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Essential Reads for Understanding the Vietnam War EXCERPT SAMPLER


Excerpt from The Vietnam War © 2017 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns Excerpt from American Reckoning © 2015 by Christian G. Appy Excerpt from The Best and the Brightest © 1992 by David Halberstam Excerpt from When Heaven and Earth Changed Places © 1989 and 2017 by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts Excerpt from Dispatches © 1977 by Michael Herr Excerpt from Embers of War © 2012 by Fredrik Logevall Excerpt from We Were Soldiers Once...and Young © 1992 by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway Excerpt from If I Die in a Combat Zone © 1975 by Tim O'Brien Excerpt from A Bright Shining Lie © 1988 by Neil Sheehan

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Essential Reads for Understanding the Vietnam War Table of Contents The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf, September 2017)

American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy (Penguin Books)

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam (Ballantine Books)

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts (Anchor)

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Vintage)

Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall (Random House Trade Paperbacks)

We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway (Presidio Press)

If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O'Brien (Broadway Books)

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan (Vintage)


CHAPTER 3 THE RIVER STYX JANUARY 1964-DECEMBER 1965

HE TODAY THAT SHEDS HIS BLOOD

Denton Winslow Crocker, Jr. was born June 3, 1947, the oldest of four children. His father and namesake was a biologist. “He was a colicky little baby,” his mother, Jean Marie remembered. “So we were up night and day with him. My husband was a wonderful dad, very loving and attentive. He'd walk the floor with him. And one day he said, ‘He's a regular little Moghul the way he rules our lives.’ So that's where the name came from. We called him Mogie.” Mogie was raised in college towns: Ithaca; Amherst; Waterville, Maine; and finally Saratoga Springs to which the family moved in 1960, when he was thirteen. He was very close to his sister, Carol. “We had a nice big yard where they played,” his mother recalled. “And he would often include Carol. And she said to me once, “Brothers take care of you when you're afraid of dogs.” So she depended on him a lot.” He was an unusual boy. Intelligent, independent-minded and too nearsighted to do well at team sports, he loved books about American history and


American heroes. At twelve, he started a diary in which he kept track of Cold War events. “I hate Reds!” he wrote, and he admired most those who had proved willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause. President John F. Kennedy’s call for every American to ask what he or she could do for their country had mirrored ideas he’d held since he was a small boy. “One evening,” his mother remembered, “when I was reading to Denton before he went to sleep, I chose a passage from Henry V: ‘He today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here and hold their manhood cheap while any speaks that fought with us upon St. Crispin's Day.’ That was the sort of thing that made Denton want to be part of something important and brave.”

THE ABLEST MEN

Tragedy had brought Lyndon Johnson to the presidency in November of 1963. And he would not feel himself fully in charge until he had faced the voters the following year. But his ambitions for his country were as great as those of his hero, Franklin Roosevelt. In his first State of the Union address he declared “unconditional war on poverty,” and during his years in the White House he would lead the struggle to win passage of more than 200 important pieces of legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Federal


aid to education, Head Start, Medicare, and a whole series of bills aimed at ending poverty in America – all components of what he called The Great Society. In foreign affairs, Johnson was admittedly less self-assured. “Foreigners are not like the folks I’m used to,” he once said. To deal with them, he retained in office all of his predecessor’s top advisors – Dean Rusk at State, Robert McNamara at Defense, McGeorge Bundy as his National Security Advisor. “You’re the men I trust the most,” he told them. “You’re the ablest men I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that you’re President Kennedy’s friends, but you are the best anywhere and you must stay. I want you to stand by me.” Publicly, Johnson pledged that “this nation will keep its commitments from South Vietnam to West Berlin.” But privately, the ongoing struggle in Indochina filled him with dread. “I feel just like I grabbed a big juicy worm,” he told an aide, “with a right sharp hook in the middle of it…” The president had opposed the coup that had overthrown and murdered Ngo Dinh Diem, fearing it would make a bad situation worse. It had. Ambassador Lodge’s optimism had lasted only a few weeks. The generals were bickering. General Harkins, who had opposed the coup, and Lodge, who had promoted it, were barely speaking. By mid-December, all the news from Vietnam was bad. There were now as many as 1,000 violent incidents a week, three times as many as there had been just a year earlier. “When Diem was overthrown we were so excited,” Le Cong Huan, the communist regroupee who had helped win the victory at Ap Bac, remembered. “We thought we were close to liberating the


whole country. We began attacking the enemy day and night. More and more puppet soldiers surrendered or defected to our side. More and more young people joined our armed forces.” “They had grown so powerful in the Delta that they launched an offensive,” Neil Sheehan recalled. “You could hear the arming of the Viet Cong because as we made contact with a main force unit back in early '62, they only had one machine gun per battalion. It was sporadic fire. Later, when you made contact it would build up into a drum-fire of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. They destroyed strategic hamlets, were knocking over one outpost after another.” It had quickly become “abundantly clear,” the head of the CIA admitted, that some of Diem’s province chiefs and top commanders had simply lied about how well the war was going, deliberately misleading the Americans with cheery statistics that had little to do with reality. By some estimates, forty percent of the South Vietnamese countryside – and with it more than fifty percent of the people – was now effectively in the hands of the communists. In one province south of Saigon, only 45 of 219 strategic hamlets still provided security to their inhabitants. There were problems in the cities, too. Catholics, stripped of the special status they had enjoyed under Diem, feared the future and clashed openly with the Buddhists. The Buddhists, whose protests had helped bring Diem’s regime to an end, were dissatisfied with the new government, which included in its ranks


soldiers and civilians who had been loyal to the old regime, and did not deliver the protection for their faith or the path to peace for which they’d hoped. They were divided among themselves, as well, but a growing faction had come to believe in what came to be called the “Third Force” – a negotiated settlement that would rid their country of its alien American presence. Robert McNamara pronounced the situation “very disturbing.” If it wasn’t reversed within two-to-three months, he warned the President, South Vietnam might be lost. He proposed a four-month program, meant to convince Hanoi it was in its interest to halt its support of the Viet Cong: U-2 flights over North Vietnam; ARVN sabotage teams parachuted in to blow up rail and highway bridges; U.S. destroyer patrols in the gulf of Tonkin to collect intelligence in support of South Vietnamese commando assaults along the North Vietnamese coast. All of it was to be kept secret. Johnson signed on. He was resolved not to be “the President who saw Southern Asia go the way China went,” he said. “I want [the South Vietnamese] to get off their butts and get out into those jungles and whip the hell out of some communists,” he said. “And then I want ‘em to leave me alone, because I’ve got some bigger things to do right here at home.”

ONLY ONE GOAL


There had been change and turmoil in North Vietnam, too, just as there had been in Saigon and Washington, though Americans knew little about it. At the Ninth Party Plenum that had coincidentally begun in Hanoi on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed, the Politburo had argued over how best to proceed in the war. North Vietnam’s two “big brothers” – the Soviet Union and China – were offering conflicting advice. The Soviets, now championing peaceful co-existence rather than open confrontation with the West, counseled caution. The Chinese accused Moscow of “revisionism” and continued to call for worldwide revolution. Ho Chi Minh was most sympathetic to the Soviets; he was still concerned that his country remained fragile, and believed it better to wage a protracted guerrilla war than to step up the conflict in the South and force the Americans to take a more active role in the war. He remained a beloved figure, but now shared power with younger, more impatient leaders. First Party Secretary Le Duan, closer to the Chinese, argued that the time was right to strike, and outlined a new military strategy, aimed at ending the war in 1964. In the first “Big Battles” phase, the North Vietnamese would massively increase infiltration into the South while the NLF recruited more men and amassed more arms. Then, employing conventional tactics and large unit formations, they would inflict massive losses on the ARVN “puppets.” By late 1965 or early 1966, when South Vietnamese forces had been sufficiently worn down and demoralized, the second phase, or “General


Offensive, General Uprising,” would begin -- simultaneous attacks on South Vietnamese cities. The weakened South Vietnamese forces would be unable to resist while the people rose up and seized power in conjunction with the military, just as they had during the August Revolution in 1945. A “neutralist” government under NLF control would then ask the United States to leave. The politburo debated for two weeks. When Ho raised objections to Le Duan’s plan, the younger man argued that he was too timid; the two most momentous decisions Ho had made– not to oppose the French return to northern Vietnam in 1945 and to accept the temporary partition of Vietnam in 1954 – were proof of it, he charged. In the end, Le Duan carried the day and when the votes were about to be cast and Ho saw that he would lose, he stepped out of the room; from then on, while he would always remain the symbol of the revolution, his actual power over day- to-day operations would diminish while Le Duan’s increased. In the aftermath of the meeting, as regiments of North Vietnamese troops prepared to move south, Le Duan and his allies methodically purged moderate party members who had differed with them. Hundreds of so-called “rightists” and “revisionists” were demoted, dismissed, imprisoned, sent to “re-education camps.” “Uncle [Ho] wavers,” Le Duan said, “but when I left South Vietnam I had alredy prepared everything. I have only one goal – just final victory.”


GET IN OR GET OUT

Unaware of what the communists in Hanoi were planning, American planners wrestled with ongoing problems in Saigon. General Duong Van “Big” Minh, the most important member of the military junta now in charge in Saigon, was proving as independent in his own way as Diem had been in his. Minh wanted to replace the U.S.-financed Strategic Hamlet program with a new scheme that would allow peasants to remain in their homes, and he wanted fewer American advisers visiting the countryside; they reminded people of French imperialism, he said, and suggested that his government was altogether too close to a foreign power. And, from Washington’s point of view, he seemed altogether too sympathetic to a proposal by French president Charles De Gaulle that called for a negotiated settlement and a neutral Vietnam. Most of president Johnson’s advisors were against negotiating when South Vietnam’s situation seemed so precarious. “When we are stronger,” Bundy told the president, “then we can negotiate.” Until then, they needed a South Vietnamese government willing to at least try to win. On January 30th, a group of young ARVN officers, led by General Nguyen Khanh overthrew Big Minh without firing a shot. Khanh was profoundly ambitious and thought reliably hawkish. During his gaudy career he had managed to have fought both for and against the French, to have helped rescue Diem from


the 1960 coup and then become actively involved in the coup that overthrew him in 1963. Johnson did not care about the General’s consistency or his character. “This Khanh is the toughest one they got, and the ablest one they got,” he told a visiting newspaperman. “And [Khanh] said, ‘Screw this neutrality … we ain’t going to do business with the communists … I’m pro-American and I’m taking over.’ Now it’ll take him a little time to get his marbles in a row, just like it’s taking me a little time …. We’re going to try to launch some counterattacks ourselves … We’re going to touch them up a little bit in the days to come.” He sent McNamara to Saigon in mid-March with instructions to show the people of Vietnam that Khanh was “our boy.” “I want to see about a thousand pictures of you with General Khanh,” he told the Defense Secretary, “smiling and waving your arms and showing the people out there that this country is behind Khanh the whole way.” At one joint appearance, General Samuel Wilson, then associate director for USAID field operations, remembered, Khan delivered a long, tedious, speech in Vietnamese, ending with, “Vietnam muôn năm!, (Vietnam, ten thousand years), Vietnam muôn năm!, Vietnam muôn năm!’ “At which point, McNamara grabbed one fist and Maxwell Taylor grabbed the other and held them up, and McNamara leaned over to the microphone and tried to say ‘Vietnam muôn năm’, but, because he wasn't aware of the tonal difference, the crowd practically disintegrated on the cobblestones. What he was saying was something like ‘the little duck, he wants to lie down.’”


“No more of this coup shit,” president Johnson told his advisors. But despite everything Washington tried to do to stabilize the Saigon government, the generals would continue to jockey for power. Buddhists and Catholic continued to clash in the streets. Over the next fourteen months Khanh would cling to power as president or prime minister but he would be forced to form and re-form his governments seven times. One weary Johnson aide suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile. It had quickly become clear that the new policy of clandestine sabotage in and around North Vietnam was having no serious impact on Hanoi’s support for the revolution in the South. None of the CIA-trained commandoes dropped into North Vietnam were ever heard from again. The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged the president to raise the stakes, to “put aside … the self-imposed restrictions which now limit our efforts,” and take far bolder action. The war should immediately be broadened beyond the borders of South Vietnam, they said, to include air attacks on North Vietnamese supply routes in Laos and Cambodia and bombing of military and industrial targets in North Vietnam. The Chiefs also called upon the President to de-emphasize reliance on North Vietnamese troops and send American soldiers into battle, instead. Johnson resisted, fearing that such aggressive moves would pull China into the conflict, just as it had entered the Korean War in 1950. “They say get in or get out,” he complained to McGeorge Bundy, “and I told them … we haven’t got any Congress that will go with us in the war, and we haven’t got any …


mothers that will go with us in the war and … I’m just …a trustee. I’ve got to win an election … and then [I] can make a decision.” But he did agree to increase the number of American advisors from 16,000 to more than 23,000 by the end of 1964. He wanted his own team in Saigon, too. He made Maxwell Taylor his ambassador, and selected forty-nine-year-old General William Westmoreland, a decorated commander from World War Two and Korea who had served for six months as General Harkins’ deputy, to lead the American military effort. “Have we got anyone with a military mind that can give us some military plans for winning that war?,” Johnson asked McNamara. “Let’s get some more of something my friend because I’m going to have a heart attack if you don’t get me something… because what we’ve got is what we’ve had since ’54. We’re not getting it done. We’re losing,” A May 27th phone call with McGeorge Bundy made clear that Vietnam continued to fill the president with dread.

LYNDON JOHNSON: I just stayed awake last night thinking about this thing – the more I think of it … it looks like to me we’re getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with once we’re committed. I believe the Chinese Communists are coming into it. I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. Amd it’s just the biggest damn mess I ever saw.


McGEORGE BUNDY: It is, it’s an awful mess.

LYNDON JOHNSON: … I look at this [Marine] sergeant of mine this morning, got six little old kids, … and he’s getting out my things and bringing me my night reading and all that kind of stuff and I just thought about ordering those kids in there, and what the hell am I ordering him out there for?....

McGEORGE BUNDY: Yup. Yup.

LYNDON JOHNSON: Now of course if you start running the communists … may just chase you into your own kitchen.

McGEORGE BUNDY: Yup. That’s the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this things comes apart on us. That’s the dilemma. That’s exactly the dilemma.

Polls showed Johnson with a commanding lead over his likely Republican opponent, Senator Barry F. Goldwater of Arizona, a blunt uncompromising critic of what he charged was the administration’s weakness in the face of communist aggression. But Johnson felt he did not yet have the political capital to take


further action in Vietnam, and he didn’t want to repeat the mistake he believed Harry Truman had made when he sent troops to Korea without congressional approval. Unless Congress was in at the “take-off,” Johnson told McNamara, they wouldn’t take responsibility if there were a “crash-landing.” William Bundy -- McGeorge Bundy’s older brother and the newlyappointed assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs – was asked to chair a committee that drafted a Congressional resolution, authorizing the president to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States,” to be sent to Capitol Hill when and if the time was right.

GRANDMA’S NIGHTGOWN

On July 30, 1964, the South Vietnamese, under the direction of the U.S. military, shelled two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tiny North Vietnamese Navy was put on high alert. What followed was one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history. Three days later, on the afternoon of August 2, 1964, the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox was moving slowly through international waters in the Gulf, on an intelligence-gathering mission in support of further South Vietnamese action against the North. When the commander of a North Vietnamese torpedo-boat squadron spotted the Maddox, he moved to attack her. The Americans opened fire


and missed. None of the North Vietnamese torpedoes hit the American destroyer, either. But carrier-based U.S. planes roared in shortly afterwards, damaged two of the North Vietnamese boats and left a third dead in the water. Ho Chi Minh was shocked to hear of the attack and demanded to know who had ordered it. The officer on duty was officially reprimanded for impulsiveness. No one may ever know who gave the order to fire the tropedoes -or why he gave it. It may simply have been the action of an over-zealous squadron commander. But some believe it was secretly Le Duan’s doing, a clumsy attempt at provoking just enough of an American response to transform a civil war into a war of “National Liberation “that would make it easier to draft young men and rally international support. To this day, even the Vietnamese cannot agree. In Washington, the Joint Chiefs urged immediate retaliation against North Vietnam. The president refused. Instead, the White House issued a warning about the “grave consequences” that would follow what it called “any further unprovoked” attacks – even though Johnson knew the attack had in fact been provoked by the South Vietnamese raids on North Vietnamese islands. Both sides were playing a dangerous game. Two days later, on August 4, jittery American radio operators aboard the Maddox monitoring North Vietnamese radio traffic thought they heard that a “military operation” was imminent. (Actually, they’d mistranslated the conversation they’d heard; Hanoi had simply called upon torpedo boat commanders to be ready in case of a new raid by the South Vietnamese.)


The Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, braced for a fresh attack. So did the White House. Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, U.S. commander for the Pacific, proposed that in the event of a second attack the destroyer commander be empowered to pursue the South Vietnamese torpedo boats to their base and then destroy it. Robert McNamara telephoned the president. He thought the Admiral’s suggestion precipitous. “There will be ample time for us, after a second attack,” he told Johnson, “and you can then decide how far you wish to pursue the attacker into his base area.” Instead, “ I personally would recommend to you, after a second attack on our ships, that we do retaliate against the coast of North Vietnam some way or other..”.

LYNDON JOHNSON: What I was thinking about when I was eating breakfast: …when they move on us and they shoot at us, I think we not only ought to shoot at them, but almost simultaneously pull one of these things that you’ve been doing, on one of their bridges or something.

ROBERT McNAMARA: Exactly. I quite agree with you, Mr. President…

LYNDON JOHNSON: But I wish we could have something that we’ve already picked out, and just hit about three of them damn quick, right after….


No second attack ever actually took place, but the sonar operators convinced themselves one had. The attack was “probable but not certain,” Johnson was told. Since he believed it had probably occurred, the president decided it should not go unanswered. That evening, he asked for time on all three television networks. “Aggression by terror against the peaceful villagers of South Vietnam has now been joined by open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America,” he told the country. “Yet our response, for the present, will be limited and fitting. We Americans know, although others appear to forget, the risk of spreading conflict. We still seek no wider war.” The next day, Johnson flew to Rochester, New York where he was to make a campaign speech. Secretary McNamara reached him at the airport with the results of the first American air raid on North Viet Nam.

ROBERT McNAMARA: The reaction from North Vietnam and China is slight so far. Less than I would have anticipated.

LYNDON JOHNSON: How many planes did you lose?

ROBERT McNAMARA: We lost two aircraft … and possibly a third … Two other aircraft were damaged. One pilot got out of the plane.


That pilot was Lieutenant Everett Alvarez from Salinas, California. He was aboard the U.S.S. carrier Constellation when his squadron of Skyhawk A-4’s was ordered to attack torpedo boat installations and oil facilities near the port of Hon Gai. For the first time, American pilots were going to drop bombs on North Vietnam. “When we approached the target coming down from altitude,” Alvarez recalled, “it was obvious that they could pick us up on their radar. I remember my knees shaking. And, I was saying to myself, ‘Holy smokes, I'm going into war. This is war.’ I was a bit scared. But once we went in and they started firing at us, the fear went away. Everything became smooth, deathly quiet in the cockpit. My plane was like a ballet in the sky, and I was just performing. And then I got hit.”

Alvarez ejected from his spiraling plane and splashed into the Gulf of Tonking. Coastal militiamen captured him and turned him over to the North Vietnamese military. “One fellow was yelling at me in Vietnamese. I started talking to him in Spanish. Don’t ask me why. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyway, after they discovered ‘U.S.A.’ on my ID card they started speaking to me in English.” He assumed he would be treated as a prisoner of war. “I was sticking to the code of conduct and gave them my name, rank, service number and date of birth. But they quickly reminded me that there was no declaration of war. So I


could not be considered a prisoner of war. And I says to myself, ‘You know what? They're right.’” Everett Alvarez was the first American airman to be shot out of the sky over North Vietnam – and the first to be imprisoned there. Now, the president sent up to Capitol Hill the resolution he had asked William Bundy to help draft two months earlier. On August 7, 1964, three days after the capture of Lt. Alvarez and the president’s address to the nation, the Senate passed what came to be called the Tonkin Gulf resolution, 88-2. Only Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon voted against it. Not a single Congressman opposed it in the House. The resolution, Johnson told his aides, was like “Grandma’s nightgown – it covers everything.” He now felt himself empowered to undertake combat operations in Southeast Asia -- whenever he felt such action was necessary. Goldwater could no longer plausibly claim Johnson was too timid when dealing with North Vietnam, while those voters concerned that the United States was in danger of becoming too deeply involved admired the president’s measured response. Johnson’s approval rating jumped overnight from 42 to 72 percent. The American public believed their president. Le Duan and his comrades in Hanoi did not. They knew the attacks had not been “unprovoked,” and had little faith in the president’s claim that he sought no wider war. They resolved to step up their efforts to win the struggle in the South before the United States escalated its presence by sending in combat troops.


For the first time, Hanoi began sending North Vietnamese regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the South. The diplomat John Negroponte was then a junior official in the Saigon embassy. “Shortly after I got there,” he remembered. “We got the first reports of North Vietnamese troops coming into the South. A couple of prisoners were captured from a North Vietnamese unit up near Hué. A lot of us sat back and said, ‘Whoa, this is a significant change.’ But when our consul in Hue sent his report in about the capture of two North Vietnamese noncommissioned officers, the reaction in Washington was, “Mr. Hebley shall not communicate directly with Washington anymore. He must vet all his reports through Saigon.” They didn't want that bad news during the 1964 election campaign. Mr. Johnson didn't really want any particular surprises during that period.” But as Johnson and Goldwater campaigned across the country there were surprises, nonetheless. In mid-October, Soviet premier Khruschev was overthrown. The next day, China exploded its first atomic bomb. “We can’t let Goldwater and Red China both get the bomb at the same time,” Johnson told an aide. “Then, the shit would really hit the fan.” “There are those who say you ought to go north and drop bombs,” he told his campaign crowds. “We don’t want our boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. We are not about to start another war and we’re not about to run away from where we are… As far as I am concerned, I want to be very cautious and careful, and use


it only as a last resort when I start dropping bombs around that are likely to involve American boys in a war in Asia with 700 million Chinese. On the last day of October, communist guerillas shelled the American airbase at Bien Hoa. Five Americans died. Thirty were wounded. Five B-57 bombers were destroyed on the ground and 13 more were damaged. Senator Goldwater said it was time for the president to admit the United States was already fighting an undeclared war in South -- and get about the business of winning it. Ambassador Taylor urged the president to retaliate with an air strike against a MIG base in North Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs advised him to go much further, to mount an immediate all-out air attack on 94 targets in the North and to dispatch Army and Marine units to South Vietnam, as well. He refused. Election day was just two days away. On November 3, Lyndon Johnson won the presidency in his own right and by a landslide; 46 states to Goldwater’s four; the largest popular vote and the greatest victory margin in history up to that time. Within a month, the president would approve what was called a “graduated response” – limited air attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and “tit for tat” retaliatory raids on North Vietnamese targets. But he would not undertake sustained bombing of the North until the South Vietnamese got their own house in order. Johnson doubted airpower alone would ever work and feared that he would eventually have to send in ground troops, though he was not yet willing publicly to say so.


NOTHING EXCEPT MY OWN CONSCIENCE

Mogie Crocker was seventeen in the autumn of 1964 and had been restless since the summer. After the Gulf of Tonkin incident he had confided to his sister Carol that he wanted to join the Navy but knew his parents would not sign the consent form that would have allowed a seventeen-year-old to enlist. His country seemed to be edging toward war and he saw it as his duty to be part of the world-wide struggle against Communism. “At that point,” Carol recalled, “I couldn't understand why this would be so important to him. The war wasn’t that prominent in the world I was traveling in. There was some discussion at home. It was on the news. But it seemed like a very distant war at that time. And that was part of the mystery to me of why it was important to him.” Mogie’s parents tried to persuade him that he could be more useful to his country with a college education than simply as one more soldier. He was adamant and decided to run away from home. “He was home the night before,” his mother remembered. “And we had a regular family supper. He said he'd rather be home than go to youth group at church. So that was pleasant. And then Monday morning he left for school. And I watched him leave from the back window. That night he didn't come in for


supper and he hadn't called, which was very unusual because all the kids were good about keeping in touch.” Mogie’s parents eventually found a letter, addressed to “Mum and Dad” “After weeks of thought I have come to the decision that I must run away and join the service. Please do not search for me! It will only cause many people a lot of useless trouble as I will fight my way out if anyone tries to capture me. Believe me when I say that nothing except my own conscience has made me do this.” Without American military help, he wrote, South East Asia was sure to fall to the communists. He wanted to help the Vietnamese “keep their freedom.” He was not ready for college, wanted to earn his own way in the world “while helping people at the same time.”

I still believe that individual freedom in the most important thing in the world and I am willing to die to defend that idea. Don’t be too upset by my running away and don’t pay attention to the jerks who may try to say you’re bad parents. I will write you as soon as I am eighteen at which time you could not get me out of the service. My main concern in running away is how it would affect you, so please don’t worry. Try to understand my decision. Love, Mogie


“When my parents started to share with us that they didn't know where he was,” Carol recalled, “and that they had called the police and that his bicycle had been found it took on a really unreal feeling for me. I actually remember going into my room and looking under my bed and telling him come out. I assumed he was hiding somewhere. There was no way he had actually left. I eventually happened to look in my piggy bank and he had taken the money I had and left a note for me. But he hadn't indicated where he'd gone or why. But he had promised he would pay me back. I'm not sure he ever did.” The police chief issued a thirteen-state missing-person bulletin. Mogie’s parents contacted their Congressman, recruiting centers, the FBI. Their church offered special prayers. Mogie did not call, did not write. The Crockers hoped they might hear from him on Christmas and when they didn’t, his mother wrote him a long letter. “I pray, my darling son, that Jesus will strengthen and comfort you in whatever you are doing and fill your heart with love of all that is good,” she wrote. “And I shall still be waiting to fly to the door and hug you and call out to our home -- and the world --- ‘Mogie is home!’” Then, she folded the letter and put it away. She had no idea where to send it. Mogie was in Montreal. He had hoped to board a ship there and somehow join British forces fighting Communists in Malaya. He had left home with only $30 -- $ 25 his mother had just given him for painting the front porch and five he’d stolen from his sister’s piggy bank. It hadn’t gone far. He’d slept several


nights in a church, got a job as a stock clerk in a department store but couldn’t earn enough to pay his rent. Shorty after New Year’s, he boarded a bus for New York City. It passed within two blocks of his house in Saratoga Springs but he was too proud to get off. He was gone about four months, his mother remembered. “When he finally called us, he was in New York City at a Y. And he told us that he had to give a cigarette lighter to the manager for security to make the phone call. But he still was determined and said that he would not come home unless we agreed to sign for him. And he wouldn't be eighteen until June. Well, we said we'd sign for him. And he did come home. My husband felt it was an honor-bound agreement. I was hoping that I could change his mind.”

A LITTLE DIEN BIEN PHU

Marine lieutenant Philip Brady arrived in Saigon just a few days after Lyndon Johnson’s election, one of the new advisors sent to help shore up the South Vietnamese military. He was eager, he remembered, “to get into the first war I could find.” There were still so few advisors in Vietnam that General Westmoreland could greet each batch personally. He was an impressive-looking square-jawed man with an impressive record: some of the men he’d led in Tunisia, Sicily and


Normandy during World War II, called him “Superman;” he’d fought with distinction in Korea, commanded the 101st Airborne, served as Superintendent of West Point. TIME magazine called him “the sinewy personification of the American fighting man.” “General Westmoreland told us that we were down on the five-yard line and we just needed a few more to go to get the touchdown,” Brady remembered.” Ambassador Taylor briefed the newcomers, too. “He said he'd been through battles and wars and he had the clear sense, the professional judgment, that this thing was going to be wrapped up and we were going to carry the day.” Brady was assigned to assist Captain Franklin P. Eller, senior advisor to the 4th Battalion of the South Vietnamese Marine Corps, an elite unit whose members wore distinctive camouflage uniforms and called themselves the “Killer Sharks.” Eller had been in country for six months, long enough to come to admire the fighting qualities of the men he helped to lead. Brady came to admire them, too. “You were told that you were going over there to guide, educate and elevate these little fellows on how to really fight a war. But when you got there you saw that they already knew exactly how to fight. You were there simply, fundamentally to guide assets they didn't have— American air strikes, American artillery. They knew exactly what to do. They knew how to fight.” Among the men he came to know best was platoon leader Tran Ngoc Toan, the son of a trucker, who had escaped life with a hostile stepmother by


entering the South Vietnamese military academy at Dalat. He’d been fighting the communists for more than two years, had been among those who’d attacked Ngo Dinh Diem’s palace during the 1963 coup, and was frankly suspicious of Americans, who seemed to him to have a “superiority complex.” But he liked Phil Brady. “He was a tall guy and big,” he recalled. “I told him ‘You are not my advisor, you are my helper.’ And also, ‘You are so tall and big that I want you to stay away from me because if you get too close some Viet Cong sniper will shoot at you and hit me.’” Brady, Toan and the 4th Marine Battalion were stationed near Bien Hoa airbase in reserve, waiting to be called into action. Reports reached them of the sudden hit-and-run raids by platoon-sized enemy forces that had plagued the South Vietnamese for years. But there were new rumors now, of larger enemy units moving through the countryside, as well. Le Duan’s plan for a swift and decisive victory was well underway. In Saigon, the ruling generals remained preoccupied with jockeying for power. On December 20th, Ambassador Taylor called in general Khanh and four of his rivals. “We Americans are tired of coups,” he told them. “You have made a real mess. We cannot carry you forever, if you do things like this.” After Taylor’s dressing-down, General Khanh complained to an American newspaperman that the United States was now acting like a colonial power, and told a national radio audience he refused ever to fight “to carry out the policy of any foreign country.”


Four days later, on Christmas Eve, two guerillas dressed in South Vietnamese army uniforms managed to drive a car filled with explosives into the parking area beneath the Brinks Hotel in the heart of downtown Saigon. It was home to scores of American officers. Two died. Fifty-eight were injured. Clearly, things were not improving for the South Vietnamese regime. Meanwhile, for weeks, more than 2,000 NLF main-force troops, members of the 271st and 272nd regiments, had been filing quietly out of the Central Highlands in small groups. Fed and sheltered by village sympathizers along the way, they marched undetected some 125 miles into Phuoc Tuy, a supposedly “pacified� coastal province less than 40 miles southeast of Saigon. Main force units from elsewhere joined them there, and 40 tons of heavy weapons were unloaded on the coast under cover of darkness – mortars, machine guns, and recoilless rifles, capable of blasting tanks. The communists had never attempted anything on this scale this before. Their target was the strategic hamlet of Binh Gia, surrounded by jungle and rubber plantations and home to some 6,000 Catholic, anti-Communist refugees from the North, many of them the wives and children of South Vietnamese army personnel. The communist plan was to seize the hamlet and then annihilate the forces Saigon was sure to send to retake it. Before dawn on December 28th, their advance units easily overwhelmed the village militia and occupied Binh Gia. When two crack South Vietnamese Ranger companies were helicoptered in the next day, they were ambushed and


shot to pieces. Another South Vietnamese unit counterattacked, but failed to drive the communists out of the village. On the morning of the 30th, the 4th Marine Battalion was flown in to relieve and reinforce the battered Rangers. By then, the enemy had withdrawn into the rubber plantation east of the hamlet. Frightened hamlet residents crawled out of their hiding places and greeted their liberators with bananas and tea. The South Vietnamese marines moved through the streets. “We saw things we'd never seen before,” Brady recalled, “like commo wire used for field phones and all kinds of things that you normally didn't see in the aftermath of a battle with the Viet Cong. They had put together two thousand, twenty-five hundred men, the largest force they ever had. This was new, not an overnight thing, very carefully planned.” That evening, a helicopter with four men aboard, flying above the neat rows of thickly-planted rubber trees east of the hamlet, spotted communist positions and came in for a closer look. “It was flying high first, and then lower,“ Colonel Nguyen Van Tong, a political officer in the NLF' 9th Division remembered. “The commander of our anti-aircraft company asked for the order to shoot. A minute later [the helicopter] was hit and burning, and fell down on our position.” From Binh Gia, Phil Brady also saw it fall. “All of a sudden, you could see the tracers come out of the plantation, hit the helicopter and it crashed.” Reached by radio, the South Vietnamese colonel in command of the area ordered that a


patrol be sent to the crash site to see if anyone had survived. Both Captain Eller and the Vietnamese battalion commander, Major Nguyen Van Nho, argued that it was unlikely anyone could have survived. They were ordered to start toward the downed helicopter the following morning Meanwhile, Colonel Tong remembered, “I came to the place where the airplane was shot down and I saw four dead Americans. Their bodies were burned. I told my soldiers to bury them. Later on, I would realize how valuable the lives of American advisors were. They sent in a whole puppet battalion to rescue four dead Americans.� At eight a.m., a company-sized marine patrol set out on foot for the crash site. Captain Eller went along in case an air strike was needed. They found the charred helicopter and four mounds marking the hastily-dug graves of the dead Americans. The company commander ordered his men to establish a tight perimeter while four men dug up the dead. As they worked, enemy troops appeared among the trees and opened fire. Seventy-five mm. recoilless rifle shells exploded among the rubber trees, sending branches and shards of wood everywhere. Mortar shells fell among the marines. Major Eller called in Huey gunships and Skyraiders to provide suppressive counterfire and radioed to the senior American advisor in the area to tell him he and his men had been ambushed. A bullet struck the rim of Eller’s helmet and shattered. Fragments from it tore off most of his nose. Hastily bandaged but bleeding badly, he and


what was left of the company started back toward Binh Gia. Twelve dead marines were left behind. At noon, Major Nho and three companies –326 men – started back toward the crash site. Phil Brady went with them. Tran Ngoc Toan led the first company. communist snipers appeared between the trees, fired a shot or two, then withdrew, luring the marines further and further into the plantation. They reached the downed helicopter at about two o’clock. Fearing another ambush, Brady urged Nho to go no further, but the Major sent Toan and his men still deeper into the plantation in search of a likely landing zone. An American chopper soon dropped into the clearing. The crew jumped out and lifted the four American corpses into the chopper. Toan appealed to them to carry the twelve South Vietnamese dead away, as well. They refused -- another chopper was on the way, they said, then lifted off and clattered away over the trees. But no helicopter came. The Marines stayed with their dead comrades. The shadows of the trees grew longer. Rather than wait further, Brady suggested they carry the bodies back to Binh Gia. Major Nho said no. “I was getting a little bit antsy,” Brady recalled, “because we were losing light and we were outside of our artillery range. I told the battalion commander we had to go. Nho ignored me. At about four-thirty I tried again. Again, he ignored me.” One of Brady’s marines spotted shadowy movement among the trees just beyond the plantation’s edge. “Clearly, they weren’t gone,” Brady said. “So at five twenty-five, I went to the


major, and said, “Major, we have to get out of here now.” And Nho said, ‘Don't you forget I am a major and you are a lieutenant.’ He turned on his heel and walked away. Ten minutes later all hell broke loose.” Mortar shells rained down on the Marine positions. Bugles blew and wave after wave of enemy troops, some wearing Marine uniforms stripped from the dead, advanced toward the Marines from three sides. Brady called in A-1 Skyraiders and helicopter gunships but the foliage was too dense to spot the communists as they rushed from tree to tree. Major Nho was killed. So were 28 more of the 4th Battalion’s 35 officers. Toan was shot through the thigh, then through the calf. He kept firing at the figures running toward him through the trees. “ I didn't feel any pain at all,” he remembered. “I didn’t have time to think about it. They kept coming and I was still fighting as a soldier.”


INTRODUCTION

Who Are We? We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else. —Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers (1974)

“I didn’t know there was a bad war,” George Evans recalled. He grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Starting at age six, before and after school, he helped his father deliver blocks of ice to poor and ­working-​­class people who could not afford the shiny new refrigerators advertised in all the magazines. George understood that the American Dream was beyond the grasp of his parents and most of their friends and neighbors. He was a streetwise kid. He knew life was difficult and the future uncertain. But there was one thing George trusted ­completely—​­his nation’s military power and the good that it did. With all his heart he believed the United States was on the side of justice and freedom and all our wars were noble. Despite personal hardships, you could always count on Americans to be the good guys, and always victorious. It was simply unimaginable that the United States might betray that faith. “I was raised in a family and neighborhood of extreme patriots,” George explains. “My father was the commander of his VFW post and I got to go to the club and hang out with the veterans. I was their little mascot.” He especially looked forward to Flag Day, when he would help the World War II

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vets decorate the graves in a military cemetery. “Imagine how beautiful it looked to a kid to see hundreds of graves in a geometric pattern, all with shining bronze plates and flags waving in the wind. You just can’t exaggerate the pull of the military on kids from neighborhoods like mine. Everything you’d seen and heard your whole life made it feel inevitable and right.” But George’s faith in America’s global goodness was forever destroyed in Vietnam, where he served as an air force medic. “I realized that the country I was from was not the country I thought it was.” One day at the hospital in Cam Ranh Bay he was ordered to clean the bodies of two young Vietnamese boys. They were dead. As he was sponging one of them with soapy water, a Vietnamese woman raced into the room. She must have been the mother, but George wasn’t sure. “I’ll never forget her face. I can see her still. I remember her hitting me on the chest, grabbing me. Then she was running back and forth between the two bodies, from child to child.” George later learned that the boys were hit by an American military truck driver who may have been competing with other drivers over “who could hit a kid. They had some disgusting name for it, something like ‘gook hockey.’ ” With the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U.​S. history has demanded more ­soul-​­searching than the war in Vietnam. The false pretexts used to justify our intervention, the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare, the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw despite public opposition, and the stunning failure to achieve our stated ­objectives—​ ­these harrowing realities provoked a profound national identity crisis, an American reckoning. The war made citizens ask fundamental questions: Who are we? What defines us as a nation and a people? What is our role in the world? Just as the Civil War forced Americans to confront the reality of slavery, an institution that stood in glaring contradiction to the nation’s avowed ideals of human freedom and equality, the Vietnam War compelled millions of citizens to question the once widely held faith that their country is the greatest force for good in the world, that it always acts to advance democracy and human rights, that it is superior in both its power and its virtue. And just as the Civil War ended slavery without resolving racism and racial injustice, the Vietnam War ended without resolving the conflicting lessons and legacies of America’s first defeat. The Vietnam War still matters because the crucial questions it raised

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remain with us today: Should we continue to seek global military supe­ riority? Can we use our power justly? Can we successfully intervene in distant lands to crush insurgencies (or support them), establish order, and promote democracy? What degree of sacrifice will the public bear and who among us should bear it? Is it possible for American citizens and their elected representatives to change our nation’s foreign policy or is it perma­ nently controlled by an imperial presidency and an unaccountable m ­ ilitary-​ ­industrial complex? Our answers to those questions are shaped by the experience and memory of the Vietnam War, but in ways that are cloudy and confusing as well as contested. I believe we could make better contributions to our current debates if we had a clearer understanding of that war’s impact on our national identity, from its origins after World War II all the way to the present. But this is not a conventional chronological history. There are already many good ones. Nor am I interested in irresolvable speculation about how the war might have turned out differently if only other decisions had been made or alternative strategies pursued. I want instead to explore the ways the war changed our national ­self-​­perception. It is such an important and even obvious subject you might assume it has been thoroughly examined and exhausted. After all, there is now a vast literature about various aspects of the Vietnam W ­ ar—​­so many books we don’t even have a precise count and no one could possibly read them all. Surprisingly, however, only a small number have taken on this topic and none have tracked it over a s­ ix-​­decade span. My ambition, therefore, is not just to enrich our understanding of the Vietnam War, but to show how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our nation’s global role from the early days of the Cold War to the wars of the ­t wenty-​­fi rst century. To do so, I have drawn on a great variety of s­ ources—​­everything from movies, songs, memoirs, novels, and advertisements to official documents, polling data, media coverage, Pentagon studies, government propaganda, presidential speeches, and contemporary commentary. And, of course, I have relied on a long list of superb scholars and journalists whose work made this one possible. My main argument is that the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national i­dentity—​­the broad faith that the United States is a

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unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life. A common term for this belief is “American exceptionalism.” Because that term has been bandied about so much in recent years as a political slogan and a litmus test of patriotism, we need to be reminded that it has deep roots and meaning throughout our history. In many ways the nation was founded on the faith that it was blessed with unrivaled resources, freedoms, and prospects. So deep were those convictions they took on the power of ­myth—​­they were beyond debate. Dissenting movements throughout our history did little to challenge the faith. That’s what made the Vietnam War’s impact so significant. Never before had such a wide range of Americans come to doubt their nation’s supe­ riority; never before had so many questioned its use of military force; never before had so many challenged the assumption that their country had higher moral standards. Of course, the faith in American exceptionalism has hardly disappeared. Countless times since the Vietnam War our presidents have invoked it in support of wars and interventions around the world. Although the public has been more reluctant to use military force than its leaders, there is still substantial support for the idea that our power is benign and that America remains a singularly admirable nation. That’s why virtually everyone who runs for higher office in the United States pledges allegiance to the creed. Yet even many ardent believers understand that the faith is no longer as broad or assured as it was before the Vietnam War. In 2000, for example, on the ­t wenty-​­fi fth anniversary of the war’s end, Henry Kissinger wrote: “One of the most important casualties of the Vietnam tragedy was the tradition of American ‘exceptionalism.’ The once n­ ear-​­universal faith in the uniqueness of our v­ alues—​­and their relevance around the w ­ orld—​­gave way to intense divisions over the very validity of those values and the lengths we should go to promote and defend them.” Kissinger had been almost as responsible as President Richard Nixon for prolonging the Vietnam War an additional six years. When it finally ended in 1975, 58,000 Americans had died, and three million Vietnamese. Yet in 2000 Kissinger chose to mourn the loss of

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American exceptionalism. For him, there was nothing so terrible about the war to justify any doubt about our nation’s superiority. Unlike Kissinger, many others believed the war exposed American exceptionalism as a dangerous myth. They did not regret its passing. National aggrandizement had led the United States into an unjust and unwinnable war. In Robert Stone’s 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, for example, John Converse is a disillusioned American journalist in Vietnam who persuades an old Marine Corps buddy to smuggle heroin into the United States. As they discuss the deal, with gunfire in the background, Converse says: “We didn’t know who we were till we got here. We thought we were something else.” The war, he implies, was a kind of awakening. It enabled Americans to recognize their capacity for bloodlust and evil. His friend Ray Hicks offers a witheringly sardonic comment about the price of that awakening: “What a bummer for the gooks,” he says. Americans were learning hard truths about themselves and their nation on the backs of a people they dehumanized and killed and whose country they wrecked. It was an expensive education and Vietnam bore by far its greatest cost. For many people, major reappraisals came slowly, a testament to their deep trust in American institutions and values. In the 1950s and early 1960s, before the major military escalation in Vietnam and the shocking revelations it brought, Americans had remarkable faith in their elected officials. Until the ­mid-​­1960s, roughly t­ hree-​­quarters of Americans told pollsters they trusted the government to do the right thing. Therefore, when public leaders announced that the United States was in Vietnam to save the people of South Vietnam from Communist aggression and to defend freedom and democracy, few challenged the accuracy of the claim or the necessity of the commitment. And when Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy said the struggle in Vietnam was required to prevent Communism from taking over one nation after another like tumbling dominoes until our own shores would be directly imperiled, that seemed not just a reasonable theory, but a frightening possibility. And the broad acceptance of Cold War policies was bolstered by the era’s equally broad religiosity. The idea that the United States was engaged in a godly crusade against atheistic Communism was not an extreme position in the 1950s, but part of everyday discourse.

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The Best and the Brightest TWENTIETH-ANNIVERSARY EDITION

David Halberstam

BALLANTINE

B O O K S - N E W

YORK


A Fawcett Book Published by The Random House Publishing Group Copyright Š 1969, 1971, 1972, 1992 by David Halberstam All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Fawcett Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. This work was originally published in different form by Random House, Inc., in 1972. This edition published by arrangement with Random House, Inc. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: ATLANTA Magazine: Excerpts from "Notes of a Native Son" by Ray Moore (interview with Dean Rusk originally for WSV-TV) from the October 1965 issue of ATLANTA Magazine. Copyright Š 1965 by ATLANTA Magazine. Reprinted by permission of ATLANTA Magazine, Ray Moore, and WSB-TV. Fawcett is a registered trademark and the Fawcett colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc. www.ballantinebooks.com Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 93-90154 ISBN 0-449-90870-4 Cover design by Susan Grube Manufactured in the United States of America First Ballantine Books Edition: November 1993 20

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I

.REMEMBER THE MOMENT WHEN I FIRST BEGAN TO UNDER-

stand why I felt so driven on this particular book. I was one year into the legwork and had gone to a party for a friend's book. Teddy White, who had been an important role model for me—his Fire in the Ashes had come out when I was a sophomore in college—was off in a corner, I had joined him, and we were talking about American politics. Suddenly another colleague wandered over, turned to Teddy, and asked—I was stunned by the bluntness of the question, it was the kind of thing you might think but did not dare ask—"What is it that makes a bestseller, anyway?" Teddy, whose first book about the collapse of China (Thunder Out of China), had reflected much of his pessimism about Chiang's forces which had been suppressed by his employer, Harry Luce, had surprised us both with his answer: "A book that burns in your belly—something that has to be written before you can go on to anything else." He had, I realized in the weeks and months to come, defined not just one of his earlier books, but the one I was working on as well, an account of the origins of the war in Vietnam. That book had its roots in a trip I made to Vietnam for Harper's Magazine in the fall of 1967.1 had been appalled and disillusioned by what I found in my three months there. The war, despite the optimism of the Saigon command, was a stalemate: our total military superiority checked by their total political superiority. In effect this meant we could win any set-piece battle we wanted, but the other side could easily replenish their battlefield losses whenever they wanted.


Vlll

DAVID

HALBERSTAM

What was even more depressing was the optimism I found among the top Americans in Saigon, which struck me as essentially self-deception. There was much heady talk implying that we were on the very edge of a final victory and that the other side was ready to crack. Invitations were even sent out that December by some high-ranking diplomats asking friends to come to the lightat-the-end-of-the-tunnel Christmas party. It was the same old false optimism I had first witnessed there five years earlier as a young reporter for the Times, when the stakes were so much smaller. It reflected once again the immense difference between what people in the field thought was happening and what people in the Saigon command, responding to intense political pressure from Washington, wanted to think was happening. One night near the end of my tour in 1967 I was invited to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker's house for dinner. At the end of the dinner, Barry Zorthian, then the chief public affairs officer, who was himself in the process of turning from hawk to dove and who was trying to dampen Bunker's seemingly unshakable optimism about the progress of events, had set me up with a planted question. "Mister Ambassador," he had said near the end of the evening, "David Halberstam has been away from Vietnam for four years, and he's been back traveling around the countryside for the last three months. Perhaps he would share some of his impressions with us." Thus cued, I suggested that we were fighting the birthrate of the nation, that the war was essentially a stalemate—but a stalemate which favored the other side, since eventually we would have to go home. What our military did not understand, I added, was that Hanoi controlled the pace of the war, and it could either initiate contact and raise the level of violence or hold back, lick its wounds, and lower it, depending on its needs at a given moment. Bunker was considered one of the ablest and least conventional men in the foreign service at that moment, although his years in Vietnam did not add luster to his reputation. His was a graceful and courteous presence, and I think this last assignment, with the steadily mounting bitterness which it provoked, must have been one of diminishing pleasure for him. He listened politely to what I said (which was more than one of his predecessors had done—four years earlier an American ambassador had literally thrown me out of his office when I had expressed reservations about an extremely dubious ARVN success). He had, Bunker said, spoken with his generals—he named several of them—all fine men, and they had assured him that, contrary to what I said, everything was on schedule and that there was an inevitability to the victory we sought, given the awesome force we had mounted against the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong. That evening was not the place for a confrontation, and Ellsworth Bunker, with his old-fashioned, almost courtly New England manner, was certainly not a man anyone wanted to be in a confrontation with. As such, what followed was


THE

BEST

AND

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IX

rather mild. His generals, I suggested, were like all Western generals before them, starting with the French: not so much in the wrong war, but on the wrong planet. Their ability to calibrate this war was limited, their skills were tied to other wars in other places, and with very few exceptions they, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamic which fed the indigenous force they were fighting. In addition, the briefings they received from subordinates were always tied to career and promotion. As I spoke I thought of one of my favorite generals, Bob York, a rugged, craggy-faced ex-boxer whom I had known in my earlier tour and who had always gotten things right—had gotten them right because when he went into the countryside he unpinned his stars; with his rough looks he seemed more like an enlisted man than the West Pointer he was, and people told him the truth. At the dinner Ambassador Bunker reiterated his confidence, Zorthian, having hit a wall—and not for the first time, one suspected—changed the subject and the party soon ended. I left the ambassador's residence more depressed than ever; the embassy was isolated, it still did not understand the roots and therefore the strength of its adversary, it was once again telling Washington what Washington wanted to hear without even knowing. A few months later the Tet offensive caught the American mission, both military and civilian, largely by surprise and undermined the legitimacy of almost everything it was reporting about Vietnam, most particularly its relentless military optimism. What the American army at the highest levels lost in Vietnam, my close friend and colleague Charlie Mohr told me years later, in the best summation of that time, was its intellectual integrity. I returned back from Vietnam to America properly depressed. A war which was not winnable was going to play itself out, with, I thought, terrible consequences for both America and Vietnam. I had little time to ruminate on this, for I spent the coming year covering the growing domestic turbulence caused by the war. 1968 was one of those landmark years in which everything came to a head—or, as in this case, seemed to come apart, marked as it was by the withdrawal of the sitting President from the race, by two tragic assassinations, and by a political process which began in the snows of New Hampshire just as the Tet offensive took place and ended in violence in the streets of Chicago. That year I covered many of those events, and in addition I wrote a small book about Robert Kennedy's campaign. When the year was over, I felt like someone who had been living for too long on the edge of events. I was exhausted, and I had no sense of what I wanted to do next. What about an article on McGeorge Bundy? suggested our executive editor at Harper's, Midge Decter (not yet identifiably in her neoconservative incarnation) an article on McGeorge Bundy? A light went on immediately. It was a chance to look at perhaps the most luminescent of the Kennedy people, all of whom had seemed so dazzling


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when they had first taken office, a chance to look at the Kennedy years themselves from a certain distance, and finally, and perhaps most important, a chance to look at the decision making on the war itself. Suddenly all my energies were fused. It was exactly what I wanted to do, and I spent the next three months working on it. The article, "The Very Expensive Education of McGeorge Bundy," ran three times the normal magazine length and caused something of a storm. The general power of print and of a magazine like Harper's was a good deal greater twenty years ago in relationship to television than it is today, and this was regarded as an important article. It marked the first time anyone in any major centrist magazine, let alone a presumably liberal one, had been so critical of a member of the Kennedy Administration; far more important, it was the first time a writer in the liberal center had suggested that the Kennedy Administration might be overrated and that its decision making on Vietnam was significantly flawed. Up to then there had been something of a gentleman's agreement among those who might be called The Good Journalists of Washington that the Kennedy Administration was one of excellence, that it was for good things and against bad things, and that when it did lesser things it was only in self-defense, and in order that it might do other good things. The Kennedy charm and skill and ability to manipulate events was not inconsiderable. I had been viewed by some in the inner Kennedy circle as a hostile journalist because of the pessimistic quality of my early reporting from Saigon, and had angered some people even more when I had told in an earlier book of the President's frustration with me, and his attempts to have the publisher of the Times transfer me from my Saigon beat. Now with the publication of the Bundy article the stakes were about to go up. Bundy was a dual icon. He had been a dean of Harvard at an unspeakably young age, portrayed constantly in the press as the most cerebral member of the Kennedy Administration other than the President himself, and at the same time the leader of the next generation of the American Establishment. "You have begun," my friend Tom Wicker, who still lived in Washington, told me when the article was published, "to take on most of the icons in a city that does not like to see its icons criticized." The outcry upon publication was immediate. My clearest memory of the many attacks on me, some overt, some covert, is of that by Archibald MacLeish, the poet and former librarian of Congress, and an absolute paragon of the Establishment. MacLeish was a man with very close ties to the Bundy family, and to Dean Acheson, and to the Cowles family, which by chance then happened to own Harper's. He wrote a long, very angry letter (albeit not for publication) taking great umbrage at what I had done, and wondering how I dared do it. He sent one copy to Cass Canfield, then the head of Harper Brothers publishing house who wisely simply passed it on without comment to Willie Morris our editor, and another to John Cowles, Jr., who was the overall owner of Harper's Magazine. John Cowles, not by a long shot as good


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at this game as Cass Canfield, not only sent it on to Willie, but unwisely added his own letter, addressed not to me, but to Willie, and far more sympathetic, it seemed to me and my colleagues, to Bundy than to me. Cowles seemed to be suggesting that a considerable injustice had been done. His letter was not without its clubby overtones—he constantly referred to me as Halberstam and to Bundy as Mac. Those were edgy times. Cowles and I had a heated exchange of letters in which I suggested that if he did not like what I wrote, he could call me up, or he could write me directly. That article, however, gave me not merely a book idea, but a sense of purpose. I would do a book about how and why we had gone to war in Vietnam, and about the men who were the architects of the war. The basic question behind the book was why men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century had been the architects of what struck me as likely to be the worst tragedy since the Civil War. In another time I might have hesitated before setting out on a task so ambitious. It was a major jump in terms of what I had attempted in the past—my previous books were an extension of the daily and monthly journalism I had already completed, and this was a book more likely to fall into the category of contemporary history. But from the moment I thought of extending the magazine article into a book, I had no doubts. Done properly, it would take four years, and if I gave roughly two and a half years to the legwork and a year and a half to the writing, I could do it. In fact that proved to be a surprisingly close approximation of what was required. Looking back, I think of myself as working on it in a kind of prolonged fever. If there was a formula to doing the book, I thought, it would be one of input. If I went out and did two interviews each day, I was sure I would not fail. I did the two a day with ease. Sometimes I did three. If I found someone who was helpful, I would see him not once, but two or three or four or five times. There was, I found, always more to learn. My years at Harper's, after I had gone there in 1967 after twelve years of working for daily newspapers, had been eye-opening: In the past, the greatest limitations placed on a daily journalist were those of space (the average story in those days ran about 800 words) and time: a reporter usually had only one day to work on a story. By contrast, at Harper's I had some six to eight weeks to do a piece, and virtually as much space as I wanted. That had been a quantum leap not merely in terms of time and space, but, more important, in terms of freedom. Now I intended to take another leap from the Harper's freedom, and expand it even more, from eight weeks to 200 weeks, from 10,000 words to as many words as I needed. The only failings would be my own. So it was that I signed a contract with Jim Silberman at Random House. If I could stick with my schedule, I was sure I could come up with a portrait of the time, of the men, the era, and the process which had led to this war. I was thirty-five years old when I started; I had left the Times two years earlier


xii

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to become a contract writer for Willie Morris at Harper's and he had treated me and my colleagues with the greatest of care; now, though I retained my connection to Harper's, I cut my base salary, which had been all of about $20,000, to a much smaller retainer. My financial dilemma was fairly typical of that of many a young writer trying to branch out from magazines while doing a major project: how to devote some 80 percent of my energy to one allconsuming project, while making only about 25 or 30 percent of my income from it. Though I did have the retainer from Harper's, in truth for the first time in my life I was effectively self-employed. The advance from Random House was hardly grand even for those days of more limited advances, and reflected the somewhat limited view of the commercial possibilities inherent in my topic. A book on the origins of the Vietnam War was not considered a hot topic. The total, after commissions, was $41,000, and it was to cover the four projected years of work. It was not a bad sum in those pre-inflation days, but if amortized over four years, it was less than a news clerk at the Times was making. Whatever else I had in mind when I took on the book, it was not money. The hardest thing I had to do at the start was to take leave of my byline for the next four years. Ours is a profession built upon the immediacy of reward: We graduate from college, and our peers go off to law school and graduate school and medical school. They have barely started their first-year classes, and our names are bannered across the front pages of the nation's leading newspapers. They get their medical or law degrees, and start out in their residencies or as the lowest hirelings in a law office, and we are old-timers, covering the statehouse, or on our way to Washington, by now, we believe, the possessors of a well-known brand name. The byline is a replacement for many other things, not the least of them money. If someone ever does a great psychological profile of journalism as a profession, what will be apparent will be the need for gratification—if not instant, then certainly relatively immediate. Reporters take sustenance from their bylines; they are a reflection of who you are, what you do, and why, to an uncommon degree, you exist. It was hard enough to give so much of it up when I went to Harper's, where I would get only five or six bylines a year. But to go from the world of easy recognition, from the world of The Times and Harper's, to a world where I might get only one byline in four years, was a great risk. A journalist always wonders: If my byline disappears, have I disappeared as well? My friends, knowing my compulsions, my innate impatience, wondered if I could do it. Would I be able to resist assignments and stay with my project? It was, as much to my surprise as theirs, the easiest thing I had ever done. I had replaced the need for immediacy with something far more powerful, an obsession. Teddy White had been absolutely correct about the drive that the right book topic would create in me. I never regretted the deadlines, never missed the office. In a way I simply disappeared from journalism. When I was at parties and people asked what I was doing, I would talk


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about the book, but it seemed so vague an idea for most people that I would notice their eyes glaze over. It was in some ways an opportune time to be doing a book like this. The failure of a major policy-and Vietnam, no matter what the highest officials were saying, was a failed policy-is, if nothing else, a marvelous lever with which to open a debate. At the time I began the book, no larger debate on the origins of Vietnam was going on in Congress, but in 1969 and 1970 and 1971 how and why it had all happened was very much in the minds of many of the people who had been a part of it. Therefore I was interviewing people of all ranks at precisely the same moment many of them were examining not merely the failure of so tragic a policy, but their own participation in it. Thus, as I inter足 viewed them, they were able to air their own doubts about what had happened in a way that often struck me as oddly cathartic. It was, of course, far more than obsession which carried me-it was a pro足 found curiosity as well. I had seen the war from the Saigon side but not from the Washington one; I had no idea why many decisions had been made, how policy had evolved, or what the effect of the Cold War and the McCarthy period had on the decision makers, long after McCarthy himself had been condemned by the Senate. Some twenty years later I have come to think of each of the major books I have written, books which often took four or five or six years out of my life, as the first of one of many universities, that I entered, one with courses on how policy is made, and what the effects of the McCarthy era were on policy making. I began to enjoy doing the book, not just because it was an obsession, but because it offered me a chance to ask broader questions and to take more time answering them. And, sometimes against my will, it forced me to grow. Journalists by and large, like people in other professions, mirror the form of their work. If they are always asked to write in 800-word takes, they will end up thinking in 800-word takes; if they are always asked to report on the evening news in bites of one minute, fifteen seconds, they will end up thinking in bites of 1:15. The great liberation for me, in doing a book like this, was the ability to escape the limits of form. So it was that the interviews became more than mere source material, they became part of an education. I had been a poor student in college: I was not ready to learn, or to delve into the past. As a journalist I had on several occasions been excited by the pull of dramatic events, in Viet足 nam and in the early Civil Rights movement. Now something more compli足 cated was happening to me-I was becoming caught up in the excitement of history, in the pull of the past.


When Heaven and Earth Changed Places A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace

Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts

Anchor Books A Division of Penguin Random House LLC New York

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FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, APRIL 2017 Copyright © 1989, 2017 by Le Ly Hayslip and Charles Jay Wurts All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, in 1989, and subsequently in paperback by Plume, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, in 1990. Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data Names: Hayslip, Le Ly, author. | Wurts, Jay, co-­author. Title: When heaven and earth changed places : a Vietnamese woman’s journey from war to peace / by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts. Description: First Anchor Books edition. | New York : Anchor Books, a division of Random House LLC, 2017. Identifiers: LCCN 2016045330 Subjects: LCSH: Hayslip, Le Ly. | Vietnam War, 1961–­1975—­Personal narratives, Vietnamese. | Hayslip, Le Ly—­Travel—­Vietnam. | Vietnam—­Description and travel. | Refugees—­Vietnam—­Biography. | Refugees—­United States—­Biography. | BISAC: BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Women. | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Historical. | HISTORY / Military / Vietnam War. Classification: LCC DS556.93.H39 A3 2017 | DDC 959.704/38 [B]—­dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016045330 Anchor Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-­0-­525-­43184-­8 eBook ISBN: 978-­0-­307-­82368-­7 Book design by Steven Walker www.anchorbooks.com Printed in the United States of America 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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PROLOGUE

Dedication to Peace FOR MY FIRST TWELVE YEARS of life, I was a peasant girl in Ky La, now called Xa Hoa Qui, a small village near Danang in Central Vietnam. My father taught me to love god, my family, our traditions, and the people we could not see: our ancestors. He taught me that to sacrifice one’s self for freedom—­like our ancient kings who fought bravely against invaders; or in the manner of our women warriors, like the Trung sisters, Nhi and Trac, who drowned themselves rather than give in to foreign conquerors—­was a very high honor. From my love of my ancestors and my native soil, he said, I must never retreat. From my mother I learned humility and the strength of virtue. I learned it was no disgrace to work like an animal on our farm, provided I did not complain. “Would you be less than our ox,” she asked, “who works to feed us without grumbling?” She also taught me, when I began to notice village boys, that there is no love beyond faithful love, and that in my love for my future husband, my ancestors, and my native soil, I must always remain steadfast. For my next three years of life, I loved, labored, and fought steadfastly for the Viet Cong against American and South Vietnamese soldiers. * * *

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xii • Dedication to Peace

Everything I knew about the war I learned as a teenaged girl from the North Vietnamese cadre leaders in the swamps outside Ky La. During these midnight meetings, we peasants assumed everything we heard was true because what the Viet Cong said matched, in one way or another, the beliefs we already had. The first lesson we learned about the new “American” war was why the Viet Cong was formed and why we should support it. Because this lesson came on the heels of our war with the French (which began in 1946 and lasted, on and off, for eight years), what the cadre leaders told us seemed to be self-­evident. First, we were taught that Vietnam was con rong chau tien—­a sovereign nation which had been held in thrall by Western imperialists for over a century. That all nations had a right to determine their own destiny also seemed beyond dispute, since we farmers subsisted by our own hands and felt we owed nothing to anyone but god and our ancestors for the right to live as we saw fit. Even the Chinese, who had made their own disastrous attempt to rule Vietnam in centuries past, had learned a painful lesson about our country’s zeal for independence. “Vietnam,” went the saying that summarized their experience, “is nobody’s lapdog.” Second, the cadres told us that the division of Vietnam into North and South in 1954 was nothing more than a ploy by the defeated French and their Western allies, mainly the United States, to preserve what influence they could in our country. “Chia doi dat nuoc?” the Viet Cong asked. “Why should outsiders divide the land and tell some people to go north and others south? If Vietnam were truly for the Vietnamese, wouldn’t we choose for ourselves what kind of government our people wanted? A nation cannot have two governments,” they said, “any more than a family can have two fathers.” Because those who favored America quickly occupied the seats of power formerly held by the French, and because the North remained pretty much on its own, the choice of which side best represented independence was, for us, a foregone conclusion. In fact, the Viet Cong

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usually ended our indoctrination sessions with a song that played on our worst fears: Americans come to kill our people, Follow America, and kill your relatives! The smart bird flies before it’s caught. The smart person comes home before Tet. Follow us, and you’ll always have a family. Follow America, and you’ll always be alone! After these initial “lessons,” the cadre leaders introduced us to the two Vietnamese leaders who personified each view—­the opposite poles of our tiny world. On the South pole was President Ngo Dinh Diem, America’s staunch ally, who was Catholic like the French. Although he was idolized by many who said he was a great humanitarian and patriot, his religion alone was enough to make him suspicious to Buddhists on the Central Coast. The loyalty we showed him, consequently, was more duty to a landlord than love for a founding father. Here is a song the Republican schoolteachers made us learn to praise the Southern president: In stormy seas, Vietnam’s boat rolls and pitches. Still we must row; our President’s hand upon the helm. The ship of state plows through heavy seas, Holding fast its course to democracy. Our President is celebrated from Europe to Asia, He is the image of philanthropy and love. He has sacrificed himself for our happiness. He fights for liberty in the land of the Viet. Everyone loves him earnestly, and behind him we will march Down the street of freedom, lined with fresh flowers, The flag of liberty crackling above our heads! * * *

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xiv • Dedication to Peace

In the North, on the other pole, was Ho Chi Minh, whom we were encouraged to call Bac Ho—­Uncle Ho—­the way we would refer to a trusted family friend. We knew nothing of his past beyond stories of his compassion and his love for our troubled country—­the independence of which, we were told, he had made the mission of his life. Given the gulf between these leaders, the choice of whom we should support again seemed obvious. The cadre leaders encouraged our natural prejudices (fear of outsiders and love of our ancestors) with stirring songs and tender stories about Uncle Ho in which the Communist leader and our ancient heroes seemed to inhabit one congenial world. Like an unbroken thread, the path from our ancestors and legends seemed to lead inevitably to the Northern leader—­then past him to a future of harmony and peace. But to achieve that independence, Ho said, we must wage total war. His cadremen cried out, “We must hold together and oppose the American empire. There is nothing better than freedom, independence, and happiness!” To us, these ideas seemed as obvious as everything else we had heard. Freedom meant a Vietnam free of colonial domination. Independence meant one Vietnamese people—­not two countries, North and South—­determining its own destiny. Happiness meant plenty of food and an end to war—­the ability, we assumed, to live our lives in accordance with our ancient ways. We wondered: how can the Southerners oppose these wonderful things? The answer the Viet Cong gave us was that the Republicans prized Yankee dollars more than the blood of their brothers and sisters. We did not think to question with our hearts what our minds told us must be true. Although most of us thought we knew what the Viet Cong meant by freedom, independence, and happiness, a few of us dared to ask what life the Northerners promised when the war was over. The answer was always the same: “Uncle Ho promises that after our victory, the Communist state will look after your rights and interests. Your highest interest, of course, is the independence of our fatherland and the freedom of our people. Our greatest right is the right to determine our

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own future as a state.” This always brought storms of applause from the villagers because most people remembered what life was like under the French. Nonetheless, despite our vocal support, the Viet Cong never took our loyalty for granted. They rallied and rewarded and lectured us sternly, as the situation demanded, while the Republicans assumed we would be loyal because we lived south of a line some diplomats had drawn on a map. Even when things were at their worst—­when the allied forces devastated the countryside and the Viet Cong themselves resorted to terror to make us act the way they wanted—­the villagers clung to the vision the Communists had drummed into us. When the Republicans put us in jail, we had the image of “Communist freedom”—­freedom from war—­to see us through. When the Viet Cong executed a relative, we convinced ourselves that it was necessary to bring “Communist happiness”—­peace in the village—­a little closer. Because the Viet Cong encouraged us to voice our basic human feelings through patriotic songs, the tortured, self-­imposed silence we endured around Republicans only made us hate the government more. Even on those occasions when the Republicans tried to help us, we saw their favors as a trick or sign of weakness. Thus, even as we accepted their kindness, we despised the Republicans for it. As the war gathered steam in the 1960s, every villager found his or her little world expanded—­usually for the worse. The steady parade of troops through Ky La meant new opportunities for us to fall victim to outsiders. Catholic Republicans spurned and mistreated Buddhists for worshiping their ancestors. City boys taunted and cheated the “country bumpkins” while Vietnamese servicemen from other provinces made fun of our funny accents and strange ways. When the tactics on both sides got so rough that people were in danger no matter which side they favored, our sisters fled to the cities where they learned about liquor, drugs, adultery, materialism, and disrespect for their ancestors. More than one village father died inside when a “stranger from Saigon” returned in place of the daughter he had raised. In contrast to this, the Viet Cong were, for the most part, our neigh-

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xvi • Dedication to Peace

bors. Even though our cadre leaders had been trained in Hanoi, they had all been born on the Central Coast. They did not insult us for our manners and speech because they had been raised exactly like us. Where the Republicans came into the village overburdened with American equipment designed for a different war, the Viet Cong made do with what they had and seldom wasted their best ammunition—­the goodwill of the people. The cadremen pointed out to us that where the Republicans wore medals, the Viet Cong wore rags and never gave up the fight. “Where the Republicans pillage, rape, and plunder,” they said, “we preserve your houses, crops, and family”; for they knew that it was only by these resources—­our food for rations, our homes for hiding, our sons and brothers for recruits—­that they were able to keep the field. Of course, the Viet Cong cadremen, like the Republicans, had no desire (or ability, most of them) to paint a fairer picture. For them, there could be no larger reason for Americans fighting the war than imperialist aggression. Because we peasants knew nothing about the United States, we could not stop to think how absurd it would be for so large and wealthy a nation to covet our poor little country for its rice fields, swamps, and pagodas. Because our only exposure to politics had been through the French colonial government (and before that, the rule of Vietnamese kings), we had no concept of democracy. For us, “Western culture” meant bars, brothels, black markets, and xa hoi van minh—­bewildering machines—­most of them destructive. We couldn’t imagine that life in the capitalist world was anything other than a frantic, alien terror. Because, as peasants, we defined “politics” as something other people did someplace else, it had no relevance to our daily lives—­ except as a source of endless trouble. As a consequence, we overlooked the power that lay in our hands: our power to achieve virtually anything we wanted if only we acted together. The Viet Cong and the North, on the other hand, always recognized and respected this strength. We children also knew that our ancestral spirits demanded we resist the outsiders. Our parents told us of the misery they had suffered from the invading Japanese (“small death,” our neighbors called them) in World War II, and from the French, who returned in 1946. These

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soldiers destroyed our crops, killed our livestock, burned our houses, raped our women, and tortured or put to death anyone who opposed them—­as well as many who did not. Now, the souls of all those people who had been mercilessly killed had come back to haunt Ky La—­ demanding revenge against the invaders. This we children believed with all our hearts. After all, we had been taught from birth that ghosts were simply people we could not see. There was only one way to remove this curse. Uncle Ho had urged the poor to take up arms so that everyone might be guaranteed a little land on which to cultivate some rice. Because nearly everyone in Central Vietnam was a farmer, and because farmers must have land, almost everyone went to war: with a rifle or a hoe; with vigilance to give the alarm; with food and shelter for our fighters; or, if one was too little for anything else, with flowers and songs to cheer them up. Everything we knew commanded us to fight. Our ancestors called us to war. Our myths and legends called us to war. Our parents’ teachings called us to war. Uncle Ho’s cadre called us to war. Even President Diem had called us to fight for the very thing we now believed he was betraying—­an independent Vietnam. Should an obedient child be less than an ox and refuse to do her duty? And so the war began and became an insatiable dragon that roared around Ky La. By the time I turned thirteen, that dragon had swallowed me up. In 1986, after living for sixteen years in America and becoming a U.S. citizen, I went back to Vietnam—­to find out what had happened to my family, my village, my people, and to the man I loved who had given me my first son. I went with many memories and many questions. This book is the story of what I remember and what I found. It is dedicated to all those who fought for their country, wherever it may be. It is dedicated, too, to those who did not fight—­but suffered, wept, raged, bled, and died just the same. We all did what we had to do. By mingling our blood and tears on the earth, god has made us brothers and sisters. If you were an American GI, I ask you to read this book and look

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into the heart of one you once called enemy. I have witnessed, firsthand, all that you went through. I will try to tell you who your enemy was and why almost everyone in the country you tried to help resented, feared, and misunderstood you. It was not your fault. It could not have been otherwise. Long before you arrived, my country had yielded to the terrible logic of war. What for you was normal—­a life of peace and plenty—­was for us a hazy dream known only in our legends. Because we had to appease the allied forces by day and were terrorized by Viet Cong at night, we slept as little as you did. We obeyed both sides and wound up pleasing neither. We were people in the middle. We were what the war was all about. Your story, however, was different. You came to Vietnam, willingly or not, because your country demanded it. Most of you did not know, or fully understand, the different wars my people were fighting when you got here. For you, it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. How could it be? We knew little of democracy and even less about communism. For most of us it was a fight for independence—­like the American Revolution. Many of us also fought for religious ideals, the way the Buddhists fought the Catholics. Behind the religious war came the battle between city people and country people—­the rich against the poor—­a war fought by those who wanted to change Vietnam and those who wanted to leave it as it had been for a thousand years. Beneath all that, too, we had vendettas: between native Vietnamese and immigrants (mostly Chinese and Khmer) who had fought for centuries over the land. Many of these wars go on today. How could you hope to end them by fighting a battle so different from our own? The least you did—­the least any of us did—­was our duty. For that we must be proud. The most that any of us did—­or saw—­was another face of destiny or luck or god. Children and soldiers have always known it to be terrible. If you have not yet found peace at the end of your war, I hope you will find it here. We have important new roles to play. In the war many Americans—­and many more Vietnamese—­lost limbs, loved ones, and that little light we see in babies’ eyes, which is our own hope for the future. Do not despair. As long as you are alive,

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that light still burns within you. If you lost someone you love, his light burns on in you so long as you remember. Be happy every day you are alive. If you are a person who knows the Vietnam War, or any war, only by stories and pictures, this book is written for you, too. For you see, the face of destiny or luck or god that gives us war also gives us other kinds of pain: the loss of health and youth; the loss of loved ones or of love; the fear that we will end our days alone. Some people suffer in peace the way others suffer in war. The special gift of that suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace. Phung Thi Le Ly Hayslip San Diego, California October 1988

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Vintage Books A Division of Penguin Random House LLC New York


First Vintage Books Edition, August 1991 Copyright © 1968, 1969, 1970, 1977, by Michael Herr All rights reserved. Published in the United States of by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1977. Portions of this book were originally published in New American Review #7, Esquire and Rolling Stone. Pages vii–viii constitute an extension of the copyright page. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Herr, Michael. Dispatches / Michael Herr. p. cm. Reprint. Originally published: New York : Knopf, 1977. 1. Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975–Personal narratives, American. 2. Herr, Michael. I. Title. [DS559.5.H47 1991] 959.704'38–dc20 90-50771 CIP Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-0-679-73525-0 eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-81416-6 Manufactured in the United States of America 45 44 43 42 41 40


E M B E RRSS OF WA R

T H E FA L L O F A N E M P I R E A N D T H E M A K I N G O F A M E R I C A’ S V I E T N A M

FR E D R I K LO G E VA LL

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2013 Random House Trade Paperback Edition copyright © 2012 by Fredrik Logevall Maps copyright © 2012 by Mapping Specialists, Ltd. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Random House and the House colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC. Illustration credits are located on page 802. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, in 2012. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-­I N-­P UBLICATION DATA

Logevall, Fredrik Embers of war: the fall of an empire and the making of America’s Vietnam / Fredrik Logevall. p.cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-­0-­375-­75647-­4 ebook ISBN 978-­0-­679-­64519-­1 1. Indochinese War, 1946-­1954. 2. Indochinese War, 1946-­1954—­Diplomatic history. 3. France—­Colonies—­ Asia. 4. Vietnam—­Colonization. 5. Vietnam—­Politics and goverment—­1945-­1975. 6. United States—­Foreign relations—­ France. 7. France—­Foreign relations—­United States. 8. United States—­Foreign relations—­Vietnam. 9. Vietnam—­ Foreign relations—­United States. 10. Vietnam War, 1961-­1975—­Causes. I. Title. DS553.1.L64 2012 959.704'1—­dc23 Printed in the United States of America www.atrandom.com 246897531 Title page photos: Fox Photos/Gerry Images (left) and ECPAD (right) Book design by Barbara Bachman

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PA RT O N E

LL II BB EE RR AATT II O ON N S, S, 1940 1940–1945 –1945

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chapter 1

“T H E EM PI RE IS W IT H U S!”

I

n the late afternoon of june 18, 1940, the tall, stiff-backed Frenchman walked into the BBC studios in London. His country stood on the brink of defeat. German columns were sweeping through France and had entered Paris. The French government under Marshal Philippe Pétain had fled for Bordeaux and had asked the Germans to state their terms for an armistice. These were the darkest days in the country’s history, but General Charles de Gaulle, who had arrived in London the day before, was convinced that France could rise a­ gain—­provided that her people did not lose heart. De Gaulle had met earlier in the day with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and had secured permission to make a broadcast to France.1 He was pale, recalled one of those present, with a brown forelock stuck to his forehead. “He stared at the microphone as though it were France and as though he wanted to hypnotize it. His voice was clear, firm, and rather loud, the voice of a man speaking to his troops before battle. He did not seem nervous but extremely tense, as though he were concentrating all his power in one single moment.”2 De Gaulle’s thoughts that day were on the French Empire, whose resources, he sensed, could keep France in the war and fighting. And they were with Britain and the United States, great powers with whom he could ally. “Believe what I tell you,” de Gaulle intoned into the microphone, “for I know of what I speak, and I say that nothing is lost for France.” Then, like a cleric chanting a litany, he declared: “For France is not alone. She is not alone. She is not alone. She has a vast Empire

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24 |   E M B E R S O F W A R

behind her. She can unite with the British Empire that rules the seas and is continuing the fight. Like Britain, she can make unlimited use of the immense industrial resources of the United States.”3 The broadcast, which lasted barely four minutes, has gone down in French history as L’Appel du 18 Juin. At the time, however, few heard it and few knew who de Gaulle was. Alexander Cadogan, the permanent undersecretary at the British Foreign Office, knew only that de Gaulle had a “head like a pineapple and hips like a woman’s.”4 Robert Murphy, the counselor at the U.S. embassy in Paris, could not recall ever having heard of him before that day. The same was true of most of de Gaulle’s compatriots. Although he was notorious within French military circles for his advocacy of the mechanization of the army and the offensive deployment of tanks, few outside that select group would have recognized his name, much less known the essentials of his biography: the birth in Lille in 1890; the diploma from the military academy at Saint-Cyr; the five failed (in part because of his conspicuous height) escape attempts from German prison camps in World War I; the postwar military career initially under the wing of Pétain. De Gaulle had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general only a few weeks before, in the midst of the Battle of France (thus making him, at forty-nine, the youngest general in the army). He then joined Premier Paul Reynaud’s government on June 5 as undersecretary of state for war. Reynaud sought to carry on the fight, but twelve days later, with the French war effort collapsing wholesale, as German armies were well south of Dijon and pressing down the Atlantic coast, he resigned. De Gaulle, certain that Pétain would seek an armistice, escaped to London, determined to continue the resistance from there. The basis for de Gaulle’s speech that fateful day was his conviction that the conflict was not limited to Europe. It was a “world war,” he declared, one “not bound by the Battle of France.” He would be proven correct. Likewise, Britain and the United States would become critical to the ultimate victory of de Gaulle’s “Free French” organization, though not in the way he imagined. Even his deep faith in the empire’s importance to his cause would in time find a certain degree of vindication.5 A vast empire it was. In 1940, it ranked in size second only to the British, extending some six million square miles and with an overseas

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L iberations , 1 9 4 0 – 1 9 4 5   |  2 5

population of eighty million. The island of Madagascar alone was bigger than metropolitan France. The colonies of Equatorial and West Africa together were as large as the United States. In the Middle East, the French were a major presence, and they had holdings as well in the Caribbean and the Pacific. And of course, there was Indochina, the Pearl of the Empire, rich in rubber plantations and rice fields. As the farthest-flung of the key French possessions, it along with Algeria (administered as part of France proper) conferred great power status on France and, it was thought, gave her an important voice in global affairs. As a whole, the empire took more than a third of all French trade in the 1930s (a figure inflated by the fact that the Depression caused business leaders to fall back on colonial markets); colonial troops made up 11 percent of mobilized men in 1939.6 In his memoirs of the war, de Gaulle recalled his feelings as he sat in London in 1940 and watched the deterioration of the French position in the Far East, at the expense of the encroaching Japanese. “To me, steering a very small boat on the ocean of war, Indochina seemed like a great ship out of control, to which I could give no aid until I had slowly got together the means of rescue,” he wrote. “As I saw her move away into the mist, I swore to myself that I would one day bring her back.”7 It was an immense task, de Gaulle knew. The journey would be as long as it was treacherous. It would take time to win French loyalty and French territory and so to establish his legitimacy as the authentic representative of the French nation. In those early days, hardly anyone answered his call. Not only did few people come from France to join him, but most leading French figures already in London decided to return home to support the Pétain government, which negotiated an armistice with Germany on June 22 and set up a collaborationist regime in Vichy, a damp, gloomy spa town best known for its foul-smelling waters.8 Even many of those who wanted to go on fighting rejected de Gaulle’s call. Some went instead to the United States, while others, including the imperial proconsuls in North Africa and other territories (under the terms of the armistice, the empire was left in French hands), were unprepared to reject the authority of the e­ ighty-­four-­year-­old Pétain, savior of France at Verdun in 1916. The only exceptions in the early months were French Equatorial Africa (Chad, French Congo, and Oubangui-Chari, but not Gabon) and the Cameroons, which declared for de Gaulle in August

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26 |   E M B E R S O F W A R

1940. That same month a French military court sentenced de Gaulle to death in absentia, for treason against the Vichy regime.9 “You are alone,” Churchill told de Gaulle, “I shall recognize you alone.” On June 28, the British government voiced its backing of de Gaulle as “leader of all the Free French, wherever they are to be found, who rally to him in support of the Allied cause.”10 The phrasing was important: The British were endorsing de Gaulle the man rather than his organization. Whereas the general saw his outfit as a proto-government rivaling that in Vichy, most London officials hoped Free France could be restricted to the role of a légion combattante, a group of French citizens fighting as a unit within the Allied armies. For them, the only French government was that headed by Marshal Pétain. Still, limited though it was, the British pronouncement was a critical early endorsement of de Gaulle, arguably as important as any he would ever receive. His bold action on June 18 made an impression on Churchill, one that would never quite dissipate even during the tensest moments—­and there would be many in the years to ­come—­in their relationship. The romantic in Churchill admired de Gaulle’s epic adventure, his self-­importance, his claim to speak for la France éternelle. He saw a certain nobility in the Frenchman’s bravado and shared with him a love of drama and a deep sense of history. When in September the two men joined together in a scheme to try to win French West Africa away from Vichy with an operation against Dakar, de Gaulle rose in Churchill’s esteem despite the fact that the plan ended in humiliating failure. To the House of Commons, the prime minister extolled de Gaulle’s calm and authoritative bearing throughout the engagement and said he had more confidence in the general than ever.11 “I had continuous difficulties and many sharp antagonisms with him,” Churchill would write of his relationship with de Gaulle. “I knew he was no friend of England. But I always recognized in him the spirit and conception which, across the pages of history, the word ‘France’ would ever proclaim. I understood and admired, while I resented, his arrogant demeanor. Here he ­was—­a refugee, an exile from his country under sentence of death, in a position entirely dependent upon the good will of Britain, and now of the United States. The Germans had conquered his country. He had no real foothold anywhere. Never mind; he defied all.”12

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L iberations , 1 9 4 0 – 1 9 4 5   |  2 7

A very different attitude prevailed in Washington, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his advisers from the start kept their distance from de Gaulle and his cause. Shocked and appalled by France’s swift collapse against the Germans, despite having what on paper was arguably Europe’s strongest army, Roosevelt concluded that France had essentially ceased to exist. Thenceforth, during moments of pessimism (and not infrequently in happier times as well), he believed the worst about France and concluded she would never again regain her status as a leading power. Investing military might and diplomatic aid in trying to defend her was therefore pointless. Following the armistice, Washington chose a policy of expedience, maintaining diplomatic relations with Vichy in the hope that the French fleet and the Pétain government would not be driven totally into the arms of the Nazis. As for de Gaulle, he was as yet largely a nonentity for Roosevelt. In time, as we shall see, the American president would adopt toward the general an attitude of unremitting hostility. II in indochina, word of the french defeat hit like a bolt from the blue. Already in 1939, after Germany’s attack on Poland, there had been murmurings in Saigon and Hanoi, among colons as well as literate Vietnamese, about whether Hitler could be stopped, and if he couldn’t, what it would mean for them. A 1938 French film shown on local screens asked Are We Defended? and left the answer disconcertingly open. Still, no one had imagined that the defeat of la belle France could ever occur so swiftly, so completely. The turn of events may have seemed especially dizzying in Indochina and elsewhere in the empire, for certain key ­details—­that French forces fought hard and suffered huge losses at Sedan and elsewhere along the river Meuse, for example, or that the greater part of the French army was taken p ­ risoner—­emerged only slowly in the colo13 nies. “Overnight, our world had changed,” recalled Bui Diem, a young French-educated Vietnamese in Hanoi who had breathlessly followed news accounts of the fighting. “Mine was the third generation for whom the universe had been bounded by France, her language, her culture, and

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WE WERE SOLDIERS ONCE... AND YOUNG Ia Drang—the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam

LT. GEN. HAROLD G. MOORE (RET.) AND JOSEPH L. GALLOWAY

P BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK


A Presidio Press Book Published by The Random House Publishing Group Copyright © 1992 by Lt. General H. G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Presidio Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., in 1992. Presidio Press and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc. This edition published by arrangement with Random House. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material: armor magazine: Excerpt from “Company B” by Major Walter B. Tully, Jr., from the September/October 1967 issue of Armor magazine. Reprinted by permission of Armor magazine. houghton mifflin company and dean brelis: Excerpt from The Face of South Vietnam by Dean Brelis and Jill Krementz. Text copyright © 1967 by Dean Brelis. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company and Dean Brelis. st. martin’s press: Excerpt from Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam by J. D. Coleman. Copyright © 1989 by J. D. Coleman. Reprinted by permission. www.presidiopress.com Library of Congress control number: 92-53642 ISBN 0-345-47581-X Manufactured in the United States of America First Edition: October 1992 First Mass Market Edition: June 2004 First Trade Paperback Edition: November 2004 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2


Prologue In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars . . . —Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One, Act II, Scene 3

This story is about time and memories. The time was 1965, a different kind of year, a watershed year when one era was ending in America and another was beginning. We felt it then, in the many ways our lives changed so suddenly, so dramatically, and looking back on it from a quarter-century gone we are left in no doubt. It was the year America decided to directly intervene in the Byzantine affairs of obscure and distant Vietnam. It was the year we went to war. In the broad, traditional sense, that “we” who went to war was all of us, all Americans, though in truth at that time the larger majority had little knowledge of, less interest in, and no great concern with what was beginning so far away. So this story is about the smaller, more tightly focused “we” of that sentence: the first American combat troops, who boarded World War II–era troopships, sailed to that little-known place, and fought the first major battle of a conflict that would drag on for ten long years and come as near to destroying America as it did to destroying Vietnam. The Ia Drang campaign was to the Vietnam War what the terrible Spanish Civil War of the 1930s was to World War II: a dress rehearsal; the place where new tactics, techniques, and weapons were tested, perfected, and validated. In the Ia Drang, both sides


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claimed victory and both sides drew lessons, some of them dangerously deceptive, which echoed and resonated throughout the decade of bloody fighting and bitter sacrifice that was to come. This is about what we did, what we saw, what we suffered in a thirty-four-day campaign in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in November 1965, when we were young and confident and patriotic and our countrymen knew little and cared less about our sacrifices. Another war story, you say? Not exactly, for on the more important levels this is a love story, told in our own words and by our own actions. We were the children of the 1950s and we went where we were sent because we loved our country. We were draftees, most of us, but we were proud of the opportunity to serve that country just as our fathers had served in World War II and our older brothers in Korea. We were members of an elite, experimental combat division trained in the new art of airmobile warfare at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. Just before we shipped out to Vietnam the Army handed us the colors of the historic 1st Cavalry Division and we all proudly sewed on the big yellow-and-black shoulder patches with the horsehead silhouette. We went to war because our country asked us to go, because our new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered us to go, but more importantly because we saw it as our duty to go. That is one kind of love. Another and far more transcendent love came to us unbidden on the battlefields, as it does on every battlefield in every war man has ever fought. We discovered in that depressing, hellish place, where death was our constant companion, that we loved each other. We killed for each other, we died for each other, and we wept for each other. And in time we came to love each other as brothers. In battle our world shrank to the man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around. We held each other’s lives in our hands and we learned to share our fears, our hopes, our dreams as readily as we shared what little else good came our way. We were the children of the 1950s and John F. Kennedy’s young stalwarts of the early 1960s. He told the world that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in the defense of freedom. We were the down payment on that costly contract, but the man who signed it was not there when we fulfilled his promise. John F. Kennedy waited for us on a hill in


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Arlington National Cemetery, and in time we came by the thousands to fill those slopes with our white marble markers and to ask on the murmur of the wind if that was truly the future he had envisioned for us. Among us were old veterans, grizzled sergeants who had fought in Europe and the Pacific in World War II and had survived the frozen hell of Korea, and now were about to add another star to their Combat Infantryman’s Badge. There were regular-army enlistees, young men from America’s small towns whose fathers told them they would learn discipline and become real men in the Army. There were other young men who chose the Army over an equal term in prison. Alternative sentencing, the judges call it now. But the majority were draftees, nineteenand twenty-year-old boys summoned from all across America by their local Selective Service Boards to do their two years in green. The PFCs soldiered for $99.37 a month; the sergeants first class for $343.50 a month. Leading us were the sons of West Point and the young ROTC lieutenants from Rutgers and The Citadel and, yes, even Yale University, who had heard Kennedy’s call and answered it. There were also the young enlisted men and NCOs who passed through Officer Candidate School and emerged newly minted officers and gentlemen. All laughed nervously when confronted with the cold statistics that measured a second lieutenant’s combat life expectancy in minutes and seconds, not hours. Our second lieutenants were paid $241.20 per month. The class of 1965 came out of the old America, a nation that disappeared forever in the smoke that billowed off the jungle battlegrounds where we fought and bled. The country that sent us off to war was not there to welcome us home. It no longer existed. We answered the call of one president who was now dead; we followed the orders of another who would be hounded from office, and haunted, by the war he mismanaged so badly. Many of our countrymen came to hate the war we fought. Those who hated it the most—the professionally sensitive—were not, in the end, sensitive enough to differentiate between the war and the soldiers who had been ordered to fight it. They hated us as well, and we went to ground in the cross fire, as we had learned in the jungles. In time our battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and our suitability for life in polite


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American society were publicly questioned. Our young-old faces, chiseled and gaunt from the fever and the heat and the sleepless nights, now stare back at us, lost and damned strangers, frozen in yellowing snapshots packed away in cardboard boxes with our medals and ribbons. We rebuilt our lives, found jobs or professions, married, raised families, and waited patiently for America to come to its senses. As the years passed we searched each other out and found that the half-remembered pride of service was shared by those who had shared everything else with us. With them, and only with them, could we talk about what had really happened over there—what we had seen, what we had done, what we had survived. We knew what Vietnam had been like, and how we looked and acted and talked and smelled. No one in America did. Hollywood got it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers. So once, just this once: This is how it all began, what it was really like, what it meant to us, and what we meant to each other. It was no movie. When it was over the dead did not get up and dust themselves off and walk away. The wounded did not wash away the red and go on with life, unhurt. Those who were, miraculously, unscratched were by no means untouched. Not one of us left Vietnam the same young man he was when he arrived. This story, then, is our testament, and our tribute to 234 young Americans who died beside us during four days in Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany in the Valley of Death, 1965. That is more Americans than were killed in any regiment, North or South, at the Battle of Gettysburg, and far more than were killed in combat in the entire Persian Gulf War. Seventy more of our comrades died in the Ia Drang in desperate skirmishes before and after the big battles at X-Ray and Albany. All the names, 305 of them including one Air Force pilot, are engraved on the third panel to the right of the apex, Panel 3-East, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and on our hearts. This is also the story of the suffering of families whose lives were forever shattered by the death of a father, a son, a husband, a brother in that Valley. While those who have never known war may fail to see the logic, this story also stands as tribute to the hundreds of young men of the 320th, 33rd, and 66th Regiments of the People’s Army


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of Vietnam who died by our hand in that place. They, too, fought and died bravely. They were a worthy enemy. We who killed them pray that their bones were recovered from that wild, desolate place where we left them, and taken home for decent and honorable burial. This is our story and theirs. For we were soldiers once, and young.


Copyright © 1975 by Tim O’Brien Afterword copyright © 2014 by Tim O’Brien Reader’s guide copyright © 2014 by Random House LLC “Extra Libris” and the accompanying colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. www.crownpublishing.com

Broadway Books and its logo, B \ D \ W \ Y, are trademarks of Random House LLC. The PBS logo is a registered trademark of the Public Broadcasting Service and is used here with permission. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, New York, in 1975. Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data O’Brien, Tim, 1946–­ If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home / Tim O’Brien. p. cm. 1. Vietnamese Conflict, 1961–­1975—­Personal narratives, American.  2. O’Brien, Tim, 1946–­.  I. Title. DS559.5.027 1999 959.704'3'092—­dc21  99-­29406 CIP ISBN 978-­0-­7679-­0443-­8 eBook ISBN 978-­0-­307-76292-­4 Printed in the United States of America Cover design by Cardon Webb Cover photography © AP Photo/Horst Faas 22 21 20 19

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A BRIGHT SHINING LIE JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM

NEIL SHEEHAN

V I N T A G E

B O O K S

A DIVISION OF RANDOM HOUSE, INC. N E W

Y O R K


FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, September 1989 Copyright © 1988 by Neil Sheehan Cartography © 1988 by Jean Paul Tremblay All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published, in hardcover, by Random House, Inc., in 1988. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Sheehan, Neil. A bright shining lie : John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam Neil Sheehan.—1st Vintage Books ed. p. cm. Bibliography: p. Includes index. ISBN 0-679-72414-1: $12.95 1. Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975—United States. 2. Vann, John Paul. 3. Soldiers—United States— Biography. 4. United States. Army—Officers—Biography. I. Title. [DS558.S47 1989] 9597O4'3373—<ic20

89-40141 CIP

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Fall River Music, Inc., for permission to reprint excerpts from the lyrics to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger. Copyright © 1961 by Fall River Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Manufactured in the United States of America 79B8


T H E

F U N E R A L

I

T WAS a funeral to which they all came. . They gathered in the red brick chapel beside the cemetery gate. Six gray horses were hitched to a caisson that would carry the coffin to the grave. A marching band was ready. An honor guard from the Army's oldest regiment, the regiment whose rolls reached back to the Revolution, was also formed in ranks before the white Georgian portico of the chapel. The soldiers were in full dress, dark blue trimmed with gold, the colors of the Union Army, which had safeguarded the integrity of the nation. The uniform was unsuited to the warmth and humidity of this Friday morning in the early summer of Washington, but this state funeral was worthy of the discomfort. John Paul Vann, the soldier of the war in Vietnam, was being buried at Arlington on June 16, 1972. The war had already lasted longer than any other in the nation's history and had divided America more than any conflict since the Civil War. In this war without heroes, this man had been the one compelling figure. The intensity and distinctiveness of his character and the courage and drama of his life had seemed to sum up so many of the qualities Americans admired in themselves as a people. By an obsession, by an unyielding dedication to the war, he had come to personify the American endeavor in Vietnam. He had exemplified it in his illusions, in his good intentions gone awry, in his pride, in his will to win. Where others had been defeated or discouraged over the years, or had become disenchanted and had turned against the war, he had been undeterred in his crusade tofinda way to redeem the unredeemable, to lay hold of victory in this doomed enterprise. At the end of a decade of struggle to prevail, he had been killed one night a week earlier when his helicopter had crashed and burned in rain and fog in the mountains of South Vietnam's Central Highlands. He had just beaten back, in a battle at a town called


4

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A BRIGHT SHINING LIE

Kontum, an offensive by the North Vietnamese Army which had threatened to bring the Vietnam venture down in defeat. Those who had assembled to see John Vann to his grave reflected the divisions and the wounds that the war had inflicted on American society. At the same time they had, almost every one, been touched by this man. Some had come because they had admired him and shared his cause even now; some because they had parted with him along the way, but still thought of him as a friend; some because they had been harmed by him, but cherished him for what he might have been. Although the war was to continue for nearly another three years with no dearth of dying in Vietnam, many at Arlington on that June morning in 1972 sensed that they were burying with John Vann the war and the decade of Vietnam. With Vann dead, the rest could be no more than a postscript. He had gone to Vietnam at the beginning of the decade, in March 1962, at the age of thirty-seven, as an Army lieutenant colonel, volunteering to serve as senior advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry division in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. The war was still an adventure then. The previous December, President John F. Kennedy had committed the arms of the United States to the task of suppressing a Communist-led rebellion and preserving South Vietnam as a separate state governed by an American-sponsored regime in Saigon. Vann was a natural leader of men in war. He was a child of the American South in the Great Depression, a redneck born and raised in a poor white working-class district of Norfolk, Virginia. He never tanned, his friends and subordinates joked during that first assignment in Vietnam. Whenever he exposed himself to the sun by marching with the South Vietnamese infantrymen on operations, which he did constantly, his ruddy neck and arms simply got redder. At first glance he appeared a runty man. He stood five feet eight inches and weighed 150 pounds. An unusual physical stamina and an equally unusual assertiveness more than compensated for this shortness of stature. His constitution was extraordinary. It permitted him to turn each day into two days for an ordinary man. He required only four hours of sleep in normal times and could function effectively with two hours of sleep for extended periods. He could, and routinely did, put in two eight-hour working days in every twenty-four and still had half a working day in which to relax and amuse himself. The assertiveness showed in the harsh, nasal tone of his voice and in the brisk, clipped way he had of enunciating his words. He always knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. He had a genius for

Vietnam War Excerpt Sampler  

Included are excerpts from 9 essential reads for understanding the Vietnam War, including new work from award-winning historian and filmmake...

Vietnam War Excerpt Sampler  

Included are excerpts from 9 essential reads for understanding the Vietnam War, including new work from award-winning historian and filmmake...