Provided by Bill Laurie
Thursday April 5, 2012
Vietnam Course Student Questions

Editorial Note
These are the typical songs about Remembering Vietnam and about what Vietnam means to Vietnamese-Americans in general. One could feel the sorrow, the pain, and the anguish of the Vietnamese who have lived in exile around the world during the last four decades.

Will be giving talk to college Viet Nam class this Friday. The instructor, a USAF VN veteran, forwarded me specific questions students submitted. Questions and answers follow here:

1. What do you feel the television media effects were on not only the soldiers, but the Vietnamese people as well?

It's arguable that television/media coverage had little direct effect on troops, and less so on Viet Namese people, because they didn't see much of it. It had a huge cumulative indirect effect on both because "news"(?), shallow and biased as it was, did effect people in U.S., both amongst general public and elected officials and decision makers. The effect was detrimental.

2. How do you explain Nixon’s decisions during the war? Nixon’s administration? Nixon’s image before and after the war?

As best I see Nixon was motivated not only by desire to end the war but also to establish greater ties and working relationships with Russia and Communist China. He, unlike others, was willing to take unpopular steps which, one way or another, were effective. Cambodia incursion was successful, yet was vehemently protested in U.S. December bombing of Hanoi, and prior bombing and mining of Hai Phong harbor, equally lambasted yet effective to a degree. My own personal belief is that Nixon's administration over-reacted to the very real problems with leaks, Pentagon Papers, etc., and he shot himself in the foot with Watergate, etc.
Nixon is easy if not fun for some people to despise. He did have his vindictive shortcomings but in my opinion his record as a president is not as bad as many argue. One thing is certain, Hanoi knew they weren't dealing with wimpy president as they had before.

3. Why was there so many lies and politics in Vietnam such as the Bay of Tonkin, etc.?

First off, there wasn't any lie about the Tonkin incident. It did happen and the USS Maddox took rounds from a Hanoi vessel. Hanoi brags about it to this day. It wasn't a rigged excuse to justify U.S. involvement. It happened. The argument is Hanoi responded to U.S. and R.V.N. coastal harassment attacks, which is more or less true. Still, by the time of Tonkin incident, August '64, over 25,000 South Viet Namese had been assassinated or killed in action, from a population of 16 million. Had the U.S. sustained proportional fatalities with its 190 million population the death toll would have been around 270,000. This excludes people killed by NVA in Laos. There was clearly a very bloody war going on before the Tonkin incident, before U.S. troops arrived. On military merits alone, Tonkin was a flea on an elephant's back.
Also note Johnson did not respond with military force when Brink BOQ was bombed, when Bien Hoa air base was attacked.
All in all the U.S. government didn't lie deliberately as often as many people think, in good part because it was ignorant and didn't know enough to lie. Johnson later soft-peddled fact that more U.S. troops were be going to VN but it was hardly anything that was kept secret, nor could he have kept it secret if he wanted to.

POLITICS: this is more important than subject of lies. From the onset Washington was constrained and influenced by domestic reaction to efforts in Viet Nam. To a degree Viet Nam policies were subordinate to domestic constraints(no attacks into NVA sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia). The exact opposite applied in Hanoi. Domestic politics, under iron rule of communist party, were entirely subordinated to foreign policy decisions. NO discussion, NO dispute was permitted in North Viet Nam.
To a greater and greater degree domestic constraints limited, influenced, and constrained U.S. VN policies and decisions. The uproar over Cambodian incursion would have been minimal in '64. By '72 Nixon's leeway was severely limited (Cooper-Church Amendment), and popular opinion was increasingly antagonistic. Nothing of this nature restrained decision makers in Hanoi.

On the subject of lies, or more generally the creation of false impressions, the functional equivalent of a lie, the U.S. news media was far, far worse than the U.S. government. This wasn't so much a conspiracy as a reflection of the massive chasm of ignorance among reporters. Far too many were very, very ignorant and never understood the war to begin with. Their reporting showed it. This is hard fact, not opinion, clearly spelled out in Peter Braestrup's book, BIG STORY, which cited scores of examples of false and misleading news(?) reporting:

Overall, the ENTIRE U.S. "information industry": news media, U.S. government, "infotainment," popular media(TV), failed abysmally to explain what was going on in Viet Nam...AND Laos, Cambodia, Thai Border War...., why, how, at whose expense, with what ramifications. It wasn't a lie as much as contagion of ignorance, but ended up with same result.

4. Why were our troops not respected nor treated the proper way for their duty?

The 60s were a very crazy time, getting geometrically worse as the decade progressed. A lemming-like mob hysteria developed and rational thought and discussion were out the window. The troops were not respected because no one wanted to and took psychic delight in jumping on the "anti-war" bandwagon. It was a social thing. It wasn't "cool" to support the troops. "Anti-war" was "where the action was," meaning drugs, raising hell, and.....truth be known...getting laid. That said, the rabid delusional "anti-war" protestors shamed and defamed honest and sincere protesters who, though gullible and misled, were sincere.
There are also some who argue that disrespect toward the returning troops was in part driven by guilt of those who did not go.
It was a very ugly time. Very ugly. Mixed with a healthy dose of mob hysteria and herd behavior.

5.Out of all the small arms used in Vietnam which one do you think was best and why?

Almost impossible question to answer, same as asking what's the best musical instrument. Depends on what you're doing, with what size unit, etc. M-16 eventually proved to be a decent weapon after the bugs were worked out but M-16s alone are not enough, as evidenced by fact that each infantry platoon had M60 machine guns. You could not however equip an infantry platoon with nothing but M60s because of weight and ammunition requirements. If you were in a recon unit you'd find people who liked the Swedish K 9mm submachine gun, yet few in a regular infantry unit would want one.
Overall capabilities of individual small arms were adequate, though many would argue the AK-47 is vastly superior to the M-16, and the RPG superior to the M72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon, kind of mini bazooka).
In the end however it was modern HEAVY weaponry that played a pivotal role. In '75 Hanoi's massive fire superiority in artillery and armor were determining factors. U.S. and allied forces (RVNAF, Australians, New Zealanders, Thais, So. Koreans) had never been confronted with such a formidable war machine in such numbers and capabilities.

6. Could Westmoreland’s strategy have won the war if he didn’t have the restrictions placed on him and the war’s conduct?

No telling for sure but things could have been a lot different. A whole lot different. Westmoreland's strategy was to have culminated in seizure and holding of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the southern Laotian panhandle. That's what he wanted to do and that's one of the underlying reasons Khe Sanh combat base was established. A number of Hanoi communists have since admitted this could have been fatal to the communist cause. The Ho Chi Minh trail effort had been urged and recommended time and time again by Westmoreland and many other military people, to include those from Thailand and South Viet Nam. Repeatedly. It was always denied by McNamara and Johnson. What kept the war going was the influx of massive NVA troops, over a million during course of the war, and hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons, munitions, supplies. Had the trail been choked off, and it could have been done with less bloodshed and troops than fighting only in South Viet
Nam, Hanoi's war would have been in very, very deep trouble, for many reasons.
Westmoreland also recommended other intelligent steps that were all denied by McNamara. McNamara retarded "Viet Namization" by not allowing more modern equipment and weapons for the South Viet Namese, as Westmoreland had recommended.
All in all Westmoreland, and I've not been one of his greater fans, does NOT deserve the criticism he's received. He did have a strategy, did have a plan, but it was denied by McNamara. His strategic did stop the impending collapse of South Viet Nam in '65, and did stop VC/NVA momentum after that.

7. If Linebacker I and 2 had been implemented earlier in the war could we have at least realized a North and South Vietnam similar to Korea?

Answer is complicated not so much by military factors but by public opinion factors. U.S. would be seen as a vicious bully pounding on a primitive society of supposedly sincere "revolutionaries." Second, even if Hanoi would have called things off in a '65 or '66 Linebacker-type bombing campaign, they would have simply waited things out, signed any treaties they were compelled to, then started up again. Hanoi HAD to be beaten in the realm of public opinion, and communist propaganda was so effective that many people and countries believed it, and believe it to this day.
My opinion, bombing wasn't as important as mining Hai Phong harbor, and then...this is very important...launching a relentless propaganda/counter-propaganda/truth/informatin/psy-pol war effort targeting multiple audiences around the world: U.S. public, RVN public, Hanoi populace, world opinion, etc. This was NEVER done or even attempted.
Hence, militarily it might have been effective on an interim basis, but probably would not have truly ended the war by destroying Hanoi's will.

8. Did Henry Kissinger sell out the South Vietnamese at the Paris Accords?

He pretty much did but it's necessary to recall that his options were very, very limited and he and Nixon were under the threat of a new congress, completely "anti-war," coming in to Washington in January '73. In sum, it's arguable that Kissinger had no other route to take. If the war hadn't ended -it didn't end, it was only an appearance of an end- the new Congress would have cut off ALL aid to RVN. While not a huge fan of Kissinger, he was had few other choices and the "sell-out," however real, was not his fault alone.

9. Why weren’t the dikes on the Red River Valley targeted?

World and U.S. opinion would have gone ballistic. Hundreds of thousands of civilians could have died, not only from flooding but also from starvation. The "anti-war" elements (really, de facto "pro-Hanoi-war") would have had a field day. Newspapers would have front page pictures of miserable peasants losing their homes to floods, ragged and starving.
In addition, it would have morally repugnant, inflicting many more civilian casualties than would otherwise be necessary.
It simply wasn't a viable option, morally or pragmatically.

10. Is there any excuse for our officials not realizing the history between Vietnam and the Chinese prior to our involvement in the conflict?

There's no excuse for any of our officials, or news media, or college professors, for not knowing ANY of the history of Viet Nam, Laos, China, Cambodia, etc. One characteristic of whole U.S. involvement was monumental ignorance on part of all major U.S. institutions.
Here again public opinion played a key role, limiting what U.S. and RVN could do and should have done. People go to Washington to be reelected and must pander of ill-informed public, who've derived their views form an infantile and shallow "news"(?) media.
As for China and Viet Nam, too much is made of the sometimes antagonism between the two countries. It's not as simple as saying the North Viet Namese hated the Chinese. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn't. It's like a bad off-and-on marriage that never ends in divorce. Whatever antagonism Hanoi might of felt did not induce their refusing to accept massive Chinese communist assistance throughout the whole course of the war. It's highly unlikely the communists would have won at Dien Bien Phu without massive and prolonged assistance from Communist China: modern weapons, trucks, rice, tons of munitions, advisors, training camps, etc. This continued throughout the war until '75. During American involvement Communist China sent over 300,000 technicians and rail construction workers to North Viet Nam, to keep the place running while NVN youth were sent to war. It's quite simple: no massive Chinese and Russian aid, no "Viet Nam war."

11. In your assessment, what would it have taken for us to have either won the war or at least aid in the establishment of an independent South Vietnam?

A book could be written on this. It's arguable that the whole thing should have been done differently, and if this had been done the outcome would have been different. Some examples:

A. UNDERSTAND the enemy. Never done. Understand their tactics, their strategy. Never done(except on the field level, never in D.C.). Hanoi's strategy was spelled out in books written by Truong Chinh as well as Vo Nguyen Giap. Many intelligent South Viet Namese could explain it with detailed clarity. Hanoi's game plan was for all to see. There is no indication that anyone in Washington...or the news media...ever read these books.

B. Having done the above decision makers should have realized a relentless, energetic, incessant propaganda/counter-propaganda/truth/information/psy-pol war effort was an ABSOLUTE NECESSITY. The war for opinion had to be won; no effort was ever launched, aside from generic platitudes and babble about as inspiring as the 10 worst commencement addresses every given at a college graduation.

C. A SE Asia/Indochina Coordinating Agency should have been established, comprised of representatives of U.S., RVN, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand(where a Hanoi-sponsored brush fire war was underway). Hanoi had one strategy for ALL of Indochina; there was no U.S. counter-strategy. U.S. had three different foreign policies for RVN, Laos, Cambodia; neither complemented the other. McDonald's does more analysis and planning in setting up overseas franchises than allies did in opposing Hanoi's war.
This Agency would have been a source of and sounding board for the aforementioned propaganda/counter-propaganda war.

4. Cut and hold Ho Chi Minh trail; mine Hai Phong harbor. Use superior American/RVN firepower to permanently block and hold the trail.

E. Provide more advisors and fewer infantry/combat line units. Provide modern weapons to RVN troops. Until early '68 95% of RVNAF troops were supplied with inferior WW II surplus weapons. The VC were receiving modern weapons...a LOT of modern weapons...from Russia/China beginning in 1964 (RPT: one-nine-six-four). Provide more lower-level training for RVNAF units. Mobile Advisory Teams, which proved quite effective, were not established until 1968.
Establish, where appropriate, more USMC-type combined action platoons, a squad of 14 U.S. troops teamed up with a 36-man VN Popular Force platoon, to live in and protect a hamlet or village for duration of their tour. This could only be done in some areas as no matter how effective a CAP unit might be they were absolutely no match for an NVA battalion with 400 men.

F. Tell Russia they can forget about detente as long as one Soviet weapon shows up in Indochina. No more cheap grain deals, no more help building Kama truck factory. No more anything.

G. Jump on and lacerate, publicly, every single false or misleading "news" report. That would be a full-time job.

H. Provide a month-long intensive and demanding Viet Nam orientation course for all Americans bound for Viet Nam. Every single person. Explain the history, communist tactics, culture, geography, and all relevant aspects of the environment they'd be in. This was NEVER done. Included in this would be rudimentary language training.

I. Establish a CORDS-like(Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) command in early 1960s. This was not done until May of '67 and didn't get rolling until 1968. CORDS coordinated pacification with military operations against regular VC/NVA units.

J. Start what would later become the "Phoenix Program" in the early 1960s, targeting VCI (Viet Cong Infrastucture). Concurrently launch a more convincing Chieu Hoi program to convince VC to defect. This was done, quite successfully in later years (over 47,000 VC defected in '69) but should have received more command emphasis earlier on.

K. DO NOT fight different wars in VN, Laos, Cambodia. Hanoi had an Indochina-wide strategy. U.S. never came close.

That's a start.

12. Why doesn’t the world realize what is going on in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the targeting of Buddhists, Montagnards, and the Hmong?

Several reasons in my opinion. First, U.S. and world publics essentially don't give enough of a damn about what's going on far away. Paraphrasing the old Cindy Lauper song "Americans and world public just want to have fun." Within past two decades millions of people have been killed in the Sudan and the Congo. No one did anything.
Next comes the continuing ignorance. U.S. and world publics, as a whole and despite noble efforts of people advancing cause of human rights, are basically ignorant and don't read enough informative, intelligent books. This is function of infantile educational system, shallow news media, addiction to entertainment, etc.
Third: the lingering guilt of the "poor Viet Nam" which was so violently battered by evil U.S. People don't want to criticize Hanoi because it was such a pitiable victim of past evil(or so people think).
In sum, no one knows enough to care, and very few want to know or care to begin with.
Hanoi, and its Laotian clones, hammer everyone, not simply Montagnards, Hmong and Buddhists. Everyone get hit. Evangelical Christians. Catholics. Hoa Hao Buddhists (separate from Unified Buddhist Church). Poets. Writers. Song-writers. Lawyers. Depending on source examined, Hanoi ranks among the top 20 of countries oppressing religious freedom.

13. Are there marked similarities between our most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Vietnam conflict?

Don't enough to comment intelligently. Am sure there are some parallels, just as there are differences. One major difference is the near-monolithic Moslem characteristic of Iraq and Afghanistan and the hold it has on people's minds. There was nothing like this in Viet Nam or Indochina (except in North Viet Nam). Geographic factors are different. Afghanistan is land-locked. Viet Nam had several very good sea ports.
One thing that has struck me is the failure of U.S. to launch an effective propaganda/counter-propaganda/truth/information/psy-pol war campaign. It seems, from a remote distant vantage point, that the U.S. has learned some lessons but perhaps not enough in this area.

14. Do you seen any hope for the Vietnamese people throwing off the Communist control of the country today from the Hanoi regime? Do you want to travel back to Vietnam today knowing what you do about its regime?

It's hard to say. There is widespread discontent and opposition but it's amazingly easy to throw people in jail and stifle dissent. Then again, few people foresaw (and some did) collapse of Soviet Union which appeared to come out of nowhere. Andre Almarik, a Soviet dissent, wrote a book in 1971 predicting collapse of Soviet Union in 1984, for many of the same reasons that brought the downfall.
One thing making opposition more difficult is U.S. government's catering to Hanoi, which discourages dissent and opposition. U.S. policy has been, in my mind, inexcusably feeble regarding Hanoi's systemic human rights violations.
Secondly, despite glitz and high rise buildings/hotels in big cities Viet Nam's rural people are very, very poor. Their biggest pressing concern is economic survival discouraging willingness to oppose Communist Party and perhaps go to prison.
One thing seems certain: if there were open, secret ballot,free elections allowing multiple political parties (illegal, with prison term for advocating such), the communists would lose.

I would like to go back to Viet Nam and then get out of big cities and into rural areas where "normal" people live. Several problems however. First, I don't know if I'd be allowed to go back in, having been publicly involved with anti-Hanoi human rights efforts. This is not paranoia. Know one friend who was denied entry to Viet Nam. Know others who've been kicked out, after being arrested or detained in Viet Nam. Secondly, I speak Viet Namese and this IMMEDIATELY causes people to think I was or am still in the CIA or some other intelligence agency. I would, in all probability, be followed and observed. What's worse is that anyone I spent any time talking to, at some street-side noodle stand for example, would then be subjected to later police interrogation, and would then possibly be placed under surveillance.
This all sounds like delusions of rabid imagination but I know people this has happened to.
Next, if I were to go back and be subjected to harassment and/or an "interview" at a local police station I'd probably get in more trouble because I'd insult them as traitors to Viet Nam...phan noi lam si nhuc dan toc Viet Nam, liem got chu nghia Lien-Xo..etc.) and that would hardly be effective diplomacy.
Finally, I'm reluctant to go back and see the environmental destruction that's occurred under Hanoi's idiot policies. Highland forests have been clear cut, industrial sewage is dumped into rivers. It would be hard to take. Viet Nam is a beautiful country but it's being devastated by exploitative policies. Back in the early 1950s there were an estimated 1,500 wild elephants in Ban Me Thuot province. Current estimate: 50. Sad.

15. In your opinion was the CIA activity in Vietnam an asset or detriment to the American military there?

Overall, and despite fact that I knew several CIA people I detested, the CIA did a sort-of decent job insofar as intelligence collection and analysis was concerned. If personalities meshed at province level the CIA and military people got along well. Overall, give them a C+/B- as an asset.

16. Do you think that war could have ever been winnable under the conditions which we fought?

On paper yes, if one includes blocking Ho Chi Minh trail. We weren't trying to "win a war" as much as STOP Hanoi's war. As it was, the "conditions" were reflective of a strategy that was, in my mind, criminally negligent(see answers to Question 11). Had U.S. kept a contingent force, as we've done in Korea, and provided RVNAF with adequate supplies, weapons and REAL diplomatic support, there's a logical argument that says Hanoi's war could have been stopped. For the sake of the people of Indochina it would have been far, far better if it had. More people died violent deaths after '75, when "the war ended"(!)(?) then during the war, and a much greater percentage of these were innocent civilians rather than combatants.

17. Do you feel our government has learned anything from the Vietnam experience or are we making the same mistakes today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and potentially in Iran?

Don't know enough to comment on mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan but do get distinct impression too many mistakes have been and are being made.
As for Viet Nam, better termed multi-lateral effort to stop Hanoi's war, I don't believe the government learned a damn thing then and doesn't know much now. It's very frustrating and infuriating. There's ample evidence to argue that U.S. government's policies and practices in Viet Nam...and Laos...and Cambodia...and Thailand, constitute one of the most massive and disgusting examples of political-military malpractice and malfeasance than can be found in recorded history. It's impossible to apply "lessons learned" in Viet Nam to Afghanistan and Iraq when the lessons were never learned to begin with.