I graduated from high school in 1968, right after the Tet offensive, Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race, and the King assassination. Enrolling in University earned me a student deferral from the draft and in anticipation of having to serve after college I marched around for two years in Army ROTC. It was a wonderful experience, having flour poured by protestors on shoes I had spent an hour to shine, and cleaning a rifle once a week that couldn’t be fired.
In the Fall of 1969 a new draft lottery gave me a draft number of 114. It looked like with Nixon’s Vietnamization policy, nobody with a lottery number over 100 would be drafted, so I quit ROTC the next semester. Ironically Number 1 was September 14th. I was born on September 15th of the early morning hours. Lucky me.
All this reflection made me go back and reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (Wordstrings, $25.00) published in 1972. Halberstam dissected the reasons and the persons responsible for getting America involved in Vietnam. As the war in the south began to heat up the Kennedy administration was fresh off its victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Defense secretary Robert McNamara believed that Cuba reflected the perfect application of the threat of force along with offers to talk through back channels and that something similar would work again in Vietnam. Kennedy gradually increased the number of American “advisors” in South Vietnam, allowing them to come closer and closer to engaging in actual combat.
Then in 1963 only a month before Kennedy was assassinated the first big turning point arrived on the way to disaster. South Vietnamese President Diem was a Catholic as were about 1 million southerners who had fled the communist regime in the north. However, Diem was corrupt and clumsy in his dealings with the Buddhist majority in the south. When Buddhist monks began to burn themselves alive for the cameras, pressure grew on Kennedy to either get out of Vietnam or support a change in leadership in the country. Kennedy opted for the latter. Although he did not authorize the assassination of Diem, Diem was killed and a military junta took over the country. South Vietnam had become America’s problem child.
When Johnson took office, he wanted to push through civil rights legislation, and his Great Society program. Vietnam was a distraction, a mess he felt he had inherited from Kennedy. US destroyers were purportedly attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, leading to the Congressional resolution authorizing American intervention. As the situation grew worse militarily the overall US Commander in the country, William Westmoreland demanded more troops. Enamored with McNamara’s theory of gradualism and hoping that a “draw” could be obtained like what happened in Korea, Johnson dribbled out to Vietnam consistently less manpower than Westmoreland requested, while assuring Americans that the war would be both contained and eventually won. We only sent enough force to keep from losing.
Then I moved on to H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty (Harper’s $26) from 1997. His book, originally a doctoral thesis advocated:
"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of The New York Times, or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C., even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war. . . . [It was] a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisors.
The Joint Chiefs knew in 1965 that the North Vietnamese were tenacious and unwilling to settle for anything except victory and the reunification of the country. North Vietnam produced 200,000 men of military age each year, making Westmoreland’s attrition strategy pointless. Body counts were not going to end the war and the political leadership was unwilling to wage the effort necessary to prevail. McMaster is critical of the Chiefs for not resigning.
Two other books pick up the quagmire as Nixon found it in 1969. No Peace No Honor by Larry Berman (Simon and Schuster $23.00) and A Bitter Peace by Pierre Asselin (UNC Press, $30.00). Both books claim Nixon knew the day he was inaugurated that the war could not be won, but did not want the inevitable collapse to occur on his watch. Thus the American portion of the war continued for nearly four more years until a cynical peace was signed, leaving 150,000 NVA troops in the South.
Americans were treated to the disgusting sight of their ambassador fleeing Saigon from the rooftop of the US embassy and the pitiful South Vietnamese who had thrown in with us being left behind. There followed Boat People, reeducation camps, and the slaughter of millions in Cambodia.
This quick summary brings me to Dwight Birdwell’s A Hundred Miles of Bad Road (Presidio $25.00). Caveat—I went to law school with Dwight, but I think any reader would agree it’s as good a first person story of war as anything else out of Vietnam, or any war for that matter.
Birdwell entered the Army out of high school in rural and poor Eastern Oklahoma. First sent to Korea where he trained on tanks, he went to Vietnam in 1967 when the US was gung ho on winning the war and defeating Communism. The army he joined near Saigon was manned by motivated enlisted men, professional NCOs, and well-trained officers. But the Tet offensive, as it did on the home front, changed the war, even though militarily it was a victory.
We had all been told there is light at the end of the tunnel. And yet the VC and North Vietnamese regulars were able to mount a massive country-wide offensive into almost all cities and many towns. Dwight earned a Silver Star defending the major US airbase at Tan Son Nhut, finding himself almost single-handed firing on an enemy battalion from the lone remaining tank. Sadly he describes the deterioration of the Army, as the men gave way to boredom, drugs, and alcohol in a war they knew the home front cared little about and came to oppose.
Finally the new work Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden (Atlantic $30.00) is riveting. The city, the old imperial capital, was the major effort of the NVA in the Tet offensive and they held it for nearly a month. Bowden’s description of the heroism of the Marine grunts, contrasted with the over-confidence, if not ignorance of the high command makes for heart-breaking reading. The thousands of civilians killed either by inadvertent artillery fire or murdered by the NVA add to the senseless slaughter.
I close with one question: if the men who led us into Iraq had served in Vietnam, would they have been so eager to go to war to create a “democracy?”