The Tragedy of Vietnam (1964–1975)


When officially taking command of more than a half-million Americans in Vietnam, General Creighton W. Abrams refused to waste time or money on a ceremony. On June 10, 1968, the man affectionately called “General Abe” entered his office, lit a cigar, and began the morning. Noticing the plush furniture that General William C. Westmoreland, his predecessor, left behind, he wanted to get rid of it all.

Abrams ordered his staff to remove the luxurious divans, wall hangings, and potted plants. While chomping on a cigar, he barked: “I don't want people coming over here – and their sons are fighting and dying – and I'm in there with three-inch carpets!” What he wanted for his office was a government-issued steel desk, small table, and side chairs.

After succeeding Westmoreland as the Army Chief of Staff, Abrams returned stateside and was diagnosed with cancer. Surgeons at the Walter Reed Army Hospital removed one of his lungs, which left a tremendous scar. Recovering in an uncomfortable hospital bed, he tearfully whispered to one visitor: “Nobody will ever know the goddamn mess Westmoreland left me in Vietnam.” Though still in pain, the 59-year-old mustered the strength to stand and to spend a few hours working at his Pentagon office each day.

On August 13, 1974, Abrams stood up for the U.S. Army one last time. He put on his uniform and marched with the Joint Chiefs into the Oval Office to greet President Gerald R. Ford, who took office following Richard M. Nixon's resignation. Afterward, Abrams's son drove him back to Walter Reed. He suffered from two blood clots, one in his right leg and another in his remaining lung. A long career that spanned three wars and assignments from West Point to the Pentagon ended on September 4, 1974. Abrams became the first Army Chief of Staff to die in office.

As staff members emptied his Pentagon office, they discovered a half-full box of cigars. No one smoked the cigars or threw them away. A wooden box soon appeared with a small metal plaque on top, identifying the contents as “General Abe's last cigars.”

Figure 14.1 “The Wise Men”: luncheon meeting, March 26, 1968. Collection LBJ-WHPO: White House Photo Office Collection, 11/22/1963–01/20/1969, National Archives


Death spared Abrams the agony of witnessing the outcome of the long war in Vietnam, where Americans failed to prevent the expansion of a socialist republic. The Pentagon was accustomed to planning decisive victories in the shortest time at the least cost, but the organized violence in Southeast Asia defied the best war plans. Despite the limited efforts of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the U.S. managed to kill the enemy without securing an ally. The home front became divided, while the public distaste for the Selective Service system compelled a restructuring of the armed forces. Faced with grim prospects, the officer corps confronted one of the most difficult leadership challenges in American military history.

The war in Vietnam arguably represented the most tragic ever experienced by men and women in uniform. Thanks to congressional authorization, the Johnson administration intensified military actions in Indochina after 1964. U.S. forces quickened the pace of operations from the Tonkin Gulf to the Mekong Delta, but a covert infrastructure kept many areas under the sway of communist-backed guerrillas. As the Nixon administration pursued “peace with honor,” the last American combat units withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1972. While the Cold War cast a powerful spell over the American people, the Vietnamese lost more than 3 million lives in their war for national unification.

The domino fell in Vietnam, where Americans fought a war made of slogans, charts, and statistics. Out of more than 200 million people, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population participated in the armed conflict. American troops suffered 211,471 casualties, with 47,369 killed in action and another 10,799 fatalities from other causes. The federal government spent more than $150 billion on the clash in Southeast Asia. However, few officials knew how to measure the full dimensions of a contest for legitimacy and power. Without an effective strategy to counter an insurgency, the American military lacked a framework to understand the war that occurred beyond the conventional battle lines.

Into the Quagmire

A Vietnamese war for national liberation reshaped the map of French Indochina. As the French withdrew their armed forces, the Geneva Accords of 1954 mandated a temporary partition along the 17th parallel. Called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, it stretched westward from the South China Sea to Laos. The decolonized landscape represented a bewildering cauldron of competing ethnic, religious, economic, and political groups.

Ho Chi Minh, a seasoned revolutionary, led the League for the Independence of Viet­nam, or the Viet Minh. General Vo Nguyen Giap commanded the People's Army of Vietnam, which was identified with the initials PAVN. Communist leaders established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with its capital in the north at Hanoi. Hanoi coor­dinated a violent effort to unify Vietnam, offering a democratic facade for a communist insurgency in the countryside.

With a capital in the south at Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic with U.S. financial and military backing, presided over an anti-communist regime called the Republic of Vietnam. The Ngo family formed a dynasty to support Diem, who made few attempts at political and economic reform. He won and retained the loyalty of the planter class that dominated the Mekong Delta. Claiming that undemocratic conditions precluded a fair contest, he refused to hold elections and suppressed opponents involved with the Viet Minh.

Diem branded Vietnamese communists in the south with the term Viet Cong. At the direction of Hanoi, native southerners conducted insurgent attacks in the Mekong Delta and around Saigon. Agitation and violence also spread in the Central Highlands, where the Viet Cong recruited followers among the Montagnard tribes. To demonstrate Saigon's incapacity to govern the hamlets, they kidnapped and assassinated local officials. They appreciated the human and psychological dimensions of dau tranh – a mosaic of nonmilitary and military actions over long periods of time designed to achieve victory in war. Cadres, supplies, and guerrillas moved southward along a Laotian corridor dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The traffic snaked around the DMZ. By the early 1960s, a number of armed groups resisting Diem had coalesced across South Vietnam into the National Liberation Front, or NLF.

Figure 14.2 Vietnam, showing 1954 North/South division and routes of invasions and evacuations, 1945–1975


One U.S. president after another committed to training and equipping the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which they called ARVN. Initially, Americans in the military advised their counterparts about the art of conventional warfare, including the use of artillery, armor, and infantry to repel an invasion. They also wanted ARVN to “take the war to the enemy,” but the Battle of Ap Bac during 1963 revealed the incompetence of the South Vietnamese troops. Consequently, the U.S. Air Force increased the number of bombing sorties. In selected areas, C-123 aircraft dumped poisonous defoliants such as Agent Orange that turned the jungle terrain and the rice paddies into mud. By the summer of 1964, as many as 20,000 American military advisors were operating in South Vietnam.

Meanwhile, President John F. Kennedy increased the strength of U.S. Special Forces. The Army authorized an elite unit to wear distinctive headgear: the Green Beret. With counterinsurgency concepts featured in Army schools and training camps, they prepared to fight guerrillas in a specific geographic area and received language training to facilitate operations in the field. In the Navy, the Underwater Demolition Teams provided personnel for commando raids by sea, air, and land units. Known as the SEALs, they trained to conduct covert missions against enemy sanctuaries. Green Berets and SEALs played key roles in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, which the CIA originally formed to assist local militias. Furthermore, the Strategic Hamlet Program relocated rural populations into “fortified villages.” Many officers worked tirelessly to win “hearts and minds,” although some grew critical of the advisory effort. Despite their gains in South Vietnam and in Laos, they seemed unable to halt the insurgency.

Even in Saigon, the Diem regime lost legitimacy. During 1963, Buddhist leaders organized street demonstrations and public immolations. Encouraged by the Kennedy administration, a group of Vietnamese generals conducted a coup on November 1. They brutally murdered Diem and his brother. The coup leaders took charge with a 12-member Military Revolutionary Council, which was headed by General Duong Van Minh.

Just three weeks after the killing of Diem, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who previously served in Congress for two decades, succeeded his slain predecessor in the White House. “I am not going to lose Vietnam,” Johnson vowed a few hours after taking the oath of office.

In a matter of months, the new Saigon regime unraveled following another coup. With South Vietnam plunging into political chaos, the insurgency in the countryside intensified. At Johnson's request, General Maxwell Taylor stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and went to Saigon to run the U.S. embassy. General Nguyen Khanh, whom Johnson called “my American boy,” deposed a feuding military junta and took charge of the government. He worked closely with the U.S. in an enlarged covert action called Operation Plan 34 Alpha, which involved intelligence-gathering, leaflet drops, commando raids, and espionage missions.

While Johnson focused on his presidential election campaign in 1964, Vietnam turned into a quagmire. Trouble was brewing in the Gulf of Tonkin, where U.S. destroyers patrolled international waters in support of Operation Plan 34 Alpha. On August 2, three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox operating near the coast. According to the report of Captain Herbert L. Ogier, the skipper of the Maddox, the destroyer evaded torpedoes and returned fire. Aircraft launched from the carrier U.S.S.Ticonderoga strafed the retiring P-4s. Two days later, theMaddox and the C. Turner Joy reported radar, sonar, and radio signals indicating another attack. Although later information discounted the second attack, no one at the time seriously questioned the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Johnson recounted what happened to members of Congress, who overwhelmingly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964. It authorized all actions nec­essary to protect U.S. forces and to provide for the defense of allies in Southeast Asia. To retaliate, fighter squadrons immediately blasted an oil-storage facility in the town of Vinh. Given the congressional authorization, the Johnson administration proceeded to expand Amer­ican military operations within South Vietnam, against North Vietnam, and across Indochina.

Gradual Escalation

“Why are we in Vietnam?” President Johnson rhetorically asked a university audience during the spring of 1965. His answer was that Americans “have a promise to keep” in the fight against communism. He voiced the idealism that many in uniform initially brought with them to the combat zones of Southeast Asia. The demonstration of military strength, he reasoned, would be sufficient to stop the aggression of North Vietnam against South Vietnam. Regarding the conflict as a crucial test of the nation's willingness to deter the spread of communism throughout the Third World, he insisted that the U.S. would maintain a military presence in Vietnam as long as necessary. To achieve national security, he intended to demonstrate restraint while appearing steadfast and determined.

Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, encouraged a “tit-for-tat” approach to national security. He surrounded himself with a technocratic staff of “whiz-kids” schooled in systems analysis. While admitting “that no significant military problem will ever be wholly susceptible to purely quantitative analysis,” he posited that breaking down major problems quantitatively “removes one more piece of uncertainty from our process of making a choice.” Moreover, his annual defense budget focused on the functional elements of the armed forces. Called “program packages,” his headings included Strategic Offensive Forces as well as General Purpose Forces. He weighed each against the goal it sought to achieve, correlated the costs and the benefits of the weapons systems involved, and inserted the approved packages in his final tables. While the Army, Navy, and Air Force retained their separate training and administrative organizations, he created “unified and multiservice commands” to direct military operations. Rather than destroying enemy combatants, he wanted the U.S. to use limited but graduated pressure to affect their calculation of interest.

“Mr. McNamara's War” attempted to punish North Vietnam for the violence of the Viet Cong. Secretary McNamara calculated that the policy of gradual escalation required a ground force of 600,000 in South Vietnam, 1,000 American deaths each month, and no decisive victory earlier than 1968. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Earle G. Wheeler, maintained that crushing communist forces without delay depended upon effective planning and logistics. General Westmoreland, who served as the senior officer for the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, or MACV, believed that Hanoi would not stop supporting aggression unless convinced that the Viet Cong could not successfully infiltrate the countryside. To that end, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy underscored firepower, mass, and pacification in the strategic equation. The Johnson administration presumed that rising “body counts” would eventually drive the enemy to a “crossover” point, at which time the insurgency would become too costly for North Vietnam to maintain.

Meanwhile, the Viet Cong began targeting U.S. forces. On November 1, 1964, insurgents shelled a U.S. air base at Bien Hoa. While killing four Americans, they destroyed or damaged 13 B-57 bombers. On February 7, 1965, guerrillas attacked the military barracks in Pleiku. Eight Americans died and hundreds more suffered wounds. A few days later, communists detonated explosives at the American quarters in Qui Nhon, which left 21 dead under the rubble. In response, Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes against military and industrial targets in North Vietnam.

Beginning on March 2, 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder delivered sustained, direct aerial bombardments designed to reduce communist infiltration. Officials in Washington D.C. dictated the targets, the flights and models of aircraft, the tonnages and types of ordnance, and the day and hour of the attacks. Johnson refused to authorize unrestricted bombing in the Red River basin, which might provoke China to enter the war directly. Nevertheless, carrier planes and B-52 bombers pounded targets from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi. The sorties dropped more than a million tons of explosives from 1965 to 1967, while herbicides destroyed approximately half of the timberlands. Sortie rates and bombing metrics measured efficiency but not momentum. Despite the monsoon of ordnance that rained down on Vietnam, the flow of insurgents from the North into the South continued unabated.

With South Vietnam on the verge of collapse, Johnson decided to enhance security around U.S. air bases and coastal enclaves. On March 8, 1965, 3,500 Marines stormed ashore at Da Nang. Accompanied by landing craft, amphibious tractors, helicopters, 105-mm howitzers, and M-48 tanks, they walked along the beaches with South Vietnamese women, who put flowered leis around their necks. A few weeks later, the Marines cleared areas close to the large airfield. That August, they began to conduct combat missions for Operation Starlight.

To achieve the desired “body counts” from combat missions, the Johnson administration found no substitute for putting boots on the ground. In 1965, Washington D.C. promised Westmoreland an additional five Army divisions. Although the active military totaled more than 2.6 million service members at the time, most performed duties at installations around the world. Unfortunately, too many failed to rate as combat ready. What the Pentagon needed was not simply more able-bodied troops but also more well-trained units. The Joint Chiefs recommended mobilizing the reserve component – the National Guard and the Reserves – for military operations of this magnitude. However, the commander-in-chief decided not to call up reservists. Rounding out the Army divisions with citizen soldiers, he feared, would distract the nation from the “War on Poverty.” Instead, the monthly draft call-ups doubled that summer without a great deal of public notice.

The failure to call up reservists while increasing the number of draftees affected the force composition in unintended ways. Because a reservoir of veteran personnel in the National Guard and the Reserves remained untapped, the Army drew from a limited leadership pool. Ostensibly, requirements for experienced cadres at training bases competed with the demands for seasoned leaders in combat arms. Commanders began to promote junior officers and non-commissioned officers prematurely and to replace them at entry levels with the untested. At the same time, the best and the brightest faced the prospect of repeated one-year tours without an effective rotation system. Some resigned from the uniformed services or refused to re-enlist, causing rapid turnover and lower retention. Going forward, the infusion of underprepared troops throughout the ranks exacerbated the morale problems that afflicted the Army.

The failure of the Army to utilize the reserve component undermined the quality of “weekend warriors” across the U.S. Though denied the opportunity to serve as deployed units overseas, at least 2,000 National Guardsmen volunteered to fight in Vietnam. However, many units in the states evolved into popular havens for “draft dodgers.” The National Guard soon became infested with individuals, who felt no personal obligation to defend their country.

During 1965, the DOD organized the Select Reserve Force, or SRF, to improve readiness in particular units. Drawing from the National Guard and the Reserves, the 150,000-member composite force trained longer hours during extended drills. Though many expected to deploy to Vietnam, the SRF eventually formed a strategic hedge against threats in Korea, Europe, or elsewhere around the globe. Despite the higher standards met by the self-proclaimed “Super Ready Force,” the program was terminated in 1969.

Compulsory ROTC participation declined on college and university campuses, but Congress attempted to strengthen the neglected programs. Passed in 1964, the ROTC Revitalization Act increased funding for scholarships in subsequent years and raised the monthly subsistence allowance for certain cadets. An increasing number of students decided to take advantage of the benefits that ROTC offered, even though some merely hoped to postpone entering the draft. For the rest of the decade, ROTC programs remained the primary source for new officers on active duty and in the reserve component.

Touting its own Great Society program, the DOD eventually launched Project 100,000 in 1966. Secretary McNamara wanted to enlist recruits from the pool of draft rejects, who failed to meet the aptitude standards because of their “poverty-encrusted” lives. Through remedial instruction and paternalistic discipline, the Pentagon promised to elevate the “New Standards Men” for productive careers. While attempting to reclassify 100,000 men each year, 354,000 recruits actually donned uniforms. More than a third of the “Moron Corps,” as they were derisively nicknamed by their comrades, earned assignments in the combat arms. In other words, many received a one-way ticket to Vietnam. Even though the armed forces remained desperate for manpower, the project lost funding five years later.

Fearing a “second Cuba” on the doorstep of the U.S., the Johnson administration deployed the armed forces to the Dominican Republic on April 28, 1965. A few days earlier, a coup in the capital, Santo Domingo, raised the specter of a communist takeover. More than 20,000 Marines and soldiers arrived at the Caribbean island, which further strained the force structure of the American military. As the violence abated, the intervention rallied public support in the U.S. for the Cold War. Shrewdly, Johnson recognized an opportunity to obtain funding for military operations in Vietnam without debating the merits. While conflating Santo Domingo with Saigon, the president won congressional approval for an additional $700 million “to halt communist aggression.”

During the summer of 1965, the government in Saigon changed hands for the seventh time since Diem's fall. On June 9, the last in a series of coups produced a military junta of 10 senior officers. Thereafter, they installed General Nguyen Van Thieu as the chief of state and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as the prime minister. The veneer of legitimacy disappeared, but the White House expressed relief that the new leaders vowed to fight the Viet Cong and the NLF.

Regardless of the regime change, the theater of operations in South Vietnam became thoroughly Americanized. By the end of 1965, American military strength south of the 17th parallel had reached 184,000. While the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps contributed personnel, the Army accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total forces under Westmoreland's command. Owing to the draft, the U.S. scheduled another 200,000 soldiers for deployment to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, the enemies of the South Vietnamese government increased in number as well. By the end of 1965, more than 35,000 North Vietnamese regulars operated in the countryside along with several hundred thousand insurgents. Even as the air strikes intensified, the Soviet Union provided Hanoi with anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, MiG fighters, and radar equipment. Eager to wage a proxy war against the U.S., China sent guns, ammunition, and artillery by ship and by rail. Rather than intimidating the communists, the policy of gradual escalation stiffened their resolve.

President Johnson hoped to fight a limited war against the communists without mobilizing the American people. His policy of gradual escalation affected the manner in which the military implemented the bombing campaigns and the troop deployments. While understating the resilience of the enemy, the flawed strategy implied that the U.S. lacked the resolution to achieve its military objectives in Vietnam.

Search and Destroy

As additional American troops arrived in Vietnam, Westmoreland launched “search and destroy” missions outside of Saigon. With ARVN relegated to a secondary role, U.S. battalions swept the countryside to entrap and to eliminate the enemy. In the absence of front lines, the “big units” scoured the dense jungles, flooded marshes, and rice paddies. The Pentagon demanded that MACV measure the progress of the war, which made the “body count” an index of success.

MACV developed into a killing machine. The fixed-wing aircraft of the Air Force gave the boots on the ground dominance over the battlefields. Aided by the Navy river-support squadrons and river-assault squadrons, Marines maneuvered rapidly through the combat zones. The Army massed the firepower of the artillery and the cavalry to support the infantry, who preferred to expend shells – not men. Among the rich assets of MACV, a complex of computer networks enhanced the command and control of the elaborate logistics.

Thanks to the new concept of air mobility, helicopters became the workhorses of MACV. For years, the versatility of rotary-wing aircraft made them ideal for multiple support missions. In fact, the Pentagon weighed arming air transports with weaponry for tactical assaults. Nicknamed “the Huey,” the UH-1 was outfitted with rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and machine guns. The Army assigned the 11th Air Assault Division to the 1st Cavalry, which was dispatched to Vietnam in 1965.

The most significant early test of the “Air Cav” occurred on November 14, 1965, inside the Ia Drang Valley. North Vietnamese commanders attempted to cut South Vietnam in half by establishing a front line south of the DMZ and driving from Pleiku to the coast. However, Westmoreland countered by sending the 1st Cavalry into the Central Highlands to stop them. In three weeks of fighting, over 50,000 helicopter sorties were flown. Commander of the 1st Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Harold “Hal” Moore, earned recognition for his “leadership by example” at landing zone X-Ray. In the valley, the Americans established a defensive perimeter. Aerial and artillery fire support devastated the enemy. Nearly 1,800 North Vietnamese died in the sharp engagement, yet the Americans lost only 240. Proclaiming a tactical victory, Westmoreland trumpeted the role of air mobility in combat.

The tactical victory at Ia Drang reflected a long-term effort by the Army to improve its aviation capabilities. The Army faced resistance from the Air Force, which considered airborne fire support its own unique function. Soon, the former ceded its larger transport aircraft to the latter but kept control of a helicopter fleet to support ground combat. The number of Army helicopters soared to 2,700 in 1966, and the figure tripled within five years.

As the helicopters permitted “dust-off” evacuations of wounded soldiers, more than 11,000 female nurses worked with doctors at field hospitals, evacuation centers, and medical ships. Enduring long and grueling shifts, they encountered a steady flow of casualties and saved countless lives. Many witnessed grisly wounds that required them to perform emergency procedures commonly known as “meatball surgery.” Captain Carolyn H. Tanaka, a nurse at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, described an extreme case in a letter home: “His buttocks and genitals were about shot off, his right hand and a few fingers were blown off, and had fragments in his orbital rim and nasal bone and mouth, fracture of left tibia, fracture of right calcaneous and talus.”

While occupying large amounts of territory in South Vietnam, MACV rapidly expanded its infrastructure. The medical facilities, base camps, landing strips, deep-water ports, and supply depots added more than 16 million square feet of construction. While electrical generators brought power to cities and hamlets, paved roads and communication centers transformed the built landscape. American troops resided in wooden barracks with hot showers, and many officers enjoyed air-conditioned quarters. The PXs included movie theaters, bowling alleys, and service clubs as well as amenities like beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, and ice cream. However, pungent odors from the burning of excrement in the rear echelons created a distinct smell that few soldiers ever forgot. Given the scale and the scope of operations, the “tooth to tail” ratio in Vietnam reached 1 to 10. The ratio indicated the number of Americans engaged in combat versus the number deployed for support.

Because of the emphasis on firepower, Americans seldom enjoyed the advantages of surprise. Upon hearing the noise from vehicles, guerrillas melted away into the jungle or retreated across the border into Laos and Cambodia. Before disappearing, they devised ingenious mines and booby traps that took a deadly toll on the infantry patrols. Armed with M-16 rifles, American “grunts” attempted to draw fire while “humping the boonies” outside of firebases. Distinguishing friend from foe proved difficult. In fact, enemy combatants fired the first shot in 85 percent of all firefights. Upon making contact, platoons often fell back to firebases and waited for aircraft or artillery to bombard the contact point. An enemy countermeasure was “clinging to the belt,” that is, engaging at close range in order to prevent platoon leaders from calling for fire support. The Viet Cong sought to maintain the initiative in battle with hit-and-run tactics, while U.S. forces relied upon sheer weight and mass in a war of attrition.

U.S. operations repeatedly targeted the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold northwest of Saigon. Near the Cambodian border, the 60-square-mile area included rice paddies, rubber plantations, and secret tunnels. On September 14, 1966, Westmoreland began Operation Attleboro to “attrit” the enemy in the area. MACV counted more than 1,106 Vietnamese casualties and made one of the largest hauls of enemy supplies to date.

Beginning on January 8, 1967, Westmoreland launched Operation Cedar Falls. Several air assaults sealed off the Iron Triangle, while nearly 35,000 American troops began a series of sweeps that laid waste to the area. The village of Ben Suc was surrounded, evacuated, and leveled. American “tunnel rats” infiltrated an elaborate underground complex and uncovered vast quantities of supplies and documents. They destroyed a network of sanctuaries, which previously provided refuge to insurgents. Although 720 Viet Cong were killed in action, many of the high-level cadre escaped once again.

More than 45,000 American and ARVN troops returned to the Iron Triangle during Operation Junction City on February 22. Inside Tay Ninh Province, communist forces battled the “big units” for weeks while screening the retreat of their comrades into Cambodia. Massive firepower forced the Viet Cong to disengage. While defending firebase Gold, artillerymen lowered the tubes of their howitzers and fired beehive rounds containing hundreds of dart-like projectiles directly at assailants. Operation Junction City ended after nearly three months of fighting, which resulted in at least 2,700 casualties among the Viet Cong.

Later that year, a series of border battles raged near the DMZ. At Con Thien, the 3rd Marine Division held a defensive position shelled by the North Vietnamese Army, or NVA. Anticipating a conventional fight, Westmoreland authorized Operation Neutralize to strike targets outside of Con Thien. It included 4,000 B-52 and fighter-bomber sorties along with naval bombardments, which forced the NVA to break off its attack. In late October, communist forces attacked Song Be and Loc Ninh. Nevertheless, the 1st Infantry Division held firm while inflicting heavy casualties upon the enemy.

Without a doubt, the Battle of Dak To indicated American superiority in the battle­field. When the NVA struck a Special Forces camp in Kontum Province, Westmoreland responded by sending elements of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. They encountered ridge lines fortified with tunnels and bunkers. On November 20, the fight centered on Hill 875, where 300 B-52 and 2,000 fighter-bomber sorties softened the defensive positions before American troops successfully climbed to the top. Afterward, the U.S. commander treated his soldiers to a Thanksgiving feast – hot turkey, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce, buttered rolls, and lots of beer. North Vietnamese losses in the battle numbered in the thousands, while American fatalities reached 289.

Private Bill Stone, a Yale drop-out who joined the Army, went to Vietnam that year. With his literary ambitions dashed by a publisher's rejection of a manuscript, he contemplated suicide. Instead, he intended to die as an anonymous “grunt” in a foreign land. A member of the 25th Infantry Division, he was assigned to 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company in the 3rd Battalion. During his 15 months of service, he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster. Using the first name Oliver, he eventually wrote a screenplay that became the basis for the Hollywood film,Platoon (1986).

From the outset, General Victor “Brute” Krulak, commander of the Fleet Marine Force in the Pacific, opined that the war in Vietnam required a different approach. Instead of campaigning in destructive ways that did “more harm than good,” he advocated small-unit actions on behalf of pacification. He envisioned military and political operations akin to a “spreading inkblot.” He suggested assigning a Marine rifle squad to work with a local militia company in a Combined Action Platoon. Whereas Secretary McNamara preferred a war of attrition, the Marine warned that it would amount to “little more than blows in the air.”

An Army study completed in 1966 called “A Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam,” or PROVN, also discounted attrition. Commissioned by General Harold K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, it found that the U.S. lacked a unified program for eliminating the insurgency. Military personnel needed to refocus on the village, district, and provincial levels, where “the war and the object which lies beyond it must be won.” The “search and destroy” missions contributed little to population security in the hamlets, or so the Army staff concluded. Although talk of pacification bored him, Westmoreland established the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS, in 1967.

Westmoreland planned to begin a phased withdrawal from South Vietnam in two years or less. While gratified by the election of General Thieu to the presidency of South Vietnam, he knew that the regime in Saigon remained a sideshow. In the waning days of 1967, he appeared before Congress to testify about American progress. With more than 485,000 troops in Vietnam, he boasted that approximately two-thirds of the hamlets appeared secure. He posited that the war was entering a new phase “when the end begins to come into view.”


As 1968 dawned, the North Vietnamese planned to force the U.S. to abandon the war. NVA troops created diversions in the border areas, drawing Army battalions out of the cities and into the countryside. At the same time, the Viet Cong infiltrated the urban areas for a major offensive designed to inspire uprisings throughout South Vietnam.

Before the offensive began, communist forces conducted assaults against scattered U.S. outposts. American intelligence discovered that almost 40,000 NVA were massed near a Marine base in Khe Sanh. Predictably, Westmoreland authorized Operation Niagara to pulverize them with air strikes. Pleased with the results, he shifted half of all combat forces into forward positions near the DMZ.

Hanoi called for a ceasefire during Tet – the first day of the Vietnamese New Year on January 31. Consequently, many ARVN troops went home for the holiday. In spite of the holy truce, MACV detected signs of enemy activity near Saigon. Even though Westmoreland pulled some battalions closer to the capital, he deemed it a possible diversion from another NVA thrust along the northern border. With Americans poised for a decisive victory near Khe Sahn, more than 84,000 Viet Cong prepared to launch an offensive on multiple fronts.

Around midnight on January 30, the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive across South Vietnam. They assailed 36 of the 44 provincial capitals and hit five of the six major cities, including Hue and Saigon. In the darkness, a battle raged at the U.S. embassy in Saigon between guerrillas and the 101st Airborne Division. By 9:00 a.m., Americans had secured the compound.

In Saigon, the offensive ended within days. After a massive bombardment left the Cholon section of Saigon in rubble, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade cleared the Viet Cong from the neighborhood. American and South Vietnamese units held the capital while securing the nearby bases of Long Binh and Bien Hoa. However, cameramen filmed incredible scenes of violence. One clip showed General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, head of the National Police, approaching a captured guerrilla on the street. He put a revolver to the prisoner's head and executed him.

The fiercest fighting occurred in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, which fell to communist forces. Upon seizing the city, they murdered at least 3,000 civilians and buried the “enemies of the people” in mass graves. Within hours, a U.S. artillery barrage began to destroy the buildings occupied during Tet. Elements of the 1st Cavalry and 101st Airborne joined with Marine and ARVN units to battle their foes street to street and house to house. Following intense combat, Americans retook Hue by February 24.

Throughout February, MACV directed a major counteroffensive and retook every position lost during Tet. Within the first three weeks, approximately 40,000 NVA and Viet Cong were killed in action. By comparison, the American dead numbered 1,100. Furthermore, communist forces lost many of their seasoned cadres. The mauling in the countryside left the insurgency depleted. To the dismay of Hanoi, no local uprising in and around Saigon occurred. Thus, the Tet Offensive constituted a tactical failure for North Vietnam.

Thanks to the media coverage of Tet, the American people saw a different picture. The imagery of guerrillas storming the embassy in Saigon or raising the flag over Hue powerfully shaped perceptions of the war. With no more silver linings in the dark clouds, the claims of victory by Westmoreland lacked credibility. A wag parodied the news with the headline: “We Have the Enemy on the Run, Says General Custer.” During the CBS evening news broadcast of February 27, anchorman Walter Cronkite concluded that “Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” Public opinion in the U.S. dramatically turned against the war.

On the morning of March 16, U.S. forces operating in the Quang Ngai Province committed war crimes. Assigned to the 20th Infantry, Lieutenant William Calley led Charlie Company's 1st Platoon of the 1st Battalion into the hamlet of My Lai. Frustrated by their inability to distinguish civilians from combatants, they massacred nearly 500 people. Some of the soldiers participated in an orgy of sexual violence that included rape and sodomy. Three years later, Calley was tried and convicted by a military tribunal for premeditated murder.

Tet marked a turning point for the American military, because it raised unsettling questions about the war. In a telegram from Saigon to Washington D.C., Westmoreland requested reinforcements to sustain the momentum of the counteroffensive. He asked for another 206,000 soldiers to conduct Operation Complete Victory. At a time when American troop levels exceeded a half-million, the magnitude of the new request stirred debate in the Pentagon. The new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, saw no prospect for military victory and urged disengagement. Confronted by a political backlash, the Joint Chiefs appeared “tongue-tied.” Privately, the Johnson administration began to talk about “Vietnamization” and “peace with honor.” Likening the war to a cancer that consumed Great Society programs, the commander-in-chief eventually denied Westmoreland's request. On March 31, he announced on television that he would not run for re-election while attempting to reduce “the present level of hostilities.” Within two months, representatives from the U.S. and Vietnam began to meet in Paris.

Just as Ho Chi Minh predicted, the protracted struggle weakened the U.S. With America's power declining around the world, North Korea captured the U.S.S. Pueblo and imprisoned the crew for nearly a year. Johnson halted the air strikes in Vietnam north of the 19th parallel and reluctantly abandoned Khe Sanh. For the remainder of the year, MACV attempted to restore security around Saigon and the coastal areas. The NVA, NLF, and Viet Cong avoided direct combat but instead maneuvered to improve their strategic positions. After a lengthy debate regarding the shape of the table, the Paris peace talks officially began that fall.

After Tet, Johnson appointed Westmoreland as the Army Chief of Staff and turned command of MACV over to General Abrams, his deputy. Consequently, MACV began scaling down “big unit” operations. CIA officers created the Phoenix Program, which focused on eliminating a shadow government through an accelerated pacification campaign. Without officially changing the grand strategy, the American military tried to become “more flexible tactically” across South Vietnam.

A Better War

Former Vice President Nixon won the presidential election with campaign assurances of a “secret plan” to end the war. Upon taking office in 1969, the commander-in-chief intend­ed to facilitate a withdrawal from Vietnam. American troop levels peaked at 543,000 that April, but the number declined thereafter. The National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, needed the armed forces to provide “some bargaining leverage” for the peace talks in Paris. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird expected “Vietnamization” to create a strong, self-reliant South Vietnamese military – an objective espoused by the U.S. for over a decade.

The Nixon administration placed the various and sundry operations in South Vietnam under the supervision of Abrams, the new MACV commander. “He deserves a better war,” wrote one journalist at the time. A tank commander during World War II, he possessed a “tough guy” aura that inspired the rank and file. In private, he retreated to the solitude of fine wine, history books, and classical music. “The kind of war that we have here can be compared to an orchestra,” he once said, because “it is sometimes appropriate to emphasize the drums or the trumpets or the bassoon – or even the flute.”

Virtually everything changed in MACV when Abrams took command. He recognized that upgrading Saigon's military capabilities and dismantling Hanoi's covert infrastructure required more than arms. He orchestrated “one war,” which blended military actions with civil defense according to strategic plans. With “Vietnamizing” the war in mind, he never forgot the rigors of hard fighting and enemy attrition. However, he focused on the communist system of forward movement by attacking their “nose” – weapon caches and food supplies pushed out in advance of their offensives. He discouraged the overuse of firepower in combat, which sometimes resulted in collateral deaths among civilians. In and around Saigon, he insisted on assessments other than “body counts” as measures of merit. Instead of “search and destroy” missions, the American and ARVN units swept the countryside on behalf of interdiction. The military objective shifted to increasing population security in South Vietnam while gradually disengaging U.S. forces from the war effort.

Until their counterparts in ARVN became more proficient, the only alternative to American boots on the ground was air power. Nixon decided to lift the conventional restraints on aerial bombings, which underscored what he called a “madman strategy.” He aimed to convince Hanoi of the risks involved in opposing a leader with his hand on the nuclear button. Beginning with Operation Menu, B-52s bombed cross-border bases in Cambodia. Later, secret raids hit targets in northern Laos. Nixon mused that it might be necessary to bomb communist strongholds into the Stone Age.

Figure 14.3 A Boeing B-52D in Vietnam. Photo 061127-F-1234S-017, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force


Communist forces infiltrated South Vietnam through the A Shau Valley, where they stored ammunition, rice, and equipment for an impending offensive in 1969. For years, “search and destroy” missions failed to eliminate the staging area at the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Beginning on May 10, the 9th Marine Regiment and elements of the 101st Airborne conducted Operation Apache Snow. In a familiar pattern, B-52s and howitzers bombarded the bunkers at Ap Bia Mountain. After torrential rainfall turned the denuded terrain into muck, American troops assailed Hill 937. The tenacious “grunts” reached the summit after 12 attempts and gave it the nickname “Hamburger Hill.” They found 630 dead NVA in the bunkers, but lost 241 comrades in the battle. In a controversial move, Abrams ordered U.S. forces to abandon the ground only a week after gaining it.

Meanwhile, Nixon formally began shifting the burdens of fighting the Cold War to allies. That June, he met with Thieu at Midway Island and announced the immediate withdrawal of an Army division from Vietnam. Moreover, he provided an arms package that reached $925 million that year. Consequently, ARVN received 700,000 M-16 rifles, 12,000 M-60 machine guns, 6,000 M-70 grenade launchers, and 1,000 artillery pieces. A month later at Guam, Nixon spoke with journalists about the evolving plan. While committed to providing Southeast Asia with assistance, Americans expected allies to employ their own troops to oppose communist aggression. With a thawing in the Cold War, the Nixon Doctrine reduced the U.S. responsibility for armed intervention in the Third World.

Even though Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969, Hanoi pledged to continue the war for national unification. In Paris, the delegation at the negotiating table appeared resolute. First, they insisted on the withdrawal of all American troops. Next, they wanted the removal of Thieu from office. Finally, they insisted that the NLF participate in forming a new coalition government. While General Giap remained in command of the military, North Vietnamese leaders quarreled internally over the best way to deliver a deathblow to the regime in South Vietnam.

By the next year, South Vietnam appeared to achieve measurable progress. With ARVN assuming greater responsibility for military operations, the proportion of the enemy killed in action by the South Vietnamese reached one-third of the total number. Moreover, nearly all of the hamlets were deemed “relatively secure.” As the security data improved, the introduction of “miracle rice” produced record harvests. In fact, rice production across South Vietnam increased by 700,000 metric tons in one year. In Saigon, Thieu championed the “Land to the Tiller” program that turned peasants into landowners. Thanks to the subtle dimensions of military power, Americans facilitated innovative efforts that enabled the rural population to see improvements.

Nixon authorized a bold incursion in Cambodia to destroy the enemy's Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN. While supply bases stretched for miles along the border, COSVN served as a mobile headquarters for the insurgency. Beginning on May 1, 1970, a joint U.S. and South Vietnamese force crossed the border and pushed into the Parrot's Beak and Fishhook areas. In the weeks that followed, they cut a swath through guerrilla hideouts, storage sites, training camps, and field hospitals. One logistical hub became known as “The City,” because it contained mess halls, animal farms, supply stations, and weapon caches. Americans operated with their South Vietnamese counterparts in Cambodia until the end of June, but they never found the elusive COSVN.

The Cambodian incursion sparked public outrage in the U.S, where college and university campuses erupted with protests. Given the frequency of civil disturbances nationwide, National Guard units were dispatched by governors again and again. At Kent State University in Ohio, Guardsmen attempted to quell rioting after a group of students burned down the ROTC building. On May 4, they opened fire on a demonstration, killing four and wounding nine. In Washington D.C., domestic terrorists detonated a black powder explosive at the headquarters of the National Guard Association of the U.S. A month later, Congress passed the Cooper–Church Amendment that prohibited the use of American troops outside of South Vietnam. Evidently, the Nixon administration underestimated the domestic fallout of widening the war in Indochina.

Nixon crossed another line, authorizing MACV to organize an invasion of Laos. Operation Lam Son 719 began on February 8, 1971, when 21,000 ARVN troops advanced to Tchepone. As they passed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, U.S. forces supported them indirectly with B-52s, fighter-bombers, helicopters, and artillery. They battled 36,000 NVA troops, while heavy rains and poor coordination slowed the advance. In early March, Thieu ordered a withdrawal from Laos. The Ho Chi Minh Trail remained functional, because the North Vietnamese simply shifted traffic farther westward. Nevertheless, MACV claimed that ARVN suffered 9,000 casualties compared with 14,000 NVA casualties. While expanding the field of battle with fewer resources, Lam Son 719 preempted a communist offensive that spring.

A year later, the North Vietnamese launched the Easter Offensive to pursue a decisive victory in the war. On March 30, 1972, approximately 200,000 men poured across the borders on three fronts. Surprised by the ferocity of the invasion, the South Vietnamese retreated everywhere. The most devastating assaults occurred at Quang Tri Province, which fell to the North Vietnamese a month later. While refugees fled to Hue, NVA troops severed the highway connected to Saigon. They captured Loc Ninh and Dak To and began a risky drive to cut South Vietnam in half.

Nixon responded vigorously to the Easter Offensive with aerial bombardments. From April to October, Operation Linebacker involved strategic nonnuclear strikes across North Vietnam. With more than 41,000 bombing sorties, the Air Force and the Navy delivered the first sustained campaign against the enemy since 1969. In addition, the Navy mined the ports of Haiphong, Cam Pha, Hon Gai, and Thanh Hoa while blockading the entire coast. To signal U.S. resolve, Kissinger halted the negotiations in Paris. As the last American combat units departed on August 23, 1972, the communist momentum in South Vietnam actually stalled. North Vietnam sacrificed more than 100,000 soldiers in the offensive without achieving their military objective. Shaken by the unexpected outcome, Hanoi replaced Giap with General Van Tien Dung.

Despite the tug of gravity away from the theater of operations, the approach of the Nixon administration permitted the “Vietnamization” of the war. MACV arranged a reduction in American troop levels along with a strengthening of ARVN. At the same time, the aid to North Vietnam from the Soviet Union and China declined significantly. Bolstered by air power and naval gunfire, Saigon appeared to slow the military advances of Hanoi.

Ending the Draft

With social unrest in the U.S. mounting, the war in Vietnam became the defining event for the baby-boom generation. The draft-age population grew disillusioned, as millions of young men faced the prospect of fighting for a cause that seemed misguided. At the end of the 1960s, cultural shifts on the home front encouraged public opposition to an increasingly unpopular war.

In contrast to earlier periods of the twentieth century, the Selective Service system struggled to generate quality recruits. Although a lottery made the calls more equitable after 1969, many draftees conspired with doctors to contrive physical and mental ailments. The average age of the soldier in Vietnam fell to 19, because most were fresh out of high school. Working-class Americans seldom escaped the conscription pool and often resented the indifference of “the thinking man” to military service.

The privileges of money and status enabled many to escape military service. Between 1964 and 1973, around 65 percent of the draft-age males found routes to avoid donning uniforms. Deferments enabled undergraduate students to postpone entering the draft until they received a degree or reached the age of 24. Some went on to graduate school to make sure they never reported for duty. At least 200,000 individuals simply refused to obey draft notices, though only 4,000 of them ever served prison sentences for violating the law. Several thousand fled to Canada or Sweden, while record numbers sought conscientious-objector status. Of the 1,200 men in the Harvard senior class of 1970, only two went to Vietnam. Whatever their motives, the beneficiaries of American higher education eschewed military service.

Meanwhile, the New Left and the counterculture emboldened the “anti-draft” movement. Around the country, organizations popularized draft-card burnings and denounced “the system.” They chanted: “Make Love, Not War” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh – The NLF is Gonna Win.” At faculty and student “teach-ins,” the Army surplus jacket became an ironic statement of fashion. Protestors assailed military recruiting offices, poured blood on draft board records, and marched on the Pentagon. With disapproval of the war on the rise, U.S. newspapers published classified documents known collectively as the Pentagon Papers. In Congress, the “Winter Soldier” hearings publicized the alleged atrocities by American troops. John Kerry, a member of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, famously questioned a Senate panel: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

As service members endured a prolonged conflict, their morale began to dissipate. The one-year tour of duty contributed to the “short-timer” syndrome, which made some reluctant to risk their own lives for their “buddies” in combat. Green lieutenants often lacked the field experience and practical skills necessary to lead their platoons on patrols. Knowing that all U.S. forces would soon leave Vietnam, no one wanted to be the last casualty. Unfortunately, the absence of a clear military objective contributed to the deterioration of unit cohesion.

The American military seemed to degenerate into a disgruntled, undisciplined mass. In 1971, an article in the Armed Forces Journal warned about an impending “collapse.” In the Army, desertion rates skyrocketed to 73.5 per thousand that year. Likewise, other branches recorded surges in desertions and AWOLs. The most alarming trend was “fragging,” that is, the killing or wounding of a superior by a subordinate using a fragmentation grenade. Between 1969 and 1971, the Army reported 730 incidents. While outright revolts remained rare, the Army compelled commanders to institute measures to prevent the dereliction of duty.

To compound the problems on duty, the proliferation of drugs redefined the meaning of recreation. Many recruits abused drugs before entering military service, but the narcotics trafficking in Southeast Asia fed addictions throughout the ranks. Heroin, opium, and marijuana flowed from Laos, Burma, and Thailand into Vietnam. The Pentagon responded with programs for testing, detoxification, and treatment, yet most came too late. Tragically, drug use plagued the American military for years to come.

The American military in Vietnam grappled with the same racial tensions that afflicted the U.S. during the period. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans in uniform confronted prejudice at almost every turn. From barracks to firebases, skin color affected training, assignments, and promotions. Military personnel traded ethnic and racial slurs. Antagonism sometimes led to fistfights in chow lines or near latrines but seldom impeded the war effort. Despite the persistence of racism in the armed forces, most officers downplayed the racial unrest until the turmoil became disruptive enough to lead to major disturbances.

Racial unrest produced occasional outbursts on Navy warships. On October 11, 1972, around 200 black sailors armed with clubs and wrenches roamed sections of the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. They beat dozens of their fellow sailors before the Marine detachment and senior officers dissuaded them from further violence. A few weeks later, 50 black sailors staged a “sit-in” on board the U.S.S. Constellation. After removal from the carrier, many received discharges from active duty. Commanders worked to gain the trust of African Americans in uniform, but discrimination remained a chronic problem in the nation overall.

Larger social and political trends in the nation contributed to the demise of the military profession. Public opinion polls rated soldiering among the least attractive jobs, ranking slightly above garbage collection. In civil society, heightened individualism, widespread permissiveness, and deepening cynicism undermined the allure of national service.

After becoming the commander-in-chief, Nixon pledged to end “permanent conscription in a free society.” Army officials conducted a classified study called Project Volunteer in Defense of the Nation, or PROVIDE, which highlighted concerns about recruitment and retention. Although the DOD preferred reforming and retaining the Selective Service system, the Nixon administration pushed ahead with plans to replace the draft.

To study the feasibility of replacing the draft, Nixon appointed an advisory commission chaired by Thomas S. Gates, a former Secretary of Defense. Meeting for the first time on May 15, 1969, the Gates Commission featured renowned intellectuals such as Milton Friedman, W. Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan – all free-market economists. They concluded that conscription imposed a “hidden tax” on civil society and should be ended as soon as possible. Through voluntary enlistments, competitive pay, and enhanced benefits, a smaller but more highly trained armed force represented a preferable alternative to the one created by “involuntary servitude.” They released the report to the public a year later. Nixon sent a message to Congress endorsing their call for an All-Volunteer Force, or AVF.

Even if the drive behind the AVF came from civilian authorities, it led to profound institutional and cultural changes in the American military. At the Pentagon, Secretary Laird promulgated the “total force” concept as a means to achieve manpower goals without the expense of maintaining a large military. Specifically, the National Guard and Reserves contained the replacements to complete the force structure as a whole. Going forward, they would bear a greater burden for national defense. James R. Schlesinger, who became the Secretary of Defense in 1973, championed the policy, because it meant that the “total force” operated within the budgetary constraints imposed by Congress. Removing support capabilities from the active units and placing them in the reserve component permitted the augmentation of forces at a fraction of the cost.

General Abrams, who left Vietnam in the summer of 1972 to become the Army Chief of Staff, linked the “total force” policy to fighting wars in the future. With the Army outfitting 16 divisions, he insisted that the National Guard and Reserves supplied personnel to “round out” active units. Moreover, he integrated the reserve with the active component so closely as to make the latter dysfunctional without the former. Once conscription terminated on July 1, 1973, no commander-in-chief would be able to take the nation to war without mobilizing citizen soldiers. According to what was called the Abrams Doctrine, any large-scale mobilization of the reserve component would affect communities nationwide and engage almost everybody in the war effort. Struggling with declining health, his last directives gave form to a new and improved Army. After the draft ended, military leaders rebuilt the force structure based upon Abrams's refrain: “The Army is people.”

The Fall of Saigon

After Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1971, the balance of power in Southeast Asia shifted rapidly to North Vietnam. By the end of the following year, American troop levels in South Vietnam fell to 24,000. Once withdrawn, they seemed unlikely to return.

While Nixon campaigned for re-election in 1972, Kissinger resumed private talks with the North Vietnamese representative, Le Duc Tho, in Paris. They generally agreed on a final withdrawal of American troops while allowing the North Vietnamese to retain their forward positions in South Vietnam. Hanoi dropped the demand for the removal of Thieu, as the U.S. signaled a willingness to abandon Saigon. Upon hearing word that “peace is at hand,” Thieu threatened to sabotage the deal. In one White House briefing session, Kissinger shouted: “I want to end this war before the election!”

After Nixon won a landslide electoral victory, the talks in Paris stalled once again. Hanoi suspended negotiations, which prompted the U.S. to unleash air strikes to end the delay. Dubbed the “Christmas Bombings,” Operation Linebacker II constituted the heaviest aerial assault of the entire war. Starting on December 18, it included 729 sorties by high-flying B-52s as well as more than 1,000 by F-105s, F-4s, and F-111s. Over the course of 11 days, around-the-clock bombardments destroyed rail yards, power plants, radar sites, petroleum stores, supply depots, installations, roads, bridges, and vehicles. Owing to the massive application of air power, the Air Force soon found no more “worthwhile” targets. Hanoi reversed course and agreed to return to the table. Privately, the Nixon administration assured Thieu that the American military would take swift and severe retaliatory action against North Vietnam if its leaders violated any multilateral agreement.

The next month, all parties finalized the Paris Peace Accords. The framework provided for the release of American POWs and the dissolution of MACV within 60 days. Military activities in Laos and Cambodia ceased temporarily, while an international commission monitored the ceasefire in Vietnam. Kissinger promised extensive aid to the regime in Saigon but accepted the formation of a Council of National Reconciliation and Concord to address internal political matters. On January 27, 1973, the U.S., North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam signed the accords.

Within weeks, American POWs began to return home. Although a number remained missing, North Vietnam returned at least 591. More than five years earlier, Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III, a naval aviator, was shot down, badly injured, and immediately captured. The enemy transported him to Hanoi's main Hoa Lo Prison – nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” Like many other POWs, he suffered abuse and torture throughout his years of captivity. The son of Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, he remained a POW until his release on March 14, 1973.

Later that year, Congress crafted a joint resolution to limit the authority of any president to make war. Called the War Powers Resolution, it required the commander-in-chief to report to the legislative branch within 48 hours of committing American troops to combat. Unless approved by Congress within 60 days, military action must end immediately. Without a declaration of war or another authorization, the executive branch must withdraw all troops in a 30-day period. The resolution was vetoed by Nixon, but Congress overrode the veto.

The “imperial presidency” of Nixon unraveled during the Watergate scandal. Under great stress throughout 1974, he evinced the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. At the Pentagon, Secretary Schlesinger issued instructions to military commanders around the world to disregard orders from the commander-in-chief without his countersignature. On August 9, Nixon resigned from office to avoid impeachment. His successor, Gerald R. Ford, calmed Washington D.C. while refusing to resume military actions in Southeast Asia.

Even though Hanoi repeatedly violated the Paris Peace Accords, communist leaders postponed a final offensive to defeat Saigon until Ford succeeded Nixon. The NVA launched artillery attacks in South Vietnam that December, and their divisions captured the Phuoc Long Province near the Cambodian border on January 5, 1975. They waited for a military blow from the U.S., but none came. Because Congress previously terminated funding for bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia, all war plans remained on the shelf. No additional military aid for Saigon was forthcoming. Thieu began to abandon the Central Highlands and redeployed ARVN to defend the cities near the coast. From the vantage point of Hanoi, the situation seemed ideal for renewing the war for national unification.

War raged across Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia seized power, while the Pathet Lao forces achieved dominance in Laos. By March, the North Vietnamese launched a full-scale invasion across South Vietnam and quickly captured Hue, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay. Within days, they controlled the northern half of South Vietnam. Civilians fled in panic, but not until communist forces had massacred thousands. ARVN hastily established a defensive perimeter around Saigon. Thieu soon resigned from office, and Duong Van Minh became the last president of South Vietnam. As the closing campaign to overrun the capital began, ARVN units disintegrated. The end was near.

In Washington D.C., the Ford administration authorized Operation Frequent Wind to evacuate Saigon. Helicopters transported 7,100 Americans and South Vietnamese to Navy vessels waiting off shore. At least 70,000 South Vietnamese reached the safety of U.S. warships in the South China Sea. Television cameras recorded the last airlift out of the capital, which departed from the roof of the U.S. embassy. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, who soon renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.


While winning the international race to the moon, the U.S. stumbled badly in the Third World. Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Johnson administration counted on graduated pressure to secure South Vietnam. North Vietnam survived the attrition, because the Soviet Union and China replaced many of the assets that U.S. firepower destroyed. Hanoi paid a high price in lives for the Tet Offensive, but Washington D.C. decided to pursue a settlement thereafter. The war in Vietnam divided the American people and demoralized the armed forces. As the troops exited Indochina, the Nixon administration ended the draft. Instead of “peace with honor,” the fall of Saigon seemed indicative of American decline. “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said Colonel Harry Summers to a North Vietnamese officer after the war. “That may be so,” replied his former adversary, “but it is also irrelevant.”

The American experience in Vietnam left citizens with a sense of frustration, shame, and disillusionment about the war. The majority associated the policies of national security with the bleakness of an impossible mission, thereby denying responsibility for what happened. Many expressed outrage about governmental authorities, who refused to allow U.S. forces to achieve victory in a decisive way. Others assigned blame to the national media for delivering a constant barrage of bad news. Some acknowledged the illegitimacy of the Saigon regime as well as the futility of nation-building. A few heaped scorn on the returning veterans by spewing curses or expectorate. Millions continued to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial known simply as “the wall,” which rendered the dead into an abstraction of polished black granite. In almost every post-mortem on the tragedy, Americans fixated upon the myth of an unwinnable war.

Remembering Vietnam as unwinnable obscured the ways in which Americans actually failed to win. No commander-in-chief wanted to lose, yet the application of military power in the “Land of the Blue Dragon” revealed arrogance, dishonesty, and recklessness. The decision to not mobilize the reserve component left important elements of the military establishment disengaged from the protracted struggle. The helicopters, fighters, bombers, tanks, and howitzers failed to make the war any more bearable for conscripts of the Selective Service system. The Pentagon conflated the tactics for killing the enemy with a plan for countering an insurgency. Nothing was gained by the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces that could not have been achieved by declaring victory and going home in 1969. Even though MACV gave South Vietnam the capacity to defend the country, ARVN gave up the fight against existential threats. A better war was possible, but the American strategy remained a losing one.

The losing strategy forced a new generation of military professionals to rethink the doctrines of the Cold War. Informed by the diversity of their experiences in uniform, they came of age while serving tours of duty in Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the globe. Given the variance in where and when they served, soldiering through the uncertainty imparted the vision necessary to imagine a different kind of war – one that appreciated the human and psychological dimensions of a prolonged conflict. They learned valuable lessons about the efficacy of counterinsurgency operations. While devising ways to improve the readiness and the capabilities of the armed forces, they also gained insight into the relationship between the civilians and the military in Washington D.C. After the bombings stopped, they began to rebuild the Army, Navy, and Air Force and eventually helped the nation to move beyond the tragedy of Vietnam.

Essential Questions

1 What sustained the communist insurgency within South Vietnam?

2 How did the Tet Offensive impact U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War?

3 Was ending the draft a mistake? Why, or why not?

Suggested Readings

Appy, Christian G. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Beattie, Keith. The Scar that Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Clodfelter, Mark. The Limits of American Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Heardon, Patrick J. The Tragedy of Vietnam. 3rd edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975. 4th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Kindsvatter, Peter S. American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

McMaster, H. R. Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Moise, Edwin E. Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Olson, James S., and Randy Roberts. Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945–1995. 5th edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945–1975. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.

Santoli, Al, ed. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. New York: Random House, 1981.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt, 1999.

Sorley, Lewis. Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of his Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Spector, Ronald H. After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Vuic, Kara D. Officer, Nurse, Woman: The U.S. Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

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