgt. Hartman and Eightball. Because the book was written by a former Marine, military jargon, comradeship and the pride that comes with being a Marine is found throughout the book. Hasford did a masterful job of taking the reader into the battle zones with Joker, Alice, Animal Mother and the unit to witness the terror, fear and carnage that is war. He followed up this book with ‘The Phantom Blooper’ and had planned a third book but died before it could be written. This novel has been called the best work of fiction about the Vietnam War and Full Metal Jacket is a film full of unforgettable performances and memorable scenes. Next to Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it remains one of the best films about the Vietnam War. However, Hasford’s novel is even better and those who love the film will find this book to be priceless.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United and Soviet Union became engaged in a protracted standoff, a Cold War that became hot on several occasions. In the eyes of Washington, Soviet expansion of its communist and Marxist-Leninist beliefs, were a threat to democracy and had to be stopped whenever possible. Every conflict involving a communist government was seen as a pawn of the Soviet Union and a direct affront to American dominance. In 1953, an armistice was signed ending the Korean War, giving the world cause for relief as a major world war was averted. Twelve years later, American troops were once again dispatched to an Asian nation, this time 13,000 miles away from home to the jungles of Vietnam, a country that many of them had never before seen. The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese. The withdrawal of American soldiers from Saigon in the 1975 resulted in a power vacuum in which the North Vietnamese government seized the opportunity and reclaimed its position in the southern part o the country, eventually unify the Republic of Vietnam. Saigon was later renamed Ho Chih Minh City in honor of the late leader of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. On September 2, 1969, Ho Chih Minh died at the age of seventy-nine as the war raged on. In death he would be vindicated as unification was eventually achieved and Washington was forced to acknowledge the communist government. The war had ended but for many veterans and civilians, the pain and dark memories continued to many many years. My uncle served in Vietnam and to this day he does not speak about the things he witnessed as a combat infantry soldier. For him and thousands of veterans, Vietnam is part of their lives that they can never forget. For America, it is perhaps our darkest moment in the execution of foreign policy.
As we look back on Vietnam, we are forced to confront many demons surrounding the involvement of the United States military in Southeast Asia. A war with no clear objective and doomed from the start, transformed an entire nation, deeply divided over Washington’s continuous blunders. To some it seems completely illogical that America began a crusade to begin with. For the war hawks, it was an opportunity to flex American muscle. In hindsight, we can now see that American troops were never there to win and the White House kept hidden from the public, an endless number of important revelations that signaled failure from the very beginning. The blame for Vietnam does not lay with one person alone but rather an entire cast of characters including four presidents. Robert McNamara (1916-2009), served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and has been referred to as the architect of the war. In fact, the conflict is sometimes referred to as McNamara’s War. The belief that one man was responsible for the war is misguided and ignores the abundance of information revealed in The Pentagon Papers, and other sources of critical information. In 2003, McNamara sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris in the critically acclaimed documentary “The Fog of War”, in which he tells his life story and answers very direct questions about his role in Washington. While he does speak on Vietnam, he refuses to give into the claim that he was the person responsible for the escalation of U.S. ground troops. Some viewers will undoubtedly be disappointed with the lack of a detailed response to some questions but overall, the film is highly enjoyable and even in his later years, McNamara’s memory was still quite sharp. Times, locations, faces and conversations are easily recalled with near pinpoint accuracy, second only to this book which he appropriately titled “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam “.
The story is part autobiography and historical record of his career, in particular his service in Washington during two administrations. He carefully recounts the decisions that were made behind the scenes as the White House under President Kennedy grappled with looming advance of North Vietnamese troops against its southern neighbor ruled by a highly unpopular government that was unable to win support for its cause. Today, we know that at no time did South Vietnam have a stable government to resist the North. The assassinations of the Diem brothers two weeks before Kennedy’s murder, set the stage for the next battleground where America would unleash its fighting machine. And yet the question remains, why? McNamara asks himself that same question and here he attempts to finally put to the rest rumors and misstatements so that we can understand Vietnam’s tragedies and lessons. He comes across very frank in the book but there will always remain the question of how much did he refrain from saying, possibly due to the sensitive nature of the subject and possibly to avoid legal action by the U.S. Government. Putting that aside, he does go into great detail about several topics, showing the deadly mistakes that he and his superiors made as Vietnam became the crisis that would not go away.
Some readers will undoubtedly feel that McNamara should accept more blame than he does. To many, he is seen as the brain behind the operation and the whiz kid with all of the facts. Kennedy had prided himself of bringing together what David Halberstam called The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, the President’s cabinet was filled with some of the greatest minds to ever work in Washington but tragically and regrettably, mistakes and error in judgment allowed even these great minds to further escalate tensions in Vietnam and plunge American into its most unpopular war. The book can be seen as a sort of apology by McNamara for his role at the time but I did feel that there was more he could said to show his full regret. I do give him credit for being able to point the finger at himself and accept his share of the blame for the death and destruction that became the ten year war in Vietnam. Notwithstanding, the book is a good read and helps the reader understand where America went wrong in Vietnam.