December 2000/January 2001
Rendezvous with War Symposium
Dissent, Division, and Demonstration:
The War In Washington
Rendezvous With War, the April symposium sponsored by Vietnam
Veterans of America and the College of William & Mary, examined the
Vietnam War from many perspectives. In "Dissent,
Division and Demonstrations: The War in Washington," a panel
of Vietnam War historians and journalists that included VVA Board member
Randy Barnes examined a range of home-front issues. The panel, held April
7, was moderated by Everett Alvarez, the
former U.S. Navy pilot who was the longest held American POW in North
Everett Alvarez, Jr.: Itís a pleasure to be back here on the
campus of William & Mary.
Our topic is "Dissent, Division and Demonstration: The War in
Washington." I will say a few words and then I am going to ask our
other panel members to speak. Noted Pulitzer Prize journalist-author Stanley
Karnow will start, followed by Bill Gibbons, World War II
veteran, historian, and author of a work on the Vietnam War for the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee and other efforts, followed by Randy Barnes,
paramedic attached to the U.S. Armyís 25th Infantry Division and active
in the Vietnam veterans groups. He will be followed by Sidney Schanberg,
who covered the Vietnam War in Cambodia for The New York Times.
I was the first person taken as a POW in the north, in North
Vietnam. There were people taken captive before I was. At the time, we had
advisers in the south. I was the longest held in North Vietnam in the
prison camp that became known as the Hanoi Hilton. I like to tell people
that someone had to do the advance work. I did a lousy job. All the
fellows who came after me complained about the food, the rooms, and the
In terms of the division and the demonstrations in Washington and in
the United States, when I was shot down and when the war began, there wasnít
any--none that we noted anyway. It wasnít until we had been there a
couple of years that we began to hear of things happening in the States
from others who were captured. This was a topic that the Vietnamese used
to love to talk about.
In some instances, when we were living in some POW camps outside Hanoi
up in the foothills and the mountains, they even went to the trouble of
setting up screens in the woods. They would take us out of our cells to
these trenches to an area where they could show these homemade movies of
the marches at Berkeley and here in D.C. After that they would take us
into interrogation and want to know, "What do you think?"
We had been there about three or four years, and you have to understand
the culture that we came from. We saw on the screen these people who were
demonstrating and a lot of them had long beards, long hair, and wore
In our day, the only ones who did that were the beatniks in North Beach
in San Francisco. We couldnít figure out what was going on, but then we
put it together. The best response we had was, "Well, in our country
people really are free to voice their opinions and demonstrate." Of
course, that was the wrong answer. But this was not something that we were
going to give in on. The POWsí survival depended on us sticking together
as a group. We had to be steadfast in that.
Whenever they said, "What do you think?" we would tell them
what we really thought and that was always the wrong answer. We were
punished, and we went through severe punishments.
At first we did not want to believe it. But then as others were shot
down, we got to learn more and more about it. It really affected our
morale, and we recognized that we were going to be there for quite a while
once we learned of the divisions in the United States.
Stanley Karnow: I have limitations as to how much I can tell about
what was going on in the States because I wasnít here. I was over there.
But I have done a lot of research on it since then.
Fundamentally, there was not much said about the division of the
country under Kennedy. You know Kennedyís famous inaugural address--we
will help any friend, oppose any foe in the interest of liberty--I thought
that was the most inspiring phrase. We gave the government a blank check,
and nobody paid much attention to our getting involved in Vietnam.
There is always this unanswered question: What would Kennedy have done?
You can argue that back and forth. Would we have gotten out? I donít see
any evidence of that. For one thing, Bobby Kennedy (who was the closest
adviser President Kennedy had) was a very hawkish guy. In fact, later he
asked President Johnson to send him to Saigon as ambassador. Bobby doesnít
begin to change until 1967 and 1968.
Let me focus a little more on Johnson because Johnson is considered the
pivotal president who really got us into the war. To a certain extent,
thatís true. I think that Johnson has gotten a bum rap. "LBJ, how
many kids have you killed today?" That sort of thing still resonates.
But the notion that Johnson was a warmonger--the Oliver Stone movie, JFK,
is an absolute absurdity in suggesting that Johnson had Kennedy
assassinated so he could go on with the war in Vietnam.
But I do think that Johnson is now being reexamined in many ways. We
have these tapes that Michael Beschloss has published, which are really
valuable and have some marvelous and interesting insight into Lyndon
Johnson--for example, his discussions with Sen. Russell and his torment
about whether to get involved in Vietnam or not.
It is not a linear thing. In 1954, Johnson was minority leader in the
Senate when the question was facing Eisenhower: Should he get involved and
help the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Johnson was very much
against involvement. There is kind of an irony here.
In JFK, Stone borrows something from my book about Johnson
saying to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1963, "Well, just let me get
reelected and you can have your war." Thatís a true story. Stone
uses it to justify his thesis. The thing with Johnson is that he said
different things to different people. He would say something to the Joint
Chiefs, and then he would go up to the Hill and see Russell and Mansfield
and say something terribly different. Johnsonís description of Vietnam
was "that damn piss-ant little country." Heíd say, "We
are not going to get involved in that damn piss-ant little country."
So he is ambivalent. A lot of people say he pushed through the Gulf of
Tonkin Resolution and got it almost unanimously supported. This was after
a so-called "incident" took place in the Tonkin Gulf, reportedly
some Vietnamese patrol boats attacking some American destroyers there. All
the evidence today is that it never happened. At least the second incident
But on the basis of that, Johnson got this thing passed and also sent
Everett out there to bomb the North. The reason Johnson wanted that
resolution was not because he, at that stage, wanted to rush into Vietnam.
He was running for election. He was running against Barry Goldwater, and
Goldwater was teasing him and taunting him for being soft on Communism
while Goldwater, you know, is gung ho.
What Johnson wants to do is contain Goldwater by getting this big
support in Congress and then, of course, having a couple of bombing raids
to show that Johnson is not a wimp. For Johnson, after that, Vietnam was
no longer the issue. But, hereís Johnson, now he has the authority to do
something in Vietnam and the situation in Vietnam in 1964 is disastrous.
Itís all falling apart. The Saigon governmentís falling apart; North
Vietnamese forces are beginning to move into the south; and time after
time Johnson is urged to start bombing the north on a regular basis.
There was an incident in Saigon on Christmas Eve--a terrorist explosion
at an American barracks in Saigon. They said, "Okay, this is the
trigger, go ahead." But Johnson said, "Canít bomb Santa
Claus," so he didnít bomb. He kept stalling until finally he
started bombing in February of 1965 after there was an attack on an
American outpost up in Pleiku.
This was one of the dumbest times to choose to start bombing because
Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin happens to be in Hanoi trying to persuade
the North Vietnamese that they ought to think about negotiating a
settlement. And here he is and the bombs are falling all around him. The
Chinese, by the way, who disagree with the Russians, are saying to the
North Vietnamese, "Keep fighting, keep fighting."
I interviewed Kosyginís interpreter. He told me that Kosygin, in kind
of a deft way, is trying to get the North Vietnamese to look for some way
out because the Russians donít want to get involved in this place. This
is contrary to the idiotic thesis that says it was all part of the great
Anyway, here is Johnson in the middle of all this. And, again, Johnson
is a great phrasemaker. He says, "What am I going to do? I feel like
a hitchhiker out there on a Texas highway in the middle of a thunderstorm
and there is no place to go." Heís pleading all the time. He would
say, "I donít want to be the first President to lose a war. I donít
want to be the first President to lose a war to Communism, but I donít
want to get involved."
People have criticized Johnson very strongly because they say he should
have gone right in there instead of this incremental escalation of war.
But the incremental escalation of the war was because he didnít know
where the hell he was going--he was in a fog.
Let me just give you one more example. He has a famous speech at Johns
Hopkins University in April of 1965, where he offers aid to the North
Vietnamese. He is going to harness the Mekong River, and he wants all
these countries out there--including North Vietnam--to join in this thing.
He sees it as a way to co-opting the North Vietnamese.
When he comes back, he flies back on a helicopter from Johns Hopkins in
Baltimore, and he says, "Old Ho canít turn me down on this
one." Johnson has the mentality that Ho Chi Minh is like a Senator:
You can buy him with patronage, build a dam for him.
Naturally the Communists donít want to get in bed with us at all;
theyíre stubborn. They turned him down, and then Johnson turns around
and says, "Well, I guess if I was Ho I would have done the same
So, on and on it goes. It zigzags and zigzags. I want to say one thing
about this dissension. Itís true that the Vietnam War divided the
I think one of the great disservices that television was to film all
those pictures of the kids burning flags or waving Vietcong flags. That is
not what the country is all about. I was on Nixonís enemies list so Iím
not going to say anything really nice about Nixon, but there was a silent
majority. Most people, even though they wanted to get out of Vietnam,
wanted peace with honor--the kind of thing that Nixon promised them.
So most people in this country were, you might say, not hawkishly
antiwar but dovishly antiwar. The bumper sticker was, "Letís win.
If we canít win, letís get out."
It wasnít that it was immoral. The test is that when Nixon ran in
1972 he absolutely creamed McGovern. People did have faith in Nixon
getting us out. I had a lot of disagreement with the way Nixon did it--I
think he could have done it earlier. But I think that when we look at the
scene at home, it is somewhat deceptive to say that the whole country was
out there waving Vietcong flags and burning American flags or burning
draft cards. That was the television view of it.
There were very moderate antiwar people. They kept saying, "Letís
get the antiwar movement off of the campuses and into the
communities." They never got it into the communities in a sense that
Homer Simpson and his family were out marching. People living in the
suburbs were quiet and they had their quiet doubts, but they werenít
marching and protesting. In the end, they voted for Nixon.
The New Hampshire primary is a very interesting thing to watch because
it happened after the Tet Offensive and Gene McCarthy comes close to
beating Lyndon Johnson.
We did a lot of research on that one. We discovered a lot of people in
New Hampshire who were voting for Gene McCarthy thought they were voting
for the old Sen. Joe McCarthy. Of course, heís dead, but they didnít
know that. In other words, they were voting as a protest against Johnson.
Incidentally, when Johnson announced on March 31st that he was not
going to run again, it was seen as a media decision that he made as a
result of the New Hampshire primary and the Tet Offensive. In fact,
Johnson had been contemplating not running again for some time. We have
interviewed Lady Bird and lots of other people. Lady Bird wanted him out
because he had been suffering from heart trouble and so forth. So, itís
a combination of things, like everything else.
William Gibbons: When we say dissent, division, and demonstration,
we are really talking about a great number of things that happened at
different levels, different people, different groups. Itís awfully hard
to generalize about what was happening except that there was an increasing
opposition to the war. Finally Johnson recognized that he would divide the
country hopelessly if he stayed in office. He had been planning to leave.
One reason he had been planning to leave was that in September 1967, he
had sent every congressional liaison officer from every department of the
government to Capitol Hill, secretly--I was one of them--to find out what
people were thinking.
One of the people I interviewed was Carl Albert. He said some very
harsh things. He said that the President had been making great mistakes,
that the country would no longer support the war, and that we couldnít
win it. And he was the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives.
Thatís pretty serious advice. Tough advice. I was quite impressed,
but I was also concerned. So I asked Larry Brown, "Do I have to
report everything?" He said, "Yes, you do." I said,
"Is the President going to see all these?" "Yes, he is. We
have orders to send every one of them to him to read personally."
These interviews were all very private; we were not to mention why we
were talking to them. We were told not to say anything about the reason.
We had to cleverly conceal why we were there to talk, but we all got to
the root of their feelings about Vietnam and it was clear that if Johnson
ran again that he would have tremendous opposition and it would hopelessly
divide the country.
I want to tell you about another aspect of this which I think is very
important. In July of 1965, at the time that the President was deciding to
send in the troops, he went through that charade of debating whether or
not to. He had all these meetings, none of which mattered because he had
already decided. That was his way of doing things. He had a meeting,
though, with some members of Congress, two days I think before he
announced his decision. Mike Mansfield told me that in that meeting he
said it would be a mistake. Mansfield then held a meeting of the elders of
The meeting was to discuss what the President should do and whether he
should make the decision to send in troops. They recommended against it.
But it was too late. The President, of course, didnít take seriously
anything anybody in Congress said to him except for those involved in
appropriations and, you know, the important political things. But, they
said that we should never have gotten in.
Mansfield sent this memo to the President the day before the President
announced his decision. Mansfield was summarizing the feeling of the
Senators in that meeting. "We should have never have gotten in. We
ought to get out with face, if possible. Without face, if the alternative
is to draw about 150,000 men."
Generally, the pressure in the Executive Branch was for hard-core
escalation. Then Mansfield had this footnote: "It might even be
helpful if you were to take the initiative to invite these Senators who
probably have the same doubts that you have, to meet with you just to talk
This is what Mansfield said about the meeting: "I opened the
meeting and I reported fully on the leadership decision on Vietnam this
morning. There was a general sense of reassurance that your intent was not
to get in deeply and that you intended to do only what was essential in
the military line until January. The general desire to support you in this
course was expressed." But he then lists the major points that were
raised by various Senators: The estimate of 100,000 men by the end of the
year was probably short; the Russians feel they have no obligation to aid
the North Vietnamese; and so on.
This was an early form of dissent in the Senate. It was the Senate that
made it legitimate to criticize and to oppose the President. Fulbrightís
hearings a year or so later opened the door to the kind of criticism that
Looking at what happened in the Senate at that point, you would have to
say that there was a lot of dissent and a lot of division, it was
expressed, and the President knew about it. But the President didnít do
anything about it. He could have done something about it, but it was a
little late--only two days before he announced his decision.
That was a bad move on the part of the President and all those in the
Executive Branch who were involved: It was a failure of our system of
government that is still with us. Itís a very deep flaw because the
Senate is the part of the government that should represent the wisdom of
the country and make decisions like this.
Most of them--except Fulbright--felt that they had to support the
President because he was the President. So they ended up supporting him
and supporting the war. They say once the flag is in and itís flying,
then you have to support the men in the field
There was another point at which dissent was expressed and I think it
is very important. In 1970, President Nixon and Mr. Kissinger made a
terrible mistake and that was the Cambodian incursion, as they called it.
The invasion of Cambodia was one of the biggest mistakes in the history
of the country because it was based on a total misunderstanding and
misreading of the public and Congress and of what would happen if they did
it. And, of course, they did it and then the country began to fall apart.
The country really did not begin to come apart until that total invasion
of Cambodia in May of 1970. That invasion resulted in 1,200 lawyers coming
on the train from New York to Washington to protest and to meet with
members of Congress. It was an extraordinary event, and all the colleges
Until that time, Nixon--because he had been very cleverly resting his
case on the fact that he was going to get out--was getting out and
handling things reasonably well from his standpoint. There was not a lot
of resentment or reaction. But that decision, I think, was a failure on
the part of the Executive Branch and the President to understand what was
happening and a failure to respect the public and the leaders of Congress
and the leaders of the country.
The business council even went into action opposing the war. When that
happened, as someone told me, the war was over. Because when you get the
business council on the wrong side of the Executive, then the Executive
ends up losing. This is when Businessmen Against the War was organized.
From then on, the White House was fighting a losing battle and never
came to grips with what was happening. Kissinger tried to keep the war
going. I say those words deliberately and carefully. He was, I think, the
major person involved in that. Nixon, I think, was on the verge of trying
to do something about getting out of the war, but Kissinger felt he had to
stiffen his backbone.
A lot of the division and dissent came from people failing to
understand the country, failing to understand the expressions of opinions
that occurred, and failing to respect Congress and its role.
There have been books written saying that dissent and division in the
country was not what caused the end of the war. Thatís, I think, true. I
also think all of this contributed to the final collapse of the policy of
intervening in Vietnam and forced us in the end to get out.
Randy Barnes: Iím not a journalist or an author or a filmmaker.
In fact, I'm not even much of an expert in anything. Iím here because I
was a witness to some things in history, and I want to talk about some of
those things here today.
I was directly involved in the Vietnam veterans antiwar movement. I
have been involved since 1971 as a veteransí advocate at most levels of
government, from the local level to Washington, D.C.
I was stationed at the Oakland Army Base before I went to Vietnam, and
it was there that I began to see things that disturbed me about Vietnam.
Letterman General Hospital was a traumatic amputation hospital. I drove an
ambulance from the Oakland Army Base, and I went over there every day. And
every day I would see hundreds, if not thousands, of maimed GIs--so many
of them that they couldnít even put all them inside wards. They were
lined up and down the hallways, and some of them were even outside on the
Being stationed near San Francisco gave me a very liberal education in
the peace movement, since most of the people in the area were marching up
and down the street in front of our army base seven days a week, all month
long. At one time, our base was surrounded with armored personnel carriers
and armed MPs and sandbagged at all the gates.
I was ordered to go to Vietnam in August of 1968. Before I went, I went
home on leave. While I was home, I ran into an old friend from college who
had become convinced that the war was wrong. He offered to pay my way to
go to Canada and support me. He was from a very wealthy family.
Quite honestly, the thought of going to Vietnam after seeing what I had
seen at the Letterman Hospital was not real high on my list of priorities.
So, I gave that some very serious thought--I mean very serious thought. I
reached the conclusion that I am going to share with you that I felt very
strongly about and I still feel very strongly about today.
My conclusion was this: If I donít go to Vietnam, if I--for whatever
reason--choose not to answer my countryís call, then the only moral
thing for me to do is go to prison. To leave the country at that time was
cowardice, in my opinion.
So I went to Vietnam and served a one-year tour of duty. I was a combat
medic attached to the 25th Infantry Division. While I was over there I
think I was a good soldier. I might have saved a few lives, and I was a
good medic. I stayed away from drugs and things that I thought would keep
me from performing my job well.
But I witnessesed some things while I was there. I was convinced when I
came back from Vietnam that the war was totally unwinable and we needed to
get our troops out of there as quickly as possible and not kill one more
GI in Vietnam.
I came back home, like most other Vietnam veterans, and went back to
work. I picked up with my girlfriend.
There was one thing that kept disturbing me when I came back. People
would always come up to me and say, "What was Vietnam all
about?" At first, I thought people were sincerely interested and I
would start to say, "Well, let me..." and before I would got
about two sentences down the road, they were telling me, "Well, I got
laid Saturday night. I was out with Bill and Jill and we got drunk."
And it didnít take me very long to realize that the average American
didnít give a damn about Vietnam--they certainly didnít care about the
So that stayed with me for a long time. I felt on the one hand that the
war was wrong, that we needed to get the GIs out of Vietnam, and on the
other hand it didnít seem to me that even the antiwar movement and
certainly the public at large didnít care much about what was going on
In 1969 or 1970, I saw an ad in Playboy by a new, young, small
organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in New York City.
And I thought, well, maybe this is some place I fit in. I couldnít fit
in with the regular peace movement. I didnít fit in with my old friends
who were hawks. But these guys were actually Vietnam vets and they were
against the war. So I sent in an application and I joined the VVAW.
About a month or two later, I received a notice from two guys in Kansas
City. We got together and had a meeting and founded the Kansas City
chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the three of us. That
chapter grew in a period of about a year to 40 or 50. The chapter became
very active locally and on the national level in the antiwar movement.
Like a lot of people who were VVAW, I never felt totally allied with
the peace movement. There were different parts of the peace movement. For
example, the American Friends Service Committee, who obviously were
Quakers and pacifists who were committed to the cause, and we felt very
comfortable with them.
Those long hairs who just wanted to smoke dope and jump rope and listen
to rock and roll--I was never very comfortable with them. In fact, we were
always quite critical of them. So in many demonstrations and in many
activities, VVAW kind of kept itself apart from the rest of the peace
A lot of us knew guys who were still over there, and we were writing to
them. We had friends who were dying over there, so we felt a particular
mission, if you will, a particular calling to do everything that we could
to get these guys home.
I remember a particular demonstration, one of the earliest that I went
to in Washington, D.C.--a very big demonstration. We were marching down
Constitution Avenue. The whole group began to chant, "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi
Minh, the NLF is gonna win." One of the guys at VVAW began to sing,
"Bring them home, bring our brothers home." To me, that was the
epitome of the difference between the veterans and the rest of the guys.
We were there for some real reasons--because our brothers were still in
Vietnam and they were being killed. I think every guy who was getting
killed at that time--1971, 1972, 1973--I mean, the war was over. It had
been over for a long time, and it was time to bring them back.
I worked with VVAW until about 1975. I went back to my professional
career and picked up where things were and kind of moved along and didnít
think much more about it. I did stay in touch with a lot of people. I did
turn out for certain veteransí events. But it wasnít until 1978 that I
heard about Bobby Muller and Frank McCarthy in New York City. They were
trying to put together an organization to represent the needs of these
Quite honestly, at the time, I thought, "Iíve paid my dues. Iím
not going to be involved in this." Quite honestly, I had already been
rejected by the VFW, and I didnít want to join another organization that
had chapters and meetings and some kind of dress code.
So I stayed uninvolved until 1985.
In 1985, people got together and began to build a Vietnam Veterans
Memorial in Kansas City, and someone from Vietnam Veterans of
America--then Bobby Mullerís organization--came to Kansas City for the
memorial and talked to us about VVAís agenda for all the unresolved
issues of the war.
During the old VVAW days, we were beginning to discuss issues like
post-traumatic stress. We knew we had problems but we couldnít put a
label on it. In those days, we called it post-Vietnam syndrome. We had
guys who had terrible chloracne, and we knew that we had some kind of
problem with something--Agent Orange as it turned out.
We knew we had a problem with the VA because some of us couldnít even
stand to go on the grounds to get treatment, the way we were treated.
To make a long story short, I joined VVA and I thought Bobby Muller had
an agenda and that he was looking out for veteransí rights and, by God,
there were a lot of unsolved problems. One of the things I am going to
leave you with here today that we havenít talked a lot about is the fact
that there was a lot of human damage from that war. I donít mean to
suggest that every Vietnam veteran is homeless and every Vietnam veteran
is a junkie and every Vietnam veteran is standing on the corner with his
But I do mean to suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of
veterans, Vietnam veterans, in this country who still have serious
post-traumatic stress problems. The government still does not recognize
the entire myriad of problems created by dioxin. I donít even think the
government does a great job with its counseling on post-traumatic stress.
Now we find out that a lot of us have hepatitis C, have had it for 30
years, and didnít even know about it. You find out that the government
today wants to give GIs anthrax vaccine and they canít guarantee what itís
going to do to them. GIs have always been guinea pigs.
It was because of all of these unresolved issues that I felt a real
obligation to my fellow veterans to join VVA. That is why I am here in
front of you today--because I have stayed involved with this organization,
which is a very, very small piece of the whole veteran service
organization movement. But we have led the vanguard for demanding the
rights of veterans. There are still guys out there missing in America, and
we need to find them and bring them home.
Sydney Schanberg: Since this is a panel on the war in Washington
and I wasnít in Washington, I donít feel very qualified to tell you
what was going on in Washington or America because I was at such a great
distance. Iíll talk about it from the perspective of that difference,
that 12,000 miles.
I was in Cambodia. I spent one long season in Vietnam and made a couple
of other short trips. The long session was with the Easter offensive of
1972. But most of the time I was in Cambodia.
I had been in the Army in the late 1950s, based in Germany. But I was a
true greenhorn in the war. I learned a whole new vocabulary and then came
to Cambodia where I spent a very big chunk of time and increasingly larger
chunks of time over the next five years.
It became clear that this was a country on a very fast road to ruin,
partly because of its own weak leadership, but mostly because of all the
great powers using the country, "using it" in truly a cynical
sense. The Soviets were backing the Vietnamese, who were using the
sanctuaries to attack our forces in Vietnam. The Chinese were backing the
Khmer Rouge after the Khmer Rouge split with the Vietnamese.
We in the United States saw our opportunity to use Cambodia when Lon
Nol and his group deposed Sihanouk. So we went in and pretended we were
their allies when we didnít have a clue as to what was going to happen
to them. We even pretended that it really was not very much happening to
To give you a couple of examples, Phnom Penh in the early years of the
war had been a city of 600,000. It grew to about a million or more in
those early years, and later to more than two million. Henry Kissinger
would send his people to testify before Senate refugee committees to say
there was no refugee problem, which was, of course, nonsense.
I would write about these things--about children dying of malnutrition
and related pain and loss among the Cambodian population--then I would see
a story authored by Henry Kissinger or the President that said everything
was just hunky dory.
In all of this, I paid very little attention to the protest movement. I
would read about it when I would go to the American Embassy. They would
reproduce press stories every day about things going on in the States and
Iíd read about it. I didnít feel any link or connection or kinship.
Some people in the antiwar movement, on the far left, would assume that
I was one of their companions, one of their brothers, but it just wasnít
true. My bond was with my peers and with my Cambodian friends. When I was
in Vietnam, my brothers also included soldiers, Vietnamese soldiers and
American soldiers. What you find out as a journalist is that your life
depends upon them because when you go into the field it doesnít matter
if they donít like what you have been writing, they look after you.
There is a kinship and they were part of my brotherhood. My closest
brother was my Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, who was a journalist and
interpreter and who guided me through that war.
In general, I was bonded with the people who were living through it and
not with anybody back in the States, although I kept abreast of what was
happening in Washington.
There were a lot of people talking about the immorality of the war who
hadnít seen the war, hadnít been to the war, and they talked about how
immoral we were and how angelic the other side was. Of course, anybody who
covered the war knew that there were no angels. I saw North Vietnamese
forces shell fleeing civilians coming out of Quang Tri in 1972.
The North Vietnamese strategy was you canít just take land, you must
take the people with it. So this was an attempt to force the people back
to Quang Tri and not to flee down to Hue and Danang. As the mortars hit,
three or four people would fall each time. So there are no angels in this
Probably all wars are immoral in a sense because they are bestial. But
if all of those people who said they were worried about the Vietnamese and
who were talking about baby killers--if they were really concerned about
the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, why did they make so little effort to
do anything about it in the aftermath of the war? Why was it forgotten so
Everybody felt guilty, I think. It was probably a lot more complicated
than just guilt. But everybody who was there in the press knows that they
left people behind, Cambodian friends, Vietnamese friends, American
friends who got killed and who were prisoners who didnít get returned.
So everybody left someone behind and came home safe and didnít really
want to look at this situation and say, "What should we do now?"
because it was going to be very difficult to do anything now.
I think it embarrassed us. I think we wanted to get away from it.
Perhaps the biggest reason was because we lost the war and we are not a
society that has talked much about losing or about what you can learn from
losing. We have always been so successful. So maybe itís all of those
things: guilt, embarrassment, our inability to deal with losing.
So we walked away; we literally ran away. We ran away from the people
we said we were concerned about (the Asians), and we ran away from the
soldiers and we vilified soldiers. And there was another group that we
walked away from that you very, very rarely hear from, and the press was a
big part of this, too, because it bought into the running away process.
That was the POWs who didnít come home. I have done a lot of research
and a lot of reporting on this subject, and I know that a lot of my
colleagues and the press who havenít done that reporting find the
results hard to believe.
I donít know why, but I know that if they had spent the time that I
have in the archives, they wouldnít have any difficulty seeing these
things. The overwhelming documentary and witness evidence is that there
were a significant number of men still in captivity when Operation
Homecoming took place. There were radio intercepts afterward from Laos and
other places that spoke of American prisoners being moved from one place
to another. All of this got discounted by the intelligence and defense
community because it was such an embarrassment.
But what happened simply was we were in a hurry to get away from
Vietnam. Our President was surely in a hurry. We signed that peace treaty
in a hurry. We signed it on January 27, 1973, and Iíll bet there arenít
too many people in this room who know that on that date we still had not
been given the list of our prisoners by the Vietnamese and North
Vietnamese. We demanded it. We insisted upon it. Nixon had made a big deal
about getting all the prisoners back, but we hadnít gotten the list.
When the list was given to us a few days later, all of our intelligence
services were aghast because it had 591 names and they believed there were
several hundred more. They had a different list of names. They had a list
of names of over 300 men held in Laos, alive in captivity at that time, in
1973. Nine people--nine men--came out of Laos from that group. Where were
the other 300? And there were others. There may have been as many as 600
or 700 who were still alive at that point, from my research.
In any case, itís very, very hard to get the mainstream press to
write about these things because we still havenít resolved Vietnam. We
havenít resolved losing and we havenít really come to terms with all
of these things.
Question: Iíd like to look at some decisions that were made
during the Vietnam War that really made sense.
The first was our incursion into Cambodia where we took out multitudes
of arms and equipment. That was overshadowed by some young 2nd Lieutenant
on the National Guard at Kent State University having his troops lock and
load real bullet and ammunition, and thatís what screwed that thing up
real bad. But, I think history needs to at least come clean and go for the
good that we did.
Gibbons: I think Nixon meant well by what he tried to do. I think
he was mistaken. I think that Cambodia was totally unnecessary. He
accomplished very little in the way of military success. The North
Vietnamese and other forces were back in greater strength in a month in
that area. The supplies that we captured amounted to very little in the
long run. It did have a terrible effect here.
Now, you are quite right about Kent State. Kent State was a direct
result of that force. If he hadnít gone to Cambodia, Kent State would
never have happened. Kent State was a terrible tragedy, it will haunt us
forever, the fact that our National Guard shot and killed students. I donít
see how you can call his decision to go into Cambodia a successful
political decision. I donít think it was.
I think he made some good political decisions. The first one was to get
out of the war and start withdrawing troops. If he had done more of that
sooner, we would not have had the casualties and the suffering that we
had. Kissinger was one of the principal ones blocking the withdrawal of
troops. He had a running battle, as you know, with Melvin Laird, who was
the one who knew what had to be done and if he had been supported by the
White House more than he was, it would have ended the war a whole lot
But Kissinger was determined to beat Melvin Laird, beat William Rogers,
and become the Prime Minister, in effect. As long as that was happening
and Nixon was sitting there in his den with the fire going, 90 degrees
outside, listening to classical music, and saying, "Okay, Henry,
alright, Iím understanding you, go ahead," we didnít have a
Nixon, unfortunately, did not have the strength to follow through on
some things. He knew what Kissinger was up to--Haldeman and Ehrlichman and
the others were well aware of what Kissinger was trying to do--but they
didnít stop him.
The Defense Department was trying to get out, the State Department was
trying to get out, but it was Henry Kissinger and the President who kept
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.