Monday, January 31, 2011

The Hanoi Hilton: American POWs in the Vietnam War

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss the harsh conditions experienced by American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.

A common GI experience in the war was bewilderment when locals seemed indifferent to the fate of Americans. Other soldiers felt they were the targets of icy hatred. Undoubtedly war atrocities like those mentioned above, even in the context of extreme communist bloodshed, belied the supposed purpose of the American war effort. The killing of civilians, the burning of villages, and the dropping of napalm alienated the South Vietnamese population, even those who previously had been anti-communist but who now saw a North Vietnamese victory as preferable to American occupation.

A perception of American cruelty may have contributed to, or at least provided a rationale for, the inhumane treatment suffered by American GIs languishing in North Vietnamese prisons. Downed bomber pilots and flight crews made up most of the 591 prisoners of war released as part of “Operation Homecoming” at the end of the war. In April 1993, Harvard economist Stephen Morris discovered North Vietnamese documents indicating that Hanoi held 1,205 American prisoners as late as September 1972, a short time before prisoner releases began.

Whether the discrepancy between the number of American prisoners released through Operation Homecoming and the number mentioned in the report represents a clerical error, a translation mistake, or evidence of the mass killing of American POWs remains a mystery. When the United States pulled combat forces out of Vietnam in 1973, about 2,000 servicemen remained unaccounted for. A larger number of Vietnamese soldiers remain missing.

Released prisoners, including future Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, reported being tortured. North Vietnamese guards beat prisoners with rifle butts, clubs and fists, deprived them of sleep and adequate nutrition and mocked them when news arrived of tragedies in the prisoners’ families. Many were forced to sit through interminable “re-education” sessions and were told 5,000 years of Vietnamese history through the Hanoi regime’s perspective. Withholding medicine became a common method of weakening prisoner resistance. Interrogators sometimes sought intelligence, but just as often they simply wanted to shatter the spirit of their hostages. The POW camp at Hao Lo gained particular infamy and was given the sarcastic name “Hanoi Hilton.”

Porter Halyburton served as pilot in a two-man Navy F-4 Phantom that was shot down while bombing a bridge on a road connecting the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, to China. Parachuting over hostile territory, he quickly fell into the hands of North Vietnamese soldiers who put him in an animal shed, giving him rice, water, and cigarettes until a jeep arrived to carry him to Hanoi. “They told me, ‘If you cooperate with us, and repent for your crimes, we will move you to a nice camp, a really nice place. You’ll be with all your friends. You’ll have nice food and you can play games and write to your family. But if you refuse, we’ll move you to a worse place.’”

Halyburton refused to provide the information sought by interrogators and wound up in a facility his captors called “the Zoo.” He spent days in the dark before guards transferred him to a coal storage area. “Ants, rats, mosquitoes by the ton,” he said to author Christian J. Appy. “They would put my shitty little bowl of rice outside the door and leave it there for hours. By the time they finally gave it to me, it was completely covered with ants. It was inedible. I had dysentery by then and was getting disheartened. I hadn’t talked to an American in months. The constant interrogation and indoctrination were wearing me down.”

The jailers threatened worse treatment. Hoping to play on the now well-known racial tensions within the U.S. military, the guards placed Halyburton in a cell with a black member of an American flight crew and commanded, “You must care for him. You must be his servant.” The manipulation didn’t work. “I think they thought that would be the worst thing they could do – order a white to be a servant to a black guy,” he said. “They very definitely tried to pit the two of us against each other, but it didn’t take us long to be friends.” His cellmate, Fred, almost lost an arm when his F-105 crashed and his foot broke. The Vietnamese operated, but his injuries became infected. Halyburton ended up bathing and feeding his disabled friend. Fred gave Halyburton credit for saving his life, and Halyburton returned the compliment.

“Taking care of Fred gave me a sense of purpose outside of my survival,” Halburton said. “It was very liberating. It was really the beginning of the idea that we were all in a brotherhood, all part of a big family. We could do anything for each other.” This strength would be needed after the Americans bombed an oil and lubricant storage area on June 29, 1966. The Vietnamese claimed that the Americans had targeted civilian areas.

They forced POWs to march through Hanoi, handcuffed two-by-two. Made to bow their heads, the prisoners suffered a blow to the back of their heads every time they looked up. At the urging of the guards, the crowds screamed, “Yankee imperialists! Air pirates! Murderers!” The North Vietnamese then confined Halyburton in a remote prison nicknamed “The Briarpatch.” The guards wanted him to write a confession. “First, they just beat the crap out of you to soften you up,” he said.

"Or they made you sit on a little wooden stool for days . . . We found that you could get a little water by faking sleep. They’d throw water on your face to wake you up and if you opened your mouth you could get a little swallow.

After that, the torture began. The method they used on me we called “max cuffs.” Your arms were pulled up behind your back and then they put these handcuffs on the upper part of your arm. Then they tied a rope on your wrists and pulled it up. I could actually see the fingertips over the top of my head when they did that. It pressed the nerves against the bone. It was like molten metal flowing through your veins – just indescribable pain."
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This last round of abuse broke Hayburton’s resistance. He signed confessions, gave biographical information and listed all his flights over North Vietnam. They asked him to write the same information over and over. “Psychologically, I think this was more damaging than the physical torture because you felt like you completely failed,” he said. “You had given up. You had capitulated. You had violated the code of conduct. You let everybody down.” It was only after the war that he found out that his breakdown had been universal.


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.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Search and Destroy": Fear and Loathing in South Vietnam

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe how the stresses and fears of American soldiers and Marines in Vietnam provoked attacks on civilians and human rights abuses against combatants.

Early in America's involvement in the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers felt contempt for their purported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) allies. In an attempt to forge a sense of brotherhood between the two fighting forces, commanders changed the name of one firebase from “Mahone” to “Kien,” in tribute to an ARVN officer who had fallen in combat. For a time, the U.S. Army shared the base with ARVN troops, but this experiment reached a disastrous conclusion “when an epidemic of pilferage broke out on the base and when the ARVNs flung down their weapons and ran the first time an enemy mortar round landed near them.

“Only thing they beat us to was the chow line,” one soldier in Charlie Company, Omega Harris, remembers thinking. Otherwise, the ARVN troops timidly stayed behind the lines and let Americans do the fighting, he and his fellow “grunts” thought. After patrols, the ARVN men returned clean. Harris believed they spent their time in the brush napping.

If GIs hated the VC and North Vietnamese enemy, these warriors earned the Americans’ grudging respect. “[S]ome came to envy the enemy his skills at war and his sense of calling to it – a commitment, wanting in themselves, to a cause worth dying for,” wrote Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller. “They thought of him as a gook with six rounds, but they knew at first hand what six rounds could do in motivated hands . . . To the men, the enemy seemed unafraid of anything, perhaps excepting B-52s and Cobra attack helicopters – anything, that is, that Charlie Company could bring to bear against him in the normal course of business. We’re playing games and they’re fighting for keeps, Kit Bowen [a Charlie Company soldier] thought. They’ve got a destination – they have to take over Saigon. We’ve got nothing.”

General Bruce Palmer, Jr., Westmoreland’s chief deputy, admitted years later, “Our greatest battle successes occurred when the enemy chose to attack a U.S. unit well dug in and prepared to defend its position.” Offensive operations, however, proved much more difficult. “It was a tough, risky business, for our troops, moving into and searching a hostile area, were exposed to enemy ambush, mines, and booby traps. Frequently they suffered casualties without ever seeing or contacting the enemy. After they stopped moving, they often hoped for an enemy attack and an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.”

Palmer called this an “offensive-defensive” tactic, though it became better known by the term coined by another Westmoreland aide: “search and destroy.” As it evolved, search and destroy usually meant transporting, usually by helicopter, ground troops to enemy positions, obliterating the enemy forces, and then returning to the American lines. The American commanders needed to instill confidence in their South Vietnamese allies and were concerned that they couldn’t patiently wait for the enemy to make a frontal attack, especially after they figured out the high casualty rates such tactics guaranteed.

In spite of the risks, commanders decided they had to take the fight to the enemy. The commitment of North Vietnamese regular army troops to the war deepened Westmoreland’s determination to follow this course. By May 1965, when American troop levels reached 46,500, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had 6,500 soldiers operating in the South. The NVA would continue a parallel troop escalation in response to the Americans over the next several years. When American forces shattered Vietcong (communist guerilla) forces during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the NVA would assume the brunt of the fighting.

Underestimating the North Vietnamese and Vietcong level of commitment, American commanders assumed that the American technological advantage would mean they would prevail in a war of attrition. U.S. commanders assumed that high enough casualties would force the outgunned communists to sue for peace. To accomplish this, Westmoreland asked for more troops, a total of 450,000 by the end of 1966.

The Vietcong and NVA proved willing to suffer large numbers of combat deaths and injuries and quickly adapted to American combat tactics and strategies. The Americans expended huge amounts of ammo and often had little to show for it. For instance, at the Battle of the Battangan Peninsula in August 1965, the Americans used 6,000 Marines, two naval destroyers, a squadron of Phantom and Skyhawk jets, napalm, and 3,000 rounds of ammo. While they killed 573 communist fighters and took 122 prisoners, and lost only 46 dead and 204 wounded, three-fourths of the communist troops slipped away, melting into the general population and able to fight another day.

The Americans suffered 300 casualties in an encounter with North Vietnamese regulars at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, in the vicinity of several villages, in August. Naval batteries pounded the villages, which were also destroyed by napalm. Fighting in close quarters for a month, the NVA lost 1,500 dead as American B-52 bombers dropped 500-pound bombs and fired more than 33,000 rounds of 105-millimeter howitzer ammo. As in the Battle of the Battangan Peninsula, the U.S. military declared victory after Ia Drang, but the NVA learned an important tactical lesson that would affect the future war: The tremendous advantages Americans enjoyed in the air and the greater firepower of American ground weapons became significantly less important if the Vietnamese battled at close quarters, which made it much harder for American firepower to claim only enemy lives.

Such fighting proved unnerving to 18- and 19-year old soldiers, more and more of whom were draftees in dark, unfamiliar and heavily wooded terrain. Search and destroy missions based on rooting out Vietcong bases of operations often put Americans in the position of destroying entire villages. The Americans would use Zippo cigarette lighters to burn down huts, destroy chickens and water buffalo that could be used to feed communist soldiers, and then moved on, leaving behind an angry, hungry and homeless population. The Vietcong use of traps, as well as women and young children as soldiers, increased the paranoia of American troops. Seeing potential assassins everywhere, American soldiers frequently shot neutral and friendly Vietnamese, which greatly increased the support for the communists.

“The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was that they were gooks,” one Marine later said. “They were to be killed.” Barely out of high school, many fighting men were set on a hair trigger. Broadly worded orders given by superiors made tragedies more likely. On August 5, 1965, Marines approached the village of Cam Ne. Helicopters had buzzed the village and warned the people living there to evacuate. Marines approaching the village were told that they could assume anyone left behind was a “VC.”

“They told us if you receive one round from the village, you level it,” said Private First Class Reginald Edwards. “So we was coming into the village, crossing over the hedges . . . Not only did we receive one round, three Marines got wounded right off . . . So you know how we felt.” Edwards received an order to shoot a fleeing elderly man. “Caught my man as he was comin’ through the door. But what happened was it was a room full of children. Like a schoolroom. And he was runnin’ back to warn the kids that the Marines were coming. That’s who got hurt. All those little kids and people.”

The Marines burned Cam Ne to the ground. CBS newsman Morley Safer was there to capture the scene and, in a devastating report later aired to a national television audience, reported that two of three Marines injured had been hit by friendly fire. The village had been destroyed for the actions of what was apparently just one sniper. Safer got involved in the story, tried to help villagers escape and discovered that they had not understood the orders to evacuate, which had been given in English.

“The day’s operation burned down 150 houses, wounded three women, killed one baby . . . and netted these four prisoners,” Safer told his audience. “Four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English. Four old men who had no idea what an ID card was. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home . . . means a life of backbreaking labor . . . it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”

This report marked one of the first critical accounts of the war to appear in the American media, which had dutifully supported the military effort, bought into the domino theory, and had accepted that the Vietnam conflict was not a civil war in which the United States supported an unpopular side against forces seen by many in Vietnam as patriotic. Instead, like the government, most of the press saw Vietnam as part of a global chess game played between the Americans and the Soviets.

“FEASTING ON THE BODY”

Over the years the Cam Ne tragedy was repeated countless times. Unlike World War II, where soldiers served until the war’s conclusion, during Vietnam troops served for approximately one year. When soldiers got to the final weeks, it was common for them to carry a “short-timer’s stick.” They would cut off segments representing the remaining days of their deployment. In a sense, all Vietnam soldiers were short-timers, hoping to avoid death and eager to eliminate danger to themselves and, just as important, the danger to their comrades in arms. The level of violence in the war can be traced in part to this desperation.
Officers told infantrymen that every Vietnamese represented a potential assassin.

Communist troops reinforced this lesson by fighting ruthlessly, executing 39,000 South Vietnamese officials and members of the armed forces. During the communist occupation of Hué at the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968, VC and NVA forces butchered 2,800 civilians, and another 3,000 disappeared. (The United States also had an assassination program, Project Phoenix, that targeted Vietcong agents operating in South Vietnam and may have recorded 21,000 successful killings.) The communists saw themselves as defending their country from invaders. American soldiers joked that they were fighting the wrong Vietnamese and compared ARVN troops unfavorably to determined NVA and VC fighters. Nevertheless, U.S. infantrymen often saw their enemies as heartless killers.

The Vietcong use of child soldiers in particular sharpened GI distrust of the native population. “One afternoon I was standing on a corner waiting to catch a truck when a little shoeshine boy came up to me,” a veteran later told author Mark Baker.

"He’d been around for about six months. We all knew his name. He had a little box you put your foot up on. He was working on my boots and I look up and see this bar girl I knew across the street calling my name and waving for me to come over to her. I decided to go see what she wanted. Just about the same time another little kid came running by and grabbed the shoeshine’s hat. The shoeshine boy ran after the kid as I was crossing the street. The shoeshine’s box blew up. It was a satchel charge that took out twenty-three Americans. I got knocked to the ground, unconscious for a few seconds, but I wasn’t hurt. The bar girl was gone when I woke up, and nobody ever saw her again. The little kid disappeared too."

As another soldier told Baker, “You can’t tell who’s your enemy. You got to shoot kids, you got to shoot women. You may be sorry that you did. But you might be sorrier if you didn’t. That’s the damned truth.” Not just fear, but the desire for revenge over lost buddies, and resentment over dangerous assignments played a role in both large- and small-scale atrocities. One infantryman told Baker of the time he and two friends were stationed in a 125-foot guard tower near an air base and failed to respond to a radio signal. They were awakened by their commanding officer, who arrived loudly in a jeep and assigned them to stay in the tower for another day and night. “Everybody was really pissed because during the day, this fucking tower was really hot. And it’s like sitting in the bull’s eye of a target.”

The soldiers spotted a Vietnamese woman bent down working in a field about 500 yards away. Bored and angry, the soldiers egged each other on. ‘We’re talking to each other and somebody says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I betcha I can hit her. I said, 'Don’t be silly. Don’t even bother.’ She was obviously not an enemy agent or anything and she was way out of range.' The two other soldiers started firing at the woman. At first the soldier Baker interviewed said he didn’t participate.

But something came over me. I was pissed off. I was fucking hot. It was the second day in that fucking tower, you know. I said, 'Fuck you guys. Here, watch this.' I shot at her and she keeled over dead.

"I was so aware of my lack of regard for life at that point. Before, I couldn’t relate the pulling of the trigger and seeing somebody fall, because I’d been doing mostly night ambush. You never see who the hell you’re shooting at in the dark and then you run like hell. The next day you look for blood on the floor of the jungle and try to estimate how many you killed. But you can’t really tell. I just couldn’t believe that I had done it."

One GI told Baker of an incident when he was part of a team running security in a “free-fire zone.” The soldier recalled, “Anything that crossed into the free-fire zone was fair game. Any gook – woman, man, boy, girl – it was game to you. Anybody come along with a cart or just walking and we would go through their stuff.” The solider and his comrades had been in the field for almost three weeks.

A Vietnamese man and his daughter approached riding a Lambretta, a motorbike. The soldiers decided to stop them and were angered when they saw the man had a can of American pears. “Here we are in the field, we don’t know what pears is,” the soldier later remembered. “They got pears! And we don’t have pears.” One soldier grabs the can and opens it with his bayonet. The other GIs wanted their share. 'We were fighting, literally fighting to eat pears. Food! It wasn’t fresh, but it was something other than the shit they put together chemically and pressed into a can. It was like the man brought me steak and potatoes and I was back in my mother’s house eating Sunday dinner."

The soldiers became angrier over the pears and began to interrogate the Vietnamese man how he had gotten his hands on the cargo. The older man explained that he worked at an American mess hall and that the can had been given to him by GIs. “The GIs gave you pears?” the furious soldiers yelled. 'For that, we’re going to screw your daughter.' As the young woman wept, the GIs pulled her pants down as one of the men put a gun to her head. 'Why are you doing this to me?' the girl cried in English.
Turning their fury back on the father, they tore his identification card that the Vietnamese were required to carry. 'Hey, we got a VC here, fellas. A VC stealing government stuff, huh?' The soldiers began shooting the man, who was in his forties. As I said, we was in a free-fire zone. We just started pumping rounds into him until the guy just busts open. He didn’t have a face anymore.

"Baby-san, she was crying. So a guy just put a rifle to her head and pulled the trigger just to put her out of the picture. Then we started pumping her with rounds . . . And everybody was laughing about it. It’s like seeing the lions around the just killed zebra . . . The whole pride comes around and they start feasting on the body."

The longer the war dragged on, the bigger the gulf between the supposed liberators and the intended recipients of liberation. “Too many of us forgot that Vietnamese were people,” one soldier said. “We didn’t treat them as people after a while.”

RACE MATTERS

Racism shaped the Vietnam War in two ways: how American soldiers treated each other, and how they saw and treated the Vietnamese. The Johnson administration targeted potential American recruits in “Project 100,000,” launched in 1966 and shut down only in 1972. Under this program, 300,000 men unable to meet Army test score requirements could enter military service. McNamara dubbed Project 100,000 the “world’s largest education of skilled men.”

African Americans, far more likely to grow up poor, undernourished, neglected and without an adequate education, constituted 41 percent of the enlistees who entered the service through the project. Eight out of 10 of the blacks who signed up had dropped out of high school. Only 40 percent read at a sixth-grade level or higher. They received promises of education and job training. Instead, commanders sent a disproportionate 37 percent of Project 100,000 soldiers directly to combat. Poorly prepared for life in the military and operating in the highest-stress environments, the program’s soldiers experienced twice the normal rate of courts-martial, and 80,000 left the military without ever receiving the training needed for a better civilian life. Many also faced a life after the military with the added burdens of post-traumatic stress syndrome and disabling physical injuries.

Growing up in a culture saturated with white supremacist ideas, American soldiers often brought their racist baggage with them to Vietnam. Many black veterans reported being called “nigger” and being singled out for punishment as early as boot camp. In Vietnam, closer relationships developed between whites and blacks on the front – where soldiers depended on each other for survival -- than in the rear, where whites and blacks segregated in housing and in friendships.

Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant remembered serving with one openly racist white soldier on the front lines. “[There was a] . . . guy in our unit who had made it known that he was a card-carrying Ku Klux Klan member,” Bryant told author Wallace Terry. “That pissed a lot of us off, ’cause we had gotten real tight . . . We were always in the bush. Well, we got into a fire fight, and Mr. Ku Klux Klan got his little ass trapped. We were goin’ across the rice paddies, and Charlie [slang for the Vietnamese communist forces] just started shootin.’ And he just jumped back into the rice paddy while everybody else kind of backtracked. So we laid down a base of fire to cover him. But he was just immobile. He froze. And a brother went out there and got him and dragged him back. Later on, he said that action had changed his perception of what black people were about.”

Richard J. Ford III, an infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1967-1968, made similar observations. “The racial incidents didn’t happen in the field,” Ford said. “Just when we went to the back. It wasn’t so much that they were against us. It was just that we felt we were being taken advantage of, ’cause it seemed like more blacks in the field than in the rear.” However, behavior that might be tolerated at moments of danger, seriously damaged unit cohesion when the immediate threat faded. “In the rear we saw a bunch of rebel flags,” Ford said. “They didn’t mean nothing by the rebel flag. It was just saying we for the South. It didn’t mean that they hated blacks. But after you in the field, you took the flags very personally.”

Ford remembered a fight that broke out between black soldiers returning from a dangerous combat mission and whites at a military police barracks. “One time we saw these flags in Nha Trang . . . They was playing hillbilly music. Had their shoes off dancing. Had nice, pretty bunks. Mosquito nets over top the bunks. . . Air conditioning. Cement floors. We just came out the jungles. We dirty, we smelly, hadn’t shaved. We just went off. We turned the bunks over, started tearing up the stereo. They just ran out. Next morning, they shipped us back up.”

African American soldiers, who suffered death rates out of proportion to their share of the U.S. forces, suspected that white officers singled them out for dangerous combat duty. For this and other reasons, early on the Vietnam War became controversial in the African American community. In the early 1960s, Malcolm X saw the war as white America’s imperialism against people of color.

For years, the mainstream civil rights organizations held back, not wanting to antagonize allies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had attacked the war in accordance with his pacifist beliefs. By 1967, his words became sharper as he expressed fears that programs he favored, such as the War on Poverty, would be sacrificed to feed the ever-costlier war in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives had raised people’s hopes, King said, but the war was “an enemy of the poor.” As had others, King pointed to the irony of black men fighting for the freedom of others while being denied basic dignity at home. “We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southeast Georgia and East Harlem,” King said. “So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

Racial violence at home, such as in the Watts riot of 1965, the Detroit riot in 1967, and the King assassination in 1968, deepened the divide between black and white soldiers in the field. At the same time, American soldiers often perceived a deep racial divide between themselves and their Vietnamese hosts. One soldier in Vietnam, Norman Nakamura, believed anti-Vietnamese racism fed both casual abuse of the local population, such as throwing empty cans at children walking on a roadside, and major atrocities such as the massacre of the village of My Lai in 1968. “For some G.I.'s in Vietnam, there are no Vietnamese people,” Nakumura wrote in a guest column in the June/July 1970 edition of Gidra. “To them the land is not populated by people but by ‘Gooks,’ considered inferior, unhuman animals by the racist-educated G.I. Relieved in his mind of human responsibility by this grotesque stereotype, numerous barbarities have been committed against these Asian peoples, since ‘they're only 'Gooks.'"

Nakamura said that non-Asian American soldiers openly insulted what they called the dishonesty, immorality and squalor of the Vietnamese. " ‘How can these people live like this; why do they want to live like animals!’ is a common ethnocentric statement by G.I.'s when viewing the different customs and relative poverty of the Vietnamese,” Nakamura said. He continued:\

"Since many G.I.'s have had exposure only to American culture and mores, they use U.S. mores as a measure of what is right or wrong in the world and judge the Vietnamese accordingly. To such G.I.'s the Vietnamese live in poverty and in low standards of personal hygiene to a degree that is shocking to them. Ethnocentrically and naively feeling that human beings cannot live in such low standards, the G.I. feels that these people must want to live like animals when he sees the whole nation living in what he thinks to be animal-like standards. He makes this judgment assuming that the Vietnamese have the same education, goals, and opportunities that he has. Rather than having compassion for the Vietnamese, many G.I.'s are disgusted by them."

Drawing on America’s mythology of the Old West, their minds filled with scenes from movies in which the cavalry mowed down droves of murderous “redskins,” troops in Vietnam often called themselves “cowboys” and the natives “Indians.” As in the Asian theater of World War II, American soldiers were more likely to shoot soldiers who had surrendered than had their peers fighting in Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Like Anglo soldiers fighting the Japanese, American soldiers also sometimes collected and even mailed home “trophies” of their Vietnamese killed, such as severed ears.


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.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Soldiers' Stories: Compassion and Cold-Blooded Murder in Vietnam

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage I describe the very mixed human rights record of American soldiers and Marines in the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, draftees made up only 21 percent of the armed forces fighting there. Many volunteer Marines and soldiers like Philip Caputo felt inspired by President Kennedy’s call to national service and sought excitement not available in their sleepy hometowns. “I joined the Marines in 1960 partly because I got swept up in the patriotic tide of the Kennedy era but mostly because I was sick of the safe, suburban existence I had known most of my life,” Caputo recalled in his Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War. Caputo recalled his youthful desire for adventure while growing up in Westchester, Illinois, near Chicago:

There was small game in the woods, sometimes a deer or two, but most of all a hint of the wild past, when moccasined feet trod the forest paths, and fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes. Once in a while, I found flint arrowheads in the muddy creek bank. Looking at them I would dream of that savage, heroic time and wish I had lived then, before America became a land of salesmen and shopping centers. This is what I wanted, to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.

Kentucky-born Curtis Gilliland, Jr., believed it was his duty to serve. The young man was raised “to follow the flag, and he believed in the war,” wrote authors Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller in their collection of interviews with Vietnam veterans, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us. Gilliland spent 10 and a half months on the front line, got hit in the hand and the nose by bullets, and had a typical soldier’s share of fear and boredom. But Gilliland told interviewers he fell in love with the country and the people.

Practically his first glimpse of them was through the wire mesh on the bus bearing the new-meat recruits from Bien Hoa to Di An; he saw little children lining the roadside, starving, with their hands out of food, and he felt embarrassed by the terrible distance between their poverty and the plenty waiting for him back home. Most of his buddies kept their distance; even the sex in Vietnam was impersonal in the main; not an act of love, but a service to be bought and sold. Gilliland wanted to bridge it. “I loved them,” he said. “I really appreciated them. I wanted to get close to them.”

Returning home, Gilliland suffered “no bad dreams, no sleepless nights, no sweaty wrestling matches with an unquiet conscience.” He believed he had served honorably. However, his “love affair with the Vietnamese never ended.” Gilliland was haunted by one image, that of a mixed-race child in Vietnam, “the homeless love child of a Vietnamese mother and a GI father. The image froze in his mind, along with the twinge of pity that he felt.” He wanted to adopt the boy and sent a letter of inquiry about the child that went unanswered.

Instead, in later years Gilliland would mentor a young Vietnamese man, one of the thousands of “boat people” who fled Southeast Asia after the victory of the communists in South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. Gilliland met this young Vietnamese friend at a college campus and became his spiritual brother. If Gilliland felt any bitterness about the war when he was interviewed in the early 1980s, it was because he believed the United States had abandoned the Vietnamese to the communists after the American withdrawal from the conflict in 1973 and had ignored the hunger and poverty there ever since. “The country’s got to the point that it doesn’t care,” he told Goldman and Fuller. “When we get bombed, then we’ll fight – that’s the way I think the country feels right now. We just got too selfish.”

Vietnam brought out the best and the worst in American fighting men. Sandra Collingwood, a community development worker in Vietnam during the war, recalled seeing soldiers sharing food rations with Vietnamese villagers. Journalist Anne Allen recalled meeting a six-year-old Vietnamese boy in Saigon who had been informally adopted by American GIs, who gave him child-sized fatigues that he always wore, and taught him English, including the four-letter words that peppered the troops’ daily speech. The boy, called Dewey, served as a translator for the soldiers and was brought along when the Americans negotiated with prostitutes. Once he finished negotiating terms, the soldiers rewarded Dewey with a soft drink for his translation work, and the boy was sent on his way. Allen reported that Dewey loved “his” GIs.

Sexual relations between soldiers and local women became commonplace, even though these women were looked down upon by other Vietnamese as no better than prostitutes. Many times, soldiers made promises to their “in-country” girlfriends that they didn’t keep, and the relationships ended when the men returned stateside.

At times, soldiers married or proposed to their Vietnamese girlfriends, but Americans wanting to continue their relationships encountered harsh legal barriers when they attempted to bring their loved ones to the United States. Some failed to complete a pile of paperwork before the communists took over South Vietnam, making the reunion impossible, while other women did not want to move to an unfamiliar land or were blocked by family members dependent on their work.

Vietnamese women who had American boyfriends or had borne a child of an American might be beaten or rejected by their parents, and most Vietnamese men would not even consider marrying them. "When you gave birth to a mixed kid, in the countryside, they hold many prejudices against you,” said Mai Thi Kim, whose mother had a relationship with an American naval officer who became her father. “... I was very bitter and shameful when they looked down on me that way." Biracial children faced ridicule by peers who called them "con lai" (half-breed) or "bui doi" (the dust of life).

The Vietnam War included scenes of deep compassion and horrifying cruelty. Doctors serving in Vietnam persuaded friends in the United States to send griseofulvin, a treatment for the terrible cases of ringworm. One doctor, Lawrence H. Climo, recalled GIs making poverty wages offering to pay for medical care for the daughter of a Montagnard tribesman who had been released from a local charity ward. As the girl’s condition worsened from lack of food and water, local soldiers pooled resources to save her life. With money collected from servicemen, Climo was able to place the girl in a “pay” ward at the hospital, where she recovered.

“I save food from the officers' mess (hot dogs, vegetables, etc.) and bring it to a hospitalized Montagnard with nutritional deficiencies and to a young girl low on . . . red blood cells,” Climo later recalled. “The hungry family, visitors and other patients gather about me.” Meanwhile, the United States Agency for International Development made available powdered milk, protein supplements and wheat for the underfed patients recovering in the Montagnard charity hospital.

Military medical crews provided the first effective care for many Vietnamese suffering from treatable diseases that in some cases had almost disappeared in the West. Climo, stationed near the Montagnards who fought as American allies in the war, said every member of the tribe he examined tested positive for tuberculosis and that leprosy was a common ailment. Many of his patients suffered from parasites like pinworm and hookworm. Typhoid fever, malaria and anemia claimed many Montagnard victims. About 50 percent of the children born near Climo’s station died before they reached age five.

Many diseases stemmed from haphazard or nonexistent sanitation. “There were no latrines for the families living with the patients,” Climo remembered. “They defecated outside the windows. Behind the surgery ward was a black, foul-smelling, fly-infested streamlet with pooled feces, urine and infected waste.” Climo, and the rest of his Army 33rd Advisory Team, spent their time outside of the hospital wards constructing shelters for families, sanitary facilities and hospital furniture.

“I never saw so many guys cry as I did while I was in Vietnam,” one nurse said after she returned from the war. “Some of those corpsmen and men from the field amazed me with how gentle they were with their buddies. One of the big fears the guys had was of dying alone.” The nurse recalled badly wounded GIs pleading with their friends, “Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.”
The reaction of the doctors to tragedy shocked this nurse the most. “I went over to Vietnam thinking that Army doctors were hard asses. It’s just not so,” she said. One night a 21-year-old Vietnamese girl cleaned the floors of the medical barracks. A flammable liquid had been used to remove wax, but a soldier struck a match on the floor while the woman was scrubbing the surface, and she burst into flames.

A surgeon named Paul treated her. “When he got to her, she was 100 percent second- and third-degree burns,” the nurse said. Plus, she had inhaled a lot of smoke. Usually these people are going to die, so you let them. The thing was, she was still conscious and talking, and her kidneys were still working. So he had to try and save her . . . Burn victims shed the inside of their lungs. It’s like getting sunburned on the inside and peeling. She would cough up her lungs and she’d be bleeding and slowly choking to death. She could speak English. She would hold on to Paul and beg him to not let her die.”

The doctor disappeared for an hour, saying he had to think about what treatment he should try next. The nurse found him in a room the size of a closet. “He was in there crying his eyes out,” she said. ‘What am I going to do? I never should have started that IV on her. I never should have put that catheter in her. But she was alive when she came in and I had to do something. I can’t trach her. She’ll live six weeks and then she’ll die horribly. What am I going to do with her?’” The doctor and the nurse did they only thing they could – as the woman slowly died they changed her dressings and tried to reassure her that they wouldn’t let her die, even as they decided to discontinue heroic measures.

Medical personnel dealing with emergencies always have to undertake triage – setting priority on which patients get treated first based on the seriousness of the injuries and the likelihood of survival. In Vietnam, doctors and nurses admitted later, the patient’s nationality and politics entered into the equation. “The GIs had first priority,” said Sylvia Lutz Holland, an Army nurse at the 312th Evacuation Hospital in Chu Lai, South Vietnam. “[T]hen the ARVN, then Vietnamese civilians, and finally the Viet Cong. You’d look at the wounds, check the vital signs, and just make a decision – he’s a go, or he can wait. We had to move fast but we worked on trying to keep a calm voice and always had some kind of physical contact with the patients. A lot of times, as soon as you touched them you could feel the tension drift away.”

Holland found the carnage numbing and sometimes wondered if the doctors and nurses had done a favor to the soldiers who lives had been saved. “We had a lot of men who had stepped on land mines,” Holland said. “It was a guerilla war and the whole idea was not to kill but to maim and injure and decrease morale. The Viet Cong were really good at that.” The tactic was effective, Holland said.

Very few of the wounds we had in Chu Lai were the result of bullets. When the mines exploded people often lost their legs, but the heat of the blast would cauterize all their big vessels so they didn’t bleed out. Sometimes they were still conscious and talking. We had two gentlemen who were gone from the waist down and their arms were gone but they still had a bladder and some bowel and they were alert and oriented. They had surgery and lived. I often wondered what kind of life that was. Quality of life isn’t supposed to be an issue when you make triage decisions, but you’re saying to yourself, if you send a nineteen-year-old home without his arms and legs, who’s gonna want him? Or the guy whose face is all disfigured and burned. Is someone going to love him and share their life with him? I thought about that a lot. We saved their lives, but what life?

BAD CHEMISTRY

If medics experienced death firsthand, for some soldiers American military technology made killing an abstract, distant experience. This, in turn, encouraged an indifference to Vietnamese lives. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in the war, and 300,000 suffered injuries, making it the fourth costliest in American history and creating psychological scars still shaping American politics five decades later. These numbers, however, pale alongside Vietnamese casualties. The South Vietnamese military suffered 224,000 deaths and 1 million injured. The government of Vietnam announced in 1995 that 1.1 million communist troops, including the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, died; and 600,000 were wounded during the American war from 1964 to 1973. The number of civilian casualties, North and South, remains controversial, but most estimates place the number between 1 and 2 million.

The American air war played a prominent role in Vietnamese military and civilian deaths. In 1961 and 1962, the U.S. military began experimentation with a variety of counter-insurgency tactics aimed at crippling the Vietcong guerillas. Military scientists developed defoliants aimed at poisoning food supplies for the communist forces and stripping bare the trees in forests and jungles where the VC camped and launched surprise attacks. The plan was to deny the VC food and places to hide. In the six years between 1962 and 1968, the United States military sprayed almost 700,000 acres of farmland with “Agent Blue,” a chemical compound damaging rice crops, which caused hunger among peasants in the Vietnamese countryside.

Operation Ranch Hand, whose pilots parodied the well-known “Smokey the Bear” anti-forest fire advertising campaign with the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forests,” began dropping highly carcinogenic chemical compounds like Agent Orange on Vietnam in January 1962, with 100 million pounds dumped over four million acres in South Vietnam over the next eight years. The bombings and the defoliants destroyed about half of the country’s timberlands.

Decades after this campaign, Vietnamese as well as American veterans of the Vietnam War suffered from side effects of Agent Orange and other defoliants, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, lung cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer. After the war, American veterans reported abnormally high rates of children born with spina bifida, or lacking arms and/or legs, or with Down syndrome. Agencies like the Red Cross estimate that by 2003, a half-million Vietnamese had died from health complications caused by Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war, and that 650,000 still suffered health problems. The Vietnam food chain is still poisoned by dioxins introduced into the soil and water by defoliants.

Americans also dropped 400,000 tons of bombs containing a petroleum-based jelly made of polystyrene, gasoline and benzene known as Napalm-B. This fire-starting agent burns at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the military used it to destroy villages suspected of being enemy bases, to clear areas with heavy foliage to allow airborne surveillance, and to terrify the Vietcong and their supporters. Victims of napalm suffered as the chemical created a burning sensation and ate away skin to the muscle layer. One American soldier later recalled witnessing an accidental napalm attack against a friendly village:

"A hooch [hut] went up in a ball of flame, and a woman and a couple of kids came running out of its suffocating core, the burning jelly charring the soles of their feet black. One of the men hurdled the concertina wire [surrounding the village] . . . and pulled them screaming out of the fire, but there was no way to put out napalm; it was made to cling to human flesh and keep eating inward until it burned itself out."

Nurse Holland spent part of her tour of duty working in the “Vietnamese ward” at a hospital in Chu Lai. She frequently dealt with the casualties of America’s chemical warfare. “Mostly we had women and children and elderly men,” she said.
They were country people – fishermen or rice farmers – who came in with amputations, abdominal wounds, head wounds, pneumonia, infections, everything. Some of the children came in with napalm burns. Most of them were burned pretty badly and when you touched them a white, powdery dust would come off of their skin. It was like their skin was evaporating. It had a really pungent odor of burned flesh and chemicals. Their beautiful country and their homes and family were torn apart and yet they managed to survive. They took care of one another and would absorb people from other families who weren’t even blood relatives. They were warm and caring. Family members were always in the hospital.

“KILLING IS THE EASIEST PART”

Dennis Deal, a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, remembered being almost overwhelmed by the lushness of Vietnam when he first arrived. “We landed and it was almost bucolic,” he said. “It was just so beautiful out. It was like a national park – really, really peaceful.” Deal landed in November 1965 and he anticipated a heroic, John Wayne-style romp. “I thought I was really a bad ass, and what five-foot, one-hundred-pound little Asian punk was going to hurt me? I soon found out.”

Ground troops felt unprepared for the physical demands of fighting in Vietnam, where temperatures often soared as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat enhanced by high humidity. Salt tablets became part of a soldier’s necessary survival tools. Meanwhile, fire ants and leeches tormented soldiers, leaving the surface of the skin painfully itchy and fiery red. Abrasive elephant grass growing as tall as eight feet also tore at the troops’ skin. Rubber and bamboo trees so densely crowded the jungle landscape that the sun at times could not be seen in broad daylight. Soldiers often could move no more than 100 feet in one hour, even as they were overwhelmed by the smells of gunpowder, sulfur, diesel fuel and rotting corpses.

“War is not killing,” one soldier said. “Killing is the easiest part of the whole thing. Sweating twenty-four hours a day, seeing guys drop all around you of heatstroke, not having food, not having water, sleeping only three hours a night for weeks at a time, that’s what war is. Survival.”

Added to this suffering, soldiers experienced sensory overload. They focused on the tiniest sounds that could indicate an activated booby trap. Sometimes they felt overwhelmed by the intense brightness of the colors in the brush, shades of green that many veterans said vibrated before their eyes. “Sometimes it was beautiful,” another soldier recalled. “We were in a bamboo forest and came upon an old Buddhist temple with vines climbing all over it, big Buddhas, brightly colored with reverse swastikas and leaf designs.” Booby traps set across the most thickly wooded parts of the countryside shattered such reveries.
Military personnel had to watch each step for punji stakes, sharpened bamboo sticks hidden under leaves and other cover.

Marines and soldiers sometimes accidentally tripped an explosive, and when they dropped to the ground, they were impaled on the punji stakes, which had been coated with animal excrement in order to cause infections just in case the stab wounds failed to kill the victim. Trip wires on jungle floors released huge wooden slabs or large, heavy balls of mud containing sharp spears that swung down and struck passing infantry.

Once while on reconnaissance, an unfortunate Marine stepped on a bear trap that could be opened only with a special key. As a medical evacuation helicopter waited to carry the wounded man to safety, other Marines discovered that a chain connected the trap to a concrete slab buried three feet deep. Medics had to dig up the heavy anchor and carry it along with the chained Marine to get him to doctors. At the medical station in Da Nang, a team used torches and hacksaws to cut loose the Marine’s leg.

“My first encounter with death was a booby trap,” a veteran told author Mark Baker. “ . . . A bomb was in the ground with wires leading to two VC, sitting in a hole about a hundred yards away, just waiting until the main part of the column got there. Then they stuck two wires to an eight-volt battery and eleven men were blown up . . . I was angry. Angered because we didn’t have a chance to fight back. We just got blown up . . . We went into the jungle totally different from that moment on.”

Soldiers feared so-called “Bouncing Bettys,” land mines with a spring that activated an explosive when stepped on. The explosive propelled four or five feet into the air and sprayed metal shards and other cutting projectiles downward and outward. Such explosives could kill several infantrymen at the same time. Even in the cities, soldiers had to watch out for hidden explosives in abandoned toys and even in the bodies of dead Vietnamese. On top of these dangers, soldiers and Marines witnessed women and small children tossing hand grenades at Americans and sometimes discovered that Vietnamese to whom they had grown close were secretly fighting for the Vietcong. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish friends from foes.

“About five of us went out on a short recon patrol,” a soldier told Baker.

"We came around the bend and there’s two guys in green fatigues throwing hand grenades in the river. So right off we say, ‘Boy, that’s the enemy, man, and we’ve got ’em.’ We jumped out there and captured them, tied them up with wire and about half killed them. We drug them all the way back to camp. Me and two other guys were going to take them to the POW compound . . . We had only been there two days but – oh boy – we were in Combat. We dropped them off at the POW camp. The interrogator steps up and says three words to them. Come to find out they’re National Guard, Popular Forces. They’re on our side. What were they doing throwing hand grenades in the river? They were fishing."


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.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Into The Stone Age: The American Bombing Campaign In Vietnam

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the American air war and the escalation of troops in Vietnam after the 1964 presidential election.

With Vietnam eliminated as a political issue in the 1964 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson successfully portrayed himself as a peaceful man of reason and Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as a dangerous fanatic who might use nuclear weapons to achieve American military ends. Johnson overwhelmed Goldwater in the election and, armed with a mandate from the voting public and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he felt politically strong enough to push a more aggressive approach in Indochina.

Ambassador Maxwell Taylor met with South Vietnamese military brass in early 1965, insisting that Washington would increase American troop levels there if the regime stabilized politically. However, within a few days, Vice Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Ky and General Nguyễn Chanh Thi overthrew the government. Angered, Taylor called the officers together again and, as the historian George Herring puts it, dressed down the military officials “as a drill instructor might talk to a group of troops.” His voice dripping with sarcasm, Taylor suggested that perhaps something had been wrong with his French. “Now you have made a real mess,” he said. “We cannot carry you forever if you do things like this.”

This political uncertainty led Johnson to delay sending a much larger troop deployment. Instead, Johnson spent early 1965 relying on a heavy bombing campaign in North Vietnam aimed at breaking the communists’ will to fight and the Hanoi regime’s ability to supply men and arms to the South. The ostensible rationale for the bombing campaign came with the Battle of Pleiku, in which eight Americans died on February 7, 1965. Called “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the bombing of North Vietnam lasted from March 1965 until November 1968, involving two million sorties in which more than one million tons of bombs were dropped.

In all, 7,078,032 tons of bombs would be dropped by Americans on North and South Vietnam from 1964 until 1973, as compared with the total of 2,057,244 tons dropped by American pilots in all theaters of World War II. This came to about 1,000 pounds for every Vietnamese man, woman and child. Johnson put great stock in the American monopoly on air power and wanted strict control of targets so the conflict would not spin out of control. The president reportedly boasted, “they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.” Bombing raids on an almost entirely rural country like North Vietnam, however, produced meager military results, and the South Vietnamese military continued to perform poorly. The communists, meanwhile, seemed poised for an offensive in the South’s Central Highlands. Johnson reluctantly gave approval to an expanded air campaign with fewer restrictions.

“My solution to the problem [of communist advances] would be to tell the North Vietnamese communists frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we're going to bomb them into the Stone Age,” declared Air Force General Curtis LeMay. Operation Rolling Thunder didn’t stem North Vietnam’s momentum, but it did become the rationale for a larger commitment of ground troops.

Two battalions of Marines waded ashore at Danang on March 8, 1965, along with tanks and howitzers, to protect the airbase there – the first American combat units dispatched to Vietnam. “[T]hey were welcomed by South Vietnamese officials and by pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers,” historian George C. Herring wrote. “It was an ironically happy opening for what would be a wrenching experience for both countries.”

The administration decided to lengthen the bombing campaign to a year (it would be extended to more than three years) and to put 40,000 combat troops “in country.” Eventually more than 500,000 Americans would be fighting and dying in Southeast Asia. To avoid the possibility of a devastating engagement such as the French experienced in 1954 at Dienbienphu, troops would be assigned to protect limited, 50-mile enclaves around American bases. These enclaves, the Americans hoped, would prevent the communists from scoring a knockout blow while giving the air war a chance to cripple the enemy.

“A TVA FOR THE MEKONG”

Johnson never felt secure about the troop escalation, afraid he was getting sucked into a commitment from which he could not retreat. A small number of domestic critics, including the influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippman, began to speak out against the prospects of a land war in Asia,. Aware that more ground forces meant higher American casualties and aware that the deaths of servicemen could erode support for his policies, Johnson made his first extensive attempt to win public backing for the war.

Johnson decided to make a peace offer to the North Vietnamese on April 7, 1965. Speaking from Johns Hopkins University, Johnson described his plan as “peace without conquest.” Johnson undercut his offer by repeatedly underscoring his commitment to South Vietnam’s separate existence as an independent state, even though the North Vietnamese had made clear they would accept nothing short of national unification.

"We have made a national pledge to help South Vietnam defend its independence,” he said. “We are also there to strengthen world order . . . We are also there because great stakes are in the balance . . . We will not withdraw." At the same time, he offered $1 billion in aid to economically develop the Mekong River in Vietnam. He called the proposal the equivalent of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which provided electricity for much of rural America. Initially, the speech was a domestic political success. Johnson’s firm commitment to South Vietnam assuaged war supporters while his peace offer and pledge to economically build Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia for a time assuaged skeptics of the war.

As a foreign policy initiative, however, it failed. Johnson believed he had made an offer that Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, couldn’t refuse. On a return flight to Washington, Johnson confidently told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “Ol’ Ho, he can’t turn me down.” The North Vietnamese government did just that the following day. Ho Chi Minh would not surrender to the famous “Johnson treatment” that had served the president so well when he served as senate majority leader. From this point on, Johnson stopped speaking of economic aid to Indochina as a major priority and instead focused rhetorically on the dangers that would be posed by a communist victory in the region. Unwilling to accept a military retreat, the president committed to a ground war.


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.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“Not A Ship, Nor The Outline Of A Ship . . .”: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe events leading up to the fateful Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Since the division of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, Americans had trained and dispatched Vietnamese agents across the border to assassinate communist officials, train anti-government guerillas, sabotage bridges and other infrastructure, recruit spies and so on. These efforts had proved spectacularly unsuccessful. Underpaid and demoralized South Vietnamese officials, operating in an atmosphere of rampant corruption, proved easy targets for North Vietnamese spies. In contrast, it proved hard to infiltrate the highly disciplined, dedicated government agencies in the North. Of the 80 espionage and sabotage teams sent to North Vietnam in 1963, nearly 100 percent of the agents had been killed or captured.

These efforts, however, heightened the suspicions of the North Vietnamese government, which nervously awaited an expected escalation of American forces in the South. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh anticipated that the Americans would try to inflict damage on the North and had convinced the Soviet Union and the Chinese government to provide sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries, radar, missiles and other defensive weapons. The American military conceived a plan in which South Vietnamese commandos would attack and activate North Vietnamese radar transmitters, allowing the signals to be intercepted by American intelligence ships, which could then pin down the location of these defense installations. American aircraft could then destroy communist radar sites and anti-aircraft guns, enabling American bombers to destroy larger targets within North Vietnam.

This would require the Americans and the South Vietnamese to patrol the waters near North Vietnam’s coastline, considered vulnerable to attack by the communist military command. “The Tonkin Gulf is one of the world’s scenic wonders,” journalist Stanley Karnow wrote. “Junks and sampans ply its blue waters, silhouetted against a horizon of sharp karsts rising strangely from the sea, their peaks shrouded in grey mists. But this placid picture . . . is deceptive. Invaders and marauders had struck at Vietnam through here for thousands of years. And now it seemed to Hanoi’s communist rulers, with their keen historical memory, that the same threatening pattern was being repeated by a fresh breed of aggressors, the Americans and their South Vietnamese henchmen.”

The naval destroyer "U.S.S. Maddox" became one of the first ships dispatched to conduct naval intelligence probes in late July 1964. Superiors instructed Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the "Maddox," to sail no closer than eight miles from the North Vietnamese coast or four miles from its islands. North Vietnam had never declared the limits of its territorial waters. The French had set the limit at three miles from its coast, but Hanoi was likely to follow China’s lead and regard 12 miles as the line of demarcation. Sending the Maddox within the 12-mile limit represented an intentional provocation.

The afternoon of July 30, four swift boats manned by South Vietnamese commandoes attacked the North Vietnamese island of Hon Me, seven miles off the coast, then Hon Ngu, an island just three miles from the busy port of Vinh. The "Maddox" intercepted radar signals and transmitted the information to the CIA. The Maddox stayed in the area and, in the early morning of August 2, 1964, the crew faced off against hundreds of North Vietnamese junks. On high alert and anticipating an attack, Captain Herrick radioed to the Seventh Fleet Command that he expected an imminent attack.

A technician on board the "Maddox" informed Herrick that he had intercepted a North Vietnamese message suggesting the enemy vessels were preparing for “military operations.” Herrick requested permission to withdraw, but instead his superiors ordered him to remain, and the "Maddox" sailed within 10 miles of the Red River Delta. Technicians intercepted new orders from the North Vietnamese ships to attack the Maddox after refueling. Herrick told his crew to fire if enemy craft came within 10,000 yards. Soon the "Maddox" unleashed repeated salvos on the North Vietnamese junks.

After a twenty-minute battle, the "Maddox" barely suffered a scratch but seriously damaged two North Vietnamese vessels and sank a third. President Lyndon Johnson gave the Navy orders to send the "Maddox" back to the Gulf of Tonkin, this time accompanied by a second vessel, the Turner Joy. Naval commanders ordered the ships to buzz the North Vietnamese coast even more closely. Rear Admiral Robert B. Moore contacted Herrick, telling him to treat North Vietnamese vessels as “belligerents from first detection.”

As the "Maddox" approached its objective on August 4, thunderstorms played havoc with the ship’s sonar and radar equipment. Technicians signaled to the captain that North Vietnamese vessels had fired 22 torpedoes at the Maddox even though no enemy ships had been seen and none of the charges hit their supposed targets. The Maddox opened fire. Technicians then warned of more torpedoes on the way.

Captain Herrick dispatched pilots to find the attacking ships. Commander James Stockdale, who would later be shot down over North Vietnam and would spent 1965-1973 as a prisoner of war before being promoted to admiral, flew one of the planes. (Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot would tap Stockdale as his running mate in 1992.) Flying over the Gulf, Stockdale radioed back, “Not a ship, not the outline of a ship, not a wake, not a reflection, not the light of a single tracer bullet. Nothing.” The captain sent a report to naval command, cautioning that an error may have been made in reading the sonar.

McNamara later said that Johnson reacted to the Gulf of Tonkin “on the belief that it was a conscious decision on the part of the North Vietnamese political and military leaders to escalate the conflict and an indication that they not stop short of winning.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later claimed that both he and the president were trapped in the assumptions of the Cold War, the idea that Vietnam was a chess piece used by the Soviets as part of a larger game ending in communist world domination. In spite of the ambiguities of the incident, Johnson also knew the political advantages that could be realized from exaggerating events. As the Pentagon spoke of “a second deliberate attack,” the president addressed the nation on television, declaring that “Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with defense, but with positive reply.”

That “positive reply” came in the form of the first major American bombing raid against North Vietnam. American aircraft bombed four North Vietnamese patrol bases and an important oil storage depot, destroying or damaging 25 North Vietnamese vessels. The North Vietnamese downed two American planes in the engagement, including one carrying Everett Alvarez, Jr., of San Jose, California, who would become the first American prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict and would remain in Communist custody for another nine years.

The guns on the deck of the "Maddox" had barely cooled when the war powers resolution was reintroduced to the Congress. Known popularly as “The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,” the document declared that, “the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States, and to prevent further aggression.” President Johnson would behave as if the resolution, passed on August 7 by a 416-0 vote in the House of Representatives and opposed only by Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening of Arkansas in the upper chamber, represented a virtual declaration of war.

Congress surrendered its constitutional prerogative to decide on matters of war and peace, and for nine years the House refused to shape war policy through its power of the purse for fear of being accused of not supporting the troops. Johnson won a monopoly on decision making while parceling out responsibility to congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. Meanwhile, Johnson’s approval rating jumped from 42 to 72 percent, according to a Lou Harris poll.


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.