In fact, Johnson rejected a plethora of diplomatic initiatives during the month of February 1965. Appeals were made by Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pakistani leader Mohammad Ayub Khan, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson issued a statement on February 8 backing U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam but also instructed his ambassador in Washington, Lord Harlech, to meet with administration officials and request a new Geneva conference. In Rome, Pope Paul VI called for a negotiated settlement to the war sponsored and guaranteed by the United Nations. On February 24, UN Secretary-General U Thant, having tried and failed to broker a peace agreement, appealed directly to the American people, suggesting that the Johnson administration had not been fully candid about its war plans and operations:
It was also possible that the U.S. would achieve its goals in South Vietnam. Judging by other U.S. policies, superior power coupled with convincing propaganda usually came out on top. Such was the case with the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965. U.S. military forces invaded the country in order to secure a rightist military junta that had ousted the democratically elected government of Juan Bosch. The American people were told that the 20,000 U.S. troops dispatched were sent to save American lives and prevent a communist takeover. Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst who was privy to the inside story, reflected, “We were 100 percent lying about what we were doing in the Dominican Republic.” The Dominican Republic, said Ellsberg, was “one of the few communist-free environments in the whole world.” The Johnson administration got away with its lies and Washington added the country to its list of client-states. As in Vietnam, internal developments in the Dominican Republic were touted as a threat to the United States, when in fact there was no threat whatsoever, only a desire on the part of U.S. leaders to establish another pro-U.S. regime.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the son of an émigré Hebrew scholar, addressed the issue of the moral responsibility of intellectuals in a special supplement in the New York Review of Books in February 1967. Based on a thorough examination of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he judged that it was genocidal in conduct and imperialist in intent. Like other intellectuals on the left, he viewed U.S. involvement in Vietnam as neither an aberration nor a simple mistake but rather as part of a larger design to extend American hegemony. Chomsky examined the role of the intellectuals in World War II, particularly those in Germany and Japan who failed to speak out against the atrocities committed by their respective governments. Considering the relative freedom of Western societies, he argued that academics and intellectuals had a responsibility to “seek the truth hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
Criticism of imperious U.S. policies in Vietnam began long before U.S. troops were deployed. During the 1950s, insightful critiques were proffered by investigative journalists Bernard Fall and I. F. Stone, political scientist Hans Morgenthau, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and peace leaders A. J. Muste and Sidney Lens, to name a few; and in publications such as I. F. Stone’s Weekly, The Christian Century, The New Republic, The Nation, Dissent, Monthly Review, and Liberation. In the November 1952 issue of The Christian Century, for example, the editors castigated the U.S. for supporting French imperialism in Vietnam and ominously warned, “American boys are not dying in Indo-China – yet. But American policy is getting into a deeper and deeper morass there.” In the June 1954 issue of Monthly Review, following the defeat of the French, Marxist scholars Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman issued another warning:
King suggested “five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict.” These included ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral cease-fire; curtailing the U.S. military buildup in Thailand and interference in Laos; accepting the National Liberation Front in negotiations; and setting “a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.”
In another mission from May 10-20, 1969, U.S. and ARVN troops fought an intense, uphill battle (literally) for Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill,” near the Laotian border. The U.S.-ARVN forces succeeded in taking the hill, with significant casualties, but since no territory in the countryside could be permanently retained without sizable forces present, the hill was quietly abandoned on June 5. Two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area. In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked on the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?”
In the aftermath of My Lai, more atrocity stories came to light, many told by GIs and veterans themselves. To limit the damage, the Pentagon assembled a secret Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that gathered more than 300 criminal investigation reports, testimonies, and allegations of atrocities, including massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations, and the execution of prisoners. The purpose of the working group was not to administer justice but to bury the evidence in top-secret classification. The Pentagon framed My Lai as an “isolated incident,” the product of a few “bad apples,” and kept the lid on information and reports regarding other atrocities, including the massacre at My Khe that same day. It refused to investigate many of the allegations by GIs and vets in the interest of keeping the extent of atrocities under wraps. This went beyond public image making, as the generals themselves could be charged with war crimes under international law (in the tradition of the Nuremberg Trials) should a consistent pattern of atrocities and cover-ups be proven.
On June 8, 1969, President Richard Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island in the Pacific and announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of August. Thus began the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, theoretically to be replaced by ARVN troops. Labeled “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the policy sought to reverse the Americanization of the war, notwithstanding the fact that there was no possibility of the South Vietnamese winning the war on their own. The shift in policy may be attributed to domestic opposition to the war – a political reality – rather than to any military strategy for winning the war or even achieving a stalemate. According to Department of Defense statistics, U.S. troop levels fell from 539,000 in June 1969 to 415,000 in June 1970; 239,000 in June 1971; 47,000 in June 1972; and 21,500 in January 1973.
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.”
Still, President Nixon did what he could to ensure that South Vietnam would survive as long as possible. On April 30, 1970, he ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia to destroy NLF-NVA sanctuaries as well as back up the rightist coup d’etat of General Lon Nol. Nixon’s public announcement of this expansion of the war set off nationwide protests on college campuses, including one at Kent State where members of the National Guard shot and killed four students. U.S. troops were withdrawn from Cambodia after two months, but the bombing of Cambodia continued for another three years.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the unpopular war in Vietnam was the practice known as fragging. Disenchanted soldiers in Vietnam sometimes used fragmentation grenades, popularly known as frags, or other explosives to threaten or kill officers and NCOs they disliked. The full extent of the problem will never be known; but it increased sharply in 1969, 1970, and 1971, when the morale of the troops declined in step with the American role in the fighting. A total of 730 well-documented cases involving 83 deaths have come to light. There were doubtless others and probably some instances of fragging that were privately motivated acts of anger that had nothing to do with the war. Nonetheless, fragging was symptomatic of an Army in turmoil.