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.
The war in Vietnam claimed the lives of fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese lives. It is considered to be the biggest loss suffered by the United States in armed combat. The withdrawal of American soldiers from Saigon in the 1975 left the fractured country in a precarious position that was seized upon the North Vietnamese government which remained determined fortify a united 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 the country was finally unified after the war. The war ended but left millions of soldiers and civilians scarred for life. My uncle served in Vietnam and to this day does not speak about the things he witnessed and did as a combat infantry soldier. Many years have passed since his tours of duty but to this day he does not like loud noises or the fireworks on July 4th. He is one of many soldiers that returned home with the effects from active combat. I sometimes wonder what would his life have been like had he not been sent to Southeast Asia. Furthermore, why did the United States engage in armed conflict in Indochina?
Robert McNamara (1916-2009) served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and has been referred to as the architect of the war. I believe the statement to be slightly exaggerated for the war had may architects and others complicit in the decision making process that resulted in U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, McNamara sat down with filmmaker Errol Morris and answered questions about Vietnam. He was honest and frank in his answers but for some, his answers are still not enough of an explanation as to how and why we were involved in the conflict. Prior to the documentary, McNamara recounted the war and its inception in this book that seeks to help the reader understand the former Secretary of Defense.
In Retrospect is an autobiography and historical record of the steps that were taken by two administrations in dealing with the growing tension in Southeast Asia. Part of the title is the tragedies and lessons of Vietnam. As the reader dives into the book, it will become apparent that there were many tragedies during the ten year war and even more lessons to be learned from the humiliating defeat suffered by America. Today in hindsight it seems absurd that so many great minds made so many severe miscalculations. McNamara understands this and attempts to explain why certain decisions were flawed and how they came to be. His revelations are insightful and provide a good analytical aspect to the war from a man directly involved in its development.
There are those who will finish the book and believe that McNamara was holding back on some things and not being completely upfront. Whether that is the case, only he knows and can no longer tell us. The war was horrible, ugly and regrettable. You may love him or hate him, but this is McNamara’s show and he has a story to tell you if you are willing to listen. The importance of this book is that it can be used as a blueprint for steps to avoid in the event of another conflict involving the United States and a country that is inspired by ideology and dreams of unification and solidarity. Lawmakers, military officials and intelligence officers can look back to McNamara’s words so that there are no further tragedies and lessons to be learned in the future.