Stanley Karnow, Vietnam, a History: the First Complete Account of Vietnam at War (New York: Viking Press, 1983; Penguin Books, 1984)

Notes from Vietnam - a History

Chapter I: The War Nobody Won

"... the roots of the American intervention in Vietnam were planted and nurtured in what Professor Daniel Bell has called America's concept of its own 'exceptionalism'." p. 11

"It would be a gross distortion to suggest that the U.S. presence abroad was consistently prompted by such benign altruism. Big business exploited 'our little brown brothers' in the Philippines just as it manipulated the economies of Latin America, often underwriting local despots in order to defend its interests. ...
These moralistic pronouncements were meanwhile being matched by the zeal of American missionaries, especially in China. There the United States had promulgated an Open Door policy, designed to uphold China's sovereignty against the intrusions of European imperialists. But the missionaries were supposed to work from within to transform China into a Christian nation, thereby spurring the development of its democratic institutions and cementing its ties to America. Quaint as it may seem today, many prominent Americans hoped for a Christian China. ..." p. 13

“Reappraisals of wars tend to be a litany of "what might have beens" which profit from the acuity of hindsight, and the Vietnam experience is no exception. Most Americans, canvassed in the spring of 1965, as Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. ground forces into battle for the first time, supported the commitment. After the war was over, however, Americans overwhelmingly repudiated the intervention as having been a blunder. But roughly the same proportion of the nation holds in retrospect that, once involved, the United States ought to have deployed all its power to succeed. Postwar opinion polls show that Americans blame their political leaders for denying victory to the U.S. forces in Vietnam by imposing restraints upon their actions. A survey conducted in 1980 for the Veterans Administration disclosed that 82 percent of former U.S. soldiers engaged in heavy combat there believe that the war was lost because they were not allowed to win – and astonishingly, 66 percent indicated a willingness to fight again, presumably under fewer limitations. Looking back, too, many senior American officers who served in Vietnam predictably assert that defeat could have been averted had the war been waged more effectively.” p. 15

"... General Fred Weyand, the last American commander in Vietnam, has said: 'The American army is really a people's army in the sense that it belongs to teh American people, who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvment. When the army is committed the American people are committed; when the American people lose their committment it is futile to try to keep the army committed." p. 16

"... 'You know,' Summers told a North Vietnamese colonel after the war, 'you never defeated us on the battlefield.' To which his Communist counterpart replied, 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'" p. 17

"But such autopsies are academic exercises, like war games. The essential reality of the struggle was that the Communists, imbued with an almost fanatical sense of dedication to a reunified Vietnam under their control, saw the war against the United States and its South Vietnamese ally as the continuation of two thousand years of resistance to Chinese and later French rule. They were prepared to accept limitless casualties to attain their sacred objective. Ho Chi Minh, their leader, had made that calculation plain to the French as they braced for war in the late 1940s. 'You can kill ten of my men for every 1 I kill of yours,' he warned them, 'but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.'" p. 17

  "The real pressure on the Nixon administration to reach a settlement in Vietnam came from the American public, which by that time wanted peace at almost any price -- for reasons that Kissinger himself had perceived four years before. Early in 1968, on the eve of Tet, the Asian Lunar New Year, the Communists had launched a dramatic offensive against towns and cities throughout South Vietnam, which Kissinger saw as a 'watershed' of the American effort in Vietnam. 'Henceforth, no matter how effective our actions, the prevalent strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or with force levels politically acceptable to the American people.'
  Americans had been prepared to make sacrifices in blood and treasure, as they had in other wars. But they had to be shown progress, told when the war would end. In World War II they could trace the advance of their army across Europe; in Vietnam, where there were no fronts, they were only given meaningless enemy 'body counts' -- and promises. So the United States, which had brought to bear stupendous military power to crack Communist morale, itself shattered under the strain of a struggle that seemed to be interminable. An original aim of the intervention, first enunciated by President Eisenhower, had been to protect all of Southeast Asia, whose countries would presumably 'topple like a row of dominoes' were the Communists to take over Vietnam. Ironically, as Leslie Gelb of The New York Times observed, the real domino to fall was American public opinion.'
  The public, distressed at mounting casualties, rising taxes, and no prospect of a solution in sight, turned against the war long before Amerian political leaders did. ..." pp. 19-20

"... George Ball, a senior State Department figure during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations...later looked back on the war as 'probably the greatest single error made by America in its history.'" p. 20

"'I personally can't see that we accomplished anything,' said one veteran, and another added: 'A lot of people want to make sure that we don't engage in that type of situation again.' Gus Wilson, mayor when the young men departed with their national guard unit in 1968, was still mayor: 'We believed that the first thing that you did for your country was defend it. You didn't question that. But I think we realized as we went along -- maybe later than we should have -- that the government was pulling a bit of a flimflam. We weren't getting the truth. The Vietnam war was being misrepresented to the people -- the way it was conducted, its ultimate purpose. Though I'm still a patriot, I ended up very disillusioned.'
  Millions of Americans share Gus Wilson's sentiment. And their collective disenchantment, known as the Vietnam syndrome, has restrained U.S. leaders from undertaking hazardous ventures since the war ended". [Not for long! See Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, etc. ] pp. 21-22

“The U.S. army in Vietnam was a shambles as the war drew to a close in the early 1970s. With President Nixon then repatriating the Americans, nobody wanted to be the last to perish for a cause that had clearly lost its meaning, and the name of the game for those awaiting withdrawal was survival. Antiwar protests at home had by now spread to the men in the field, many of whom wore peace symbols and refused to go into combat. Race relations, which were good when blacks and whites had earlier shared the same sense of purpose, became increasingly brittle. The use of drugs was so widespread that, according to an official estimate made in 1971, nearly one third of the troops were addicted to opium or heroin, and marijuana smoking had become routine. Soldiers not only disobeyed their superiors but, in an alarming number of incidents, actually murdered them with fragmentation grenades – a practice dubbed “fragging.” An ugly scandal surfaced after officers and noncoms were arraigned for reaping personal profits from service clubs and post exchanges. Morale also deteriorated following revelations of a massacre in which a U.S. infantry company slaughtered more than three hundred Vietnamese inhabitants of My Lai village in cold blood – an episode that prompted GIs to assume that their commanders were covering up other atrocities. ” p. 23-24

“... the departure of the last American combat soldier in early 1973 ...” p. 24

“Yet many veterans feel themselves to be members of a dislocated generation, their place in the society uncomfortable, undefined, almost embarrassing – as if the nation has projected onto them its own sense of guilt or shame or humiliation for the war. . . . Most GIs returned from Vietnam quietly and unobtrusively, blending back into to population. But the war crippled an unusually high proportion of them, physically and mentally, in ways that are not quickly visible.” p. 25

“Saigon at the height of the war had stunk of decay. Its bars were drug centers, its hotels brothels, it boulevards and squares a sprawling black market hawking everything from sanitary napkins to rifles – all of it purloined from American warehouses. Soldiers from Ohio and Georgia and Oregon, black and white, their pockets filled with cash, strolled streets crowded with whores and pimps, beggars, orphans, cripples, and other victims of devastation. South Vietnamese army generals, enriched by silent Chinese partners, possessed gaudy villas not far from putrid slums packed with refugees, and government officials and businessmen connived constantly, shuffling and reshuffling the seemingly limitless flow of dollars. It was a city for sale – obsessed by greed, oblivious to its impending doom.” p. 35

“The United States might have plausibly encouraged Ho [Chi Minh] to emulate Marshall Tito, the Yugoslav Communist leader who was soon to defy Moscow. But American strategists during World War II viewed Indo china only marginally, a minor sideshow to the main Asian theaters in China and the Pacific. Later, as official American attitudes toward the region matured, they were dictated by two other factors: the U.S. alliance with France, whose fate was deemed vital to the uncertain future of Western Europe; and the fall of China to the Communists which spurred the foreign policy of “containment”,” contrived to block what then appeared to be Communist expansion. Within the context of the period, the United States was disinclined to underwrite Ho, a veteran Communist opposed to France. Thus it was that two decades before its commitment of combat troops there, the United States began to sink in the Vietnam quagmire.” [emphasis added] p. 136

“By 1954, seeing the Indochina war as a struggle against global Communism, the United States had spent $2.5 billion to finance the futile French military effort – more assistance than France received in Marshall Plan aid from America to rebuild its shattered postwar economy.” p. 137

Chapter VII - Vietnam is the Place

"As hist term neared its end, President Eisenhower was troubled less by the growing insurgency in Vietnam than bya a minicrisis in adjacent Laos, where the Soviet Union had stepped in to take advantage of a confused civil war. On January 19, 1961, on the eve of his retirement, Eisenhower cautioned his young successor, John F. Kennedy, that Laos was 'the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia' and might even require the introduction of American combat troops. ..." p. 247

"Thus Taylor started out with the same misperception held by his French and American predecessors in appraising the conflict in strictly military terms." p. 252

"But Kennedy's restraint was illusory. All the rhetoric now emanating from his administration reiterated its resolve to stop Communism in Southeast Asia, so that he could not backtrack without jeopardizing the American government's prestige -- and in time that consideration would become the main motive for teh U.s. commitment in Vietnam. The involement also deepened with the rapid arrival of more and more American advisors and equipment to short up the Diem regime." ... p. 253

[Note: We have got to save our reputation as fools!]

"The growing U.S. military investment in Vietnam was kept secret, partly because it violated the Geneva agreement, and partly to deceive the American public. ..." p. 253

"The country was also prepared to trust the president, even though he blatantly dissembled. For example, there was no further inquiry when Kennedy, asked at a news conference on January 15, 1962, if U.S. troops were engaged in fighting in Vietnam, delivered a one-word answer: 'No.'" p. 259

"The influx of U.S. hardware at that time was tiny compared to the later vast flow of material into Vietnam. But the equipment paradoxically sapped the Diem regime. For the aid, overwhelmingly military, confirmed Diem's conviction that he was waging a conventional conflit, and it stiffened his resistance to political, economic, and social reforms. Moreover, his battalions became more and more reluctant to confront the Vietcong squarely, relying instead on American air strikes and artillery shells to do their job for them. This suited Diem, who instructed his officers to avoid casualties. There primary role, in his view was not to fight the Vietcong, but to protect him against possible coups in Saigon." p. 259

Chapter VIII - The End of Diem

Chapter IX - The Commitment Deepens

"Johnson expecially feared that right-wing adversaries would prevail over him should South Vietnem fall to Communism, just as Harry Truman had been hounded by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other demagogues after the Communists engulfed China. Recollecting McCarthy's witch-hunts, he foresaw the danger of another mean destructive debate that would 'shatter my presidency, kill my administration and damage our democracy.' If a Communist victory in Vietnam knocked over the dominoes, Johnson would be the biggest domino to topple -- or so he believed." p. 320

[Note: Too many half-baked, unexamined assumptions. In 1964, the American people overwhelmingly elected LBJ to keep us out of war in Vietnam. He betrayed us utterly and paid for it.]

“Johnson subscribed to the adage that “wars are too serious to be entrusted to generals.” He knew, as he once put it, that armed forces “need battles and bombs and bullets in order to be heroic,” and that they would drag him into a military conflict if they could. But he also knew that Pentagon lobbyists, among the best in the business, could persuade conservatives in Congress to sabotage his social legislation unless he satisfied their demands. As he girded himself for the 1964 presidential campaign, he was especially sensitive to the jingoists who might brand him “soft on communism” were he to back away from the challenge in Vietnam. So, politician that he was, he assuaged the brass and the braid with promises he may never have intended to keep. At a White House reception on Christmas Eve 1963, for example, he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war.” p. 326

Chapter X - Disorder and Decision

Chapter XI - LBJ Goes to War

"George Ball, refuting the notion that America's global credibility stood to suffer as a consequence, he added: 'What we might gain by establishing the steadfastness of our commitments, we could lose by an erosion of confidence in our judgments.'" p. 405

"As he intensified the war in early 1965, Johnson tried to manage the nation's perception of his policies -- and his aides devoted as much attention to vocabulary as they did to strategy." p. 414

Chapter XII - Escalation

Chapter XIII - Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt

He [Johnson] wanted to wage the war without paying for it – just as he repeatedly refused to admit that he was escalating the conflict whenever he raised the troop level or stepped up the bombing. So he procrastinated, juggling and faking and concealing the statistics in a desperate attempt to avoid increasing taxes, the only way he could foot the bill. The subterfuge worked until the summer of 1967, when the numbers could no longer be fudged. Early in August, prodded by his economic specialists and outside business advisers, Johnson reluctantly proposed a 10 percent tax surcharge on individual and corporate incomes. Congress delayed passage of the proposal for nearly a year, and the budget deficit, which had soared to almost $10 billion for fiscal 1967, skyrocketed to triple that figure the following year. The inflation spiral that was eventually to cripple the United States and the rest of the world had begun its dizzy ascent.” pp. 487-488

“The bombing campaign, the study said, was having “no measurable direct effect on enemy military activities – and it restated the familiar reasons for that evaluation: North Vietnam was “basically a subistence agricultural economy” that presented an “urewarding target” for air raids; the volume of supplies sent south was too small to be stopped by air strikes and, in any case, the country had ample manpower to keep its primitive logistical network intact; intelligence estimates showed that infiltration into the south had risen since the bombing began and could continue to increase; and Chinese and Soviet assistance was more than compensating for the damage being inflicted. As for the effect of the air offensive on the morale of the North Vietnamese leadership and population, the report's observation simply underscored the testimony of nearly every foreign visitor to Hanoi within the past year. “The bombing clearly strengthened popular support of the regime by engendering patriotic and nationalistic enthusiasm to resist the attacks.”pp. 499-500

"Worst of all, South Vietnam's leadership and population were apathetic, corrupt, and undisciplined, and there appeared to be no prospect of stirring them out of their torpor." p. 500br />
Chapter XIV - Tet

“Vietnam was already so saturated with American soldiers chasing an elusive enemy that a U.S. battalion's “kill rate” averaged less than one Vietcong [i.e., Vietnamese peasant] per day.” At the “Five O'clock follies” as correspondents in Saigon called the regular afternoon briefings held in the U.S. Information Service auditorium, Westmoreland exuded his usual confidence. But his report was smothered the next morning in America's newspapers, whose front pages featured the grisly photographs of Loan executing the Vietcong captive. And the next evening, NBC broadcast its exclusive film of the event – slightly edited, to spare television viewers the spurt of blood bursting from the prisoner's head.” p. 529

“In 1787, the framers of the Constitution had devised a flexible formula: they designated the president to be commander in chief of the armed forces in order to guarantee civilian control over the military; but they vested the power to declare war in Congress. Thomas Jefferson noted the important distinction at the time. By giving that power to initiate hostilities to the legislative rather than the executive branch, he observed, the authority to unleash the dogs of war had been transferred “from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.” Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: a History, p. 359

“... The sole strategy for knocking the North Vietnamese out of the war from the air, McNamara concluded, would be some form of genocide: “Enemy operations in the south cannot, on the basis of any reports I have seen, be stopped by air bombardment – short, that is, of the virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people.

Stennis and his associates were not swayed. Indeed, their verdict had been reached before the hearings had opened. Civilian authority, they asserted in a final report, had “consistently overruled the unanimous recommendations of military commanders and the joint chiefs of staff,” who had repeatedly proposed “systematic, timely, and hard- hitting” actions. Their simple prescription was to put the soldiers in charge.

Lyndon Johnson was not about to yield his constitutional prerogatives as commander in chief to a cabal of right-wing politicians and soldiers.” p. 509

“... the United States was overextended – its resources strained by a little war that had grown into a bigger war. Giap's long-range strategy was to continue to bleed the Americans until they agreed to a settlement that satisfied the Hanoi regime. For that reason, the Communists were willing to endure terrible casualties during the Tet campaign, as they did throughout the war. The Tet offensive was not intended to be a decisive operation, but one episode in a protracted war that might last “five, ten, or twenty years.” Essentially, Giap was repeating to he United States what Ho Chim Minh had warned the French a generation before: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” p. 536

“ Johnson was primarily concerned with domestic opinion, while Westmoreland was trying to protect his reputation as a soldier.” p. 549

“Ironically, Wheeler and the joint chiefs essentially concurred in General Giap's assessment: the conflict was bleeding America.” pp. 550-551

"The frustrating talks were to drag on for another five years. More Americans would be killed in Vietnam than had died there previously. And the United States itself would be torn apart by the worst internal upheavals in a century." p. 566

Chapter XV - Nixon's War

"Just as the Vietnam war shattered Johnson, so it eventually contributed to Nixon's downfall. Johnson had sunk deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Southeast Asia until his senior aides turned against him, fearing that the American public's frustrations with the endless struggle might wreck the Democratic party -- as indeed it did. Nixon, on the other hand, was largely responsible for his own doom. The domestic opposition to the conflict that grew during his first term in office exacerbated his sense of beleaguered isolation, prompting him to sanction the accumulation of offenses that became Watergate. ... His political career began as it ended, with deliberate duplicity designed for one purpose: to win." p. 577

“Nixon fell back on other alternatives. One, to be called Vietnamization, would enable the United States to pull its troops out of Vietnam by transferring responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese. The other was to negotiate directly and secretly with the North Vietnamese, thereby circumventing the Saigon government, whose leaders feared that any accord with the Communists would undermine them. But these two efforts seemed to be incompatible, even contradictory. Why should the Communists conciliate if the United States forces were being withdrawn? Time was on their side. They were not troubled by an anguished public. From every indication, the Saigon regime would crumble if the Americans quit South Vietnam. So they had only to wait until the Americans departed, then overwhelm the South Vietnamese – as they nearly had before Lyndon Johnson intervened with ground units in the Spring of 1965.” p. 593

Kissinger had met Nixon only briefly, at a cocktail party at Clare Boothe Luce's elegant Manhattan apartment late in 1967. ... On the eve of the Republican convention in July 1968, he described Nixon as "the most dangerous, of all the men running, to have as president." Nixon's nomination drove him to despondency. The country, he feared, was about to be taken over by an anti-Communist fanatic. Over the next few weeks, however, ambition spurred him to reconsider. He began to ingratiate himself with the Nixon camp while keeping in contact with the Democrats.

Johnson was then considering the halt in the bombing of North Vietnam -- a step that swing the anti-war liberals back into supporting Humphrey. As Humphrey's fortunes rose, Kissinger maintained his ties with the Democrats. But through one of Nixon's foreign policy aides, Richard Allen, he got in touch with the Republicans, offering to furnish them with covert information on Johnson's moves. A clandestine channel was set up through Nixon's campaign manager, John Mitchell, and Kissinger guided the Republicans secretly on the Vietnam issue for nearly two months -- thus supplying Nixon with the ammunition to blast Humphrey for "playing politics with the war." Kissinger glosses over the episode in his memoirs, recalling that "only one question was ever put to me by the Nixon organization." Nixon, by contrast, says in his memoirs, that he received three substantial messages from Kissinger. Whatever the truth, Kissinger's subterfuge earned him Nixon's admiration and gratitude. Kissinger was soon to acquire his most important patron. 585

Other intrigues were going on -- among them one involving Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of General Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers during World War II. A Republican activist, she recommended to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that he object to the last-minute halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, a maneuver which she hoped would foil the Democrats and help Nixon. She also urged Thieu to procrastinate on the matter of participation in the Paris talks, explaining that firmer American support for his cause would be forthcoming after Nixon entered the White House. Her conduit to Thieu was Bui Diem, his ambassador to the United States. But Johnson was tracking her every move. Both the FBI and the CIA were tapping her telephone conversations with Bui Diem, intercepting the cable traffic to and from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, and spying on Thieu through an electronic device installed in his Saigon office. Nixon believed that he was being bugged as well -- especially after Johnson bluntly warned him against relying on Madame Chenault's machinations. 585-586

“I can't believe,” Kissinger said to his staff, “that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn't have a breaking point.” p. 596