ARVN troops atop an armored personnel carrier, on their way into Laos on the first day of the second phase of Operation Lam Son 719, February 8, 1971
IT’S A WIN, SEE?
South Vietnamese infantry and tanks proceed warily along the grandly named Highway 9 into Laos. It was “a long, narrow, roller coaster of a road,” one reporter wrote, “whose rising dust is white, then orange, sometimes dark brown; it cuts through elephant grass, bamboo trees, and nine-foot stalks topped by ostrich-like plumes, and is just wide enough for one truck to squeeze by another.”
BY EARLY 1971, Richard Nixon had been president for two years. The war he had promised to end quickly seemed no nearer to that goal. The Paris negotiations—both secret and public—remained deadlocked. The National Security Council reported that the United States could neither force North Vietnamese troops to leave South Vietnam nor persuade Hanoi to withdraw them at the negotiating table. The president’s war-making powers were coming under attack on Capitol Hill. Antiwar sentiment was growing, and the presidential election was less than two years away.
Something new was needed, Nixon told an aide, “something dramatic in North Vietnam that will make the other side negotiate.” He hoped that Laos would provide it. Despite the turmoil the Cambodian incursion had caused at home and the anxiety it had inspired among America’s allies abroad, it had seriously weakened the enemy’s ability to mount an offensive from within that country. But to compensate for the losses suffered there, the North Vietnamese had feverishly expanded and improved the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which threaded its way down through Laos to a series of base areas along the South Vietnamese border. It protected them with some twenty-two thousand ground troops and twenty antiaircraft battalions. Soon, six thousand combat troops were filing south each month.
To cut the trail at least for a time in order to stop them and to preempt the possibility of an offensive being launched from Laos—an offensive that might include an assault on Hue and would surely disrupt Vietnamization—Nixon ordered up another “incursion.”
This time, South Vietnamese troops would have to do the fighting on their own. Over the strenuous objection of the administration, an amendment to the 1971 foreign aid authorization bill sponsored by Republican senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky and Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, had become law the previous December. It barred the use of American ground troops in Laos or Cambodia. Not even the American advisers with whom ARVN units had fought could accompany them into combat in Laos. The U.S. could provide only air and artillery support.
The plan General Creighton Abrams drew up in consultation with General Cao Van Vien, chief of the Joint General Staff, was to be called Lam Son 719, after the site of a long-ago battle in which the Vietnamese defeated a Chinese army.
In late January, in an operation called Dewey Canyon II, a U.S. brigade would secure and repair Highway 9 up to the Laotian border, reopen Khe Sanh as a forward operating base, and position artillery where it could best support South Vietnamese forces as they pushed into Laos.
In early February, after the Americans had prepared the way, Phase II would begin: South Vietnamese forces were to follow Highway 9 across the border, accompanied by B-52 strikes meant to safeguard their passage, and airborne troops, helicoptered in to establish firebases north and south of the road to protect their flanks. Their target was an enemy base area near a strategic junction of supply routes called Tchepone, some thirty-one miles inside Laos. When they reached the midpoint, helicopter-borne forces were to rush ahead to seize Tchepone and be waiting to link up with them as they advanced along the highway. Planners thought it would take no more than four or five days for everything to fall into place.
In Phase III, the ARVN were to spend nearly two months conducting operations near Tchepone and the area immediately south of it, seeking out and destroying massive stores of weapons and supplies said to be hidden there.
Finally, in mid-April—just before monsoon rains made movement down the Ho Chi Minh Trail virtually impossible—Phase IV would begin: a well-planned and orderly withdrawal that would leave elite commando units behind to harass the enemy.
Richard Helms, director of the CIA, favored the operation but warned that South Vietnamese troops were likely to “run into a very tough fight.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs, agreed, but promised that it would be “the enemy’s last gasp.” Henry Kissinger told H. R. Haldeman that the incursion could “in effect end the war.” Only Secretary of State William Rogers raised serious objections: the North Vietnamese had learned of the plan in advance; there was sure to be a serious battle; South Vietnamese forces had never faced such a severe test on their own; a defeat would do immeasurable harm to Vietnamization.
The president overruled him. “It was a splendid project on paper,” Kissinger would later write. “We allowed ourselves to be carried away by the daring conception, by the unanimity of the responsible planners in both Saigon and Washington, by the memory of the success in Cambodia, and by the prospect of a decisive turn….Its chief drawback, as events showed, was that it in no way accorded with Vietnamese realities.”
Phase I—the American portion—went smoothly, and on February 8, Phase II began as the head of a seemingly endless column of infantry, tanks, APCs, and other vehicles rumbled across the border, past a sign that read, “WARNING, NO U.S. PERSONNEL BEYOND THIS POINT.”
Things almost immediately began to go wrong. Rain turned the dusty road into a slough and grounded the helicopters on which the ARVN depended for supplies. The enemy pounded the column from the hills on either side of the highway. Expected to pull back as they had in Cambodia, they stood and fought, instead. Three days in, the advance reached the midpoint to Tchepone and came to a halt. President Thieu had privately urged the overall commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, to proceed with great caution; if he took three thousand casualties, he was to cancel the operation altogether. (Thieu was standing for reelection in the fall and may not have wanted high casualty figures to cut into his victory margin.)
The column proceeded no farther. Meanwhile, North Vietnamese reinforcements flooded into the area until seventeen thousand ARVN found themselves facing some sixty thousand enemy troops. The South Vietnamese lines of command remained unclear; some commanders refused to follow orders given by their superiors. One by one, the North Vietnamese attacked the isolated firebases north of the highway that were supposed to have shielded the now-stalled column. Their tactics were the same each time: they surrounded the ARVN positions, pounded them day and night with mortar, rockets, and artillery, and reduced aerial supply with antiaircraft fire. Poor communications compounded the problems the ARVN faced; until now, American air controllers had always communicated with American pilots in the air. But there were no Americans on the ground in Laos. South Vietnamese air controllers spoke little English. U.S. pilots spoke no Vietnamese. The result was often confusion and misdirected strikes.
For the most part, ARVN forces fought well, and they took a fearful toll of the enemy. But they were outnumbered and outgunned, and as the North Vietnamese advanced on their positions, often employing tanks as well as infantry, some men panicked.
Nixon was exasperated. “If the South Vietnamese could just win one cheap one,” he complained to Kissinger on February 27. “Take a stinking hill…bring back a prisoner or two. Anything!”
Initially, the Laos incursion sparked less domestic dissent than its Cambodian predecessor had because no U.S. ground troops were involved, but it had an impact nonetheless. At 1:32 a.m. on March 1, an anonymous caller reached a Capitol Hill operator to warn her that the building would be blown up in thirty minutes: “Evacuate the building,” the voice said. “This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos.” Half an hour later, a bomb went off in a men’s room in the Senate wing. No one was injured. The Weather Underground claimed credit: “Our plans can be as creative and ingenious as the bamboo booby traps of the Vietnamese,” their handout said.
That same day in Saigon, without warning, President Thieu informed General Abrams and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that he was changing the mission for his forces in Laos: instead of destroying the enemy’s base, he now wanted simply to send an airborne force in to capture Tchepone, declare victory, and then pull out as fast as possible. “You go in there just long enough to take a piss and then leave quickly,” he told General Lam. Although privately disappointed in the South Vietnamese performance on the battlefield, Nixon could understand the political value in Thieu’s sudden change of plan: “It would be a great public relations coup if the ARVN actually reached Tchepone,” he said, even if the abandoned village had no military significance.
Tran Ngoc Hue—“Harry Hue,” to the Americans—who had led the elite Hac Bao company of the First ARVN Division during the battle for Hue, was now a major in command of the Second Battalion, Second ARVN Regiment, which, with the Third Battalion, was to lead the way to Tchepone. The night before the air assault was to begin, he had dinner with his U.S. adviser, Lieutenant Colonel David Wiseman. He had heard how badly things were going in Laos, he remembered, felt that he was unlikely to come back, and asked his American friend whether, if something happened to him, he could take care of his wife and children. Wiseman—who felt terrible that he was not able to go into combat with the men alongside whom he had been fighting—said he would.
The next morning, March 6, 120 helicopters assembled at Khe Sanh and took off in what was said to be the largest airmobile operation of the war. There was nothing left of Tchepone when they reached their target but ruined buildings and the corpses of enemy soldiers killed by U.S. bombs, but President Thieu called its capture “the biggest victory ever…a moral, political, and psychological Dien Bien Phu” for the enemy. Hue was promoted to lieutenant colonel on the spot for having helped to capture the campaign’s new objective. He and his men spent three days searching for enemy supplies and were then ordered to join forces with ARVN troops at a fire support base south of Highway 9 and await orders to withdraw.
Thieu was calling an early end to Operation Lam Son 719.
Abrams was furious. He urged Thieu to send in another whole division. “The NVA must be stopped,” he said, “and a major battle, which might even be the decisive battle of the war, must be won.” Thieu wasn’t interested.
Kissinger talked it over with President Nixon.
HENRY KISSINGER: My view is that politically…the North Vietnamese will flag this into a big victory if [the ARVN] leave, no matter how they leave, if they leave this quickly. And militarily we won’t get everything [we’d hoped for] out of this operation. We’ll get the caches, which are important, and the [enemy] casualties, but…if they could hang in there another three or four weeks, they’re not under bad attack right now. What I think it is…is that Thieu wants to have a victory parade in Saigon and use it that way. Well, I don’t think we should do anything. I don’t think we should force them to stay. If they could stay, say, another month,…and then start slowly to withdraw, then…the rainy season will prevent any shipments. As it is now, they could probably make up in April what they lost in March. I think the strategic gain for us next year is worth some casualties this year. But we can’t insist on it. We can’t….
RICHARD NIXON: No, no, we can’t insist on it, particularly, Henry, because if we insist and they take a bang, they’ll squeal.
KISSINGER: That’s right. Absolutely….
NIXON: Well, what is the situation? How bad is the [enemy] buildup? Is it…really hairy?
KISSINGER: That isn’t the reason [they want to withdraw]. I think it’s electoral politics….I must tell you honestly, now that I’ve seen the operation, this South Vietnamese army is not as good as we all thought.
NIXON: Oh, I know that….They’re just fooling around….We knew they weren’t that good….I would prefer they stay. I’m with you. But, Henry, I have become completely fatalistic about the goddamn thing. I don’t think they’re up to a real bang. I don’t think they’re up to it.
KISSINGER: That’s what worries me.
NIXON: And if they’re not up to it, I don’t want them to take a hell of a bang. I’d rather have them get out, and then we’re going to get the hell out and hope and pray that nothing happens before 1972. Let’s face it…if my reelection is important, let’s remember, I’ve got to get this off our plate.
The South Vietnamese withdrawal will “kill us domestically,” Kissinger had complained to Admiral Moorer. “If they had told us a week ago they were [going to begin pulling out] we could have said we have our victory.”
The president planned to say that anyway. “The main thing, Henry, on Laos,” he told Kissinger, “I can’t emphasize too strongly: I don’t care what happens there, it’s a win. See? And everybody should talk about that.”
ARMY DOCTOR HAL KUSHNER had been a prisoner of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam for more than three years. He had survived ill-treatment and a host of illnesses, and had buried thirteen of his fellow captives who had died of starvation and sickness and despair.
Conditions within the camp had improved slightly in recent months. “We had finally become accustomed to the jungle,” another prisoner remembered. “Canned goods had been added to our food ration….Color was returning to our anemic-dull eyes.” But then “with all this, it looked as though we were to be killed by our own bombs”—errant bombs from periodic U.S. air raids on a nearby North Vietnamese base camp. “We worried ourselves to sleep at night,” another prisoner remembered, “contracting involuntarily like worms when a jet flew over.”
On February 2, a flight of U.S. helicopters had suddenly filled the sky above the camp—six troop-carrying ships, several Cobra gunships, a medevac chopper painted white and marked with a red cross, and a light bubble-top observation helicopter that dipped so low, Kushner recalled, that “we could see the rank on the aviator’s collars.”
For a moment, the prisoners thought they were about to be liberated, but the helicopters flew on to engage the enemy elsewhere. Still, it was clear that the camp’s security had been compromised, and its commander decided it should be abandoned and its prisoners marched the 560 miles to North Vietnam. “American prisoners were becoming more important politically,” Kushner remembered. “We knew that. And I think as a result of that they decided they were going to move us to North Vietnam for two reasons—one, security, and two, they could take better care of us and could use us as bargaining chips.”
Life in the North would be far better, their guards assured them, and Kushner wanted to believe them. “There was no trepidation. I felt it would be better. I know they told Jews getting on the train that it was going to be better at Auschwitz. But I really wanted to believe. I knew they weren’t going to kill me, because they could already have killed me easily.”
He and five others began their trek two days later, accompanied by six armed guards; it would go on for fifty-seven days. The six remaining American prisoners would follow ten days later. Four ARVN prisoners were left behind.
Each man was issued a plastic ground sheet; a hammock, which seemed luxurious after sleeping on a bamboo pallet for so long; a can of condensed milk and another of mackerel; and a ten-day supply of rice. Water was carried in a two-gallon oilcan; one man hefted it in the morning, a second in the afternoon.
They walked across the rugged Central Highlands. “I thought I was going to die because my knees swelled up like volleyballs,” Kushner remembered. To keep him from giving up, another prisoner reminded him of how much he wanted to see his family again. There were stopping places every ten miles or so, “liberation camps” operated by the NLF that were little more than lean-tos, and more substantial “socialist camps” established and run by the North Vietnamese. One day they were given a ride in a Russian truck and were so happy not to be walking that they sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” until their guards made them stop.
Two weeks into their journey they crossed a little stream and joined the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. They passed through an area that had been hit by American B-52s the night before: “Trees were twisted and uprooted, craters covered every square inch, bomb holes on top of bomb holes,” a member of Kushner’s party remembered. Yet crews of young men and women, hundreds of them, were already at work repairing the road. “They were just like little ants,” Kushner remembered. “That was very impressive to me, gave me a sense of their determination.”
As they kept walking, one prisoner recalled, they encountered hundreds of other travelers moving up and down the trail: “young and old, men and women, kids and babies, civilians and wounded soldiers. Some civilians said they were going to North Vietnam to escape life under the Saigon government….We saw an eight-year-old boy with one eye, a pretty eighteen-year-old girl with an arm missing, and others with a gruesome assortment of war wounds. They had been hit, they said, during bombing raids on their villages.”
They also encountered fresh troops heading south. Some struck out at them as they passed with rifle butts or hiking sticks; others offered candy and cigarettes. They passed a unit of three hundred uniformed women, led by female officers armed with machine pistols. At the waystations at which they stopped for the night they fielded questions from curious civilians who wanted to know their names and where they were from.
North Vietnamese troops escort ARVN prisoners, captured in Laos, toward the North. The slogan their officers had taught them said, “Let them come to us, but do not let them return home.”
“I got stronger on the way,” Kushner remembered. “And our guards would tell people that I was a doctor and refugees would come up to me and they would show me their lesions or their wounds. And I would give advice. And actually, it was not a bad experience after the initial fatigue wore off. In a village I stole a uniform. I saw it hanging on a clothesline. It was kind of nondescript, didn’t have any rank or anything on it. Just khaki pants and a khaki shirt. I stole it and folded it up and put it in my pack.”
They somehow passed safely through the area of Route 9 where the ARVN invasion of Laos was still under way, and eventually reached North Vietnam, where they and a group of just-captured ARVN prisoners were loaded onto a truck and driven north to the coastal city of Vinh, where they were to board a train for Hanoi.
The railway platform was crowded with hundreds of ARVN prisoners captured during the Laos invasion. Kushner was shoved into a boxcar along with scores of South Vietnamese. “I was a little frightened that these prisoners I was with were going to hurt me because there were hundreds of them,” he recalled. “So I just kind of stayed by myself. I had a little canteen with water, and I slept on my pack. It took about twelve or thirteen hours to go one hundred and eighty miles because the train went very slowly. When we were pulling into Hanoi I took my little khaki uniform—which was all pressed because I had slept on it—and I took the canteen and I poured it on my hands and I slicked my hair back. And I put on this fresh uniform. And when I got off the train I was met by an officer in a jeep. And he just looked at me and he said, ‘You’re an officer, aren’t you? You come here.’ I just felt very proud that I looked good when I came off that train. And those South Vietnamese, they looked like they’d been on a train for eighteen hours, and I looked better than that. So I felt like I had some dignity. It was important to have that. So he put me in a jeep and they took me to a prison in Hanoi that we called the ‘Plantation.’ ”
Lieutenant William Calley is escorted from the court building at Fort Benning, Georgia, after he is found guilty of murdering civilians at My Lai.
OFF AND ON for sixteen months, the horrors of My Lai had continued to make headlines. Finally, on March 29, 1971, at Fort Benning, Georgia, after thirteen days of deliberation, a jury of six officers found Lieutenant William Calley guilty of murdering twenty-two Vietnamese civilians and assault with intent to murder a Vietnamese child.
The other twenty-three officers and men who had been indicted were either acquitted or would have their cases dismissed. The commander of the Americal Division, General Samuel Koster, who had flown over the slaughter in a helicopter but professed to know nothing about it, resigned from his post as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was demoted and stripped of a Distinguished Service Medal.
Two days after the verdict in his case, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. A crowd was waiting outside the courtroom. A woman from New Orleans shrieked, “He’s been crucified! Lieutenant Calley killed one hundred communists singlehanded. He should get a medal.”
The verdict and the sentence would prove as controversial as the war itself. According to Gallup, nearly 79 percent of the American public disagreed with the verdict. Some people believed that everyone involved should have gone to jail; others argued that Calley had been made a scapegoat for the criminal misdeeds of his superiors. Still others felt a systemic failure of leadership had occurred in a chain of command that stretched all the way up to the commander in chief. And there were many who believed that the lieutenant had done nothing wrong; that he’d just been doing his duty.
Alabama governor George Wallace, considering a run for president, visits Calley in hopes of cementing the votes of those who thought him a scapegoat.
Within 24 hours, the White House received more than five thousand telegrams and nearly three thousand telephone calls protesting the verdict.
Nixon, who told an aide that it was “an obsolete idea that war is a game with rules,” saw political advantage to be gained from the public outcry. John Dean, his White House counsel, urged him not to intervene until the appeals process was over, but the president saw “no political gain for us in that.” He wanted to be “on the side of the people for a change, instead of always doing what’s cautious, proper, and efficient.” He ordered Calley freed from the stockade and placed under house arrest while he reviewed the verdict. Gallup found that 83 percent of respondents favored the president’s action. So did Governors George Wallace of Alabama and Jimmy Carter of Georgia. A song called “The Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley” sold a million copies within a week.
“To think that out of all those men, only one…was brought to justice,” said Lieutenant General Samuel Peers, who had headed the Army panel that investigated the incident. “And now he’s practically a hero. It’s a tragedy.” Captain Aubrey Daniel, who had successfully prosecuted Calley, wrote the president an open letter, accusing him of compromising “such a fundamental moral principle as the inherent unlawfulness of the murder of innocent persons”; the president’s “political expediency,” he wrote, had left the impression that Americans were “no better than our enemies.” A military appeals court would eventually reduce Calley’s term to twenty years, the secretary of the Army would cut it to ten, and after just three and a half years under house arrest, he would be paroled by Nixon’s successor as president, Gerald Ford.
More than forty years after the verdict, Tim O’Brien, who had witnessed the silent anger and resentment of those residents of Pinkville who had survived the massacre, asked, “Who’s responsible? The human beings who did this. These are war crimes. The individual human beings who put a rifle muzzle up against a baby’s head and shot the brains out of that baby, nothing happened to them. Nothing!”
ONLY THE MADMEN WOULD STAY
IN LAOS, things had gone from bad to worse for the South Vietnamese. Harry Hue and his battalion wound up on a hilltop south of Tchepone, encircled by vastly superior enemy forces. They did their best to hold on. Hue called in B-52s so close to his position that shrapnel fell among his men. When water ran out, they drank their own urine. The enemy kept coming. Finally, with annihilation certain, he reluctantly radioed for extraction. Twenty-eight of the forty helicopters sent for that purpose were hit and taken out of action. Hue was on the radio, calling for more fire to protect his men until choppers could reach them, when a mortar shell hit nearby, knocking him unconscious. Shrapnel lodged in his face, arm, and leg. His men believed him doomed and affixed an identity tag to his foot. Darkness had fallen on March 19 by the time he regained consciousness. His men had received orders to attempt to break out before they were overrun. They planned somehow to carry him with them. He ordered them to leave him and save themselves. Fifty-six men managed to make it out from a battalion that had numbered six hundred.
The next morning, North Vietnamese troops found Hue slumped against a tree trunk, unable to stand. He asked his captors to shoot him. They refused. He was interrogated by a North Vietnamese colonel who turned out to come from his family’s home village near Hue and recognized him as the ARVN hero of the battle that had retaken that city from the communists during the Tet Offensive. Hue was carried north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi, where he spent the next thirteen years in prison. Lieutenant Colonel Wiseman, who had promised to care for his family, would eventually keep that pledge and sponsor Hue and his family’s emigration to the United States.
The South Vietnamese retreat had quickly become a rout. “[The enemy] were everywhere, and they were so daring,” one ARVN soldier who made it to safety recalled. “Their firepower was so enormous, and their shelling was so accurate, that what could we do except run for our lives?”
“The most heartbreaking thing,” another said, “was that we left behind our wounded friends. They lay there, crying, knowing the B-52 bombs would fall on them. They asked buddies to shoot them, but none of us could bring himself to do that. So the wounded men cried out for grenades, first one man, then another, then more. I could not bear it. We ran out about midnight, we heard the bombs explode behind us. No more bodies! They all became dust. Some men who were wounded in the legs or arms tried to run out with us, but they could not make it.”
Wounded South Vietnamese return to Khe Sanh toward the end of Operation Lam Son 719. “The papers and radio in Saigon kept saying there was a Laos victory,” a corporal said. “What a joke. We ran out like wounded dogs.”
An unhurt ARVN soldier flees the Laotian battlefield. Photographs like this were remembered when the courage and resolve that other South Vietnamese soldiers showed in the face of overwhelming odds were largely overlooked.
American chopper pilots risked their lives again and again trying to lift the South Vietnamese out to safety. Lieutenant Colonel William N. Preachey, commander of an aviation battalion that flew helicopter support missions during the operation, never forgot their desperation.
“They would do absolutely anything to get out of Laos….The healthy would run over the dead and wounded. We would hover at six or seven feet and the crew chief and gunner would lay on their bellies and pull people up. If you got on the ground they would turn the helicopter over. A later tactic was to run and jump on the shoulders of people and grab onto the skids. The helicopters would get up to three thousand or four thousand feet, and after five or ten minutes, they’d get tired and turn loose. I can still see the bodies coming through the sky.”
One South Vietnamese Marine who made it out clinging to a helicopter’s skids was unrepentant: “Each helicopter could have been the last one, so what choice was there for me? Only the madmen would stay and politely wait for the next helicopter.”
“The [South Vietnamese] Marines were brave men, well led, well supplied, who had a certain élan and a certain confidence in themselves when they went in,” a U.S. adviser recalled. “When they came out, they’d been whipped. They knew they’d been whipped and they acted like they had been whipped.” “I am afraid that we will have a lot of deserters,” one veteran ARVN sergeant said. “When many of the men get back to the rear, and think back on what they have been through, and hear the other soldiers talk, then their fear will get worse.”
Saigon lost some nine thousand men—killed, wounded, or missing—roughly half the number it had sent across the border. Waiting at Khe Sanh and watching the helicopters drop down one after another filled with dead and wounded ARVN, sometimes with able-bodied soldiers dangling below them, journalists and photographers found it hard to believe the Nixon administration’s assurances that “the operation has gone according to plan,” that the withdrawal was merely “mobile maneuvering.”
As ARVN forces staggered back into South Vietnam and moved east along Route 9, crowds of weeping women, children, and old men—dressed in white, the color of mourning—appeared along the road, begging for news of the men who were missing. In Vietnam, the dead must receive proper burial so their restless souls can have peace, and their families need to know the time of their deaths so they can honor them each year.
Each side publicly claimed victory. Hanoi declared the incursion “the heaviest defeat ever” for “Nixon and Company.” President Thieu staged a victory parade in Saigon, but kept the battered Airborne and Marine divisions in the far north so that demoralized men could not tell their stories in Saigon, and when reporters for Time and Newsweek and several opposition papers disagreed with his claims of triumph, he banned those issues of the magazines and confiscated the newspapers.
Privately, Thieu blamed the United States for failing to provide his men an adequate air umbrella—though more than 10,000 airstrikes had been made and 160,000 helicopter sorties had been flown, seeking to supply, defend, and rescue his forces. It was clear to most observers that without U.S. air and artillery support a defeat for the South Vietnamese forces would have been a disaster. Nixon and Kissinger blamed General Abrams for having “misled” them as to “what might be accomplished.” The president wondered if the general’s heavy drinking had impaired his judgment and came close to replacing him in the field.
“The polls show us the lowest we’ve been,” Haldeman wrote at the end of March. “The credibility figure is way down, the rating on handling the Vietnam War is the lowest it’s been….The Laos withdrawal effect is at [the decline’s]…bottom.” George Gallup found Nixon’s job approval had fallen to 50 percent, the lowest of his presidency so far; the Harris poll pegged it at 41 percent.
Nixon was determined to turn things around, to make the Laos adventure into a triumph. On April 7—the day after the operation officially ended—he claimed in a televised address that it had proved that “Vietnamization has succeeded” and enabled him to bring home an additional 100,000 Americans by December 1.
The president concluded the broadcast by laying his speech aside and recalling a recent White House ceremony during which he’d presented the Medal of Honor to the widow of Marine Sergeant Karl Taylor, killed charging an enemy machine gun in an effort to shield his men. The Marine’s two sons, Karl and Kevin, had been present. Kevin was four years old, Nixon said, and “as I was about to move to the next recipient, Kevin suddenly stood at attention and saluted. I found it rather difficult to get my thoughts together for the next presentation. My fellow Americans, I want to end this war in a way that is worthy of the sacrifice of Karl Taylor, and I think he would want me to end it in a way that would increase the chances that Kevin and Karl, and all those children like them here and around the world, could grow up in a world where none of them would have to die in war; that would increase the chance for America to have what it has not had in this century—a full generation of peace.”
Earlier in the year, Nixon had ordered the Secret Service to install a secret voice-activated recording system in the Oval Office. His motive, he would later claim, was simply to have a complete record of his conversations without the need for anyone to sit in and take notes, but his “primary intent,” according to Haldeman, was actually to “protect himself from the convenient lapses of memory of his associates.” In any case, he liked the system so much he expanded it to include his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building, the Cabinet Room, Aspen Cottage at Camp David, and a number of White House telephones.
The tape recorder was running that evening, when Kissinger called to congratulate him on his speech.
OPERATOR: Dr. Kissinger, sir.
RICHARD NIXON: Yeah.
HENRY KISSINGER: Mr. President?
NIXON: Yeah. Hi, Henry.
KISSINGER: This was the best speech you’ve delivered since you’ve been in office.
NIXON: Well, I don’t know. I think November 3 was better but…we’ll never have a moment like that again….
KISSINGER:…I don’t know whether you saw the commentary afterwards.
NIXON: Of course, I don’t look at the commentary. I don’t care what the bastards say.
Kissinger told him John Chancellor of NBC and Dan Rather and Marvin Kalb of CBS had all been “very positive.” Nixon laughed: “They’re probably afraid Agnew will jump on them.”
NIXON: Yeah. I’ll tell you one thing. This…little speech was a work of art. I mean,…I know a little something about speechwriting. And…that little conclusion…it was no act because no actor could do it.
NIXON: No actor in Hollywood could have done that that well.
KISSINGER: It’s the best—
NIXON: I thought that was done well. Didn’t you think?
KISSINGER: First of all, no actor could have written it, to begin with.
KISSINGER: You couldn’t have done it unless you had meant it….I had a lump in my throat when I heard it.
The president and his adviser again hoped that the Soviets would persuade Hanoi to make concessions in Paris. “And if it doesn’t work,” Nixon said, “I don’t care. I mean, right now if it doesn’t work—[and] I’m going to find out soon—…then I’m going to turn right so goddamn hard it’ll make your head spin. We’ll bomb those bastards right…off the earth. I really mean it.”
WE ARE THE TROOPS
THE LAOS INVASION eventually stirred the antiwar movement into renewed action, though differences over tactics and rivalries between peace factions and their leaders now made united action almost impossible. Everyone agreed that there should be another mass demonstration in Washington that spring, but they couldn’t even settle on a date. Rennie Davis and David Dellinger called for massive direct action during the first days of May, promising to “stop the government,” create “the spectre of social chaos,” and “raise the cost of the war to a level unacceptable to America’s rulers.” No one would be in overall charge. Groups were free to follow their own dictates. “We just agreed not to get in each other’s way,” one organizer remembered.
One peace organization worried the Nixon White House more than any other that spring. Some 2,300 war veterans, members of a five-year-old organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), were coming to town on April 18, planning to camp on the Mall between the Lincoln and Washington monuments for a week of lobbying and demonstrating. They called their plan Operation Dewey Canyon III.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War move onto the Mall. John Kerry is the tallest man in the second row to the left of the banner. It was unseasonably chilly in Washington, and at night a stranger turned up at the VVAW encampment with a car full of blankets for the shivering protestors. “I don’t agree with what you guys are doing,” he said, “but it’s cold tonight.”
“It was the first time in history that veterans came home from a war and said—while the war was still going on—‘This war’s got to stop,’ ” John Musgrave recalled. “The American people might not listen to a bunch of long-haired hippie kids—what do they know? But the working class, the great Silent Majority Richard Nixon always talked about—his Silent Majority that would back him by being silent—we were their kids.”
To undercut them, Charles Colson, a self-described “hatchet man” for Nixon, planted derogatory stories about the VVAW’s leaders with friendly reporters and helped set up a rival group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, pledged to support the president’s policies. Nixon himself suggested falsely that only 30 percent of the organization’s members were real veterans. (That was all right, one veteran said. “Only 30 percent of us believe Nixon is president.”)
The Justice Department went to court to deny them a permit to camp on the Mall, but they set up their tents anyway. District police—some of whom had been in Vietnam themselves—were reluctant to try to dislodge them. “We are not going out there at one in the morning and pick up some wounded veteran and throw him into the street,” one lieutenant said. “We don’t treat people like that.”
Pat Buchanan, then a White House aide, warned the president that the veterans were “being received in a far more sympathetic fashion than other demonstrators. The ‘crazies’ will be in town soon enough,” he continued, “and if we want a confrontation, let’s have it with them.” The administration backed down. “Don’t bust the Vietnam vets on the Mall,” Nixon ordered. “Avoid confrontation.”
Led by a group of Gold Star mothers, some one thousand veterans—most wearing jungle fatigues, some in wheelchairs, others on crutches—began their week by marching to Arlington National Cemetery, where they asked to lay two wreaths and were turned away. Over the next few days they seemed to be everywhere, staging guerrilla theater, lobbying congressional offices, at the Pentagon seeking to turn themselves in for war crimes, at the Supreme Court demanding a ruling on the constitutionality of the war.
The Daughters of the American Revolution happened to be holding their annual congress in Washington that week, and as a group of chanting veterans passed, one woman stepped out into the street and approached a marcher. “Son,” she said, “I don’t think what you’re doing is good for the troops.”
“Lady,” he answered, “we are the troops.”
John Musgrave was among the marchers. So was former helicopter crew chief Ron Ferrizzi. “It was great therapy,” Ferrizzi remembered. “We were working it out ourselves. Vets taking care of vets. We were generals in our own right. And we didn’t join anything. We became something.”
John Musgrave’s opposition to the war had grown slowly but steadily since his return from Vietnam. “It finally dawned on me,” he remembered, “and this was a long painful process, that I wasn’t helping anybody by keeping my mouth shut.” His loyalty to the Marine Corps never wavered, even as his faith in its mission in Vietnam dwindled. “Yes, I was a Marine, but I was first and foremost a citizen of the United States of America,” he explained. “And being a citizen, I had certain responsibilities. And the largest of those responsibilities is standing up to your government and saying no when it’s doing something that you think is not in this nation’s best interest. That is the most important job that every citizen has. I served my country as honorably when I was in Vietnam Veterans Against the War as I did as a United States Marine, and in fact I conducted myself as a Marine the whole time I was in VVAW—my whole life I’ve conducted myself as a Marine.”
On April 22, John Kerry, a Yale-educated former Navy lieutenant who had commanded a swift boat in the Mekong Delta and was one of the organization’s leaders, was invited to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, still chaired by J. William Fulbright. “It was standing room only in the committee room,” John Musgrave recalled. “I was crammed up against the wall in the very back, and when John gave that presentation I felt like he was speaking for all of us.”
“I am not here as John Kerry,” he began. “I am here as one member of the group of one thousand which is a small representation of a very much larger group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for a lot of them to sit at this table they would be here and have the same kind of testimony.”
Kerry offered a litany of cruelties committed by Americans, culled from the testimony of some 150 veterans, delivered earlier that year at a Detroit conclave organized by the VVAW and called the “Winter Soldier Investigation”: “They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravages of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.”
Despite Kerry’s testimony, only some Winter Soldier witnesses claimed to have actually done these things themselves; many had merely heard about them, and almost none had ever reported them to their superiors. Still, the cumulative impact of their testimony was powerful. Not only had Americans done all these things, Kerry continued, but they had done them on “a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” The United States had unwittingly “created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has ever grasped.”
Nothing that could possibly happen in Southeast Asia could threaten the United States, he said; the people whose freedom Americans were supposed to be defending were not free, but subject to a corrupt dictatorial regime. “We rationalize destroying villages in order to save them…learned the meaning of free-fire zones, shoot anything that moves,…watched the…glorification of body counts….Now, we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly as American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese…and [because] we can’t say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be—and these are his words—‘the first president to lose a war.’ How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Finally, this administration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifice we made for this country. In their blindness and fear they have tried to deny that we are veterans or that we served in ’Nam. We do not need their testimony. Our own scars and stumps of limbs are witnesses enough for others and for ourselves.
“We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts, to conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more, and so, when, in thirty years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam,’ and not mean a filthy obscene memory but mean instead the place where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
Civilians and veterans alike applaud John Kerry at the end of his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 22, 1971.
The committee room erupted in applause. “I thought, I have never heard such an incredible speech that says exactly what I’m feeling,” Musgrave recalled. “It was extraordinary. Extraordinary.” Many Americans watching on television felt the same way.
But many of the more than three million service members who had also served in Southeast Asia felt that Kerry’s testimony had personally defamed them. Former First Lieutenant Phil Gioia, who had served one tour with the Eighty-second Airborne, helped uncover communist atrocities in Hue, and then returned for a second tour with the First Cavalry, spoke for many: “What I saw in Vietnam was not the soldier that Mr. Kerry or his colleagues were describing at that time. There was no widespread atrocity. There were a couple of units that went right off the rails and we can talk about that. But…they were not out-of-control animals, which was the way they were portrayed….I’m still very angry about that.”
The next day, seven hundred VVAW members gathered at the U.S. Capitol. “We’d originally intended to put our medals in a body bag and have them delivered to Congress,” Musgrave recalled. “But the Nixon administration erected this big wire and wood fence on the steps of our Capitol to keep us out—keep out the young men and women who were fighting that war. And all that did was piss us off and give us the greatest photo opportunity that we could ever have had.”
One by one, the veterans stepped up to a microphone to identify themselves and speak out against the war if they liked, then hurled their medals onto the Capitol steps—Silver Stars, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses.
“I don’t want these fucking medals, man!” Ron Ferrizzi said into the mic. “The Silver Star—the third highest medal in the country—it doesn’t mean anything! Bob Smeal died for these medals; Lieutenant Panamaroff died so I got a medal; Sergeant Johns died so I got a medal; I got a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, Army Commendation medal, eight air medals, national defense, and the rest of this garbage—it doesn’t mean a thing!” Ferrizzi remembered years later that “throwing my medals back was probably harder than going to the war.” His family in Philadelphia had warned that if he did that they wanted nothing more to do with him. “But I figured if this medal is so important let’s make it important. Here it is. You can have it back. End the war in Vietnam. What else is there? There was nothing else. I wouldn’t put them on my wall for my son. That was the last thing in the world I would ever want my son to revere.”
Former helicopter crew chief Ron Ferrizzi hurls his medals. By the time the demonstration ended there would be fourteen Navy and Distinguished Service Crosses, one hundred Silver Stars, and more than one thousand Purple Hearts on the Capitol steps. President Nixon was alarmed at the respectful television coverage the veterans received. “They’re really killing us,” H. R. Haldeman noted in his diary, “and we have no way to fight back.”
“It was a difficult decision for me,” Tom Vallely remembered. “I did it out of a disrespectful loyalty. I was proud of my military service. But I wanted to say, ‘I don’t think you guys know that much, the American military. I think you should think again about this enterprise. And here you go, pal.’ ”
“When we threw our medals away,” Musgrave remembered, “that got people’s attention because America values those things. So do we. That’s why it was so important.”
In the days immediately following the veterans’ protest, other groups of antiwar activists moved into the capital, somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 of them. The most radical, a consortium of fringe groups who called themselves the May Day Tribe, threatened to close the city down. For three days, they staged hit-and-run raids throughout Washington—blocking bridges and traffic circles, smashing windows, hurling rocks, burning cars. Some twelve thousand were arrested—seven thousand on a single day, the largest number of arrests in twenty-four hours in United States history.
“If Richard Nixon thought this week was something,” Rennie Davis told the press as the demonstrations finally came to an end, “wait until the next round. This is only a warm-up of what is going to come. This is going to continue until the war ends.”
But other protestors drew other lessons. “I realized coming away from Washington that our whole strategy was wrong,” Bill Zimmerman remembered, “and that we were becoming more and more militant at a time when more and more Americans were opposing the war but were turned off by our militancy. So we were doing exactly the wrong thing.”
The White House was initially pleased at the public’s reaction. Sympathy for the veterans was largely forgotten in the face of three days of street fighting. Polls showed that 76 percent of Americans approved of the arrests. But the same polls showed that by almost the same percentage Americans no longer believed they were being told the whole truth about Vietnam.
John Musgrave returned to his parents’ home in Missouri, not sure how he would be received. “I got home. My dad’s a true believer, you know. But he was already receiving threats because I’d thrown away [my] medals. And that pissed my dad off. And you would’ve thought I hadn’t done anything wrong. Somebody outside the family was messing with me. He said, ‘Son, don’t worry. Those were your medals. You paid for them. You can do anything you want with them. They want to jack with us, they’ll face us both. We’ll take them on in the driveway.’ You know, ‘Yo, Dad!’ ”
ON A THIEVERY BASIS!
ON JUNE 12, 1971, Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, married Edward Cox in the White House Rose Garden. The wedding was still news the next day. But another story on the front page of The New York Times caught the president’s attention.
The article, by Neil Sheehan, was the first installment of what came to be called the “Pentagon Papers”—seven thousand pages of highly classified documents and historical narrative, compiled secretly at the orders of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had hoped that a study of the decision-making process that had led the United States to become so deeply involved in Vietnam would help future policymakers avoid similar errors.
Two copies of the report had been stored at the Washington headquarters of the RAND Corporation, for which Daniel Ellsberg, one of the study’s thirty-six authors, worked as an analyst. Ellsberg had once supported the war; he’d served in the Pentagon and spent two years working for the State Department in Vietnam. But he had come to see it as profoundly immoral and hoped that if Americans understood how administration after administration had misled them about what was being done in their name, they might help bring it to an end.
He and Anthony Russo, another RAND employee, secretly copied most of the report. Ellsberg offered it to three leading antiwar senators—William Fulbright, George McGovern, and Charles Mathias of Maryland—hoping they would be willing to reveal its contents. None dared do it.
Meanwhile, Neil Sheehan, who had been reporting on Vietnam since 1962 and had already secretly seen some of the documents, asked Ellsberg to show him the whole report. “I thought I knew most of what was worth knowing about the war,” Sheehan recalled, “and suddenly I didn’t. This wasn’t a reporter’s version of an event, it was their version of an event. It was their telegrams, their orders, their memoranda, et cetera.”
The documents showed that American presidents and their closest advisers had steered the United States toward deeper and deeper involvement in Vietnam, despite their own grave doubts about the chances for victory. They had known from the first that the Saigon government was weak and incompetent, that the enemy was disciplined and resilient, and that the bombing of the North wasn’t working. Yet they had routinely lied about all of these things to Congress and the American people.
The New York Times resumes publication of the Pentagon Papers, July 1, 1971. Its editors had initially decided to publish them, they wrote, “because the documents, all dating from 1968 or earlier, belonged to the American people, were now part of history, could in no sense damage current military operations or threaten a single life, and formed an essential element in an understanding by the American people of the event that has affected them more deeply than any other in this generation, the Vietnam war.”
“At that point I was very passionate about the war,” Sheehan remembered. “I felt that it was really wrong because we were getting a lot of Americans and a lot of Vietnamese killed for no purpose. We were going to lose this war. And so I vowed to myself when I saw this material that this is never going to go back into a government safe again. The American public had paid for it with the lives of their sons and with their treasure, and it was going be published.”
On the morning of June 13 the president was still euphoric about Tricia’s wedding and the breathless television coverage of it and also pleased to learn that for the second week in a row the U.S. Vietnam casualty figure was down to fewer than twenty. William Rogers reported that in the last twenty-four hours there’d been no combat activity involving American troops anywhere in Vietnam.
The newspaper story about the Pentagon Papers initially didn’t disturb Nixon. After all, the documents reflected badly on his Democratic predecessors, not on him.
RICHARD NIXON: That piece in the Times is, of course, a massive security leak from the Pentagon….
WILLIAM ROGERS: Is that—
NIXON: It all relates…of course, to everything up until we came in.
NIXON: And it’s hard on Johnson, it’s hard on Kennedy, it’s hard on Lodge….McNamara had the study made—started—and then it was continued by Clifford. But it’s really something. They said, according to [White House aide General] Al Haig, four thousand secure documents were apparently just leaked to the Times.
ROGERS: Isn’t that awful?
ROGERS: Of course, McNamara looks lousy too. He comes out looking—
NIXON: Yeah, I didn’t read the piece—but he looks, apparently—
ROGERS: He looks bad.
NIXON:…McNamara started [it]. Then Clifford got in, he makes McNamara look bad.
NIXON: And trying to make him[self] look good.
ROGERS: God, they’re a bunch of scoundrels, aren’t they?
At a staff meeting the next day Henry Kissinger took a very different view. Publication of such top-secret material “will totally destroy American credibility forever,” he said. “It will destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy in confidence. No foreign government will ever trust us again. We might just as well turn it all over to the Soviets and get it over with.” If the Times were permitted to reveal the classified secrets of earlier presidents, he told Nixon, it was only a matter of time until someone leaked his own.
And there was another problem, well summarized by Haldeman: the Pentagon Papers might hurt the Democrats in the short run, he told his boss, but they would eventually undercut the reputation of the presidency itself: “To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing, which is: you can’t trust the government, you can’t believe what they say, and you can’t rely on their judgment. And that the infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even when it’s wrong. And the president can be wrong.”
That was precisely the impact the Pentagon Papers would have on Marine First Lieutenant Karl Marlantes, recovered from his wounds and back in the States, when the first newspaper story appeared: “That changed our whole attitude toward government,” he said. “Up until then, the president wouldn’t lie. After then, they always lie.”
The Justice Department obtained a temporary court order forbidding the Times from publishing further installments, on the grounds of national security. But soon, both The Boston Globe and The Washington Post were also printing excerpts.
Then, on June 30, 1971, the U. S. Supreme Court, citing the First Amendment, ruled 6–3 that the Times had the right to publish the stolen documents. “I went down into the basement to wait for the presses to start to roll,” Neil Sheehan recalled. “It was just an exquisite moment of vindication of the freedom of the press in this country and how important it is.”
That same day, Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to try to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, who had just been indicted by a federal grand jury for theft and conspiracy under the Espionage Act of 1917.
RICHARD NIXON: Don’t you agree that we have to pursue the Ellsberg case?
JOHN MITCHELL: No question about it. No question about it. This is the one sanction we have, is to get at the individuals….
NIXON: Let’s get the son of a bitch into jail.
KISSINGER: We’ve got to get him, we’ve got to get him….
NIXON: Don’t worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press. Try him in the press. Everything, John, that there is on the investigation, get it out, leak it out. We want to destroy him in the press. Is that clear?
Nixon feared that Ellsberg possessed more classified documents that would show that the president himself had lied about the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, and he believed that Ellsberg had had help and wanted to know the names of his co-conspirators. He created a private, clandestine investigative unit within the White House that came to be called “the plumbers.” John Ehrlichman eventually ordered them to burglarize the office of Ellsberg’s Los Angeles psychiatrist in search of material with which to smear him.
Nixon privately feared something else, as well: exposure of the secret role his campaign had played in torpedoing the Vietnam peace talks on the eve of his election three years earlier—a role that President Johnson had then privately called “treason.” Nixon was told that the safe at another Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, contained a report on the events leading up to LBJ’s decision to halt the American bombing of North Vietnam. Concerned that the FBI might have bugged his campaign plane and that there might be records of incriminating conversations, Nixon wanted his “plumbers” to break into Brookings, crack the safe, and remove the file.
“I want it implemented on a thievery basis,” he told Kissinger and Haldeman. “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.”
None of it was legal. Nixon evidently did not care.
The Brookings break-in would never take place; the FBI had not bugged Nixon’s plane, so there were no transcripts, in any case. The burglars did break into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office but failed to find his file. But Nixon’s continuing obsession with those he considered his enemies would be the eventual undoing of his presidency.
THE ONE-MAN ELECTION
Vice President Ky and President Thieu preside together over a Saigon parade celebrating South Vietnam’s supposed triumph in Laos, May 1971.
BETWEEN January 1 and July 1, twenty-two different resolutions seeking to curtail the president’s power to wage war or to set a firm target date for total withdrawal of American forces had been offered in Congress. They had either failed to pass or had not been legally binding, but they were unmistakable evidence that the public’s patience was growing thin. The Cambodian invasion had bought some precious time for Vietnamization—Washington believed that the enemy could not mount another major offensive until early in 1972—but Henry Kissinger worried that the administration might not be able to get through the current year without Congress “giving the farm away.”
Eager to move forward, he persuaded Hanoi to restart the secret talks, suspended while South Vietnamese troops were in Laos, and offered the most comprehensive proposal Washington had yet put on the table. The United States promised to set a date for a total U.S. withdrawal under international supervision and for the first time did not insist that Hanoi also pull out its troops (provided they stopped infiltrating into South Vietnam or its neighbors). Washington also called again for a cease-fire in place, in Laos and Cambodia as well as Vietnam this time, and suggested that all prisoners of war held by both sides be released as part of an agreed-upon timetable for withdrawal.
Kissinger and his counterparts met twice more in secret that summer. The atmosphere seemed more cordial than it had been before. Elements of Hanoi’s counterproposals seemed to mesh with the American offer. The two sides seemed to be inching toward one another at last.
Just two major issues remained. One seemed potentially resolvable, more a matter of semantics than substance. Hanoi wanted “reparations” for “the damage caused by the U.S. in the war zones of Vietnam”; both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had pledged that the United States would help rehabilitate all of Indochina, including North Vietnam, once the war had ended. “But we would do it of our own accord,” Kissinger said, “not as an obligation.”
NLF prisoners at the Bien Hoa prison camp swear allegiance to the South Vietnamese government in order to win their release—a goodwill election-year gesture by President Thieu.
The real sticking point remained the fate of Nguyen Van Thieu. Hanoi continued to insist that before there could be any possibility of peace the South Vietnamese president had to be swept from power, along with the other “warlike and fascist” members of his regime—Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky and Prime Minister and Minister of Defense General Tran Thien Khiem. Le Duc Tho suggested to Kissinger that Thieu’s removal could be effected quietly, without public comment, to avoid embarrassment. The South Vietnamese constitution, drafted at American insistence and with considerable American input, provided for a four-year presidential term. Thieu was up for reelection on October 3. Surely the United States could arrange things so that he lost, Le Duc Tho suggested, and if that weren’t feasible there was always assassination. The talks broke up.
“It is obvious that we cannot do [Hanoi’s] political work for them,” Kissinger told Nixon. “For all his faults, Thieu has been a loyal ally. Moreover, the recent publication of the Pentagon Papers with their revelations about American complicity in the coup against Diem would make our involvement in Thieu’s removal even more unpalatable. Last but not least, I am not even sure we could remove Thieu if we wanted to, unless we were prepared to engage in a major confrontation whose only certain result would be the destruction of South Vietnam’s political fabric and everybody’s self-respect.”
President Thieu was sometimes called le grand louvoyeur—“the grand maneuverer”—and now, faced with an election he had not wanted but also did not wish to lose, he would live up to his reputation. He was perpetually fearful of a coup and quick to undercut anyone he saw as a potential rival: when his onetime friend the much-admired former province chief Tran Ngoc Chau entered politics, denounced corruption, and championed a negotiated peace, Thieu had him dragged from the National Assembly, tried for treason, and imprisoned.
When Thieu was elected president in 1967 he had defeated a field of seven opponents with just 34.8 percent of the vote. This time, he was determined to win big, and he hoped that a program called Land-to-the-Tiller, which distributed landlords’ holdings among their tenants, would help increase peasant support for his candidacy.
After winning his one-man race for president, President Thieu swears himself in for a second term. “It is obvious,” one veteran Saigon journalist wrote, “the whole ludicrous performance has left his government in a more precarious political position than ever, both internally and with the Communists. It is equally obvious that United States policy-makers are largely devoid of ideas about how to cope with the situation.”
He had just two likely challengers. General Duong Van “Big” Minh worried Thieu most. He was warmly remembered by many in South Vietnam for having led the junta that overthrew Diem eight years earlier, but he was no favorite of Washington. He was thought “lackadaisical,” according to Henry Kissinger; a CIA officer who was fond of him said he had “the body of an elephant and the brain of a mouse.” But he had the support of the “Third Force”—the loose coalition of Buddhists, Catholics, intellectuals, students, and politicians who favored the creation of a ruling coalition that would include the Provisional Revolutionary Government.
Thieu’s other serious challenger was his gaudy perennial rival, Vice President Ky. Once a champion of invading the North, Ky now declared military victory impossible and argued instead that the PRG be recognized as a political party and that Saigon negotiate directly with Hanoi in search of a settlement.
The president set out to eliminate Ky from the race so he could take on Minh alone. He announced that he was “streamlining” his cabinet and jettisoned several ministers whose first loyalty was to his rival, then pushed a bill through the National Assembly requiring anyone wishing to challenge him for the presidency to obtain the written endorsements of 40 assembly members or 100 members of the 550-person provincial councils, appointed to advise the government. (Before promulgating his law, he had safely amassed for himself 452 council votes and those of 102 legislators.)
Ky crisscrossed the country lobbying provincial councilors and managed to collect 102 signatures, only to have the Supreme Court reject his candidacy on the dubious grounds that 40 of his endorsers had previously pledged themselves to Thieu. General Minh, who had himself collected more than the requisite one hundred legislator signatures, accused Thieu of “dishonest tricks,” and said he was thinking of withdrawing from the race himself.
Minh went to the Americans with evidence of Thieu’s trickery—instructions from the president to his handpicked province chiefs, ordering them to buy off or lock up opposition leaders and urging them to issue duplicate registration cards to supporters so they could vote more than once. The deputy U.S. ambassador wired the White House that if Thieu “decided to go through with a one-man sham election….The outlook would be growing political instability.”
“The U.S. government,” Henry Kissinger wrote, then “wound up in the curious position of searching for opponents to a president who was conducting a war as our ally.” Ambassador Bunker called first on General Minh. He was thought unlikely to win more than 30 percent of the vote and constituted no real threat to Thieu, but a respectable showing by him would lend at least a little legitimacy to the president’s inevitable victory. Bunker offered to provide campaign funds if he would stay in the race. Minh angrily turned him down and withdrew the following morning: “I cannot put up with a disgusting farce that strips away all the people’s hope of a democratic regime and bars reconciliation of the Vietnamese people,” he said.
The Supreme Court then suddenly reversed itself and ruled that Ky could contest the election after all. “It was a political decision,” one justice later admitted. “[I]t was clear that we had to do something to give the president a legal opponent.” Bunker offered money to Ky, too, but he refused to run.
The result, a referendum on Thieu’s performance as president, not an election, seemed to make a mockery of Nixon’s solemn assurance that the seventeen and a half million people of South Vietnam “must have the freedom to choose” their government. Two South Vietnamese veterans burned themselves alive in protest. Students, shouting anti-Thieu and anti-American slogans, burned vehicles and battled riot police in the Saigon streets. Tear gas broke up protests organized by Buddhists and members of the opposition in the National Assembly. Ky formed a coalition called the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee to Oppose Dictatorship and urged a boycott of the polls.
Nonetheless, according to official figures, 87.9 percent of the more than 6.3 million eligible voters went to the polls on October 3—and Thieu claimed to have won 94.3 percent of their votes.
“We have accepted the man sent to us by the American gods,” one bitter Saigon resident said. Almost no one in the city, American or South Vietnamese, believed the vote totals, according to The New Yorker’s Robert Shaplen. The best estimates were that only about half the eligible voters in the countryside actually bothered to go to the polls; in the cities, the total was thought to have been as low as 30 percent. “There is some evidence that a number of officials,” he reported, “including province chiefs appointed by Thieu, gave out obviously inflated figures to embarrass him, because they felt that the whole exercise was ridiculous and unnecessary….American officials here are no longer trying to hide their disappointment over Thieu’s performance but are simply gritting their teeth; barring an unlikely signal from the White House they will continue to give [him] their full support.”
The same day the South Vietnamese president was reelected, Henry Kissinger made still another secret offer to Hanoi—six months after the signing of a final agreement a new presidential election, conducted under international supervision, would be held, and President Thieu would resign his office a month before the vote so he could run without being able to call on the powers of the government to boost his candidacy. A month after that, U.S. forces would be gone but for a small residual force. Hanoi did not respond. It had other plans.
Captain James H. Willbanks, newly arrived in South Vietnam and about forty-five minutes from being wounded
NOT TOO HAPPY
ARMY CAPTAIN JAMES H. WILLBANKS arrived in Vietnam in December 1971. Like tens of thousands of Americans before him, he flew into Tan Son Nhut airport and when the door opened was staggered by the humidity and heat—stepping off the plane, he remembered, was “like putting on a wet, hot coat.” The bus waiting at the bottom of the stairs had wire mesh over the windows to thwart anyone who might want to lob a grenade inside. There was the usual Army bureaucracy to contend with, filling out forms, dragging his duffel bag from one line to the next, waiting to find out what unit he’d been assigned to—all experiences his predecessors had gone through.
But things were different now. America’s combat role had virtually ended. Willbanks had volunteered to become an adviser to the South Vietnamese. He remembered an NCO at Camp Alpha, the holding area for U.S. military personnel coming and going, telling him and some other new arrivals “that the war was basically over, that we wouldn’t even get a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. As it turned out he was wrong on both counts.”
Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the son of a career Army NCO whose assignments forced his family to move often, Willbanks felt closest to the place where he spent the most time as a boy, Copperas Cove, just outside Fort Hood, Texas. He emerged as a lieutenant from the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets in 1969 and was sent to Germany to serve as a platoon leader with the Second Battalion, Thirtieth Infantry, Third Infantry Division, stationed at Schweinfurt.
It was not a reassuring experience. “It was very difficult to think that the U.S. Army in Europe at that time could have defeated a determined Girl Scout troop,” he remembered. “It was in desperate trouble.”
Willbanks was not alone in that opinion. “The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States,” a retired Marine colonel wrote. In Vietnam, “the rearguard of a 500,000 man army, in its day…the best army the United States ever put in the field, is numbly extricating itself from a nightmare war the Armed Forces feel they had foisted on them by bright civilians who are now back on campus writing books about the folly of it all.” And as that withdrawal accelerated all the problems that plagued that fast-dwindling force—alcohol, drugs, indiscipline, fragging, racial conflict, plunging morale—spread to infect U.S. armed forces everywhere, including Germany.
“The Army did some really stupid things,” Willbanks explained, “and one of them was sending to Germany troops from Vietnam with less than six months to go in the Army. You can imagine what kind of morale and motivation problems we had.” His platoon was half the size it was authorized to be. Six of his men were in prison when he got there, all for violent crimes, including murder. The use of heroin and other hard drugs was rampant. So was crime—extortion, thievery, armed robbery. White and black soldiers battled one another on and off the base. Weapons disappeared. Duty officers conducting inspection sometimes carried locked and loaded .45s. “There were places in the barracks where you took your life in your hands,” Willbanks remembered.
After more than a year of it he’d had enough. “I figured it was safer in Vietnam than Germany,” he said. He volunteered to serve as an adviser and attended an eleven-week course at Fort Bragg, followed by several more weeks of language study at Briggs Field. “Only the U.S. Army would send you to El Paso, Texas, to learn Vietnamese,” he remembered. “Vietnamese is a very difficult tonal language. I’m a Texan who is tone deaf, apparently. It was very difficult, but the idea that we were there and trying the language went a long way with the South Vietnamese I worked with.”
In Vietnam, he served first with a unit of the Royal Thai Army that was packing up to head home, and then became an adviser to the Forty-eighth Regiment of the Eighteenth ARVN Division stationed near Xuan Loc, twenty-two miles east of Saigon. Adviser ranks were thinning, too; when he arrived there were somewhere between sixty and seventy Americans on his Division Combat Assistance Team; by the time he left a year later there would be only twenty.
Willbanks was modest about the adviser’s role: “Let’s be honest. What I had was a U.S. Army name tag that made me the embodiment of the U.S. commitment to support the South. I was usually working with a battalion commander. I wasn’t advising him. He’d been fighting for twenty years. I was a twenty-three-year-old captain who’d been in the Army for two and a half years. But I had a radio and was able to tap into the U.S. air support remaining in country—helicopters, tactical helicopters, tactical air, medevacs. I was the phone booth on the ground.”
His outfit took some fire during his first ten-day search-and-clear mission. “A little frightening, a little exhilarating,” he remembered. “Once it was over it felt like, ‘Wow, I’m glad that’s done, let’s move on to the next thing.’ ” The second operation was uneventful, he recalled, just another long walk in the jungle trying to fit himself through the Vietnamese-sized openings the ARVN cut for themselves through the undergrowth. The area was quiet, for the most part. “I never saw Viet Cong,” he recalled, “not in a year,” and the North Vietnamese seemed at first to be lying low.
“The first time I was wounded was in an area that had been deemed ‘green’—free of the enemy,” he recalled, “but someone forgot to tell the North Vietnamese.” On his third mission, moving through a vast rubber planation, his battalion inadvertently came too close to an enemy base camp and was ambushed—“a classic Fort Benning ambush,” Willbanks called it, regimental sized with automatic weapon fire to the front and mortars in the rear to keep the men pinned down. Willbanks slipped behind a tree to return fire. An RPG hit the trunk and detonated, sending a piece of shrapnel into his right knee.
Within moments, the battalion and its commander had fled the field, taking Willbanks’s radio with them and leaving him and several other wounded men unable to call for help and on their own. They struggled for twelve hours to fight their way out of the kill zone. “There were other guys who were hurt worse than I was and we were kind of dragging them,” Willbanks recalled. Long after dark, they reached an ARVN outpost. “They didn’t want to send a helicopter out to get us because no one was in danger of dying during the night. So they sent ground vehicles and picked us up the next day.”
Recuperating in a military hospital at Long Binh, Willbanks was interviewed about what had happened by a member of the advisory team. He said he “was not too happy” that “these guys had run off and left me….Shortly thereafter, I got word through another captain that my senior adviser said I was to keep my mouth shut about the incident….It was kind of a political thing: ‘These guys are going to do better because we say they’re going to do better.’ Interestingly enough, the ARVN division commander was later awarded a U.S. Bronze Star for having landed his helicopter in a hot zone to rescue me—which was kind of interesting, because when he came and picked me up he looked an awful lot like a Vietnamese private in a jeep. But that’s just one of those things.”
Willbanks was back at the ARVN base, on crutches, within a week. Years later, asked for his assessment of the South Vietnamese forces with whom he served, he was careful in his response. “I think the ARVN get a bad rap,” he remembered, “but I’ll also tell you it’s a very complex issue. I worked with all three regiments of my division for over eight months, and the combat performance was uneven. One regiment was very good, one was average, and one was not very good at all.” All three characteristics would be put on display during the North Vietnamese offensive that was soon to begin.
STOP THIS OFFENSIVE
Soviet leader Nikolai Podgorny embraces Le Duan in Hanoi, demonstrating that while the USSR was moving toward détente with the United States, it was not abandoning North Vietnam.
BACK IN JULY of the previous year, Richard Nixon, who had once been celebrated for the ferocity of his anticommunism, had astonished the world by announcing that before May 1, 1972, he planned to visit China, restoring diplomatic relations that had been severed when the communists seized power there more than two decades earlier. The United States had gone to war in Vietnam in part to block supposed Chinese expansionism. What would Nixon’s visit mean for President Thieu’s future—or for that of his country? Thieu was afraid he knew. “America has been looking for a better mistress,” he would tell an aide, “and now Nixon has discovered China. He does not want to have the old mistress around. Vietnam has become old and ugly.”
Hanoi was alarmed by Nixon’s announcement, too, and was already troubled that the American president was seeking détente—an easing of tensions—with the Soviet Union. The North Vietnamese remembered how Moscow and Beijing had advised Ho Chi Minh to accept the Geneva partition of Vietnam—a decision they soon came to regret. Concerned that warmer relations between the United States and China might mean less support from Beijing, they accused the United States of “perfidious maneuvers” aimed at trying to divide and conquer the communist world.
A South Vietnamese Marine carries the corpse of a comrade killed trying to slow the North Vietnamese advance down Route 1 from Quang Tri toward Hue, April 30, 1972.
The 1972 North Vietnamese Offensive was to proceed on three widely separated fronts, but the fiercest fighting would take place in and around the provincial capitol of An Loc.
North Vietnam’s patrons—now increasingly hostile rivals—rushed to reaffirm their backing for Hanoi. The deputy premier of China flew in to pledge that Beijing’s economic and military aid would not only continue but increase in 1972. Not to be outdone, Moscow dispatched President Nikolai Podgorny to Hanoi, promising to provide plentiful “additional aid without reimbursement.”
Over the months that followed, military supplies of a different kind and in unprecedented quantities streamed into North Vietnam, overland by railroad from China and by sea from the Soviet Union: more than one thousand Soviet tanks, hundreds of antiaircraft and antitank missiles, long-range artillery that fired seven rounds per minute and was accurate up to seventeen miles. The new weaponry demanded new kinds of technical skills, as well. Twenty-five thousand North Vietnamese were sent to Soviet-bloc countries for training; more than three thousand tank crews attended Soviet armory school in Odessa.
Ever since the Laotian incursion, Le Duan and his allies in Hanoi had planned to launch yet another offensive as soon as the rains stopped in early 1972. They had deliberately stalled the Paris talks for months. “They were diddling Henry along,” Nixon said, while pouring men and supplies into the South so that when a ceasefire in place was finally negotiated they and not Saigon would have the upper hand.
The ARVN’s poor performance in Laos encouraged them. So did the steadily shrinking size of the U.S. military presence in the South—there were under 100,000 U.S. soldiers in country now, only a fraction of whom were combat troops. President Nixon’s political predicament reassured them, too. Facing reelection in the fall, he seemed unlikely to recommit U.S. forces to save the Saigon regime—especially when that recommitment might offend the Chinese, whom he was about to visit, or the Soviets, with whom he planned important talks later in the year. Finally, the growing cordiality between the U.S. president and its political benefactors continued to worry Hanoi, and a major assault seemed the best way to remind both Beijing and Moscow that North Vietnam’s revolutionary fervor remained as fierce as ever.
An ARVN soldier pauses for prayer in what remains of a cathedral in the city of La Vang after the South Vietnamese reoccupied Quang Tri Province in June.
This offensive would be different from those that had preceded it. There was little talk of a popular uprising this time; this was to be a full-scale conventional military assault on three different fronts in South Vietnam, spearheaded by tanks and artillery.
First, three divisions were to pour across the DMZ, take Quang Tri and Hue, and capture South Vietnam’s two northernmost provinces.
Three more divisions based in Cambodia and Laos were then to drive eastward, take An Loc, the capital of Binh Long Province, and move south along Highway 13 toward Saigon, just sixty-five miles away.
Finally, two more divisions would capture Pleiku and Kon Tum in the Central Highlands while a third took the coastal province of Binh Dinh, effectively cutting the country in half.
U.S. intelligence knew something was about to happen, but where and when the attacks would come and how large they would be remained unclear. January passed with no attack. So did Tet in February. “On again, off again, gonna come, didn’t come,” one rumor-weary U.S. civilian adviser wrote in early March. “It has been a virtual merry-go-round this month of pending action that never materialized.”
Both General Adams and Ambassador Bunker were out of the country when it finally did materialize, at precisely noon on Thursday, March 30, with a thunderous artillery barrage all along the DMZ. It was the day before Good Friday, so the Americans would remember the battles that followed as the “Easter Offensive”; the South Vietnamese would call it “the Summer of the Flames.” North Vietnamese troops poured into the northern provinces. ARVN commanders did not distinguish themselves. General Hoang Xuan Lam, the overcautious commander of Lam Son 917, now corps commander in the North, was caught completely by surprise. His men fell back. Over the protests of its American advisers an entire regiment—fifteen hundred troops with all their heavy weapons—surrendered at Camp Carroll. Quang Tri Province passed into enemy hands.
If the ARVN crumbled, as it seemed to be doing, everything Nixon and Kissinger had worked for was imperiled. Vietnamization would be exposed as a myth. The American bargaining position at the upcoming Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union would be weakened. The president’s reelection would be jeopardized. Nixon, Haldeman noted, “feels very strongly that we’ve got to make an all-out effort and that it’s really a do or die proposition….Both he and Henry agree that no matter what happens now, we’ll be finished with the war by August. Either we will have broken them or they will have broken us.”
Nixon refused to stop or even slow the pace of troop withdrawals. He announced that twenty thousand more men would start for home by July 1, bringing the total left behind to just under fifty thousand. Instead, he would employ American airpower.
“I think we shouldn’t panic now,” Kissinger told the president five days after the offensive began. “In a way it’s a godsend. We should give them a tremendous punishment.”
RICHARD NIXON: We lose if the ARVN collapses….That’s a question we can’t even think about. If the ARVN collapses a lot of other things will collapse around here. If they were going to collapse they had to do it a year ago. We can’t do it this year, Henry.
HENRY KISSINGER: Right. They’re not going to collapse, I know—
NIXON: You see what I mean. We can’t take it.
KISSINGER: I agree, that’s why we’ve got to blast—
NIXON: That’s right.
KISSINGER:—the living bejeesus out of them….
NIXON: Let’s don’t talk about ‘If the ARVN collapses.’…We’re playing a bigger game. We’re playing a Russian game, a Chinese game, an election game—
KISSINGER: That’s right.
NIXON:—and we’re not going to have the ARVN collapse.
The next day, the president ordered massive bombing of North Vietnamese forces in the South as well as targets in North Vietnam as far north as Vinh, the first U.S. bombing of that country in four years. “I want you to go down there,” Nixon told U.S. Air Force General John W. Vogt, who was about to take command of the Seventh Air Force, “and use whatever air you need to turn this thing around….Stop this offensive.”
THE KIND OF WAR WE CAME TO FIGHT
AS AMERICAN BOMBS began to fall, the North Vietnamese launched the second phase of their offensive, an all-out assault on An Loc, the capital of Binh Long Province. A prosperous but unprepossessing town—just six blocks long and eleven blocks wide—and surrounded by 100,000 acres of rubber plantations, it was home to just fifteen thousand Vietnamese with another five thousand hill people living in villages nearby. Its importance lay in its location—it stood astride Highway 13, a paved all-weather road that led south to Saigon—and in its status as a provincial capital whose loss to the enemy would be a psychological blow to the South Vietnamese regime.
By April 12, North Vietnamese forces had captured Loc Ninh, the nearest town to the north, and had surrounded An Loc with some thirty-six thousand troops. Hunkered down inside the town were just seven thousand South Vietnamese belonging to the Fifth ARVN Division, Rangers, and Binh Long provincial forces.
That afternoon, as enemy artillery shells and rockets rained on the town, Captain James Willbanks and Major Raymond M. Haney, both advisers to the Eighteenth ARVN Division, were deposited on a soccer field in its center, by a chopper pilot who didn’t dare land. A two-battalion task force from their division had fought its way there from Loc Ninh to join the defenders. Three American advisers had been wounded in that struggle, and Willbanks and Haney had volunteered to replace them on the battlefield. They made their way to a building that served as task force headquarters.
James Willbanks at the entrance to the six-by-four-foot bunker in which he lived during the siege of An Loc, alongside what he remembered as “a million rats”
The next morning, Willbanks remembered, he was installing a radio antenna on the roof when he heard “a tremendous explosion.” He ran downstairs and into the street. “Panic-stricken South Vietnamese ran by, shouting, ‘Thiet giap!’—a phrase he had not been taught in the El Paso language school. “However, as I ran around the corner of the building, it became all too apparent that the ARVN were yelling, ‘Tanks!’ Rumbling down the street toward us from the north was a column of North Vietnamese T-54s. So began the battle of An Loc.”
The sight of the North Vietnamese tanks moving toward them terrified the ARVN at first. But the officers commanding the enemy’s armor proved inept. Their tanks moved slowly, kept to the streets instead of moving cross-country, and were not accompanied by infantry—all basic errors in tank warfare. And South Vietnamese soldiers soon found that they were not as invulnerable as they looked. Captain Harold Moffett, an adviser with the Rangers, never forgot the impact on him of seeing a tank being taken out by a single soldier: “This little guy goes out to hunt a forty-ton piece of metal with a light antitank weapon on his back weighing two to three pounds. That’s beyond belief, and it inspired me. How do you describe a little ARVN soldier fighting tanks? I was pretty well frightened like everyone else till it was determined we could knock them out with the weapons we had.”
Those tanks not taken care of on the ground were destroyed from the air by Cobra attack helicopters firing armor-piercing rockets.
The colonel commanding the North Vietnamese forces had assured his superiors that he would take the town in less than ten days, but the battle would go on for the better part of three months, the longest siege of the Vietnam War. It was “more like World War One than anything else,” Willbanks remembered. “We were in bunkers. They were attacking almost constantly—four thousand to ten thousand rounds a day.”
Most important to the survival of the town’s defenders was the amplitude of air support brought to bear by Major General James F. Hollingsworth, commander of the Third Regional Assistance Command. He was a sinewy, tough-talking veteran who had been wounded five times while serving in Patton’s Army. “Once the communists decided to take An Loc,” he said, “and I could get a handful of soldiers to hold and a lot of American advisers to keep them from running off, that’s all I needed. Hold them and I’ll kill them with airpower, give me something to bomb and I’ll win.”
“Hollingsworth rounded up anything that could fly and that could carry anything that would blow up,” Willbanks remembered, “and he sent it in our direction on a daily basis as fast as he could send it.” U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft bombed enemy positions around the city while gunships of all kinds attacked the advancing tanks. So many planes flew in and out of the airspace above the town each day that directing air traffic became a major challenge. But the damage done to enemy troops massed in the open was devastating. “This,” one American adviser said, “was the kind of war we came to fight.”
Still, it was a close thing. Three times—twice in April and once in mid-May—the enemy came close to overwhelming the town. At one point its defenders were clinging to just half a square kilometer of ruined houses and cratered streets.
No supplies could reach them by road, and enemy antiaircraft fire forced flights to stay above eight thousand feet, making accurate drops difficult. At one point, Willbanks remembered, “we were in pretty bad straits because we were running out of food and ammo. We captured this young North Vietnamese lad and we asked him, ‘What are you subsisting on?’ He said, ‘Fruit cocktail. Your Air Force gives us more than we can eat.’ ”
“For the first couple of weeks,” Willbanks recalled, “no wounded could be lifted out. Then we were able to get some out south of town. That’s where we had the infamous ‘Olympic wounded’ incident, where stretcher bearers dropped the wounded guys and jumped on the helicopters….But I will also tell you that for every guy that did that there were five guys who stayed and fought until they were killed, wounded, or relieved.”
Carrying two rocket-propelled grenades, a South Vietnamese soldier, his uniform showing the wear of unbroken weeks of battle, surveys the ruins of An Loc after relentless enemy shelling and U.S. bombing.
One day a North Vietnamese tank rolled into a Catholic church and killed some one hundred civilians cowering there; then, having expended their ammunition, the crew hung a white flag from the radio antenna, expecting to surrender. The pilot of a gunship overhead asked what he was to do about the tank. “Blow it away,” was the answer.
Residents of the town spent weeks huddled underground. “We lived with the soldiers,” one recalled. “We cooked and slept in our bunkers and relieved ourselves in tins and threw them out of the bunkers. No one worried about burying the dead, and the wounded were often left to die.” A shell hit the morgue, hurling corpses into the air. Others virtually destroyed the hospital, though its roof was clearly marked with a red cross; afterward, an ARVN surgeon remembered, it housed “one thousand dead and wounded jumbled together.”
When civilians did try to flee, the North Vietnamese drove them back into the encircled city with rockets and artillery. Asked after the war why this had been done, a political officer was unrepentant: “The revolution shelled this civilian crowd because this was a crowd of puppet civilians filled with reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries. We could not exempt them, and we had to teach them a lesson.”
By mid-June, the wounded could be airlifted out at last and South Vietnam began replacing the exhausted men of the Fifth ARVN Division. “Some of the South Vietnamese flown out were barefoot,” one U.S. pilot said; “some were too exhausted to do more than shuffle.”
In the end, the South Vietnamese military sustained 5,400 casualties at An Loc, including 2,300 killed or missing. Perhaps 10,000 North Vietnamese died, their bodies often left unburied amid the wreckage of eighty-odd burned-out tanks and other vehicles.
Rudolph Rauch, a Time correspondent, was one of the first reporters to helicopter into what was left of the town. “There are perhaps six buildings left…, none with a solid roof,” he wrote. “There is no running water or electricity. Every street is shattered by artillery craters and littered with the detritus of a battle that saw every kind of war. Everywhere you walk you hear the crackle of shifting shell fragments when you put your foot down.”
The record of An Loc’s defenders had been mixed. The commander of the Fifth ARVN Division rarely left his bunker. Some of his men used idle moments to loot homes and fire on Rangers trying to retrieve air-dropped supplies. But other South Vietnamese soldiers, notably the Rangers and the Territorial Force, Willbanks remembered, fought with “almost superhuman valor and skill.”
“The important fact,” Rauch wrote, “is that the city held. ‘The only way to approach the battle of An Loc is to remember that the ARVN are there and the North Vietnamese aren’t,’ says an American adviser. ‘To view it any other way is to do an injustice to the Vietnamese people.’ But for the foreseeable future, An Loc is dead—as dead as the hundreds of North Vietnamese who were caught in the city’s northern edge by U.S. bombing and whose putrefaction makes breathing in An Loc so difficult when the afternoon breeze comes up. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the city died bravely, and that—in a year that [includes] the fall of Quang Tri—that is no small achievement.”
Sporadic shells were still falling on An Loc in early July. On the 9th, Brigadier General Richard J. Tallman landed in the ruined town with several of his staff officers to coordinate the continuing reinforcement effort. James Willbanks was among the advisers who went out to greet him. An artillery shell hit nearby. Everyone ran for cover. A second shell fell among the running men. The general was mortally wounded. Three officers and a South Vietnamese interpreter died instantly. Willbanks was wounded and momentarily knocked unconscious. When he came to, he recalled, “I could touch the guys that were killed. So why it didn’t get me and got those guys I’ll never know,” he recalled. “It’s something I’ve wrestled with for years.”
I HAVE THE WILL IN SPADES
TOP AND BOTTOM Navy crews load five-hundred-pound bombs aboard the Seventh Fleet’s USS Constellation, part of the accelerated bombing of North Vietnam ordered by President Nixon.
IN EARLY MAY, with Quang Tri occupied by the enemy, An Loc still under siege, and North Vietnamese forces surrounding Kon Tum and moving on Hue, the Easter Offensive had seemed to be succeeding. General Abrams cabled the White House that “the senior [South Vietnamese] leadership has begun to bend and in some cases break…and cannot be depended on to take the measures necessary to stand and fight.”
Demonstrators opposed to the renewed bombing of North Vietnam move down Central Park West in Manhattan, April 28, 1972.
Nixon sent Kissinger to Paris with a blunt message: “Settle or else!” He proposed a halt to the bombing provided both sides return to the status quo on the day the offensive began, followed by serious negotiations. Le Duc Tho dismissed the offer out of hand. North Vietnamese forces were carrying the day; there was no need to call a halt unless Washington were willing to abandon both Thieu and Vietnamization. “That was Hanoi’s last chance,” Nixon noted in his diary. “I decided now it was essential to defeat North Vietnam’s invasion.”
Le Duan’s latest offensive was another great gamble.
So was Nixon’s next move to defeat it. He was scheduled later that month to travel to Moscow, where he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev were to sign an arms control treaty, the first agreement to limit nuclear armaments since the Cold War began. When Brezhnev warned him not to take any action in Vietnam that might imperil the upcoming summit, Nixon responded that since the North Vietnamese offensive would not be sustainable without weapons and supplies provided by the Soviet Union and China, he had no alternative but to act forcibly. “We can lose the summit and still not lose the country,” he told Kissinger. “But we cannot lose this war without losing the country.”
On May 8, he told the country he was extending air and naval assaults on North Vietnam indefinitely. But then he went further: “There is only one way to stop the killing,” he said. “That is to take the weapons of war out of the hands of the international outlaws of Vietnam.” Accordingly, eleven thousand mines were to be laid in North Vietnamese waters to block further access to Haiphong Harbor, where Soviet supply ships regularly docked.
He made a direct appeal to Moscow not to see this action as anything other than an attempt to end a war that had gone on far too long: “Let us not slide back toward the dark shadows of a previous age. We do not ask you to sacrifice your principles or your friends, but neither should you permit Hanoi’s intransigence to blot out the prospects we together have so patiently prepared.”
Antiwar critics were quick to denounce the president. Senator George McGovern called “this new escalation reckless, unnecessary and unworkable…a flirtation with World War III.” Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine accused the president of “risking a major confrontation with the Soviet Union and with China and…jeopardizing the major security interests of the United States.” But a Lou Harris poll found that 59 percent of those polled supported the president’s decision and only 24 percent disapproved.
In any case, Nixon’s gamble paid off. The Soviets and the Chinese both formally denounced the American bombing, but neither took any action of their own. Nixon traveled to Moscow, and on May 26, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Meanwhile, the greatly expanded bombing campaign in North Vietnam—code-named Operation Linebacker because of the president’s fondness for football—got under way. “Those bastards are going to be bombed like they’ve never been bombed before,” he said. “What I am directing is bombing, all out,” Nixon told Admiral Moorer. “You are to hit…North Vietnam….You are to aim for military targets. You are not to be too concerned about whether it slops over [into civilian areas]….If it slops over, that’s too bad….We must punish the enemy in ways that he will really hurt this time.” Lyndon Johnson hadn’t had the will to do that, he said, but “I have the will in spades.”
The bombing campaign had three objectives: to destroy military supplies wherever they could be found in North Vietnam; to cut off any possibility of replenishing those supplies; and to interdict any shipments intended for the battlefield in the South. Targets were selected by military commanders rather than civilians in the White House. More than four hundred bridges between Hanoi and China were destroyed, many of them high in the Annamite Mountains where rapid repair was impossible. Highways were hit. Rail lines were disrupted and railyards destroyed. Petroleum storage facilities, power-generating plants, military barracks and training camps and air defenses were all bombed.
Luong Toan, eighty-four years old, makes his way through the ruins of the town of Thong Nat; a few days earlier, he had narrowly escaped bombing at Thanh Hoa, several miles to the south. Both towns were hit by U.S. bombs because a highway and a railroad line ran through them.
The Linebacker bombing, Leslie Gelb recalled, “was much more extensive than the bombing campaign under Lyndon Johnson. And from a standpoint of pressuring them to make concessions at the negotiating table, historically that’s how you did it. Only it didn’t work with these guys. They took the pounding.”
Somehow, as the journalist Joseph Kraft reported in The New Yorker, North Vietnam was “not paralyzed. Large quantities of goods move at a fairly rapid clip all the time.” So many trucks came and went in Hanoi while he was there, he said, that the downtown had become “a kind of national parking lot.”
In the city, air raids had become almost routine, Kraft wrote. They were invariably preceded by a pilotless reconnaissance plane that flew too fast to be hit by antiaircraft guns or the new surface-to-air (SAM) missiles supplied by the Soviets.
Only the noise of the drone’s breaking through the sound barrier announces its advent. It is a startling noise—like a sudden clap of thunder—but after almost four months of bombing hardly anybody in Hanoi bothers to look up. The drone is dismissed with a shrug as “the noon plane.”…
Danger is first signaled by a pre-alert broadcast through loudspeakers all over town which announces that American planes have been sighted…at a distance of about thirty miles. A second pre-alert soon afterward announces that the planes are within the fifty-kilometer radius. Then, within a few minutes the alert itself sounds—a long, wailing siren note that rises, dips, and then rises again. Minutes later, the planes come into sight—fighter-bombers, floating lazily, and then diving on targets to drop bombs which can be heard though not seen as they fall. As soon as the planes are visible, the racket of the anti-aircraft guns begins. Almost simultaneously the SAMs can be seen, powered upward by rocket engines that give off a faint red glow. During the raid of July 4th, it was possible to follow the glow of a missile until a plane was struck and sent spinning to earth, trailing a cloud of black smoke.
Each evening at 11:30 the North Vietnamese government radio signed off with an announcement of the number of planes shot down that day—and a running tally of hits on B-52s since the war began.
Laser-guided and electro-optical guided munitions were employed by U.S. forces for the first time during Operation Linebacker, greatly improving the accuracy of targeting, according to the military. But the improvement was only relative and, to those unfortunate enough to be the victims of even the slightest inaccuracy, irrelevant.
Kraft was taken into the countryside to see the bombing’s impact there. The day before he reached a trading town called Hung Yen, thirty-six miles from the capital, its center had been hit by eighteen blast bombs and four antipersonnel bombs, each containing almost two thousand steel pellets. Seventeen people died, twenty-five more were wounded, and forty-five homes were destroyed. In one, he found a woman trying to reassemble members of her family—“a charred jawbone, a hank of hair, what looked like a leg”—while muttering to herself, “My brother and sister were innocent.” In another ruined home he met a seventy-two-year-old man, a Catholic, who had lost his wife, his only son, and his grandson while they were saying their prayers: “He stood in the rubble, a toothless old man, and raised his fists to the heavens. ‘I feel deep hatred against the Americans,’ he shouted. ‘As long as I live, I will have hatred in my heart!’ ”
The mother of Le Minh Kue, the girl who went to work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail at sixteen with a Hemingway novel in her backpack, went into labor in a bomb shelter during one air raid. “The whole village was burning,” her daughter remembered, “so there was no one there to help her except my ten-year-old brother.” He ran out to a well for water, cut the umbilical cord, and bandaged his mother’s wounds. Somehow all three survived.
When the Easter Offensive finally ended in October, Hanoi would be able to point to some concrete gains. It held roughly half of the four northernmost provinces of South Vietnam as well as several largely unpopulated patches along the borders of Cambodia and Laos, and, because South Vietnamese forces in relatively pacified areas had been required to move elsewhere to meet the enemy threat, fresh opportunities had opened up for the NLF to rebuild the infrastructure the pacification program had tried to eradicate. But the ARVN, supported by American advisers and augmented by American airpower, had recaptured most of the territory the North had tried to seize. The three massive assaults on widely separated targets with which the offensive had begun had proved far too ambitious, Operation Linebacker had reduced Hanoi’s ability to resupply its forces remaining in the South, and of the roughly 200,000 soldiers who had taken part, more than half were estimated to have been killed, while nearly all of the armor the North Vietnamese had recently received had been destroyed. The North Vietnamese chief of staff warned the senior cadre of COSVN that losses had been so great it was unlikely the North could mount another offensive for at least three years—and it might take as long as five.
South Vietnam had suffered terrible losses, too. Some 25,000 civilians had died in the fighting and nearly a million more had been driven from their homes. The ARVN had lost 45,000 men. But they had halted the enemy onslaught and then pushed it back—proof positive, Nixon said, that Vietnamization was working, that South Vietnam would soon be able to defend itself. Still, American airpower had been central to that victory. It was thought to have accounted for at least half the enemy dead. Many, both in Saigon and Washington, feared that without it the outcome would have been very different. But President Thieu drew a different lesson from the same set of facts: so long as he could call upon the Americans when his forces got into trouble, he could continue to believe that South Vietnam might yet survive and eventually win the war.
“Jane Fonda was one of our major fantasies,” John Musgrave remembered. “I mean major fantasies. And we couldn’t believe it when that fantasy went to North Vietnam. She was held to a different standard of conduct by being our fantasy, our dream girl. It was like our dream girl betrayed us.”
Jane Fonda visits an antiaircraft emplacement near Hanoi, 1972.
Throughout the war, a steady stream of Americans opposed to the war had visited Hanoi, including the folk singer Joan Baez, Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, David Dellinger of the War Resisters League, Tom Hayden of the Indochina Peace Campaign, the writer Susan Sontag, and Cora Weiss of Women Strike for Peace. They carried mail to and from POWs and sometimes helped arrange for their return home.
But no visitor made more headlines than the actress Jane Fonda. During two weeks in the summer of 1972, with Operation Linebacker under way, she broadcast at least ten times over Radio Hanoi, denouncing American bombing of civilians as a war crime, accusing POWs of being war criminals, and urging the North Vietnamese to hold out against American imperialism.
“I don’t know what your officers tell you [about what you] are loading,” she broadcast to U.S. air crews, “those of you who load the bombs on these planes. But one thing you should know is that these weapons are illegal, and that’s not just rhetoric. They were outlawed, these kinds of weapons, by several conventions of which the United States was a signatory….And the use of these bombs or condoning the use of these bombs makes one a war criminal.”
“We have understood that we have a common enemy—U.S. imperialism,” she told North Vietnamese students. “We have understood that we have a common struggle and that your victory will be the victory of the American and all peace-loving people around the world.”
“She’s taken a lot of heat,” Musgrave recalled, “and deservedly so. Yes, we have a right to be pissed off at her. But, you know, she wasn’t the only one. She’s just the only one we fantasized about.”
PLEASE HELP ME!
Photographer Nick Ut
The village of Trang Bang as napalm engulfed it
On the morning of June 8, 1972, Nick Ut, a twenty-one-year-old South Vietnamese photographer working for the Associated Press, was accompanying ARVN troops on Highway 1, moving toward a village called Trang Bang, to dislodge North Vietnamese forces that had occupied it during the Easter Offensive.
Ut was beginning to put his cameras away, ready to return to Saigon, when he saw a South Vietnamese fighter suddenly dip down toward the fleeing refugees, whom the pilot mistook for the enemy.
As napalm engulfed the village Ut began clicking. “Oh, my God, it’s a good picture,” he said to himself. Then, emerging from the black smoke, several children were seen running toward him, including one girl whose clothing had been burned off completely. He kept shooting.
When the girl reached Ut and several other reporters standing with him she stopped running and kept saying in Vietnamese, “Too hot, too hot,” and “Please help me, please help me!” Her skin was peeling off her back. Ut borrowed a raincoat from a South Vietnamese soldier to cover her. A BBC reporter helped find water. “Without help, I knew she would die,” Ut recalled. He drove the badly burned girl, whose name was Kim Phuc, and several other injured children to a hospital in Saigon. She had burns over 30 percent of her body.
Then he raced to the AP darkroom to find out what he had caught on film. He was pretty sure he had good pictures, but when his photo editor saw them he said he couldn’t send them out on the wire: the girl was naked. Ut’s boss, the legendary combat photographer Horst Faas, took one look and overruled the editor. They were to be captioned and sent immediately to AP headquarters in New York.
Nick Ut’s photograph appeared on front pages around the world the next day and won him the Pulitzer Prize. For many Americans—even many of those who had supported the war—the image seemed to signal that it had to be brought to an end.
LET’S BE PERFECTLY COLD-BLOODED
RICHARD NIXON sometimes liked to muse about the role chance had played in his remarkable career. Few people were shrewder about politics than he, but he was too stiff and self-conscious to be a natural politician and he had been thought finished until John Kennedy’s death in Dallas allowed him to return unexpectedly to center stage. On May 15, 1972, something like that had happened again. Former Alabama governor George Wallace—who had run up an impressive string of Democratic primaries and whose appeal to white working-class voters threatened to disassemble Nixon’s Silent Majority—was shot and permanently paralyzed by a demented would-be assassin. Had Wallace won the Democratic nomination or—more likely—had he lost it and then run as a third-party candidate siphoning off Republican votes, Nixon’s reelection chances would have been anything but certain.
To enhance those chances and find material that might be used to smear the opposition, Nixon aides working for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President authorized another break-in, this time at Democratic National Headquarters in the Washington, D.C., apartment complex called the Watergate. All five burglars had been caught, and some in the White House had already begun to worry about what they might be persuaded to reveal to the authorities.
Meanwhile, in July, Nixon’s luck seemed to hold when the Democrats gathered in Miami to choose their presidential nominee. George McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II and an early and ardent critic of the Vietnam War. His message was uncompromising: he called for an end to the bombing of the North, a halt to congressional funding for the war, and immediate withdrawal from Vietnam once the POWs were released. Buoyed by a youthful and unpaid legion of supporters, many of whom had worked for Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy four years earlier, he had defeated two more middle-of-the-road contenders in the primaries, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie.
Among those who seconded his nomination at the convention was Valerie Kushner, the wife of Hal Kushner, who had recently made his painful way from a jungle camp in South Vietnam to a prison in Hanoi. At first, the families of prisoners and those missing in action had overwhelmingly supported the Nixon administration because of its stated commitment to the return of their husbands and fathers and sons as a condition for peace. But as the months dragged on with little apparent progress, some began to disbelieve their promises. Valerie Kushner was among them. She had campaigned in the primaries for McGovern, she told the delegates, because “I knew that he would bring my husband home.”
Party reformers, determined to get away from boss rule and the “smoke-filled room” style of politics they blamed for what had happened in Chicago four years earlier, had rewritten the rules in 1972 to provide opportunities for groups that had felt themselves underrepresented—women, minorities, young people.
The goal was worthy. The result was chaos. On the final night of the convention, after the name of Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, McGovern’s choice for vice president, was placed in nomination, delegates ate up precious television time nominating thirty-nine other candidates, including Dr. Spock, Mao Tse-tung, and Archie Bunker. “Speakers were indulged and self-indulgent,” Nixon thought, watching from his summer home in San Clemente, California. “There was no semblance of orderly procedure….The scene had the air of a college skit that had gotten carried away with itself and didn’t know how to stop.”
By the time the presidential nominee began his acceptance speech, intended to introduce him to the American electorate, it was 2:48 in the morning. By then, a television audience of more than 17 million had shrunk to 3.6 million. Even in California most people had gone to bed; only in Hawaii, where it was 8:48 in the evening, could American voters watch the candidate in prime time.
McGovern was the son of a Methodist minister and his words that morning had something of the pulpit about them: “In Scripture and in the music of our children we are told: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.’…This is the time for truth, not falsehood….
“During four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been charted behind closed doors. I want those doors opened, and I want that war closed….Within ninety days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be…back home in America where they belong….
“Together we will call America home to the founding ideals that nourished us in the beginning. From secrecy and deception in high places, come home, America….From the waste of idle hands to the joy of useful labor, come home, America. From the prejudice of race and sex, come home, America….Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward. Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world. And let us be joyful in that homecoming….May God grant us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.”
The delegates linked arms and broke into spontaneous song: “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
George McGovern and his first vice presidential pick, Thomas Eagleton, meet the press. McGovern “is beginning to remind us of those schoolteachers who couldn’t keep the class,” Jimmy Breslin wrote as the campaign began. “Nice people,” but “the erasers flew when they turned their backs.”
That early-morning singalong turned out to be the high point of the Democratic campaign. When McGovern, who barely knew his running mate, discovered that Eagleton had failed to tell him he’d twice undergone electroshock treatments for depression, he told the press he was behind Eagleton one thousand percent anyway, then five days later dropped him from the ticket. Six other potential vice presidential nominees then turned him down before Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law and the former head of the Peace Corps, agreed to make the race with him. Then, at the urging of the antiwar activist David Dellinger, he sent an emissary to Paris to speak in secret with the North Vietnamese delegation to the peace talks, hoping to arrange for the release of forty POWs. The discussion came to nothing, and when reporters got wind of it, McGovern denied he’d had anything to do with it.
Democrats were fatally divided. Many who were fed up with the war were also uncomfortable with the notion of accepting defeat and offended by the excesses of the antiwar movement. The AFL-CIO, Democratic to the core, refused to endorse the party’s candidate. So did Chicago mayor Richard Daley. In early August, a Harris poll showed McGovern 23 percentage points behind Richard Nixon, the largest gap between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates since scientific polling began.
The Republican gathering in the same city later in the month was less convention than coronation. The delegates, the journalist Theodore White wrote, were “clean, neat people. This correspondent counted only three bearded delegates…two of them from New York. And no long-hairs….The California delegation at the Republican convention…was so different from the California delegation to the Democratic convention that it might have come not from a different state, but from a different country or a different era—no cowboy boots, no open collars, no Indians, few blacks, no blue-jeaned girls.” Governor Ronald Reagan of California warned that “our traditional two-party system has become a three-party system—Republican, McGovern, and Democrat.” Barry Goldwater denounced McGovern for having “already surrendered to the enemy before the election has even been held.” New York governor Nelson Rockefeller nominated Nixon as the president “who has brought us to the threshold of peace.”
Nixon was an old hand at acceptance speeches. This was to be his fifth.
“Standing in this convention hall four years ago,” he told the delegates and a vast prime-time TV audience, “I pledged to seek an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We have made great progress toward that end. We have brought over half a million men home, and more will be coming home. We have ended America’s ground combat role. No draftees are being sent to Vietnam. We have reduced our casualties by 98 percent. We have gone the extra mile, in fact we have gone tens of thousands of miles trying to seek a negotiated settlement of the war. We have offered a ceasefire, a total withdrawal of all American forces, an exchange of all prisoners of war, internationally supervised free elections with the communists participating in the elections and in the supervision. There are three things, however, that we have not and that we will not offer. We will never abandon our prisoners of war. Second, we will not join our enemies in imposing a communist government on our allies—the 17 million people of South Vietnam. And we will never stain the honor of the United States of America.”
A week after the Republican convention, Nixon was leading McGovern in the polls by thirty-four points.
That same month, when Nixon and Henry Kissinger had discussed the prospects for peace and the likely future of South Vietnam, their tone was considerably less elevated.
RICHARD NIXON: Let’s be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thieu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean?…Because I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway. I’m just being perfectly candid—I—
HENRY KISSINGER: In the pull-out area—
NIXON: We also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important. It’s terribly important this year—but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, if North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That’s the real question.
KISSINGER: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink…domestically in the long run it won’t help us all that much because our opponents will say we should’ve done it three years ago.
NIXON: I know.
KISSINGER: So we’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.
THE PRIDE OF A REVOLUTIONARY
The North Vietnamese spy Nguyen Tai, before his ordeal began
In October 1972, a CIA case officer named Frank Snepp was given an unusual assignment: he was to see if he could obtain useful intelligence from a mysterious North Vietnamese prisoner who had managed to withstand twenty-two months of torture and interrogation without breaking. Years later, Snepp would remember him as “the most extraordinary man I met in Vietnam.”
Nguyen Tai, the son of a prominent Vietnamese novelist, joined the revolution at eighteen in 1944. By the time he was twenty-one he was directing covert warfare in French-occupied Hanoi—organizing assassination teams to kill Frenchmen and those who collaborated with them, sending a woman with a valise full of explosives to board a French navy vessel and sink it, making her perhaps history’s first female suicide bomber. After the French departed, he denounced his own father for daring to criticize the communist regime, and was made head of Hanoi’s version of the Soviet KGB. Under his direction, every one of the U.S. spies and saboteurs who parachuted into North Vietnam in 1963 was captured or killed, and those senior party members who dissented from Le Duan’s plans for a General Offensive, General Uprising were methodically purged.
In 1964, adopting an assumed name and leaving his wife and three young children behind, he was sent to the South and, as the clandestine chief of security for Saigon and the surrounding Gia Dinh Province, strictly followed the orders he’d been given to recruit spies and “to exploit every opportunity to kill enemy leaders and vicious thugs.” Hundreds of South Vietnamese and scores of Americans were killed by his assassins—shot, stabbed, blown up.
South Vietnamese forces captured him in 1970. Although he was the highest-ranking North Vietnamese intelligence agent ever to fall into South Vietnamese hands, he claimed at first to be a lowly captain, freshly arrived from the North. His captors did not believe him. CIA interrogators were brought in. He shifted to a second cover story: he was a North Vietnamese agent, intending to move on to France. They didn’t believe that, either.
He was turned over to the South Vietnamese. Weeks of torture followed. He was beaten while hanging from the ceiling, forced to sit on a stool around the clock for days, denied food and water, subjected to electric shocks and the Vietnamese version of waterboarding. He did his best to tell his torturers only things that they already knew or that could not be checked.
“I had the pride of a revolutionary,” he remembered, “so I was determined to defeat my enemies. I was never going to lose to that gang. But then I was betrayed, identified by a traitor who pointed me out and said, ‘That’s Mr. Duc Ong’—that was my code name. I stared at him and later he committed suicide out of guilt.”
The torture resumed. The South Vietnamese now tried to get him to reveal the identities of his agents and the whereabouts of NLF bases. “I thought that if I didn’t die,” he remembered, “they might get the information out of me and then I would have betrayed my organization.” Fearing that he might eventually be made to give in, he tried to slash his wrists with fragments of a metal mirror but failed to cut himself deeply enough.
When he still maintained his silence, he was blindfolded, moved to a white, windowless room, and turned over to a series of CIA interrogators. They engaged him in a game of wits in which he more than held his own.
Nguyen Tai, long afterward
One of his interrogators was Frank Snepp. “When I walked into that interrogation room this was one of the most disciplined men I had ever seen,” Snepp recalled. “He had learned to tell time by the chemistry of his body. He was in a snow-white room. No windows. No way of knowing whether it was day or night. And yet he knew he had to get up at six o’clock and go through calisthenics.”
There was more to his routine than that; each day, he saluted a star he had scratched on the wall, representing the North Vietnamese flag, then silently recited, in turn, the North Vietnamese national anthem, the South Vietnamese liberation anthem, and “The Internationale.”
Once, Snepp asked him about his family. “I cannot think about my wife and children,” he said. “The only way I can survive this is by putting all such hopes aside. Then there are no disillusions or disappointments.”
It was Snepp who brought the news of the Paris Accords to the prisoner in early February 1973. “If what you tell me is true,” Nguyen Tai said, “then this is the happiest day of my life.” American interrogation ended that day. “I was led to believe Tai had been exchanged in the prisoner exchange that followed the ceasefire,” Snepp recalled. “But he hadn’t. He was left in the snow-white room for another two years.”
THIS IS IT
IN OCTOBER, Hanoi agreed to return to Paris. With its latest offensive blunted, its harbors mined, still suffering from intensive bombing, now under pressure to be more flexible from both China and the Soviet Union, and resigned to Nixon’s almost certain re-election, it was time to talk. “The situation is now ripe,” said Le Duc Tho.
Nixon had set September as the last possible moment for an agreement. He was determined to win a historic election victory in November. When voters went to the polls on Election Day he wanted to be close enough to a peace treaty to reassure moderates but to have signed nothing that might cause hawks and conservatives to accuse him of selling out South Vietnam. “Let’s try our best not to have it before the election,” he told Kissinger. “The more that we can stagger past the election, the better.” But Kissinger was determined to hammer out an agreement before Election Day. His motives seem to have been mixed. To the president’s frequent consternation, his role in organizing Nixon’s visits to China and Moscow had made him an international celebrity in his own right. A successful negotiation with Hanoi would only add to his luster. But more than that, he thought he could use election day as a sort of deadline, implying to his negotiating partners that there was no telling what Nixon might do to end the war once he’d safely been returned to office. “There was somehow this compulsion to come to some kind of an agreement quickly,” recalled John Negroponte, then a young Foreign Service officer serving on the U.S. peace delegation. “I remember Le Duc Tho when he produced the draft agreement, saying to Kissinger, ‘You’re in a hurry, aren’t you? You want to do this quickly.’ The response was ‘Yes.’ ”
In any case, each side had moved toward the other. Under the new plan, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho worked out a ceasefire to be followed within sixty days by the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and the release of all American POWs. Washington, which had already dropped any objection to North Vietnamese troops remaining in the South, was now willing to accept the creation of a tripartite electoral commission to be composed of the Saigon regime, the Provisional Revolutionary Government, and a neutralist faction that was to arrive at a long-term settlement once the ceasefire went into effect. Meanwhile, Hanoi no longer insisted that Thieu be removed before the shooting stopped, provided that the PRG was permitted fully to participate in political life.
On October 12, an ebullient Kissinger returned from Paris and reported to his chief. “Well, you got three out of three, Mr. President [the visit to China, the Moscow summit, and now a Vietnam peace agreement]. It’s well on the way.”
“You got an agreement?” Nixon asked. “Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m not kidding.”
The president and Al Haig listened as Kissinger outlined the plan. Nixon was pleased but wary. “Let me come down to the nut cutting, looking at Thieu. What Henry has read to me, Thieu cannot turn down. If he does, our problem will be that we have to flush him and that will have flushed South Vietnam. Now, how the hell are we going to come up on that?”
Although Nixon had promised Thieu during their 1969 Midway meeting that he would be consulted every step of the way as Kissinger’s talks with Hanoi proceeded, he had in fact rarely been kept fully informed. Nixon sought, with vague guarantees and calls for unity, to ease his anxiety about plans for his country’s future being cobbled together by the United States and his sworn enemies: “I give you my firm assurance that there will be no settlement arrived at, the provisions of which have not been discussed personally with you beforehand….The American people know that the United States cannot purchase peace or honor or redeem its sacrifices at the price of deserting a brave ally. This I will not and will never do…but for us to succeed on this last leg of a journey, we must trust each other fully.” Thieu was not comforted.
“Both the P[resident] and Henry are realizing in the cold light of dawn…that they still have a plan that can fall apart,” H. R. Haldeman noted in his diary, “mainly the problem of getting Thieu aboard….The settlement he’s got is the best [he] is ever going to get and unlike ’68 when Thieu screwed Johnson [and] he had Nixon as an alternative, now he has McGovern…which would be a disaster for him, even worse than the worst possible thing Nixon could do to him.”
Kissinger was scheduled to arrive in Saigon on October 18, bringing with him the Paris agreement for Thieu’s last-minute approval. He hoped for a signing ceremony on the 31st, one week before election day. But the night before he arrived, a document found in an underground NLF bunker in Quang Tri Province was placed on the South Vietnamese president’s desk. It was entitled “General Instruction for Cease-Fire.” To him, it suggested that communist cadres in an isolated province of his own country already knew more than he did about what Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had agreed to in Paris.
Thieu was furious. “I wanted to punch Kissinger in the mouth,” he told an aide. John Negroponte thought his anger was wholly justified: “Imagine being given an agreement concerning the fate of your own country and being told that you really don’t have any input in the matter. And, oh by the way, we didn’t even yet have the Vietnamese translation because that hadn’t been completed. So we gave him the English version of the agreement. As a professional diplomat, somebody who’s been in this business all my life, I’ve got to tell you an awful lot of diplomatic rules were broken there.”
Thieu refused to approve the agreement. “If we accept the document as it stands,” he told Kissinger, “we will commit suicide—and I will be committing suicide.” He then took his objections public. Allowing North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South would be the death of his country, he told the South Vietnamese people. The proposed tripartite commission was simply a variation on the coalition the communists had always demanded; if he were to agree to it, and the communists took over, perhaps five million of his countrymen would lose their lives.
Kissinger returned to Washington and, despite the awkward impasse in Saigon, held a press conference at which he declared, “We believe peace is at hand.” His intention was evidently to keep the North Vietnamese on board while he renewed efforts to bring Thieu along, but critics saw such a strong hint of imminent peace given only a little over a week before Election Day as political gimmickry.
Nonetheless, on November 7, Richard Nixon won the stunning reelection victory he’d hoped for—521 electoral votes to McGovern’s 17, more than 60 percent of the popular vote, every single state except Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.
Now, the president set out to complete the peace agreement negotiated before the election. The last remaining obstacle was Thieu. To convince him that he was not being abandoned, Nixon ordered a massive new airlift of military equipment to South Vietnam. The United States had already just completed a program called Enhance, meant to replace all the weapons and equipment the ARVN had lost during the Easter Offensive. Now, Enhance Plus would provide an additional 266 aircraft, from fighter bombers to helicopters, 72 tanks, nearly 300 armored vehicles, 56 howitzers, and 1,726 trucks. “If we had [given] this aid to the North Vietnamese,” one American general said, “they could have fought us for the rest of the century.”
Nixon privately assured Thieu that he stood ready to intervene with airpower when the North Vietnamese violated the agreement—which both he and Thieu were sure they’d do—but warned that he would be unable to do so if the American public and the U.S. Congress came to see Thieu as an obstacle to peace. If Saigon balked, he was confident, Congress would simply pass a resolution offering to withdraw all U.S. troops in exchange for the U.S. POWs and leave South Vietnam to the tender mercies of Hanoi.
Thieu was pleased with the new weaponry and tucked the president’s letters away, but he was still unwilling to approve the agreement. Instead, he came up with sixty-nine objections to it: he remained opposed to any form of coalition government, wanted the North Vietnamese army to go home, insisted the DMZ be made permanent. Kissinger thought many of his objections “preposterous,” but dutifully raised them when the talks resumed on November 20. It was now Le Duc Tho’s turn to be angry. “We have been deceived by the French, the Japanese, and the Americans,” he told Kissinger, “but the deception has never been so flagrant as now….You told us this was a fait accompli and you swallowed your words. What kind of person must we think you to be?”
The haggling continued. Then, on December 13, Le Duc Tho said he needed to return to Hanoi for several days for “consultations.” “We could only conclude,” John Negroponte remembered, “that maybe they were having some doubts about whether they wanted to go through with the agreement because we had sent so many supplies to Saigon in the intervening weeks.” That was not the problem. There was dissension on the communist side, as well. Hanoi, like Washington, had not bothered to consult with its southern allies when it dropped the two demands that meant the most to the NLF and the PRG—the removal of Thieu and the release of some thirty thousand of their prisoners languishing in his jails. “Hanoi’s message was clear,” one bitter PRG official remembered. “It cared more about…American prisoners of war…than it did” about them.
Kissinger, frustrated and out of favor with his chief, cabled Nixon that the agreement seemed to be falling apart: “Hanoi is almost disdainful of us because we have no effective leverage left, while Saigon in its short-sighted devices to sabotage the agreement knocks out from under us the few remaining props.” The only way out, he thought, was to “turn hard on Hanoi”—by which he meant resumption of massive bombing—while keeping pressure on Thieu.
Nixon needed little urging. He had never shared Kissinger’s full faith in negotiations, had never entirely abandoned the fantasy of somehow winning the war as opposed to simply ending it. He ordered Kissinger to suspend the talks, falsely accused Hanoi of having abandoned the negotiations when they had asked for only a few days’ delay, and then, on December 18, unleashed Linebacker II, a round-the-clock bombing of North Vietnam on an unprecedented scale. “I don’t want any more crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one,” he told Admiral Moorer. “This is your chance to use military power to win this war and if you don’t I’ll consider you responsible.”
The president seems to have had two simultaneous objectives in mind: to make a show of forcing North Vietnam back to the negotiating table, and to demonstrate to Thieu and Thieu’s admirers in the United States the near-limitless American air power he would be willing to wield against the North should it violate the letter or the spirit of the document he was insisting the South Vietnamese president sign.
The bombing went on for twelve days—eleven days, a break for Christmas, and a final day of bombing. During that time, U.S. warplanes dropped 36,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam—more than had fallen between 1969 and 1971. It would be remembered as the “Christmas Bombing.”
Around the world, antiwar demonstrators returned to the streets. The prime minister of Sweden compared the United States to Nazi Germany. The pope called the bombing—which flattened whole neighborhoods in Hanoi, Haiphong, and elsewhere and killed more than 1,600 civilians—“the object of daily grief.” James Reston of The New York Times pronounced the raids “war by tantrum”; Tom Wicker called them “shame on earth.” Republican senator William Saxbe of Ohio suggested that the president had taken leave of his senses.
North Vietnam shot down fifteen B-52s along with eleven other aircraft. Ninety-three crewmen were reported missing. Forty-five new prisoners of war were locked up in Hanoi, one of whom died in captivity. The North Vietnamese boasted that it was “Dien Bien Phu in the air.”
On December 26, the Americans mounted the most intense B-52 attack in history—120 bombers, each carrying an assortment of 108 500- and 750-pound bombs, hit 10 targets in Hanoi and Haiphong in just 15 minutes,
“And all of a sudden,” Hal Kushner remembered, in his Hanoi prison cell he heard “an Arc Light operation, B-52s—bom-bom-bom-bom-bom—and it’s all around. It’s just exploding. Everyone knew they were B-52s. And the two years that I was there that was the first time I ever heard a bomb. And it was close. It was really close. It was frightening but we were still cheering, cheering because something was finally happening.”
In his village, Huy Duc heard and saw the bombing, too. “I witnessed all of it,” he recalled. “I was ten years old. My village was shattered. No trees were left. Fish in the river were killed. Water buffaloes and people died. Six of my neighbors were killed, including a woman who was pregnant.”
A nephew of Duong Van Mai Elliot also died. The son of a sibling who had stayed in the North, he was killed by a bomb that destroyed a nearby power plant. “It didn’t hit him or his house but his family found him dead standing under the stairwell, still holding onto his bicycle. He had been asphyxiated by the force of the explosion. In Hanoi in those days a bicycle was your most precious possession, so he had taken this bike in, hiding it with him in order to save it.”
The B-52s destroyed what little was left of the North Vietnamese air defense system. The country was now virtually defenseless against further air attacks. Meanwhile, both the Chinese and the Soviets pressed Hanoi to resume negotiations rather than absorb more punishment. “The most important [thing] is to let the Americans leave,” Zhou Enlai told a North Vietnamese official. “The situation will change in six months or a year.”
Hanoi signaled its willingness to return to Paris. Nixon gave Kissinger grim instructions: the United States should either agree to an immediate settlement on the best terms he could negotiate or “we would break with Thieu and continue the bombing until the North agreed to return our POWs” and U.S. forces could all come home. “Well,” Nixon told Kissinger as he left for Paris, “one way or another, this is it.”
In the end, it took just six days to draft an agreement different only in the most minor details from the one that had been worked out in November. “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions,” John Negroponte recalled.
President Thieu still had to be convinced. Nixon was adamant that he now give in. “Brutality is nothing,” Nixon told Al Haig. “You have never seen it if this son of a bitch doesn’t go along, believe me.” He wrote Thieu three personal letters, containing both threats and promises. He was determined that the agreement be initialed on January 23 and signed in Paris four days later, he said in his first letter. If necessary he would act alone, though if that happened he said he would have to “explain publicly that your government obstructs peace. The result will be an inevitable and immediate termination of U.S. military and economic assistance which cannot be forestalled by a change of personnel in your government.” (Thieu seems to have taken this talk of “a change of personnel” as a threat, a not-so-subtle echo of language used by John F. Kennedy in a conversation with Walter Cronkite in 1963, just before the Diem regime was overturned.)
Thieu continued to resist.
In his second letter, Nixon reiterated his insistence that if Thieu failed to sign he faced “a total cutoff of funds to assist your country.” But he also pledged that “the freedom and independence of the Republic of Vietnam remains a paramount objective of American foreign policy,” that Washington would continue to recognize Thieu’s government as the “sole legitimate government of South Vietnam, and would not recognize the right of foreign troops to remain on South Vietnamese soil,” and—most important from Thieu’s point of view—“the U.S. will react vigorously to violations of the Agreement.”
A third Nixon letter set a deadline: if Thieu didn’t agree to sign by 1200 Washington time on the 21st, the president would have no choice but to announce that Kissinger was authorized to initial the agreement “without the concurrence of your government.”
The South Vietnamese president finally gave in.
“The Americans really leave me no choice,” Thieu told an aide, “either sign or they will cut off aid. On the other hand, we have an absolute guarantee from Nixon to defend the country. I am going to agree to sign and hold him to his word.”
“Can you really trust Nixon?”
“He is an honest man and I am going to trust him.”
Two days later, on January 22, 1973, at his ranch in the Hill Country of Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the president who had committed the United States to a ground war in Vietnam and then had seen that war undercut his domestic social programs and end his political career, died of congestive heart failure.
The following evening, Richard Nixon spoke to the nation. Twenty-eight years after the United States first became involved in Vietnam, it was finally getting out. “I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia….The ceasefire, internationally supervised, will begin at 7 p.m. this Saturday, January 27, Washington time….Within sixty days from this Saturday, all Americans held as prisoners of war throughout Indochina will be released.
In Hanoi, as North Vietnamese officials and soldiers look on, Hal Kushner is greeted by Air Force Brigadier General Russell Ogan, director of the military’s Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Task Force, which supervised the POWs’ journey home.
“During the same sixty-day period, all American forces will be withdrawn from South Vietnam….
“Throughout these negotiations we have been in the closest consultation with President Thieu and other representatives of the Republic of Vietnam. This settlement meets the goals and has the full support of President Thieu and the government of the Republic of Vietnam, as well as that of our other allies who are affected.”
American prisoners of war—591 of them—were to be released in batches of 40. Those who had been in captivity the longest were to come home first. Everett Alvarez—who had been shot down eight and a half years earlier, just after the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964—was among them. “For years and years we’ve dreamed of this day,” he said, “and we kept faith—faith in God, in our president, and in our country.”
Hal Kushner’s turn came in mid-March. “They called our names,” he remembered, “and I walked out in the sunlight. The first thing I saw was a girl in a miniskirt. She was a reporter for one of the news organizations. I’d never seen a real live miniskirt. And there was a table with the Vietnamese and American authorities on one side, and there was an Air Force brigadier general in Class A uniform. He looked magnificent. I looked at him and he had breadth, he had thickness that we didn’t have. He had on a garrison cap and his hair was plump and moist and our hair was like straw. It was dry and we were skinny. And I went out and I saluted him, which was a courtesy that had been denied us for so many years. And he saluted me and I shook hands with him and he hugged me—he actually hugged me. And he said, “Welcome home, Major. We’re glad to see you, Doctor.” The tears were streaming down his cheeks. It was just a powerful moment. And then this liaison officer came out and got me and escorted me onto this C-141, this beautiful white airplane with an American flag and ‘USAF’ on the tail. And they had these real cute flight nurses on there. They were all tall and blond and they were just gorgeous. And we got on this thing and we sat in these seats and one nurse said, ‘We have anything you want.’ You know. ‘What do you want?’ And I wanted a Coke with crushed ice and some chewing gum.”
Freedom: At a prisoner exchange in Quang Tri Province on the south bank of the Thac Han River on March 17, 1975, soldiers, family members, and a thicket of South Vietnamese flags greet a boatload of ARVN prisoners
Just across the river, North Vietnamese prisoners splash toward their comrades on shore.
Meanwhile, on the same day, at Travis Air Force Base in California, Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Stirm is welcomed home by the family he hasn’t seen in more than six years.
VIETNAM AND THE MOVEMENT
HOW IS IT that, after eight years of pulverizing warfare, the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth failed to conquer what the exasperated president Lyndon Johnson called “this damn little piss-ant country”?
All these years later, this unsettling question deserves to unsettle. During the prewar years, and on into the war, America thought of itself as a nonstop winner. (Never mind that the Korean War had ended in stalemate.) Was the United States not the very incarnation of worthy and nonstop triumph? A question premised on American defeat was out of bounds because American defeat itself was unthinkable. Yet it deserved, and deserves, to be asked.
Any serious answer must feature, first of all, the fortitude, discipline, and brilliance of Vietnamese troops led by a communist regime that, before the American disaster, had won the mantle of nationalist leadership and driven out the French colonialists. But any account that omits the American antiwar movement is seriously incomplete. The movement helped bring down two war presidents, divide the political class, demoralize its leadership, shatter its families, and upend public opinion. This polymorphous movement began on the fringes of American society, widened and deepened, and for all its frailties, contentions, and absurdities grew into a veto force that dampened the war and helped avert even more death and destruction. Such an achievement deserves not only understanding but awe.
In 1983, I was invited to speak at a conference on the Vietnam War at the University of Southern California, along with former government civilian and military officials, journalists, veterans, historians, and anti-warriors like myself. In my talk, I called the American movement “the largest and most effective antiwar movement in history.”
Milling around in the lobby afterward, I was approached by a man who looked vaguely familiar. “You’re mistaken about the most effective antiwar movement,” he said bluntly. I looked at his badge and recognized his name: Roger Hilsman Jr. We in the movement followed the comings and goings of higher-ups with keen attention. Hilsman had been closely involved with making Vietnam policy under John F. Kennedy; he had risen to the position of assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs; after Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson fired him, though Hilsman’s exit statement said he was resigning. Evidently Johnson found him too willing and eager to criticize the military.
I asked Hilsman what more effective antiwar movement he had in mind. “The Bolshevik revolution!” he said, grinning puckishly.
I had to laugh—appreciatively. “Peace, Bread, and Land” was, indeed, a popular Bolshevik slogan in 1917. Very likely, Lenin’s campaign against the war was decisive in the uprising that installed the Bolsheviks in the Kremlin. So in a way Hilsman had a point. By the summer of 1917, the Russians had suffered over eight million dead and wounded (about forty for every one the U.S. suffered in Vietnam). Some two million soldiers had deserted. The Russian economy was wrecked. There were food riots. Russia was desperate for peace. Meanwhile, the anti-monarchists who took power in February persisted in pursuing the war. That was a grand, epoch-making mistake.
The Bolsheviks knew a ripe political issue when they saw one. Within three months they were in power. Three months later, they signed a treaty with Germany and pulled out of the war.
But face-to-face with Roger Hilsman, I didn’t have the quickness of mind to say that his clever riposte was more than a little unfair, since the Bolsheviks were not, strictly speaking, an antiwar movement. They were more than that, in a way—they certainly changed history, though not for the good—but in another way they were less. Campaigning for peace was, for them, a means to a grander and far more dangerous end. Before they were peace campaigners, they were Bolsheviks—autocratic Communists. In America, the sequence was the opposite—and even then the analogy is deceiving. Our antiwar movement spawned, among other things, a mélange of revolutionary Communists, whose arcane delusions and flamboyant actions made them useful bogeymen for the government though they numbered hundreds or thousands in a movement of millions. The movement was the big story, and the Communists were parasitic on it.
So I stand by my original claim. The American antiwar movement was an unprecedented force. It helped contain the war, helped prevent several catastrophic escalations, and contributed to extricating American troops and stopping the bombers. This took eight years. Had the movement been more clearheaded and less desperate, it might well have achieved the same mission more quickly. No one will ever know, although we can make educated guesses.
But what was this movement? It eludes simple definition. Movements, like clouds, don’t have sharp edges—this is one reason why journalists have a hard time getting a grip on them. The antiwar movement was far more than the alphabet soup of organizations that tried to lead or at least influence it, that won esteem or notoriety depending on who was doing the estimating. It did not have a headquarters or officers. It was not a network of celebrities. It was a movement—a social force, a work in progress, an ensemble, confusing, contentious, irregular, raucous, immense. The millions who passed through it—and they were many millions—were as various as America itself. They were young and old, drawn from all classes (contrary to stereotypes, there were plenty of white working-class people who identified), a churning amalgam of the angry and ashamed who disagreed about many things but shared a conviction that a misbegotten and gravely misguided war in the three nations of the former French Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—had to be stopped.
The movement was polymorphous and it showed up everywhere in American life—a target, a spectacle, a joy, a curiosity, a donnybrook, a bogeyman; a sort of world of its own. It had its magazines and newspapers, its documentary films, its songs, its poems; its celebrities, heroes, and villains; its symbols, slogans, gestures, and insignias. It had its images, for better and worse, on the TV news, although it failed to make any more than a passing imprint during the prime time hours. Like the war itself, Hollywood feared to divide or upset its audience. Blood and failure had to stay off the screen until the war was well over. (Astoundingly, the only big-screen movie to come out of the war while it was still raging was John Wayne’s Green Berets, which he financed himself because he believed so devoutly in the war, at a time when the studios and the bankers fled the subject.)
The movement had its own coast-to-coast culture. In 1968, my girlfriend, Honey Williams, and I were driving cross-country from New York to our home in San Francisco in a “driveaway” car, a favored means of ground transportation for the impecunious. You answered an ad in the paper, picked up the owner’s car, delivered it on the other side of the country, and the owner might even pay all your expenses. This particular car, a boxy little Simca, was a lemon. It broke down in Iowa. We called the owner and explained the situation. The repair would be expensive. He said he would foot the bill. We made the repair and kept driving west. Past Lincoln, Nebraska, near the town of York, the car broke down again. This time the owner said to sell the pathetic thing and then take the train west; graciously, he would reimburse our fare. It was a Saturday, and the only Simca dealer in Lincoln was a Seventh-day Adventist, which meant he wouldn’t open till Sunday. We arranged with AAA to tow us there, but after buying tickets on the next transcontinental train we had run out of money and had none left for an overnight stay.
We were near the campus of the University of Nebraska, so we walked over to the student union. Spotting a student wearing a button sporting an omega symbol—the symbol of draft resistance, having first become the standard symbol of electrical resistance—we approached him and explained our situation. He readily agreed to put us up overnight. We were members of the same lodge, or fraternity, or sub-society of the saved.
The omega was only one movement symbol. There was also, on bumper stickers and jackets and on chains around the neck, the peace symbol. There was the two-finger V sign—adapted from World War II’s V-for-victory. The movement also had its stereotypes, its gags, its folk heroes (“General Waste More Land” was a favorite at California demonstrations). It had its virtual uniforms (used army jackets); its rituals; its surprises; its winters, springs, summers, and autumns of discontent. It had its own calendar, its revered battles, its biannual mobilizations, April 15 and October 15, starting in 1965, on both coasts—in New York or Washington, and also San Francisco.
During these turnouts en masse, despite the stereotype that this was a movement of “baby boomers,” it was not at all strictly a youth movement, though surely most of the time its most visible participants were young, most of them college and high school students—many of them radical, many not so radical but mainly spurred by fear of the draft. Within a few years, the movement encompassed members of the armed forces and the clergy, women’s groups, trade unionists, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, nurses, teachers, social workers, scientists, architects, and city planners. There was no profession that lacked an antiwar caucus. There was no region where the movement did not emerge. This was not only a morally necessary life-saving mission but a sort of nation within the nation.
The movement evolved a whole repertory of tactics and targets. Researchers identified purveyors of war research; university class ranks were opposed when they were used to select draftees; military recruiters were resisted, as were recruiters from corporations like Dow Chemical, which manufactured napalm, the jellied gasoline that horrifically burned human flesh; troop trains were blocked; so were draft headquarters; eventually, draft records were stolen, or set afire, sometimes with home-made napalm. Antiwar candidates ran for office. Red paint was thrown, and rocks. Buildings were occupied.
Millions took part, mostly in low-cost, low-risk ways that comported with their personal styles and their commitments to normal life. They signed petitions. They wrote letters to Congress. They wrote checks. They wrote poems, they wrote essays, they wrote letters to the editor. They attended antiwar poetry readings. They marched now and again, especially if a friend, someone respected, invited them along. They caused unpleasantness—or screaming fights—at family dinners. Families ruptured. In officialdom, minds changed—though not all minds, not by any means. But as reported by Tom Wells in his magisterial history, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam, many government officials, at all but the highest level, had to contend with dissidents at home. On October 15, 1969, National Security Advisor Kissinger’s aide William Watts was working on a presidential speech announcing a major escalation of the war. Vietnam Moratorium marchers were just the other side of the White House fence. Watts took a break from his writing, went out for a stroll, and saw his wife and children walking by, holding candles. “I felt like throwing up,” he told Wells many years later. After the Cambodia invasion six months later, he resigned.
Most activists, most of the time, risked little for most of what they did, but many risked a great deal. Significant numbers of active-duty service men and women wore their uniforms in antiwar parades; they attended “pray-ins” on Army bases; they published scores of antiwar newspapers with titles like “Fed Up” and “Up Against the Bulkhead.” Many were court-martialed. Encouraged by antiwar coffee houses in base towns, they helped conscientious objectors and deserters, circulated underground papers, supported each other.
The movement undermined authorities and decorum. Rock musicians taunted high officials, and high school students defied teachers and principals. The movement disrupted ceremonies not only by the usual means—picketing officials, booing them, caricaturing them—but by unusual means from unusual suspects. Most of the 1969 graduating class of Brown University stood and turned their backs when Henry Kissinger got an honorary degree. The self-described “oobie-doobie girl” Carole Feraci, a singer with the couldn’t-be-more-mainstream Ray Conniff singers, at a Nixon White House celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the vehemently pro-war Reader’s Digest, held up a banner that read “Stop the Killing,” and, as Conniff tried to yank her banner away, coolly addressed the president: “President Nixon, stop bombing human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sundays and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were here tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and bless Daniel Ellsberg.”
Nixon stared at her with a frozen smile. Feraci later told reporters that she did not belong to any antiwar group, adding, “If an oobie-doobie girl like me has courage, [perhaps] the rest of the people will, too.”
At the core of the movement were probably tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, for whom the war was not an “issue” or a “problem” or a “mistake,” not even intellectually containable as a shame or tragedy or crime, but an ongoing personal trauma, a badge of identity—as if to say, “I am not that kind of American”—and a life challenge. It may seem presumptuous to strike an analogy with the experiences of American military men in and above Vietnam—certainly a soldier’s fear and courage were not so often required of anti-warriors, though an activist who moved to Canada to avoid the draft and had to miss weddings and funerals was no slouch in sacrifice—but there was this in common: The war was shattering and visceral—an experience, even if a vicarious one. It could be interrupted but never relieved for long. It was a tireless incubus.
The war, and the movement against it, and the anti-authoritarian culture that grew up around them—it is impossible to separate out the strands of change—wreaked havoc with life plans. Sometimes dramatically: the Justice Department referred 207,000 names to U.S. attorneys for prosecution for draft resistance; of those, 25,000 were indicted, 9,000 were convicted, and some 3,250 were sent to prison. Some 30,000 fled to Canada or elsewhere. Estimates of military deserters run from 80,000 to 200,000, though not all of these were self-conscious political resisters. In a much-publicized 1967 case, the Brooklyn dermatologist Howard B. Levy was court-martialed and convicted at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for refusing to train Green Berets in medical skills that would be used as “another tool of political persuasion” in Vietnam. If that wasn’t enough, he was charged with “making public statements with design to promote disloyalty and disaffection among the troops.” He was the first American to argue a so-called Nuremberg defense in court, arguing that such medical training would entail a breach of medical ethics and complicity in war crimes. Sentenced to three years in prison, Captain Levy was released after twenty-six months.
The war was an incitement to conscience, and a dismantler of authority, but also a great demoralizer in the armed forces, leading not only to absences without leave but desertions and rampant drug use. Armed attacks by troops on their officers were common enough to warrant a colloquialism: “fragging,” short for the hand grenades frequently used in order to destroy not only the body of the victim but evidence of the crime. And, of course, wherever individuals undertook radical life-changing action, the lives of loved ones were also derailed.
As long as draft exemptions remained for married men, teachers, and members of other professions, the war changed careers, too, at least long enough for the purpose of evading the draft. It also changed ideas of how professionals ought to conduct themselves. Professors, realizing that neither they nor their students knew very much about Vietnam, invented a new educational format, an extracurricular one—the teach-in. At first, the State Department sent its own debaters to university campuses, but they did not win the arguments, and the teach-ins went on without them.
The teach-ins were only the most visible sign of enormous questions coming to the surface. What did it mean that the United States was bombing to smithereens a country understood in the public mind as a “domino” that needed shoring up so that other nations, also called “dominoes,” would not also “fall”? How did it come to pass that the U.S. dropped a greater tonnage (twice as great? four times as great?) on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than the total tonnage the U.S. dropped in all theaters of war—on three continents—during the entirety of World War II? Imagination was beggared.
And so the war challenged professors to consider their public obligations as bringers of reason, and to consider whether they had properly done their duty to convey knowledge if they confined their teaching to classrooms. They were also pressed to consider whether to make their values and analyses of current events more explicit than before. So were many other professionals. Eventually, university presidents were lobbying Washington, along with college newspaper editors and members of student councils.
When the authorities defied reason, they lost credibility with citizens who cared about reason—in particular, the campus world. Lyndon Johnson was accused of opening up a “credibility gap” because he was lying about the war, but Richard Nixon deepened the gap to crater proportions, and increasingly the unreasoning mobs that trusted in Nixon turned bitterly against the campuses, which they saw, not without reason, as allied with defiant Negroes and disrespectful of law and order. By his last year of office, President Johnson was avoiding college campuses. Richard Nixon avoided all but the obscure ones and military academies. In June 1969, his first year in office, at a speech at General Beadle State College, in Madison, South Dakota, he spoke bluntly: “Our fundamental values [are] under bitter and even violent attack….We live in a deeply troubled and profoundly unsettled time. Drugs, crime, campus revolts, racial discord, draft resistance—on every hand we find old standards violated, old values discarded.”
He assured his audience that the government would repel attacks by force if necessary: “We have the power to strike back if need be, and to prevail….It has not been a lack of civil power, but the reluctance of a free people to employ it that so often has stayed the hand of authorities faced with confrontation.”
President Johnson had prosecuted antiwar activists, but Nixon did so all the more, directing his security apparatus to work to smoke out enemy agents they imagined were pulling the strings of the antiwar movement. Although the CIA found no significant foreign influences, the FBI established counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO, for short) targeting antiwar and black militant groups. Toward that end, they hired informers (in 1969, 120 of them in Students for a Democratic Society and other New Left groups) and passed along destructive political directives. They tapped phones, opened mail, inflamed dissension, spread nasty rumors about leaders, and maintained a list of thousands (the “Security Index”) to be interned in case of national emergency. A 1971 burglary by antiwar activists at the FBI office of Media, Pennsylvania, showed just how obsessed the federal agents were with surveilling, containing, and aborting largely lawful protests. Meanwhile, local police departments conducted their own infiltrations and planted agents provocateurs to justify police assaults. So did military intelligence, which, contrary to law, directed 1,500 officers to report on domestic dissent. Even as activists won many acquittals at trial, vast resources had to be drained into defense.
Still, for all its burdens, the movement did restrain the war. It moved policy, though never as much as it wanted. How much it did accomplish was obscured, often deliberately. The executive branch was opaque and Congress was slow-moving. Inside the movement, many activists felt that however it grew in size and reach, it was ineffectual. Perhaps ending the war was no more than an earnest but idle dream? The spectacle of large numbers of the like-minded congregating in public places was cheering, but it was hard to be convinced that the movement was saving lives. At the movement’s core, fright fed desperation. Clear thinking suffered. Revolutionary fantasies flourished—all the more so because the Nixon administration kept insisting that the movement was getting nowhere. On November 3, 1969, just before the November 15 Moratorium march, Nixon delivered a handwritten speech declaring that he would be “untrue” to his “oath of office” to let national policy be “dictated” by a “vocal minority” trying to “impose” its views “by mounting demonstrations in the street.” Posing before stacks of congratulatory telegrams, Nixon put his feet up on his desk and told staffers, “We’ve got those liberal bastards on the run now.”
November 15 came, and a barricade made of fifty-seven city buses reinforced the White House fence as a festive crowd gathered. Eventually, half a million citizens gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue and nearby streets. The president let it be known that he would be spending part of the afternoon watching the Ohio State–Purdue game on television. The Washington Post reported that “the White House was about as normal…as it would be any time that there is an all-day air raid alert limited to the area immediately surround[ing] the Executive Mansion.” By now, this acerbic tone was no longer unusual in the establishment press.
Demonstrations so imposing did register with Congress, and pushed it gradually to limit war spending. As early as 1966, and even more in 1968, opposition to the war was making itself felt in Democratic primaries, and there were antiwar Republicans as well. American casualties mounted, as did the war’s financial costs. All these forces converged to put a lid on the war. Now, when earnest, well-prepared students lectured senators and congressmen, they sometimes changed minds. Most consequential were the October and November 1969 Moratorium actions. Nixon had delivered an ultimatum to Hanoi. While announcing plans to withdraw some troops, he was also contemplating what he called “Operation Duck Hook,” which would consist of (1) additional airstrikes against North Vietnam, including passes and bridges at the Chinese border; (2) intensified air and ground attacks; (3) the mining of Haiphong and other ports; and (4) the possible use of nuclear bombs on North Vietnam’s border with China or perhaps elsewhere in the north. Nixon reconsidered. The movement’s pressure was surely a factor.
Nixon was a shrewd politician. He was as adroit at co-optation as he was clumsy at repression. He phased out the draft. He withdrew some troops, “Vietnamizing” the ground war as he converted much of the American effort into an air war. With his support, Congress voted to lower the voting age to eighteen, and the states ratified the Twenty-sixth Amendment, to this effect, in record time. In the eyes of a population that did not pay close attention, Nixon gave an impression of “ending the war.” Meanwhile, as many activists burned out, others courted confrontations with the police, destroyed property, and, eventually, planned violent attacks against persons. (Because their bombs malfunctioned, most of the victims were the terrorists themselves.) Despair fueled panic and delusion. Perhaps one or two hundred would-be revolutionaries, clueless about how morally and intellectually lost they were, turned to terror attacks.
Some activists recovered from desperate militancy to lobby against war measures. As others burned out, the activists who remained were, on balance, more practical. They turned toward direct results. They benefited from the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers. Published widely in major newspapers, these documents made it plain, even to doubters, that the government had been concealing and lying about war plans for many years, and (as Daniel Ellsberg wrote later) that the prime motive of American presidents from Kennedy onward was to punt—to avoid being blamed for losing the war. Whatever veneer of respectability the war had enjoyed was stripped away.
Despite his landslide reelection in 1972, Nixon’s political base was narrowing. Congress passed an amendment calling for an immediate cutoff of war spending. In 1973, Congress passed a War Powers Act and rejected a Nixon request for military aid. By then, Nixon was writhing in the grip of the Watergate scandals. In 1971, he had established a clandestine goon squad in the White House, known as the “Plumbers”—they were supposed to fix leaks. Their first mission was a burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, in search of material for discrediting him. Then, operating under the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, they tried to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The Plumbers were arrested. An honest judge forced revelations. The reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, among others, kept the heat on. Nixon’s efforts at covering up unraveled. One devastating revelation followed another. Nixon’s intense paranoia about the Pentagon Papers release had boomeranged.
Nixon was not impeached for his war activities. One war-related charge was proposed—falsification of records pertaining to the secret bombing of Cambodia—but the House Judiciary Committee voted it down. But although Congress was not disposed to reckon with the war as such—and arguably the public at large had no interest in that either—the awfulness of the war lay just underneath the surface. To wage that war, Nixon had turned the White House into a nest of criminal conspiracy. The war was the precondition and the unacknowledged spur for his ignominious resignation. The war was good for tyrannical tendencies, which, in the end, were rolled back because Nixon overreached. Legal and political institutions were resilient enough to stop him. The reckless pursuit of war undid the pursuers.
And then what? The antiwar insurgency that brought America to the boiling point was so sweeping a challenge to authority and customary order as to reverberate for decades. It was a life changer. It was also, not coincidentally, an extraordinary episode in the history of democracy. A war that had been so popular at first—however ignorantly, however undeclared and thinly grounded in law—was brought to an end with an impressive boost from popular action.
There is a lesson here about the actual life of a democracy. Democracy is not a synonym for a periodic majority vote. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was elected president on a platform of “seeking no wider war,” running against Barry Goldwater, who sought exactly that. Vital democracy requires an ongoing two-way or multi-way process of responsiveness. Living democracy depends not just on the rules for choosing rulers but on the quality and resolve of the populace—on what they do. It requires opportunities to change the popular will. It requires that minorities have a chance to become majorities by resorting to popular action—assemblies, mobilizations, and counter-mobilizations. In a constitutional democracy, it requires respect for the Constitution.
The antiwar movement, in my view, would have been more effective, and sooner, if it had worked harder to bid for the soul of America and not renounce it. It would have done better not carrying the flags of the National Liberation Front and Hanoi and carrying more of the Stars and Stripes. It would have been more effective if it had been smarter, more strategic, if it had won over more people with arguments rather than bluster.
The odds were always against a sustained movement. Its strength lay in its unity, but that was a sometime thing. Internecine fights and revolutionary delusions got the better of it. By the time the war ended, the movement was not there to celebrate what was, after all, an extraordinary victory. It did not so much end as peter out in fragments, fatigue, and disillusion. It failed to create a continuing force—indeed, the Weathermen faction of Students for a Democratic Society destroyed the largest left-wing organization in the country. So the antiwar movement, qua movement, did not survive to play a part in postwar politics. Whether, in any case, as diffuse and divided as it was, it could have adapted to a much different world—to the economic disruptions of the 1970s and the Reaganite sequel—may be doubted.
The movement receded in memory—more a long moment than a movement. But in the lives of millions, what a moment it was.