My memories of the Vietnam War are scant; I was born in 1960. I remember heated dinner-table arguments. My mother saw Bobby Darin speak out against the war on Mike Douglas, or some other talk show, and get booed for it. She said she sat right down and wrote him a fan letter; the first fan letter she'd ever written in her life, so she claims, though I always suspect Don Ameche got a few from her childhood home.

But if my father had an articulate view in support of the war, I don't remember it. I mostly remember his anger from those years. In fact, if anyone had a coherent defense of the war, it never percolated down to me in the Philadelphia suburbs. Our teachers who spoke about the war obviously were against it. The music we heard on the radio, to the degree that it was political, was anti-war.

"The Ballad of the Green Berets," I read, was the number 21 most popular song in the U.S. for the entire decade of the 1960s. I am sure I never heard it. Nor did I ever see John Wayne's movie of the same name. But I heard plenty of "One Tin Soldier" and "Fortunate Son," and I saw "Hearts and Minds."

I don't think any cultural artifact summed up American opposition to the war more than that one movie documentary. Statistics show it was the shift of moderate liberal opinion, which had supported the war, that doomed Johnson in the 1968 primaries. The role of media images in that is undeniable, especially the Tet offensive. Though "Hearts and Minds" came well at the end of the Vietnam era, it encapsulates the set of images that the anti-war authorites managed to get across to the American people.


So, my understanding of how we got into Vietnam militarily and failed to win there is based on subsequent reading, not personal remembrance. In a very streamlined version, and purely from the American point of view, it would go like this:

Vietnam represented, to the U.S., a Cold War departure from the classical American attitude rooted in Washington's Farewell Address and summed up by John Quincy Adams in 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions and her prayers." But, he added, "she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

That was easy to say when America was a small power in a world dominated by Britain, and isolated, less by virtue of geography than by virtue of the techonlogy of the times, which could not project force easily across the seas. That picture changed wholesale with the rise of America to a superpower, and the development of missile systems and nuclear weapons. Among other things, this forced Truman and Eisenhower to stretch Adams' "her own" to include essential allies such as Europe.

The policy got a further, and dicier, extension with the end of the colonial era. In the early 1960s, new Third World nations presented an opportunity Khrushchev recognized and exploited, to leap over the West's "containment" of his communist empire behind a ring of allied states. He saw that the communists, with their natural affinity for revolutions, easily could seize the vanguard in the "national liberation wars" and "revolutionary struggles against imperialism" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and turn the emerging states into Soviet satellites.

Kennedy took up the challenge, though typically with much enthusiasm and mixed results. The Peace Corps, the Green Berets (counter-insurgency specialists), the "Alliance for Progress," all were part of his response. Typically, too, the response embodied the American spirit of can-do-everything-at-once confidence and a tension between reckless idealism and selfish realism.

The British historian Paul Johnson outlines the problem with all this, from the "Realists" point of view:

But this was to ignore the central lesson of the British Empire, that the best any possessing power can hope to settle for is stability, however imperfect. To promote dynamism is to invite chaos. In the end, a possessing power always has to defend its system by force, or watch it disintegrate, as Britain had done. America had now created a new, post-colonial system, as Kennedy's Inaugural acknowledged. But it was still a possessing one, dependent on stability for its well-being. America's resources were far greater than Britain's had been. But they were still limited. The art, therefore, lay in selecting those positions which must be defended, and could only be defended by force, and devising workable alternatives for the others. Therein lay the weakness of Kennedy's universalism." [Modern Times, p.615]
For Johnson, Cuba was such a position. Vietnam was not. Whether or not that is so, the half-hearted American bid to overthrow Castro ended in a public relations fiasco. One result was that the U.S. Administration sought a balancing anti-communist victory and sensed it could get one in Vietnam. Kennedy said, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place."

From the realists' view, the fundamental American mistake in Vietnam had been political, not military, and it had been made under Eisenhower, especially when the U.S. did not back free elections, as called for in the 1954 Geneva Accords, because they likely would have brought a communist government over the whole country. Important leaders in the administration like Acheson, Kennan, and even Eisenhower himself (sometimes) had acknowledged that the U.S. did not have much strategic interest in Vietnam and that a communist government there wouldn't be the end of the world.

I wonder if that would have been better, for the South Vietnamese, than the government they got after 1975. They would have been spared the destructive war. They also would have forfeited the U.S. medical and other aid that allowed the population to swell, infant mortality to drop, and the overall standard of living to advance. Perhaps the native communist leaders would have been more flexible before warfare toughened them; perhaps the Sino-Soviet split, when it came, would have left Vietnam more isolated from Moscow, and spared it from Stalinist social engineering.

And the idealist in me says America should have stayed true to its commitment to free and democratic elections, if they truly would have been free (unlike the ones that brought communist governments to power in Eastern Europe).

Instead the unitary elections never happened, and the country defaulted into civil war. Political mistakes piled up after that: the anti-Diem coup chief among them. Another was Lyndon Johnson's poor decision to try to win the war by heavy bombing, as though he were fighting Hitler's Germany, not a rural and un-industrial nation of hill farms and rice paddies.

The slow, restricted, half-hearted American military tactics doomed the war. Sparing use of power, bombing (with frequent "pauses") instead of invading, and other policies that were meant, at least in part, to save civilian lives in fact probably killed more Americans and Vietnamese than a straight-ahead and vigorous U.S. pursuit of victory would have cost. Instead, such tactics were interpreted, abroad, as signs of weakness, and, at home, as signs of guilt. And the Vietnam War almost broke the soul of the U.S. military (as Algeria did the French), asked to fight, but not win, but not lose, for no clear purpose.

The modern double-standard was in full effect: the Vietcong tactic of converting villages into fortified bases was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. The U.S. policy of evacuating civilians from war zones to create "free fire" fields actually was required by the 1949 Geneva agreement. Guess which side got accused of "genocide?"


This site reprints an explanation and history, by Carol Wilder, of the film "Hearts and Minds." Wilder takes a generally glowing view of it. The piece often veers from analysis to throw cheap-shot elbows at Bush and Rumsfeld and wistfully imagine how bad they would be made to look if "Hearts and Minds II" were made today. If you can stomach that, the Web site is well worth a look.

Because it does note the criticism of the documentary as "manipulative," and in its analysis of the work it comes essentially to the conclusion that it was highly manipulative. "There were no 'bad' Vietnamese, no pro-war Americans who don't sound like idiots or worse, and there was too much emotional pandering."

And it was utterly effective. It had a galvanizing power. It did double duty -- as propaganda for the anti-war movement, and in managing to make its critics look like spluttering buffoons.

It seems to me the power of "Hearts and Minds" was set up by what had been missing from too many Vietnam War debates. As loud and long as they were, Americans in them talked mostly about Americans. National interest, American atrocities, what was right and wrong for America to do. The nightly news showed our soliders in action, fighting against an enemy who never emerged from the treeline. In time it came to seem to some people that we were fighting the treeline. Meanwhile, our soldiers were protecting a people whose faces rarely appeared on screen.

What this documentary film did, in its highly partisan way, was put the Vietnamese people in the American eye. The effect was intense. When Michael Moore put images of kite-flying Iraqi families in "Fahrenheit 9/11" it wasn't considered among the film's most effective techniques. The point that innocents stand in the path of every battle was well-taken, but even Moore's peanut gallery knew (whether they said it or not) Saddam's Iraq was no picnic in the park for its inmates. But apparently that wasn't true of what we knew about North Vietnam in 1975, when "Hearts and Minds" showed us "the other" going about daily life.

They are human, they are real, they have feelings, they look small and vulnerable, not menacing. This other -- all but ignored by mainstream media -- is a sympathetic victim. The film reverses the figure/ground context of American popular culture by foregrounding the Other and bestowing it with value. Davis adopts the point of view of a knowing everyman, able to see the tragic story with a wide angle lens, where the "enemy" is as human as the viewer.
But of course, he was not a "knowing everyman." He was on fire with the zeal of a crusader. This was his armor. And his spear.
The Vietnamese Other is most powerfully rendered in a sequence of mourning and keening at the National Cemetery of South Vietnam. The funeral is for a South Vietnamese soldier, and is presented in all its dignity, ritual, and grief. It includes the unbearable suffering of a young boy who throws himself on the casket, leading the viewer to share a painful and intimate experience. While some evidence of cruelty by the South Vietnamese army is seen in shots of prisoners in "tiger cages," images of cruelty by the "enemy" -- the "other-other" NLF or North Vietnamese -- are notably absent.

In nearly all cases Vietnamese are portrayed as sympathetic victims, even in a notorious and graphic brothel scene of prostitutes and American soldiers. The lone exception is a sequence of Saigon fat-cats, suggesting that South Vietnamese businessmen and government officials were complicit with the Americans in a war against the Vietnamese people.

"Americans in a war against the Vietnamese people." If one phrase can sum up the anti-war view in the U.S., perhaps that is it. The anti-war movement of the 1960s got tangled up in the civil rights movement. The moral indignation of the domestic struggle spilled over into the anti-war crusade. To an extent, it seems to me, the Vietnamese became confused in the popular mind with the righteous American blacks (the Southern ones, who weren't rioting). The victims of U.S. racist injustice merged into one. The same feeling of moral outrage flowed out for each.

Yet as Wilder points out, the Vietnamese presence in "Hearts and Minds" is highly selective. What about the goals and tactics of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leadership? The anti-war movement either embraced them ("Uncle Ho") or ignored them. The American anti-communists, who might have done a better job explaining things and warning us what would happen to the South Vietnamese people under communist rule, had by this time (early 1970s) acquired, or been tainted in the media with, bad names: They were rigid, reflexive anti-communist mental fossils of the McCarthy era; old-fashioned seeing-them-under-the-bed Red-baiters. They had short haircuts and square clothes, and they were inflexible bigots, with their stiff speech and tendency to associate with really unsavory characters like segregationists and John Birchers. Or so they were presented to us.


"If demonizing the enemy is a first principle of propaganda," Wilder writes, "humanizing the enemy may be a first principle of peace." But that, manifestly, is not what "Hearts and Minds" did. It showed us North Vietnam under communism as a land of noble innocents, like the American Indians in their day. This was as false to reality as was Gen. William Westmoreland's notorious quote in the movie, his singularly inept assertion that "the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner."

The most common for-the-war argument I remember hearing was Eisenhower's domino theory twist on realism: If Vietnam falls, then Thailand and Malaysia fall, then Singapore falls. To which my friends would answer, "so what?" And I never knew the response to that. Yet this, too, put the war entirely in terms of American interest. If we were killing people in Vietnam purely out of national self-interest, that might satisfy hard-hearted realists, but it's hardly an appealing motive to the idealism of youth.

On the other side was passion. Was conviction. Was that most intoxicating substance, moral indignation. As Americans, we responded when we were told that the Viet Cong were "people fighting for their freedom."

But I'm ashamed to say the young people I knew at that time had very little inclination to know about the Vietnamese beyond what served our opposition to the U.S. government. We thought they simply wanted to be communist (in the north) or wanted to be left alone (in the south) and we were bombing and killing them without cause or justification. "Communist" to us then, as far as we could determine it in the cheerful suburbs, meant simply "aligned with the Russians in U.N. votes and Olympics scoring."

"Hearts and Minds" contains the iconic images: the naked teenage girl running in terror from the napalm attack, the bullet through the head on a Saigon street.

Each one of these images was widely distributed by mainstream media and each encapsulated the essential horror of the war. In Hearts and Minds, not only are these arresting pictures included, but the moving image unpacks the more familiar still image, playing out the action to greater effect in what seems like slow motion. The still image of the execution on the Saigon street during the Tet offensive shows the moment of the bullet's impact, but the full shot shows the victim fall on his side, spewing a fountain of blood from his ear.
To base political decisions on one image, however horrifying, you also must do some coldly rational inquiry: "One picture. How representative is it?" A heart on fire with moral indignation does not make such calculations.

It's easy to forget, in the triumphalism of the anti-war movement, that the American decision to start looking for a peace solution in Vietnam came in early 1968, when most Americans, including the under-35 demographic, still supported an aggressive war. Nixon's strategy was to set up an independent South Vietnam. In his first four years in office, he reduced American forces in Vietnam from 550,000 to 24,000 and cut war spending from $25 billion a year to less than $3 billion.

The Paris peace agreement of 1973 reserved the U.S. right to maintain aircraft carriers in Indo-Chinese waters and to use bases in Taiwan and Thailand to oppose Hanoi if it broke the accord. But any remaining U.S. will to defend South Vietnam was dragged down by the rising malaise in America, the domestic political scandals, and the media war against all things Nixon. By the time the North had built up its capacity and launched the destruction of the South, Congress was unwilling to lift a finger in defense of an old ally, despite President Ford's pleading.

And so probably my most vivid personal memory of the war years was tracking the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. I was 14; the "Philadelphia Inquirer" ran a front page story almost every day, illustrated with a map of the country, and one by one as the provincial capitals fell, the blocks that shaped the long sickle of South Vietnam shifted from white to gray. I believe they ran, after the fall of Saigon, a map that showed that unfortunate country entirely gray from tip to tip.

We then saw what we had been fighting against all these years, and saw it without the propagandist's lens and cutting techniques. The communist government colonized Laos, invaded Cambodia, and itself engaged in Cambodia-style mass resettlements of North Vietnamese peasants in 1977-78, moved untold thousands of city-dwellers from the South into rural poverty, demanded entire "submission to the will of the advanced class representing society," held 200,000 political prisoners by January 1977, and executed thousands more.

As for those dominos -- Thailand and beyond -- they never fell. But perhaps that was because the stalling action in Vietnam gave them time to put down roots.

Conventional wisdom in the 1970s saw the war in Vietnam as an unmitigated disaster. But that has been proved wrong. The war had collateral benefits, buying the time and creating the conditions that enabled noncommunist East Asia to follow Japan's path and develop into the four dragons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) and, later, the four tigers (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand). Time brought about the split between Moscow and Beijing and then a split between Beijing and Hanoi. The influence of the four dragons and the four tigers, in turn, changed both communist China and communist Vietnam into open, free-market economies and made their societies freer.
Written by Lee Kuan Yew, founder of the modern state of Singapore, who might be admitted to know something about it. Certainly Johnson and Kennedy never articulated that exact path as their goal. They talked generically of freedoms, even when it seemed hypocritical. Yet, there it is.

I think history will view the Cold War as a true war, and call it World War III. And, like the Hundred Years' War or the Peloponnesian War, it will come to be seen as a series of campaigns, even though to those who lived through it it seemed a series of small wars, punctuated by peace. The U.S. war in Vietnam will come to be seen like the Athenian expedition to Sicily: a military expedition based on a political necessity; a battle failure begun in a spirit of high moral enthusiasm, but in ignorance of the destination and with vague and unrealistic goals. Unlike Athens, which risked everything in Sicily, America was able to recover from the defeat, over time, and to protect itself and its allies during the recovery.

But for the Vietnamese people, especially those who believed in us and believed with us in their freedom, I wish I had a better story to tell.


It is the iconic image of the Vietnam War. At noon on Feb. 1, 1968, on a city street, Saigon police chief Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan fires a bullet into the head of Nguyen Van Lem, who is dressed in civilian clothes. It is the image more than any other that "started to change the American public's views on their involvement in the Vietnam War." Loan's obituary in the "New York Times," thirty years later, begins: "Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the quick-tempered South Vietnamese national police commander whose impromptu execution of a Viet Cong prisoner on a Saigon street in the Tet offensive of 1968 helped galvanize American public opinion against the war ...."

AP photographer Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for that. According to one of the first journalists to see the negatives, it was the image they all had been seeking,

the perfectly framed and exposed "frozen moment" of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War.
Like "People" magazine, the journalist still finds his heart goes out to the victim, to his widow:
Thirty-two years later, I met his widow, who still lived in their home in a southern Saigon suburb and mourned him. In a corner of the living room, behind plastic flowers, was a heavily retouched photograph of Nguyen Van Lam, who, as a Viet Cong, had the "secret name" (alias) Bay Lap. Yes, he had been a member of the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong. He just disappeared shortly before the Tet Offensive, and never came back.

Eddie Adams' photograph made him a martyr.

At almost the same moment that picture was taken, North Vietnamese forces that had overrun the ancient city of Hue at the other end of South Vietnam were massacring thousands of innocent civilians and dumping their bodies in mass graves. It was routine policy for the North Vietnamese; politics as usual for Ho Chi Minh. No AP photographer was there to take pictures.

But this photo was taken afterward. Nobody won a Pulitzer for it. You might have seen it. Probably some people remember it. They probably think it shows a victim of some American atrocity.

And what about Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan and his "martyr" victim?

Lem commanded a Viet Cong assassination and revenge platoon, which on that day had targeted South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers' families; Lem was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of General Loan's deputy and close friend.
He had been killing police officers and slashing the throats of their wives and children.

Nobody took pictures of them. Nobody won a Pulitzer for the image of their bodies sprawled in the bloody, dirty street. But people remembered Loan. Including his nominal allies in the West.

When General Loan was severely wounded while charging a Viet Cong hideout three months later and taken to Australia for treatment, there was such an outcry there against him that he was moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he was repeatedly denounced in Congress.

... At the fall of Saigon his pleas for American help in fleeing were ignored. But he and his family escaped in a South Vietnamese plane.

After his presence in the United States became known there was a move to deport him as a war criminal. But the efforts fizzled, and Mr. Loan, whose right leg had been amputated, settled in northern Virginia, where he eventually opened his pizzeria, which he operated until 1991 when publicity about his past led to a sharp decline in business. As a message scrawled on a restroom wall put it, "We know who you are."

Eddie Adams came to realize who was the martyr in this story. It wasn't the "insurgent" who had been out killing cops' children. Adams wrote:
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.
When the general died in obscurity and exile, Adams praised him as a "hero."
America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.
But by that time, no one was listening to the photographer, either.

Remembering the worst you know of me.
Now view yourself as I was, on the spot--
With a slight kind of engine. Do you see?
Like this ... You wouldn't hang me? I thought not."


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© November 14, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"