Rendezvous with War Symposium
No Light at the End of the Tunnel: America Goes to War in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.