10 Misconceptions About the War in Vietnam Exposed

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The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

According to what President Lyndon Johnson told the American people, North Vietnamese gunboats attacked American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964, which led to American reprisals in the form of airstrikes. It also led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the eventual deployment of combat troops to Vietnam. On July 28, 1964, five days before the first incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Director of the CIA, John McCone, wrote to President Johnson that air strikes against military targets in Vietnam, including in North Vietnam, would likely not cause an escalation of communist activity in the South from the major communist powers.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred on August 2, 1964. USS Maddox, a destroyer, was operating in the Gulf during a signals exercise when it discovered it was being followed by three North Korean patrol boats, armed with machine guns and torpedoes. According to the Johnson administration’s report of the incident to the American people, the North Vietnamese closed on Maddox and launched torpedo attacks. Maddox evaded the torpedoes and fired upon the boats in self-defense. On August 4 a second attack occurred on Maddox and USS Turner Joy, in which the Navy claimed to have sunk three North Vietnamese patrol boats after being attacked.

Documents which were declassified in 2005 indicate that in the first incident Maddox noticed the boats trailing them and Captain John Herrick, who commanded the destroyer squadron which included Maddox ordered its gun crews to fire warning shots if the boats closed to within 10,000 yards (five nautical miles). When Maddoxsubsequently fired three warning shots, they responded by attacking with torpedoes. The second incident, in which the Navy claimed to have sunk three North Vietnamese craft, never happened. The ships likely fired at ghost images from their radar. There were no North Vietnamese boats present during the incident of August 4.

The fact that Maddox had fired first was not reported to the American people and Congress. Instead it was claimed that Maddox had been deliberately attacked in international waters. Maddox was inside the territorial limit claimed by the North Vietnamese (but unrecognized by the United States). Why Maddox, and later Turner Joy, were so close to the North Vietnamese coast was not explained by the Johnson administration as it rammed through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Nor was it explained until the declassification of documents many years after the war.

The American destroyers were off the coast of North Vietnam to gather intelligence in support of OPLAN 34. The plan had been taken over by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Special Operations Group from the Central Intelligence Agency on January 1, 1964. The plan included the insertion of American trained South Vietnamese commandos into North Vietnam to disrupt supply of the Viet Cong and destroy radar installations, among other things. The night before the Gulf of Tonkin incident one of these raids was launched on Hon Me Island in the Gulf of Tonkin, using American supplied attack boats manned by South Vietnamese. Maddox was gathering intelligence during the raid.

Covert CIA Involvement 1954 – 1964

Immediately following the acceptance of the Geneva Accords which ended French involvement in Indochina, the Eisenhower administration initiated covert actions against the Hanoi government. Allen Foster Dulles, the Director of the CIA, dispatched Edward Lansdale, a Colonel in the United States Air Force, to Vietnam to execute a program of misinformation, covert operations, and spying on the North Vietnamese. According to Lansdale’s memoirs he operated under cover of being the Assistant Air Attache at the American Embassy in Saigon. In fact he was in charge of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission.

The CIA established paramilitary units in both South and North Vietnam, to disrupt the Hanoi government and the Viet Minh. As conflicts regarding Diem’s direction in the form of government to be created in Vietnam increased, the CIA activities covert activities continued. Diem considered and rejected suggestions by Lansdale to create a democratic system of checks and balances within the government. He also rejected CIA recommendations over who should command his army. Diem became increasingly distrustful of the American presence in Vietnam and wanted to surround himself with persons of whose personal loyalty he was assured.

By 1959 North Vietnamese troops were already using the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia to maintain contact and resupply their supporters in the South. The CIA and US Special Forces mined the trail with listening devices, motion sensors, and heat detectors to monitor movement along the trail and track troop movements. The Special Forces were also responsible for the training of mercenaries hired in Laos to interdict North Vietnamese using the trail. The US information from the CIA surveillance of the Trail was passed to these mercenaries, many of whom proved to be actually working for the North Vietnamese.

In May of 1961, after Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam, President Kennedy ordered an increase of CIA covert activity as a preliminary step to the commitment of American troops. The CIA trained civilians in the methods of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and guerrilla warfare, mostly members of Vietnam’s Nung people, from the Northern provinces. The United States conducted similar operations in Laos. In 1962 two South Vietnamese Air Force pilots attempted to kill Diem by bombing the palace in which he resided. The attempt failed and Diem increased his personal security.

By 1963 it was evident to the CIA intelligence activities that another coup was being planned to remove Diem. The coup planners requested the assistance of American agents but it was refused, although the Americans indicated, through the State Department, that they would not interfere. The coup occurred on November 1, 1963 when Diem’s palace was surrounded by South Vietnamese troops. Diem and his brother were executed after their surrender, after being promised safe passage out of the country as a condition of his surrender. The CIA was asked by the military officers who performed the coup to assist in creating a new government.

Black casualties were disproportionately high

An ongoing myth is that poor urban blacks were drafted while middle class whites received college deferments and used other means to avoid being drafted. Those who subscribe to this theory claim that the number of blacks sent to Vietnam and the number who became combat casualties there were out of proportion compared to their percentage of the overall population. This is false. Combined fatalities in Vietnam suffered by the American military reveals that 12.5% of all those killed in Vietnam were black. This was at a time when black men of age suitable for military service made up about 13% of the population.

All persons entering the armed forces, regardless of branch of service and whether they were a draftee or volunteer, were subject to a battery of tests. These tests revealed aptitudes and skill levels which the military needed to assess the fitness of individuals for specialized jobs. The US Army dragged a heavy logistics tail in Vietnam. Highly specialized jobs were filled by both draftees and volunteers, and were far removed from combat. These jobs included aircraft maintenance, construction, clerical jobs, communications, transportation, and so on. Draftees that scored highly on tests were offered training in these areas.

Draftees who did not score sufficiently to receive specialized training were not necessarily sent to Vietnam either. About 25% of the troops who were sent to Vietnam were draftees. The US military had (and has) bases scattered around the world and across the United States. The need to maintain manning levels everywhere was one reason the draft was instituted. It was not in the interest of any of the branches of service to have a skilled air traffic controller, for example, serving in the jungles of Vietnam when his services were needed elsewhere.

The vast majority of those serving in country in Vietnam were volunteers who either enlisted in the armed forces or attended officer training before being shipped overseas. Of the roughly 2.6 million personnel who served in Vietnam about 1 million served in roles in which they were not exposed to combat. Of this total about 25% were draftees, the rest were volunteers. Of the total less than eleven percent were black. Just over 1.7 million men were drafted during the years of the Vietnam War, and just over one third of those men actually saw service in Vietnam or its environs.

The myth of Vietnam being a white man’s war fought by drafted black men stemmed from the civil rights movement during the mid to late 1960s. It was perpetuated by many of the civil rights movement’s leaders, including Martin Luther King. It was untrue then and it is untrue now. Throughout the Vietnam War the military took steps to open opportunities for all races within its ranks, and although the latent racism of some of its members was present, as it still is in many cases, it was not official policy. Almost ninety percent of those who died in Vietnam were white.

Long Binh Jail Riot and Race Relations

In 1966, as the number of American troops in Vietnam began to swell, the Army built an installation to house those servicemen who violated laws and regulations. Called the Long Binh Jail, it held prisoners who had been found guilty of felonies and misdemeanors, as well as those incarcerated while awaiting trial. It also served as a holding facility for those destined to be sent to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in the United States. Prisoners were separated based on the severity of their offences. The jail was located in the major logistical base at Long Binh, which had over fifty thousand personnel assigned to it by 1967.

Maximum security prisoners were confined to shipping containers converted to contain several cells. Like most prisons everywhere, the prison, called Camp LBJ by most, was overcrowded and by mutual desire of the prisoners racially segregated. In both 1966 and 1967 the overcrowded conditions and racial tensions led to violence among the prisoners. Drug use was heavy, with drugs often smuggled in by guards. Most of the drug use was of marijuana and Quaaludes, which are a sedative which produces a hypnotic effect. To bring the drug use under control, Camp LBJ commander, Lt. Col. Vernon Johnson instituted a strip search policy.

Many of the black inmates of the facility had long been supportive of and in many cases part of the growing Black Power movement. On the night of August 29 several black inmates attacked security guards and began setting the entire camp on fire. Whatever they could get to burn was ignited. The administration building went first. It was followed by the mess hall and other facilities. Other inmates soon joined them until there was a group of about 200 inmates, who besides burning down the camp began to attack white inmates, beating them with makeshift clubs, fabricated from tool handles, or with the tools themselves.

Colonel Johnson was attacked and severely beaten when he tried to reason with the inmates. Military Police escorted those prisoners who were not involved in the rioting out of the facility. The rioters inside continued to burn whatever they could, and when supplies were delivered inside the camp some of the prisoners burned some of them. Over the course of a week the rioters began to surrender themselves to the MPs outside, in small groups and singly. When the final group of rioters surrendered it ended an incident in which 115 men had been injured, 53 of them prisoners.

The racially motivated riot also left one dead, an Army private who had been beaten to death during the riot with a shovel. The Army released the story of the riot, its causes, and how it was contained, but it received very little coverage at the time and less coverage since. There were other race riots on US military facilities during the Vietnam War, including in USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier and at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. The riots were exploited by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops, who frequently dropped flyers depicting racial violence in the United States, hoping to further inflame tensions between white and black troops.

Body Counts

Throughout the involvement of the United States in Vietnam, its stated political goal was not the conquest of North Vietnam but rather the preservation of South Vietnam as a separate independent nation. In conducting the war this made measuring success difficult. There were few set piece battles acquiring territorial advantages from the enemy. Ostensibly all of South Vietnam was already under the control of the South Vietnamese government, although in reality the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars were active in most of the rural countryside.

To measure success, US military leaders, starting with William Westmoreland, used body counts of dead enemy soldiers. Westmoreland believed that a war of attrition, killing the enemy at a high ratio in comparison to American and South Vietnamese losses, was a winning strategy. Even in a set piece battle such as the one in at Ia Drang in 1965 the number of enemy casualties was the measuring stick through which the Americans claimed victory. Since the war consisted primarily of locating and killing Viet Cong groups, the term search and destroy was applied to missions, and the reported body count was what made the mission a success or failure.

The use of the body count as the definition of success created competition between units, and led to highly exaggerated claims of enemy dead and thus victory in the field. Even at the aforementioned Ia Drang battle, Lt. Col. Moore, who led American troops and fought in the battle, later said that the estimates of enemy dead were inflated, and reduced the numbers reported to him by a third. Even the reduced number seemed to him to be higher than the true number of enemy killed. A survey of American generals who had served in Vietnam conducted in 1977 revealed that the majority found body counts to have been unrealistic and their use was a mistake.

Westmoreland used the inflated body counts in dealing with the American political leadership. He claimed that under his leadership in Vietnam American and South Vietnamese troops had won every battle in which they engaged the enemy. In fact, the Battle at Ia Drang had been a bloody fight with high American casualties, and though the Americans held the field it was at best a draw. The search and destroy strategy also gave the choice of engaging in battle to the enemy, except in the case of complete surprise, which was difficult to achieve.

Besides reporting inaccurate body counts to the press and the civilian military authorities, Westmoreland also suppressed intelligence on Viet Cong strength in order to maintain morale. This was confirmed by one of the officers, Major General Joseph McChristian, who was ordered to change the information being disseminated. Throughout his tenure in command Westmoreland advocated widening the war into Laos and Cambodia in order to stop the flow of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail. He was replaced in 1968 by Creighton Abrams, who shifted to the strategy of pacification.

Khe Sanh

From January 21 to July 11, 1968, the United States military defended the remote outpost of Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) and its nearby hills against a persistent North Vietnamese attack. The Marines manning the KSCB were supported from the air with both bombing and resupply. Once the KSCB was placed under siege by the North Vietnamese, US Air Force bombers dropped over 100,000 tons of bombs on the North Vietnamese positions and artillery in a campaign named Operation Niagara. In April a relief column consisting of US Army and Marines as well as South Vietnamese troops broke through and relieved the siege, though attacks on the base continued.

Several senior Marine officers had previously argued that the defense of the isolated Marine outpost was senseless, and the purpose of the outpost ludicrous. It was believed the KSCB would be able to launch attacks on infiltrators along the Ho Chi Minh trail, these officers, including General Lowell English, assistant commander of the 3rd Marines, pointed out infiltrators could simply bypass the base. Keeping the base supplied was particularly difficult during the monsoon season. Westmoreland ordered the base defended and sent the relief column, called Operation Pegasus.

Once the relief column lifted the siege it was decided to abandon the base, which remained under artillery and mortar fire as well as sporadic infantry assaults. The Marines destroyed as much of the base as possible while remaining under fire, beginning in June. By July 5 the base was officially declared closed and the remaining Marines were evacuated. Marines remained in some support positions on nearby hills and fighting continued until July 11, when the last of the Marines were evacuated. The North Vietnamese occupied the position and declared victory.

Since the Marines had successfully withstood the siege, in fierce and bloody fighting, and since the relief operation had broken through Westmoreland declared the siege of Khe Sanh to be an American victory, despite the fact that the defended position had been abandoned under fire and occupied by the enemy. Westmoreland claimed victory because the decision to abandon the base was made after it had been successfully defended and the body count indicated an American victory. While Khe Sanh was under attack and throughout the siege, the Tet Offensive was underway, and Westmoreland claimed that Tet’s purpose was to draw attention away from Khe Sanh.

It was President Johnson who ordered the KSCB be held regardless of the costs. Being battered on all sides from the more widely reported at the time Tet Offensive is what led to the massive operations launched to hold the base, rather than evacuate. After the base was abandoned the media was informed that the base had become unnecessary to the American war effort due to a change of tactics on the part of the North Vietnamese. The Marine defense of the base for six months, supported by Army troops, and Air Force and Navy bombers, resulted in more than 1,500 American dead, including 11 Marines killed during the final evacuation of the base.

Hue Massacres

The fact that American troops committed war crimes in Vietnam has been well documented. What has been less discussed in American media and the entertainment industry in its depiction of the war are the atrocities committed by the North Vietnamese. One of the worst occurred in the City of Hue in 1968, during the time in which it was occupied by the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Hue was captured by the communist forces during the Tet Offensive. On the morning of January 31, 1968 the city was overrun by Viet Cong and PAVN forces.

Immediately after seizing control of the city the Viet Cong set up a provisional government. They used lists which had been prepared by Viet Cong spies and collaborators to round up former government workers, soldiers and former soldiers of the South Vietnamese Army, American civilians, religious leaders, teachers, politicians, and many others. Patients were removed from hospitals, as were doctors and nurses who treated them. The provisional government divided the city into Target Areas and directed the pursuit and seizure of anyone supportive of the Americans or the South Vietnamese.

Between 2,500 and 6,000 citizens of Hue were taken out of the city, in small groups during the occupation, and executed. A great many more were placed in forced re-education facilities. Many of the executed were bound and killed via blunt force trauma to the back of the head, as evidenced by the discovery of mass graves in the years during and since the war. In a Catholic area of the city 400 males ages 15 and up were discovered taking refuge in a cathedral. They were taken out and killed. German teachers at Hue University and in at least one case the wife of a professor were executed by the North Vietnamese.

Some of the victims were simply buried alive. Others were shot. When the city was recaptured by American and South Vietnamese troops Viet Cong documents confirming the massacre were discovered. Over a thousand were claimed to have been killed by one PAVN regiment. Several documents listed the political and civil service members killed by number and position title, rather than by name. The sheer number of the documents which were written as reports to Hanoi makes denial of the crimes impossible. So did the presence of the many mass graves, some of which were found immediately, and others years later.

The communists tried to blame the deaths of so many civilians in Hue to the American artillery bombardment during the effort to retake the city. Much of the city was indeed destroyed by the intensity of the battle, but the presence of bodies found with arms bound together with wire cannot be denied. The massacre was never recognized by the North Vietnamese, and later the Vietnamese governments. Much of the panic which occurred when the North Vietnamese launched their final assault on the South in 1975 was from anticipation of a similar massacre when the South finally collapsed.

The US Navy was a refuge from the war

During the Vietnam War US navy enlistments went up due to many choosing to serve in the Navy to fulfill their service obligation and avoid the draft. The Navy was heavily involved in Vietnam, from launching air strikes from its carriers, bombarding the coasts from its gunships, and patrolling the rivers and coastal waters with what became known as its brown water Navy. From 1965 to 1970 the Navy almost completely stopped the traffic by water in weapons and other supplies meant to equip the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.

As American losses of aircraft increased in the 1960s the Navy brought the battleship New Jersey out of mothballs and by the fall of 1968 the ship was bombarding targets along the DMZ. The battleship targeted storage bunkers, troop concentrations, radar installations, and engaged with shore batteries. Throughout the fall of 1968 New Jersey responded to calls for artillery support. New Jersey was supplemented by the smaller guns of many destroyers and other ships operating along the coast, and provided support to Army troops and Marines as needed, replenishing in Singapore or Australia. In 1969 New Jersey was again designated to be inactivated, due to the cost of operations.

US Navy aircraft carriers launched bombing missions and provided fighter support throughout the Vietnam War. In the defense of Khe Sanh in 1968, Navy planes delivered about 50,000 tons of bombs on the positions of the troops besieging the US Marines there. The Navy attacks were supplemental to the bombing by the US Air Force, which included B-52s which flew in from bases in Guam and Okinawa. Navy ships stood by as both radar picket ships communicating enemy aircraft positions to pilots, and as safety guards to send helicopters to rescue downed pilots.

The United States Navy, supported by the United States Coast Guard and the South Vietnamese Navy imposed a blockade of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1970 known as Operation Market Time. Any vessel which approached within 12 miles of the South Vietnamese coast could be stopped and searched. If contraband was discovered the vessel was seized. The Navy extended this blockade and search authority to the rivers and streams of the country, and any vessel could be stopped at any time. The search authority extended to checking the identity papers of individuals on board a vessel, and the detaining of those deemed suspicious.

The effectiveness of the blockade was evident when between 1967 and 1969 no trawlers attempted to run through it, as they had in the earlier days of the war. In one such event in 1967, four trawlers attempted to slip through the blockade. Three were destroyed by Navy ships and the other turned back. The Navy’s interdiction forced the communists to use the much slower Ho Chi Minh trail for resupply. The US Navy had 2,556 service members killed during the war. Over 100,000 Navy personnel served in the Vietnam theatre of operations on ships and shore facilities built during the war.

The Americans weren’t allowed to fight the war

The War in Vietnam featured the largest bombardment of a country from the air in world history. The United States dropped 7,662,000 tons of bombs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the war. By comparison, the United States Armed Forces dropped 2,150,000 tons of bombs during World War II, in all theaters of conflict. The first extended bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, commenced in 1965 and lasted three years, intended to destroy North Vietnam’s support of the Viet Cong. It failed. Weapons from the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites continued to reach the Viet Cong.

The US Air Force flew over 5 million missions over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, losing 2,251 aircraft of all types. About 500 losses were due to accidents. Over 1,700 were lost through being shot down by the enemy. These included 17 B-52s shot down, they were the heaviest US bomber of the war. Fighters and Fighter-Bombers sustained heavy losses, over 400 F-4 Phantom II aircraft were lost during the war. They cost $2.4 million apiece. The Air Force wasn’t the only American service dropping bombs on Vietnam.

The US Navy conducted 86 war cruises using 21 aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War, losing 377 naval aviators during the war. Another 179 were captured and held as prisoners of war. The Navy lost 530 aircraft in combat, among them 194 A-4 Skyhawks. In addition the US Marine Corps, officially part of the US Navy, flew missions from carrier decks and from bases on land. The US Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force operated attack helicopters as well. The North Vietnamese were provided with anti-aircraft weapons and support by the Soviets and the Chinese, and the bombing in Vietnam did little to advance the war effort.

The United States was allowed to fight in Vietnam. What it wasn’t allowed to do was escalate the war. An outright invasion of North Vietnam was considered an impossibility because of the perceived reaction of China. It would not have ended the activity of the Viet Cong in the South. The US tried several different strategies and tactics to maintain the independence of a democratic nation in the South. After Saigon fell to the communists, under the theory through which American involvement there began, the rest of Southeast Asia should have fallen to the communists one by one. They didn’t.

Americans don’t like to lose and they especially don’t like the thought of losing a war. Clearly North Vietnam won the Vietnam War. Vietnam today is a unified country under communist rule, and a trading partner of the United States. That was what the communist leaders fought for throughout America’s involvement. The United States threw its full military weight at the North Vietnamese, short of nuclear weapons and gas weapons, and were unable to stop their onslaught. The Vietnam War was divisive at the time and remains divisive today, but its costs in lives, dollars, and the public’s trust of its leaders are still being paid.

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