Following raids in Dai Lai village in the rural Thai Binh province (southeast of Hanoi) in October 1967, French journalist Gerard Chaliand witnessed men and women weeping as they swept debris from the floors of destroyed homes and recounted how their neighbors had been burned alive by the fires. Bui Van Nguu, age forty-six, told Chaliand that he had been outdoors making brooms for the cooperative when a bomb exploded in his kitchen, burying his three children. The only thing left of them was mangled limbs, shreds of flesh, and the ear of his eldest daughter which was found in a garden seven yards away. Rescue teams in the village dug out many other children who had been buried alive, burned to shreds, or asphyxiated in the bombing massacre that was one of many in the war. A woman who had lost her parents and six siblings in the bombing of Phy Le told visiting peace activist David Dellinger to “ask your president Johnson if our straw huts were made of steel and concrete” (as LBJ claimed) and to ask him if “our Catholic church that was destroyed was a military target….Tell him that we will continue our life and struggle no matter what future bombings there will be because we know that without independence and freedom, nothing is worthwhile.”
South Vietnam suffered in more ways. Some 1,200,000 people were forcibly relocated through “pacification” programs and five million became refugees between 1964 to 1975. The urban population swelled from 15 percent in 1964 to 40 percent in 1968, to 65 percent in 1974, undermining the social fabric of the country. Normally a rice exporter, South Vietnam had to import 725,000 tons of rice in 1967. Hunger and starvation were side effects of the war. The U.S. also conducted its chemical war in the south, spraying nineteen million gallons of toxins on five million acres, with some parts of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia sprayed as well. The debilitating effects of this chemical war still linger.
Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war. With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas. GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967. More newspapers followed. Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation. In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers. ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights. An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service. Even if denied, their applications backed up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders. At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders by March 1, 1970.
We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum. We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals. We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts…. Each day … someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that 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.” We are asking Americans to think about that because 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?
The American people, by and large, are against colonialism and aggression, and believe in the right of every country to manage its own affairs free from outside interference. Rarely have these simple principles been so clearly and grossly violated as in the present United States policy towards Indochina…. Are we going to take the position that anti-Communism justifies anything, including colonialism, interference in the affairs of other countries and aggression? That way, let us be perfectly clear about it, lies war and more war leading ultimately to full-scale disaster.
The general consensus among American historians is that the American War in Vietnam was a “mistake,” although interpretations differ as to what exactly this means. This essay takes the view that the ‘mistake” was a product of U.S. global ambitions and misperceptions that developed in the aftermath of World War II and were compounded over time. It probes deeply into the origins and nature of the war, making it a long article for a website (about 70,000 words), with about one-third devoted to the antiwar movement at home (Part IV). A half-century of excellent scholarship on the Vietnam War is drawn together and frequently cited in this essay.
Owen OE, Felig P, Morgan AP, Wahren J and Cahill GF Jr (1969) Liver and kidney metabolism during prolonged starvation. Journal of Clinical Investigation 48: 574–583.
Ho made his first appearance on the world stage at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, following World War I. Wearing a borrowed suit and using the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho presented a letter to the leaders of the victorious nations respectfully asking for recognition of the rights of the Vietnamese people. These rights included equal justice in the courts; freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, education, and travel; and the “replacement of the [colonial] regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had previously indicated his support for the principle of self-determination, telling Congress on February 11, 1918:
The West is backing, with its eyes open … a reactionary police state. . . . The Asians are intelligent people, and well able to contrast the declaration of principles of . . . the United States, with the facts of the regime under which they live. No intelligent Vietnamese can fail to be cynical when he hears American professors lecturing of political freedom in one province, while Diem’s army and police are imprisoning thousands of suspected Communists without trial in another.
Continuous arrests fill the jails and prisons to the rafters, as at this precise moment, public opinion and the press are reduced to silence…. Political parties and religious sects have been eliminated…. Today the people want freedom. You should, Mr. President, liberalize the regime, promote democracy, guarantee minimum civil rights, recognize the opposition so as to permit the citizens to express themselves without fear, thus removing grievances and resentments.
Dropped into war zones, without knowledge of the Vietnamese language and with little, if any, understanding of local culture, U.S. soldiers had problems distinguishing enemy from neutral from friend. They often became frustrated when making no contact with enemy soldiers for long periods, then seemingly out of the blue were interrupted by violent surprise attacks. Daily treks through insect-filled jungles in the heat and humidity also took a toll on GI nerves. In numerous documented cases, their frustrations were taken out on civilians. The approved routine of burning of huts, destruction of villages, and terrorizing of residents could and did lead to unauthorized sexual assaults, random shootings, and even massacres such as that in My Lai. Heonik Kwon lists thirteen large-scale massacres, including some by South Korean troops; Nick Turse, in Kill Anything That Moves, documents more. Even in villages with decent relations with local U.S. forces, other mobile U.S. forces were known to violently intervene.
The American massacre of civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968, was part of the U.S. counteroffensive following Tet. The area in which the My Lai village was located was labeled “Pinkville” and a U.S. unit known as Charlie company – led by Captain Ernest Medina, with 2nd Lt. William Calley commanding the First Platoon – treated it as a free-fire zone, killing some 500 unarmed men, women, children, and infants. A number of women were raped as well. Not all soldiers participated in the murders; one broke down and cried; another shot animals instead. Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot surveying the scene from above, spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape. Realizing that a massacre was taking place, he landed his chopper and rescued ten civilians while ordering his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. On the same day, another U.S. unit, Bravo company, murdered some 90 civilians in the village of My Khe, two kilometers to the east. These massacres were not acknowledged by military authorities at the time. The task force commander overseeing operations wrote in his after-action report that the day’s maneuvers were “well planned, well-executed, and successful.”