A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

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 Vietnam.

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 clothing.

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 sandals.

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 didnít happen.

 

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 Soviet expansion.

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 thing."

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 country enormously.

 

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 Senate.

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 among yourselves."

 

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 then came.

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 erupted.

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 sidewalks.

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 veterans.

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 over there.

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 movement.

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 veterans.

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 hand out.

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 them.

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 situation.

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 quickly?

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 sooner.

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 prayer.

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 us in.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

   

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