An online repository of information about helicopter warfare in Vietnam, including first-person accounts which have been verified by VHPA historians. Searchable online collection of oral history interviews, photographs, audio, and other digital archives. Also includes an excellent teacher resource page.
Illyria: Women in Vietnam. Historical information, photographs, and first-person accounts, including poetry and personal essays by women who served in the Vietnam War. Dustoff Association. War stories, photographs, and factual information about Army helicopter medical evacuation in Vietnam.
Military Order of the Purple Heart. Provides a history of this organization for combat wounded troops, and links to local chapters. Sons and Daughters in Touch. Tributes and information from the children of military personnel killed in action in Vietnam. Website created by former Vietnam Prisoners of War. Vietnam Magazine.
Magazine dedicated to the history of the Vietnam War. Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Vietnam War History Resources. A portal to many individual military unit and topic websites. These sites can be rich resources for student research.
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By the time of his death in November , there were sixteen thousand American troops in Vietnam. The Americanization of the war had begun. We are still the keystone in the arch of freedom. Johnson, was an ambitious, experienced politician who had served in both the House and the Senate as a Democrat from Texas, and his persona was as large as his home state. Like the three presidents who had preceded him, he saw action in time of war, serving as a naval aide in the Pacific during World War II, and like them he was a Christian, joining the Disciples of Christ Church in part for its focus on good works.
Drawing on his political experience, Johnson thought that Ho Chi Minh was just another politician with whom he could bargain—offering a carrot or wielding a stick—just as he had done as the Senate majority leader. Ho Chi Minh, however, was not a backroom pol from Chicago or Austin but a communist revolutionary prepared to fight a protracted conflict and to accept enormous losses until he achieved victory. In August of that year, after North Vietnamese patrol boats reportedly attacked two U. Once elected, Johnson steadily increased the troop levels until by early there were more than half a million American servicemen in Vietnam—a course of action Eisenhower had strongly opposed.
Johnson quadrupled the number of bombing raids against North Vietnam but barred any invasion of the North by U. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next. But what if the enemy shows no sign of giving in? By , after three and a half years of carefully calibrated escalation, the Pentagon concluded that the North Vietnamese could continue to send at least two hundred thousand men a year into South Vietnam indefinitely.
The Tet offensive of January seemed to confirm such an analysis. Some eighty-five thousand Viet Cong attacked Saigon and other major cities in the south. In most cases, the military historian Norman Friedman writes, the attackers achieved complete tactical surprise. There were dramatic successes, such as penetration of the U.
Nevertheless, both the U. The civilian population in the South did not rise up against the Saigon government but rejected the communist invaders. It was estimated that 40 percent of the communist cadres were killed or immobilized. The Viet Cong never recovered. But the American news media reported the Tet offensive as a U.
A frustrated and discouraged President Johnson did not know what to believe—the positive reports of his generals or the negative reporting of the media. The public opted for the latter. Domestic opposition to the war was fueled by the mounting casualties more than fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors filled the streets of Washington, D. Furthermore, the war in Vietnam was affecting U. By , experts argued, it would be difficult for the United States to respond anywhere else in the world because of its commitments in Vietnam.
Within this national identity, however, the Vietnamese became divided in several important ways. South Vietnamese developed a greater sense of freedom and individuality. By the seventeenth century Vietnam splintered into two competing factions, led by the Trinh family in the north, and the Nguyen family in the south. For two hundred years they waged a civil war. It finally ended in , with the Nguyen family dominating. Their victory was accomplished in part with assistance from the French, who arrived in the region along with other Western countries to compete for colonies and religious converts.
But the Nguyen family then turned against the French, and even persecuted their Vietnamese Catholic converts. Undaunted, a French fleet landed at the northern port of Da Nang harbor in and advanced on the imperial capital city of Hue. They were rebuffed, but were more successful in the south, where they established a French protectorate in The following year they added Cambodia.
Twenty years later the French resumed their expansion. They invaded the Red River Valley in and forced the emperor to accept a French protectorate over the remainder of Vietnam. Some Vietnamese tried to conduct guerilla operations against the French, but without support from the Emperor, their movement died off. Less than a year later the French added neighboring Laos.
The French organized the region under a single administrative unit ruled by a French Governor-General appointed from Paris. They did modernize some aspects of the country. The infrastructure was improved, and they introduced some of the institutions of democracy. But their main concern was commercial profit for France. They wanted cheap raw materials for France, and markets for French goods. They knew that if the Vietnamese were given full democratic rights they would vote for self-determination and an end to French rule. Only French residents and a few wealthy, westernized Vietnamese were given the right to vote, and Vietnamese manufacturing was actively discouraged.
The Vietnamese were not even allowed to produce rice wine, often used for ritual purposes, because it would compete with grape wine imported from France. The French controlled all of the key rubber plantations, but the Vietnamese provided all of the labor, often at starvation wages. French Indochina, More differences between north and south developed as a result of French Colonialism. New lands in the Mekong Delta opened up by French engineering projects were sold to the highest bidder, resulting in a greater concentration of land ownership in a small, wealthy elite.
Two major religious sects emerged in the south: the Hoa Hoa, a form of reformed Buddhism, and the Cao Dai, a hybrid of both western and eastern religions. Additionally, French Colonialism brought Catholicism, which would play a major role in the politics of Vietnam in the years before direct U. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new generation of Vietnamese youth took up the cause of nationalism. These new nationalists came from both north and south, were young, educated, and modern.
They formed secret political parties and attempted to organize resistance against French colonial rule. But they tended to focus on free speech and greater legislative representation for natives. They ignored some of the issues that were important to the working class, such as land reform, improving working conditions, reducing taxes and rent for Vietnamese farmers.
As a result, these political organizations failed. The Revolutionary League appeared to be an ally of the other organizations, but in reality it was a competitor. Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Vietnamese official who opposed French rule. He grew up on nationalist tales of Vietnamese heroes. At the age of 21 he traveled the world as a cook on an ocean liner, and then worked in the kitchen of a luxury hotel in London.
Just as WWI was ending he arrived in France. That fall, the leaders of the Great Powers arrived there for the Versailles peace conference. Since Vietnam was part of a French colony, the petition was ignored. Ho stayed in France, and his politics became more radical. Only three years after the Bolshevik Revolution brought communism to Russia, Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party.
His activities soon brought him to the attention of the Soviets, who trained him in Moscow for a year and then sent him to South China. One reason for this was his attractive personality and character. Another reason was that the Youth League, unlike the other anti-French organizations, appealed to the peasant and the worker. When the Great Depression caused a rise in unemployment and dramatic declines in the price of rice and the standard of living, communism became even more appealing as it did in the other parts of the world, including the United States. When nationalists staged an uprising in , Ho transformed his League into a formal Indochinese Communist Party.
The French quickly put down the rebellion and arrested most of the Communist Party leaders, including Ho, who spent time imprisoned in the British colony of Hong Kong. For the rest of the s the Communist Party in Vietnam limped along. But then WWII and the resulting regional instability changed everything.
By that time the Japanese war against China was three years old. In September the Japanese invaded Indochina to prevent China from moving arms and fuel through the region. The Vichy French yielded to the occupation and signed an agreement giving the Japanese conditional occupation rights.
Vichy France continued to run the colony, but ultimate power resided with the Japanese. Controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam, it took up arms against both French and Japanese occupation forces. The Viet Minh toned down their communist rhetoric, earning them support from many Vietnamese patriots who desired independence, if not specifically under communism. During the next four years the Communist Party and Viet Minh built an elaborate political network throughout the country and trained guerilla fighters in the mountains of North Vietnam. They interned all of the Vichy authorities, but left Emperor Bao Dai on the throne.
The countryside was left with virtually no administration at all. This allowed the Viet Minh to gain further influence. When a famine wiped out one million Vietnamese, the French and Japanese did nothing, while the Viet Minh organized to help the starving, earning them even more support. By the end of the war the Viet Minh were recognized by the Vietnamese people as the main force fighting for independence and justice. Guerillas quickly seized villages and set up an administration for the rural areas. Although dominated by the communists, this new government included Vietnamese patriots and members of several non-communist parties.
The Creator has given us certain inviolable Rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness. If Truman had agreed to do so, this would have put tremendous pressure on the rest of the West to do the same, and North Vietnam would have become a new Republic with Western ties. But would it have remained a Republic, or would the communists have pushed out the other parties anyway? Some historians believe the United States missed a golden opportunity to further develop its relationship with Ho Chi Minh. These historians believe Ho might possibly have been wooed toward an alliance with the U.
But American political leaders continued to view Ho with suspicion. Their early Cold War worldview tended to cast Ho as a tool of Soviet world domination. Keeping France as an ally was an essential part of the plan to resist the spread of communism further westward. To help the French restore control, it was agreed that British troops would move in and occupy the south, while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the North.
In exchange, Ho Chi Minh agreed to allow the return of economic, military, and cultural presence of the French. Before a formal agreement could be signed, however, the deal disintegrated. A new French government elected in refused to compromise. Taking back Indochina was one way to do that. Meanwhile, clashes along the border erupted between French and North Vietnamese forces, and the delicate balance of power between communists and non-communists in Hanoi fell apart.
The communists subsequently took over the North Vietnamese government. In November, a disagreement over the control of customs revenues resulted in the French bombarding the port city of Haiphong, killing thousands of civilians. On December 23, , Viet Minh forces launched a surprise attack on French installations in Hanoi, while their main forces withdrew to prepared positions in the mountainous region north of the city.
This marks the beginning of the First Indochina War. The French had superior numbers and firepower, but Ho and Giap believed they could win by mobilizing the peasants into a guerilla force. By their plan seemed to be working. The French realized they needed a symbol of their own to rally the Vietnamese against the communist menace. Bao Dai agreed to return on the condition that Vietnam be given independence, or at least substantial autonomy.
The French were reluctant to give up their authority, but after China became a communist nation and sent troops to aid the Viet Minh, Bao Dai and France quickly reached an agreement. This new country had some independence, but the French retained significant authority over foreign and military affairs. Truman was reluctant to help. He was displeased at the failure of the French to recognize the independence of non-communist Vietnamese. He hoped it would be able to defeat the Viet Minh and evolve into a stable government resistant to communism.
Ironically, American assistance to the French forced Ho to become dependent on China and the Soviet Union for modern weaponry and financial aid. Three more years of war passed with neither side gaining an advantage. Eisenhower Elected With the election of President Eisenhower in , American funding for the war increased. The French parliament had voted to stop sending French draftees to the conflict back in The actual fighting was done by troops from other parts of the French empire, and by the French Foreign Legion, so that the war would not become unpopular at home.
But French strategy suffered from a lack of construction materials for building adequate defenses, and for lack of armor and air support. Most troubling was that Bao Dai, who lacked leadership skills and spent much of his time in France on the Riviera, was losing the support of the people. In particular, the Associated States of Vietnam failed to address the crucial problem of land ownership inequality.
In South Vietnam, forty percent of the rice-producing land was in the hands of one quarter of one percent of the population. To the vast majority of landless peasants living in abject poverty, the Viet Minh were becoming increasingly appealing. A month later, Ho Chi Minh responded positively to the overture, and it was agreed the two sides would meet in the spring in Geneva, Switzerland.
Meanwhile, the war continued. He had arrived in country in , full of the arrogance that typified French officers new to the country. Now we can see it clearly—like light at the end of a tunnel. His strategy was to assemble a force so impressive that its mere existence would drive the Viet Minh submissively to the bargaining table.
Navarre broke off major contact with the enemy for more than a year so that he could rebuild his forces. Reluctantly, the Eisenhower administration agreed to fund the plan. Map: Dien Bien Phu With peace talks looming, both the French and the Viet Minh wanted a decisive victory on the battlefield that would improve their bargaining position. The Navarre plan soon centered on committing French resources to the defense of a small outpost on the mountainous Laotian border named Dien Bien Phu, once used by the French as an air base but now of no real strategic value.
Dien Bien Phu was actually a cluster of small villages sitting in a valley stretching about eight miles long and five miles from east to west. Surrounded by mountains, it was exceptionally vulnerable to attack and difficult to resupply. He calculated that Giap would only be able to maneuver a single division into position, would be tricked into standing and fighting, and would be worn down by superior French firepower fighting from entrenched positions.
Western arrogance played a role in these calculations. Despite warring against them for years now, the French had not bothered to study their enemy, who were extremely disciplined and resourceful. They thought he could easily be trapped. Instead, it was the French who would be trapped. Giap moved three full divisions about 50, men into the mountains. It was backed up by another 10, peasants committed to resupply efforts. The French believed the Viet Minh could never move artillery up the mountains.
They were able to move four times the number of French guns into place, including 20 mm howitzers. Ammunition and other supplies were brought in by peasants strapped to reinforced bicycles able to carry up to pounds they pushed up the mountains. All of this was done without being discovered by the French, who continued to believe that the enemy forces lurking about the mountains were a small force that would be quickly destroyed. Two of the three key French positions in the valley fell within the first two days.
Defeated and humiliated, Colonel Piroth pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and committed suicide. The siege continued, but the French did not have the resources to rescue their men. In desperation French officials flew to Washington and met personally with President Eisenhower. They asked the U.
A combat soldier's Vietnam War Poem, to a band of brothers, "Warrior Brothers."
They had successfully blamed the Democrats for losing China, and for the dissatisfying stalemate in Korea. But Eisenhower, drawing on the lesson of Korea, wanted allies for an intervention and none were forthcoming. The most likely ally, Great Britain, had recently lost India without fighting a war, and was just finishing up a war in Malaya. They had no interest in fighting a war to save French colonialism.
Various alternatives were considered, including the use of atomic bombs, but President Eisenhower refused. So you could have the beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound consequences. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand. Various forms of this theory were adopted by several U.
But Eisenhower believed it was not the time to commit U. A military assessment of the situation initiated by General Matt Ridgway concluded that as many as 1 million men would be needed to achieve victory in Vietnam. Construction costs would be enormous, and the war would be fought mostly without the support of the Vietnamese people. Every family has had relatives killed. I myself have closed the eyes on hundreds of my comrades.
Many of my closest friends sacrificed their lives. But we had no choice! Late one afternoon, as the light was fading, I met with General Nguyen Xuan Hoang, the principal army historian of the war. He had joined the fight against the French in Hanoi in He fought at Dienbienphu and in was the aide to the general commanding the North Vietnamese forces at the first big battle with the Americans, the battle of the Ia Drang, in the central highlands, near the Cambodian border. The war could have ended then, without so much bloodshed and suffering. Thanks to you, the Northerners had to come to our aid.
They took over the war, and now they have taken over the country. And you are to blame. I asked General Hoang about the battle of the Ia Drang, which had done so much to shape the war's future tactics. He had fought there, and he told me how the thinking had developed. We were facing a modern army, very mobile, never short of firepower.
When you sent the 1st Cavalry to attack us at the Ia Drang, it gave us headaches trying to figure out what to do. General Man [the NVA commander] and I were very close to the front, and several times the American troops came very near us. With the helicopters you could strike deep into our rear without warning. It was very effective. But your troops were never really prepared.
The 1st Cavalry came out to fight us with one day's food, a week's ammunition. They sent their clothes back to Saigon to be washed.
They depended on water in cans, brought in by helicopter. And we tried to turn those advantages against you, to make you so dependent on them that you would never develop the ability to meet us on our terms—on foot, lightly armed, in the jungle. Because you depended on artillery, you built fire bases and seldom went beyond their range.
And once you had built a fire base, you didn't move it. So we knew how to stay away from your artillery, or how to get so close you couldn't use it. Also, you seldom knew where we were, and you seldom had a clear goal. So your great advantages ended up being wasted, and you spent so much of your firepower against empty jungle. You fell into our trap. Our guerrillas served to keep you divided. You could not concentrate your forces on our regular troops, so your advantages were dissipated. I replied that we had been more effective than that: the Viet Cong had been destroyed after Tet, and by pacification was working.
The Communists were unable to mount a single major offensive in , and much of the countryside was secure. Also, whenever American troops faced Communist regular forces in major battles, either we were clearly victorious or the outcome was a draw. He smiled indulgently at me. But we never stopped winning the war. Time was on our side. We did not have to defeat you militarily; we had only to avoid losing. A victory by your brave soldiers meant nothing, did nothing to change the balance of forces or to bring you any closer to victory. That was because the people, the Viet Cong, and our regular forces were inseparable.
If you had a temporary success against one, the other would take up the battle. There was much tragedy in these bland words. The origins of John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's war at least were understandable: the legacy of Korea and Cuba; Johnson's fears of being vulnerable from the right on the Great Society; our belief that we could do anything we set our minds to. But we were wrong: our commitments exceeded our ability—or at least our will—to meet them.
We were tied to an unreliable ally in a country we did not understand; the premises had all changed, and after Tet it was clear that we could not win. Johnson realized that, and at the price of his presidency admitted defeat. The Nixon years of the war are much harder to accept, both in the larger arena of strategy and in the dirty corners where the war was fought.
After the spring of the war had lost its idealistic goals. We could no longer realistically believe that we were fighting and dying to save South Vietnam or to preserve democracy or even to stop the spread of communism, as we had in Korea. And we were there because it was easier to continue than to admit failure and deal with the consequences. Before Richard Nixon was inaugurated, Clark Clifford told Kissinger that the new President had a rare opportunity to end the war at once, to put it behind us before it became his war, too, as it had been Johnson's.
But Clifford's plea fell on deaf ears. Virtually half of the American deaths were still to come, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths. The veterans who fought in and in might as well have been in two different wars. The veterans of Nixon's war are much more bitter; they know that they were sent to die for diplomacy, nothing more. In we could have negotiated a departure not unlike that of the French. We had many cards to play, many ways to protect those who had depended on us.
But we chose to fight for four more years, which meant that Richard Nixon's share of the war lasted longer than America's share of the Second World War. And we left in ignominy anyway, the Marine helicopters churning on the roof of the Embassy, the people who had depended on us left to the mercy of the victors.
They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. What changed, instead, was that Southeast Asia was permanently destabilized. In Vietnam the heart and strength of the Southern guerrillas was destroyed, giving the North, our original enemy, far more influence than it would ever have had. Cambodia was brought into the war to become first a charnel house and then a Vietnamese colony. And the original fear that had started it all, the fear of Chinese expansion? Well, we are now China's most important ally; and its bitterest enemy, the staunchest foe of its expansion into Southeast Asia, is of course Vietnam.
When I returned from Vietnam, l went to Washington to see Edwin Simmons, a retired Marine brigadier general who for the past thirteen years has been in charge of writing the official Marine Corps history of the war. During the last few months of my time in Vietnam I had been his aide. I told him what the North Vietnamese had said about the war. We had no clear objective. Since we didn't have a clear objective, we had to measure our performance by statistics. We had no unity of command. We never had the initiative. Our forces were divided and diffused. The same hamlets were giving us trouble.
The only difference was that macadam and plywood had replaced mud and canvas. Our base camps and fire-support bases had become fortified islands. Our helicopter mobility worked against us. The rule of thumb was, if it was more than four kilometers, you went by helicopter. This gave the illusion of controlling ground which we didn't really control.
Still, some American strategists believe that we could have won—on the battlefield, at least—if only we had had a clear strategy, if only we had not had so many political constraints, if only we could have used our great strength and gone for the jugular with enormous force, and not with piecemeal escalation. If only ….
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The most articulate proponent of this view is Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. He is the author of On Strategy , an application of the principles of Clausewitz to the Vietnam War, which is becoming a bible among younger officers. Summers ignores the debate between Westmoreland and the Marines about pacification, and instead insists that Westmoreland paid too much attention to pacification, which in Summers's view was contusing the cape, the Viet Cong, with the bullfighter, the North Vietnamese.
He contends that we should have fought the way we did in Korea: leave the pacification to the South Vietnamese and strive to isolate the battlefield by concentrating on the invading army, in this case the North Vietnamese. Summers suggests, for example, that we should have focused American troops on cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Westmoreland had, in face wanted to do just that as early as ; he also suggested an amphibious landing in North Vietnam like General MacArthur's landing at Inchon, in Korea. But President Johnson would never agree to widen the war.
But this wasn't Korea. You couldn't ignore the fact that our forces weren't just in the North— they were everywhere, on the spot. You yourself were in Da Nang; you know that wherever you were, we were. Cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail would not hare been easy; we had some of our strongest forces there. And it would have done no good; the puppets could never have fought us alone in the South. An invasion of the North would have caused us difficulties, we would have suffered losses, but you would have had to pay a far more terrible price, and it would never have worked.
You simply should not have gotten into this war in the first place.
It is far easier to start a war than to end one—that is a valuable lesson. The thought preys on the mind: there may still be some Americans there. Did we commit the soldier's cardinal sin—did we leave comrades on the battlefield? Two recent movies, Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action , have played upon that nagging doubt and, in bursts of satisfying action, sent their heroes in to save American POWs and, belatedly, our honor. I spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Mather, an Air Force officer who has been negotiating with the Vietnamese off and on for more than ten years.
There's so much mythology about this, but we have no proof that would stand up in court. We hear hundreds of secondhand accounts. We're always traveling up to the refugee camps to check the stories out. And we're not just keeping a vigil here. We're getting results, particularly on returning the remains of our dead. As I left the office of the JCRC, it came to me that the vast American war effort had been reduced to a few small offices, with copying machines and some computer printouts, where a handful of men come to work, open some files, and try to tie up nagging loose ends while everyone else goes on with his ambition and his career.
There is something almost religious about their work, the attempt each day to raise Lazarus from the dead. But their operation is a backwater, one of those emotional, symbolic issues like the fate of the Kurds or the Baltic nations, that cool diplomats would just as soon have go away. He believes he has seen two Americans in postwar Vietnam.
But the second fascinated me. At first I thought he was a Russian, but he was muttering to himself, and as I came closer I could hear that he was muttering in English. But as intriguing. There are many GIs who never left Thailand; it is not unlikely that of the almost three million Americans who served in Vietnam a handful might have decided to stay.
During the war there were Americans living in the back alleys of Saigon, junkies and hustlers and black-market kings acting out some Conrad fantasy; others may have fallen in love and moved into hamlets with their new families, disappearing beneath the opaque surface of Asia.
In Hue the vice-president of the provincial People's Committee told me an astonishing story. I would send them pamphlets and letters. After many months I had persuaded seven to join us. They left their posts and were traveling with us to the North, but we were caught by Bs, and six were killed.
The seventh fled back to the American lines. I heard he was severely punished, but I never saw him again. Like the case of Bobby Garwood, this story nags at the imagination. Garwood was a Marine private who disappeared outside Da Nang in and then turned up again at a hotel in Hanoi in He became the only American POW tried for aiding the enemy.
Garwood himself recently told The Wall Street Journal that he knew of at least 70 Americans still held captive—a claim he chose to make five years after his return.
When Garwood was negotiating his departure from Vietnam, he said he knew of other captive Americans, but he later recanted that story, saying he had offered it only to make the Americans want to get him out. He lived better than my other men, but he was always sick.
We kept trying to send him to the North, but he refused. Garwood has consistently claimed that he did not collaborate with the Viet Cong, that he was a prisoner like all the other Americans, but that his ability to speak Vietnamese forced him into a no-man's-land, where he was not trusted by the guards or the prisoners. But I had just been told casually that he had actively worked with the Viet Cong. Were there others like him. What had happened to them? Are there any left?
I had dozens of questions, but I got no more answers. It was as if the curtain had been raised for an instant and I had seen a shadow of what lay behind it—but no more. The MIA issue is his responsibility. There may be a handful who chose to stay here; the local authorities would know about them. But no one is being held here against his will. That's more than twenty-two percent of all the American dead. In Vietnam you say you have twenty-five hundred MIAs.
That's only five percent of your dead. Still, we want to help. It is the humanitarian thing to do. I asked why none of the remains of Americans on the original died-in-captivity list in the South had been returned, while all the names on the list in the North had been accounted for. The people are still bitter. And, listen, have you seen all those cemeteries of our heroes, all over Vietnam? Most of the bodies aren't buried there. Many thousands of our own dead were never found. Do we tell the people that the bodies of Americans are more important than the bodies of their own husbands and sons who died because of the Americans?
Irony is an underdeveloped trait here. Just off the Street of Victory Over the Bs, in Hanoi, is a walled compound that holds the offices of FaFim, the agency that markets Vietnamese newsreels and documentaries. Inside are graceful one-story buildings of blue-green stucco and red tile roofs. Well-kept rosebushes surround a large pool. In one doorway a chicken strutted back and forth; in another two men in shorts were sharing a bamboo pipe, puffing contentedly.
A young woman in high heels and jeans took me into a large room where I was shown movies about the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, including some brief clips of American POWs looking unrepentant. Bui Tin told me that on Christmas he would take ox or a turkey and a guitar and sit around singing folk songs. Pham Tuan, a jet pilot, said that he had visited POWs and shared informal talk about flying. Co Dinh Ba insisted that they got better rations than their guards. Well, not exactly.
It is not a record that makes one feel comfortable about the fate of any Americans who might still be in Vietnam. I returned from my trip believing that even if POWs were once there, they probably aren't there now. Live American POWs have long since lost any value to the Vietnamese, would in fact be an embarrassment—how, after all these years, would the Vietnamese explain them?
Despite their ingrained inability to throw anything away, their determination to hang on to everything until, someday, it has a use, even the Vietnamese recognize when something has out-lived all possible value. And when they realize that, they, like anyone else, get rid of it. This is my rational conclusion. Who else, comes the nagging thought, is in there? When I came to Da Nang in , the airport was one of the busiest in the world. Fighters and transport planes competed with airliners on the runways, and in the sky helicopters of every description buzzed like swarms of dragonflies.
The noise was deafening. The airport itself was crammed with American soldiers and Marines. The waiting rooms were jammed with Americans waiting for flights, sleeping on their duff bags. The parking lots and surrounding roads were choked with traffic. In the background from time to time we could hear the sounds of shelling. On this trip, when I landed, there was only a strange, pre-modern silence. During the war Da Nang had been a mini-Saigon— loud, raucous, and teeming with refugees, mutilated beggars, hustlers.
Now it was obviously less crowded; it was, in fact, back to a population of ,, its size before the refugees swelled it to more than a million people in High up on a switchback I asked the driver to stop. I got out, the wet sea air in my face, and looked back on Da Nang. I could see almost the entire area of my unit, the 1st Marine Division—from Elephant Valley out Route 37 in the north, stretching south past Ba Na Mountain, Charlie Ridge, and the Arizona Territory, and down the coast past Marble Mountain and beyond the Que Son Mountains, visible only as a dim smudge on the southern horizon.
Beyond the narrow stretch of coastal plain, where the Tuy Loan and other rivers flowed out in a wide delta, were the mountains, hidden in clouds. On the mountain behind me waterfalls coursed down through tropical foliage; hundreds of feet below me gentle swells broke on deserted beaches scalloped from the rocks. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It seemed unthinkable that so much war had been here.
From the car the only clue to the presence of an old American base was a sudden increase in scrap metal for sale in the houses along the road. All that remained was some rubble, a lonely, abandoned watchtower, and a few strands of rusty barbed wire. And so it was with all the trappings of what had been a vast American civilization in Vietnam: Red Beach, Marble Mountain airfield, Camp Eagle—all gone. The huge staging areas, the movie theaters, the ice-cream parlors, the officers' clubs—built to last forever—have all vanished.
At none of the old bases does anything grow; the bare red dirt lies on the earth like a scar. We drove north from Hue toward the DMZ, into some of the most fiercely contested areas of the war. Stacks of old shell casings were everywhere, to be recycled into tools. Along the road and fields were stands of newly planted eucalyptus and falao pine.
Throughout the war virtually the entire region had been a free-fire zone. The people had been evacuated, the fields abandoned, and the trees and houses blasted into the mud.
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- Toughing It Out: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur.
- The Inner Links.
Even Quang Tri, the one town of any size, had been obliterated in , during the days the Communists had held it against some of the heaviest bombing of the war. Now the people are back, and rice is being harvested and brought in from the fields. Long before we should have arrived at the DMZ—my mind being attuned to the old travel times in military vehicles along less than secure roads—we were there. Some sampans floated idly in the Ben Hai River, for twenty-one years the boundary between the two Vietnams and for more than ten years a fearsome no-man's-land of bitter fighting.
Without ceremony we crossed the bridge to their side. On the south side—our side—were rice paddies, a few houses, a boy on a water buffalo. Three women were wading slowly in the river, gathering water potatoes and oysters. An old Dodge van, converted to a bus, lumbered across the bridge from the south and stopped by our car. Five or six children poured out and ran off down a narrow trail, chattering and carrying their satchels from school. The wind made patterns in the yellowing rice. The mountains were gray in the distance. From the sea, clouds were blowing in. There was simply nothing to do but get in the car and go back.
After dinner we went for a drive around the darkened streets of Hue. A mass was in progress at the Hue cathedral, rebuilt as a strikingly modern structure grafted onto the Gothic architecture of the Hue seminary. I am sure they did this as brutally and as matter-of-factly as General Loan executed the Viet Cong terrorist in the streets of Saigon. That execution, so dramatically caught on film—the captive being led up, the pistol being raised to his head and fired, the man falling over, blood spurting on the pavement—became a visual metaphor for the brutality of the whole war.
Stephen Miller died no less brutally, but his death wasn't theater, and therefore in the practical terms of politics it might as well never have happened. While my guides smoked in the car, I stood in the field and bore him silent witness. That night a hurricane blew in from the South China Sea.
The wind beat against the windows of my room, the power, of course, went out, and the Perfume River rose steadily, churning with debris. Ky has the wavy hair and the good looks of a movie star. It was impossible for me to imagine that he had spent fifteen years living in the jungle. The Viet Cong whom we captured or who defected to us were tough, dedicated people, but they had the look of peasants who had just come from the fields.
Ky looked as if he had just come from discussing a movie deal. We ate lunch—the most lavish meal of my trip—on the roof of the hotel, overlooking the river, which by now was roiled and angry. The old city was barely visible through the storm, but I could see sampans balanced precariously against the howling winds in the center of the flood, the children on board searching for anything of value in the debris being swept past them. A young waitress in a yellow ao dai laid out giant prawns. I asked Ky if he had been in Hue during the Tet offensive.
He beamed. I was here for twenty-four days and nights. I was in the Citadel; I was everywhere in the city. The Americans and the puppets bombed us with everything they had, but we made them fight for every street. The people had been living under oppression for fourteen years. Many of our fighters had not seen their families since They hugged each other and cried. It was glorious. I thought of so many places I had seen such crimes. Those poor people were just peasants and laborers—they only wanted to plant rice, and they were killed. I could have cried. As he talked, my own memories came back.
In I had spent several weeks teaching English at night in Da Nang. They were schoolteachers. The Viet Cong came to the door and took them away. They told my grandmother they had to ask them some questions. My parents never came back. They found their bodies near the imperial tombs. They had been tied up and strangled.
The Viet Cong had gone from bunker to bunker, throwing in satchel charges. Anyone who tried to flee was shot—old men, women, young children. When I got there the next morning, the mangled bunkers mere still smoldering, the bodies were laid out in long rows, and a few survivors with blank faces were poking in the rubble.
A shadow crossed Ky's face, a fleeting moment of hardness that made me glad I was his guest and not his prisoner. Then the smile returned. We were the people. How could we kill ourselves? They tied us up and rubbed chili pepper into our mouths, noses, and eyes. They nailed your fingers down and then tore out the fingernails. They put out your eyes and cut off your ears and wore them around their necks—for publicity. The ripped open your belly and tore out your heart and liven They cut open the womb and yanked out the baby inside, then stomped it into the dust.
If they could do that, they could make up any lie about us. He looked at me with sympathy. A few criminals may have been spontaneously eliminated by the people, like stepping on a snake. But most of those bodies—if there were any—were probably patriots who helped us and were murdered by the puppets after we came into Hue during the war I pretended I was a fisherman, or a student, or a peasant coming to market. The Americans would come right up to me. They'd pat me on the back and offer me cigarettes.
He looked at me with a sly smile. The flood was rising, and the rice harvest was in danger. In today's Vietnam, where the people barely have enough rice to survive, nothing is more serious. Outside, the storm had abated. The trees that had blown over had already been cut up and carried away for firewood. Milan Kundera writes about a Czech leader whose usefulness to the state had ended. For the leader to remain in official photographs of the period raised too many questions; it was inconvenient.
So he was simply airbrushed out: he no longer existed. The massacre of civilians at Hue, the massacres at places like Thanh My, are now inconvenient, so they have been airbrushed out of history: they no longer exist. The Vietnamese stand in the flood of history and pluck from the water only what is useful; the rest flows out to sea.
History is like the toppled trees of Hue, to be cut up and used to heat and light the present. The next day we drove south to Duy Xuyen District, a once bitterly contested area about twelve miles south of Da Nang. The district headquarters was in a low stucco building; I had been there before, during the war I was greeted by a delegation of officials and offered tea, beer, and fruit. He had been part of the Viet Cong local forces during the war.
He had joined the guerrillas in , when he was seventeen. During the long years of the war he had been wounded eight times. This one, on my leg, was in This one, my hand and my head, was in , this one. The worst year was , he said, confirming what General Tuan had told me in Hanoi. This whole district was a no-man's-land. There were thousands of Americans, Koreans, and puppet troops in the area, but there were only four of us left out of all the local guerrilla forces. Only four. We were hungry There was nothing to eat. I was the commanded We all gave serious thought to surrender. But each time, we talked about our traditions, about our country, and we kept on fighting.
Two young men from the rice cooperative who had been out fighting the flood arrived. One of the men seemed very young, too young to have been in the war. But he had been fighting since , when he was nine. We were scouts. We watched the Americans, sold them cigarettes and talked to them, and then reported back.
When history is on your side, killing a village official, even if he has been your neighbor all your life, is simply not a matter of much consequence. We had to organize cooperatives, clear the fields of mines and bombs, develop irrigation and electric projects, plow and plant and begin to harvest. We had to plant trees and build houses and schools and clinics.
And it was hard at first. All our lives we had been guerrillas. War is simple; our problems now are more complicated. We had, in truth, to start over. And we are far from finished. I had been in Duy Xuyen during the war. Part of it had been known as Go Noi Island, which by had been cleared of all signs of life, like an apple peeled of its skin.
Shadows of Combat: Poetry about the Vietnam Era (Unabridged)
There was nothing, literally nothing, there. No trees, no cemeteries, no houses, no fields, no people. It was the archetypal free-fire zone. In we began resettlement work. Land was set aside for villages, and some of the old residents were brought back and lodged in rows of houses with tin roofs-set beneath the blazing sun. It was not a bad effort, and it flowed from some of our best motives. But we were taking a terrible situation and trying to heal it with Band-Aids.
We were trying to rebuild the land we had destroyed, in the name of the Vietnamese people, and wanting them to love us for it. During the war I had flown over this area in a helicopter day after day. I had been struck by the thought of how beautiful it must have been, a fertile green blanket between the mountains and the sea, before it had been pockmarked by bombs and cleared of people.
Now the people were back. Trees by the thousands had been planted. The free-fire zones of Go Noi and the Arizona Territory were again rice paddies, as they had been for centuries. Children on their way to school walked giggling down trails where Marine patrols had been ambushed, and rice dried on roads where tanks and halftracks had churned up dust. Two miles southeast of Da Nang had been The Marble Mountain airfield, a large recreational area called China Beach, and the headquarters of the 1st Marine Regiment, an area notorious for its booby traps.
We drove out to China Beach. Where once Red Cross doughnut dollies and Army nurses in bathing suits had drawn the hungry stares of thousands of lonely men, there was only one old woman, gathering seaweed. Driving along the beach, we passed some shacks. Inside one of them two men were playing chess. They were fishermen, uninvolved in politics. The older man, Phung Tha, was thirty. Some of us, like me, fought with our mouths.
They laughed. All we have ever wanted to do is fish. Now we do. So we are happy. When I was here during the war, the Marines in this area had been commanded by Colonel P. Kelley, an intelligent, aggressive officer with a subtle grasp of politics, a dedication to excellence, and even a sense of humor. On the days when he and the other colonels, the really good ones, were up at division headquarters, I would think that there was nothing we couldn't do. But today the area where we did our best for him, ourselves, and our country is the domain of fishermen and old women with stained teeth who gather seaweed on the beach.
Just inland from China Beach five mountains of solid marble tower up out of the dunes like the snouts of whales breaching out of the ocean. Pagodas and Buddhist monasteries are hidden away on the largest mountain, and around the base are hamlets of marble cutters who patiently carve Buddhas, bracelets, and little statues of roaring lions and dragons. On weekends during the war Marines would occasionally go there to visit a pagoda and buy some marble souvenirs. But there were several caves and pagodas on the mountain that were off limits.
We supposed that the religious sensibilities of the Vietnamese would be deeply offended if we were to go there.