Posts Tagged ‘vietnam’
R.W. “Johnny” Apple was the New York Times’s Saigon bureau chief in February 1967 when he mischievously compared William C. Westmoreland to George B. McClellan. Westmoreland, the American general commanding U.S. forces in Vietnam was, in Apple’s opinion, overestimating the size of the communist armies that opposed him just as McClellan, as chief of Lincoln’s army early in the Civil War, overestimated the South’s military strength. For McClellan, the erroneous calculations were an excuse for inaction. For Westmoreland, they were the rationale for endless pleas for reinforcements. What Apple left unsaid was that Abraham Lincoln soon got fed up and fired McClellan. Westmoreland was tolerated by Lyndon Johnson for three years. And then he was kicked upstairs.
Apple’s sly allusion was about as tough as any published remark directed at Westmoreland by reporters during the Vietnam War. Historians also have been generous.
And yet, Westmoreland masterminded a strategy that killed as many civilians as it did guerrillas. He made refugees of at least a million of the people whose country he was supposed to be defending. He devastated large tracts of their land and left behind a legacy of poison and unexploded ordnance that still was claiming lives forty years later. The cost to America was not negligible either.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam, roughly a third of them on Westmoreland’s watch. Three times as many were wounded. More tellingly, he took a professional, well-trained army and left it demoralized. The short tours of duty stipulated by the general meant that old mistakes were endlessly repeated: newly arrived officers were clueless; GIs counted the days as their tours wound down. Neither officers nor men were committed to seeing the job through. The thousands of operations they undertook in search of an elusive enemy underlined the futility of their presence. The obvious resentment of the indigenous population towards them undermined the GIs’ instinctive goodwill. All these factors wore away at discipline. Not only did Westmoreland fail to win the war, he made winning any war harder.
And yet correspondents covering the war rarely disparaged Westmoreland directly. The closest they came to criticism was, as in the case of Johnny Apple, to query the numbers. The body counts, crossover points and estimates of enemy strength all were scrutinized closely. Westmoreland was often accused of excessive optimism, almost never or lying. No one said in so many words that his strategy was misconceived even though it was.
The general wasn’t attacked. Instead, both he and the administration attacked the press. The reporters were accused of seeing only the hole in the donut, of failing to accentuate the positive (Johnny Mercer’s lyrics were invoked in a State Department memo) and of sabotaging the team. When it was all over, there were critics who claimed that journalists, not the military, had lost the war.
It’s by no means certain that the war was winnable. It did not have to be lost so bloodily or so badly. Westmoreland set the course that others followed. His mistakes survived him. And yet, he got off lightly because others took over from him and because potential critics were made to back off. History, meanwhile, tends to present the general in the image he fashioned in his memoir: not as a fool but as an earnest patriot who gave it his best shot.
Cities sometimes have evil sisters. Ottawa has Hull. Windsor has Detroit. Saigon’s wicked sister was Cholon.
Cholon was where the Chinese community settled. It was also the home of one of Vietnam’s gangster sects, the Binh Xuyen. In the late 1940s, the leader of the Binh Xuyen, Le Vien, reputedly purchased the office of police chief from the playboy emperor, Bao Dai. So Cholon was where the vice was. Asia’s biggest house of ill-repute, the House of Mirrors, was in Cholon. So were any number of opium dens.
It was from his house in Cholon in March 1955, a house improbably (but really) surrounded by a crocodile-infested moat and populated by a menagerie that included a python and leopard, that Le Vien, with tacit French support, launched a short-lived rebellion against the newly installed government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The dumpy president surprised almost everyone (though not, perhaps, his CIA adviser, Edward Lansdale) by suppressing the attempted coup. In extirpating the gang, large swaths of Cholon were laid waste by Diem’s forces and thousands of people were dispossessed.
American servicemen and journalists later went to Cholon to escape the war. David Halberstam, New York Times reporter in 1962 and 1963, described evenings at a restaurant in Cholon, the Diamond, where ravenous crews of reporters would gather to consume enormous platters of cracked crab followed by similar quantities of baby pigeon – “wondrous little birds, perfectly done, placed with admirable spacing, equidistant from each other, like 30 or 40 miniaturized turkeys” – all washed down with beer made perfectly cold not in a fridge but a freezer. At the Diamond, for a few hours, the reporters could find refuge from the hostile mission functionaries and from Diem’s secret police.
When the coup that finally unseated Diem was launched at the beginning of November 1963, Diem and his brother Nhu took refuge with a friendly merchant and then in a church in Cholon. They were betrayed by a woman who saw them enter the church and murdered on the way back to Saigon.
At least some of Cholon was friendly territory for the communists. When Vietcong cadres infiltrated the city, intending to foment a popular uprising at the beginning of Tet in 1968, they met with some success in Cholon. They set up popular committees and tried and executed collaborators in the streets. American and South Vietnamese forces beat back the attackers at most of their targets in Saigon – the embassy, the palace, the airport – but found it harder to roust them from Cholon’s narrow streets. They ended up, as so often happened, by summoning air support, bringing in helicopter gunships and fighter bombers. Some sixty or seventy city blocks were reduced to blackened dust.
Notoriously, it was possible in those early days of February 1968 to order up cocktails at the roof-bar of the Caravelle Hotel and watch the city explode a few miles away. British photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, no fan of the war effort, caustically observed that the hotel bar “offered a grandstand view of Phantom jets dropping bombs and napalm on the homes of the only pro-American Vietnamese in Saigon.”
It’s hard to know where public sympathy really lay. The Vietcong committed atrocities during the Tet Offensive. Not everyone looked forward to the communist purge. But the brutality of the counteroffensive was stunning. For the Saigonese who witnessed it, the razing of Cholon must have been terrible, like watching a sibling being tormented and killed.
More thoughts on the significance of the Tet Offensive…
A cliché of the Vietnam War is that it wasn’t about territory: The enemy was everywhere. There was no front line. The refrain was patently true – at least from the American point of view. Westmoreland measured allied progress in terms of dead bodies rather than land. His search-and-destroy operations routinely scoured the same regions over and over again. They racked up more or less big scores in terms of corpses but planted no flags.
But of course the war was about territory. The very definition of sovereignty begins with control of the land. Westmoreland’s emphasis on body counts diverted attention from the fact that, for millions of Vietnamese peasants, the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) was irrelevant. It was the Vietcong who recruited their children into the guerrilla forces, collected taxes and patrolled the roads.
The Americans and the GVN could sustain the fiction of sovereign control for as long as the cities were secure. The Tet Offensive blew that pretence to bits. Eight major cities, more than thirty provincial capitals and the administrative centres of more than sixty districts were either bombarded or occupied in the first week of February 1968. In Saigon itself, the bombing, mortaring, shooting and, ultimately, razing went on for two weeks (and then flared up again in “mini-Tet”). In Hue the fighting continued for almost a month. If neither Americans nor South Vietnamese were secure in the capital and a major city, what was left?
Westmoreland’s and the military’s defenders point out that the Communists were, in fact, pushed back from of the cities. They admit that the damage done to regain control was severe but argue that it hardly compares to the damage done in World War II to liberate parts of Europe. That’s all very well, but Europe before liberation had been occupied by the Germans for years. They were dug in and dislodged with difficulty. Once beaten, the allied line moved forward, drawing constantly closer to Berlin.
The difference, in Vietnam, is obvious. In repelling the Communists during the Tet Offensive, the Americans and their Vietnamese ally were destroying vast swathes of the urban centres they already owned – or so it was supposed. And when it was over, in rural regions, it was still the Communists who reigned.
Admirers of John F. Kennedy, whose number is legion, often contend that he never would have escalated the war in Vietnam as Johnson did. They argue that, on the contrary, he would have pulled America out of the quagmire, presumably leaving South Vietnam to deal with the communist insurgency alone.
The evidence starts with the fact that JFK ordered a 1,000-man draw-down of American troops before he died. It is buttressed by a more general assessment of Kennedy’s personal qualities. He had been burned by his experience – primarily with the CIA – during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He had spurned the advice from top military advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He had confidence in his own intellect and the toughness to discard advice that he didn’t agree with. And he was known to be viscerally opposed to involving the United States in an Asian land war.
Added to this is the testimony of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who conveyed with Kennedyesque certitude that Jack would never have gone down the path taken by LBJ. Read the rest of this entry »
Michael Tomasky, writing about the more extreme fringe of the American Republican party in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, notes that among its milder violations of honest criticism is a tendency to fudge obvious distinctions. A case in point: the distinction between reporting and editorializing. He notes that Ann Coulter in her recent book, Demonic, implies that liberal writers such as Tomasky frequently insinuate their opinions into their journalism. Tomasky writes a column, which is a vehicle for opinion: it’s understood that the views he expresses are his own. The implied charge that the news pages of the paper he writes for (principally the Guardian) are polluted by liberal propaganda is unfounded – and, in this context, ludicrous.
Such fudging is hardly new, however. Peter Braestrup does the same thing in Big Story, his book about press coverage of the Tet Offensive (see earlier posts). In his impressive collection of press clippings he mixes freely news dispatches from Saigon and commentary taken from Stateside newspapers. There’s no question that columnists such as James Reston and Walter Lippmann were skeptical of the war by 1968 – just as others, such as Joseph Alsop, remained hawkish. But it’s not necessarily case – and usually definitely not the case – that the men and women writing their reports from South Vietnam were deliberately sifting their remarks through some kind of liberal filter.
Both Coulter and Braestrup understand (or understood) the difference between reporting and editorializing. It simply suits their purpose to forget.
Some revisionists continue to believe that the press lost the war in Vietnam. Two journalists have written books that seem to substantiate their thesis. Both base their critique on media coverage of the Tet Offensive. Don Oberdofer’s Tet and Peter Braestrup’s Big Story have become essential texts in the revisionist library. Braestrup’s argument is particularly important – and in some respects mystifying. Read the rest of this entry »
James S. Robbins in his recent book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, writes that Robert McNamara, then the lame-duck defense secretary, broke down in a crucial meeting with President Johnson in 1968, “weeping uncontrollably,” before cursing the air war being conducted against North Vietnam. “This goddamned bombing campaign,” Robbins has McNamara saying, “it’s been worth nothing, they’ve dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War Two and it hasn’t done a fucking thing.”
The story, as Robbins tells it, with the secretary “weeping uncontrollably” and deploying the f-word, suggests that McNamara was incoherent and, by implication, beyond reason. But Robbins has embroidered on the original. He cites as his source a biography of Walt Rostow by David Milne (America’s Rasputin, 2008) and Milne, in turn, cites Clark Clifford, the man who replaced McNamara. Clifford’s version – and Clifford was in the room – is more generous. Read the rest of this entry »
What does it take to win a war against insurgents?
The question was debated for years between a core of Saigon-based news correspondents and a rump of old hands, veterans of World War II and Korea, who were convinced that their mainly younger counterparts were getting the war all wrong.
Their differences first got an airing near the end of the Diem era in 1963 when the younger crew was denounced in print by, among others, the managing editor of Time magazine. The debate then centered on the effectiveness of the war effort, which was being fought by the ARVN with American advice. The Saigon reporters were vindicated when Diem’s government was overthrown and the extent of its mendacity and corruption was exposed. Read the rest of this entry »
It is relatively easy to explain how a victory is achieved. It is much more difficult to explain away defeat. More than forty years have passed since the Tet Offensive was mounted by communist forces in South Vietnam. That campaign set in motion a chain of events that led President Lyndon Johnson to stop the escalation of the war and gave Richard Nixon the presidency on the promise of ending it. From that time on, it became politically imperative to draw down the number of American troops on the ground in Vietnam: whatever slim chance United States forces might have had to win the war militarily was lost.
That grim result does not sit well with many observers. Some continue to this day to rake through the war’s ashes seeking an explanation that, at the least, shifts responsibility for the loss from the military to some other body, if not to the press – a favourite target – then to civilians. James S. Robbins in his recently published book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (New York: Encounter Books), argues that while the press got almost everything wrong it was, above all, the dithering of Lyndon Johnson that undermined General William Westmoreland’s triumph. Read the rest of this entry »