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

October 2001/November 2001

Rendezvous with War Symposium

No Light at the End of the Tunnel: America Goes to War in Vietnam


Ed Crapol: "In addition to bringing down a president, the Vietnam War and subsequent events such as Watergate bred distrust, cynicism, and contempt for political leaders and American institutions."

In April 2000, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William and Mary sponsored Rendezvous With War, a three-day symposium which examined multiple aspects of the Vietnam War. This final installment from that symposium actually was the opening panel.

In "No Light at the End of the Tunnel," veterans, historians, and journalists discussed how the

French war became the American war. William and Mary history professor Ed Crapol moderated the panel. The panelists were Stanley Karnow, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and WWII veteran; Ronald Spector, college history professor and Marine Vietnam veteran; Retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, a First Cav battalion and brigade commander at the Ia Drang and elsewhere in Vietnam; William Conrad Gibbons, Vietnam historian and WWII veteran; and Zalin Grant, who spent five years in Vietnam, first as an intelligence officer and then as a journalist.

Sam Sadler: Itís a pleasure to welcome you to the College of William and Mary. Iím the vice president for student affairs and have had the privilege of serving as one of the conference organizers. Our president, who is himself a Vietnam veteran, was hoping to be here today to welcome you, but heís been called out of town.


Hal Moore: "In December 1965, we gift-wrapped the strategic and tactical initiative to Hanoi by not pursuing the enemy into Cambodia.  He could thereby control the pace and the tempo of the war."

Itís a genuine privilege for William and Mary to be a partner in what I think is an especially timely and unique exploration of the subject of Vietnam, Americaís longest war. We are especially proud to have been chosen by Vietnam Veterans of America for what we believe is both an historic and important symposium.

For all of us who served in Vietnam, the war is a deeply personal experience. But even if we didnít serve in the war, the war shaped our outlook, influenced our values, and in many cases profoundly influenced our relationships, and in some cases, deprived us of loved ones and friends, and snatched us from our innocence. Itís profound influence on our national character is also clear.

Others of us have, no doubt, come here today because weíre curious about this event, which was the war of our fathers and (in some cases) our mothers. Or we are students of this most unique war, of its fallout and of its aftermath. We bring to these discussions, then, many conflicting purposes and emotions. All share, however, an awareness of how very important Vietnam was and is to Americans and the world. The uniqueness of this experience is the opportunity for us all--veterans, reporters, scholars, students, sons, and daughters--to reflect together on what this war meant and how it has shaped the people we are.

We have gathered here to achieve new understandings about the war on this, the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of its end. So, on behalf of the College of William and Mary, I would like to sincerely thank Vietnam Veterans of America for this extraordinary collaboration.

Itís my pleasure to introduce George Duggins, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America.

George Duggins: It is, indeed, a pleasure to be here with the William and Mary family and Vietnam veterans and authors, historians, and people who genuinely have an interest in this period in our lives that has changed America. War changes America. The Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam: They all changed our perspective as Americans.

When we asked the college to help us pull this off, we had no idea they were going to say "yes" so fast. They said yes so fast that we wondered, "Okay, what do we do now?" But here we are. On behalf of the men and women of Vietnam Veterans of America, thank you very much, William and Mary.

Sam Sadler: Let me present to you the moderator for our first panel, Ed Crapol. We both joined the staff at the College of William and Mary in 1967. Ed holds one of our distinguished chairs in the Department of History. His specialty is the history of American foreign relations, including America in Vietnam and the Cold War. It has always amazed me that we lived through that period, and now he teaches it.

Edward Crapol: Stanley Karnow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His best-selling book, Vietnam: A History, was the basis for the 1983 PBS documentary series, Vietnam: A Television History.

The second speaker will be Ronald Spector, historian and professor at George Washington and the author of The U.S. Army in Vietnam: The Early Years, which was published in 1983, and The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam, which was published in 1993.

Harold G. Moore, a West Point graduate who served in Korea and Vietnam, will be the third speaker. Heís co-author of a very popular book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Iíve used this book in my class; the details of the battle make a very effective book.

The next speaker will be William Conrad Gibbons, a World War II veteran and author of the acclaimed five-volume work, U.S. Government and the Vietnam War. This particular work is something that all specialists in Vietnam use very frequently.

The next speaker is Zalin Grant. He served as an army officer in Vietnam and then as a war correspondent for Time magazine and the New Republic. He is the author of several books on the Vietnam War, including Facing the Phoenix, which was published in 1991.

For some Americans, the Vietnam War still represents a noble cause, an effort to protect self-determination for peoples in South Vietnam. For President Reagan, for instance, who defined it as a noble cause, this was an attempt to stop communism in Southeast Asia.

For other Americans, the Vietnam War was a mistake because it failed and was the nationís first military defeat abroad. It cost over fifty-eight thousand Americans dead and hundreds of thousands if not millions of Vietnamese dead. It cost much U.S. treasure. It damaged the United Statesí international standing. It devastated the economy through persistent inflation. It ripped the society apart. In fact, it was the most divisive conflict since the Civil War. It brought down the president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who on the domestic front was implementing a domestic reform movement highlighted by long-overdue civil rights legislation.

In addition to bringing down the president, the Vietnam War and subsequent events such as Watergate bred distrust, cynicism, and contempt for political leaders and American institutions. A recent biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Dallek, labeled Vietnam the "worst foreign policy disaster in the nationís history." Our goal on this panel is to investigate the origins of the war. We will look at the 1950s and early 1960s. We will begin by having Mr. Karnow tell us what Vietnam was like in the early 1950s.


Stanley Karnow: "One can't understand the legacy of the Vietnam War without understanding how we got involved."


Ronald Spector: "Even though there's a general disinterest in history, Vietnam War couses are very popular throughout the country."


William Conrad Gibbons: "We got into Vietnam backwards. We backed in. The story of how that happened is a tragedy, but it's also a lesson in the faults of our system,"

Stanley Karnow: Itís ironic that this panel has been called "No Light at the End of the Tunnel." Thatís a mark of our ignorance. The term "light at the end of the tunnel" was coined by a French general, Gen. Henri Navarre, just before the French were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was a sign of his unbridled confidence and optimism that the French would win. Then it goes on being repeated by Gen. Westmoreland, Lyndon Johnson, and others, as if they donít know itís a prelude to the defeat of the French.

Our involvement in Vietnam was characterized by ignorance, hubris, and arrogance: the notion that we were all John Waynes, that we could defeat anybody. One canít understand the legacy of Vietnam without understanding how we got involved. Vietnam wasnít the kind of war where you declared war one day and went to war the next. We oozed into Vietnam.

I trace the beginning of our involvement back to the Truman administration. President Truman in 1947 enunciated the Truman Doctrine, which was aimed at helping Greece and Turkey stave off communist rebellions. But it then became a doctrine; it became dogma: Weíre going to help any place thatís threatened by communism.

The French were then fighting a futile and hopeless war against a communist-led nationalist movement. The war started in 1946. Truman judged that he had to help the French because it was a communist-led movement. Thatís based on the assumption, which carried through our involvement in Vietnam, that somehow there was a control panel in Moscow, and somebody was pressing buttons, and communists all over the world were part of this international global communist conspiracy.

The leader of the Viet Minh, which was a communist-nationalist movement, was Ho Chi Minh, who indeed was a communist, but he was very much a nationalist. Some say he wasnít a nationalist, he was a communist. Well, you can be a communist and a nationalist at the same time. Thereís no contradiction in those things.

Ho Chi Minh actually wrote three letters to Truman requesting help. I did some research on Ho Chi Minhís past. He spent some time in my old hometown. He worked in Brooklyn around 1911, 1912. He memorized the Declaration of Independence. He was a great admirer of America. Iím not trying to romanticize him. He thought the United States would help him. Instead, we helped the French. Okay, fast forward. The French get defeated, and we come in and start off by helping this rump government in the South because Vietnam has been partitioned. They canít hack it, and by 1965 our South Vietnamese clients--or "allies," whatever you want to call them--canít do it, so American forces go in. They start off in 1965. Gen. Moore was one of the charter members of that group.

I think it was a totally unwinnable war. We won every battle in Vietnam, but as a communist colonel said to an American colonel, Harry Summers, after the war, "That may be true, but itís irrelevant." The fact is we were up against an enemy prepared to take unlimited losses. It was not a war for territory. The American strategy was to break the morale of the enemy so that the enemy would cry uncle (and I donít mean Uncle Ho). We could not find the breaking point.

Iíve been back several times since the end of the war and have talked to numbers of Communist troops. Iíve talked at some length to the commander of the communist forces, Gen. Giap, who I think is an admirable general. I said to him, "How long would you go on fighting?" He said, "Ten, twenty, years--regardless of losses." To them it was a sacred cause. They took terrible losses. There were moments when they were very badly set back.

The Tet Offensive was generally misreported, even by myself, as a victory for them. They took awful losses. They also took terrible losses in the Phoenix program. But they kept coming back. Westmoreland once said, "Well, you know these are Asians. Asians donít put the same premium on human life that we do." I live near the Antietam battlefield, which I visit from time to time, where forty thousand Americans died in one day. People will fight for causes they think are important.

What could we have done? We got to a stage in Vietnam when the only reason we were there was because we were there. John McNaughton, the assistant secretary of defense, once scratched on an envelope, "Why are we in Vietnam? Seventy-five percent of the reason weíre here is because of prestige. We want to keep our prestige," which means if we get out, weíre going to lose face. All the other reasons--strategic, saving democracy--are very minor in his quantification. Most of the world thought we were crazy for being there. Instead of protecting our prestige, our prestige was being eroded by this hopeless, horrible war, which was also dividing the United States in a terrible way.

One final point. The fall of Saigon in my estimation was a debacle, but it wasnít a disaster. At the moment it happened, people were horrified with the defeat or they were relieved the war was over. But look whatís happened since then.

We were there to protect our prestige. America today is probably the most popular country in the world. Weíre a beacon for people, technology, the economy, morality. People are clamoring for democracy. America is a model. Culturally, every kid wants to look like an American. So despite this tremendous blow, we recovered from it.

Then you ask--thatís the great tragedy--"What were we doing there? Why were we there? What was the point of it?" And I say again it was one of the great tragedies of our time.

Ronald Spector: When I was in Vietnam for my one year, which ended in spring of í69, the Marine Corps adopted a policy of allowing people to leave active duty early if they were going to enroll in college. I already had my Ph.D., so I figured that would not work. So I went to see the Gunney and I said, "Iíd like to be released early to teach in college." And he said, "Youíre always coming up with this crazy stuff."

Since Iím the only academic on the panel--and indeed the only academic here at the conference except for my colleague, Ed Crapol--the most appropriate thing for me to do is to give some idea about the study of Vietnam on college campuses. I started writing and teaching about Vietnam in the early í70s. At that time, there were many people in the class who knew all about Vietnam. Many of them had served in Vietnam. Many had worked at the protests against the war. I used to tell them not to think of this so much as a course on history but as a course on comparative religion. Everybodyís views were comparable to religious conviction.

Now, of course, thatís no longer the case, to put it mildly. College students today donít really care about the Vietnam War. Donít feel bad, they donít really care about history at all. The ideal history class would be made up of about 35-year-olds. You have to be out at work for a while, lose your job, go through several economic downturns, get through a few wars, then youíre ready. Instead, we have students who are about twenty.

Even though thereís a general disinterest in history, the Vietnam courses are very popular throughout the country. There are probably about two hundred of them at different colleges and universities. Often they have the largest enrollment of any history course on campus. One of the things I have them do in my courses is interview their parents about their experiences in the 1960s.

So they interview their parents and come back and validate whatever their parents did. They come back and they say, "My father served in Vietnam, and from what Iíve read in this course, Iím proud that my father served in Vietnam." Or they come back and they say, "My father was against the war in Vietnam. Iíve read what a ridiculous waste this was, and Iím proud of my father for standing up."

As far as the interpretations of the war--the influence of writing about the war in the public--academic historians have not taken the lead in this. If you think about the important books about Vietnam, the ones with impact are books like Stanley Karnowís and the book on John Paul Vann [A Bright, Shining Lie]. These have not been books by academics. However, with the end of the Cold War, it is now possible to get into the records of the other side in ways that we could not before.

For example, the records of the East German government, which ceased to exist a little while ago, are available. The East Germans got lots of stuff from the Russians and Hanoi about what was going on in the war. In Hanoi itself, itís possible to use a very limited number of records.

As far as the air campaign against Vietnam, the criticism most often voiced is that President Johnson made a botch of this. That he made the military carry out this air campaign with one hand tied behind its back. That he was overly worried about the Chinese and the Russians and, therefore, he engaged in this very gradually increasing air campaign, which gave the other side a chance to build up its anti-aircraft defenses.

Now we know that both Johnson and his critics were right. Johnson was right because we now know that the Chinese were prepared to come into the war under certain circumstances. That is, if the U.S. had really gone in and looked like they were going to flatten North Vietnam, the Chinese probably would have entered the war. At least they say they would have. The records at the time show that they were prepared to do that under certain conditions.

On the other hand, Curtis LeMay and those guys were not completely wrong either. We know from some records in the Politburo in Hanoi that some people were not enthusiastic about carrying on the war in Southern Vietnam. They were saying,"If we keep this up, the Americans are just going to come in and destroy our industry and set our economy back ten years. Maybe we should think this over." That faction lost. But Curtis LeMay, if he were still around, would have been happy to know the idea that you could intimidate people through air power was not totally unfounded.

Harold Moore: In 1965, I was an infantry battalion commander in the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, testing air mobility and air assault techniques. We were changed into the First Cavalry Division in July of 1965. On the 28th of 1965, President Johnson came on national TV and told the world that on that day he had ordered the First Cavalry Division to Vietnam.

We expected President Johnson in his next breath to say that he had also frozen enlistments and discharges so that we would send our troops to Vietnam equipped as best as possible to fight this enemy. But he did not freeze enlistments. He did not freeze discharges.

On the other hand, I was required--as was every other battalion commander in that division--to leave behind men I had trained for a year and a half because they had less than 60 days left to serve. The Commander-in-Chief sent the First Cav Division to war under-strength. I lost over 150 men.

He came out with some right tough talk on TV that day. He said, "We intend to convince the communists that we cannot be defeated by force of arms or by superior power." But he didnít put his money where his mouth was. He sent us to war under-strength. And I never was up to strength all the time I was a battalion and a brigade commander in Vietnam. You just suck it up, and you just do it. Thatís Number One Point.

Number Two: In November of that year, my battalion went into one hell of a battle in the Ia Drang Valley. I lost 79 men killed and 121 wounded. At the end of three days, we walked across enemy bodies and picked up their weaponsĖhundreds of them. Thus was born the strategy of attrition, which some historians call a non-strategy. It surprised me that we went to a strategy of attrition.

When we were doing research on our book, we came across some unclassified CIA memoranda. One was dated December 8, 1965, and said there are four million draft-age men in North Vietnam. Another, on the 16th of January in 1966, said Hanoi can send 4,500 men to the South every month. Another one, dated 9 April 1966, said Hanoi can fill the attrition gaps plus train up to 40 regiments--60,000 men a year--for South Vietnam. Nevertheless, the strategy of attrition was pursued for several years and put a lot of those 58,000 names on that wall in Washington.

The next item I want to mention is the difficulty of fighting in Vietnam in heavily populated areas and some of the effects of that. The very thing that saved us in Vietnam, in addition to my disciplined troopers, was fire power.

On my next operation I was ordered to clear out the North Vietnamese from the Bong Son Plain and turn it over to the government of Vietnam. I did so. It took over a month to do it. I lost 82 more of my precious men, killed. We turned it over to the government of Vietnam, and within one week the North Vietnamese were back. At that point I thought, "Wait a minute. If the Vietnamese canít control this small area along the South China Sea, how can they possibly control all of South Vietnam even if we do defeat this enemy?" That brings up another question: What do you mean by winning?

Then there was the other aspect of fighting in villages: Thatís where the enemy was. We get into the question of perceptions. Who does the peasant rice farmer perceive as the enemy when he looks at his dead water buffalo, his straw-thatched hootch burning, and his wife or children wounded? Who does he think the enemy is--the Vietnamese who are defending his village (according to him) or the men who looked like the hated French? We were white, we were brown, we were black, we were big. Who does he perceive as the enemy?

Next on strategy. Joe Galloway and I have been back to Vietnam together five times in the last eight or nine years. A couple of those times we were able to talk with General Giap. He talked to us about strategy. When we finished up in the Ia Drang Valley, we were prohibited from pursuing this defeated enemy into Cambodia, which we very much wanted to do. We wanted to kill the rest of that division, but Washington would not permit this.

I later talked with Mr. Bill Bundy in doing research on our book, and he said that one of the reasons that we didnít want you to do that was because the enemy--the North Vietnamese--would just continue to move farther and farther to the west into Cambodia. He may have been right, but still I think that if we had been allowed to kill off that division, it wouldíve sent a hell of a message to Hanoi--instead of the message that was sent to Hanoi, which was that in 1965 December we gift-wrapped the strategic and tactical initiative to Hanoi by not pursuing the enemy into Cambodia. He could thereby control the pace and the tempo of the war.

Several years ago, Gen. Douglas Kinnard, former Chief of Military History, wrote a book called The War Managers, in which he sent a questionnaire to 175 of the 183 Army generals who had served in Vietnam. In reply, 65 percent of those generals said that they were uncertain about the U.S. objective in Vietnam. They were unclear of exactly what it was.

One of the things that Giap told Joe and me in our first talk with him in 1990 was that if the Pentagon--and he used the word "Pentagon"--had studied and learned from the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, you would not have picked up the war from the French.

Iíve thought over the years what he meant about that, and Iíve reached my conclusions. I have concluded that America had a Dien Bien Phu also, and it was Vietnam.

As Mr. Karnow has pointed out, the problem began with Truman, extended through six presidential administrations from Truman on with all the different secretaries of defense, all those different secretaries of state, all those different policies. All the while, the leadership in Hanoi remained the same, with the same objectives, the same men in charge. Giap told us that their strategy was a political-military strategy involving all their people and eventually involving the American people.

Based on a simple phrase from Ho Chi Minh, "Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence," Giap told us on that first trip that he thought we had a strategy. "We had a strategy," he said. "It was peopleís war. But your strategy was helicopter tactics. And itís very difficult to defeat a sound strategy with tactics." He was absolutely right.

William Gibbons: We got into Vietnam backwards. We backed in. The story of how that happened is a tragedy, but itís also a lesson in the faults of our system. I think the greatest fault was our culture.

We were entirely too enamored of our strengths as a nation. We were influenced by our history as a messianic nation, trying to save people from themselves. We didnít have any limits. We ended World War II without any idea of where the limits were. When we began to look at the situation in the Far East, all we could see was that there was a need to stop what was happening.

Even George Kennan, in a memorandum to the State Department that is very little known, recommended that action be taken to keep the communists from gaining strength in Southeast Asia, because he could see from his post in Moscow what they were up to and he thought it was ominous. But you donít make good policy that way. You donít look at a situation and say "Itís terrible; weíve got to do something about it." We had no guidelines. We had no limits on what we ought to do and could do, and this led us into making great mistakes.

Iíve been a student of Congress, and Congress was partly to blame. But I have not heard any of the speakers talk about Congress and its role in this. If they had listened to some of the more intelligent, far-sighted members of Congress, the Executive Branch would not have gotten us involved as they did. But the Executive Branch never listens to Congress. You make mistakes when you donít listen to your legislators. That was one of the great difficulties.

Even some of the more conservative members of Congress were warning that this was going to be a bottomless pit and that if we got involved, weíd better be prepared for a long and costly war that would not achieve what we wanted to achieve. Our system has a lot of problems. One of the great problems is the lack of proper machinery for consulting with the public about major decisions in the foreign policy field. I think the Founding Fathers thought they were establishing a system when they provided for the Senate to play a role in the approval of treaties and with nominations, but that didnít happen.

Because the events we became involved in became so complex and the executive establishment became so immense and so powerful, Congress didnít keep up. Congress only professionalized its staff in about 1945-47. So Congress was not in a very good position to play an equal role. But the Executive didnít want Congress to play an equal role, never let it play an equal role, and rejected congressional advice whenever it did not suit them.

There are lots of examples, and itís a sad story. Most of what Mr. MacNamara calls "missed opportunities" were pointed out in 1945 and í46 by members of Congress. He didnít need to have a big conference in Vietnam and go through all these things they went through. He didnít need to do that because we had them right there in black and white in the Congressional Record and in the records of the talks members of Congress had with people in the Executive Branch.

Truman should have known better. He had been a member of Congress. Of course, that often makes them resistant to congressional advice. If theyíve been a member, they donít like to listen to them. And he was one of the worst. He rejected the advice he was getting, and he went ahead bullheadedly as only he could. He made these gigantic mistakes--he and Acheson, who was one of the worst in terms of making mistakes--and got involved far beyond what they should have. But they should have known. They shouldnít have made the decisions they did, which led to the missed opportunities in Mr. MacNamaraís book, which I think is more "mea" than "culpa."

I think we made mistakes because we had some of the wrong premises. Our history led us to make those kinds of mistakes about what we thought we should do and could do.

Zalin Grant: I volunteered for Vietnam. They sent me to Fort Benning for my infantry service and then to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for intelligence training. I started trying to volunteer to get to Vietnam. They were only sending professionals. So he sent me to Vietnamese language school and a lot of other courses, and finally I arrived in Vietnam on November 1, 1964. I was discharged from service after my year was over in Vietnam. I went directly to work for Time magazine. I spent five years there.

Iíd like to speak a little bit about my sources. Because I was in intelligence, I was always interested in the OSS guys who were there. I got to know Lu Conein and later worked with Edward Lansdale. I knew William Colby, who was head of the CIA. I later talked to him after he was drummed out by Kissinger.

Iíd like to relate how we got into the war. Iím drawing from Bill Gibbons, and Iím also drawing from research in France. I live in France, and my wife is French. I didnít try to do research, but I ran into dozens and dozens of people involved in the French war.

Iíd like to start with FDR. FDR was an anti-colonialist, and he wanted to get the French out of Indochina, especially since it had been run by the Vichy French for the Japanese almost to the very end. FDR put this proposal to Winston Churchill, and Churchill said, "No, Iím not having any of it."

Churchill didnít do it because he believed that if you get rid of the French in Indochina, youíll be wanting to get rid of the British in India. He said to FDR, "I did not become the Kingís First Minister to dispose of the British Empire." When confronted with this, Indochina was such a small issue during World War II that FDR backed off. He said, "Okay, Iím not going to get rid of the French, but weíre not going to do anything to help them either." This is really a vague response. By that time, FDR was tired. He then died.

The OSS was sent to Southern China and then to Indochina at the end of the war. It was headed by Archimedes Patti. Patti was a major, and the only qualification that he had for being sent to Indochina was that he spoke French. When they told him he was going to Indochina, he said he didnít even know where it was. He had to look it up on a map. He was there a total of six weeks before he helped Ho Chi Minh move into Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh was running a very disciplined anti-Japanese, anti-French movement. Ho Chi Minh was a long-time communist and a very intelligent man. Patti described him as insubstantial, emaciated, but with some good ideas. There was implicit racism in Pattiís description of Ho Chi Minh. Patti was interested in fighting the French. He hated the French. I think this was a motivating force in supporting Ho Chi Minh.

The thing about whether Ho Chi Minh was a communist or a nationalist is irrelevant. He was a communist who was trying to kick all foreigners out of his country. This is nothing new to Indochinese or to Vietnamese history. Theyíve always fought to keep foreigners out of their country. For a thousand years or more, other people who were not communists fought to kick foreigners out of their country. Ho Chi Minh and the communists were better organized.

The French communists had been the best resistance fighters. They were very organized, very brave, but they didnít have a sensible idea in their head. They still donít. French communists are still a significant force in French politics and their ideas are utopian: "Letís be classless. Letís all love each other." The Vietnamese who were formed on the Left Bank in Paris didnít have an idea in their head either except to expel foreigners, and they were very good at it.

What has Vietnam accomplished? This is not to say the war is right or wrong; Iím just saying that this was a very well-disciplined movement by Ho Chi Minh. When I hear all this stuff about how great they were and what a nationalist he was, who could blame him? But donít forget the guy was a communist. Donít forget: Vietnam is a totalitarian country. Whatever mistakes we made, they were not mistakes of trying to exploit the natural resources or whatever.

We had mistaken ideas about the domino theory. Patti and Truman did not make any decisions about Vietnam. He didnít send advisers to Vietnam. He sent them to Greece and from that came the idea of advisers. But Truman didnít want to make any decisions about Vietnam, either. He continued an ambivalent policy. When Eisenhower came in, he didnít want to send troops to Vietnam. He said, "If we send troops, they will hate us as they hate the French." But he didnít know what to do. He was ambivalent. At the time of Dien Bien Phu, they considered dropping atomic bombs. But Eisenhower stepped in and said we werenít going to do that.

So they did start (under Truman) giving the French a lot of material to try to beat the communists, but we didnít send anybody there until the French were losing. Then we sent the first American. His name was Edward Lansdale. He had been with OSS but not in any sort of battle capacity. He was a very enthusiastic man. I got to know him quite well. I interviewed him before he died, and he was very candid. He said, "If I had been an ambassador then, I would have kicked myself out of the country."

Lansdale made his own policy. His policy was to get the French out of Vietnam. Why? Because he believed in democracy. He believed that he could create a democratic movement to counter the communists and that the way to start would be to get the French out of Vietnam. Lansdale and his team almost single-handedly accomplished this. After they did get the French out of Vietnam, Lansdale reached the end of his tour. For various reasons, he was a loose cannon (as everybody knew), and the Pentagon took over.

In moved the military, not to fight the kind of war that Lansdale advocated, but to do what the military always does: to kill people. Advisers led to more advisers, which led to the ambivalence of JFK, who would keep getting people to go over to get an assessment or re-assessment of what was happening.

Audience Question: Toward the end of Eisenhowerís administration, he came very close to moving into Laos. Why did this occur, as opposed to his earlier stand of not going into Dien Bien Phu, or do you agree that he was that close?

William Gibbons: I donít think he was that close.

Zalin Grant: I think he considered Laos a serious problem and Lansdaleís hand is in there again. Lansdale was a friend of the Dulles brothers, and he was promoting the idea that we had to do something, which was absurd. A landlocked country with very few people was no threat to us whatsoever, but this promotion was going on back in Washington. I canít say he was responsible for that, but he certainly was a major factor in making the Dulleses and Eisenhower--who knew nothing about that part of Asia--think Laos was an important key to what was going to happen in the world.

Stanley Karnow I was in Laos at the time. Laos should have been declared a national park. Itís a lovely country. It had no business being involved in any of these confrontations. We were trying to manipulate the leadership of Laos.

There was a terrible fear that Laos was going to become neutral. Neutrality was equated with immorality. You remember the Dulles phrase, "Neutralism is immoral." So we expelled a very amiable, very Frenchified prime minister called Suvanna Phuma who loved to play bridge. We put in what we called a fierce anti-communist who was a tool of the CIA. Actually he was a CIA "asset," as they say.

Eisenhower really thought that Laos was the key to Southeast Asia, and he told that to Kennedy on the eve of the Kennedy inaugural. But Kennedy, to whom I donít give very high marks in terms of this history, at least realized that Laos was no place to fight. So Laos became a sideshow to the war.

It was very useful, of course, to the Vietnamese and became part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

We had an agreement in Geneva 1962 to neutralize Laos. Of course, the North Vietnamese paid no attention. They left their troops there. We pulled our troops out and said we only have civilians there. I once went on a helicopter trip. I said to the pilot, "What are you?" He said, "Iím a civilian." And I said, "What were you last week?" He said, "Last week I was a Marine."

We had Americans walking around in aloha shirts who had just put their uniforms in the closet. It was a comic opera, except that people were being killed.

Audience Question: Do you feel race entered into the decision to enter Vietnam on the part of American diplomatsí feeling of having to help out the less-developed countries and feelings of our own superiority?

William Gibbons: Yes, but not race as such. I donít think race had anything to do with it. I think our feeling toward helping these countries become independent and democratic was certainly a very major factor. Thatís what I meant by the cultural background, which has led us into making lots of mistakes. I think we desperately need to reexamine our premises. Weíre still making these mistakes. But race as such, no.

Ronald Spector: A book by John Dower called War Without Mercy argues that race was a significant factor in the war between the U.S. and Japan. In the sense that Dower uses it--in the sense of cultural stereotypes that countries have about each other because members of different countries are, among other things, different races--yes, I think it did, although youíre not going to find it much in the records.

I think there was a pervasive assumption among many people that when the Vietnamese see that theyíre up against the first team, that theyíre up against the leading industrial country in the world, they will just chuck it in. That was an unwritten assumption, I think, on the part of many policymakers thatís born out by the fact that if you look at the debates about Vietnam and the discussions on Vietnam policy in the Pentagon, they all have to do with how many troops are going to be sent and when theyíll be sent. And no discussion of what theyíre going to do when they get there.

They just assumed that if enough troops were sent, and they were our troops, we were inevitably going to win. You didnít need to discuss how they were going to win because they were only going to fight guys who were running around in rubber-tire slippers and who looked like they were 14 years old. That was an unwritten assumption on the part of many people.

Audience Question: My question is for Gen. Moore about the bureaucratization of our Army. The top-heavy staff in command organizations and the very comfortable living enjoyed by troops in the rear: What effect do you think this had on the performance of our Army in general? And what effect did the ticket-punching process have on the performance of our Army?

Harold Moore: The troops in the rear playing combat volleyball in Saigon were a helluva a lot different than the troops up in the First Cavalry and the Ninth Division. My view is that the troops in the front thought very little about the troops in the rear. They loved each other. They fought for each other like men in all wars have done. Thatís who you fight for. Not for some Presidentís statements on TV or Mom or apple pie. You fight for each other. And those guys in the front line werenít interested in what the guys back in Saigon were doing. They were interested in the man on the right and left.

We had in my view four different armies that fought in Vietnam. The first army was the army of advisers and Special Forces. The second army was the regular Army, like the First Cavalry Division, which trained together in the United States for months, was sent over as a unit, and fought as a unit. The third army that fought in Vietnam was a draftee army--the disaffected army--where we had drug problems, racial problems, and other leadership problems such as the ticket punching which you spoke of, which was disastrous.

Any time that a battalion or brigade commander got to where he knew what he was doing, he was shipped out and sent home and somebody new came in. The troops took the brunt of it. Bad, bad policy. The fourth army that fought in Vietnam was the withdrawal army. These men knew that our President and our government had determined not to win that war--whatever winning meant at that time.

These poor guys--draftees--were sent over there to fight and die for a cause that was unintelligible to them. Hereís a kid who shows up for the 25th Division, 9th Regiment, and he fights there for a couple or three months. He survives, and then he is shipped out to another regiment and another division. He begins to think, "Hey, these guys are trying to kill me." And he was right.

If somebody handed me four stars and said, "Okay, Moore, we want you to win this war," Iíd ask, "Whatís your definition of winning?" Even if I had understood that, I donít think I could have developed a strategy that would have competed successfully with Giap and Ho Chi Minh. This was a society where the news media were totally disciplined and people only knew what they were told. They were determined to get the round-eyed western foreigner out of their country no matter how long it took.

I believe that Giap and Ho Chi Minh, without knowing it, rehearsed their war against America when they fought the French. Iíd like to read you something written by Giap. "The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma. He has to drag out the war in order to win but does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long, drawn-out war."n

Who do you think he was talking about? The French.

   

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