June 2000/July 2000
Search And Destroy, Rolling Thunder, Agent Orange, Phoenix, And Taking
The Night Away From Charlie
"Desperate Measures,'' the third panel of the extremely successful
Vietnam Veterans of America and College of William & Mary conference
on the Vietnam War, concentrated on how tactics changed during the course
of the war. The panel was moderated by Jim Golden, a Vietnam
veteran, former Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, and current William
& Mary Director of Economic Development and Corporate Relations.
Golden noted in his introduction that tactics "evolved over time
under a number of constraints. One constraint was the difficulty of
defining clear objectives for the operations. Other constraints included
sanctuaries to which the enemy could withdraw, the limitations on
operations in North Vietnam, our reliance on draftees rather than
mobilized reserves, the limitations of 12-month tours, and the problems of
how to apply our superior firepower in civilian population areas where the
casualties had to be limited.''
Perception is further clouded, Golden said, because "all of our
experiences in Vietnam differed dramatically. South Vietnam was divided
into four corps areas. The terrain and the enemy situations varied
dramatically over those four areas.''
Additionally, "experience varied dramatically depending on when we
were there. The war peaked in terms of U.S. casualties from 1967-69. Of
the 58,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who died in Vietnam,
over 39,000 died between 1967 and 1969. The peak year was 1968, the year
of the Tet attacks when over 16,000 died.''
General Hal Moore was First Cavalry Division battalion and brigade
commander in Vietnam in 1965-1966. His 1992 account of the pivotal 1965
Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, We Were Soldiers Once and Young, written
with Joseph Galloway, is a classic account of Vietnam War combat. He
retired from the Army as a Lieutenant General in 1977 after 32 years of
Golden: General Moore, could you tell us a little bit about how you
got to Vietnam. Were you surprised by anything when you first got there?
Moore: I had commanded my battalion for 14 months before we got to
Vietnam. I participated in the test of the air assault airborne concept in
Fort Benning, Georgia. We shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, in
the middle of August of 1965. We arrived in Qui Nhon a month later.
When we left Fort Benning we didn't know anything about the North
Vietnamese or South Vietnam. We expected to meet the black pajama
Vietcong, but we saw very few of them. I was surprised to meet the North
Vietnamese Army in such strength in the Central Highlands in the fall of
Golden: Herbert Fix served three tours with the U.S. Marine
Corps in Vietnam. In 1967-68 he was the duty officer for a Marine Air
Control Squadron based at Monkey Mountain near Danang. In 1973 he was a
helicopter commander during the mine-sweeping operation in Haiphong
Harbor. In 1975 he commanded helicopter forces during both the fall of
Saigon and the fall of Phnom Penh.
Can you tell us about your first experience in Vietnam? How did you get
there and were you surprised when you got there?
Fix: I first went to Vietnam in 1966 shortly after the Marine
forces entered. I went there to find a location that would provide radar
coverage for Marine aviation. We went all over I Corps and finally
concluded that the only place to put a radar site was on top of Monkey
Mountain where the Air Force already had a site.
We set up a radar sight on top of Monkey Mountain at 2,000 feet, a
beautiful location looking down at the Danang Harbor. I still think
Vietnam is absolutely gorgeous territory. It appeared to be extremely rich
in natural resources and had never been developed.
Golden: Zalin Grant served as a U.S. Army officer in
Vietnam, then returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent and journalist
for Time and The New Republic. He is the author of
Survivors, which deals with American prisoners of war; Over the Beach,
an account of the air war over North Vietnam; and Facing the Phoenix,
an examination of the controversial Phoenix program.
Zalin, how did you get to Vietnam and did your training prepare you for
what you found there?
Grant: I was struggling in college, and I went to do my ROTC
two-year service. The Army sent me to Vietnamese language school and gave
me as little training as they could.
Was I surprised? I went to Vietnam and I had never traveled out of the
country. I had been to Washington on a class trip. I had been to New York.
I was 23 years old when I arrived in Saigon on November 1, 1964.
What surprised me? Everything. My eyes were so wide I couldn't close
them for a week. The training was almost irrelevant to what we were
Golden: Ronald Spector is a professor of History and
International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran. His books include
The U.S. Army in Vietnam, The Early Years, After Tet, and
the classic work on the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun.
Ron, how did you get to Vietnam? When did you arrive, and where did you
Spector: Actually, I was in Vietnam as a result of a big
misunderstanding. My recruiting officer told me I was going to be a social
aide in the White House.
In 1968 they were sending over groups of individuals as replacement
drafts, and the group that I went with to Vietnam left from the same air
terminal as Chuck Robb. That was my brush with greatness. He got to wait
in the VIP lounge and we got to wait on the floor, but I've always
associated myself with LBJ and Chuck Robb.
We spent about two days getting ready in Okinawa, and on the second
morning I woke up early. Somebody in the barracks was playing the radio,
and I thought the news said that LBJ had stopped the bombing and was ready
for peace talks and wasn't going to run anymore. That sounded so weird
that I was convinced I had just dreamt this. So when I got up a few hours
later, I was surprised to see this actually was the case. So we got to
Vietnam in a very optimistic frame of mind. We thought the war would be
I came to Vietnam very soon after leaving Yale. Yale was not exactly a
staunch place for support of the war, so nothing I saw disillusioned me. I
was already totally turned off by the war. If anything, I was sort of
surprised to see that there were people who were actually interested in
fighting the war. Unfortunately there weren't very many, and they never
could get their act together.
Golden: Peter Arnett was the longest serving reporter in
Vietnam. Peter, how did you get over there, and were you surprised when
Arnett: I was sent for TDY for two months in June of 1962, and I
eventually ended up staying about a decade. I was working for the
Associated Press, and I was sent into Saigon to help the sole
correspondent at the time, Malcolm Brown.
There were just a handful of reporters then. Stanley Karnow was there
and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. They were just a group of young
journalists. It was not a big story, really. We'd write our stories daily,
but they weren't page one. It was a small story, but it just grew and grew
and grew. The press corps, unlike the military, just stayed on and on and
We covered Vietnam like a regular beat in the United States. We'd go to
the office in the morning, get assignments, go to Danang, go to the Delta,
and the press world grew and grew and grew. Our experience was very
different from that of the military people we covered. They were stuck in
the boondocks for a year, and then they'd go home. We had the luxury of
getting in and out of Saigon, and we looked at it as a career.
Golden: General Moore spoke about bringing his unit over. When I
arrived in 1968, we were very much individual replacements. I think we had
different experiences as a result of whether we went as a unit or whether
we arrived individually.
General Moore, I think it is safe to say that Vietnam was a helicopter
war and you were very much involved in the design of air mobile
operations. Could you give us some insight into your reaction to the first
air mobile operations that we had in Vietnam? How did the enemy react and
how did we adjust our operations over time?
Moore: I'd been there for about a month when the North Vietnamese
attacked a special forces camp at Pleiku with the intention to overrun the
camp and then move to the north and overrun the city of Pleiku, then on to
the South China Sea. The First Cav was sent out there to prevent this from
happening. The first brigade of the Cav was out there three weeks
conducting air mobile short air assault operations with experienced air
assault commanders from Fort Benning. My brigade was sent out there on the
tenth of November and my battalion was ordered into the Ia Drang Valley.
This was the first long jump air mobile operation of the war.
Compared to what we did in the Gulf War when we went over 100 miles
into the Gates of Basra with the 101st Airborne Division, 14.3 miles from
Pleiku to the Ia Drang Valley seems like a short hop, but it was a long
hop then. We went out there, we met the enemy, and we fought him for three
days. I fought with a 450-man battalion. Not all of us were on the ground
initially; it took five hours for us to assemble.
Meanwhile, we were attacked by two full battalions of enemy determined
to kill us all. It was a hell of a fight, and we could not have survived
without air mobile resupply and taking out our casualties. They brought in
ammo and water to us. I learned that if you want to find and kill that
enemy, you can't push against him. You've got to make a long jump over his
head to his rear. And then you will sure as hell find him.
What did the enemy learn? The enemy learned in the battle at the Ia
Drang to employ what they later called the bear hug: grab them by the belt
and thereby neutralize our great fire power support advantage.
Joe Galloway and I went back to Vietnam several times, and a couple of
those times we talked to the enemy commanders who engaged us in the Ia
Drang. Most notably, General Nguyen Huu An, who at the time was a
Lieutenant Colonel as was I. He went on to fight throughout that war and
wound up a division commander driving into Saigon on the 30th of April,
General Nguyen and I have talked at great length on air mobile
operations and what he learned. I can almost give you some direct quotes
from our taped conversations. He told Joe and me that when we fought
against him on the coastlines, he had difficulty knowing where we would
land because there were so many rice paddies and so many places where we
could land our helicopters.
However, he said, when we fought out in the jungles of the Highlands
where there were very few clearings, he would post lookouts around the
clearings when he got word--and he always did get word--that we were going
out on an operation. The minute he found out where we were coming out, he
would ambush these landing zones.
I thought that made a lot of sense. This man had fought against the
French, and he knew the French were road-bound with their ground vehicles,
and he and other commanders successfully ambushed the French on Route 19
I thought that was smart as hell to ambush the very few clearings in
the jungle. He actually bragged to Joe and me about how many helicopters
he had shot down in Dak To in the 173rd battle and also at another battle
involving the 4th Division in the Highlands. These guys were fast
learners. In fact, when the Cav was fighting in the fall of 1965,
Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong, a historian, was sent down there to
debrief the enemy commanders on what they learned from the Cav. He later
turned out to be the Chief of Military History for the People's Army of
He told us that initially they were very confused by the First Cav. His
words were, "You jump like frogs everywhere, and we even thought
there were defectors in our ranks who told you where to come. But then we
learned about the clearings.'' He said they learned early on that they had
to shoot down our helicopters and they concentrated on that.
Golden: One other question. When your operations went into more
populated areas, what impact did that have on your air mobile operations?
Moore: It really didn't have a large effect. I was able to
employ a lot more in vertical engulfments and to get on the flanks and
rear of the enemy with my helicopters.
I'd like to comment that success as an air assault commander required a
special ability to think fast, to trust one's instincts, and to make
decisions quickly and accurately, without second-guessing. To be a
successful air assault commander, you had to think at the speed of a
helicopter. You had to think in terms of landing zones and pick-up
Later on in the war, a lot of the ticket-punching battalion and brigade
commanders were sent over there who didn't know anything about air assault
or air mobility. Most of them treated helicopters like aerial trucks to
transport troops from point A to point B.
It was the rare replacement commander who knew how to handle
helicopters on a fast-moving battlefield against an enemy which was
everywhere and nowhere. I employed a lot of diversionary landings to fake
the enemy out with empty helicopter landings, trying to fake the enemy to
get into a position where I could kill him. I found out that worked pretty
The impact of our air mobile divisions in populated areas is that we
were able to finally kill the enemy, but at the same time, unfortunately,
we killed a lot of noncombatants, which I regret very much. But this
happens in every war and sometimes we were placed at a disadvantage.
When I went into the Bong Son Plain in January, February, and March of
1966, we were required to use helicopter loud speakers and leaflets to
warn enemy villagers that we were going to land in or near their villages.
Of course, the enemy was in those villages as well, so he was warned also.
Several things happened later on in that war that I particularly felt
were wrong. One was the institution of fire bases We achieved security of
our artillery in the first year or so of the war by moving our artillery,
by keeping the artillery moving and securing it with a platoon or a
company of riflemen.
Another thing that happened was what I called a "fire support base
mentality.'' The enemy was smart: he knew the range of our artillery, and
he stayed outside that fan. He made us come outside that fan. A dumb
commander would come outside that fan and deny his troops the use of fire
support in an attempt to finally kill the enemy.
Golden: That was one of my surprises in the 25th Division. From
1968-69 I was in the artillery, and we operated from fire support bases.
During the eight months that I was there, I think we moved one fire
support base. It had become a very static operation in contrast to the
early, very mobile, air mobile operations.
Moore: They were sitting ducks.
Golden: Herb, you got a close look at the helicopter war from
the front seat. How did you see our tactics evolving over time? How did
the enemy adjust to it? What did we learn as we went through the war?
Fix: The helicopter's main purpose in life is to move that
combat soldier combat troop around, to move him from one spot to another
spot. The Marines started using that tactic in the Korean War. When we
went into the I Corps area, we started using the same type of helicopter
It was wonderful as long as we had that element of surprise. It worked.
Once you lost the element of surprise, when you dropped leaflets like the
general said, they knew where you were going. They were not dumb. They
were smart enough to stay hidden, to stay underground during the artillery
bombardment and the air attack. But the minute that first helicopter came
in, they came out of their holes and started killing the helicopters.
In the movie Patton, George C. Scott walked up on the stage and
talked about the purpose of the military person. He said that the military
person's purpose was to make the other person die for his country, not for
him to die for his country. In some respects, when we dropped those
leaflets and announced where we were going, it seemed like we were
exercising the theory that we want to die for our country, not have the
other guy die.
One tactic that changed was when we first started undergoing helicopter
operations, you'd go 5 to 10 to 15 miles. Then we started going 75 to 100
to 150 miles at a time, leap-frogging around from spot to spot. That
proved to be very effective because the enemy could not keep track of
where we were.
But the enemy learned to keep their heads down, stay down, and avoid
gunfire until we came in.
Golden: How did you coordinate air operations with all the other
fire support systems that were around: artillery, air, and so forth? Was
that a problem for you? Did you get pretty good at coordinating those
Fix: We weren't as good as we would like to have been, but we
thought we were pretty good. It was a little startling when B-52 strike
bombers would come across and drop their bombs from 20,000 feet through
your formation, but that did not happen often. The coordination and
control was, I thought, excellent.
Golden: Ron, could you give us a little insight as to how
operations were conducted before Tet and how they changed after Tet?
Spector: I should mention--not to disillusion people who have
studied the war a good deal--that one of the things that we have
discovered since the end of the Cold War is that neither General Giap nor
Ho Chi Minh was really directing the war on a day-to-day basis. They were
sort of like the Queen of England. They would come out and make speeches
and then ratify things that had already been decided on. The real war was
not being run by General Giap but by a committee. The committee was
made up of people whose names you've probably never heard of.
I think the reason the war goes on so long is that both sides kept
underestimating each other. In the first phase of the war, the early '60s,
the Communists gambled on being able to overthrow the Saigon government
before the U.S. could really intervene. That doesn't work, and as a result
of that gamble, they end up with American combat troops committed to
In the next phase, Hanoi decides that if they can inflict enough
casualties on the Americans, they will withdraw. But, in fact, the
Americans keep sending more troops, which leads to another decision which
is to gamble, again, with the Tet Offensive, the great series of attacks
throughout South Vietnam.
This has the desired psychological effect in the United States. But it
also means that the Communists have lost a lot of their best people, and
not only that, but they keep insisting on more offenses. Hanoi wants
another offensive in May and then another in August, and then they want
another one in early 1969, and they lose a lot of people.
Now, of course, they can replace these people, but they can't replace
the experience of these people and they end up having to send Northerners
to do the work that the Southerners used to do. The net effect of this
round of offensives in '68--which was the bloodiest year of the war--is
that the military balance tips somewhat towards the Americans and towards
the Saigon government, which is able to actually get some control over a
lot of the countryside throughout late '69 into '70 and early '71.
This is what convinces people like John Paul Vann and President Nixon that
we won the war, really won the war, because now the other side is weaker
and it is on the defensive. But, again, this is a temporary condition,
because Nixon is withdrawing troops from Vietnam. By '72 we begin to see
the balance shifting back in favor of the Communists.
The underlying factor in all this is that while there were people in
South Vietnam who didn't like the Vietcong, there were very few people
willing to die for the Saigon government. The Saigon government was
corrupt and ineffective, and that was the bottom line.
Let me just say one more thing. There was never a mechanism implemented
to impose any kind of uniform system of doctrine or tactics on division
commanders and brigade commanders. That is, if you were a brigade
commander and your predecessor had been very successful doing "A,''
that didn't mean that you had to do "A.'' You could do "B,'' and
nobody would argue with you. Neither MACV nor your division commander ever
told you that you had to do "A'' based on experience. Then, of
course, you have brigade and battalion commanders coming and going all the
time. Some are successful, but they had no effect on their successors'
tactics. There was no way to impose any kind of unity on doctrine and
tactics. It was one strange characteristic of the war: There is a lot of
innovation on the part of certain commanders, but it doesn't make any
Golden: General Moore, you were a brigade commander. Would you
agree that we failed to pass on the lessons learned from one to the next?
Moore: Absolutely. The U.S. Army, from the Chief of Staff down,
did a miserable job of passing on information, primarily to the lower unit
commanders. That is where the guys get killed--platoon leaders, company
When I got back from Vietnam in 1966, I made a very strong plea to the
Department of Army to assign me to Fort Benning, Georgia, to teach tactics
to lieutenants and captains and lieutenant colonels who were going to
Vietnam to be commanders. I knew the war and I knew this enemy. I
knew how to keep some of my men alive.
But you know where they sent me? My orders were to go to the Latin
American desk at the State Department. I raised hell and they sent me to
ISA under McNaughton in the Pentagon and where I was never asked anything
about Vietnam. I did this nonsense job for a damn year.
I think it is a crime that the U.S. Army did not take advantage of guys
like me who were there that first year. I think there would be a lot fewer
names on that Wall had they done so.
Golden: This is also a war about intelligence. Zalin, talk about
our intelligence operations: How effective were they, and how did they
evolve over the course of the war?
Grant: When I went to Vietnam, we didn't understand who the
Vietcong were. Only when Douglas Pike wrote Vietcong did the
picture become clearer. As time went on, technical intelligence became
very good: picking up information about who the Vietcong were and where
the units were. What it didn't include so much was the analysis of the
intelligence the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were particularly good at
putting out. They knew you were going to get something, so they gave you
five versions of what they planned to do, all at different times. You
constantly got tips about a Tet offensive or something like a Tet
So when it's said, for example, that we had information about the Tet
Offensive, they are right. We had information about a thousand things. The
problem with intelligence was analyzing it and coming up with a
conclusion. As General Moore said, the idea is to make decisions very
fast. We couldn't.
Golden: Can you tell us about the Phoenix program and its
objective and whether it was successful or not?
Grant: Edward Lansdale, who took his team to drive out the
French (which they successfully did), had a right-hand guy named Rufus
Phillips, a former Yale football player. He was with the CIA. After
Lansdale's team left, they sent Phillips back to Vietnam in the early
Phillips found a guy, Lieutenant Colonel Tranh Ngoc Chau, who was a
great hero of mine. He was a former Vietminh. His brother was a Vietnamese
intelligence officer. He was a Buddhist and a nationalist. Chau had an
idea of how to combat the Vietcong. He knew them well. He knew that his
organization could help in identifying the grievances of the poor rice
farmers and setting them straight. He also knew that some of the Vietcong
leaders were so hardcore, they would have to be eliminated one way or
another. He wanted three-man counterterrorist teams to seek out these
leaders and eliminate them. But Chau wasn't someone who wanted to kill
people. He wanted to win them over to the side of democracy.
Phillips met Chau and referred him to the CIA. The CIA tried to put
Chau's concept into effect, but they did it American-style. Instead of
making one program, they split it up. What Chau envisioned as a three-man
antiterrorist unit became a big cabinet. When Diem was overthrown, these
provincial reconnaissance units (PRUs) became the thugs for the provincial
heads. They became extortionists; they became killers; they diverged
completely from the idea of Tranh Chau.
After the U.S. reached some stability in Vietnam, William Colby came
back. He knew about this program. He said the program was necessary but
we've got to put it on the right track, and Colby essentially did. But the
program never worked.
It was immensely more complicated than that. Certainly there were
excesses. Some people were killed who shouldn't have been. As Colby
himself told me, it just didn't work--as many programs didn't work--as
effectively as they would have liked.
But towards the end, by 1970, after the Tet Offensive had wiped out
many of the chief Vietcong captains, this program started to work.
Golden: You've written a lot about the air war over North
Vietnam. Could you tell us a little bit about the objectives at the
beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder and how they evolved?
Grant: In the 1950s America developed a program called Massive
Response. This was a program that we implicitly threatened to use by
building up so many nuclear weapons that we would scare people. Massive
Response gave way, in the war as developed by McGeorge Bundy, his brother,
Bill Bundy, and Robert McNamara, into something they called Graduated
Response. The idea was the same. It was to scare the North
Vietnamese into giving up. As we soon found out, the North Vietnamese
didn't scare easily. The initial targeting--most of the targeting
throughout the war--was based on this premise. It is also based on the
premise of not doing anything so dramatic as to bring the Chinese into the
This was always a big worry to President Johnson. The way they
developed the targeting was absolutely ridiculous. There is no logic to it
except that it gave Johnson control to parcel out the targets, one at a
time, regardless of what the implications were or the pilots who were
flying them. He just didn't understand.
Johnson would have what was called Tuesday lunch with McGeorge Bundy,
McNamara, and several advisers, and there was Johnson going over a map of
North Vietnam and plotting the targets himself. The military wanted to
bomb where the North Vietnamese kept their MIGs. They could have gotten
them on the ground and eliminated that threat completely. But for a reason
that he didn't explain, LBJ said, "I'm not going to let them bomb
there.'' He kept a close thumb on the target, which made absolutely no
Golden: Peter, you were there for a very long time. What was
your view of the major concerns about these issues?
Arnett: In prior wars, the American press played a supportive,
basically patriotic role when America was engaged militarily overseas. In
Vietnam, the Saigon Press Corps became a Greek chorus for the growing
tragedy of Vietnam.
From the beginning, we had full access to the battlefield and to the
information flow. We could get briefings at the embassy. We had good
contact with senior military officials, and we could go into the
countryside. We covered Vietnam very extensively. I saw my role as
essentially reflecting the view of the soldier in the field.
I wrote over three thousand stories in Vietnam, and millions upon
millions of words were written by my colleagues--all of them essentially
reflecting what was happening in the field. There are many aspects I could
refer to. A comment by John Paul Vann to me in 1968 was that America had
not been in Vietnam six years, it had been in Vietnam one year, six
times. As a reporter, I found that I kept going into the same sort
of operational areas. Each year there would be different faces, certainly
on the American and advisory side. But the landscape never changed, nor
did the Vietcong operational people. I would meet American officers who
would ask and talk about tactics. I kept remembering the previous year or
the year prior to that where similar operations had been launched.
Some of my colleagues had the temerity to offer advice, but what
journalist knows how to fight a war? It was frustrating. By 1968 when I
had already been in Vietnam six years and been all over the country, a
decision to attack a particular hill or to move around a particular
village area made me think about how often it had been done in the past.
In Vietnam, you had a press corps that was very active, very
competitive, that put out an enormous amount of information that flowed
out of Vietnam into the country's newspapers. The view from Washington was
very different from the view from the field.
Most of our reports--well, all of our reports--were essentially ignored
by government. Early in the war when David Halberstam started writing
about the abuses of the Norodom Sihanouk regime, President Kennedy tried
to get him withdrawn from Vietnam. That was the administration's response
to reporting about a negative situation. In 1965 and '66, President
Johnson did the same thing to me. The Washington view was to paper over
the problem, portray the press as being incompetent and left wing, and to
attempt to suggest the whole thing was hunky dory in the field.
Fix: I have a question for Peter Arnett. As we got into Vietnam,
our job was to find, search, and destroy the enemy. Somewhere along the
line we got into the theory, though, that one of our goals was to become
more of an occupational force of pacification. We found ourselves in the I
Corps area setting up people in villages and trying to convince them that
our way was better than Charlie's way. I didn't see too much of this in
the press. Did you talk about this at all, Peter?
Arnett: We discussed everything in the press. We did avalanches
of material. It all appeared somewhere because every time I went out into
the field, the GIs had clippings. Whenever we mentioned a GI, the hometown
paper used it. That was often the only reason the hometown papers used it.
People like John Paul Vann and many senior military offices used the
press--me and other reporters--to try and convey their frustrations about
the war. There is no doubt about it. But we weren't effective in getting
through to the administration. We got through to the antiwar folks.
They would take our stories, our negative stories, and picket.
But the vast majority of stories were basically positive because it was
a hard-fought war and there was incredibly courageous action.
A Question-and-Answer Session followed, some of which is reported
Question: I'm George Duggins, president of Vietnam Veterans of
America, and my question is: Did we ever have a strategy to win the hearts
of the people in Vietnam or did we just say the hell with the people, we
are going to bomb everything in sight?
Grant: Colonel Chau, a friend of mine and John Paul Vann's best
friend, had developed this program. Vann had very few ideas about
political action himself, so with Chau, they tried to institute a program
of winning hearts, as they called it, political action programs to improve
the basic lives of the people. We made some progress because the rice
farmers were looking not for political ideology so much as improving their
lives. But this got lost in the military war. We made some improvements,
but by the time they started the war was over as far as America was
Question: Shouldn't we have been considering ethical questions
in terms of targeting civilians for assassination?
Grant: Yes, we should have been considering ethical questions.
There were assassinations of people that shouldn't have gone on, and the
people conducting them should have been held accountable. But from my
knowledge of William Colby, this was not his intention at all. His
decision wasn't based on any particular ethical premise, although I
thought he was an ethical man. His idea was that this was
counterproductive. You don't go around assassinating innocent civilians.
Question: After the siege of Hue, we found approximately 2,600
school children, men, and women massacred, supposedly by the North
Vietnamese. Some say they were killed by American artillery and buried by
the North Vietnamese. Do any of you have any more perspective on that?
Arnett: I remember vividly an accusation that the media had
neglected covering it. The suggestion was made that the liberal media will
highlight American atrocities but not Vietcong atrocities. It has been pretty much determined since that that was an
execution by the Vietcong. They came in waving a list of names of schoolteachers and government
officials, they rounded them up, they took them to the swamps, and they executed them.
One of the reasons that this didn't particularly shock Americans was
that from the beginning of the war, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were portrayed as
terrorists and killers. They were portrayed in the most venal terms by the U.S. government. It was
part of the whole propaganda effort to mobilize support against the war.
Question: General Moore, I'd like to ask you to elucidate on your
remark about not studying Dien Bien Phu and the impact that had on our situation?
Moore: I made the comment yesterday that, unknowingly, Giap
rehearsed his war against American troops as he was fighting the French. Unfortunately, when Dien
Bien Phu occurred, we were watching, but we were not learning, in my view. We were
concentrating primarily on keeping the Vietminh from overrunning Dien Bien Phu. The big talk was
about bombings and so forth.
Last October Joe Galloway and I were able to spend four or five days at
Dien Bien Phu walking the storm points. We took a drive up the main supply route out of
Hanoi. This is hardly even a two-lane road, just almost a one-and-a-half lane road of mud and dirt.
But Giap had the ability to supply his tens of thousands of troops around Dien Bien Phu because he
impressed into service tens of thousands of men, women, and children to maintain that supply
The discipline was superb. All of this he put into effect later on the
Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many historians say the key to the war in Vietnam was his ability to keep
open the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route for troops, supplies, gasoline, and eventually, tanks and
rockets. He had tens of thousands of maintenance workers on this trail, and it was bombed year
after year ineffectively.
But the main lesson that, I think, should have been learned by American
decision-makers on Dien Bien Phu was the willingness to suffer tens and tens of thousands
of men killed in order to achieve freedom and independence from the white man. They were totally
adamant about driving the hated Westerners out of their country and stopping foreign
intrusion into their internal affairs. My conclusion is that the whole Vietnam War was our
Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. That is number two.
Number three, I go back to Brigade General Douglas Kinnard's book, The
War Managers. General Kinnard says that the United States pushed the
Vietnamese army out of the war and took over with a form of war that only U.S. forces could
fight. He also said that our heritage, our legacy to Vietnam, was a form of war that could not be
sustained by a country which had no history of political, military, or social cohesion.
Golden: Finally, I'd like to ask the panel to comment on what we
learned from this experience.
Moore: The next major war was the Gulf War. In discussing it with
Joe Galloway, who covered the Gulf War, he made a very cogent comment. He said: "The Vietnam
War meant everything and nothing in the Gulf War.''
We learned so much in Vietnam what not to do, about controlling
commanders in the field and so forth from the National Security Office in Washington, and we
learned so much about what to do. If you are going to go to war, knock the hell out of the enemy
fast. Go in there and kill him and get it over with. That is exactly what happened in the Gulf War.
The Gulf War, of course, had a lot of dissimilarities, too. There were
no sanctuaries for the Iraqis as there were for the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. There
were no bombing restrictions placed on Schwartzkoff. There was complete unity of
command. He didn't have a commander in Hawaii running the air war in North Vietnam like
Westmoreland and Abrams did. He didn't have the CIA and State Department and USIA sending
back-channel messages back to Washington. I think the lessons we have learned in Vietnam were applied
damn near 100 percent in the Gulf.
Arnett: Bernard Fall, the great French journalist and academic who
wrote about Dien Bien Phu, was a favorite of the military and a favorite of Westmoreland. In fact,
when Fall was killed in Vietnam in '66, Westmoreland had Fall's body flown to his family in
Hong Kong. In his memoirs, Westmoreland wrote that he admired and respected Fall and had
a collection of his works in his bedroom. "But,'' he wrote, "I never did have the
time to read them.''
This transcript was edited for brevity’s sake