North Vietnamese troops climb through the Truong Son Mountains in Quang Binh, South Vietnam’s northernmost province, 1969. Sent south to refill the depleted ranks of the NLF after the Tet Offensive, one draftee remembered, they were told “to move fast or there will be nothing left to liberate.”
NO DEADLINE FOR RETURN
Somewhere along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnamese soldiers struggle to carry two comrades felled by malaria. Some units are said to have lost eight out of ten men to the life-threatening blood disease.
AT FIRST, Radio Hanoi had portrayed the Tet Offensive as a series of “tremendous and all-sided victories” in which “hundreds of thousands of people have risen up and destroyed enemy positions, [and] wiped out whole fragments of the puppet administration.”
“But after a couple of weeks,” one Hanoi resident remembered, “we didn’t hear any more news. The Saigon regime was still there and the U.S. planes were still bombing. It was obvious the radio wasn’t telling the truth.”
Casualty figures were never revealed, but to North Vietnamese citizens, secretly listening to reports on the BBC and Radio Saigon, it was clear that they had been heavy. Parents had no idea whether their sons and daughters who had gone south were still alive. “Nobody was allowed to talk about deaths or rumors of deaths,” a fisherman’s wife remembered, “not until the official death notification came from the army. Up until then, if you talked about things like this it was considered anti-state. You were undermining people’s morale. You would get into trouble or be sent to jail.” Wives or mothers might get word indirectly, she continued, “from messages sent by friends who were in the army or by other soldiers from their village….So sometimes a woman knew her husband was dead, but she couldn’t mourn out loud or she and the rest of her family would be in trouble with the police. That’s why my mother and I couldn’t tell my sister.”
“It was as if the nation were in mourning,” a North Vietnamese journalist wrote, “searching for its children. [The war] began to seem like an open pit. The more young people who were lost there, the more they sent.” Thousands of NLF Main Force troops had been lost during Tet. Thousands of fresh troops had to be rushed south to replace them.
Just as in the United States, conscription fell unequally on the country’s youth. “Some leaders sent their children to the front, but they were the minority,” the journalist Huy Duc recalled. “Most leaders’ children, like Le Duan’s children, were sent to the Soviet Union to study.” People with money bribed recruiters to overlook their offspring or paid physicians to declare them unfit to serve.
Most draftees were poor people from the countryside, especially receptive to the slogans and promises of the revolution. Nguyen Van Hung’s father had been a deputy village chief under the French and—even though he was just four when his father died—he remained stigmatized as a “middle farmer element” and therefore “undesirable” as a soldier of the revolution. He was also an only son and the head of his household and therefore thought himself unlikely to be drafted on all three counts. But there was such a desperate need for new troops to fill the NLF Main Force ranks that the draft laws were altered and in the spring of 1968 he got his notice: “I knew I was destined to go south. And I knew the chances of coming back were very slim. About a hundred guys from my village had gone, starting in 1962, and none had returned. Their parents and wives were waiting for them up to their eyes in fear. But nobody had gotten any news. The government was very explicit about it. They said, ‘The trip has no deadline for return. When your mission is accomplished, you’ll come back.’ Uncle Ho had declared, ‘Your duty is to fight for five or ten years or even ten to twenty years.’ ”
Nguyen Van Hung was bitter when he left home, he remembered. His wife had urged him to file a petition against being called up. But he’d gone anyway. Those who resisted had their rations cut off. Basic training turned out to be two-thirds political. “Fight the Americans and save the country,” was the slogan. He was taught that the Americans were a hundred times crueler than the French; that soldiers were part of the proletariat; that it was their duty to liberate the southern population that lived in misery under the domination of the U.S. imperialists. “After a continuous week of this,” he remembered, “my morale was a lot higher than it was when I left my village.”
Two NLF fighters help a third who has been wounded, following a firefight near the Cambodian border. “There’s no doubt that 1969 was the worst we faced,” one communist veteran recalled. “There was no food, no future—nothing bright.”
During the spring and summer of 1968, tens of thousands of replacements like him would make their way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in infiltration groups of four to five hundred men. It was an arduous two- to three-month trek through the Truong Son Mountains of Laos and western Vietnam where, one diarist wrote, one day “has four seasons. The morning is spring; at noon it is summer; in the afternoon it is autumn; and at night it is winter.”
President Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing of most of the North meant that U.S. airpower could focus more single-mindedly on the infiltration routes in Laos and Cambodia. One unit, picking its way toward the South, claimed to have dodged sixty-six separate B-52 bombloads in six hours. When rice and salt ran short, some men survived on roots, moss, ferns, and leaves. Malaria ravaged their ranks. “I have a constant fever,” one soldier wrote, “my body is emaciated, my wrists are thin, my eyes are sunken, my hair falls out, but I must still carry a load weighing over thirty kilograms.”
This photograph, entitled “Heroic Soldier from Anti-aircraft Company #5 Loads Artillery,” became the basis for a North Vietnamese postage stamp and was meant to spur the people’s support for the war. It was actually taken in a Hanoi suburb where no American bomb ever fell.
A visiting government official rations out nuoc mam, the staple Vietnamese fish sauce, among the people of a village in the North Vietnamese province of Nam Ha. Because the scene suggested scarcity this image was suppressed during the war.
As they neared South Vietnam they passed burned-out vehicles and military graveyards, the stones neatly marked with the names of the dead and the date each had died. They encountered small groups of wounded men moving in the other direction. Those without arms walked. Legless men rode in camouflaged trucks. There were blinded soldiers, too, and others who had been hideously burned by napalm.
“You’ll see all kinds of pleasures in the South,” the war-weary wounded told the frightened men moving toward the war.
When anyone seemed overly anxious approaching the South, a platoon’s political officer remembered, “the answer was that war always brings death and that we shouldn’t bother ourselves with morbid thoughts. No one argued with the cadres. But everyone was frightened, especially when we met those men….It was like looking at our future selves.”
I LOOK FOR MORE FIGHTING
WHEN THE REPLACEMENTS reached the South they would be facing a new American commander. On June 10, President Johnson announced the appointment of General Creighton Abrams. He was a soldier’s soldier, a combat leader, one reporter wrote, who “could inspire aggressiveness in a begonia.” His tank battalion had been the first to break though the German lines and relieve Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. He had served as chief of staff to three different corps in Korea, commanded Army regulars and National Guardsmen to quell the riots that followed the desegregation of schools and colleges in Alabama and Mississippi, and served for a year in Saigon as General Westmoreland’s top deputy, earning a reputation as “the godfather of the ARVN” because of his determination to improve the performance of South Vietnamese forces.
On the surface, at least, he and his predecessor could not have been more different. Westmoreland had been crisp, controlled, perpetually confident—one reporter noted that he breakfasted in his underwear in order not to muss his perfectly pressed uniform. Abrams was very different: “Chances are,” one observer wrote, “if he were in civilian clothes, sitting on a park bench, a cop would tell him to move along.” “Even in appearance the men are opposites,” a Time reporter wrote: “Westy, the handsome, square-jawed, picture poster image of a U.S. general; Abrams a kind of middle-aged Joe Palooka, an ever-present Dutch Master cigar between his teeth enhancing the tough-guy image. His manner follows his face. Where Westy is a soft-spoken, courtly gentleman from the South, Abrams is the no-nonsense hard guy from Massachusetts.”
The hard-guy demeanor was not a pose. He was tough-talking, hard-drinking, a “slumbering volcano,” one general remembered, who “suddenly erupts in an earthy profane way when necessary to straighten someone out or to spur lagging performance.” He did not insist that his subordinates invariably report progress: “Occasionally,” one officer said, “we are allowed to state frankly that we didn’t do a damn thing this month.” Unlike his predecessor, Abrams thought it unwise to issue perennially hopeful bulletins. “The overall public affairs policy of this command,” he told his subordinates, “will be to let results speak for themselves. We will not deal in propaganda exercises but will portray all of our activities in a low key. Achievements, not hopes, will be stressed.” And while commanders were free to speak with reporters, he continued, “considerably more extensive use could be made of the phrase ‘No comment.’ ”
General Creighton Abrams salutes the flag for the first time as MACV’s new commander, June 1968. Behind him, hand on heart, is U.S. ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.
The Christian Science Monitor hailed his appointment as likely to “open the way to further new approaches to strategy,” and two early changes Abrams made did seem to signal a promising shift: he ordered Khe Sanh abandoned and plowed under, and, while ringing Saigon with U.S. and ARVN forces in order to stop the enemy from rocket attacks on the city, he prohibited the tactical use of artillery, bombing, and gunships anywhere in its environs without his express permission.
Private First Class Robert Whitworth of Albany, Oregon, and the Americal Division after three days in pursuit of the enemy south of Danang, 1968. “There was no way we could stand up to the Americans [that year],” a communist fighter remembered. “Every time they came in force we ran from them. Then when they turned back, we’d follow them.”
Some observers also took comfort in the new way Abrams talked about the war. Lyndon Johnson often spoke of pacification as “the other war,” a phrase Ambassador Bunker particularly disliked. “To me,” he said, “this is all one war,” with a host of interlocking parts. The new commander adopted Bunker’s language as his own. The enemy already understands, he said, “that this is just one, repeat, one war. He knows there is no such thing as a war of big battalions, a war of pacification, or a war of territorial security. Friendly forces have got to recognize and understand the one-war concept and carry the battle to the enemy, simultaneously, in all areas of conflict.”
But earlier that spring, while the White House was still wrestling with the questions raised by the Tet Offensive, President Johnson had asked Abrams, “Is there anything we should be doing that we aren’t doing?”
“Our basic strategy is sound,” Abrams answered. “I don’t think we need to change strategy. We need to be more flexible tactically inside South Vietnam.”
The new commander inherited unchanged the multifaceted mission his predecessor had outlined more than three years earlier: Main Force enemy units were to be destroyed; insurgents were to be disrupted and eventually defeated; cities and towns were to be protected; pacification was to be advanced in order to enhance Saigon’s control of the population—all this while readying South Vietnamese forces so they could one day assume responsibility for their own independence. And he was being asked to do it all at the same time and within strict new limitations. The era of American escalation was over; Defense Secretary Clark Clifford had made it clear that there was “no plan to ask for any more American troops.”
“Abe knows damn well that he wasn’t sent here to win the war,” a senior U.S. officer said, “but to hold the fort until the Indians make peace.”
When, shortly after Abrams took command, a reporter asked if he had in mind any major changes in strategy, he would only say, “I look for more fighting.” The memoranda he issued to his commanders that summer were virtually indistinguishable from the exhortations produced by his predecessor: they were to “accommodate the enemy in seeking battle and in fact to anticipate him wherever possible”; their aim should be to “defeat his forces, then pursue them and destroy them”; they were to launch “spoiling and preemptive operations” against Main Force units as well as the NLF infrastructure. All summer, Abrams would keep his troops prowling South Vietnam, seeking out the enemy and hoping to provide a shield behind which the South Vietnamese government could restore its grip in the wake of Tet.
The communists would mount yet another costly country-wide offensive in August. Like its predecessors, it would fail. Enemy planners had hoped that attacks on several border towns would lure U.S. forces away from the cities. They did not. An assault on Danang was thwarted before it could begin. Some planned attacks failed to materialize; others were broken by massive U.S. firepower or lack of food and supplies. In five weeks of fighting, MACV claimed to have killed another twenty thousand enemy troops.
During the second half of 1968, the number of battles fought by battalion-sized forces would fall sharply, a sign some observers saw as evidence of a fresh Abrams strategy. But by and large it was the enemy that had begun to change its ways. Tet and Mini-Tet had taken a fearful toll on North Vietnamese and NLF forces alike. “When the Tet campaign was over, we didn’t have enough men left to fight a major battle,” North Vietnamese colonel Huong Van Ba recalled, “only to make hit-and-run attacks on posts….Morale was very low. We spent a great deal of time hiding in tunnels, trying to avoid capture. We experienced desertions, and many of our people filtered back to their homes to join local guerrilla forces.” Most Main Force units that did remain more or less intact retreated to bases hidden in the Central Highlands or slipped across the border to sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.
After Tet, Mini-Tet, and the August offensive—despite new leadership at MACV, despite the loss of thousands of American and South Vietnamese lives, despite the deaths of tens of thousands of enemy troops and the displacement of tens of thousands of innocent civilians—the war remained what it had been for months: a stalemate.
The talks in Paris were stalemated too, and Lyndon Johnson had begun to regret ever having declared a partial bombing halt. Hanoi had yet to make even a remotely reciprocal gesture. The president felt “hornswoggled,” he told Clifford, and now wished he could “knock Hanoi and Haiphong off the map.”
There was little good news from Saigon, either. In June, Thieu had signed the General Mobilization Law, which would eventually expand the South Vietnamese armed forces from 600,000 to over a million. But Clifford was not encouraged. Visiting Saigon in July, he warned Thieu that the American public was fast wearying of the war, that “if we could not achieve a settlement in Paris, we expected the South Vietnamese gradually to take over.”
“Saigon’s weakness was the major cause of our dilemma,” Clifford recalled, “and I saw no reason to indulge it. [Ambassador] Bunker may have perceived growing stability in the government and discovered ‘statesmanlike’ qualities in [Thieu]—clearly his favorite among the South Vietnamese leaders—but I saw a group of squabbling and corrupt generals selfishly maneuvering for their own advantage while Americans and Vietnamese continued to die in combat.” He reported to the president that he was “now ‘absolutely certain’ that Saigon did not want the war to end—not while they were protected by over 500,000 American troops and a ‘golden flow of money.’ ” He was especially appalled, he said, by the “shocking and outrageous list” of military hardware Thieu had requested, “including between three hundred and four hundred helicopters and T-39 trainer jets to be used as private aircraft for senior officials.”
Back in Washington, Clifford argued that, since the United States had fulfilled its obligations to Saigon “many times over,” the South Vietnamese were unlikely to establish an honest and effective government before the U.S. public gave up on it, and the North could not be bombed into submission, it was time to move the Paris talks along by declaring an unconditional halt to the bombing—reserving the right to resume it if the North took advantage of American forbearance.
Johnson would not do it.
Clifford appealed to Dean Rusk to help him persuade the president to reconsider.
Rusk would not.
Clifford was angered. “All you are suggesting,” he said, “is that we keep on fighting and having our men killed indefinitely.”
Rusk answered with what Clifford remembered as “maddening…blandness”: “You never can tell when Hanoi will break and give in.”
When The New York Times reported that the secretaries of defense and state were at loggerheads, Johnson complained to Clifford, “Every day I read something in the papers about deep policy differences between you and Dean. I am telling both of you that I want it stopped.”
It did not stop. The president remained caught between his key advisers—and between his own conflicting desires simultaneously to end a war and to keep from being the first president to lose one.
IS THAT WHY I DID THAT?
The Vietnam War forced young men from all over the country to face questions and choices their fathers and grandfathers had rarely had to face when asked to fight in other wars: What obligation did a citizen owe his country? What should one do when asked to fight a war in which one did not believe?
Tim O’Brien grew up in Worthington, a small farming community in southern Minnesota that liked to call itself “the Turkey Capital of the World.” “Small-town America, at least my small town, had great virtues,” he remembered. “It was a safe place to grow up. There was Little League baseball in the summer, and hockey in the winter. Everybody knows everyone else’s business and their faults and what’s happening in their marriages and where the kids have gone wrong. It was full of the Kiwanis boys and the Elks Club and the country-club set and the chatty housewives and the holier-than-thou ministers.”
But, as O’Brien recalled, the specter of the war haunted unmarried young men of draft age, including him: “I remember the day my draft notice arrived. It was a summer afternoon, maybe June of ‘68. And I remember taking that envelope into the house and putting it on the kitchen table where my mom and dad were having lunch. They just looked at it and knew what it was. The silence of that lunch: I didn’t speak, my mom didn’t speak, my dad didn’t speak. It was just that piece of paper lying at the center of the table. It was enough to make me cry to this day, not for myself, but for my mom and dad, both of whom had been in the Navy during World War Two, and had believed in service to one’s country and all those values.
“On the one hand I did think the war was less than righteous. On the other hand I love my country. And I valued my life in a small town and my friends and family. So I wrestled with what was, for me, at least, more tortuous and devastating and emotionally painful than anything that happened in Vietnam. Do you go off and kill people if you’re not pretty sure it’s right? And if your nation isn’t pretty sure it’s right? If there isn’t some consensus, do you do that? In the end, I just capitulated, and one day I got on a bus with other recent graduates, and we went over to Sioux Falls about sixty miles away, and raised our hands and went into the Army. But it wasn’t a decision; it was a forfeiture of a decision. It was letting my body go, turning a switch in my conscience, just turning it off, so it wouldn’t be barking at me saying, ‘You’re doing a bad and evil and stupid and unpatriotic thing.’ ”
O’Brien underwent basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, just a ninety-minute bus ride from Canada. “I wrote my mom and dad from there and asked for money,” he recalled. “I asked for my passport. They sent them to me with no questions like, ‘What do you want the passport for?’ They just sent it. And I kept all this stuff, including civilian clothes, stashed in my footlocker, thinking, maybe I’ll do it. It was this kind of maybe thing going on all throughout this training as Vietnam got closer and closer and closer. What prevented me from doing it? I think it was pretty simple and stupid. It was a fear of embarrassment, a fear of ridicule and humiliation. What my girlfriend would have thought of me and what the people in the Gobbler Cafe in downtown Worthington would have thought. The things they’d say about me: ‘What a coward and what a sissy for going to Canada.’ I would imagine my mom and dad overhearing something like that. I couldn’t summon the courage to say no to those nameless, faceless people who really in essence represented the United States of America. I couldn’t say no to them. And I’ve had to live with it now for, you know, forty years. That’s a long time to live with a failure of conscience and a failure of nerve. And the nightmare of Vietnam for me is not the bombs and the bullets. It’s that failure of nerve that I so regret.”
Tim O’Brien at home at Christmastime in Worthington, Minnesota, with his brother, Greg, and sister, Kathy
Karl Marlantes wrestled with the same decision that tormented Tim O’Brien. Born in Astoria, Oregon, the son of a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, he’d joined the Marine Reserve in high school, eager to prove himself and defend his country. But questions about the Gulf of Tonkin, stories of civilian casualties, the shock of the Tet Offensive, the suspicion that American officials had misrepresented what was happening, had nagged at him at Yale and afterward as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.
Karl Marlantes and a girlfriend at Oxford
He loved it at Oxford, “drinking beer, hanging out with the girls, and having a grand old time.” But, he remembered, in the end “I couldn’t do it. I felt that I was sort of hiding behind privilege, and that I had to make a choice. I was very torn. And there was another kid there, Mike Fredrickson, and we spent one whole night debating what to do. And Mike decided to turn his draft card in and go to Canada. And I decided to send my letter in to the Marine Corps. I’d taken an oath, ‘so help me God.’ I took that seriously. But I think more importantly it was my friends, guys that I trained with. I felt like I was going to sort of let the side down. That by not joining in with them and sharing the burden that I wouldn’t be a decent person. The thing about patriotism had faded enormously. So it was more my personal oath, my own honor at stake. And you know, I think about that. It’s a mixed bag because I went over there and killed people. Is that why I did that?”
WHEN THE MORNING COMES
EVERY AFTERNOON at five o’clock, the staticky voice of the radio propagandist Trinh Thi Ngo, whom the Americans called “Hanoi Hannah,” brought the news of at least some of these developments to Captain Hal Kushner, who was locked away with other American captives in the first of several remote prisoner-of-war camps in the Central Highlands. But for the most part Kushner and his fellow prisoners were shut off from the outside world.
Not long after Kushner arrived, two Puerto Rican captives, Marine Corporal Jose Agosto-Santos and Army PFC Luis Ortiz-Rivera, were to be set free by their captors as alleged proof that prisoners were receiving “lenient and humane” treatment. Kushner took the opportunity to smuggle out word that he was still alive: “It was about the only time I had a pencil in my whole captivity. I had some paper. I think it was a paper towel. I wrote down the names, ranks, and serial numbers of the men who had been freshly captured, as well as my own. And when I said goodbye to one of the Puerto Ricans I shook hands and I had this paper all balled up. The Vietnamese let it go or they had lousy security. Anyway, I passed him the paper. I told him in Spanish to give that paper to the authorities. My father and my father-in-law, who spoke Spanish, went down to Fort Bragg. And they were allowed to speak to these two prisoners. And my father identified my handwriting. So he knew that I was at least able to write on that particular date.”
Kushner received no word of how his family was faring. His family would hear nothing further about him for more than a year. “I’d been married five years when I went to Vietnam. I had a child who was two and a half, a little girl, who I adored, and I knew my wife was pregnant and I knew that she was going to have a baby in April. So I got captured in December. And I never knew whether he was a boy or a girl. But I thought about my parents and my siblings and my wife and my little girl. And one of the things that bothered me, and I think this is not an unusual dynamic, is that I couldn’t really remember what they looked like after a while. I remembered what their pictures looked like. And when I imaged them in my mind’s eye I would image a picture, a photograph.”
There was nothing either lenient or humane about the treatment Kushner and his fellow prisoners received over the months that followed. They lived crowded together in one grass hut, surrounded by dense jungle. Their “kitchen” was a hole in the ground surrounded by rocks. “We had one blanket per person, if you could call it that,” a fellow prisoner remembered—“a burlap bag split and sewn together, the kind of bag in which the U.S. Agency for International Development shipped free rice and bulgur wheat to Vietnam.” Each bag featured the clasped-hands symbol of international friendship.
Sheets of monsoon rain fell for weeks at a time, leaking through the straw roof, turning the clearing into a sea of mud. The men slept on a large bamboo pallet, sometimes as many as eighteen of them, Kushner remembered: “And we were sick. We were very sick. And we discharged our functions on this pallet. And we defecated and urinated and vomited and did all these things next to each other. We had no change of clothing, no shoes, no mosquito nets, no blankets. And we were in the mountains. No toothpaste, no soap, none of the things that we consider almost necessary for survival. Our food ration was three cups of rice per day, coffee-cup size. In the rainy season, which was three or four months, it was cut down to two coffee cups of rice. And they gave us a ration of [nuoc cham], which is a rotting fish sauce. It’s dead fish that ferments and it makes a kind of gravy that smells just like you would expect it to smell and tastes worse. And we would put that on the rice. And the rice was not white rice. It was old rice that had been cached in the mountains for years….It was shot through with weevils and rat feces and things like that. We got no protein and we were vitamin deficient. And we got no vitamin C. We swelled up. We got what was called in World War Two hunger edema. It’s hypoproteinemia—lack of protein. We got beriberi from lack of vitamin B1. We got every vitamin deficiency one could get. We had terrible skin diseases. We had scabies. We had everything.”
In order to survive, Kushner repeated his own mantra over and over again during the night: “I’ll be here when the morning comes. I’ll be here when the morning comes.” He could not always convince himself that it was true.
DID WE COME ALL THIS WAY FOR THIS?
BY THE TIME the Republicans gathered in Miami Beach for their national convention in early August, Richard Nixon was the front-runner for their presidential nomination. That fact in itself was remarkable. Just six years earlier he had issued his own political epitaph. A California congressman and senator, best known for fierce anticommunism, equally fierce partisanship, and a sinuous air that early on earned him the contemptuous epithet “Tricky Dick,” he served for eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. John Kennedy defeated him for the presidency in 1960, and, when he was defeated again trying to become governor of his own state two years later, he had bid a bitter televised farewell to politics. “For sixteen years,” he’d told reporters then, “you’ve had an opportunity to attack me. But as I leave you…just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”
Kennedy’s death revived Nixon’s ambition. In 1964, he began to rebuild his reputation within his party, campaigning in thirty-six states for Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party. He did it again for congressional candidates two years later, winning the gratitude of party stalwarts all over the country, methodically building support for his presidential nomination.
The 1968 Republican ticket: Richard Nixon (right) and his running mate, Maryland governor Spiro Agnew, accept their party’s nomination.
Two of his rivals, both moderates, self-destructed: Michigan governor George Romney, seeking to explain newfound skepticism about the war, said he’d been “brainwashed” by the military, became a laughingstock, and withdrew before the first primary; while New York governor Nelson Rockefeller entered the race too late to stop Nixon’s momentum. California governor Ronald Reagan failed to declare himself a candidate until the convention, and then proved unable to peel away enough southern conservatives from the front-runner to make a difference.
When Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot, James Reston of The New York Times called it “the greatest comeback since Lazarus.” For his running mate Nixon picked Spiro Agnew, the once-moderate governor of Maryland, who had won conservative support for the hard and dismissive line he’d taken toward African American leaders after the Baltimore riots following the death of Dr. King.
In a masterful acceptance speech, Nixon made the case for himself as the man who could bring a badly divided country together and both “end the war and win the peace.” “A party that can unite itself will unite America,” he said. “As we look at America we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy, and Korea, and in Valley Forge for this?
“The problem,” he said, was that Washington had stopped listening to “the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting…the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators.” He promised to be their president.
When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in a war in Vietnam with no end in sight;
When the richest nation in the world can’t manage its own economy;
When the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness;
When a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence;
And when the President of the United States cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home without fear of a hostile demonstration—then it’s time for new leadership for the United States of America….
I pledge to you tonight that the first priority of our next administration will be to bring an honorable end to the Vietnam War….
For five years hardly a day has gone by when we haven’t read or heard a report of the American flag being spit on, and our embassy being stoned, a library being burned, or an ambassador being insulted. If we are to restore prestige and respect for America abroad, the place to begin is at home, in the United States of America.
The editors of The Boston Globe wrote that there really was a “new Nixon.” “Gone is the lack of self-confidence, gone the scarcely concealed conviction that he was just a political accident who really did not belong in the Big Time, gone the almost self-evident apprehension that he would be found out sooner or later as an upstart tyro….What Mr. Nixon has done and done superbly is to list the problems confronting the nation. His testing period will come when (and if) he spells out what he proposes to do about them.”
SECOND LIEUTENANT Vincent Okamoto, whose introduction to Vietnam had been a mortar attack at Bien Hoa on his second night in country, was now a platoon leader with Bravo Company, Second Battalion, Twenty-seventh Regiment, Twenty-fifth Infantry Division—based at Cu Chi, some fourteen miles northwest of Saigon, an area honeycombed with miles of Viet Cong tunnels. “My parents are Japanese immigrants,” he said. “I had rice literally every day of my life until I went into the military. We were conducting a cordon and search of a village. Didn’t find any weapons, didn’t find any communist literature. So we took a prolonged lunch break. Everybody wants to get out of the sun. Well, my RTO [radio telephone operator], my medic, and I went into this particular house. There were three women in there, and a babe in arms, and a kid about four years old. And one woman was cooking rice. Well, here’s Okamoto, Mrs. Okamoto’s son, who hadn’t had rice—hot, steamed rice—for months. I’m looking at it. It looks pretty good to me. I get my interpreter, ‘Hey, tell this woman, the grandma, that I’ll give her a pack of cigarettes, my C-ration turkey loaf, and a can of peaches for some of that steamed rice and that fish and vegetables.’ It was great. And I asked for seconds. My RTO said, ‘Damn, ain’t these people poor enough without you eating their food?’ I said, ‘Hell, they got enough rice here to feed a dozen men.’ And then it dawned on me: they did have enough rice to feed a dozen men. So I had my interpreter ask the woman, ‘Who’s all this rice for?’ And she said, ‘No biết, no biết, no biết,’—‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.’ So we started looking around again, and we found a tunnel mouth. I was given a phosphorous grenade. After the smoke cleared, we pulled, I think, seven or eight bodies to the town square. You couldn’t identify these charred bodies. So we wanted to see who would cry over these people. Then we’d have more people to question. The women that lived in that house, whose rice I had eaten, they’re all squatting down, wailing. I think that was the first time I knew that I personally had killed people. I got an ‘Attaboy’ from the supervisor. But it wasn’t something that had any glory in it, or made you feel a real sense of accomplishment.”
Over that summer, Okamoto was wounded twice and made twenty-two helicopter assaults, four of them as commander of Bravo Company. The success or failure of a given mission was still measured largely as it had been under General Westmoreland. “You were told very succinctly,” Okamoto remembered. “We need to rack up as much body count as we can. How many gooks did you kill today? A kill ratio determined whether or not you called a firefight a victory or a loss. If you killed twenty North Vietnamese and lost only two people, they declared it a great victory.”
On August 23, 1968, Second Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto’s outfit faced a near-impossible task. From their base at Cu Chi, he and his men were helicoptered northwestward to block a battalion of North Vietnamese troops from escaping across the border into Cambodia.
On the morning of August 23, he made his twenty-third assault. Nineteen helicopters ferried the first and second platoons to a new landing zone just thirteen miles from the Cambodian border. Their task was to dig in, stay put, and somehow block a battalion of some eight hundred North Vietnamese troops, who were trying to escape back across the border.
Okamoto’s unit was reinforced by a platoon of mechanized infantry, three APCs, and a tank, but they were still badly outnumbered. He and the fewer than 150 men under his command spent the rest of that day and all of the next preparing for an attack as best they could—setting Claymore mines and hanging coils of razor wire.
At about ten o’clock on the night of August 24, Okamoto remembered, “we got hit with a very heavy mortar barrage. Within the first ten seconds, all three of those armored personnel carriers and tanks were knocked out with rocket-propelled grenades.”
Trip flares briefly lit up the landscape. Scores of enemy troops were running at the Americans through the elephant grass. Enemy mortar shells blasted two gaps in the razor wire. If Okamoto and his outnumbered men couldn’t plug them, they were sure to be overrun. He and the four men closest to him held their M16s above their heads and fired blindly.
The enemy kept coming. “I had my four people. And through the light of the flares, I said, ‘A couple of you guys go and man the machine guns out on those APCs.’ Well, the response I got was, like, ‘Fuck you, I ain’t going up there.’ So I ran to the first armored personnel carrier, and I pulled the dead gunner out of the turret. I jumped in there, manned the machine gun, and fired until it ran out of ammo.” Okamoto moved to the second disabled APC, then the third, emptying their guns.
“They were still coming at us,” he remembered. “So I crawled out there, till I was about ten meters from them. I killed them with hand grenades.” Two enemy grenades fell near him. He managed to throw both back. But a third landed just beyond his reach. Shrapnel fragments peppered his legs and back.
“I just knew for sure I was going to die,” he remembered. “ ‘Hey Okamoto, you’re not going to make it out of here. Mom’s going to take it hard, but you’re not going to make it out of here.’ That’s liberating. When you know you’re going to die, the fear leaves. At least in my case, I was no longer afraid. I was just mad because here are all these little guys trying to kill my ass. And if that’s the case, then I’m going to make it as tough on them as I possibly can before I go down. I killed a lot of brave men that night. And I rationalized that by telling myself, ‘Well, maybe what you did—just maybe—it saved the lives of a couple of your people.’ ”
Second Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto and his M16. “The Twenty-fifth Infantry Division,” he remembered, “had responsibility for guarding the Cambodian border. These had been North Vietnamese–Viet Cong strongholds for years. We would go there, and some of those places, we wouldn’t have to look for them. They’d come out, gunning for us. The old-timers would throw away their C-rations to carry more ammo, because they knew it was going to be a real battle.”
During the night, the enemy slipped over the border into Cambodia, dragging as many of their dead with them as they could. A third of Okamoto’s company had been lost.
For his efforts that day, Vincent Okamoto received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second highest honor. “You know what?” he asked. “The real heroes were the men who died—nineteen-, twenty-year-old high school dropouts. Most were draftees. They didn’t have escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had. They looked upon military service as like the weather: you had to go in, and you’d do it. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain—there wasn’t anything to look forward to. They weren’t going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam. And yet, their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself, ‘How does America produce young men like this?’ ” Before his tour of duty ended, Vincent Okamoto would become the most highly decorated Japanese American to survive the Vietnam War.
Eight out of ten Americans in Vietnam never heard a shot fired in anger, never saw a bomb dropped or a village burned. They were the men in combat support and service support units—clerks, cooks, mechanics, MPs. These were the jobs nearly everyone wanted.
Just a portion of Long Binh, the largest U.S. base in South Vietnam, seen from the air
But combat soldiers had a name for them. “They’re REMFs—rear-echelon motherfuckers,” Vincent Okamoto remembered. “These are the dudes that…never go out beyond the barbed wire of base camp. They sleep in a bed, with sheets. They have showers every day. They drink cold beer at night. Their only danger is every once in a while, they might be…hit with rockets or mortars. They’re not humping the boonies every day in hundred-degree weather, carrying a sixty-pound pack, thinking that if you don’t get shot, you may die from heatstroke. They were totally alien.”
Private American contractors constructed one hundred airfields in South Vietnam—including fifteen big enough for jets to land on and take off from—and they created seven deep-draft ocean ports for the loading and unloading of supplies and men. Six giant dairy plants produced 17 million gallons of milk substitute for GIs. More than forty ice cream plants—including one aboard a floating barge in the Mekong Delta—turned out hundreds of thousands of gallons in a dozen flavors every month.
Long Binh, twenty miles north of Saigon, was the biggest of all the American bases. Roughly the size of Manhattan, it was so large, one colonel said, that “if we ever really got attacked, the VC would have to use the scheduled bus service to get around.” As many as sixty thousand Americans made it their home. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese filed through its gates each day to see to the Americans’ needs. Vietnamese cooks prepared their meals. Vietnamese maids and laundresses tidied up their barracks and made sure their uniforms were clean and crisply ironed.
“Here at Long Binh,” the operations officer told CBS correspondent Morley Safer, “we have about the same facilities you might find stateside. We have eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. We have ranges for archery and skeet shooting. For golf we have putting and driving ranges. And we are building a couple of bowling alleys. And, of course, there is basketball. We have only four football fields and right now we don’t have enough people to referee the games. There’s a lot of roads to run around for people who want to keep in shape. They have to use their initiative, you know, and go to special services and find things to do. There’s plenty to do: there’s no real cause for complaint.”
Long Binh also housed a military jail that held hundreds of prisoners and forty separate air-conditioned clubs at which officers and enlisted men could drink and eat, a bakery that produced 180,000 loaves of bread a day, a Chinese restaurant, a go-cart track—and a “massage parlor,” operated by an independent contractor and open twenty-four hours a day.
Since most of the men who lived and worked on the base rarely moved beyond the barbed wire and never saw combat, the Army built for them what was officially called “the Nature of the War Museum,” a replica of a Viet Cong–held village—a hut, a Buddhist temple, artificial booby traps, and a hollowed-out haystack with an opening at the side and a helpful sign reading “Hiding-Place in Haystack.”
There were forty-six “main store” PXs in South Vietnam, each the size of a big, one-story, fully stocked department store—and 168 smaller “troop and base” stores at which GIs could buy everything from refrigerators and color television sets to hairspray for their Vietnamese girlfriends.
“There was an ongoing cottage industry between the grunts and the rear-echelon motherfuckers,” Okamoto remembered. “The base camp commandos were hungry for souvenirs. AK-47s became the coin of the realm. We would be filthy with AK-47s. So when you ran out of the small creature comforts of life, you’d say, ‘Okay, pack them up in a trailer, or ship them to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.’ I made a run one time. And when we got there, it was surreal. I just left Cu Chi, and two and a half hours later, I am at Tan Son Nhut, at the main PX. It’s air-conditioned. They are playing soft music. They had everything in stock, from refrigerators to a jewelry counter, where you could buy diamonds and Rolex watches. And you see these Air Force types wearing starched khaki uniforms. You see civilian workers, all shopping in the PX. They have a snack bar where you could buy hamburgers and chocolate milk and malts and cherry Cokes. But you have to say to yourself, ‘Damn; this is a different universe. Two and a half hours away people are killing each other. My people are risking their ass. And here, they’re playing taped music of the Mamas and the Papas in the PX.’ ”
Soldiers tan themselves alongside one of eight swimming pools on the base.
Film star Raquel Welch stirs up the men at Danang during one of Bob Hope’s annual USO Christmas shows. “Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain the troops is like teasing a caged lion with…raw meat,” she said. “Those boys want relief, not more frustration.”
Precious cargo, at fifteen cents a can
THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING
THE SIRENS IN THE NIGHT and the spectacle of Americans hating and fighting one another, of which Richard Nixon had spoken in Miami sixteen days earlier, would be all too evident during the Democratic convention that opened in Chicago on August 26, the day after Okamoto and his men were lifted off the battlefield.
The Democratic Party was as deeply divided as the country. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was now the most likely nominee: mayor of Minneapolis, senator from Minnesota, champion of civil rights, and a friend of labor, he had once been a hero to the liberal wing of his party. But because, as vice president, he had unswervingly supported the president and the war in public, many of his old admirers had come to despise him, and his official announcement of his candidacy, promising to practice “the politics of joy,” had made him seem hopelessly out of touch with his troubled country.
A sizable but vocal minority of the delegates—those won by Senator Eugene McCarthy, as well as those loyal to the memory of Robert Kennedy, who would find a new potential standard-bearer in Senator George McGovern—was determined to add a plank to the party platform calling for an unconditional and immediate end to all bombing of North Vietnam, and a phased withdrawal by both American and North Vietnamese forces leading to talks including the NLF and aimed at the creation of a coalition government.
Humphrey worked to create a vaguely worded compromise peace plank that at least some of the antiwar delegates might support: “Stop all bombing of North Vietnam,” it said, “unless this action would endanger the lives of our troops.” Since it included no demand that Hanoi reciprocate in any way, Johnson vetoed it. “This plank just undercuts the whole policy,” he told his vice president. “By God, the Democratic Party ought not be doing that to me and you ought not be doing it; you’ve been a part of this policy.” Humphrey gave in and threw his support behind a plank that explicitly praised the president for his efforts at peacemaking and offered a bombing halt only if there were a matching gesture by Hanoi. The stage was set for an epic floor fight.
Meanwhile, in city parks and the streets surrounding them, protestors had been gathering for days, most to register their anguish over the war, some bent on disrupting the proceedings. “It was a wild array of different people with different strategies and different tactics,” Bill Zimmerman recalled. Rumors of coming trouble were everywhere: “black militants” were planning to attack white neighborhoods; radicals were going to shell the convention; yippies threatened to lace the city’s drinking water with LSD and kidnap delegates and orchestrate a nude “swim-in” in Lake Michigan by ten thousand men and women.
The threats were empty, but Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley chose to take them all seriously. During the uprising that followed Dr. King’s death, he’d ordered his police force to “shoot to kill” anyone seen looting. “As long as I am mayor of this city,” he said, “there’s going to be law and order in Chicago.” He ran his city—and his party’s state-wide Democratic machine—with an iron hand. “If Daley instructs his  delegates to vote for Ho Chi Minh,” a veteran Chicago politician said, “all but twenty votes will go to Ho Chi Minh without a question.” The mayor had refused to back any of the likely nominees, unpersuaded that any of them could defeat Nixon, and even encouraged Lyndon Johnson to fly to Chicago and get back in the race, promising that enough delegates would rally to him to snatch the nomination. But the Secret Service warned Johnson it could not guarantee his safety, and when the pollster Lou Harris informed him that the Republican candidate held a sizable lead over him as well as over every other potential Democratic candidate he reluctantly abandoned the idea.
The mayor remained unsure whom to support—he would try and fail to persuade Senator Edward Kennedy, the lone surviving Kennedy brother, to run before he finally threw his support behind Humphrey—but he was determined that there would be no trouble in his city. He put twelve thousand Chicago policemen on twelve-hour alert, and saw to it that six thousand armed National Guardsmen were stationed in the city, alongside one thousand intelligence operatives from the FBI, the CIA, the Army, and the Navy. Another six thousand Army troops stood by at air bases across the country in case they were needed. Daley also created a one-square-mile security area around the amphitheater and surrounded it with chain-link fences topped by whorls of barbed wire. Manhole covers were sealed with tar. Helicopters chattered constantly overhead. The mayor also refused to issue permits for protest marches and forbade anyone from remaining in a city park after 11 p.m.
Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, seated on the floor of the 1968 Democratic convention alongside the Illinois delegation he controlled. Many of the demonstrators gathering outside the Chicago Amphitheater, he told the delegates, were “extremists…who have been successful in convincing some people that theatrical protest is rational dissent.”
When Rennie Davis, one of the protest’s organizers, was asked if he planned to go ahead with demonstrations anyway, he was adamant: “Given the fact that for many months we have notified this city and this nation that we wish to hold an assembly in Chicago to register our convictions about the war, the tens of thousands of people coming to the city…constitute a permit….Our fight is with the militarism that is developing in this country in the response to legitimate political and social grievances…by bringing in troops rather than dealing with the real issues and real problems.”
Walter Cronkite, anchoring the CBS convention coverage, was appalled at what Daley was doing. “In the name of security, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, perhaps as far as the demonstrators themselves are concerned even freedom of speech, have been severely restricted here,” he told his viewers on opening day. “A Democratic convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it.”
“To go to Chicago,” Tom Hayden remembered, “was a matter of finding out how far you were willing to go for your beliefs, and finding out how far the American government was willing to go in suspending the better part of its tradition to stop you.” “You stayed away if you wanted to avoid trouble, and you went if you couldn’t stay away,” Todd Gitlin recalled. “The fear, the squabbling, maybe above all the lack of permits, took their toll. The tens of thousands of demonstrators once trumpeted did not materialize. A few thousand did, three or four thousand on most days, up to perhaps eight or ten thousand at the peak on Wednesday, August 28.”
“Never before,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, “had so many feared so much from so few.”
Twice, the police drove demonstrators out of Lincoln Park with clubs and tear gas, then chased them through the fashionable streets of Old Town, clubbing fleeing protestors and spectators alike. Phil Caputo, who had been among the first Marines to serve in Vietnam and was now a cub reporter for the Chicago Tribune, saw it happen and thought he knew what accounted for the officers’ ferocity. “The cops were all guys from the neighborhoods,” he remembered. “Mostly ethnic guys, Italians, Polish guys, Irish guys. Probably some had been in Vietnam—and if they hadn’t been they certainly had cousins or brothers who were. And, like a lot of guys from the neighborhood, they had a certain image of what college students ought to be like. Now, all of a sudden, the streets are filled with these kids who don’t look to them like college kids are supposed to look. Some are breaking windows and yelling obscenities. I think a lot of policemen saw that as abusing their privileges and scorning them, the cops.” Whatever their motivation, whether they were acting out of personal resentment or under direct orders from their superiors, the Chicago police seemed intent on brutalizing demonstrators.
There was trouble inside the amphitheater, too. Fights erupted over credentials and procedures. Television reporters were manhandled. On Wednesday the 28th, delegates began debating the party platform. Humphrey supporters argued that adopting the peace plank would jeopardize the lives of American troops and undermine the talks going on in Paris. Tennessee senator Albert Gore Sr. was among those who spoke in favor of it. “The American people think overwhelmingly we made a mistake,” he said, “and yet in the platform we are called upon not to only approve this unconscionably disastrous policy but to applaud it.”
The peace plank was defeated by a vote of 1,567 to 1,041, but even before the tally was completed hundreds of delegates had donned black armbands and broken into chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” An astonishing 40 percent of the Democratic delegates had expressly voted against the policy of their own president.
By then, some three thousand demonstrators had left Lincoln Park for Grant Park, just across Michigan Avenue from the Chicago Hilton, where both Humphrey and McCarthy had their headquarters. When word spread that the Humphrey forces had won the battle over the platform, a skinny shirtless young man shinnied up a flagpole and tore down the American flag. The police dragged him down, sprayed the crowd with tear gas, and again attacked individual demonstrators. Rennie Davis was beaten unconscious. Tom Hayden exhorted the crowd to “move out of this park in groups throughout the city and turn this overheated military machine against itself. Let us make sure that if blood flows, it flows all over the city.”
As night fell, blood was about to flow at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Balbo in front of the Hilton. Permit or no permit, demonstrators started drifting out of Grant Park, headed for the amphitheater, where the balloting for the presidential nomination was about to get under way. Some sang “America the Beautiful.” Others chanted, “Peace now!,” “Fuck you, LBJ,” and “Dump the Hump.”
Hundreds of policemen in blue helmets and an unknown number of plainclothesmen were waiting for them. At a signal, they charged into the crowd, swinging their nightsticks. Television cameras and lights had been set up around the main entrance to the Hilton to capture the comings and goings of the delegates. The garish lights were turned on. The crowd began chanting, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
In Grant Park on the late afternoon of August 28, 1968, antiwar demonstrators fly an NLF flag from atop a bronze statue of Civil War General John A. Logan. The Conrad Hilton Hotel, where many convention delegates were staying, stands just across Michigan Avenue. “They have decided they are going to march on the amphitheater,” Jack Perkins of ABC News reported, “despite police determination to stop them short.”
From the bedroom of their ranch in Stonewall, Texas, the Johnsons watch the chaos in Chicago unfold on television. Left to right: Luci Johnson Nugent, staffer Tom Johnson, unknown, Linda Johnson Robb, the president, and Lady Bird Johnson
The novelist Norman Mailer was looking on from the nineteenth-floor of the hotel when “the police attacked with tear gas, with mace and with clubs. They attacked like a chain saw cutting into wood, the teeth of the saw the edge of their clubs, they attacked like a scythe through grass, lines of twenty and thirty policemen striking out in an arc, the clubs beating, demonstrators fleeing. [The police cut] through the crowd one way, then cut through them another. They chased people into the park, ran them down, beat them up; they cut through the intersection at Michigan and Balbo like a razor cutting a channel through a head of hair, and then drove columns of new police into the channel who in turn pushed out, clubs flailing, on each side to cut new channels, and new ones again….Police cars rolled up, prisoners were beaten, shoved into wagons and driven away.”
For seventeen floodlit bloody minutes, network cameras captured it all. Down below, Jack Newfield, reporting for the Village Voice, found himself in the middle of it.
At the southwest entrance to the Hilton, a skinny, long-haired kid of about seventeen skidded down on the sidewalk, and four overweight cops leaped on him, chopping strokes on his head. His hair flew from the force of the blows. A dozen small rivulets of blood began to cascade down the kid’s temple and onto the sidewalk. He was not crying or screaming, but crawling in a stupor toward the gutter. When he saw a photographer take a picture, he made a V sign with his fingers.
A doctor in a white uniform and Red Cross armband began to run toward the kid, but two other cops caught him from behind and knocked him down. One of them jammed his knee into the doctor’s throat and began clubbing his rib cage….
A few feet away a phalanx of police charged into a group of women reporters and young McCarthy activists standing idly against the window of the Hilton Hotel’s Haymarket Inn. The terrified people began to go down under the unexpected police charge when the plate glass window shattered, and the people tumbled backward through the glass. The police then climbed through the broken windows and began to beat people, some of whom had been drinking quietly in the hotel bar….
The defiant kids began a slow, orderly retreat back up Michigan Avenue. They did not run. They did not panic. They did not fight back. As they fell back they helped pick up fallen comrades who were beaten or gassed. Suddenly, a plainclothesman dressed as a soldier moved out of the shadows and knocked one kid down with an overhand punch. The kid squatted on the pavement of Michigan Avenue, trying to cover his face, while the plainclothesman punched him with savage accuracy. Thud, thud, thud. Blotches of blood spread over the kid’s face. Two photographers moved in. Several police formed a closed circle around the beating to prevent pictures. One of the policemen then squirted mace at the photographers, who dispersed. The plainclothesman melted back into the line of police.
Lit by TV lights, demonstrators chant, “Join us! Join us!”
Chicago police charge into the crowd in front of the Hilton.
The press was not immune from police attacks on Michigan Avenue; here, photographer Burton Silverman, working for The New York Times, is roughed up before being placed under arrest.
At least 800 demonstrators and passersby—including 20 reporters and photographers—were beaten seriously enough to require medical attention during the convention week, and 668 persons were jailed. One hundred and fifty policemen would report injuries, too.
The balloting got under way while television sets scattered through the amphitheater broadcast tapes of the chaos on Michigan Avenue. Speaker after speaker denounced what one called Mayor Daley’s “Gestapo tactics,” but, as expected, Humphrey easily won the nomination on the first ballot. Afterward, he assured the press how pleased he was and pleaded with his fellow Democrats to unite behind him. But he later confessed that he left Chicago “heart-broken, battered, and beaten,” and he told his wife he felt as if they’d been in a shipwreck.
Helicopter crew chief Ron Ferrizi happened to be in Australia during convention week. He’d been flying combat missions in Vietnam for ten months. Earlier that year, he’d nearly been killed when the ammunition aboard a downed and burning helicopter exploded as he was trying to pull out the wounded pilot. Afterward, he was awarded the Silver Star, but he’d eventually begun to go “a little crazy,” he remembered, and his first sergeant insisted he take a few days in Australia for rest and recreation—R&R. “So I turn on the TV in my hotel room,” he remembered. “The first scene was a closeup over the shoulder of this storm trooper who had a kid by the scruff of his shirt. And he smacks him with his bat. And there’s blood and everything and all this jumble. And then the camera pans out and it’s far away. And there’s a riot and there’s fighting going on. And I go, ‘Oh my god. The Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.’ [Soviet tanks and troops had in fact crossed into Czechoslovakia just a few days earlier, crushing the reform government led by Alexander Dubček.] And then [I read at the bottom of the screen] “Chicago Democratic Convention. United States of America.” And at that moment I was politicized. At that moment I realized that anybody who really cared for America was sent halfway around the world chasing some ghost in a jungle killing somebody else’s grandmother for no reason at all. And in the meantime my country’s being torn apart. So I saw somebody who looked like my dad hitting somebody who looked like me. Oh my God, whose side would I be on?
Antiwar delegates express their displeasure after Hubert Humphrey captures the Democratic presidential nomination. “I was a victim of that convention,” Humphrey said later. “I could’ve beaten the Republicans anytime—but it’s difficult to take on the Republicans and fight a guerrilla war in your own party at the same time.”
A day or two later, Professor Sam Hynes was to start a new job, teaching English at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. “We drove out together from Pennsylvania,” he recalled, “my wife, Liz, and my daughters, Mandy and Jo and I. As we approached downtown Chicago, I said, ‘I’ll get off the expressway and take you up Lakeshore Drive so that you can see the beauty of this city built along the lake.’ But when we turned into Grant Park what we saw wasn’t a beautiful, urban cityscape. What we saw was garbage, debris, floating paper, a chaos of disorder that looked like a battlefield after a battle. And indeed that’s what it was. The Democratic convention had just ended the day before. And on that field, in Grant Park, the army of protestors had fought against the Chicago city police. It was a scene of ruination. We drove through all that drifting paper up Lakeshore Drive until we came to a pedestrian bridge over the drive and there was a banner attached that read ‘Mayor Daley Welcomes You to Chicago.’ When we got to Evanston, I remember one of my new colleagues invited us to a cocktail party and the other people there were in a state of shock, very quiet. They were shocked because they were liberals, as Liz and I were, my daughters, too, for that matter, and something terrible had happened to their idea of liberalism—it had been invaded by violent forces. And what should they do? They didn’t know. And I didn’t know either. Nobody knew.”
Events in Chicago had further deepened American divisions. Antiwar demonstrators left the city more alienated from their government than ever, and some saw in the violent street clashes they had experienced the need for a full-scale violent revolution.
A presidential commission would declare what had happened in Chicago a “police riot,” but 56 percent of those Americans responding to a nationwide Gallup poll actually approved of the way the police had handled the demonstrators.
“To our innocent eyes,” Todd Gitlin remembered, “it defied common sense that people could watch even the sliver of the onslaught that got onto television and side with the cops—which in fact was precisely what the polls showed. As unpopular as the war had become, the antiwar movement was detested still more—the most hated political group in America, disliked even by most of the people who supported immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy had been right to tell Lyndon Johnson, in November , just after the [March on the Pentagon]: ‘One of the few things that help us right now is public distaste for the violent doves….’ Apparently, the majority agreed with Bundy that whoever swung the clubs, we were to blame.”
Five days after the convention ended, when Richard Nixon chose to open his campaign with a motorcade through the Chicago Loop, nearly half a million Chicagoans would turn out to cheer him.
A DIFFERENT DEMEANOR
ON AUGUST 29TH, the day after police and demonstrators clashed in Chicago, twenty-year-old Private Michael Holmes arrived in Vietnam. He was an only child, born and brought up in the tiny town of Williamsville, in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. His father and mother ran the general store where Michael worked every day after school. He rode horses, floated the rivers, hunted deer and squirrels, and went steady with a girl named Darlene. But he had trouble keeping up in high school, did not complete community college, and soon found himself in the Army.
In Vietnam, he was assigned to F Troop, Seventeenth Armored Cavalry, 196th Infantry Brigade, stationed at an isolated firebase twenty-two miles south of Da Nang, called “Baldy.” Holmes used a tape recorder to communicate with his family back home. “Baldy isn’t too much,” he told them, “about as big as Williamsville, maybe bigger.”
He began as a gunner on an armored personnel carrier, one of twenty-seven heavily armed APCs belonging to his brigade that patrolled the nearby countryside, looking for Viet Cong and those who supported them.
Until he was drafted, he had never been far beyond the borders of Missouri. Everything was new and strange: “The people are something else. They’re ignorant. Filthy and everything. Hardly no clothes on at all. I mean they’ve got clothes on but just real shorts and a blouse or shorts and a shirt. Hardly nothing at all. They’re really little and ugly. Teeth are all black. But they work pretty hard. You’ve seen these pictures where they carried this rice on their shoulders, and have it balanced. Well, we stopped this one to check his ID. And I tried to pick that thing up. Why, that like to broke my back before I got it stood up. That thing weighed about two hundred pounds. And one of them little bitty dinks—just little ole bitty, about five-three—carrying that thing. Why, he could have broke me in two if he wanted to.
“I really can’t tell you too much about this country except the rice paddies stink. And it’s just miles and miles of nothing but rice paddies. And they got dikes in them. Real cool looking. We go through with our APCs and tear them down. And they’s bound to get all hacked off at us for tearing down their rice fields.”
Life at Firebase Baldy was tedious. It rained steadily. There were endless sandbags to be filled and repairs to be made, supplies to load and unload. Holmes and his friends looked for ways to relieve the boredom: “One night we were out and the lieutenant started shooting [his M16] so everybody started shooting sixteens. Then the [M60 machine guns] and then the [50mm machine guns], then everything all at once. It was at night. The tracers going. Oh, it really did look good. We killed a couple of [water] buffalos that night, ducks and everything else. But no one got hurt. And we were just doing it for the heck of it. That’s what’s so great. You know it’s not really that bad [being here]. In a way, I like it. It’s just being away from home and everything that I don’t like.”
Private Michael Holmes and one of the dogs, specially trained to locate hidden mines, that accompanied his armored unit’s patrols into the countryside. “I’m growing a moustache,” he told his parents. “It’s a little thin but I’m getting it there. If it don’t work out within another two or three weeks I’m going to cut it off.”
In Williamsville, family and friends gathered in his parents’ living room to listen to Michael’s reports from Vietnam—and to fill him in, on tape, on what he was missing back home. It was autumn, and the Ozarks looked beautiful. Squirrel hunting was in full swing. Signs of deer were everywhere. A fellow draftee planned to get married, but not until he came home from the service. A friend named Ricky had broken up with his girlfriend and was “really prowling now.” Another friend had bought himself a Chrysler, and still another was driving a brand-new Bonneville.
“I miss you a lot,” his mother said, “and I’m really looking forward to the day when you come home. I guess that’s what mothers are for, just to worry and look forward to their children coming back home once they’re away. Maybe I’ll get used to it someday, but I don’t know. It sure is lonely sometimes with just Dad and I.”
His father offered what he hoped would be helpful advice: “Mike, this is your dad talking. I think you was probably really lucky in getting attached to the APC division. I don’t think that they’re necessarily 100 percent safe, but I believe you’re a lot safer, and you get to live a lot better and cleaner life than you would if you was in the infantry. And we think you’ll be okay, just don’t be nosing around where you don’t have any business and get hold of a booby trap or something. Keep your eyes open, and be careful. This is about the end of this tape, so goodbye for now.”
The APC, overturned by a bomb, in which Holmes was wounded and his best friend was killed.
Holmes was disappointed that during mission after mission, the enemy remained elusive. “We burned down a whole lot of hooches today of these people who don’t cooperate with us,” he told his parents. “We just burn down their houses and everything. I don’t really understand it because if they are not VC and we do that to them—you know, treat them bad—then they’re going to turn VC. The Army does everything backwards.”
One morning that autumn, several APCs from F Troop moved cautiously up Highway One toward Danang. Mike Holmes and five of his closest buddies rode in the second vehicle. “When we go out this time we won’t be going out real far,” he’d assured his mother and father. “We’ll be on a road sweep. That’s where these guys are in front with these mine detectors trying to find mines in the road. It isn’t any big thing. Nothing ever comes of that. So far hasn’t. We’ve been on a lot of them.”
At five minutes before noon, their APC hit a three hundred-pound bomb buried beneath the road. The explosion hurled the massive vehicle into the air and turned it belly up. Three men died instantly. Holmes was thrown clear but knocked unconscious and woke up five hours later in the hospital.
To reassure his parents he tried to make light of what had happened: “Really isn’t no worse than when I fell off my bike when I was little and got all skinned up. That’s about how I feel. I don’t think I’ll have any scars except maybe on my behind. That’s where I think I landed. Got a great big sore right on my butt…where I skidded on the ground when I fell off or something. It may sound funny but it does hurt. Up to this point I didn’t know if there was really a war going on over here. I just thought maybe they was playing a game or something. But I could’ve reached out and touched two of those people. I knew them real good, not real good, but I did know them. One of them I knew very good.”
In fact, one of those killed that day had been his closest friend in the platoon, Corporal Jimmy Howard, the son of the country singer Jan Howard, whose spoken “letter” to “My Son” was a country hit when he died. After Jimmy’s death, the other men in his outfit remembered, Holmes seemed different. “Once you lose a few friends over there you take on a different demeanor,” one recalled. “You have almost a grudge at that point, that you want to maintain. And because you’ve lost these friends and they’ve taken them from you, you want the opportunity to get back at them. He shared that. I shared that.”
AN ACCEPTABLE RISK
THE DISASTER of the Democratic convention haunted Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for president. Comfortably ahead in the polls, the Republican candidate refused to debate him. Eugene McCarthy, to whom many antiwar Democrats remained loyal, refused to endorse him. A third-party candidate, George Wallace, the segregationist former governor of Alabama, was stealing away traditional Democratic voters. (His campaign would eventually collapse in October, in part because his running mate, former Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, suggested using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.) Democratic Party coffers were empty; the Humphrey campaign could not afford to buy a single radio or television spot. And everywhere he tried to speak, protestors did their best to drown him out, chanting, “Fascist! Fascist! Dump the Hump!”
Nixon reveled in Humphrey’s troubles. He hinted that he had a plan to end the war but was careful to say nothing substantive about it, other than to promise “peace with honor,” by which he meant an end to U.S. military involvement and an autonomous South Vietnam that would justify four years of American sacrifice. In keeping silent, he was mirroring the counsel of a young campaign aide named Kevin Phillips: “Non-specificity is desirable….The lack of an ideological position helps make RN [Richard Nixon] a rallying point for a cross-section of voters disgusted with the war.” Only an unexpected breakthrough toward peace, the candidate believed, could “cut down a lead as big as ours.”
In 1965, Humphrey had expressed grave doubts to the president about the wisdom of sending American troops to Vietnam but in public he had never been anything but faithful to Johnson’s policies. Now, his advisers told him, if he wanted to win he had to break with the president and make some gesture toward ending the conflict. Johnson warned him against it. “He told me that it would endanger American troops like his son-in-law [Charles Robb, a Marine serving in combat in Vietnam] and cost lives,” Humphrey remembered. “I would have blood on my hands. He would denounce me publicly for playing politics with peace.” Twice, the candidate tried to put at least a little daylight between himself and the administration; he said some American forces could start coming home in 1969, whatever happened at the Paris peace talks, and he claimed that he could have run on the peace plank that had been defeated in Chicago, evidently forgetting that it had called for an unconditional bombing halt. Johnson rebuked him both times.
On September 27, Gallup showed Humphrey fifteen points behind his Republican rival. Something had to be done. Three days later, without consulting the White House, Humphrey gave a televised address from Salt Lake City. For the first time, the vice presidential seal was not affixed to the lectern; Humphrey was speaking for himself, not for the administration he had served. He called for a total halt to the bombing of the North as “an acceptable risk for peace,” accompanied by a move toward “de-Americanization” of the war, an immediate cease-fire, and the “supervised withdrawal of all foreign troops.”
Johnson felt betrayed. It was a “fool speech,” he said, and wondered privately whether Richard Nixon might not make a better president.
But Humphrey’s crowds grew larger overnight. Hecklers began staying home. Money flowed into the campaign. McCarthy voters—though not McCarthy himself—rallied to Humphrey. He started to rise in the polls. The race was tightening.
Hubert Humphrey gets a warm welcome in front of his father’s drugstore in Huron, South Dakota, where he had worked as a pharmacist before going into politics. Elsewhere, he was booed, heckled, jeered, drowned out. “These people are intentionally mean anarchists,” he complained. “They do not believe in anything….They will never live long enough to run us off the platform because basically they are just cowards.”
AS THE AMERICAN ELECTION drew near, Saigon found itself facing new challenges. President Johnson had refused to send more U.S. troops. Clark Clifford’s visit in July had made it clear that Washington was fast losing patience with President Thieu. No one knew who would win the American presidency or what impact that victory might have on the prospects for peace. And it was at least possible that the stalled Paris peace talks—in which Saigon still had no voice—might yet call for a cease-fire in place and a freeze on force levels. Hanoi and the NLF already seemed to be preparing for that possibility—they had stepped up terrorist attacks and the creation of “people’s committees” in the villages in order to strengthen their claim to political power in the negotiations to come.
If the Saigon regime were to survive, concluded Ambassador Bunker, Robert Komer, the outgoing head of CORDS, and William Colby, the former CIA station chief who was about to succeed him, it needed to expand its political control over as much of the countryside as it could as fast as it could. The old strategy of slow consolidation needed to be replaced by what they now called “accelerated pacification.” The program they drew up was hugely ambitious. They proposed to upgrade a thousand contested hamlets (the number was later upped to over thirteen hundred); “neutralize” three thousand communist cadre (by which was meant persuade to defect, capture, or kill them); talk five thousand communist fighters into abandoning the NLF under the Chieu Hoi program; and create a new armed force of tens of thousands of volunteers pledged to defend their villages. And they proposed to do all of it within ninety days.
President Thieu was reluctant at first, fearing that he hadn’t enough Regional and Popular Forces on hand, that the Americans were trying to do too much too fast. He disliked the idea of calling any villages “contested,” too, and eventually insisted that they be divided into just two categories: “areas or hamlets controlled by the government,” and “areas or hamlets not yet controlled by the government.” But the Americans pushed hard, and in the end Thieu felt he had little choice in the matter.
William Colby, the former CIA official who succeeded Robert Komer as head of CORDS, examines an antiquated country-made shotgun carried by a member of a self-defense militia.
Progress for the accelerated pacification program was to be measured by a revised version of the original CORDS Hamlet Evaluation System. More than half the HES categories used in grading hamlets were dropped—those having to do with schools and health and land reform, for instance—in favor of focusing on those having to do with security. But their accuracy did not improve. Some villages were never actually assessed. Both American advisers and South Vietnamese officials often exaggerated progress. And permanent security would not be possible unless what the Americans called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure”—the tax collectors and sympathetic village chiefs, runners and spies and suppliers and sympathizers who made NLF activity possible—could be broken up. To do that, the CIA had created the Phoenix Program.
Another militiaman, armed with an up-to-date M16 provided by the accelerated pacification program
After recovering from his wounds, Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto became attached to that program as an intelligence officer. “[The Phoenix Program] was premised on the fact that the North Vietnamese coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail were strangers in the South, just like the Americans,” he recalled. “They didn’t know the terrain. They didn’t know the people. So in order for them to function operationally, they needed the Viet Cong infrastructure. And so the project was to eliminate those guys. I think it made a great deal of sense.”
Villagers on the Ca Mau Peninsula, allegedly under Saigon’s control, feel free to attend an outdoor exhibition of North Vietnamese propaganda posters organized by local cadre.
Stuart Herrington, an intelligence officer who took part in the Phoenix Program later in the war, explained how it was meant to work: “It was a simple attempt to collect in one place the intelligence that was in the hands of the police, the military intelligence community, the civilian intelligence community, the revolutionary development cadre, and everyone who worked in the villages and hamlets as a part of pacification, about who most likely were the cadre who should be targeted. Let’s communicate, let’s set up an office, everybody brings in all their information, and pretty soon we have a target list.”
The program’s targeting was only as good as the intelligence upon which it was based—and that varied widely. Americans served only as advisers. Day-to-day enforcement was left to the South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Units—the PRUs—who sometimes were more interested in settling old scores than in rooting out communists. “It was subject to abuse, and was abused,” Okamoto remembered. “You’d get the list, and you’d check with other intelligence officers in the district. And you tried to pool that information. Next night, or a couple nights later, a bunch of cowboys from the PRUs would go out there. And, you know, knock on the door: ‘April Fool, motherfucker!’ And, boom. There wasn’t any real accountability.”
Critics would denounce the Phoenix Program as little more than a campaign of assassination—and in 1971 William Colby would testify to Congress that there was no way to know how many of the more than twenty thousand that had been killed under its auspices to that point might have been innocent.
A terrified twenty-year-old named Pham Van faces an NLF-organized people’s court in Long An Province. Charged with helping South Vietnamese forces uncover hidden weapons, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. His codefendant was executed.
But the program’s champions pointed to the fact that more than two-thirds of the 81,740 supposed cadre neutralized between 1969 and 1972 had been captured, not killed. “Regardless of how effective the Phoenix Program was or wasn’t, area by area,” Stuart Herrington recalled, “the communists thought it was very effective. They saw it as a significant threat to the viability of the revolution because, to the extent that you could take a sharp pointed knife and carve out the shadow government, their means of control over the civilian population was dealt a death blow. And that’s why, when the war was over, the North Vietnamese reserved special treatment for those who had worked in the Phoenix Program. They considered it a mortal threat to the revolution.”
“The [accelerated pacification program] is really the most important thing we are doing,” Creighton Abrams told his commanders at one meeting. “If we are successful in bashing down the VC and the government can raise its head up, the villages and hamlets can maintain their RF/PF units and keep a few policemen around and people are not being assassinated all the time, then the government will be where it belongs—out in the villages. Pacification is the ‘gut’ issue for the Vietnamese.” On paper, it did seem to be working. By the end of January 1969 only 195 of the 1,317 hamlets that had been targeted were found to be still contested or controlled by the NLF, and nearly 1.7 million more people were said to be living in areas controlled by Saigon. More than 8,600 NLF fighters had defected, exceeding the target by well over 3,000.
But that did not mean that the Saigon government had grown more popular with the people in its tenuous grip. A poll taken in the Delta Province of Long An in 1970 would show 35 percent of the people ready to vote for Thieu, and 20 percent willing to admit they favored the National Liberation Front—while 45 percent backed someone, anyone, opposed to both the NLF and the United States. “We were losing because of ourselves,” Duong Van Mai Elliott recalled. The communists had an ideology, strict discipline, and effective leaders. “We had been unable to come up with a system, an ideology, and a leadership that could tap the same qualities in the same direction to win the struggle.”
LYNDON JOHNSON knew that it was now too late to negotiate an end to the war before he left office, but he still hoped that serious talks might get under way before that deadline. And on October 9—after five frustrating months without progress at the conference table—there was at least a hint that this goal might actually be within reach. During a tea break in Paris, a North Vietnamese delegate told one of his American counterparts that if the U.S. stopped bombing, Hanoi might agree to let Saigon take part in the negotiations. Three days later, Moscow—the prime supplier of weapons to the North Vietnamese—let it be known that the offer was serious.
The president was wary. The United States had consistently insisted that before ordering a total halt to the bombing the enemy had to meet three conditions—tactfully called “facts of life,” in order to make them more palatable to Hanoi—respect for the neutrality of the DMZ, an end to the shelling of South Vietnamese cities, and peace talks in which Saigon was a full partner. He sent Ambassador Buker and General Abrams to talk things over with President Thieu. Provided that all three terms were met—and the bombing could begin again if they were not—the South Vietnamese president said he saw no objection. “After all,” he said, “the main problem is not to stop the bombing but to stop the war, and we must try this path to see if they are serious.” Nor did he object to the presence of NLF representatives at the negotiating table, so long as they were not considered an entity separate from North Vietnam.
Nixon on the campaign trail. Early on, it seemed likely that he would win the presidency by a landslide—a quarter of a million people turned out to see him in San Francisco; thirty thousand heard him in Houston; national polls ran heavily his way. But he was haunted by the fear that President Johnson would unleash an “October surprise”—a last-minute promise of peace in Vietnam—that would obliterate his lead and hand the presidency to Humphrey.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Ambassador Harriman read aloud the “facts of life” to the North Vietnamese, and when they did not object to any of them, Washington took it as acquiescence. (To be on the safe side, this process would be repeated nearly a dozen times, and was always met with the same encouraging silence from the Hanoi delegation.) Dean Rusk told the president that since the enemy had now at least tacitly agreed to every one of his terms he had no choice but to stop the bombing. Johnson remained cautious. He wanted to end the war, but he also did not want to be criticized for being the first president to have lost one, and he feared that calling a last-minute halt to the bombing might be perceived by the voters as a cynical political maneuver meant to keep the White House in Democratic hands. He polled the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They all agreed it was worth a try, in part because for two months monsoon weather would make it difficult to bomb the current targets, and U.S. aircraft could be better employed hitting the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
So far, everything had officially been kept secret—or so the White House hoped. Johnson had agreed to keep all three candidates apprised of developments—and they had all pledged to say nothing that would complicate his peace efforts in Paris—and since no agreement had yet been signed, he assured them that nothing had yet changed.
But the Nixon campaign had a mole within the administration, and while visiting Paris, Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, who had been a foreign policy adviser to Nelson Rockefeller, had also learned that “something big was afoot.” Both reported to Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, that it seemed likely that the president would announce a total bombing halt before election day. Nixon, whose lead in the polls had now been halved, saw it as a political trick intended to put Humphrey over the top, and set out to undermine it.
The scrawled notes H. R. Haldeman made during a rambling late-night telephone call from his boss, Richard Nixon, on October 22, 1968, hint at the Republican candidate’s near-obsessive fear that peace might break out before election day. Not only does he want Anna Chennault to keep working to persuade President Thieu to stay away from the planned peace talks, and is looking for ways to throw another “monkey wrench” into the negotiations, but he also wants Spiro Agnew to call upon Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, and threaten him with dismissal if he doesn’t reveal what Johnson is up to.
He had already appointed Anna Chan Chennault to act as his secret liaison with the South Vietnamese regime. The wealthy, Chinese-born widow of General Claire Chennault, she was a prominent Republican fund-raiser, a member of the so-called “China lobby” who continued to blame the Democrats for having “lost” China, and was well connected in Saigon. Now, it became her task to privately communicate Nixon’s message to Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador, and to President Thieu himself: Stay out of the Paris talks; the Democrats were planning to sell out South Vietnam; a Nixon administration would stand by America’s ally. To cover Nixon’s own tracks, Chennault was to communicate only with Mitchell, Spiro Agnew, and Bui Diem, using pay phones in case her own telephone was tapped. Nixon’s instructions to his closest aide, H. R. Haldeman, scribbled down after a late-evening phone call on October 22, suggest how hard the candidate was working behind the scenes to scuttle the talks: “Keep Anna Chennault working on SVN”; “Any other way to monkey wrench it?”
In a statement to reporters three days later, Nixon sought both to cast doubt on Johnson’s motives and to paint himself as a selfless observer. “I am told that officials in the administration have been driving very hard for an agreement on a bombing halt,” he said, “accompanied possibly by a cease-fire, in the immediate future. I have since learned these reports are true. I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical, last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Mr. Humphrey. This I do not believe.” The speech got under Johnson’s skin. “[Nixon] came out here,” he told a friend, “and said, ‘Now they say Johnson’s a thief, but I knew his daddy and I don’t think he’s a thief, and they say he’s a son of a bitch, and I knew his mother, she’s not a bitch.’ Well, hell, he advertised all over the country and he…planted the idea and he knew goddamn well I’d been fair to him.”
Progress toward meaningful talks in Paris inched forward. Johnson remained chary, still worried he’d be accused of playing politics: “I would rather be viewed as stubborn and adamant than be seen as a tricky, slick politician.” Clifford, still determined to stop the bombing, offered advice gleaned from Mark Twain: “When in doubt, do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
The president ordered General Abrams home for one more consultation.
He assembled his senior advisers at the White House at 2:30 in the morning of October 28 and in front of all of them interrogated his field commander. “I am going to put more weight on your judgment than that of anyone else,” he told him.
LYNDON JOHNSON: General, do you think they will violate the DMZ and the cities?
GENERAL ABRAMS: I think they will abide by it on the DMZ, Mr. President. On the cities, I am not so sure. I am concerned about Saigon.
JOHNSON: If the enemy honors our agreement, will this be an advantage militarily for us?
ABRAMS: Yes, Mr. President.
JOHNSON: Will it compensate for lack of bombing north of the 19th parallel?
ABRAMS: Yes sir, it will.
JOHNSON: Can we return to full-scale bombing easily if they attack?
ABRAMS: Yes sir, very easily.
JOHNSON: In August you said that stopping the bombing would increase enemy capability severalfold. Why can we stop the bombing now?
ABRAMS: First, our interdiction in the panhandle [of North Vietnam] has been successful. Second, they haven’t replaced their losses in the region. He cannot cause the mischief he could have caused in August.
JOHNSON: Can we do this without additional casualties?
ABRAMS: Yes sir, we can.
JOHNSON: If you were president, would you do it?
ABRAMS: I have no reservations about doing it, even though I know it is stepping into a cesspool of comment. It is the proper thing to do.
With Abrams aboard, the president polled his senior advisers, one by one. They were now unanimous in urging him to proceed. At 5 a.m., word came that an NLF delegation had just taken off for Paris. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.
Then, at 6:04, a cable arrived from Ambassador Bunker in Saigon. President Thieu had suddenly said he needed more time to consult his National Security Council. Johnson was livid—and had been tipped off that the Republicans had been at work behind the scenes. “It would rock the world,” he told his advisers, “if it were said that Thieu was conniving with the Republicans. Can you imagine what people would say if it were known that Hanoi has met all these conditions and that Nixon’s conniving with them kept us from getting [the talks started]?”
Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey appear together for the only time during the campaign, in the Houston Astrodome, November 3, 1968. Theirs had been an often stormy relationship—Johnson had even expressed private doubts about his vice president’s readiness for the White House—but the president now told his listeners that “for the sake of our union,” Humphrey “should and must become the thirty-seventh president of the United States.”
Clark Clifford urged the president to go ahead anyway; it was “too late to turn back.” Richard Helms agreed: “It is undesirable to allow these people to believe they have hijacked us out of this.” General Abrams was indignant: “Thieu was unequivocal. I was there. He took it, understood it, marched right up to the plate, and swung.” The president reluctantly agreed to give Thieu twenty-four more hours, but he also sent him a strongly worded message: If Americans ever came to blame him for blocking a peace settlement, he said, “God help South Vietnam, because no president could maintain the support of the American people.”
Ambassador Bunker spent hours at the Presidential Palace, trying to get Thieu to live up to his earlier promise. The South Vietnamese government, Thieu responded, “is not a car that can be hitched to a locomotive and taken anywhere the locomotive wants to go.” “Anyone who still thinks the South Vietnamese are our puppets after this,” an embassy official said, “is crazy.”
Meanwhile, for all the effort he was putting into getting Saigon to the negotiating table, Johnson remained ambivalent about the prospects for an end to the fighting. When Abrams returned to Vietnam the following day, he carried with him a handwritten letter from the president addressed to “Dear Abe.” It urged him to “follow the enemy in relentless pursuit. Don’t give them a minute’s rest. Keep pouring it on. Let the enemy feel the weight of everything you’ve got. With luck and with Abe we shall conquer ourselves a peace in the next three months.”
On Thursday, October 31, Johnson called all three candidates to tell them he was going ahead with the bombing halt. Negotiations were to begin in Paris on November 6—the day after election day. The next president—no matter who he was—would take office with negotiations already under way. Nixon joined Humphrey and Wallace in saying, “We’ll back you up, Mr. President.”
That evening, in a taped address broadcast by all three networks, the president announced that “all air, naval, and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam is to cease as of 8 a.m., Washington time, Friday morning.” “The representatives of the government of the South are free to participate” in the subsequent talks, he added, and while representatives of the NLF would be present, “their attendance in no way involves official recognition of them” as distinct from the government of North Vietnam. He did not know who was going to win the presidency, he concluded, but he promised over the next few months to “do everything in my power to move us toward the peace that the new president—as well as this president and, I believe, every other American so deeply and urgently desires.”
Humphrey’s poll numbers surged. By the weekend, he had pulled almost even with his rival—and Lou Harris had him slightly ahead.
Then, disaster: in an address to the South Vietnamese national assembly on Saturday, President Thieu declared that “the government of South Vietnam deeply regrets not being able to participate in the present exploratory talks.” The Nixon campaign had successfully scuttled the negotiations. “Through the confusion of those last three days,” the journalist Theodore White wrote, “it became apparent that the bombing halt, begun on Friday morning, would not end the killing of Americans in Asia; and the tide of opinion that had begun to flow to Hubert Humphrey began, at the end of the weekend, to flow back to Nixon.”
The president now had a clear picture of what Nixon’s agents had been up to. The National Security Agency had intercepted cable traffic between Saigon and its Washington embassy. The CIA had placed a bug in President Thieu’s office. The FBI had tapped Bui Diem’s telephone at the South Vietnamese embassy. The president ordered the Bureau to tail Mrs. Chennault and record who came and went at the embassy. Saturday evening, with just three days before election day, Johnson called his friend and former colleague Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Senate minority leader and the highest elected Republican official in the country, trusting that he would tell Nixon that the president was on to him and was considering telling the voters what he knew.
LYNDON JOHNSON: I want to talk to you as a friend and very confidentially because I think we’re skirting on dangerous ground and I thought I ought to give you the facts and you ought to pass them on if you choose.
He explained that until October 28, President Thieu had seemed to be on board.
JOHNSON: Then we got some of our “friends “involved.
EVERETT DIRKSEN: Uh-huh.
JOHNSON: Some of it your old China crowd.
JOHNSON: And here is the latest information we got. The agent says that she’s just…talked to the “boss” in New Mexico. [Spiro Agnew was campaigning there, and was thought to have spoken with Anna Chennault.]
JOHNSON: And that he says that “You must hold out…just hold on until after the election.” Now, we know what Thieu is saying to them out there [because the CIA had bugged the South Vietnamese president’s office].
JOHNSON: We’re pretty well informed on both ends.
JOHNSON: Now, I’m reading their hand, Everett. I don’t want to get this in the campaign.
DIRKSEN: That’s right.
JOHNSON: And they oughtn’t to be doing this. This is treason. [The 1799 Logan Act forbids any American citizen from negotiating with a foreign government without authorization.]
DIRKSEN: I know.
JOHNSON: I know this, that they’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war.
DIRKSEN: That’s a mistake.
JOHNSON: And it’s a damn bad mistake. Now, I can identify them, because I know who is doing this. I don’t want to identify it. I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter this important.
JOHNSON: I don’t want to do that.
JOHNSON: But if they’re going to put this kind of stuff out, they ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to and I know what they’re saying.
JOHNSON: And my judgment is that Nixon ought to play it just like he has all along, that I want to see peace come the first day we can, that it’s not going to affect the election one way or the other. The conference is not even going to be held until after the election.
JOHNSON: They have stopped shelling the cities. They have stopped going across the DMZ. We’ve had twenty-four hours of relative peace. Now, if Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed on board until this happened.
DIRKSEN: Yeah. Okay.
JOHNSON: Well, now, what do you think we ought to do about it?
DIRKSEN: Well, I better get in touch with him, I think, and tell him about it.
JOHNSON: I think you better tell him that his people are saying to these folks that they oughtn’t go through with this meeting. Now, if they [the South Vietnamese] don’t go through with the meeting I don’t think it’s going to be me who’s hurt, I think it’s going to be whoever’s elected, and, it’d be my guess, him.
JOHNSON: And I think they’re making a very serious mistake, and I don’t want to—I don’t want to say this.
JOHNSON: And you’re the only one I’m going to say it to….Well, you just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.
Dirksen managed to contact Nixon—who called the president the next day.
RICHARD NIXON: I just wanted you to know that I got a report from Everett Dirksen with regard to your call. I just went on Meet the Press and I said that…I had given you my personal assurance that I would do everything possible to cooperate both before the election, and if elected, after the election. And that…I felt…Saigon should come to the conference table, that I would—if you felt it was necessary…go to Paris, anything you wanted. I just wanted you to know that I feel very, very strongly, about this and any rumblings around about somebody trying to sabotage the Saigon government’s attitude—certainly have no, absolutely no credibility as far as I am concerned.
JOHNSON:…I’m very happy to hear that, Dick, because that is taking place. Now here’s the history of it.
The president explained again how everything had seemed to be moving forward until Saigon suddenly balked because Thieu had been told he’d do better with Nixon as president. “I didn’t say that it was with your knowledge,” he told Nixon. “I hope it wasn’t.”
NIXON: Ah, no….They think Nixon will be tougher, and I understand that. And I think that’s one of the reasons you felt you had to go forward with the pause. But my point that I’m making is this: My God, I would never do anything to encourage Hanoi—I mean Saigon—not to come to the table because, basically, that was what you got out of your bombing pause, that, good God, we want them over in Paris. We’ve got to get them to Paris or you can’t have peace….I just want you to know, I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I mean I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do, but I’ll do anything…
JOHNSON: Well, that’s good, Dick.
NIXON: We’ve got to get this goddamned war off the plate….I think you’ve gotten a bad rap on this thing….The war…now is about where it could be brought to an end, and if we can get it done now, fine, that’s what it ought to do. Just the quicker the better and the hell with the political credit. Believe me, that’s the way I feel about it.
JOHNSON: Thank you, Dick.
Nixon was lying: he was determined that Johnson get no political credit for peacemaking, and at his personal direction and in secret had done everything he could to make sure it didn’t happen.
On Monday morning, the day before Americans went to the polls, The Christian Science Monitor asked the White House to confirm or deny a story from their Saigon correspondent that said “political encouragement from the Richard Nixon camp” had been “a significant factor” in President Thieu’s sudden decision to stay home. At first, Johnson wasn’t sure what to do. He thought it likely Nixon had lied to him but had seen no absolute proof of his personal involvement. (That would not be made public for thirty-nine years, in the form of H. R. Haldeman’s notes of the candidate’s October 22 late-night telephone call.) He didn’t want to be accused of making a baseless charge or playing politics on the eve of an election, but he also didn’t want to be charged with keeping to himself information the public needed to know.
President-elect Nixon and Lyndon Johnson at the White House
Walt Rostow encouraged Johnson to “blow the whistle” and “destroy” Nixon. Dean Rusk urged him to keep silent: since the story came from someone in Saigon, the White House need say nothing, he argued, and to confirm it would expose the “special channels that we don’t make public.” Clark Clifford shared Rusk’s concern, and added another: he found “some elements of the story…so shocking that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story, and then possibly have a certain individual elected. It could cast his administration under such doubt that I would think it would be inimical to our country’s interest.”
In the end, the White House refused to comment. The story of the Nixon campaign’s role in keeping Saigon from the peace table was not published. His secret was safe. The American people were never told that the president of the country for which thirty-five thousand Americans had died had been willing to boycott peace talks to help elect Richard Nixon—or that a candidate for the American presidency had been willing to delay an end to the bloodshed in order to win it.
On election day, Nixon was elected president with 43.4 percent of the vote to Humphrey’s 42.7 percent, a margin of just seven-tenths of 1 percent. Clandestine maneuvering may have helped him win that narrow victory—“Nixon probably would not be president if it were not for [President] Thieu,” his speechwriter William Safire once admitted—but Nixon’s fear that the maneuvering might someday be exposed would eventually help bring about his undoing.
Johnson still remained determined to get the talks started. Three days after the election, he spoke by telephone with the president-elect. Pleasantries were exchanged. Then, Johnson got to the point. Careful not to explicitly accuse Nixon of having interfered personally with the peace talks, he revealed enough of what he knew to make the president-elect anxious. Agnew and Mrs. Chennault, the president told him, had “been quoting you indirectly that the thing [the South Vietnamese] ought to do is just not show up at any conference and wait until you come into office….Now they started that, and that’s bad.” Meanwhile, he said, the enemy was “killing Americans every day. I have that documented.” “It’s a sordid story, Dick,” he added. “Now, I don’t want to say that to the country because that’s not good….You won’t have ten men in the Senate support South Vietnam when you come in if these people refuse to go to the conference.”
President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger pose in the Oval Office with Anna Chennault, the woman who helped put them in power, 1971. Nixon always denied that she had played any part in his election, and two years later, when Mrs. Chennault wrote asking that she be made “special ambassador to the Far East,” he brushed her off.
Nixon got the point. “There’s nothing I want more than to get those people to the table,” he now said. “Is there anything we can do right now?” There was: he must make it clear to Thieu that he wanted him to agree to join the Paris talks. The president-elect agreed to do so.
The next morning, Everett Dirksen turned up unannounced at the South Vietnamese chancery to deliver Nixon’s message directly to Bui Diem. “I am here on behalf of two presidents, President Johnson and President-elect Nixon,” Dirksen told the startled diplomat. “South Vietnam has got to send a delegation to Paris before it’s too late. I can also give you firm and unequivocal assurances that under no circumstances will the United States recognize the National Liberation Front as a separate entity. I absolutely affirm that the United States does not contemplate a coalition.”
With the survival of his regime wholly dependent on support from the United States and both the president and the president-elect now pressuring him, Thieu reluctantly agreed to send a delegation to the Paris talks—which would promptly stall over the seating arrangements. Saigon was adamant that the North Vietnamese and NLF delegates be seated together, since from its point of view the NLF was just a creature of Hanoi. For its part, Hanoi insisted that the NLF be treated as a separate independent party to the talks, with its own flag and nameplate.
Round tables, square tables, oblong tables, diamond-shaped tables—all were proposed and rejected. It was “a famously stupid argument,” Clark Clifford remembered. “In one meeting at the White House we looked at nine different table arrangements. I thought it was one of the silliest discussions in which I had ever participated.” One U.S. diplomat predicted that the next winner of the Nobel Peace Prize would be a furniture designer. The standoff went on for ten weeks. It was the Soviets who finally helped come up with an acceptable solution: a circular table at which all four delegations were to sit, with a pair of rectangular tables on opposite sides for secretaries and support personnel, symbolizing Saigon’s wish for negotiations between “two sides.” The new talks would not begin until January 25, 1969—five days after Richard Nixon’s inauguration as president.
A REVOLUTION WAS COMING
THE WAR—and the growing opposition to it—was affecting more and more of America’s youth. Carol Crocker had still been grieving for her brother, Mogie, that fall when she entered Goucher College in Baltimore, an all-women’s school with a long conservative tradition.
“We dressed for dinner,” she recalled. “We had an eleven o’clock curfew. Obviously, no boys or men were allowed in the dorms. That was the rule. It could not have even been any later than the beginning of the second semester that most of the rules that were in place and had been in place for many, many years no longer existed. The challenge to campuses countrywide was how do we encourage our student body to behave in a civil manner, and teach them, and not have them try to burn us down? If that means not dressing for dinner, so be it. Our guy friends were scared and worried about the war. And they weren’t sure what they were going to do. More discussion was happening about whether this was a valid war. And for me, this was the first time I opened my ears to the war in a way other than that it was about my brother’s death. I honored him. I respected him for doing what he believed in. But I did not agree with him.”
That was not an easy decision. “Moving away from one’s family’s ideologies is a scary balance on a very tricky precipice,” she recalled, “because they have been the focal point of how we judge how we’re doing. And I was now trying to judge my decisions and my actions on the basis of my own ideas and own thoughts.”
Young people all over the country were undergoing the same process.
Eva Jefferson was now a sophomore at Northwestern. A serviceman’s daughter, she had entered college convinced that the American government would never mislead its citizens. But for her, too, things had begun to change. Earlier that year, when a handful of black Northwestern students decided to occupy the bursar’s office demanding African American studies, she joined them, then called her parents to tell them what she’d done. “I said, ‘Mom and Dad, guess where I am? We just took over the bursar’s office.’ They were horrified. And upon reflection, of course they were horrified. And they said, ‘If you don’t get out of there we’re going to cut off your money.’ So that was the moment in my own consciousness when I became independent. I thought, ‘Well, they’re going to cut off my money. C’est la vie.’ ”
But “the university met all our demands in three days,” she remembered. “At that time, if you asked for black studies on Friday, you got it on Monday. It felt like something was happening that was profound, that was irreversible. I was eighteen, nineteen years old. It was exciting. I felt as though a revolution was coming. And I thought the revolution would be won by our side.”
Relations between parents and children, brothers and sisters, were changing everywhere. Captain Matt Harrison Jr.—“Chips” to his military family—who had graduated West Point, served a tour in Vietnam, and taken part in two of the war’s bloodiest battles (Hill 1338 and Hill 875), was back stateside in the autumn of 1968, when the family began to worry about his younger brother, Bob, whom his siblings sometimes called “Robin.”
Carol Crocker in her dormitory room at Goucher College. “There were a few people at school who knew that my brother had been killed in Vietnam,” she remembered, “but I never talked about that when we were organizing to get out petitions or organizing marches.”
“He and I were just great pals growing up,” Matt Harrison recalled, “because we moved every year or two years and had to make a new set of friends but I always had my brother.”
“When we lived in the Panama Canal Zone, Bob was in the ROTC,” his sister Anne remembered, “and polished and buffed his shoes and had short hair, and said, ‘Yes sir’ and ‘Yes ma’am,’ but then we moved to California his senior year in high school. And he became the consummate blond surfer boy and cut school. And was immediately very popular and having a great time.”
Robin did not follow family tradition and enter West Point. Instead, he went to Marin Junior College, and then further shocked his Army family by signing on with the Marine Reserve. “Mom and Dad were very upset,” his sister Victoria remembered. “They felt that he ought to have enlisted in the Army. That’s the branch that our family serves in. I remember him coming home and he looked good in uniform and appeared to be very proud of it. The issue of the Marines moved to the background and it was no longer a big issue in the family anymore. We were just very proud of him and very happy that we had another member of our family who was serving the country.”
Matt (left) and Robin Harrison with a sailfish the older brother had just boated
But Robin’s attitude toward the war began to shift. “At some point, Robin became convinced that the war was wrong—not only wrong but immoral,” Matt Harrison recalled. “So he quit going to the Reserve weekends, and because of that he was activated. And it was very likely now that he was going to be going to Vietnam as a Marine Corps rifleman. I didn’t think being a Marine Corps rifleman was a very safe occupation. And I didn’t think Robin would be a particularly good Marine Corps rifleman. I just thought that this was a very bad outcome, for him and for the family.”
Matt Harrison knew that under military regulations, if one brother was already in a combat zone, a second brother did not need to accept assignment there. So to keep Robin out of the war, he volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. “I was back in Vietnam, I think, in less than thirty days,” he recalled. “I was a seasoned veteran. I was going to go command a company. My chances of getting hurt were a lot less than Robin’s were. And if I did choose to make the Army a career, the fact that I had had a second tour as a rifle company commander was going to be good for me. And so it wasn’t entirely selfless.”
The senior Harrisons were satisfied with this arrangement. “I think they felt like if Robin had gone, he would have been killed,” Anne Harrison remembered. “Whereas, I think they felt that Chips was going to be okay. I can’t imagine, having had a son now go to Iraq, how my mother could have gotten through a single day, without believing very firmly that he was going to be fine.”
When Matt Harrison assumed command of Alpha Company, Second Battalion, Fourteenth Regiment, Twenty-fifth Infantry Division, he was the only regular Army officer in his company. “The squad leaders were just kids who knew nothing,” he recalled, “and we were at three-quarters strength most of the time. By now it was ’68–’69. The war had lost whatever support it had had,” he remembered. “I was now commanding a company of draftees…almost none of whom wanted to be there. They didn’t want to be in the Army and they certainly didn’t want to be an infantryman in Vietnam.
“There were times when it was very difficult to keep the men under control…particularly if we had taken casualties on the way into a village. One of the things that I learned is that the veneer of civilization is very thin on me, probably on you and I think on everybody. I just saw over and over again some nice young guy out of, say, Huron, South Dakota, who back in Huron helped old ladies across the street and went to church every Sunday. It did not take long for that veneer of civilization to erode. And he was now capable of doing things that just simply are inhuman. I was not willing to allow it to happen on my watch and I didn’t think it was good for the soldiers to do those kinds of things. Now, I’m not saying that we didn’t do some horrific things—we did. But there’s a difference between being spontaneous and being premeditated.”
Matt Harrison’s decision to serve a second tour did not, in the end, protect his brother. Robin went AWOL, was court-martialed, and was sentenced to three months’ hard labor. The sentence was suspended. He returned to the Marines, served as a chaplain’s assistant, applied for conscientious objector status—and then went AWOL again.
“I was a junior in high school,” his sister Anne remembered. “And I remember walking in the living room and it was dark, which was odd. And Robin was on the couch. I remember being startled because he wasn’t supposed to be home. I knew instantaneously, I could just feel it, that something wasn’t right. I don’t remember if he just came out and said, ‘I’m going to Canada.’ I think he did. And I was worried about my dad coming home and what would happen.”
The FBI arrived first. Robin’s sister Victoria answered the door: “They asked if Robert Harrison was there and I just knew this wasn’t good and said no and slammed the door. And Bob went out the back and ran out to the main street and, as I understand it, got in a car and left and that was the last I saw him.”
His parents grieved, Anne remembered: “My dad was quiet. I’m certain he felt disgraced. I’m certain he was shocked and did not know how to transmit that information to anybody in his family or any of his West Point classmates. I don’t think a military mom at the time would want to announce, ‘My son has gone AWOL. My son has run to Canada.’ My son is…all the words that were associated with it, ‘deserter,’ ‘coward’—all of the things these guys were called. I don’t think that’s what those guys thought they were doing. I do not think they thought they were deserting. I do not think they thought they were cowards. In fact, I think they thought they were very brave.”
Many years later, Robin Harrison, still adrift, got caught up in the world of drugs and died, ten thousand miles from home in a hotel room in Hong Kong, another casualty, his brother Matt came to believe, of the war in Vietnam.
THE TRAGEDY OF IT
DURING HAL KUSHNER’S TIME in jungle prison camps, thirteen of his fellow prisoners would die. It was a source of perpetual pain for him that he was a doctor but had no medications, no antibiotics or saline solution with which to treat his fellow prisoners. “The fall of 1968 was probably the toughest time we had,” he recalled. “Four people died within a month. And two more died very shortly after that.” All Kushner could do was bury each in a bamboo coffin and make sure the spot was marked with a heap of stones daubed with mercurochrome.
The already meager food rations shrank further. The sick, weakened men were sent into the surrounding forests to search for cassava roots to supplement their diet. “I thought that I was just going insane,” Kushner remembered. “It was the rainy season and we were starving. Nothing to eat. We were sitting up one night and we saw the camp commander’s cat, that had free rein of the camp. And he came down to our area. And we were starving to death. So someone suggested, ‘Let’s eat the cat.’ So we killed the cat and we cut the head off and we cut the paws off and we skinned and dressed out the cat. And we had this little carcass of about two pounds.”
Before they could begin cooking the cat, a guard came by. They told him they’d killed one of the weasels that often raided the camp’s flock of scrawny chickens. He complimented them, Kushner recalled, “and then he looked around and someone had neglected to bury one of the paws. And he saw the paw. And he knew instantly that it was the camp commander’s cat. And things got very serious. He went up and told the guards. The officers, the cadre came down with sidearms. The guards had rifles. And they lined us up and they said, ‘Who did this? Who killed the cat?’ Nobody said anything. And I thought they were going to kill us all. Just shoot us. Execute us. And one of the people who was a ringleader in this said he did it. And I said that I did it also. And we all said we did it. ‘I am Spartacus,’ you know? It was that. So they called that person and me out. The guard kicked him and beat him to the ground, just beat him unmercifully. They hit me in the face with fists and didn’t beat me as badly as they beat him. Then they tied me with commo wire very tightly onto a hooch and left me for a day with the carcass of the cat draped around my neck. I was so crazy I thought, Maybe they’re going let me eat this cat, you know. But I had to bury it. And they kept telling us, you know, ‘You Americans think you’re so superior to us in culture and so forth. And here you go killing this house pet of the camp commander.’ It was not the type of situation where I would remind them, ‘Well, we only did that because you reduced us to this starving, dying mass of humanity where we had to do anything to survive.’ That wasn’t the appropriate place to remind them of that. The fellow that they beat very badly died two weeks later. And it was just a horrible situation. But I would have eaten the cat. To me, the tragedy of it was we didn’t get the cat.”
On Christmas Eve, the camp commander permitted his prisoners a small celebration. They were presented with a banner sewn with a single Christmas star, and were allowed to decorate a small tree with bits of paper and to sing carols and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. In the afternoon, one of Kushner’s fellow prisoners remembered, they listened to Radio Hanoi “as several captive pilots read warm messages about how they missed home and the children who were growing up without them. We allowed ourselves to linger over thoughts of our families.”
That evening, the camp commander spoke to them: “You are allowed to enjoy Christmas because of the Front’s lenient and humane policy,” he said. “We are sorry you are not with your family. But Johnson prolongs the war. Maybe next year you will be back home.”
“He didn’t promise,” the prisoner remembered, “but he sounded almost certain that Nixon, who had been elected the month before, would end the war. We clutched at his optimism, and our spirits rose.”
THE ENTHUSIASM for pacification that General Abrams had begun to show did not immediately alter the behavior of some of his commanders. The first months of 1969 saw several big-unit operations that were indistinguishable from those undertaken under his predecessor at MACV.
In the northern part of Quang Ngai Province, the Americal Division attacked NLF forces entrenched among civilians with fearsome firepower; a single hamlet received 648,000 pounds of bombs and 2,000 artillery rounds in two days. Afterward, bulldozers wiped flat what little remained—the Vietnamese had come to call this “ironing” a village. In two months, the Quang Ngai hospital struggled to treat 2,452 injured civilians, and even the Saigon-appointed province chief suggested that nearly half of them had been hurt by friendly fire. Fifteen thousand people lost their homes, bringing the total number of refugees in that one province to more than 100,000.
In another multi-battalion operation in the same province, thousands of U.S. Marines, U.S. Army soldiers, and Korean troops, backed by firepower from the sea and air, swept the Batangan Peninsula of the NLF, killing 239, capturing 102, and helicoptering all 12,000 civilians who lived there to a holding center for interrogation. Those not found to be NLF cadre were resettled at four new sites, where they were expected to build themselves new homes. The operation was considered a success: an NLF stronghold had supposedly been cleared of the enemy, and more than eleven thousand civilians had been placed under the control of the South Vietnamese government. But their loyalty to the government that had destroyed their homes was questionable, a dusk-to-dawn curfew had to be imposed because the NLF remained active at night, and an Army after-action report concluded that the operation demonstrated that “a highly contested area is a poor environment for community development.”
Three densely populated provinces in the Mekong Delta—Dinh Truong, Go Cong, and Kien Hoa—had long been centers of NLF activity. (Kien Hoa had been the site of the first of the “concerted uprisings” against the Diem regime in 1960.) At first, MACV had resisted sending American forces into the region for fear the massive firepower that invariably accompanied them would alienate the population. Laced with a thousand miles of tidal rivers and canals, the Delta was a terrible place to fight—leeches, immersion foot, mud, swarms of malarial mosquitoes, and red ants whose bite was so painful, one soldier recalled, “you’d stand up in the middle of a firefight.” There was the constant threat of ambushes and booby traps, too, hidden beneath the water as well as on land.
The Ninth Infantry had eventually been given the task of bringing the region under control. It had begun in 1967 by joining forces with two Navy assault squadrons to form the Mekong Delta Mobile Riverine Force—part of the “Brown Water Navy”—meant both to deny the enemy access to the region’s maze of waterways and to ferry infantry into combat. In the months following Tet, NLF units in the region, like those elsewhere, had broken down into small groups and sought to avoid combat while they rebuilt.
In December 1968, the division commander, Major General Julian J. Ewell, commander of the Ninth Division, launched a new operation, Speedy Express, that promised relentless pursuit of the elusive enemy. Ewell was a career infantry officer, a hero of World War II who had parachuted into Normandy and Holland. He had fought alongside his friend Creighton Abrams, but did not share his belief in the importance of pacification. “I guess I believe that the ‘hearts and minds’ approach can be overdone,” he once explained. “In the Delta the only way to overcome VC control is by brute force applied against the VC.”
In his view, nothing measured progress like body count: “Jack up that body count or you’re gone, Colonel,” he was overheard shouting at a subordinate. He flooded all three Delta provinces with small infantry units whose commanders were told they would not be extracted from the field until they had killed an acceptable number of the enemy. “All the battalion commanders,” one colonel recalled, “had to carry a three- by five-inch card with an up-to-date, day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month body count tally, just in case General Ewell showed up and wanted to know. And woe to the commander who did not have a consistently high count.”
To deny the countryside to the enemy at night as well as during the day, Ewell instituted a program called Night Hunter. UH-1 troop transport helicopters worked in unison with two Cobra gunships. The transport helicopter flew a couple of hundred yards off the ground. In its belly was a “people sniffer,” an instrument that could detect traces of carbon and ammonia that meant human beings were below them—though not which side they were on or what they might be doing. Three snipers lay in the back with night scopes also looking for targets. If some were spotted, the snipers would open fire with tracer bullets that showed the gunships hovering three hundred yards above them precisely where to direct their fire.
Day or night, men in black pajamas were targeted. A major remembered skimming low over a rice paddy with Colonel Ira Hunt, Ewell’s chief of staff. “He said something to the pilot, and all of a sudden the door gunner was firing a .50-caliber machine gun…and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ He said, ‘See those black pajamas down there? They’re Viet Cong. We just killed two of them.’ ”
Operation Bold Mariner, February 5, 1969: U.S. Marines drive children and women, with their hands bound, from the tunnel in which they’d been hiding on the Batagnan Peninsula.
How could he recognize VC from a helicopter?
“Because they’re wearing black pajamas.”
“Well, sir, I thought workers in the fields wore black pajamas.”
“No, not around here. Black pajamas are Viet Cong.”
Anyone seen running was targeted too, though no warning was ever given telling civilians that to remain safe they needed to hold their ground.
A sergeant reported that “gunships and loaches [light observation helicopters] would hover over a guy in the fields till he got scared and run and then they’d zap him,” while GIs on the ground would “see people in a field and start toward them and they’d run and get killed.”
“If someone was told that anyone who runs away should be assumed to be an enemy, that’s totally improper,” remembered Robert Gard, who served for a time under Ewell as artillery division commander. “People run away because they’re afraid. I’ve seen instances of farmers when you descend in a helicopter suddenly, first they freeze but they’re frightened and they run. You can’t just make a blanket judgment that anybody that runs away is an enemy.”
“Most of the people [the Americans] killed were civilians, because civilians would run,” recalled Le Quan Cong, an NLF platoon commander who had fought at Ap Bac, survived the aborted Tet assault in Saigon, and was now struggling to hold his weakened unit together. “We soldiers held our fighting positions. They couldn’t get us easily. There always seemed to be helicopters overhead, day and night. They wiped out whole villages—there was often nothing left. If they saw even a shadow of a person they opened fire, and if guerrillas shot at them, they brought even more firepower. The people would try to get into their bunkers, but sometimes they couldn’t get there in time.”
Ewell was proud of his nickname within the military—“the Butcher of the Delta”—and of his unit’s statistical record—10,899 Viet Cong killed in six months, with a loss of only 242 Americans—an astonishing kill ratio of forty-five to one. Some officers were skeptical. “The idea that we killed only enemy combatants is about as gross an exaggeration as I could imagine,” Robert Gard remembered. “But to talk about ratios of forty-five to one simply defies my imagination.”
To fulfill General Julian Ewell’s desire to kill “four thousand of these little bastards a month,” the Ninth Infantry Division applied relentless pressure to three Delta provinces as part of Operation Speedy Express. Landing craft belonging to the Mobile Riverine Force patrol a winding waterway; when the enemy was spotted, troops rushed ashore while the ships laid down covering fire.
A Cobra gunship pulls out of a rocket and strafing run on an abandoned rice paddy already cratered by repeated air attacks.
An Army gunner who stood six foot five bears his M60 machine gun across a river, part of one of the infantry squads that patrolled the region, day and night.
Later, when critics, inside the military as well as outside, pointed out that Ewell’s men had managed to capture only 688 individual and 60 crew-served weapons from all those supposed enemy dead—perhaps the lowest ratio of weapons seized to body count tallied during the war—Ewell claimed it was because so many deaths occurred at night and because “many of the guerrilla units were not armed.” (Four years later, the Army inspector general would estimate that somewhere between five and seven thousand of the roughly eleven thousand kills claimed by the Ninth Infantry Division had been unarmed civilians.)
General Creighton Abrams hands the colors of the II Field Force to its new commander, Julian Ewell, promoted to lieutenant general because of the supposed success of Speedy Express, April 3, 1969.
General Abrams hailed the Ninth Infantry’s performance as “magnificent,…unparalleled and unequaled.” Ewell was made a three-star general and given command of II Field Force, the largest Army combat command in Vietnam. But when the Ninth Infantry finally withdrew from the Delta, one seasoned American journalist would write, it “left as many enemies as friends among the South Vietnamese.”
WE DO NOT REGRET YOUR BEING HERE
IN EARLY JANUARY, with Richard Nixon’s inauguration and the start of the new Paris peace talks just days away, Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker reported that not since the fall of Diem five years earlier had “there been such a mood of impending change in Saigon.” He had been covering Vietnam off and on since the French war and remembered that the weeks following the 1963 coup had been a hopeful time. This was not. The consuming worry among Saigon’s elite was that President Thieu was being railroaded, forced by the Americans to participate in talks about the future of the country before it was ready.
“Even if the government’s claim that it now controls some [seventy-five] per cent of South Vietnam’s population—forty per cent of which, including refugees and other displaced persons currently lives in the cities—is statistically accurate,” Shaplen wrote, “the statistics do not provide a true picture of the situation. The remaining thirty per cent is about equally divided between people living in ‘contested’ areas and people living in areas that are admittedly controlled by the Communists.” The cities were not safe, either: just in the past few weeks, some four hundred communist sappers had been captured in Saigon itself, and MACV believed still another enemy offensive was in the offing, most likely during the Tet festivities in February.
Ambassador Bunker reported to the White House that same month that while the current South Vietnamese government was “the best and most effective I have seen…it is still not strong enough” to stand on its own, and was still “plagued by inefficiency and corruption.”
Colonel Tran Van Hai, the new director general of the National Police, had recently drawn up for the CIA a list of weaknesses he felt were undermining the Saigon government: a continuing inability to control hamlets and villages; a failure to connect with schools and universities where many teachers and “the best and most dedicated students [were] also dedicated communists”; an unwillingness to compromise with the Buddhists; and unthinking arrogance among government officials, both in Saigon and in the countryside, where many treated peasants and refugees with open contempt.
Corruption continued to riddle the regime too. “The Vietnamese had a saying,” U.S. adviser Stuart Herrington recalled. “ ‘The house leaks from the roof on down.’ That was their way to elliptically refer to the ever-present, nagging problem of corruption.” And South Vietnam’s ever-greater dependence on the United States only made it worse.
Before U.S. troops arrived, eight out of ten Vietnamese lived in villages; by 1970, almost half would be crowded into urban areas. (Their absence from the rural areas where they once had lived accounted for many of pacification’s supposed statistical successes; virtually empty landscapes were counted as under Saigon’s control.) Perhaps a third of the country’s population had been displaced, and hundreds of thousands trekked to Saigon and other cities, some in search of work, others because they had nowhere else to go.
One of Saigon’s thousands of bar girls catches a GI’s eye on Tu Do Street. Some were refugees from the war-ravaged countryside who had nowhere else to go and could find no other work. Others gravitated to the city for other reasons: to escape unwanted marriages or rural drudgery or in search of excitement and an income they could never have matched in their village.
As parts of the countryside emptied, Saigon’s population tripled to three million. Half the newcomers had no permanent shelter. Many neighborhoods were without a sewage system. Cholera and typhoid killed thousands. One hundred and fifty thousand hungry children roamed the streets, scavenging, begging, searching for jobs to do or pockets to pick.
Meanwhile, some five thousand American contractors, construction workers, and businessmen occupied many of the villas and apartment buildings where the French had once lived. A single consortium of contractors employed some sixty thousand Vietnamese, most of them women because their men had been drafted into the ARVN. They unloaded ships, drove forklifts, spread gravel, swept floors.
The U.S. military employed ninety thousand more Vietnamese as day laborers, allowed onto military bases in the morning and escorted out again at night.
According to one study, as many as 300,000 young women became bar girls and prostitutes in cities and towns and around the military bases scattered across the country.
“The people who collected garbage in Saigon quit and went to work for the contractors on the American bases, where they made more money,” Neil Sheehan remembered. “The garbage piled up in the streets, and at night when you walked by, it would move on top from the rats feeding on it down below. One day I was walking by a pile of garbage and I noticed writing in chalk on the sidewalk. I was with a Vietnamese, so I asked him, ‘What does it say?’ He said it said, ‘This is the fruit of American aid.’ The society was rotten. It was not going to stand. It was as simple as that.”
Government officials were on the take. Policemen could not be trusted. Tons of American goods piled up on Saigon’s docks. Building materials intended for refugee housing were sold back to Vietnamese contractors building high-priced housing for U.S. personnel.
Some Americans made money too. One liquor dealer used bribery to corner amusement sales to U.S. officers’ clubs and made $40 million before he got caught. In just one year, the black market cost the U.S. military $2 billion. Warehouse guards were paid to overlook pilferage. American goods flowed out the back doors of PXs. Middlemen sold to the enemy antibiotics, surgical instruments, sophisticated weapons, and dry cell batteries used to set off land mines.
Black-market sales in Saigon: “People were selling pilfered goods,” Duong Van Mai Elliott remembered. “People began to have favorite brands. I remember Prell shampoo, Colgate toothpaste, Johnny Walker whiskey. They remained very loyal to those brands. So life was good, and the people who were working for the Americans or doing business with the Americans were making money hand over fist.”
“They were stealing from us and selling to anybody,” Joe Galloway recalled. “ ‘Two-man helicopter? You want one of those? They’ve got one in a box in the back.’ You could probably get it for twelve thousand bucks if you negotiated strongly. The corruption was endemic. And we tolerated it.”
“Who benefited most from the financial aspect of the war?” Phan Quang Tue asked. “The generals. Don’t deny that. They got the money, became richer and richer. From Thieu and Ky down to every echelon, they were all war profiteers.”
Mai Van Duong Elliot remembered that her father considered Thieu and his cronies both incompetent and corrupt. “With leaders like that,” he used to say, “the Americans must be very frustrated and might just pack up and leave.”
Edward Landsdale, who’d been involved in Vietnam since the advent of Ngo Dinh Diem and was now an official in the Saigon embassy, assessed the pervasiveness of the corruption. The ARVN Corps commanders employed intermediaries—aides, staff assistants, often their wives—to sell the most important posts in their regions: division officers, and province and district chiefs. The grateful buyers were expected to continue making regular payoffs to their superiors while themselves collecting payoffs from less important officials whom they, in turn, had appointed. “No businessman can operate without at least the acquiescence of the government,” Lansdale wrote. “Thus virtually all substantial businessmen operating in provincial capitals pay a regular sum under the table…to stay in business, and some pay more to obtain special privileges. The same system…is in effect at the district level in most districts and at the village level in many villages. Village chiefs pay part of the money collected to district chiefs as do the latter to province chiefs.” Lansdale insisted that this crude system had more to do with how the Saigon regime actually functioned “than the institutional channels of authority which appear on organizational charts. Its damaging effects in terms of weakening discipline, esprit, and the overall effectiveness of the [government and armed forces] are obvious. It has become…a system with its own momentum, entrapping most senior soldiers and most middle-level managers.”
Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Duc Ninh, the chief of Bac Lieu Province in the Delta, was among the most egregious offenders. A first cousin of President Thieu, he demanded that anyone in his province who bought a pack of cigarettes or burned a gallon of gasoline come up with a tax payable to him personally. According to Neil Sheehan, he also extorted blackmail payments from innocent people rounded up under the Phoenix Program, doubled his fees to free NLF fighters from prison, and “sold artillery barrages to imperiled garrisons; no bribe, no artillery.” At one point, John Paul Vann—now back in Vietnam as CORDS commander in IV Corps—tried to get him promoted to command of a regiment because, he said, “He’ll steal less with a regiment.” CORDS personnel compiled lists of corrupt officials who hampered their work, and Ambassador Bunker made repeated trips to the presidential palace to discuss them with President Thieu—seventy-eight such visits, by one count—but officials removed from one high post were too often put back in charge somewhere else. “Win the war first,” Thieu said, “then make far-reaching social and economic plans.”
A Vietnamese friend of Robert Shaplen’s once tried to explain to him why his country seemed so slow to be able to fend for itself.
There is much we must blame ourselves for, but much of what has happened is your fault. At the end of the Second World War, you decided who should go where in Asia and occupy what. The French returned here—and you helped keep them here, with your guns and your money—for nine more long years. It was natural enough that the French should try to manufacture fake nationalism with mandarin officials, but why did you have to do the same when you moved in, in 1945? You came to Vietnam without any preparation and therefore without understanding, yet you forced us to adjust to your anti-communist objectives without helping us develop our own democratic ones. You were afraid of Diem, until it was too late to get him to change his ways and to get rid of his brother Nhu. You ended by creating a vacuum the communists were best prepared to fill. The strongest non-communist political party in the country became USAID and now you wonder why so many Vietnamese are corrupt. You brought an American army here, and you made a western army out of ours, but it has never been a national army and it still doesn’t know how to fight a war of insurgency or how to deal with the people. We are no longer the makers of our own destiny. We are the victims of your global policy.
Despite all the U.S. failings, Shaplen’s friend continued, “If the Americans had not come to South Vietnam, we would have gone Communist long ago, so we do not regret your being here—and we will do everything we can to keep you here, because we need you even more, economically, without a war.”
THE PEACE WE SEEK
IF RICHARD NIXON had his way, the United States would not be kept in Vietnam much longer. “I’m not going to end up like LBJ, holed up in the White House afraid to show my face on the street,” he told an aide. “I’m going to stop that war. Fast. I mean it!”
On January 20, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, he took the oath of office as the thirty-seventh president of the United States, his left hand resting on a family Bible, held open by his wife, Pat, to Isaiah 2:4—“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” He made no mention of Vietnam in his inaugural address, but the overall theme was peace, at home and abroad:
The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker….We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth. We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by divisions, wanting unity….America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontent into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices….Let this message be heard by strong and weak alike: The peace we seek—the peace we seek to win—is not victory over other people, but the peace that comes with healing in its wings, with compassion for those who have suffered; with understanding for those who have opposed us.
But as it had with Johnson, the ongoing war in Vietnam threatened to derail Nixon’s plans. As the new president and his wife rode along the inaugural parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, protestors mixed in with the cheering crowds, chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.” Some burned miniature American flags passed out by the Boy Scouts. At Twelfth Street, protestors waved an NLF flag and hurled rocks, bottles, and beer cans at the president’s limousine. No inaugural parade had ever been attacked before in the history of the presidency, and when the limousine reached Fifteenth Street, Nixon ordered the sunroof opened so that he and Pat could stand up and be seen by the crowd, the president with his arms raised in the V-for-Victory sign President Eisenhower had pioneered in American politics. It was clear that the divisions Nixon hoped to heal had not narrowed.
Like Lyndon Johnson, Nixon had an ambitious agenda for his presidency, but, unlike Johnson, events overseas interested him more than challenges close to home. “I’ve always thought the country could run itself domestically without a president,” he’d told a newspaperman. “You need a president for foreign policy.” He hoped to create a more stable international order in which the United States retained its central position while easing a quarter of a century of tensions with the Soviet Union and opening the door to China, whose existence the United States had refused to recognize since the communists took over in 1949.
As his national security advisor, he chose a man who shared both his ambition and his vision, forty-five-year-old Henry Kissinger. On the surface, Nixon and Kissinger didn’t appear well suited to one another. “The combination was unlikely,” the president himself would write, “the grocer’s son from Whittier [California] and the refugee from Hitler’s Germany, the politician and the academic.” In private, each often derided the other; Kissinger sometimes referred to his boss as “our meatball president”; Nixon called his national security advisor “my Jew-boy.”
Nonetheless, they worked closely together throughout the Nixon presidency. Each saw himself as a hardheaded realist and both favored secrecy over openness. Each agreed that foreign policy should be run from the White House, and had little but scorn for the bureaucrats with whom they had to work: “We’ve checked,” Nixon once explained, “and 96 percent of the bureaucracy are against us. They’re bastards who are here to screw us.” The president routinely avoided consulting William Rogers, the former law partner he’d made secretary of state, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff so rarely found themselves within the policymaking loop they assigned a Navy yeoman to steal White House documents just to find out was going on.
Both Nixon and Kissinger were convinced that Vietnam was foreign policy “problem no. 1.” The president had been an early and enthusiastic advocate of intervention there and had been critical of his predecessors for not being more aggressive against the enemy, but he now had no illusions about winning a conventional victory in Vietnam. “I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to win the war,” he told aides during the campaign. “But we can’t say that, of course. In fact we seem to have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some bargaining leverage.”
Kissinger agreed. In fighting the Vietnam War, he wrote, “we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla war; the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” Both men had come to share the views of the Wise Men who, after Tet, had told President Johnson that the U.S. “could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.” Nonetheless, Kissinger wrote, the United States “could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and 31,000 dead, as if we were switching a television channel.”
It was not South Vietnam’s independence that mattered most to Nixon and Kissinger. They believed that the credibility of the United States was at stake. This was not a new notion. In a 1965 memorandum, written before the first Marines ever landed at Danang, Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton set forth his understanding of the underlying rationale for intervention: avoiding “a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor) comprised 70 percent of it,” he wrote, while allowing “the people of SVN to enjoy a freer and better way of life” accounted for only 10 percent.
But Kissinger made what had been one element of an internal argument the central public rationale for the Nixon administration’s policy toward Southeast Asia:
The commitment of 500,000 Americans has settled the issue of the importance of Vietnam. What is involved now is confidence in American promises. However fashionable it is to ridicule the terms “credibility” or “prestige,” they are not empty phrases; other nations can gear their actions to ours only if they can rely on our steadiness….In many parts of the world—the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, even Japan—stability depends on confidence in American promises.
But American promises to Saigon, Kissinger and Nixon believed, did not need to be perpetual pledges. Neither saw South Vietnam’s survival by itself as vital to American interests. Their approaches differed slightly. What Kissinger hoped to do was find a way gradually to withdraw U.S. forces while strengthening the South Vietnamese so that they could hold on long enough that if they eventually collapsed it would be because of Saigon’s weaknesses, not Washington’s. Nixon shared that hope but never wholly abandoned the notion that the application of American military power might somehow bring about an early conclusion to the war on American terms.
Henry Kissinger in his White House office as national security advisor.
The new president’s plan of action was to proceed on several fronts simultaneously. He extended preexisting programs—including accelerated pacification of the countryside, and the expansion and strengthening of the South Vietnamese armed forces begun as “de-Americanization” by Clark Clifford, and renamed “Vietnamization” by his successor, former Wisconsin Congressman Melvin Laird. Newer elements of his program were intended to reassure the American public that the war really was coming to an end: he let it be known that he had ordered up a study of ending the draft in favor of an all-volunteer army, and he waited impatiently for the moment to announce the first withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Quakers hold a “meeting for worship” outside the White House, July 7, 1968, while a delegation meets with Henry Kissinger inside. “Give us six months,” he told them, “and if we haven’t ended the war by then, you can come back and tear down the White House fence.”
The four-party Paris talks began just five days after Nixon’s inauguration and promptly stalled. Hanoi continued to insist that before there could be peace the United States would have to withdraw from South Vietnam unilaterally and the government of Nguyen Van Thieu, whom they called the “American puppet,” would have to be deposed. For its part, the United States insisted on the opposite: North Vietnamese troops would have to leave the South first, and President Thieu could only be removed from power by free elections.
“The state of play in Paris is completely sterile,” Nixon said. Nonetheless, he remained convinced that Vietnam was a “short-term problem” and acted quickly to try to solve it. When Moscow signaled it was interested in beginning Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the president responded that he was willing to get started, but only if Moscow persuaded Hanoi to soften their demands for a settlement.
Meanwhile, he said, he was “convinced that the only way to move the negotiations off dead center is to do something on the military front. That is something [Hanoi] will understand.” He believed his reputation as a fierce anticommunist could be used to his advantage. “I call it the ‘Madman Theory,’ ” he told Bob Haldeman, now his chief of staff. “They’ll believe any threat of force Nixon makes because it’s Nixon. We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon’s obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry and he has his hand on the nuclear button’—and Ho Chi Minh will be in Paris in two days, begging for peace.”
Ho Chi Minh seemed no more likely to buckle under future Nixon threats than he had been to accept the allegedly irresistible economic blandishments Lyndon Johnson had offered at Johns Hopkins in 1965. Ho was old and ailing now, in any case, and largely a figurehead, while Le Duan and the other men calling the shots in Hanoi had fought too long against too-great odds to consider abandoning the struggle. They thought it would take them two to three years to rebuild the forces that had been hit so hard during the Tet Offensive, but they also believed that time was on their side, that the American public would steadily grow more weary of the war.
Nonetheless, all Nixon needed, he thought, was a pretext for him to unleash the kind of “irresistible military pressure” President Johnson had been reluctant to use and that he believed would intimidate the enemy.
JUST A SAVAGE JOY
MEANWHILE, the war went on. In early 1969, twenty-four-year-old First Lieutenant Karl Marlantes, who a year earlier had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, found himself executive officer of Charlie Company, First Battalion, Fourth Marines, Third Marine Division, just south of the DMZ at the western edge of South Vietnam. It was a mountain region so remote, he remembered, that during all his time there he never saw either an American reporter or a Vietnamese village. The enemy was plentiful, however, well-trained, well-armed troops belonging to two North Vietnamese divisions. The first day coming into the area, he remembered, “holes appeared in the chopper I was in and I realized, ‘My God, I’m being shot at.’ I hadn’t even landed yet.”
His unit was fighting the same sort of war over the same chain of steep, jungle-covered hills Marines had been fighting now for more than two years. “You would hear the name of the latest operation—Operation Purple Martin 1 or Operation Scotland 2,” Marlantes remembered, “and it was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ All that meant to us was that someday soon some choppers are going to show up and drop us into the jungle someplace and then we’d be humping, as we called it. Days and days of being on an operation trying to find the enemy. If you did, then you got into a fight; and if you didn’t, you’d just hump until you did. There was no sense of strategy.”
At the beginning of March, Marlantes’s company was sent to the aid of Marines under fire from North Vietnamese regulars dug in on a hillside. “We were supposed to be the anvil to their hammer. It turned out that we had been inserted in the middle of a major movement of a North Vietnamese army regiment. We made an attack on Hill 484. And we took that hill.” But the North Vietnamese force they’d driven off the hill regrouped, poured mortar fire into their ranks, and drove them off again. “We’d been fighting seven days, something like that,” Marlantes recalled. “It was a long fight. And then we were ordered to take the hill back again. At that moment I thought things had gotten crazy. First of all, we had been fighting there for all that time. There was another unit that was fresh. Why didn’t they send them up the hill? And the word that I got—and I’ll never know if this is true or not—was, ‘Well, you guys abandoned the hill, so you have to take it back.’ We were in the middle of this horrible shit sandwich.
“We had moved up in the dark and waited in the jungle, strung out on line as the jets roared in to bomb the enemy defenses at first light. But because of a screw-up the jet hit the wrong hilltop. We came out of the jungle and started forward. The NVA were in bunkers up above us. It was a very steep hill, hard to climb. Now, you don’t charge because you’re carrying a lot of weight—a lot of ammunition, water. Going uphill you’d exhaust yourself if you tried to run. So you walked into an assault. The discipline is to walk and walk until things start happening. We probably got about a third of the way up when they unleashed on us.”
The Marines took what cover they could. Marlantes realized that they would face machine gun fire if they continued up the slope, but if they stayed where they were, mortar shells would surely find them. “It’s just inconceivable that Marines would turn around. So now what? It was like I left my body and I looked down. I saw the whole situation. I saw where the machine guns were placed, where the vulnerable point would be. I came back down into my body and I started organizing people to take some of the bunkers under fire. Then I stood up and went up the hill. I thought I was all by myself. I was running zigzag at this point because I wanted to cover that ground as fast as I could without getting hit. I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and I rolled to the ground to come up with my rifle to shoot the person. It was a kid from my platoon. And then I looked behind him and there were more kids. They had all come behind me. I mean I think it felt to me like I was there for a week but I think I was probably by myself four seconds, five seconds. The entire platoon just stood up and up they came. It remains to me a moment that is just almost inexpressible of the heart that these kids had. And then we just hit those bunkers.”
The Marines cleared them, one by one. “Two NVA had retreated to a hole behind the line of bunkers.” Marlantes recalled. “I was down on the ground so that I wouldn’t get hit. One had been killed. The other one stood up and saw me. I was very close. And I had the rifle laid right on him. He had a grenade in his hand. And we locked eyes. And when you lock eyes it all breaks down that this is an animal. I can remember looking at this kid’s eyes and thinking, ‘I wish I could speak Vietnamese.’ So I started to just sort of just whisper fiercely, ‘Don’t throw it. Don’t throw it. If you don’t throw it, I won’t kill you. If you don’t throw it, I won’t pull the trigger. Don’t do it.’ And I wouldn’t have. But I remember him snarling at me. And he threw the grenade right at me. I pulled the trigger and it hit the lip of the hole he was in and the bullet went up through his chest, I’m pretty sure. And two other guys who were with me came running around the corner. My radio operator had his rifle on full automatic and finished the job off. But those two eyes stayed with me a long, long time.”
Karl Marlantes’s platoon just before the battle for Hill 484
Moments later, an enemy grenade peppered Marlantes with shrapnel and knocked him momentarily unconscious. Minute shards of metal and dirt thrown up by the explosion temporarily blinded him. His radioman managed to clear one eye by pouring Kool-Aid into it from his canteen. Marlantes found the strength to rejoin his men, as they continued to fight their way toward the summit. “I’ve often used the expression that combat is like crack cocaine,” he said. “It’s an enormous high, but it has enormous costs. No sane person would ever do crack because of what it’s going to do to them. But from what I’ve heard you can’t deny that crack is an incredible high. Combat is like that. You’re scared, you’re terrified, you’re miserable, but then the fighting starts and suddenly everything is at stake—your life, your friends’ lives. And it’s a complete experience of almost transcendence because you’re no longer a person. You lose that sense. You’re just the platoon. And the platoon can’t be beat. Maybe people will get killed, but the platoon can’t be beat. You’re beyond that. There’s an enormous exhilaration in it. You lose yourself. Everything in your body is sacrificed for other people. And there’s a savage joy in overcoming your enemy, just a savage joy. And I think that we make a big mistake if we say, ‘Oh, war is hell.’ We all know the war-is-hell story. It is. But there’s an enormously exhilarating part of it.”
Marlantes recovering from his wounds
When the hilltop had finally been cleared, Marlantes insisted that his men’s wounds be seen to before he received treatment. For the “heroic actions and resolute determination” he displayed on that day, Karl Marlantes was awarded the Navy Cross. “The official commendation makes it sound as if I took a bunch of bunkers all alone,” he wrote later. “I did lead the charge, but I often remind people that none of those kids who wrote the eyewitness accounts could have done so if they hadn’t been right there with me.” Charlie Company suffered fifteen casualties, including five men killed in action. Fighting for Hill 484 and the adjacent summits would go on for months.
THE OPTIMISM with which Nixon and Kissinger had set about trying to bring a speedy end to the war did not last long. Moscow never bothered to respond to their repeated requests for Soviet help in persuading North Vietnam to soften its negotiating position; Nixon and Kissinger had clearly over-estimated the degree of control the Soviet Union exerted over Hanoi.
Hanoi’s intransigence, in turn, kept the president from announcing the troop reduction that he hoped would help begin to defuse the antiwar movement.
On February 22nd, at the end of yet another Tet cease-fire, the North Vietnamese launched a new offensive from their jungle sanctuaries in Cambodia. Four hundred and twenty-five Americans died within the first week; two weeks later the total would be nearly eleven hundred.
Nixon was eager to retaliate but did not feel he could resume the bombing of the North for fear of provoking protest at home. And so on March 18, when the Joint Chiefs brought him a proposal to bomb North Vietnamese sanctuaries in a jungle-covered area of neutral Cambodia—a proposal President Johnson had repeatedly rejected for fear of widening the war—Nixon signed on. He saw it as the chance he’d been waiting for to unleash the kind of “irresistible military pressure” his predecessor had been hesitant to use, the kind he assumed would startle and intimidate the enemy. General Abrams applauded the decision. He knew troop withdrawals were coming soon and hoped his men would see the bombing as “evidence of support” for “their spirit and their morale and their determination.”
In fact, Abrams’s men would learn nothing about the bombing because the president imposed unprecedented secrecy on the whole operation. The secretary of the Air Force was not informed. Neither the secretary of state nor the secretary of defense was told anything about the bombing before the decision was made. B-52 pilots were given false targets within South Vietnam that were corrected by ground-based radar only after they had left the ground. Paperwork was falsified.
The first target was labeled “Breakfast.” Nearly sixty B-52s dropped more than thirteen hundred tons of ordnance on a single sanctuary that was supposed to include COSVN headquarters. The bombing would go on for fourteen months—an average of 100 sorties a month through the summer, several hundred a month after that—dropping well over 100,000 tons of bombs on other jungle targets named “Lunch,” “Snack,” “Dinner,” and “Dessert.”
When The New York Times finally discovered what was happening and published a front-page story about it, the White House denied that any bombing was taking place—and Kissinger persuaded FBI bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover to place illegal wiretaps on the telephones of seventeen reporters and government officials in a fruitless effort to find out who had leaked the story.
No one knew how many enemy troops or Cambodian civilians were killed during the bombing campaign. But the ever-elusive COSVN again remained unscathed, a neighboring nation struggling to stay out of war had been destabilized, and, according to the CIA, the so-called “Menu” attacks had had “no appreciable effect on enemy capabilities in target areas.”
Hanoi had not been intimidated. There would be no quick end to the war. “We will not repeat the same old mistakes,” Henry Kissinger had joked to an aide shortly after coming to Washington. “We will make our own.”
I WASN’T SUPPOSED TO LIVE
WHEN GARY POWELL, from Akron, Ohio, joined the second platoon of the Seventeenth Armored Cavalry early in 1969, Michael Holmes, now a Spec 4 and back in action after the roadside bomb that had injured him and killed his best friend, went out of his way to make him feel welcome. “I didn’t know anybody,” Powell recalled. “I’m the ‘FNG’—the Fucking New Guy. Holmes came right up to me. He was tall, dark-complexioned, a little bit of a pencil mustache, kind of a Zorro type of thing. He was a good old country boy, and right off the bat we just liked each other. So he began to tell me, ‘All the training you had will serve you to some degree. But it’s not what you’re going to need to live if you stay over here. You need to learn as you go from the guys around you.’ And he was the one to teach me. He was a super-nice guy—other than he just had this thing that he wanted to kill gooks, and he wanted to get revenge for his buddies because he was really tight with the young guy that was killed. I remember him saying, ‘I should have died on that track. I am going to go out and waste all those gooks that did this. I wasn’t supposed to live.’ ”
His anger only seemed to deepen when Darlene, his girlfriend back home, stopped writing. “He used to talk about her quite a bit,” another member of his outfit remembered, “but then he quit talking about her all of a sudden. So I don’t know if it was a breakup or a ‘Dear John’ letter or what it was, but it seemed like he wasn’t the same anymore.”
The second platoon spent weeks at a time in the field, searching for the enemy, seizing rice and supplies, and destroying villages suspected of aiding the NLF. Eight APCs, accompanied by artillery, infantry, and dogs trained to sniff out mines patrolled during the day, then drew into a defensive circle at night. Before settling down, a squad was sent to patrol around the perimeter. Holmes clamored again and again to be the pointman. “Michael always volunteered,” Powell remembered. “He wanted to get out there. He was looking for the enemy. It was unheard of. I would certainly not do that.”
A fellow soldier thought that Holmes had accounted for seven enemy soldiers, the highest body count in the platoon. He reported some of his kills on tape. One day, he told the folks back home, “I told my sergeant, ‘There’s some people out there with packs and they ain’t us because we don’t carry packs.’ He said, ‘No, they ain’t.’ So I run down there and wounded one….Now don’t get the wrong idea about me shooting another human being. If I hadn’t saw them they might have got me because they had weapons….There were about two weapons with them. But then after I got through firing, the Sarge asked, ‘Why did you fire? Why didn’t we let them go?’ Well, that’s what we’re over here for.” A few days later, Holmes spotted two uniformed North Vietnamese eating rice beneath a big rock. He killed one and wounded the other.
Encounters with the local populace were often brutal and heedless. “The villagers were never happy to see us,” recalled Herman Conley, from Independence, Kansas, another member of the platoon. “A couple of guys threw someone down a well—an old man, no reason for it—I knew he couldn’t get out of that well. We weren’t the best people when we went over there.”
Uniformed South Vietnamese who often accompanied the Americans—most of them members of the poorly trained Popular Forces—rounded up Viet Cong suspects and those thought to sympathize with them for interrogation. “Some of them,” another member of the platoon, Bruce Austin, remembered, “were mean, mean individuals. You look in their eyes and you didn’t see a soul. They had no qualms about doing whatever was necessary to get their information and they’d have done it to us, too, if they had got us. I remember they caught two women and they whipped them with canes. That just made me sick. I’d never seen anybody abusing women. I’m from Pontotoc, Mississippi, and down there we respected women. I remember I went around behind the hooch and prayed. And I thought, ‘I hope don’t nobody find this out. They’ll think I’m a wimp.’ But I prayed for those ladies. They were hurting, you know. He beat them pretty bad. And I never liked him. I don’t know who he was. Don’t care to know who he was. But maybe somewhere in life fate has dealt him something that will make him remember that.”
Beatings, torture, and rape by Popular Force personnel were common. Americans rarely intervened. After all, the platoon’s lieutenant said, “it was them getting intelligence from their people the way they do it.” Some captives were murdered.
In April, Holmes’s platoon was sent to Antenna Valley, so named because so many U.S. helicopters had been shot down there. “There had been no friendlies for over a year when we got there in April,” Bruce Austin remembered. “The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran right through the valley and there was a lot of activity.” Like Gary Powell, Austin was a newcomer to the platoon whom Michael Holmes had befriended.
The mountainous terrain made maneuvering APCs difficult, and the few paths they could follow were strewn with mines. On April 13, the men were ordered to park their APCs in a dry riverbed and move on foot up a mountainside, hoping to make contact with enemy troops coming down it. “There was a river running down the mountain,” Austin remembered. “So we decided we’d go up the riverbank and hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail up top. It was hard, but it was beautiful. If we weren’t in a war it would have been a beautiful place to take pictures and just get to know.”
They caught three North Vietnamese troops coming down the path and killed them. When the Americans spotted more enemy troops farther up the hill, the men were pulled back so an airstrike could be called in. They planned to return to the hillside the next morning.
That night, Herman Conley noticed that Michael Holmes seemed unusually restless, especially anxious to get at the enemy: “It was like he was worried about something. It was my turn to go out on patrol. But he told me to stay back, and he got permission to take my place. He wasn’t supposed to be out there. I was supposed to be out there.”
On the morning of April 14, the platoon halted at the foot of the mountain. APCs could go no farther. The platoon started up the hillside on foot
Michael Holmes was where he insisted on being—walking point.
The recollections of his fellow soldiers differed about precisely what happened next. His lieutenant, Charles Garefin, remembered that Holmes spotted several NLF troops and “was chasing them down. For Michael it was kind of instinctive.” Gary Powell was sure that Holmes had managed to shoot several of them: “He did get a body count that day.” Bruce Austin was equally convinced that Holmes had been ambushed by a single NVA soldier, hidden just twenty feet from him.
Michael Holmes (center) and his crew enjoy a beer in the field. “We weren’t like infantry,” his fellow platoon member Gary Powell remembered. “We could carry cases of beer, fifths of whiskey. What are they going to do, check you? At night, when things calmed down, people got a little tanked up occasionally. Never enough to make stupid decisions.”
Whatever happened, the outcome was the same: an AK47 burst smashed into Michael Holmes’s brain.
American bullets riddled the North Vietnamese soldier who shot him.
“It was over quickly,” Austin recalled. “When we knew we had cleared the slope, we took our shirts and made a stretcher. Holmes was my friend, so I carried one end of him all the way down. We wrapped his head in a shirt to keep it together, but his brains ended up on my boots. It was the worst thing I ever encountered in my life. We put him on a chopper. And I’m thinking, you know, ‘He’s gone. And his mother and daddy don’t even know this yet. And it’ll be days before they do.’ I just thought this would be the case with me, too.”
Michael Holmes’s helmet, rifle, and several weapons he’d captured from the enemy form the centerpiece for a brief memorial service held in his honor.
Twelve days later, the Department of the Army awarded Michael Holmes a posthumous Bronze Star. The citation mentioned that before he was killed he had heroically knocked a buddy out of the way of a North Vietnamese bullet—something no member of his platoon recalled having happened.
April 1969—the month Michael Holmes was killed—marked the high point of the United States commitment to South Vietnam—543,482 men and women were now in country, and tens of thousands more were stationed at air bases and aboard ships beyond its borders. A total of 40,794 had died, and more than $70 billion had been spent.
MAJOR MERRILL MCPEAK was a crack fighter pilot when he arrived in Vietnam, a veteran of some two hundred air shows with the death-defying Air Force Thunderbird aerobatic team. But it was combat flying he was after. “I got to the war late, as a professional fighter pilot. And the feeling I had was, in a sense, relief, that I got to the war, finally. I didn’t want to be the only fighter pilot in the known universe not to get to fight in Vietnam.”
He was quickly disillusioned with the way the war from the air was being waged. “An air war needs to be organized according to a commonsense idea of what we’re doing; and it needs to be executed under the command of somebody who understands air operations. None of that was true in Vietnam.”
The Army was in charge. At first, McPeak remembered, he helped provide air support for Army battalions with a guaranteed number of sorties per day, “whether or not they had anything in front of them worth blowing up. At the end of any sortie where we dropped bombs on what we called ‘trees in contact’—because there was nothing important down there—we would always get back a bomb-damage assessment from the forward air controller. It would read ‘Twelve supply sources destroyed. Two structures collapsed.’ All these metrics were modern management approaches to war. It was phony, just a waste of time. I think that was clear to most junior lieutenants wearing wings in Vietnam. This is not something I had to be a genius to discover. We talked about this a lot. At night we’d go to the bar, and commiserate with each other. The only good part was occasionally some Army Special Forces guy would come drifting into the bar, and say, ‘Thank you, guys. You know, you saved our bacon.’
“The best result I achieved in a year was a result of a gross miss from what I was aiming at. I dropped a bomb one afternoon that must have had a broken fin or something. It just went crazy, went over and hit a mile away from where I was aiming and started a series of secondary explosions, meaning that I had hit an ammunition dump, or a cache of ammunition. So it cooked off for fifteen minutes. As we were leaving, the thing was still blowing up. Now, that’s the exact reverse of how you want to use airpower.”
Then, in early 1969, McPeak was assigned to Project Commando Sabre, piloting a two-man F-100 fighter bomber flying high-speed forward air control, seeking to pinpoint men and supplies moving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. McPeak and his fellow pilots called their outfit “Misty,” after its radio call sign. “I spent four months in Misty,” he recalled, “and that was the best four months of the war, as far as I was concerned, because what we were doing was simple, straightforward, and made sense. We wanted to stop traffic from A to B down this dirt road. That, I can understand. Somebody in Saigon wasn’t saying, ‘Go bomb trees at such-and-such a location.’ ”
In his memoir, McPeak described the challenge he and his fellow pilots faced:
North Vietnam was shaped like a funnel, bounded on the east by the South China Sea and on the west by the Annamite Mountains. A heavily fortified demilitarized zone corked the bottom of the funnel, so supplies moving through North Vietnam’s southern panhandle had to side-step across the mountains into Laos. Here, with unbelievable effort and at great risk, the North took over a piece of real estate the size of Massachusetts and on it built and maintained an extraordinary infrastructure that in many ways mirrored the one constructed by Americans in country, complete with hundreds of miles of highways, communications centers, ammo dumps, stockpiles of food and fuel, truck parks, troop bivouacs—altogether enough to sustain a field army, and all of it out of sight, except for the trace of the road itself. We went out and actually found the target. And then we designated it, and we had somebody else bomb it, and that’s the kind of thing you should do with airplanes.
Finding targets beneath the trees was not easy, and it was dangerous work. Thirty-five of the 157 Misty pilots were shot down. Two were shot down twice. Seven men were killed, and three were captured. Misty put up seven sorties a day, from dawn to dusk, on the lookout for signs of human activity—gardens, roadside trees coated with dust, or wet roads on either side of fords that signaled a truck convoy had recently passed through. “The truck drivers drove in stages,” McPeak recalled. “So they knew fifteen, twenty clicks [kilometers] of the road. They drove from A to B, and back to A. They rested during the daytime, and then the next night, they drove from A to B and back to A again. They had memorized the road, which was very important, because they were running without lights, at night. They drove very good Russian trucks, sturdy but pounded pretty hard by the trail, and by us. And so occasionally one of them would break down in a spot where the trucks behind it would get trapped and couldn’t back out of there. One time I stumbled across a bunch of trucks backed up. That was a great morning for me. Usually, you don’t have to worry about the lead truck in a deal like that, because it’s broken down and can’t move. So you try to strafe the last truck, so that it can’t move. These are one-lane roads, often on the side of a cliff. So once you get the back truck disabled, you just call in fighters and you’re shooting fish in a barrel. We stopped a lot of them, we killed a lot of them. I have enormous respect for those guys. They left their homes in the North and they didn’t know if they were ever going to go home again. The food, when they got it, was not much good. It took a month to deliver a letter to their wives in Hanoi and it could take a whole season to get an answer. We ended up having a lot of respect for them.”
Major Merrill McPeak just before he joined Misty
Under cover of darkness, a member of Group 599, the North Vietnamese unit tasked with building and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail, helps supply-laden trucks, their roofs crudely camouflaged with leaves and branches, find their way around a tricky curve.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail: “Originally, it was just a footpath,” recalled General Dong Si Nguyen, commander of Group 559 from 1966 to 1975. “Gradually it was built to become a road for vehicles and the critical artery for transporting supplies and troops. It ran along both the east and west sides of the Truong Son Mountains, spreading over the three Indochina countries. It was not an ordinary road; it became a sophisticated battlefield.”
A panoramic view of a section of the trail, fashioned from six negatives, shows North Vietnamese trucks rumbling through a devastated landscape, its once lush forests destroyed by defoliants and napalm.
Although McPeak and his fellow Misty pilots did not know it, among the truck drivers threading their way through the forest below them by night were scores of women. “I think it was greatly regrettable that women had to participate in the war in that manner,” Major Nguyen Quang Khue, an engineer who worked alongside them, remembered. “But we desperately needed manpower. So the upper levels had no other way but to bring women in. I really admired the women, but I was probably more sad than anything because people shouldn’t be born to have to live through that.”
“It’s not that they were lacking in truck drivers,” Nguyen Nguyet Anh, one of the women, believed, “but they wanted to buck up the men so that they would be brave. They thought if some women were doing the same job they were doing, then they would be more fired up and their morale would improve.”
For three years, Anh drove her section of the trail, ferrying arms and supplies south, then heading back north with cargoes of wounded men. “The roads were bombed every day,” she recalled, “and so the roads were never in good condition. You had to be very alert to what was around you, because if there was a crater on one side of the road, you had to quickly move to the other side to get around it. Sometimes we’d be driving and a plane would drop a flare. Then we’d have to turn around and follow a subsidiary road to make sure the convoy got there before dawn, because if we didn’t get there on time, we’d be caught in the daylight when the airplanes could find us.”
Tens of thousands died along the Ho Chi Min Trail—seventy-two military cemeteries would eventually be required to hold their remains. But despite everything the Americans did to try to choke off the stream of men and supplies flowing south along the five main roads, twenty-five branch roads, and countless bypasses, the flow never stopped. McPeak described the frustration he felt:
We attacked choke points, and bypasses appeared. We rolled avalanches into the roadbed, and it slithered to the other side of the hill. We made mud and soon found corduroy. We cratered fords that somehow filled and widened. More a maze than a road, the trail expanded, split, reunited, vanished, materialized. We blasted a big chunk of Laos, the six-hundred-year-old monarchy, the Land of a Million Elephants, to bony, lunar dust. Yet somehow the Ho Chi Minh Trail, itself the enemy, was always there. Killing it was like trying to put socks on an octopus.
“We did not stop traffic down the trail,” he recalled. “That is a big disappointment for me. To this day, it irritates me. The real failures were made at the policy level. Now the fact is—it sounds bad now, and I don’t mean this to be bad—we were fighting on the wrong side. The government in the South was corrupt. And its people knew it. And we knew it. And they didn’t fight very well. I’ll tell you something: those truck drivers fought very well. I would have been proud to fight with them. One of the things you’ve got to do when you go to war is pick the right side, get the right allies.”
YOUR BEAUTIFUL IMAGE REMAINS IN MY HEART
Nguyen Nguyet Anh was a teenage Youth Volunteer, helping to build an air base north of Hanoi, when she met Tran Cong Thang in 1965. “It was in a very rural area where there was nothing to do,” she recalled, and when a troupe of traveling entertainers turned up at a nearby army camp she and her friends resolved to go and see them perform.
Tran Cong Thang, during their years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
A guard stopped them. “I noticed Anh right away,” Thang remembered. “She was tall and striking.” He convinced the guard to let her and her friends in, managed to get her address, and began calling on her every other week at her barracks. “She seemed a very likable and attractive young woman, a girl from the countryside,” he said.
“When I met Thang for the first time,” she recalled, “I found him kind and helpful. He showed up a couple of weeks later, asked about the location of my squad, and came in to talk to me. From that point on he used come to visit me. We gradually became close to each other.”
“But both of us were shy,” Than remembered. “We didn’t know anything about kissing. We saw each other every two weeks for two years, but when I just held Ánh’s hand, my hands were shaking. Of course, I felt in my heart that I really wanted to know what kissing a young woman would be like. Later, I felt that it would be a great loss if I went to the front, a man in love, if I died without finding out what a kiss is like.”
In 1967, Thang received orders to go south to work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “He came to see me,” Anh recalled, “and said, ’My unit is going to the southern front.’ He wanted to make it clear he hoped we could wait for each other if we could promise to find each other after the war. I said to him, ‘Okay, please don’t worry and go to fight. I’ll wait for you. If both of us survive, we’ll get married.’ Even if he came back handicapped, if he were wounded, I’d definitely wait for him because I loved him. And I’d marry him.”
“At that moment,” Thang remembered, “I really wanted to hug and kiss my sweetheart, but I didn’t dare to show my emotions, I was shaking. It was sad, but I just kept silent. Anh cried, just cried. She didn’t say anything to me. We couldn’t say anything to each other. So we shook hands….I ran back to my unit, which departed at midnight.”
Nguyen Nguyet Anh, during their years on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Thang found himself on the Laos section of the trail, part of a combat engineering brigade, moving from one bomb-battered choke point to another, filling bomb craters in the road, getting damaged trucks rolling again, doing his best to stay alive under relentless bombing. One day, while he was at work elsewhere on the road, an American bomb destroyed the bunker in which he had slept the night before. Everything he owned was obliterated, including the only photograph he had of Nguyen Nguyet Anh.
Eight months after Thang came under fire in Laos, Anh became a truck driver on a section of the trail far to the north. Communication with Thanh was almost impossible. Still, whenever he could, he sent her messages with soldiers traveling north and she did the same with troops heading south.
“I got two or three letters from him. No more,” she recalled. “The other letters were lost. The distance was very far, the roads were unsafe, so letters were often lost.” Through it all, she thought of him constantly. “I was worried for him every single day. Whenever I saw a truck that was carrying wounded soldiers to the North, I would ask whether there was anyone from Hanoi on the truck, and if there was, I would look for him. It was a very difficult time because if I worried too much, I might not be able to fulfill my duties.”
Month after month went by. In 1972, Thanh wrote Anh an anguished letter:
…I have carried your love in my heart through the long years of our being far from each other. Four years are the measurement of your faithful love for me. We love each other so much, but are unable to see each other, to say gentle words to each other which cannot be written in a letter….I love you with all my heart and mind….I understand that as a soldier, my life is full of hardships and may bring you many sorrows. The distance between us makes our life so miserable that I have to try to understand why life is so unfair to us. One year went by, two years went by, three years went by, and now we have not seen each other for almost four years. My belief is that I can endure all of it because I am a soldier who is…encouraged by your love.
I have spent many nights without sleep…thinking of you, thinking of your future. I do not want to lose you, but I do not want to be selfish either….I say your name to myself at the most serious moments in battle. Your name, Anh, always makes me happy….I do not want to lose such a generous love as your love for me. However, your generous love requires me to make a great sacrifice. I do not want to bind your life with the life of a soldier. You should find another man. You deserve to be happy. You cannot wait for me forever. Our love for each other has made us better. I do not want your young years to go by in your waiting for me. If you are happy, I will be happy, too.
The year of 1972 has arrived. Spring brings hope to people, including me. I wish you a Happy New Year. I cannot say exactly when we will see each other again, but I believe we will get together someday in our homeland.
Your beautiful image remains in my heart.
Tran Cong Thang and Nguyet Anh united at last, in 1973
“I never got that letter,” Anh remembered. “If I had, I couldn’t have forgotten him. I wanted to wait for him because I believed that we would see each other again. It wouldn’t be possible for me to give up on him and love someone else.”
Tran Cong Thang and Nguyen Nguyet Anh remained apart but faithful to one another for nine years. At the end of 1973, Thang was ordered to Hanoi. Anh happened to be there. “The feeling was like that at the moment when we said goodbye to each other,” Thanh recalled. “I had thought that when seeing her again, I would leap to her and kiss her. All the time at the front I dreamed of kissing her when we saw each other again. But at first I didn’t dare to do that either. We looked each other in the eyes, and we were crying. We were sitting next to each other, so I held Anh’s shoulder and then her neck and I kissed her. I was extremely happy because I had the feeling that it was a kiss I was given by God.”
When the war finally ended two years later, they married and had two children. “We tell our children today what it was like when their mother and father fell in love,” Thang recalled. “Not like what they do today!”
For months, American airstrikes peppered this single crossing on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but trucks continued stubbornly to splash their way across the river.