In August 1965, Morley Safer, a reporter for “CBS News,” accompanied a unit of U.S. marines on a search-and-destroy mission to the Vietnamese village of Cam Ne. Using cigarette lighters and a flamethrower, the troops proceeded to burn down 150 houses, wound three women, kill one child and take four men prisoner. Safer and his crew caught it all on film. The military command later claimed that the unit had received enemy fire. But according to Safer, no pitched battle had taken place. The only death had been the boy, and not a single weapon had been uncovered.
The New Yorker’s Michael Arlen dubbed Vietnam the “living room war.” The images of the war – viewed on evening news shows on the country’s three networks – enabled the public to understand the war’s human costs. In this sense, media coverage contributed to the flow of information that’s vital to any functioning democracy, and pushed Americans to either support or oppose U.S. involvement in the conflict.
However, in the country’s myriad military conflicts since Vietnam, this flow of information has been largely transformed, and it is now more difficult to see the human consequences of military operations. Despite a digital revolution that’s created even more opportunities to transmit images, voices and stories, the public finds itself further removed from what’s really happening on the front lines.
John A. Farrell writes that in 1968: Nixon had entered the fall campaign with a lead over [Vice President Hubert H.] Humphrey, but the gap was closing that October. Henry A. Kissinger, then an outside Republican adviser, had called, alerting Nixon that a deal was in the works: If Johnson would halt all bombing of North Vietnam, the Soviets pledged to have Hanoi engage in constructive talks to end a war that had already claimed 30,000 American lives.
But Nixon had a pipeline to Saigon, where the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, feared that Johnson would sell him out. If Thieu would stall the talks, Nixon could portray Johnson’s actions as a cheap political trick. The conduit was Anna Chennault, a Republican doyenne and Nixon fund-raiser, and a member of the pro-nationalist China lobby, with connections across Asia.
“! Keep Anna Chennault working on” South Vietnam, Haldeman scrawled, recording Nixon’s orders. “Any other way to monkey wrench it? Anything RN can do.”
Nixon told Haldeman to have Rose Mary Woods, the candidate’s personal secretary, contact another nationalist Chinese figure — the businessman Louis Kung — and have him press Thieu as well. “Tell him hold firm,” Nixon said.
Nixon also sought help from Chiang Kai-shek, the president of Taiwan. And he ordered Haldeman to have his vice-presidential candidate, Spiro T. Agnew, threaten the C.I.A. director, Richard Helms. Helms’s hopes of keeping his job under Nixon depended on his pliancy, Agnew was to say. “Tell him we want the truth — or he hasn’t got the job,” Nixon said.
Throughout his life, Nixon feared disclosure of this skulduggery. “I did nothing to undercut them,” he told Frost in their 1977 interviews. “As far as Madame Chennault or any number of other people,” he added, “I did not authorize them and I had no knowledge of any contact with the South Vietnamese at that point, urging them not to.” Even after Watergate, he made it a point of character. “I couldn’t have done that in conscience.” [Continue reading…]
Lily Bui writes: Mangroves are sturdy trees. Recognizable by their extensive root systems, these trees can thrive in muddy soil, sand, peat, even coral. They tolerate water much saltier than most other plants and survive flooding during severe storms. It is perhaps their sturdiness that led mangroves to be one of the most significant targets in the Vietnam War.
During the war, communist guerilla fighters would often take refuge in Vietnam’s thick jungles. Mangroves, among other types of flora, provided shelter from eyes in the sky seeking to deliver air strikes in strategic locations. So the U.S. military exposed guerillas by bombarding the trees themselves with huge amounts of defoliants, chemical herbicides that cause the leaves to fall off of plants. The most infamous defoliant was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripes marking the drums it was shipped in.
The defoliant is an equal mix of two herbicides, 2,4-diclorophenoxyacetic acide (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). When sprayed on foliage during the war, it quickly stripped off the leaves, revealing anyone and anything below the canopy, destroying crops, and clearing vegetation near U.S. bases. By the end of the campaign, U.S. military forces had sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on over 5 million acres of upland and mangrove forests and about 500,000 acres of crops—an area the size of Massachusetts, and about 24 percent of South Vietnam. Some areas of Laos and Cambodia along the Vietnam border were also sprayed. This massive effort, known as Operation Ranch Hand, lasted from 1962 to 1971. [Continue reading…]
Andrew Lam writes: The first time I returned to Vietnam, a customs officer looked at my American passport and asked, “Brother, when did you leave?”
“Two days before National Defeat Day,” I mumbled.
That day, April 30, 1975, marked the end of the Vietnam War. Its anniversary brings back bad memories: Saigon ransacked by the communist army, thousands fleeing in boats, helicopters hovering above a city wreathed in smoke. My family and I made our way first to Guam and then later to California. I was 11.
National Defeat Day turned into an unhealed wound for many who fled and some who were left behind. But the words are from an exile’s vocabulary.
“Brother,” the customs officer corrected me, “don’t you mean National Liberation Day?”
Last month, I was back again. No one questioned me when I went through customs. I was neither a prodigal nor a curiosity, just another traveler. No one remarked on the timing, so close to the 40th anniversary of defeat and liberation.
“Please, who wants to talk about stories of such ancient time?” was how Hoang Tran, 27, put it when I asked him what April 30 meant to him. We were in a bar in downtown Saigon. “No one pays attention to this kind of fairy tales,” said his drinking companion, Binh Nguyen, 24, who was on his fourth whiskey.
“How much did you pay for that iPhone 6? It’s so expensive here in Vietnam,” said Binh.
“Yeah, but I’m saving money for it,” added Hoang.
In 2015, Vietnam belongs to the young. And the young don’t look back. Two out of three Vietnamese were born after the war; most of the population is between 20 and 25 years old; they have no direct memory of the war America lost, the war that undid the South and reunited their country under a communist system more pragmatic than pure these days. [Continue reading…]
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago – on 30 April 1975, tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rumbled onto the streets of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon and the country was unified after decades of conflict. Since then, thousands of books, articles and films have tried to explain every aspect of the war.
The 40th anniversary also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send troops to Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1965. As part of the commemoration the Pentagon has created a website. Its stated aim is “to provide the American public with historically accurate materials to help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam War veterans and the history of the Vietnam War”.
But the Pentagon has taken a decidedly partial, heavily sanitised, and almost wholly American perspective on the war, one that fails to acknowledge the disastrous mistakes that Johnson and others made.
The site gives details of commemorations taking place around the United States, as well as “Fact Sheets” listing troop numbers, and brief narratives about the contributions of the branches of the US military. An “Interactive Timeline” follows the history of the conflict from the end of World War II to just beyond Vietnam’s reunification, while there are photographs, videos and transcripts of speeches. Aside from a few references to its allies, the Pentagon focuses almost entirely on the American perspective of the war, praising US veterans for what it calls their “service, valor, and sacrifice.”
Historian Stanley Kutler has even gone so far as to suggest that it has “hijacked” the war with this effort – and looking at the bland lists of dates and statistics that it has made available it is hard to disagree.
Viet Thanh Nguyen writes: Thursday, the last day of April, is the 40th anniversary of the end of my war. Americans call it the Vietnam War, and the victorious Vietnamese call it the American War. In fact, both of these names are misnomers, since the war was also fought, to great devastation, in Laos and Cambodia, a fact that Americans and Vietnamese would both rather forget.
In any case, for anyone who has lived through a war, that war needs no name. It is always and only “the war,” which is what my family and I call it. Anniversaries are the time for war stories to be told, and the stories of my family and other refugees are war stories, too. This is important, for when Americans think of war, they tend to think of men fighting “over there.” The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars — many of which this country has had a hand in.
Although my family and other refugees brought our war stories with us to America, they remain largely unheard and unread, except by people like us. Compared with many of the four million Vietnamese in the diaspora, my family has been lucky. None of my relatives can be counted among the three million who died during the war, or the hundreds of thousands who disappeared at sea trying to escape by boat. But our experiences in coming to America were difficult.
When I first came to this country, at age 4, I was taken from my parents and put into a household of American strangers who were supposed to care for me while my parents got on their feet. I remember a small apartment, or maybe a mobile home, and a young couple who did not know what to do with me. I was sent on to a bigger house, a family with children, who asked me how to use chopsticks. I’m sure they meant to be welcoming, but I was perplexed and disappointed in myself for not knowing how to use them.
As for Vietnam, it is both familiar and strange. I heard much about it as I grew up in San Jose, Calif., in a Vietnamese enclave where I ate Vietnamese food, went to a Vietnamese church, studied the Vietnamese language, and heard Vietnamese stories, which were always about loss and pain. My parents and everyone I knew had lost homes, wealth, relatives, country and peace of mind. Letters and photographs in Par Avion envelopes, trimmed in red and blue, would arrive bearing words of poverty and hunger and despair. My parents had left behind my older, adopted sister, whom I knew only through one black-and-white photograph, a beautiful girl with a lonely expression. I didn’t remember her at all. I didn’t remember the grandparents who passed away one by one, two of whom I never met because they had stayed in the north while my parents had fled to the south as teenagers in 1954. [Continue reading…]
Clay Claiborne writes: I made a documentary about the Vietnam War five years ago, Vietnam: American Holocaust. Since I wanted it to be the ultimate Vietnam War documentary, I got the guy who narrated and starred in Apocalypse Now to do the voice-over. I made it because too many educated Americans will tell you 58,000 people died in the Vietnam War, when the real number is closer to three million, give or take 50,000. The tag line I have used to promote the film has been “The Vietnam War was a Mỹ Lai every week.” Since most people know about the Mỹ Lai massacre, it is an easy way to say what the film’s message is. The month after I released the film, Nick Turse published an article in The Nation titled “A Mỹ Lai a Month” about Operation Speedy Express, in which 10,889 Vietnamese were killed at the cost of only 267 American lives, which made much the same point.
That point, already known to the Vietnamese, most serious students of the Vietnam War, and certainly most combat vets, is that the only thing really outstanding about the Mỹ Lai massacre is the amount of attention it received.
Consider this relatively unknown massacre related by, Scott Camil, a decorated Vietnam combat Marine who testifies in my film. Why is it any less deserving to be known to the world and remembered throughout history?
In Operation Stone we were sitting up on the rail road trestle with a river on each side. There’s another company behind each river. And like the people were running around inside. And we were just shooting them and the newspaper said Operation Stone like World War Two movie. We just sat up there and wiped them out, women, children, everything. Two hundred nine-one of them.
Was this not worthy of Pulitzer Prize winning reportage? Certainly Operation Speedy Express was because it clearly wasn’t a simple case of a Lieutenant and his company going off the reservation.
I have long been of the opinion that the US imperialists, even in their limited wisdom, understood they could never obliterate the people’s memory of the many atrocities of the Vietnam War, so they allowed one to become famous, they allowed one to be publicized and prosecuted, in the hopes that the public memory of the generalized and pervasive massacres that was the Vietnam War, would be resolved down to the memory of this one atrocity, and in this they have been largely successful. I believe this is the proper context to view Seymour Hersh’s Pulitzer Prizing winning reporting on the Mỹ Lai Massacre. [Continue reading…]
Nguyen Van Tu asks if I’m serious. Am I really willing to tell his story — to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark relief — during the 1968 Tet Offensive — we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what “America” means to far too many outside the United States. [complete article]