The Vietnam War was a life-changing experience: It set the trajectory of my career toward service in unfamiliar, remote, sometimes dangerous places. It brought me from youth to maturity. It gave me self-confidence, a taste for adventure, and a heightened sense of patriotic duty. It showed me both the horror and the heroism of war. It strengthened my ability to perform under pressure and in threatening circumstances. It gave me some lifelong friends and, above all, a lifelong wife.
I was fortunate to have survived the Vietnam War, and I'm proud that I was there.
The war dominated American politics and culture from the time U.S. combat units were committed in 1965 until its end in 1975. It was bitterly controversial, dividing the nation more deeply than any conflict since the Civil War. This was partially because television made it more vivid and immediate than previous wars. Yet, it was poorly understood, even by the participants. Half a century later, it remains so. And for people born after 1970, it isn't even a distant memory--just a few (often inaccurate) pages in a school textbook, and perhaps an old movie or an occasional story from an aging veteran.
Therefore, before recounting some of my Vietnam experiences, I need to present a brief summary of the context in which they occurred.
The Cold War Context
Why did the United States fight a war in Vietnam, suffering and inflicting such death and destruction in a far-away place that few Americans had heard of prior to the 1960s? This was a difficult question to answer at the time, and it's still hotly disputed. After a decade of direct professional involvement, and a lifetime of study and reflection, here's my response.
Vietnam, then part of French Indochina, first came to the attention of American policy-makers when it was occupied by Japan at the beginning of World War II. After Japan's defeat in 1945, the French re- occupied the colony, but they were ultimately defeated by a Communist-led insurgency and forced to withdraw in 1954. Many Vietnamese, however, especially in the southern half of Vietnam and among the 20% of the people who were Catholic, were strongly opposed to the Communists. Therefore, the 1954 peace agreement, concluded at an international conference in Geneva, set up two independent countries: a Communist state in the north led by Ho Chi Minh, and a Western-oriented state in the south led by Ngo Dinh Diem. About 150,000 Communist supporters in the south moved north, and about a million (mostly Catholic) nationalists moved from north to south, with assistance from the U.S. Navy.
In the years immediately following independence, leaders of both North and South Vietnam were preoccupied with establishing governments and consolidating their rule. A referendum to unify the country, called for in the Geneva Accords, never took place. The Communists were zealous in pursuing their long-term goal of a unified Vietnam under their rule, and when it became apparent they could not achieve it by political means, they launched an insurgency war in the south. It was nominally led by an indigenous southern "National Liberation Front," generally known as the Viet Cong. In reality, this organization was from its inception under the direct control of the Communist Party politburo in Hanoi.
Growth of U.S. Involvement
The United States began providing military and economic assistance to newly-independent South Vietnam in 1954. However, under the Eisenhower Administration, this assistance remained modest in scale, with only a few hundred Americans in Vietnam to deliver it.
After the Viet Cong insurgency became a serious problem in 1960 and 1961, the new Kennedy Administration decided to dramatically increase U.S. assistance to South Vietnam. This policy was guided by the Cold War containment strategy and inspired by the President's pledge in his inaugural address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." New measures included massive economic aid, direct military air, naval, and logistics support, and 16,000 U.S advisors integrated throughout South Vietnam's armed forces.
This effort at first slowed the insurgency's progress, but the Diem government experienced growing internal opposition, especially from a well-organized Buddhist political movement. Political instability undermined the government's counterinsurgency efforts, and its heavy-handed methods of controlling Buddhist demonstrations led to greater unrest and international condemnation.
In November 1963, South Vietnamese military leaders, with at least tacit approval from the U.S. Government, organized a coup in which President Diem and his powerful brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were murdered. However, the generals were not unified among themselves, and they failed to restore political stability. The war effort continued to flounder, and the Viet Cong steadily gained strength and territory.
Sensing the government's vulnerability, in 1964 Hanoi began sending increasing numbers of North Vietnamese Army regulars to join the fight in the South. The war's intensity grew. Casualties mounted, there were attacks on U.S. air bases and military barracks, and a car bomb heavily damaged the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The Johnson Administration was constrained from making any military response by the 1964 election, in which Johnson campaigned on limiting U.S. involvement in the war, as opposed to the more hawkish Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.
By March 1965, the threat of South Vietnamese defeat had grown sufficiently great that the Administration sent the first ground combat units to Vietnam, to defend the American airbase and port at Danang. After a further policy review, President Johnson decided in July 1965 to send a full-scale American expeditionary force. This force grew rapidly, and it was able to check Communist gains, though not to reverse them, as Hanoi continued to build up its forces in the south as well. With this American support, the South Vietnamese government was able to restore political stability, under General Nguyen Van Thieu as President and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as Prime Minister.
More than five decades distant from the decisions of the late 1950s and early 1960s that gradually led us into full-scale war in 1965, it can be hard to understand why these decisions were made. Indeed, if we focus only on Vietnam, they can seem irrational. It is only in the context of the Cold War that they make sense.
In those years the Communist threat was very real. The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, Mao's victory in China, the unprovoked invasion of South Korea, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba--these were recent events at the forefront of policymakers' minds. They put these events into the framework of the lesson drawn from Western capitulation to Hitler's demands at Munich in 1938: Appeasement of dictators is dangerous. Communism seemed to be monolithic, on the march, attractive to the new countries emerging from colonialism, and highly threatening to American security and values. Their perceptions were reinforced by exaggerated assessments of Soviet military and economic strength. Moreover, Soviet leaders proclaimed a new Cold War strategy of "wars of national liberation," involving aggressive assistance to insurgencies in newly-independent countries designed to bring Communist regimes to power.
And now South Vietnam, whose support we had taken over from the French, had come under attack by an insurgency that was inspired, supported, and directed by Communist North Vietnam and ultimately (so it seemed) by its Soviet and Chinese sponsors. Surely, most Americans believed, it was time to draw the line and not let this new method of exporting Communism--insurgency--succeed.
By the late 1960s, some of these perceptions had begun to change. The Sino-Soviet split was recognized, and we were coming to understand that the conflict in Vietnam was not only Communist-led aggression but also a nationalist movement and the continuation of a civil war with roots deep in Vietnamese history. But by then we were fully at war, and we were committed to preserving South Vietnamese independence and avoiding a humiliating defeat that, it was believed, would undermine our ability to support other Cold War friends and allies.
Given this context, the decisions that led to war were not irrational. In fact, they were probably inevitable, even if, with 20-20 historical hindsight, they can be seen as mistaken.
Assignment to Hue
Unburdened by any doubts about the policies that were deepening our involvement in the war, I arrived in Saigon in July 1965 eager to do my duty and contribute all I could to help win it. Although I was to be stationed at the U.S. Consulate in Hue, my principal job was to travel throughout the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam (which constituted I Corps) to prepare reports on the political, economic, and security situation for the Embassy's political section. Therefore, I spent my first two weeks in an orientation program with experienced political officers. Notable among them were Political Counselor Phil Habib, who later became Under Secretary of State, and John Negroponte, a fellow junior officer who eventually served in several Ambassadorial and Cabinet-level jobs, including Ambassador to the United Nations. John became one of the most distinguished Foreign Service Officers of our generation.
The Hue Consulate, housed in a two-story French colonial-era residence, was staffed by three Americans: Consul Sam Thomsen, me as Vice Consul, and a communicator/administrative support officer, Joe O'Neill. (2)
There were also three "Foreign Service National" (FSN) Vietnamese professional-level staff: political assistant Nguyen Van "Joe" Nghia, communications technician Nguyen Van Binh, and receptionist and translator Than-trong Tuy-Cam. I...