Kent May 4 Center

US WAR IN VIETNAM: facts, history & book recommendations


The authors are National Coordinators of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The text first appeared in the Spring 1987 issue of VVAW's national newspaper, The Veteran.

US war in Indochina:

Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

1,921,000 Vietnamese dead
200,000 Cambodians dead (1969-1975)
100,000 Laotians dead (1964-1973)


3,200,000 wounded (VietNam, Kampuchea, Laos)


14,305,000 refugees (VietNam, Kampuchea, Laos) by the end of the war.


In 1965-1973, approximately one out of every 30 Indochinese was killed; and in 12 wounded; and one in 5 became a refugee.

In South Vietnam, the war left 300,000 orphans and 131,000 war widows.




United States

2,500,000 soldiers served in the war
58,135 soldiers were Killed
2,500 missing in action


303,616 wounded
33,000 paralyzed as a result of injuries
110,000 veterans have died from 'war-related' problems since returning to the U.S.


60,000 are suicides

35,000 U.S. civilians killed in Vietnam (non-combat deaths)


15,500,000 tons of bombs and munitions were used by U.S. forces.

18,000,000 gallons poisonous chemical herbicides such as Agent Orange were sprayed over forest and croplands in South Vietnam.


The U.S. spent $168.1 billion to fight the war. Its final cost is estimated at between $350 and $900 billion.


More than any U.S. war since the Civil War, Vietnam divided America and made us reevaluate our society.


By any standard the American effort in Southeast Asia was a major conflict. Money, bombs and men were fed into a meat grinder whose purpose seemed to change at every Presidential press conference. Now with more Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris movies, with the Academy Award for "Platoon," and with our deepening involvement in Central America and elsewhere throughout the world, more and more questions about the history and lessons of the U.S. war in Vietnam are being asked.


U.S. involvement in Vietnam did not begin in the 1960's or even the 1940's, but in 1845. That's right--1845. In that year the people of Da Nang arrested a French missionary bishop for breaking local laws. The U.S. commander of "Old Ironsides" (the USS Constitution) landed U.S. Navy and Marines in support of French efforts to reclaim their missionary. Mad Jack Percival, the ship's captain, fired into the city of Da Nang, killing 3 dozen Vietnamese, wounding more, and taking the local mandarins hostage. He then demanded that the Catholic Bishop be freed in exchange for his hostages. The Vietnamese were unimpressed. They refused his demand and waited. "Mad Jack" got tired of waiting, released his hostages, and sailed away leaving the Bishop behind.


One hundred and thirty years later, Americans would again become tired or their involvement and leave Vietnam. Unfortunately we would leave behind far more than 3 dozen dead.


U.S. involvement in Vietnam during World War II saw the Vietnamese as our allies. A group of 0SS agents (later to become the CIA) made contact with anti-Japanese guerrillas in Southeast Asia The French who had controlled the area were the "Vichy" French who, with their Nazi leanings, supported the Japanese.


Of the different Vietnamese nationalists, only the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh led the national network of underground organizations and guerrillas fighting. Ho Chi Minh met with the U.S. operative, Major Patti, and they agreed on joint anti-Japanese actions. The U.S. dropped supplies behind the lines to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh helped Americans downed behind Japanese lines.


The first American advisors helped train, equip and arm the Viet Minh. In 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was formed with Ho Chi Minh as the first President. American planes flew over Hanoi in celebration of the founding.


The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence echoed that of the U.S.: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence or the United States of America in 1776.


Understood in the broader sense this means: All people on earth are born equal. Every person has the light to live, to be happy, and free."

Ho Chi Minh asked the Americans to honor their commitment to independence, citing the Atlantic Charter and the U.N. Charter on self-determination.


However, by the end of the war, the U.S. government had begun to redirect its foreign policy from the war-time goal of the liberation of all occupied countries and colonies to the post-war anti-communist crusade which became the Cold War. which became the Cold War.


In France, where communists had led the Resistance to the Nazi occupation, American policy supported General Charles de Gaulle and his anti-communist "Free French." De Gaulle aimed to restore the glory of France, which meant the return or all former French colonies. U.S. relations with the Vietnamese turned sour. President Truman refused to answer letters or cables from Ho. Instead, the U.S. began to ship military aid to the French forces in Indochina.


The French return to their former colony was not easy. First, they had to arm and use former Japanese POWs to establish a foothold, not a move to win much popular support. They were able tot take towns but not the countryside. In 1950, General Giap launched a general offensive against the French which, though it was premature, resulted in 6,000 French killed or captured. France turned to the U.S. for more aid. At first it was $10 million a year but it grew to $1 billion (80% of the cost of the war) by 1954.


That year, the French were decisively defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Although the French government described Dien Bien Phu as a "victory," it was more truly portrayed by commentator Bernard Fall as France's "greatest colonial defeat since Montcalm died at Quebec."


With the French out, the U.S. moved in. According to international agreement, Vietnam was to be temporarily divided into north and south, with free elections to take place nationwide in 1956.


Ngo Dinh Diem, a Vietnamese Catholic living in Boston, was chosen Premier of South Vietnam which was 95% Buddhist. The U.S. set up MAAG (Military Assistance and Advisory Group) to train a "nationalistic" Vietnamese force or a quarter of a million men. This force was largely made up of Vietnamese who had fo Advisory Group) to train a "nationalistic" Vietnamese force or a quarter of a million men. This force was largely made up of Vietnamese who had fought for the French.


In 1956 the U.S. refused to go along with the elections because, in the words of President Eisenhower, "Ho Chi Minh would win 80% of the vote in a free election." U.S. involvement continued and so did U.S. money and men. American presence rose to 500 under Eisenhower and grew to 15,000 under Kennedy. But Diem continued to be in trouble: former Viet Minh cadre helped to support a number of groups to oppose Diem and the French successor in Vietnam--the U.S.


The similarity between the French and the U.S. forces in Vietna in Vietnam was, from the point of view of the Vietnamese, not only that both were foreign oppressors. Even our uniforms were similar, right down to the green berets. In fact, U.S. troops were known as "Frenchmen with money."


Buddhist unrest grew in the cities. In the countryside the National Liberation Front (the NLF, called the Viet Cong or VC by Diem and the U.S.) were killing Diem's cronies and consolidating power. The U.S. decided to back a group of Vietnamese generals to topple Diem. Not only did the generals get rid of Diem and assassinate him, they also proceeded to kill off each other on a regular basis.


The situation was desperate. More and more American troops were put in to replace Saigon troops who could not--or would not get involved in the fighting. The Saigon government had no real base other than the aid it got from the U.S., and we got exactly what we paid for pimps, prostitutes, cowards and gangsters, masquerading as a government and a military.


This was bad enough. But it was coupled with the incredible arrogance of the U.S. government and military leaders. They could not believe that Asians could stand up to the might and technology of the U.S. As the war progressed, we went from one stage to another without any real change in the situation. Strategic hamlets,Vietnamization, search and destroy, pacification: all these programs had been tried by the French, but somehow the U.S. nch, but somehow the U.S. thought we could make them work. They did not.


The American people were not being told at the plans or the policies of the U.S. government. To the contrary: Lyndon Johnson ran as a peace candidate in 1964, saying, "l won't send American boys to do the fighting for Asian troops." Americans were told that Vietnam was two countries (omitting some 2,000 years of history) and that the North was invading the South. And none of the information given out did anything to answer the questions at the 19-year-old American fighting the guerrillas in South Vietnam. While Saigon's leaders were talked about as the Vietnamese versions of Jefferson and Lincoln, we saw the drug-pushing, the black marketeering and the torture cells.


US WAR in Vietnam


Somehow in order to save Vietnam we had to destroy it. All in all civilian casualties from U.S. actions ran from 100,000 in 1965 up to 300,000 in 1968, just from bombing and artillery. In addition, millions upon millions of gallons of herbicides were sprayed over 6 million acres of land. We bombed hospitals to save orphans, we sprayed Agent Orange and destroyed the land in order to save crops, we burned hamlets to save villages and turned Vietnam into a huge whorehouse in order to save Vietnamese culture from Communism.


As GIs in Vietnam we saw the often stark realities of Vietnam and could compare them to the "truth"hem to the "truth" the American people were being told. We saw the corrupt Saigon generals making money hand over fist while their armies would not fight. We saw the hate in the eyes of the local villagers who never welcomed us as "liberators" bringing us bouquets of flowers as we had seen in World War II movies. The only Vietnamese who seemed to want us there wanted greenbacks in return for damages, booze or women, or all three. We also saw the enemy fight and had to admire both his bravery and tenacity in taking on U.S. tanks, planes and helicopters with grenades and rifles. We supposedly valued human life while our enemy did not. Yet we paid the owners of the Michelin plantations $600 for each rubber tree we damaged, while the family of a slain Vietnamese child got no more than $120 in payout for a life.


We fought up hills, winning what the press called "victories," but we saw half our friends die so that the company body count could go up to enhance the career of some lifer officer. And then we'd give up the hill and have to fight for it again later on. The war was not something to be won or lost by the grunt, but 365 days to be survived.


The U.S. tried everything to win. We dropped more than three times the total tonnage of bombs dropped by both sides in World War II. We conducted "Operation Phoenix" during which the CIA and the Saigon government killed up to 200,000 suspected managers00,000 suspected managers of the Viet Cong. We defoliated 10% of the land, much or it permanently. We bombed, bribed, shot, killed and burned for more than 10 years at a cost of $170 billion (and a future cost which is continuing to rise). And with all this, we still lost.


Nixon did not pull out because the U.S. was winning but because the Vietnamese were. Some generals today are saying we lost the war but never lost a battle--but what the hell did we "win" at Khe Sanh or in the Iron Triangle or in Laos or in Cambodia besides having some hole punched in some officer's promotion card.


The simple fact is that neither the American people nor the American GIs fighting in Vietnam thought that the goals--real or imagined--were worth the lives and the money being squandered. The war was lost on the battlefields of Vietnam and in the hearts and minds of the American people.


During the war, VVAW led tens of thousands of Vietnam vets in demonstrations against that war. No comparable group of Vietnam vets ever rose to challenge VVAW or our goals. When VVAW brought 1500 Vietnam vets to protest Nixon's renomination, the Republican Party could only come up with 6 vets to support the war--and some of these did not support Nixon. Vietnam vets knew firsthand about the real war--and opposed it.


As for foreign aggression, hear the words of Medal of Honor winner and Marine commandant Smedley Butler:


"War is conducted for the benefit or the very few at the expense of the masses. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes... How many millionaires ever shoulder a rifle? For a great many years as a soldier, I had the suspicion that war was a racket. Not until I retired did I fully realize it. I was nothing more than a gangster for Wall Street."



Vietnam Veterans Against the War


Founded in 1967 when veterans of he U S. war in Vietnam organized to oppose and end that war, VVAW has continued to fight against unjust wars and military adventures, and for the rights and needs Of veterans The struggle for treatment and compensation for posteatment and compensation for post traumatic stress and Agent Orange poisoning still goes on The real lessons Or the war in Vietnam still have not been learned We share with others the hope that our children will never have to fight such a war, that the lives Of our friends who died because of that war will serve to keep it from happening again.



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VVAW recommends these great Vietnam war BOOKS:


Some important titles are out of print, and some real trash has been put out but a lot of good books about the war continue to be published These are currently available (usually in paperback) at major bookstores:


Everthing We Had, by Al Santoli (Ballantine, 1981) What the war was like by 33 Americans who fought it.


Another powerful oral history is Nam, by Mark Baker (Berkeley, 1981)


Dear America Letters Home From Vietnam,  (Packet Bodes, 1985) A collection of G]s' letters to their families and friends.


The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City is inscribed with excerpts from these letters; the movie "Dear America" is based on them.


Bloods, by Wallace Terry (Ballantine, 1984), by Wallace Terry. The experiences Or 20 black veterans in Viet-nam and in the military



Home Before Morning by Lynda Van Deventer (Warner, 1983) An Army nurse tells about her time in the combat zone and her homecoming.


Another 26 American women who served in Vietnam tell their stories in A Piece of My Heart, by Keith Walker (Ballantine, 1985).


Every American's experience in Vietnam was different .


Three treatments of some or the less common experiences are:


Survivors, by Zalin Grant (Berkley 1975)--nine American POWs tell their own stories;


The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Mangold and John Penyeate (Berkley,1985)-an account of tunnel warfare told by both the Vietnamese and the Americans who fought underground;


Days Of Decision, by Gerald Gioglio Sunken Rule Press, 1989)--an oral history or conscientious objectors in the military during the war.


Dispatches, by Michael Herr (Avon, 1968) A powerful journal of what he saw and felt by a news correspondent on the front lines in 1967.


Born on the Fourth of July, by Ron Kovic (Pocket Baths, 1976). One of the most revealing accounts of war by a young man who went overseas a proud Marine and came home crippled and disillusioned.


Other true stories about coming to terms with the war:


If I Die in a Combat Zone, by Tim O'Brien (Deli, 1979).


And a Hard Rain Fell, by John Ketwlg (Pocket Books,1985).


Witness to War, by Charles Clements, M D (Bantam, 1984).


Brothers in Arms, by William Broyles, Jr (Avon, 1986). A veteran returns to Vietnam after the war.


In Vietnam Revisited, by David Delllnger (South End Press, 1986) an anti-war activist reports on a recent trip to Vietnam and our government's continued efforts to undermine and punish that country.


Winners & Losers, by Gloria Emerson (Penguin, 1972) A New York Times correspondent's account of the effect of Americans on the Vietnamese and the effects of the war on America's soul.


Long Time Passing (Signet, 1984), Myra MacPherson describes how the war affected the Vietnam generation--vets, families, protesters and objectors.


Fred Wilcox chronicles the continuing fight against government and corporate opposition and neglect to get treatment and compensation of veterans poisoned by Agent Orange in Waiting for an Army to Die (Vintage, 1983).


Vietnam & America, edited by Bruce Franklin and others (Grove Press,1985) . America's intervention in Vietnam's struggle for independence--documents, articles, speeches from Vietnamese guerrillas, U. S. government leaders and the anti-war movement


When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Haslip (Doubleday, l989).


Unwinding the Vietnam War, edited for the Washington Project on the Arts (Real Comet Press, 1987). Articles, poems and essays on what we learned from the war, and how we might prevent a repeat of that tragedy.


Shrapnel in the Heart by Laura Palmer Age, 1987). Letters and poems left at "The Wall," the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, and the stories behind them.


Poems mainly by veterans are collected in Carrying the Darkness, edited by WD Ehrhart (Bard/Avon, 1985).


Johnny's Song (Touchstone, 1986), the veteran and poet Steve Mason writes about the emotional scars left by the war.


In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason Per & Row, 1985) A novel--her father killed in Vietnam, a girl is raised by her uncle, another vet.