Clarifying Some Vietnam History

ImageOccasionally I will see posts about how the Democrats and the media created a situation which undermined and aided the enemy against the U.S. to lose the Vietnam war. Let’s review this briefly and portray what happened as well as what often is used as a misquote by the principle leading General for North Vietnam. I’ve read extensively about this period in history. I enlisted and served on active duty in the Marine Corps from 1971-75. I’m neither a Republican or Democrat.

The Vietnam War was a complicated extended conflict. Essentially the war we speak about began when the Japanese attacked China. After the Japanese defeat in WWII, it left a power vacuum in the region. This set the stage for a conflict lasting about 30 years.

Emperor Bảo Ðại abdicated in August 1945, ending the Nguyễn Dynasty. In September 1945, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent under the new name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) and held the position of Chairman (Chủ Tịch). In 1946, Vietnam had its first National Assembly election, won by the Viet Minh in central and northern Vietnam.

The French weren’t about to let that be the final outcome for the region. They believed their national interests were at stake and exploited the military opportunities between non-Communist and Communist forces who were engaging each other in sporadic battle. The Communists eventually suppressed all non-Communist parties in the north but failed to secure a peace with France. France attempted to unify the entire Vietnamese region through their support of Bảo Ðại, creating the State of Vietnam beginning in 1949. By 1954 their control of Viet Nam was wrenched away in battle by the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap. Giap became an experienced tactician working against the French using guerrilla warfare since 1944. This experience paid off later when he led his forces against the South Vietnamese and U.S. military.

Ngô Đình Diệm was appointed prime minister in 1954. A temporary peace was agreed on after the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu. A division of Vietnam at approximately the 17th parallel, was formed at a 1954 Geneva convention. A provisional northern (communist) and southern (non-communist) zone were created with temporary separate governments, Diệm ousted Bảo Đại in 1955 and became President of the Republic of Vietnam. The State of Vietnam referendum of 1955 changed the State of Vietnam to the Republic of Vietnam, also known as South Vietnam. The Geneva agreement also called for an election to be held by July 1956 to bring the two provisional zones under a unified government. However, the South Vietnamese Government refused to accept this provision. On October 26, 1955, South Vietnam declared itself the Republic of Vietnam. Diệm reformed an army with support from American covert operations.

In the late 1950s, Hồ Chí Minh with logistical support from China & Soviet Union reactivated the network of communist guerrillas who had remained behind in the south. These forces known as the Viet Cong, covertly aided by the north, started an armed campaign against officials and villagers who refused to support the cause of reunification of Vietnam under Communist control. By 1961 Ngô Đình Diệm requested further assistance from the United States and received it when President John F. Kennedy sent in “military advisers”. These advisers became actively involved in military engagements.

After a 1963 generals’ coup against President Diem, the United States increased its military support for South Vietnam. President Johnson sent the first official U.S. combat forces to Vietnam in March of 1965. American military manpower peaked in 1969 with an in-country force of 534,000. Increased air strikes in the North along with raids by U.S. forces into Laos & Cambodia to interfere with troop and supply movements of the North were generally viewed as successful efforts to control the region.

General Giap along with political and military leadership believed it was necessary to continue the war until unification no matter what the cost in manpower and material. Even though broad and direct military engagements weren’t considered militarily successful, the protracted war effort was severely impacting American moral both at home and for many American and South Vietnamese soldiers engaged in the conflict. By 1968, North Viet Nam was struggling to find a major win like they had in May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu against the French. General Giap devised a plan to engage along many fronts in the South during the TET celebration. This is a Vietnamese New Year marking the arrival of spring based on the Chinese calendar. Giap designed the offensive to spark an uprising in South Vietnam and show American claims about the war’s progress were wrong. Although his forces were eventually repulsed and defeated throughout the region, the effect on American moral however was significant. See the video below for more background.

Many politicians were siding with protesters and calling for an end to the war. What has been widely circulated and is a false claim by many Internet posters is a claim that General Giap felt they were on the ropes and mostly defeated after the TET Offensive. This is a completely one side view not shared by Giap or North Viet Nam leadership. The North Vietnamese believed it was largely a war of independence from colonial powers and were willing to continue losses for the foreseeable future. General Giap believed people routinely died in large numbers each year even without a war. To him this was an honorable struggle.

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Gen Vo Nguyen Giap

Here are the actual words by General Giap.
General Giap in a 1989 interview with Morley Safer, as excerpted in The Vietnam War: An Encyclopedia of Quotations by Howard Langer (Greenwood Press, 2005, p. 318):

We paid a high price [during the TET offensive] but so did you [Americans]… not only in lives and material…. Do not forget the war was brought into the living rooms of the American people. … The most important result of the TET offensive was it made you deescalate the bombing, and it brought you to the negotiation table. It was, therefore, a victory….

The war was fought on many fronts. At that time the most important one was American public opinion.
If you see something on the Internet, written similar to the following, understand it’s a significantly altered and false quotation.
Here is a former Enemy that tells us that the Media is Americas Enemy.
General Vo Nguyen Giap was a brilliant, highly respected leader of the North Vietnam military. The following quote is from his memoirs currently found in the Vietnam war memorial in Hanoi :

What we still don’t understand is why you Americans stopped the bombing of Hanoi .. You had us on the ropes. If you had pressed us a little harder, just for another day or two, we were ready to surrender! It was the same at the battle of TET. you defeated us! We knew it, and we thought you knew it.

But we were elated to notice your media was helping us. They were causing more disruption in America than we could in the battlefields. We were ready to surrender. You had won!’

General Giap has published his memoirs and confirmed what most Americans knew. The Vietnam war was not lost in Vietnam — it was lost at home.

The same slippery slope, sponsored by the US media, is currently underway. It exposes the enormous power of a biased media to cut out the heart and will of the American public.
That story as shown above, often quoted on the Internet, reads similar to the actual statement, but it differs in two important areas.
1st – it makes the claim the North Vietnamese were about to surrender if only we had continued the bombing and other major efforts to suppress the insurgents. 2nd – the added commentary by people using this quote to bash the media and Democrats. Although there are strong opinions held by veterans and anti-war protesters, at least we should be honest and print accurate quotes. I realize there will always be people that take 2 + 2 and come up with 7. There’s probably little I or others can do to correct their misconceptions.

I doubt this will completely dispel rumors or arguments about this war. My hope is this contributes at least to an honest discussion.

CH-46s repainted for deployment Hawaii

CH-46s repainted for deployment from Hawaii

A little personal history for anyone interested to know more about my involvement during this period of history.

My last year of duty brought me full circle into a more direct understanding of the effects of the Viet Nam war. The USS Hancock, an aircraft carrier from WWII, was one of the warships assigned to carry out a rescue mission in Southeast Asia.

I helped load helicopters and material from Pearl Harbor bound for the Gulf of Thailand in April of 1975. The rescue mission (Operation Eagle Pull) tasked to evacuate American embassy and Cambodian officials.

Vietnam evacuees arrive on USS Hancock (CVA-19) April '75

Vietnam evacuees arrive on USS Hancock (CVA-19) April ’75

Operation Frequent Wind 17 days later used the USS Hancock helicopters to evacuate Viet Nam embassy along with many civilian workers and a handful of American stragglers.

At the end of my service in October of 1975, I was processed from active duty to inactive reserve. I stayed on for a few weeks at Camp Pendleton working with a church organization to assist refugees brought to what became known as Tent City.

I no longer have the ability to communicate in Vietnamese. What you don’t use, you lose.

Mike in the field 1974

Me standing by the portable command control huts

My job was to maintain the computer and communication electronics on the ground necessary for command and control of all local aircraft.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and a lot of grumbling”
— anonymous

Testimony of Lt. General Keith B. McCutcheon testifying at the Stennis Committee Hearings:

For the helicopter crews, the normal average duty time was 14 hours per day, the equivalent of 100 hours per week.

…. If a large assault operation was underway,… for helicopters, every single pilot assigned would have to average 15.5 hours per day and these increased rates continued for periods of 5 to 10 days.

Though no equivalent studies made for crew chiefs, they worked even harder, flying their aircraft on missions and manning the guns, maintaining the helicopters and trying to catch a few moments of rest before taking off on another mission. Their exploits provide one of the proudest moments in the history of the Marine Corps, More than anyone else, the flying mechanics and the crew chiefs of the helicopter units made the prosecution of the vertical assault warfare possible.

USS Hancock (CVA-19) with HMH-463 on deck 1975

USS Hancock & HMH-463 on deck 1975

Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Vietnam in April 1975, moved over 50,000 people. The initial decision to depart Saigon was made to evacuate the Defense Attaché’s office by fixed-wing aircraft. This fixed-wing evacuation was determined impossible when hostile artillery and rocket fire closed the air base at Tan Son Nhut. The decision to evacuate the entire US presence by helicopter under Operation Frequent Wind was made late morning, 29 April 1975, Saigon time.