Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Collapsing in the Field": Americans in the Finals Days of the Vietnam War

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the collapse of morale among American soldiers and Marines in Vietnam in the final days of the war.

President Richard Nixon Nixon announced an American withdrawal from Cambodia on June 30, 1970, and by then dropped reference to the communist headquarters, which had proven to be largely a myth. Vietnamization was already clearly failing. In 1971, the United States played a support role as it directed a South Vietnamese invasion of neighboring Laos. Again, the justification was the presence of a North Vietnamese supply line – the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail - in a nearby neutral nation. This operation ended in disaster as the South Vietnamese army performed poorly. South Vietnamese officers in charge of the operation proved to be incapable.

“The government’s top officers had been tutored by the Americans for ten or fifteen years, yet they had learned little,” journalist Stanley Karnow observed. “. . . [T]hey represented a regime that rewarded fidelity rather than competence. [President] Thieu, like his predecessors, lived in constant dread of a coup d'état. He wanted loyalty above all else, and his military subordinates conformed, realizing that promotions were won in Saigon, not in battle. And vital to this was the avoidance of risk, even at the price of defeat.”

Regardless of the readiness of their South Vietnamese allies, the number of American personnel in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos dropped from approximately 536,100 in 1968 to 156,800. American combat deaths dropped from 20,600 in 1968 (Johnson’s last year directing the war effort) to 1,380 in 1971. “The simple truth is that Nixon’s strategy in this period amounted to a managed retreat,” historian William Bundy argues. Vietnamization had an unintended consequence, however. It badly demoralized the soldiers remaining in combat who had no desire to be the last to die in a cause the Nixon administration had essentially given up on. Morale also declined as draftees made up an ever-larger percentage of troops in the field. In 1965, only 21 percent of the combat troops in Vietnam were drafted. After 1970, draftees made up about 70 percent of the combat force. (Nixon and the Congress acted to end the draft in 1973.)

In the early 1970s, many military officers worried that the armed services in Southeast Asia were in a state of mutiny. A new word, “fragging,” had entered the military vocabulary. Fragging referred specifically to the murder of commanding officers in combat, usually when the officer made an unpopular decision, was inept, demeaning to soldiers, or put his men unnecessarily in harm’s way. The term comes from the small percussion fragmentation hand grenades often used in such homicides. In one such incident,

Private Gary Hendricks had been ordered to stand guard at night near the Da Nang Airbase. Sgt. Richard Tate discovered Hendricks asleep while on duty and “gave the private a tongue lashing, but took no further action,” according to historian Peter Brush. Around midnight the following day, Hendricks threw a fragmentation grenade into a bunker occupied by Sergeant Tate. “The grenade landed on Tate's stomach and the subsequent blast blew his legs off, killing the father of three from Asheville, North Carolina, who had only three weeks left on his tour of duty,” said Brush. Hendricks confessed to the murder, and was convicted by general court-martial. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison. Hendrick’s case was but one of 209 fragging incidents resulting in 34 deaths in 1970. By July1972, Army officials believed 551 fraggings had killed 86 and injured more than 700.

By the last years of the Vietnam War, the military command uncovered numerous cases of “bounty hunting” in which soldiers raised money to pay someone to murder an unpopular and/or dangerous officer. Soldiers also began to openly defy orders. In 1971 in Laos, a captain ordered two platoons to charge into withering enemy fire. The soldiers said no. “A lieutenant colonel pleaded, then ordered,” Perlstein wrote. “Fifty-three still refused. They also refused to give their names. No disciplinary action was taken. The brass also feared that the mutiny would spread brigade-wide.

The American army was collapsing in the field. ‘I just work hard at surviving so I can go home and protest the killing,’ explained one GI. At Fort Bliss, soldiers were calling commanding officers by their first names, who in turn passed anyone through basic training who promised he wouldn’t go absent without leave (AWOLs went up fivefold between 1966 and 1971) . . . In Vietnam, soldiers wrote semi-seditious slogans on their helmet headliners (“The unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful . . .) and, caught in infractions, responded, ‘What are you going to do about it, send me to ’Nam?’

Drug use spiraled among soldiers, according to one official report. The American command in Saigon estimated that 65,000 soldiers operating in the theater were “on drugs” in 1970. An American helicopter pilot, Fred Hickey, reported that entire units –- from privates to the commanding officers – were “doing heroin.” The Vietnamese legal system also turned a blind eye to drug dealers and users, which promoted its use by soldiers stationed there. South Vietnamese soldiers smoked marijuana openly. Even South Vietnamese Air Force Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky, the last vice president of South Vietnam, routinely shipped opium from Laos to Saigon as a side profession.

Part of the attraction of drug use was that narcotics were so cheap for the Americans. “For ten dollars you could get a vial of pure heroin the size of a cigarette butt, and you could get liquid opium, speed, acid, anything you wanted,” Hickey said. “You could trade a box of Tide for a carton of prepacked, prerolled marijuana cigarettes soaked in opium.” In 1967, morphine sold at $5.00 per vial. Alcohol, however, posed a much bigger threat to military readiness. "I think alcohol is a much more dangerous drug than marijuana," said Army Major Joel Kaplan of the 98th Medical Detachment. As one Air Force officer observed, "When you get up there in those early hours, you want the klunk you're flying with to be able to snap to. He's a lot more likely to be fresh if he smoked grass the night before than if he was juiced."

Unit cohesion collapsed as American units turned not only on their officers, but also on each other. Hickey told Stanley Karnow that in his unit, GIs split into factions, “the red necks from Texas and the Deep South who hated the California and New York liberals, and vice versa . . . The blacks were moving into their black power thing, and they got militant . . . Everybody seemed to be at everybody else’s throat. You had to speak softly, mind your own businss, sleep with a weapon at all times, and only trust your closest buddies, nobody else. I had a knife attached to my boot.”

Meanwhile, an ever-larger number of soldiers returning home became harsh critics of the war, with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), formed in 1967, eventually claiming 25,000 members. The group staged the ‘Winter Soldier Investigation” in January 1971. The WSI served as a mock war crimes trial, in which members of the group described human rights violations they had witnessed while in Vietnam.

On April 23, the VVAW staged another protest, including almost 1,000 veterans, in which they tossed their medals and combat ribbons on the U.S. Capitol steps. The most prominent members of the VVAW, future Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate John Kerry, spoke for many who had battled in Vietnam during two hours of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22. The war violated American principles, Kerry argued, and it was immoral to ask for further sacrifice for a cause entirely in vain. “We are asking Americans to think about . . . how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” Kerry asked. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”



Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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