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

June 2000/July 2000

Desperate Measures

Search And Destroy, Rolling Thunder, Agent Orange, Phoenix, And Taking The Night Away From Charlie

"Desperate Measures,'' the third panel of the extremely successful Vietnam Veterans of America and College of William & Mary conference on the Vietnam War, concentrated on how tactics changed during the course of the war. The panel was moderated by Jim Golden, a Vietnam veteran, former Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, and current William & Mary Director of Economic Development and Corporate Relations.

Golden noted in his introduction that tactics "evolved over time under a number of constraints. One constraint was the difficulty of defining clear objectives for the operations. Other constraints included sanctuaries to which the enemy could withdraw, the limitations on operations in North Vietnam, our reliance on draftees rather than mobilized reserves, the limitations of 12-month tours, and the problems of how to apply our superior firepower in civilian population areas where the casualties had to be limited.''

Perception is further clouded, Golden said, because "all of our experiences in Vietnam differed dramatically. South Vietnam was divided into four corps areas. The terrain and the enemy situations varied dramatically over those four areas.''

Additionally, "experience varied dramatically depending on when we were there. The war peaked in terms of U.S. casualties from 1967-69. Of the 58,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who died in Vietnam, over 39,000 died between 1967 and 1969. The peak year was 1968, the year of the Tet attacks when over 16,000 died.''

General Hal Moore was First Cavalry Division battalion and brigade commander in Vietnam in 1965-1966. His 1992 account of the pivotal 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, We Were Soldiers Once and Young, written with Joseph Galloway, is a classic account of Vietnam War combat. He retired from the Army as a Lieutenant General in 1977 after 32 years of service.

Golden: General Moore, could you tell us a little bit about how you got to Vietnam. Were you surprised by anything when you first got there?

Moore: I had commanded my battalion for 14 months before we got to Vietnam. I participated in the test of the air assault airborne concept in Fort Benning, Georgia. We shipped out of Charleston, South Carolina, in the middle of August of 1965. We arrived in Qui Nhon a month later.

When we left Fort Benning we didn't know anything about the North Vietnamese or South Vietnam. We expected to meet the black pajama Vietcong, but we saw very few of them. I was surprised to meet the North Vietnamese Army in such strength in the Central Highlands in the fall of 1965.

Golden: Herbert Fix served three tours with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. In 1967-68 he was the duty officer for a Marine Air Control Squadron based at Monkey Mountain near Danang. In 1973 he was a helicopter commander during the mine-sweeping operation in Haiphong Harbor. In 1975 he commanded helicopter forces during both the fall of Saigon and the fall of Phnom Penh.

Can you tell us about your first experience in Vietnam? How did you get there and were you surprised when you got there?

Fix: I first went to Vietnam in 1966 shortly after the Marine forces entered. I went there to find a location that would provide radar coverage for Marine aviation. We went all over I Corps and finally concluded that the only place to put a radar site was on top of Monkey Mountain where the Air Force already had a site.

We set up a radar sight on top of Monkey Mountain at 2,000 feet, a beautiful location looking down at the Danang Harbor. I still think Vietnam is absolutely gorgeous territory. It appeared to be extremely rich in natural resources and had never been developed.

Golden: Zalin Grant served as a U.S. Army officer in Vietnam, then returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent and journalist for Time and The New Republic. He is the author of Survivors, which deals with American prisoners of war; Over the Beach, an account of the air war over North Vietnam; and Facing the Phoenix, an examination of the controversial Phoenix program.

Zalin, how did you get to Vietnam and did your training prepare you for what you found there?

Grant: I was struggling in college, and I went to do my ROTC two-year service. The Army sent me to Vietnamese language school and gave me as little training as they could. 

Was I surprised? I went to Vietnam and I had never traveled out of the country. I had been to Washington on a class trip. I had been to New York. I was 23 years old when I arrived in Saigon on November 1, 1964.

What surprised me? Everything. My eyes were so wide I couldn't close them for a week. The training was almost irrelevant to what we were facing.

Golden: Ronald Spector is a professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran.  His books include The U.S. Army in Vietnam, The Early Years, After Tet, and the classic work on the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun.

Ron, how did you get to Vietnam? When did you arrive, and where did you serve?

Spector: Actually, I was in Vietnam as a result of a big misunderstanding. My recruiting officer told me I was going to be a social aide in the White House.

In 1968 they were sending over groups of individuals as replacement drafts, and the group that I went with to Vietnam left from the same air terminal as Chuck Robb. That was my brush with greatness. He got to wait in the VIP lounge and we got to wait on the floor, but I've always associated myself with LBJ and Chuck Robb.

We spent about two days getting ready in Okinawa, and on the second morning I woke up early. Somebody in the barracks was playing the radio, and I thought the news said that LBJ had stopped the bombing and was ready for peace talks and wasn't going to run anymore. That sounded so weird that I was convinced I had just dreamt this. So when I got up a few hours later, I was surprised to see this actually was the case. So we got to Vietnam in a very optimistic frame of mind. We thought the war would be over soon.

I came to Vietnam very soon after leaving Yale. Yale was not exactly a staunch place for support of the war, so nothing I saw disillusioned me. I was already totally turned off by the war. If anything, I was sort of surprised to see that there were people who were actually interested in fighting the war. Unfortunately there weren't very many, and they never could get their act together.

Golden: Peter Arnett was the longest serving reporter in Vietnam. Peter, how did you get over there, and were you surprised when you arrived?

Arnett: I was sent for TDY for two months in June of 1962, and I eventually ended up staying about a decade. I was working for the Associated Press, and I was sent into Saigon to help the sole correspondent at the time, Malcolm Brown.

There were just a handful of reporters then. Stanley Karnow was there and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. They were just a group of young journalists. It was not a big story, really. We'd write our stories daily, but they weren't page one. It was a small story, but it just grew and grew and grew. The press corps, unlike the military, just stayed on and on and on. 

We covered Vietnam like a regular beat in the United States. We'd go to the office in the morning, get assignments, go to Danang, go to the Delta, and the press world grew and grew and grew. Our experience was very different from that of the military people we covered. They were stuck in the boondocks for a year, and then they'd go home. We had the luxury of getting in and out of Saigon, and we looked at it as a career.

Golden: General Moore spoke about bringing his unit over. When I arrived in 1968, we were very much individual replacements. I think we had different experiences as a result of whether we went as a unit or whether we arrived individually.

General Moore, I think it is safe to say that Vietnam was a helicopter war and you were very much involved in the design of air mobile operations. Could you give us some insight into your reaction to the first air mobile operations that we had in Vietnam? How did the enemy react and how did we adjust our operations over time?

Moore: I'd been there for about a month when the North Vietnamese attacked a special forces camp at Pleiku with the intention to overrun the camp and then move to the north and overrun the city of Pleiku, then on to the South China Sea. The First Cav was sent out there to prevent this from happening. The first brigade of the Cav was out there three weeks conducting air mobile short air assault operations with experienced air assault commanders from Fort Benning. My brigade was sent out there on the tenth of November and my battalion was ordered into the Ia Drang Valley. This was the first long jump air mobile operation of the war.

Compared to what we did in the Gulf War when we went over 100 miles into the Gates of Basra with the 101st Airborne Division, 14.3 miles from Pleiku to the Ia Drang Valley seems like a short hop, but it was a long hop then. We went out there, we met the enemy, and we fought him for three days. I fought with a 450-man battalion. Not all of us were on the ground initially; it took five hours for us to assemble.

Meanwhile, we were attacked by two full battalions of enemy determined to kill us all. It was a hell of a fight, and we could not have survived without air mobile resupply and taking out our casualties. They brought in ammo and water to us. I learned that if you want to find and kill that enemy, you can't push against him. You've got to make a long jump over his head to his rear. And then you will sure as hell find him.

What did the enemy learn? The enemy learned in the battle at the Ia Drang to employ what they later called the bear hug: grab them by the belt and thereby neutralize our great fire power support advantage.

Joe Galloway and I went back to Vietnam several times, and a couple of those times we talked to the enemy commanders who engaged us in the Ia Drang. Most notably, General Nguyen Huu An, who at the time was a Lieutenant Colonel as was I. He went on to fight throughout that war and wound up a division commander driving into Saigon on the 30th of April, 1975.

General Nguyen and I have talked at great length on air mobile operations and what he learned. I can almost give you some direct quotes from our taped conversations. He told Joe and me that when we fought against him on the coastlines, he had difficulty knowing where we would land because there were so many rice paddies and so many places where we could land our helicopters.

However, he said, when we fought out in the jungles of the Highlands where there were very few clearings, he would post lookouts around the clearings when he got word--and he always did get word--that we were going out on an operation. The minute he found out where we were coming out, he would ambush these landing zones.

I thought that made a lot of sense. This man had fought against the French, and he knew the French were road-bound with their ground vehicles, and he and other commanders successfully ambushed the French on Route 19 several times.

I thought that was smart as hell to ambush the very few clearings in the jungle. He actually bragged to Joe and me about how many helicopters he had shot down in Dak To in the 173rd battle and also at another battle involving the 4th Division in the Highlands. These guys were fast learners. In fact, when the Cav was fighting in the fall of 1965, Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Phuong, a historian, was sent down there to debrief the enemy commanders on what they learned from the Cav. He later turned out to be the Chief of Military History for the People's Army of Vietnam.

He told us that initially they were very confused by the First Cav. His words were, "You jump like frogs everywhere, and we even thought there were defectors in our ranks who told you where to come. But then we learned about the clearings.'' He said they learned early on that they had to shoot down our helicopters and they concentrated on that.

Golden: One other question. When your operations went into more populated areas, what impact did that have on your air mobile operations?

Moore: It really didn't have a large effect. I was able to employ a lot more in vertical engulfments and to get on the flanks and rear of the enemy with my helicopters.

I'd like to comment that success as an air assault commander required a special ability to think fast, to trust one's instincts, and to make decisions quickly and accurately, without second-guessing. To be a successful air assault commander, you had to think at the speed of a helicopter. You had to think in terms of landing zones and pick-up zones. 

Later on in the war, a lot of the ticket-punching battalion and brigade commanders were sent over there who didn't know anything about air assault or air mobility. Most of them treated helicopters like aerial trucks to transport troops from point A to point B.

It was the rare replacement commander who knew how to handle helicopters on a fast-moving battlefield against an enemy which was everywhere and nowhere. I employed a lot of diversionary landings to fake the enemy out with empty helicopter landings, trying to fake the enemy to get into a position where I could kill him. I found out that worked pretty well.

The impact of our air mobile divisions in populated areas is that we were able to finally kill the enemy, but at the same time, unfortunately, we killed a lot of noncombatants, which I regret very much. But this happens in every war and sometimes we were placed at a disadvantage.

When I went into the Bong Son Plain in January, February, and March of 1966, we were required to use helicopter loud speakers and leaflets to warn enemy villagers that we were going to land in or near their villages. Of course, the enemy was in those villages as well, so he was warned also.

Several things happened later on in that war that I particularly felt were wrong. One was the institution of fire bases We achieved security of our artillery in the first year or so of the war by moving our artillery, by keeping the artillery moving and securing it with a platoon or a company of riflemen.

Another thing that happened was what I called a "fire support base mentality.'' The enemy was smart: he knew the range of our artillery, and he stayed outside that fan. He made us come outside that fan. A dumb commander would come outside that fan and deny his troops the use of fire support in an attempt to finally kill the enemy.

Golden: That was one of my surprises in the 25th Division. From 1968-69 I was in the artillery, and we operated from fire support bases. During the eight months that I was there, I think we moved one fire support base. It had become a very static operation in contrast to the early, very mobile, air mobile operations.

Moore: They were sitting ducks.

Golden: Herb, you got a close look at the helicopter war from the front seat. How did you see our tactics evolving over time? How did the enemy adjust to it? What did we learn as we went through the war?

Fix: The helicopter's main purpose in life is to move that combat soldier combat troop around, to move him from one spot to another spot. The Marines started using that tactic in the Korean War. When we went into the I Corps area, we started using the same type of helicopter tactic.

It was wonderful as long as we had that element of surprise. It worked. Once you lost the element of surprise, when you dropped leaflets like the general said, they knew where you were going. They were not dumb. They were smart enough to stay hidden, to stay underground during the artillery bombardment and the air attack. But the minute that first helicopter came in, they came out of their holes and started killing the helicopters.

In the movie Patton, George C. Scott walked up on the stage and talked about the purpose of the military person. He said that the military person's purpose was to make the other person die for his country, not for him to die for his country. In some respects, when we dropped those leaflets and announced where we were going, it seemed like we were exercising the theory that we want to die for our country, not have the other guy die.

One tactic that changed was when we first started undergoing helicopter operations, you'd go 5 to 10 to 15 miles. Then we started going 75 to 100 to 150 miles at a time, leap-frogging around from spot to spot. That proved to be very effective because the enemy could not keep track of where we were.

But the enemy learned to keep their heads down, stay down, and avoid gunfire until we came in. 

Golden: How did you coordinate air operations with all the other fire support systems that were around: artillery, air, and so forth? Was that a problem for you? Did you get pretty good at coordinating those fires?

Fix: We weren't as good as we would like to have been, but we thought we were pretty good. It was a little startling when B-52 strike bombers would come across and drop their bombs from 20,000 feet through your formation, but that did not happen often. The coordination and control was, I thought, excellent.

Golden: Ron, could you give us a little insight as to how operations were conducted before Tet and how they changed after Tet?

Spector: I should mention--not to disillusion people who have studied the war a good deal--that one of the things that we have discovered since the end of the Cold War is that neither General Giap nor Ho Chi Minh was really directing the war on a day-to-day basis. They were sort of like the Queen of England. They would come out and make speeches and then ratify things that had already been decided on. The real war was not being run by General Giap but by a committee.  The committee was made up of people whose names you've probably never heard of.

I think the reason the war goes on so long is that both sides kept underestimating each other. In the first phase of the war, the early '60s, the Communists gambled on being able to overthrow the Saigon government before the U.S. could really intervene. That doesn't work, and as a result of that gamble, they end up with American combat troops committed to Vietnam. 

In the next phase, Hanoi decides that if they can inflict enough casualties on the Americans, they will withdraw. But, in fact, the Americans keep sending more troops, which leads to another decision which is to gamble, again, with the Tet Offensive, the great series of attacks throughout South Vietnam.

This has the desired psychological effect in the United States. But it also means that the Communists have lost a lot of their best people, and not only that, but they keep insisting on more offenses. Hanoi wants another offensive in May and then another in August, and then they want another one in early 1969, and they lose a lot of people.

Now, of course, they can replace these people, but they can't replace the experience of these people and they end up having to send Northerners to do the work that the Southerners used to do. The net effect of this round of offensives in '68--which was the bloodiest year of the war--is that the military balance tips somewhat towards the Americans and towards the Saigon government, which is able to actually get some control over a lot of the countryside throughout late '69 into '70 and early '71.  This is what convinces people like John Paul Vann and President Nixon that we won the war, really won the war, because now the other side is weaker and it is on the defensive. But, again, this is a temporary condition, because Nixon is withdrawing troops from Vietnam. By '72 we begin to see the balance shifting back in favor of the Communists.

The underlying factor in all this is that while there were people in South Vietnam who didn't like the Vietcong, there were very few people willing to die for the Saigon government. The Saigon government was corrupt and ineffective, and that was the bottom line.  

Let me just say one more thing. There was never a mechanism implemented to impose any kind of uniform system of doctrine or tactics on division commanders and brigade commanders. That is, if you were a brigade commander and your predecessor had been very successful doing "A,'' that didn't mean that you had to do "A.'' You could do "B,'' and nobody would argue with you. Neither MACV nor your division commander ever told you that you had to do "A'' based on experience. Then, of course, you have brigade and battalion commanders coming and going all the time. Some are successful, but they had no effect on their successors' tactics. There was no way to impose any kind of unity on doctrine and tactics. It was one strange characteristic of the war: There is a lot of innovation on the part of certain commanders, but it doesn't make any difference.

Golden: General Moore, you were a brigade commander. Would you agree that we failed to pass on the lessons learned from one to the next?

Moore: Absolutely. The U.S. Army, from the Chief of Staff down, did a miserable job of passing on information, primarily to the lower unit commanders. That is where the guys get killed--platoon leaders, company commanders.

When I got back from Vietnam in 1966, I made a very strong plea to the Department of Army to assign me to Fort Benning, Georgia, to teach tactics to lieutenants and captains and lieutenant colonels who were going to Vietnam to be commanders. I knew the war and I knew this enemy.  I knew how to keep some of my men alive.

But you know where they sent me? My orders were to go to the Latin American desk at the State Department. I raised hell and they sent me to ISA under McNaughton in the Pentagon and where I was never asked anything about Vietnam. I did this nonsense job for a damn year.  

I think it is a crime that the U.S. Army did not take advantage of guys like me who were there that first year. I think there would be a lot fewer names on that Wall had they done so. 

Golden: This is also a war about intelligence. Zalin, talk about our intelligence operations: How effective were they, and how did they evolve over the course of the war?

Grant: When I went to Vietnam, we didn't understand who the Vietcong were. Only when Douglas Pike wrote Vietcong did the picture become clearer. As time went on, technical intelligence became very good: picking up information about who the Vietcong were and where the units were. What it didn't include so much was the analysis of the intelligence the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were particularly good at putting out. They knew you were going to get something, so they gave you five versions of what they planned to do, all at different times. You constantly got tips about a Tet offensive or something like a Tet offensive. 

So when it's said, for example, that we had information about the Tet Offensive, they are right. We had information about a thousand things. The problem with intelligence was analyzing it and coming up with a conclusion. As General Moore said, the idea is to make decisions very fast. We couldn't.

Golden: Can you tell us about the Phoenix program and its objective and whether it was successful or not?

Grant: Edward Lansdale, who took his team to drive out the French (which they successfully did), had a right-hand guy named Rufus Phillips, a former Yale football player. He was with the CIA. After Lansdale's team left, they sent Phillips back to Vietnam in the early '60s.

Phillips found a guy, Lieutenant Colonel Tranh Ngoc Chau, who was a great hero of mine. He was a former Vietminh. His brother was a Vietnamese intelligence officer. He was a Buddhist and a nationalist. Chau had an idea of how to combat the Vietcong. He knew them well. He knew that his organization could help in identifying the grievances of the poor rice farmers and setting them straight. He also knew that some of the Vietcong leaders were so hardcore, they would have to be eliminated one way or another. He wanted three-man counterterrorist teams to seek out these leaders and eliminate them. But Chau wasn't someone who wanted to kill people.  He wanted to win them over to the side of democracy.

Phillips met Chau and referred him to the CIA. The CIA tried to put Chau's concept into effect, but they did it American-style. Instead of making one program, they split it up. What Chau envisioned as a three-man antiterrorist unit became a big cabinet. When Diem was overthrown, these provincial reconnaissance units (PRUs) became the thugs for the provincial heads. They became extortionists; they became killers; they diverged completely from the idea of Tranh Chau.  

After the U.S. reached some stability in Vietnam, William Colby came back. He knew about this program. He said the program was necessary but we've got to put it on the right track, and Colby essentially did. But the program never worked.

It was immensely more complicated than that. Certainly there were excesses. Some people were killed who shouldn't have been. As Colby himself told me, it just didn't work--as many programs didn't work--as effectively as they would have liked.

But towards the end, by 1970, after the Tet Offensive had wiped out many of the chief Vietcong captains, this program started to work.

Golden: You've written a lot about the air war over North Vietnam. Could you tell us a little bit about the objectives at the beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder and how they evolved?

Grant: In the 1950s America developed a program called Massive Response. This was a program that we implicitly threatened to use by building up so many nuclear weapons that we would scare people. Massive Response gave way, in the war as developed by McGeorge Bundy, his brother, Bill Bundy, and Robert McNamara, into something they called Graduated Response.  The idea was the same. It was to scare the North Vietnamese into giving up. As we soon found out, the North Vietnamese didn't scare easily. The initial targeting--most of the targeting throughout the war--was based on this premise. It is also based on the premise of not doing anything so dramatic as to bring the Chinese into the war.

This was always a big worry to President Johnson. The way they developed the targeting was absolutely ridiculous. There is no logic to it except that it gave Johnson control to parcel out the targets, one at a time, regardless of what the implications were or the pilots who were flying them. He just didn't understand.

Johnson would have what was called Tuesday lunch with McGeorge Bundy, McNamara, and several advisers, and there was Johnson going over a map of North Vietnam and plotting the targets himself. The military wanted to bomb where the North Vietnamese kept their MIGs. They could have gotten them on the ground and eliminated that threat completely. But for a reason that he didn't explain, LBJ said, "I'm not going to let them bomb there.'' He kept a close thumb on the target, which made absolutely no military sense.

Golden: Peter, you were there for a very long time. What was your view of the major concerns about these issues?

Arnett: In prior wars, the American press played a supportive, basically patriotic role when America was engaged militarily overseas. In Vietnam, the Saigon Press Corps became a Greek chorus for the growing tragedy of Vietnam.

From the beginning, we had full access to the battlefield and to the information flow. We could get briefings at the embassy. We had good contact with senior military officials, and we could go into the countryside. We covered Vietnam very extensively. I saw my role as essentially reflecting the view of the soldier in the field.

I wrote over three thousand stories in Vietnam, and millions upon millions of words were written by my colleagues--all of them essentially reflecting what was happening in the field. There are many aspects I could refer to. A comment by John Paul Vann to me in 1968 was that America had not been in Vietnam six years, it had been in Vietnam one year, six times.  As a reporter, I found that I kept going into the same sort of operational areas. Each year there would be different faces, certainly on the American and advisory side. But the landscape never changed, nor did the Vietcong operational people. I would meet American officers who would ask and talk about tactics. I kept remembering the previous year or the year prior to that where similar operations had been launched.

Some of my colleagues had the temerity to offer advice, but what journalist knows how to fight a war? It was frustrating. By 1968 when I had already been in Vietnam six years and been all over the country, a decision to attack a particular hill or to move around a particular village area made me think about how often it had been done in the past.

In Vietnam, you had a press corps that was very active, very competitive, that put out an enormous amount of information that flowed out of Vietnam into the country's newspapers. The view from Washington was very different from the view from the field. 

Most of our reports--well, all of our reports--were essentially ignored by government. Early in the war when David Halberstam started writing about the abuses of the Norodom Sihanouk regime, President Kennedy tried to get him withdrawn from Vietnam. That was the administration's response to reporting about a negative situation. In 1965 and '66, President Johnson did the same thing to me. The Washington view was to paper over the problem, portray the press as being incompetent and left wing, and to attempt to suggest the whole thing was hunky dory in the field.

Fix: I have a question for Peter Arnett. As we got into Vietnam, our job was to find, search, and destroy the enemy. Somewhere along the line we got into the theory, though, that one of our goals was to become more of an occupational force of pacification. We found ourselves in the I Corps area setting up people in villages and trying to convince them that our way was better than Charlie's way. I didn't see too much of this in the press. Did you talk about this at all, Peter?

Arnett: We discussed everything in the press. We did avalanches of material. It all appeared somewhere because every time I went out into the field, the GIs had clippings. Whenever we mentioned a GI, the hometown paper used it. That was often the only reason the hometown papers used it.

People like John Paul Vann and many senior military offices used the press--me and other reporters--to try and convey their frustrations about the war. There is no doubt about it. But we weren't effective in getting through to the administration. We got through to the antiwar folks.  They would take our stories, our negative stories, and picket.

But the vast majority of stories were basically positive because it was a hard-fought war and there was incredibly courageous action.

A Question-and-Answer Session followed, some of which is reported here.

Question: I'm George Duggins, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, and my question is: Did we ever have a strategy to win the hearts of the people in Vietnam or did we just say the hell with the people, we are going to bomb everything in sight?

Grant: Colonel Chau, a friend of mine and John Paul Vann's best friend, had developed this program. Vann had very few ideas about political action himself, so with Chau, they tried to institute a program of winning hearts, as they called it, political action programs to improve the basic lives of the people. We made some progress because the rice farmers were looking not for political ideology so much as improving their lives. But this got lost in the military war. We made some improvements, but by the time they started the war was over as far as America was concerned.

Question: Shouldn't we have been considering ethical questions in terms of targeting civilians for assassination?

Grant: Yes, we should have been considering ethical questions. There were assassinations of people that shouldn't have gone on, and the people conducting them should have been held accountable. But from my knowledge of William Colby, this was not his intention at all. His decision wasn't based on any particular ethical premise, although I thought he was an ethical man. His idea was that this was counterproductive. You don't go around assassinating innocent civilians.

Question: After the siege of Hue, we found approximately 2,600 school children, men, and women massacred, supposedly by the North Vietnamese. Some say they were killed by American artillery and buried by the North Vietnamese. Do any of you have any more perspective on that?

Arnett: I remember vividly an accusation that the media had neglected covering it. The suggestion was made that the liberal media will highlight American atrocities but not Vietcong atrocities. It has been pretty much determined since that that was an execution by the Vietcong.  They came in waving a list of names of schoolteachers and government officials, they rounded them up, they took them to the swamps, and they executed them.

One of the reasons that this didn't particularly shock Americans was that from the beginning of the war, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese were portrayed as terrorists and killers. They were portrayed in the most venal terms by the U.S. government. It was part of the whole propaganda effort to mobilize support against the war.

Question: General Moore, I'd like to ask you to elucidate on your remark about not studying Dien Bien Phu and the impact that had on our situation?

Moore: I made the comment yesterday that, unknowingly, Giap rehearsed his war against American troops as he was fighting the French. Unfortunately, when Dien Bien Phu occurred, we were watching, but we were not learning, in my view. We were concentrating primarily on keeping the Vietminh from overrunning Dien Bien Phu. The big talk was about bombings and so forth.

Last October Joe Galloway and I were able to spend four or five days at Dien Bien Phu walking the storm points. We took a drive up the main supply route out of Hanoi. This is hardly even a two-lane road, just almost a one-and-a-half lane road of mud and dirt. But Giap had the ability to supply his tens of thousands of troops around Dien Bien Phu because he impressed into service tens of thousands of men, women, and children to maintain that supply route.

The discipline was superb. All of this he put into effect later on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many historians say the key to the war in Vietnam was his ability to keep open the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route for troops, supplies, gasoline, and eventually, tanks and rockets. He had tens of thousands of maintenance workers on this trail, and it was bombed year after year ineffectively. 

But the main lesson that, I think, should have been learned by American decision-makers on Dien Bien Phu was the willingness to suffer tens and tens of thousands of men killed in order to achieve freedom and independence from the white man. They were totally adamant about driving the hated Westerners out of their country and stopping foreign intrusion into their internal affairs. My conclusion is that the whole Vietnam War was our Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. That is number two.

Number three, I go back to Brigade General Douglas Kinnard's book, The War Managers. General Kinnard says that the United States pushed the Vietnamese army out of the war and took over with a form of war that only U.S. forces could fight. He also said that our heritage, our legacy to Vietnam, was a form of war that could not be sustained by a country which had no history of political, military, or social cohesion.

Golden: Finally, I'd like to ask the panel to comment on what we learned from this experience.

Moore: The next major war was the Gulf War. In discussing it with Joe Galloway, who covered the Gulf War, he made a very cogent comment. He said: "The Vietnam War meant everything and nothing in the Gulf War.''

We learned so much in Vietnam what not to do, about controlling commanders in the field and so forth from the National Security Office in Washington, and we learned so much about what to do. If you are going to go to war, knock the hell out of the enemy fast. Go in there and kill him and get it over with. That is exactly what happened in the Gulf War.

The Gulf War, of course, had a lot of dissimilarities, too. There were no sanctuaries for the Iraqis as there were for the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. There were no bombing restrictions placed on Schwartzkoff. There was complete unity of command. He didn't have a commander in Hawaii running the air war in North Vietnam like Westmoreland and Abrams did. He didn't have the CIA and State Department and USIA sending back-channel messages back to Washington. I think the lessons we have learned in Vietnam were applied damn near 100 percent in the Gulf.

Arnett: Bernard Fall, the great French journalist and academic who wrote about Dien Bien Phu, was a favorite of the military and a favorite of Westmoreland. In fact, when Fall was killed in Vietnam in '66, Westmoreland had Fall's body flown to his family in Hong Kong. In his memoirs, Westmoreland wrote that he admired and respected Fall and had a collection of his works in his bedroom. "But,'' he wrote, "I never did have the time to read them.''

This transcript was edited for brevity’s sake


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