[News] Zinn - The Impossible Victory: Vietnam

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Thu Apr 28 12:05:16 EDT 2005

April 30th marks the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam victory. i was blessed 
to celebrate this in Havana, Cuba...that week of the final offensive was 
being followed by Cubans in the smallest towns and the larger cities on 
these amazing maps on public display which documented daily news about the 
retreat of u.s. troops. As we drove into Havana for the May 1st 
celebration, it seemed like every billboard and intersection displayed the 
Vietnamese flag and some victory slogans. It was as if Cuba was transformed 
into Vietnam!
The Impossible Victory: Vietnam

excerpted from a

People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn



In the fall of 1945 Japan, defeated, was forced to leave Indochina, the 
former French colony it had occupied at the start of the war. In the 
meantime, a revolutionary movement had grown there, determined to end 
colonial control and to achieve a new life for the peasants of Indochina. 
Led by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionists fought against the 
Japanese, and when they were gone held a spectacular celebration in Hanoi 
in late 1945, with a million people in the streets, and issued a 
Declaration of Independence. It borrowed from the Declaration of the Rights 
of Man and the Citizen, in the French Revolution, and from the American 
Declaration of Independence, and began: "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." Just as the Americans in 
1776 had listed their grievances against the English King, the Vietnamese 
listed their complaints against French rule:

They have enforced inhuman laws.... They have built more prisons than 
schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots, they have drowned 
uprisings in rivers of blood. They have fettered public opinion.... They 
have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw 
materials ...

They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, 
especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.... . . . from the 
end of last year, to the beginning of this year . . . more than two million 
of our fellow-citizens died of starvation....

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are deter mined 
to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists 
to reconquer their country.

The U.S. Defense Department study of the Vietnam war, intended to be "top 
secret" but released to the public by Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo in 
the famous Pentagon Papers case, described Ho Chi Minh's work:

"... Ho had built the Viet Minh into the only Vietnam-wide political 
organization capable of effective resistance to either the Japanese or the 
French. He was the only Vietnamese wartime leader with a national 
following, and he assured himself wider fealty among the Vietnamese people 
when in August September, 1945, he overthrew the Japanese . . . established 
the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and staged receptions for in-coming 
allied occupation forces.... For a few weeks in September, 1945, Vietnam 
was-for the first and only time in its modern history-free of foreign 
domination, and united from north to south under Ho Chi Minh...."

The Western powers were already at work to change this. England occupied 
the southern part of Indochina and then turned it back to the French. 
Nationalist China (this was under Chiang Kai-shek, before the Communist 
revolution) occupied the northern part of Indochina, and the United States 
persuaded it to turn that back to the French. As Ho Chi Minh told an 
American journalist: "We apparently stand quite alone.... We shall have to 
depend on ourselves."

Between October 1945 and February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote eight letters to 
President Truman, reminding him of the self-determination promises of the 
Atlantic Charter. One of the letters was sent both to Truman and to the 
United Nations:

I wish to invite attention of your Excellency for strictly humanitarian 
reasons to following matter. Two million Vietnamese died of starvation 
during winter of 1944 and spring 1945 because of starvation policy of 
French who seized and stored until it rotted all available rice.... 
Three-fourths of cultivated land was flooded in summer 1945, which was 
followed by a severe drought; of normal harvest five-sixths was lost.... 
Many people are starving.... Unless great world powers and international 
relief organizations bring us immediate assistance we face imminent 

Truman never replied.

In October of 1946, the French bombarded Haiphong, a port in northern 
Vietnam, and there began the eight-year war between the Vietminh movement 
and the French over who would rule Vietnam. After the Communist victory in 
China in 1949 and the Korean war the following year, the United States 
began giving large amounts of military aid to the French. By 1954, the 
United States had given 300,000 small arms and machine guns, enough to 
equip the entire French army in Indochina, and $1 billion; all together, 
the U.S. was financing 80 percent of the French war effort. Why was the 
United States doing this? To the public, the word was that the United 
States was helping to stop Communism in Asia, but there was not much public 
discussion. In the secret memoranda of the National Security Council (which 
advised the President on foreign policy) there was talk in 1950 of what 
came to be known as the "domino theory"-that, like a row of dominoes, if 
one country fell to Communism, the next one would do the same and so on. It 
was important therefore to keep the first one from falling.

A secret memo of the National Security Council in June 1952 also pointed to 
the chain of U.S. military bases along the coast of China, the Philippines, 
Taiwan, Japan, South Korea:

Communist control of all of Southeast Asia would render the U.S. position 
in the Pacific offshore island chain precarious and would seriously 
jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests in the Far East.

Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world 
source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other 
strategically important commodities....

It was also noted that Japan depended on the rice of Southeast Asia, and 
Communist victory there would "make it extremely difficult to prevent 
Japan's eventual accommodation to communism." In 1953, a congressional 
study mission reported: "The area of Indochina is immensely wealthy in 
rice, rubber, coal and iron ore. Its position makes it a strategic key to 
the rest of Southeast Asia." That year, a State Department memorandum said 
that the French were losing the war in Indochina, had failed "to win a 
sufficient native support," feared that a negotiated settlement "would mean 
the eventual loss to Communism not only of Indochina but of the whole of 
Southeast Asia, and concluded: "If the French actually decided to withdraw, 
the U.S. would have to consider most seriously whether to take over in this 

In 1954, the French, having been unable to win Vietnamese popular support, 
which was overwhelmingly behind Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionary movement, 
had to withdraw.
An international assemblage at Geneva presided over the peace agreement 
between the French and the Vietminh. It was agreed that the French would 
temporarily withdraw into the southern part of Vietnam, that the Vietminh 
would remain in the north, and that an election would take place in two 
years in a unified Vietnam to enable the Vietnamese to choose their own 

The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish 
South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the 
government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had 
recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the 
scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the Joint 
Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a settlement based 
on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the 
Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina 
created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control." Diem again and 
again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American 
money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As 
the Pentagon Papers put it: "South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of 
the United States."


During 1965, over 200,000 American soldiers were sent to South Vietnam, and 
in 1966, 200,000 more. By early 1968, there were more than 500,000 American 
troops there, and the U.S. Air Force was dropping bombs at a rate unequaled 
in history. Tiny glimmerings of the massive human suffering under this 
bombardment came to the outside world. On June 5, 1965, the New York Times 
carried a dispatch from Saigon:

As the Communists withdrew from Quangngai last Monday, United States jet 
bombers pounded the hills into which they were headed. Many Vietnamese one 
estimate is as high as 500 were killed by the strikes. The American 
contention is that they were Vietcong soldiers. But three out of four 
patients seeking treatment in a Vietnamese hospital afterward for burns 
from napalm, or jellied gasoline, were village women.

On September 6, another press dispatch from Saigon:

"In Bien Hoa province south of Saigon on August 15 United States aircraft 
accidentally bombed a Buddhist pagoda and a Catholic church . . . it was 
the third time their pagoda had been bombed in 1965. A temple of the Cao 
Dai religious sect in the same area had been bombed twice this year. In 
another delta province there is a woman who has both arms burned off by 
napalm and her eyelids so badly burned that she cannot close them. When it 
is time for her to sleep her family puts a blanket over her head. The woman 
had two of her children killed in the air strike that maimed her."

Few Americans appreciate what their nation is doing to South Vietnam with 
airpower ... innocent civilians are dying every day in South Vietnam.

Large areas of South Vietnam were declared "free fire zones," which meant 
that all persons remaining within them-civilians, old people, children-were 
considered an enemy, and bombs were dropped at will. Villages suspected of 
harboring Viet Cong were subject to "search and destroy" missions-men of 
military age in the villages were killed, the homes were burned, the women, 
children, and old people were sent off to refugee camps. Jonathan Schell, 
in his book The Village of Ben Suc, describes such an operation: a village 
surrounded, attacked, a man riding on a bicycle shot down, three people 
picnicking by the river shot to death, the houses destroyed, the women, 
children, old people herded together, taken away from their ancestral homes.

The CIA in Vietnam, in a program called "Operation Phoenix," secretly, 
without trial, executed at least twenty thousand civilians in South Vietnam 
who were suspected of being members of the Communist underground. A 
pro-administration analyst wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs in January 
1975: "Although the Phoenix program did undoubtedly kill or incarcerate 
many innocent civilians, it did also eliminate many members of the 
Communist infrastructure."

After the war, the release of records of the International Red Cross showed 
that in South Vietnamese prison camps, where at the height of the war 
65,000 to 70,000 people were held and often beaten and tortured, American 
advisers observed and sometimes participated. The Red Cross observers found 
continuing, systematic brutality at the two principal Vietnamese POW 
camps-at Phu Quoc and Qui Nhon, where American advisers were stationed.

By the end of the war, 7 million tons of bombs had been dropped on Vietnam, 
Laos, and Cambodia-more than twice the amount of bombs dropped on Europe 
and Asia in World War II. In addition, poisonous sprays were dropped by 
planes to destroy trees and any kind of growth- an area the size of the 
state of Massachusetts was covered with such poi son. Vietnamese mothers 
reported birth defects in their children. Yale biologists, using the same 
poison (2,4,5,T) on mice, reported defective mice born and said they had no 
reason to believe the effect on humans was different.

On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers went into the hamlet of 
My Lai 4, in Quang Ngai province. They rounded up the inhabitants, 
including old people and women with infants in their arms. These people 
were ordered into a ditch, where they were methodically shot to death by 
American soldiers. The testimony of James Dursi, a rifleman, at the later 
trial of Lieutenant William Calley, was reported in the New York Times:

Lieutenant Calley and a weeping rifleman named Paul D. Meadlo the same 
soldier who had fed candy to the children before shooting them-pushed the 
prisoners into the ditch...
"There was an order to shoot by Lieutenant Calley, I can't remember the 
exact words-it was something like 'Start firing.' "Meadlo turned to me and 
said: 'Shoot, why don't you shoot?'

"He was crying. "I said, 'I can't. I won't.'

"Then Lieutenant Calley and Meadlo pointed their rifles into the ditch and 

"People were diving on top of each other; mothers were trying to protect 
their children...."

Journalist Seymour Hersh, in his book My Lai 4, writes:

"When Army investigators reached the barren area in November, 1969, in 
connection with the My Lai probe in the United States, they found mass 
graves at three sites, as well as a ditch full of bodies. It was estimated 
that between 450 and 500 people-most of them women, children and old men- 
had been slain and buried there."

The army tried to cover up what happened. But a letter began circulating 
from a GI named Ron Ridenhour, who had heard about the massacre. There were 
photos taken of the killing by an army photographer, Ronald Haeberle. 
Seymour Hersh, then working for an antiwar news agency in Southeast Asia 
called Dispatch News Service, wrote about it. The story of the massacre had 
appeared in May 1968 in two French publications, one called Sud Vietnam en 
Lutte, and another published by the North Vietnamese delegation to the 
peace talks in Paris-but the American press did not pay any attention.

Several of the officers in the My Lai massacre were put on trial, but only 
Lieutenant William Calley was found guilty. He was sentenced to life 
imprisonment, but his sentence was reduced twice; he served three 
years-Nixon ordered that he be under house arrest rather than a regular 
prison-and then was paroled. Thousands of Americans came to his defense. 
Part of it was in patriotic justification of his action as necessary 
against the "Communists." Part of it seems to have been a feeling that he 
was unjustly singled out in a war with many similar atrocities. Colonel 
Oran Henderson, who had been charged with covering up the My Lai killings, 
told reporters in early 1971: "Every unit of brigade size has its My Lai 
hidden someplace."

Indeed, My Lai was unique only in its details. Hersh reported a letter sent 
by a GI to his family, and published in a local newspaper:

"Dear Mom and Dad:

Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends, 
or my country. We burned every hut in sight!

It was a small rural network of villages and the people were incredibly 
poor. My unit burned and plundered their meager possessions. Let me try to 
explain the situation to you.

The huts here are thatched palm leaves. Each one has a dried mud bunker 
inside. These bunkers are to protect the families. Kind of like air raid 

My unit commanders, however, chose to think that these bunkers are 
offensive. So every hut we find that has a bunker we are ordered to burn to 
the ground.

When the ten helicopters landed this morning, in the midst of these huts, 
and six men jumped out of each "chopper", we were firing the moment we hit 
the ground. We fired into all the huts we could....

It is then that we burned these huts.... Everyone is crying, begging and 
praying that we don't separate them and take their husbands and fathers, 
sons and grandfathers. The women wail and moan.

Then they watch in terror as we burn their homes, personal possessions and 
food. Yes, we burn all rice and shoot all livestock."


The massacre at My Lai by a company of ordinary soldiers was a small event 
compared with the plans of high-level military and civilian leaders to 
visit massive destruction on the civilian population of Vietnam. Assistant 
Secretary of Defense John McNaughton in early 1966, seeing that large-scale 
bombing of North Vietnam villages was not producing the desired result, 
suggested a different strategy. The air strikes on villages, he said, would 
"create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home." He 
suggested instead:

Destruction of locks and dams, however-if handled right-might . . . offer 
promise. It should be studied. Such destruction doesn't kill or drown 
people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread 
starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided-which we could 
offer to do "at the conference table." . . .

The heavy bombings were intended to destroy the will of ordinary Vietnamese 
to resist, as in the bombings of German and Japanese population centers in 
World War II-despite President Johnson's public insistence that only 
"military targets" were being bombed. The government was using language 
like "one more turn of the screw" to describe bombing. The CIA at one point 
in 1966 recommended a "bombing program of greater intensity," according to 
the Pentagon Papers, directed against, in the ClA's words, "the will of the 
regime as a target system."

Meanwhile, just across the border of Vietnam, in a neighboring country, 
Laos, where a right-wing government installed by the CIA faced a rebellion, 
one of the most beautiful areas in the world, the Plain of Jars, was being 
destroyed by bombing. This was not reported by the government or the press, 
but an American who lived in Laos, Fred Branfman, told the story in his 
book Voices from the Plain of Jars:

Over 25,000 attack sorties were flown against the Plain of Jars from May, 
1964, through September, 1969; over 75,000 tons of bombs were dropped on 
it; on the ground, thousands were killed and wounded, tens of thousands 
driven underground, and the entire aboveground society leveled.


In September 1973, a former government official in Laos, Jerome Doolittle, 
wrote in the New York Times:

"The Pentagon's most recent lies about bombing Cambodia bring back a 
question that often occurred to me when I was press attaché at the American 
Embassy in Vientiane, Laos.

Why did we bother to lie?

When I first arrived in Laos, I was instructed to answer all press 
questions about our massive and merciless bombing campaign in that tiny 
country with: "At the request of the Royal Laotian Government, the United 
States is conducting unarmed reconnaissance flights accompanied by armed 
escorts who have the right to return if fired upon."

This was a lie. Every reporter to whom I told it knew it was a lie. Hanoi 
knew it was a lie. The International Control Commission knew it was a lie. 
Every interested Congressman and newspaper reader knew it was a lie....

After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the 
somebody was us."

By early 1968, the cruelty of the war began touching the conscience of many 
Americans. For many others, the problem was that the United States was 
unable to win the war, while 40,000 American soldiers were dead by this 
time, 250,000 wounded, with no end in sight. (The Vietnam casualties were 
many times this number.)

Lyndon Johnson had escalated a brutal war and failed to win it. His 
popularity was at an all-time low; he could not appear publicly without a 
demonstration against him and the war. The chant "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids 
did you kill today?" was heard in demonstrations throughout the country. In 
the spring of 1968 Johnson announced he would not run again for President, 
and that negotiations for peace would begin with the Vietnamese in Paris.

In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon, pledging that he would get the United 
States out of Vietnam, was elected President. He began to withdraw troops; 
by February 1972, less than 150,000 were left. But the bombing continued. 
Nixon's policy was "Vietnamization"-the Saigon government, with Vietnamese 
ground troops, using American money and air power, would carry on the war. 
Nixon was not ending the war; he was ending the most unpopular aspect of 
it, the involvement of American soldiers on the soil of a faraway country.

In the spring of 1970, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger 
launched an invasion of Cambodia, after a long bombardment that the 
government never disclosed to the public. The invasion not only led to an 
outcry of protest in the United States, it was a military failure, and 
Congress resolved that Nixon could not use American troops in extending the 
war without congressional approval. The following year, without American 
troops, the United States supported a South Vietnamese invasion of Laos. 
This too failed. In 1971, 800,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the United 
States on Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.


... In August of 1965, 61 percent of the population thought the American 
involvement in Vietnam was not wrong. By May 1971 it was exactly reversed; 
61 percent thought our involvement was wrong. Bruce Andrews, a Harvard 
student of public opinion, found that the people most opposed to the war 
were people over fifty, blacks, and women. He also noted that a study in 
the spring of 1964, when Vietnam was a minor issue in the newspapers, 
showed that 53 percent of college educated people were willing to send 
troops to Vietnam, but only 33 percent of grade school-educated people were 
so willing.
It seems that the media, themselves controlled by higher-education, 
higher-income people who were more aggressive in foreign policy, tended to 
give the erroneous impression that working-class people were superpatriots 
for the war. Lewis Lipsitz, in a mid-1968 survey of poor blacks and whites 
in the South, paraphrased an attitude he found typical: "The only way to 
help the poor man is to get out of that war in Vietnam . . . These 
taxes-high taxes-it's going over yonder to kill people with and I don't see 
no cause in it."

The capacity for independent judgment among ordinary Americans is probably 
best shown by the swift development of antiwar feeling among American 
GIs-volunteers and draftees who came mostly from lower-income groups. There 
had been, earlier in American history, in stances of soldiers' disaffection 
from the war: isolated mutinies in the Revolutionary War, refusal of 
reenlistment in the midst of hostilities in the Mexican war, desertion and 
conscientious objection in World War I and World War II. But Vietnam 
produced opposition by soldiers and veterans on a scale, and with a fervor, 
never seen before.

It began with isolated protests. As early as June 1965, Richard Steinke, a 
West Point graduate in Vietnam, refused to board an aircraft taking him to 
a remote Vietnamese village. "The Vietnamese war," he said, "is not worth a 
single American life." Steinke was court-martialed and dismissed from the 
service. The following year, three army privates, one black, one Puerto 
Rican, one Lithuanian-Italian-all poor-refused to embark for Vietnam, 
denouncing the war as "immoral, illegal, and unjust." They were 
court-martialed and imprisoned.

In early 1967, Captain Howard Levy, an army doctor at Fort Jackson, South 
Carolina, refused to teach Green Berets, a Special Forces elite in the 
military. He said they were "murderers of women and children" and "killers 
of peasants." He was court-martialed on the ground that he was trying to 
promote disaffection among enlisted men by his statements. The colonel who 
presided at the trial said: "The truth of the statements is not an issue in 
this case." Levy was convicted and sentenced to prison.

The individual acts multiplied: A black private in Oakland refused to board 
a troop plane to Vietnam, although he faced eleven years at hard labor. A 
navy nurse, Lieutenant Susan Schnall, was court-martialed for marching in a 
peace demonstration while in uniform, and for drop ping antiwar leaflets 
from a plane on navy installations. In Norfolk, Virginia, a sailor refused 
to train fighter pilots because he said the war was immoral. An army 
lieutenant was arrested in Washington, D.C., in early 1968 for picketing 
the White House with a sign that said: " 120,000 American Casualties-Why?" 
Two black marines, George Daniels and William Harvey, were given long 
prison sentences (Daniels, six years, Harvey, ten years, both later 
reduced) for talking to other black marines against the war.

As the war went on, desertions from the armed forces mounted. Thousands 
went to Western Europe-France, Sweden, Holland. Most deserters crossed into 
Canada; some estimates were 50,000, others 100,000. Some stayed in the 
United States. A few openly defied the military authorities by taking 
"sanctuary" in churches, where, surrounded by antiwar friends and 
sympathizers, they waited for capture and court-martial. At Boston 
University, a thousand students kept vigil for five days and nights in the 
chapel, supporting an eighteen-year old deserter, Ray Kroll.

Kroll's story was a common one. He had been inveigled into joining the 
army; he came from a poor family, was brought into court, charged with 
drunkenness, and given the choice of prison or enlistment. He enlisted. And 
then he began to think about the nature of the war.

On a Sunday morning, federal agents showed up at the Boston University 
chapel, stomped their way through aisles clogged with students, smashed 
down doors, and took Kroll away. From the stockade, he wrote back to 
friends: "I ain't gonna kill; it's against my will...." A friend he had 
made at the chapel brought him books, and he noted a saying he had found in 
one of them: "What we have done will not be lost to all Eternity. 
Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour."

The GI antiwar movement became more organized. Near Fort Jackson, South 
Carolina, the first "GI coffeehouse" was set up, a place where soldiers 
could get coffee and doughnuts, find antiwar literature, and talk freely 
with others. It was called the UFO, and lasted for several years before it 
was declared a "public nuisance" and closed by court action. But other GI 
coffeehouses sprang up in half a dozen other places across the country. An 
antiwar "bookstore" was opened near Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and another 
one at the Newport, Rhode Island, naval base.

Underground newspapers sprang up at military bases across the country; by 
1970 more than fifty were circulating. Among them: About Face in Los 
Angeles; Fed Up! in Tacoma, Washington; Short Times at Fort Jackson; 
Vietnam Gl in Chicago; Graffiti in Heidelberg, Germany; Bragg Briefs in 
North Carolina; Last Harass at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Helping Hand at 
Mountain Home Air Base, Idaho. These newspapers printed antiwar articles, 
gave news about the harassment of GIs and practical advice on the legal 
rights of servicemen, told how to resist military domination.

Mixed with feeling against the war was resentment at the cruelty, the 
dehumanization, of military life. In the army prisons, the stockades, this 
was especially true. In 1968, at the Presidio stockade in California, a 
guard shot to death an emotionally disturbed prisoner for walking away from 
a work detail. Twenty-seven prisoners then sat down and refused to work, 
singing "We Shall Overcome." They were court-martialed, found guilty of 
mutiny, and sentenced to terms of up to fourteen years, later reduced after 
much public attention and protest.

The dissidence spread to the war front itself. When the great Moratorium 
Day demonstrations were taking place in October 1969 in the United States, 
some GIs in Vietnam wore black armbands to show their support. A news 
photographer reported that in a platoon on patrol near Da Nang, about half 
of the men were wearing black armbands. One soldier stationed at Cu Chi 
wrote to a friend on October 26, 1970, that separate companies had been set 
up for men refusing to go into the field to fight. "It's no big thing here 
anymore to refuse to go." The French newspaper Le Monde reported that in 
four months, 109 soldiers of the first air cavalry division were charged 
with refusal to fight. "A common sight," the correspondent for Le Monde 
wrote, "is the black soldier, with his left fist clenched in defiance of a 
war he has never considered his own."

Wallace Terry, a black American reporter for Time magazine, taped 
conversations with hundreds of black soldiers; he found bitterness against 
army racism, disgust with the war, generally low morale. More and more 
cases of "fragging" were reported in Vietnam-incidents where servicemen 
rolled fragmentation bombs under the tents of officers who were ordering 
them into combat, or against whom they had other grievances. The Pentagon 
reported 209 fraggings in Vietnam in 1970 alone.

Veterans back from Vietnam formed a group called Vietnam Veterans Against 
the War. In December 1970, hundreds of them went to Detroit to what was 
called the "Winter Soldier" investigations, to testify publicly about 
atrocities they had participated in or seen in Vietnam, committed by 
Americans against Vietnamese. In April 1971 more than a thousand of them 
went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against the war. One by one, they 
went up to a wire fence around the Capitol, threw over the fence the medals 
they had won in Vietnam, and made brief statements about the war, sometimes 
emotionally, sometimes in icy, bitter calm.

In the summer of 1970, twenty-eight commissioned officers of the military, 
including some veterans of Vietnam, saying they represented about 250 other 
officers, announced formation of the Concerned Officers Movement against 
the war. During the fierce bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, around Christmas 
1972, came the first defiance of B-52 pilots who refused to fly those missions.

On June 3, 1973, the New York Times reported dropouts among West Point 
cadets. Officials there, the reporter wrote, "linked the rate to an 
affluent, less disciplined, skeptical, and questioning generation and to 
the anti-military mood that a small radical minority and the Vietnam war 
had created."

But most of the antiwar action came from ordinary GIs, and most of these 
came from lower-income groups-white, black, Native American, Chinese.

A twenty-year-old New York City Chinese-American named Sam Choy enlisted at 
seventeen in the army, was sent to Vietnam, was made a cook, and found 
himself the target of abuse by fellow GIs, who called him "Chink" and 
"gook" (the term for the Vietnamese) and said he looked like the enemy. One 
day he took a rifle and fired warning shots at his tormentors. "By this 
time I was near the perimeter of the base and was thinking of joining the 
Viet Cong; at least they would trust me. " Choy was taken by military 
police, beaten, court-martialed, sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor 
at Fort Leavenworth. "They beat me up every day, like a time clock." He 
ended his interview with a New York Chinatown newspaper saying: "One thing: 
I want to tell all the Chinese kids that the army made me sick. They made 
me so sick that I can't stand it."

A dispatch from Phu Bai in April 1972 said that fifty GIs out of 142 men in 
the company refused to go on patrol, crying: "This isn't our war!" The New 
York Times on July 14,1973, reported that American prisoners of war in 
Vietnam, ordered by officers in the POW camp to stop cooperating with the 
enemy, shouted back: "Who's the enemy?" They formed a peace committee in 
the camp, and a sergeant on the committee later recalled his march from 
capture to the POW camp:

Until we got to the first camp, we didn't see a village intact; they were 
all destroyed. I sat down and put myself in the middle and asked myself: Is 
this right or wrong? Is it right to destroy villages? Is it right to kill 
people en masse? After a while it just got to me.

Pentagon officials in Washington and navy spokesmen in San Diego announced, 
after the United States withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973, that the 
navy was going to purge itself of "undesirables"- and that these included 
as many as six thousand men in the Pacific fleet, "a substantial proportion 
of them black." All together, about 563,000 GIs had received less than 
honorable discharges. In the year 1973, one of every five discharges was 
"less than honorable." indicating something less than dutiful obedience to 
the military. By 1971, 177 of every 1,000 American soldiers were listed as 
"absent without leave," some of them three or four times. Deserters doubled 
from 47,000 in 1967 to 89,000 in 1971.

One of those who stayed, fought, but then turned against the war was Ron 
Kovic. His father worked in a supermarket on Long Island. In 1963, at the 
age of seventeen, he enlisted in the marines. Two years later, in Vietnam, 
at the age of nineteen, his spine was shattered by shellfire. Paralyzed 
from the waist down, he was put in a wheelchair. Back in the States, he 
observed the brutal treatment of wounded veterans in the veterans' 
hospitals, thought more and more about the war, and joined the Vietnam 
Veterans Against the War. He went to demonstrations to speak against the 
war. One evening he heard actor Donald Sutherland read from the post-World 
War I novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, about a soldier whose 
limbs and face were shot away by gunfire, a thinking torso who invented a 
way of communicating with the outside world and then beat out a message so 
powerful it could not be heard without trembling.

Sutherland began to read the passage and something I will never forget 
swept over me. It was as if someone was speaking for everything I ever went 
through in the hospital.... I began to shake and I remember there were 
tears in my eyes.

Kovic demonstrated against the war, and was arrested. He tells his story in 
Born on the Fourth of July:

They help me back into the chair and take me to another part of the prison 
building to be booked. "What's your name?" the officer behind the desk says.

"Ron Kovic," I say. "Occupation, Vietnam veteran against the war."

"What?" he says sarcastically, looking down at me.

"I'm a Vietnam veteran against the war," I almost shout back.

"You should have died over there," he says. He turns to his assistant "I'd 
like to take this guy and throw him off the roof."

They fingerprint me and take my picture and put me in a cell. I have begun 
to wet my pants like a little baby. The tube has slipped out during my 
examination by the doctor. I try to fall asleep but even though I am 
exhausted, the anger is alive in me like a huge hot stone in my chest. I 
lean my head up against the wall and listen to the toilets flush again and 

Kovic and the other veterans drove to Miami to the Republican National 
Convention in 1972, went into the Convention Hall, wheeled themselves down 
the aisles, and as Nixon began his acceptance speech shouted, "Stop the 
bombing! Stop the war!" Delegates cursed them: "Traitor!" and Secret 
Service men hustled them out of the hall.

In the fall of 1973, with no victory in sight and North Vietnamese troops 
entrenched in various parts of the South, the United States agreed to 
accept a settlement that would withdraw American troops and leave the 
revolutionary troops where they were, until a new elected government would 
be set up including Communist and non-Communist elements. But the Saigon 
government refused to agree, and the United States decided to make one 
final attempt to bludgeon the North Vietnamese into submission. It sent 
waves of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong, destroying homes and hospitals, 
killing unknown numbers of civilians. The attack did not work. Many of the 
B-52s were shot down, there was angry protest all over the world-and 
Kissinger went back to Paris and signed very much the same peace agreement 
that had been agreed on before.

The United States withdrew its forces, continuing to give aid to the Saigon 
government, but when the North Vietnamese launched at tacks in early 1975 
against the major cities in South Vietnam, the government collapsed. In 
late April 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. The American 
embassy staff fled, along with many Vietnamese who feared Communist rule, 
and the long war in Vietnam was over. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, 
and both parts of Vietnam were unified as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Traditional history portrays the end of wars as coming from the initiatives 
of leaders-negotiations in Paris or Brussels or Geneva or Versailles-just 
as it often finds the coming of war a response to the demand of "the 
people." The Vietnam war gave clear evidence that at least for that war 
(making one wonder about the others) the political leaders were the last to 
take steps to end the war-"the people" were far ahead. The President was 
always far behind. The Supreme Court silently turned away from cases 
challenging the Constitutionality of the war. Congress was years behind 
public opinion.
In the spring of 1971, syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert 
Novak, two firm supporters of the war, wrote regretfully of a "sudden 
outbreak of anti-war emotionalism" in the House of Representatives, and 
said: "The anti-war animosities now suddenly so pervasive among House 
Democrats are viewed by Administration backers as less anti-Nixon than as a 
response to constituent pressures."

It was only after the intervention in Cambodia ended, and only after the 
nationwide campus uproar over that invasion, that Congress passed a 
resolution declaring that American troops should not be sent into Cambodia 
without its approval. And it was not until late 1973, when American troops 
had finally been removed from Vietnam, that Congress passed a bill limiting 
the power of the President to make war without congressional consent; even 
there, in that "War Powers Resolution," the President could make war for 
sixty days on his own without a congressional declaration.

The administration tried to persuade the American people that the war was 
ending because of its decision to negotiate a peace-not because it was 
losing the war, not because of the powerful antiwar movement in the United 
States. But the government's own secret memoranda all through the war 
testify to its sensitivity at each stage about "public opinion" in the 
United States and abroad. The data is in the Pentagon Papers.

In June of 1964, top American military and State Department officials, 
including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, met in Honolulu. "Rusk stated that 
public opinion on our SEA policy was badly divided and that, therefore, the 
President needed an affirmation of support."

Diem had been replaced by a general named Khanh. The Pentagon historians 
write: "Upon his return to Saigon on June 5 Ambassador Lodge went straight 
from the airport to call on General Khanh . . . the main thrust of his talk 
with Khanh was to hint that the United States Government would in the 
immediate future be preparing U.S. public opinion for actions against North 
Vietnam." Two months later came the Gulf of Tonkin affair.

On April 2, 1965, a memo from CIA director John McCone suggested that the 
bombing of North Vietnam be increased because it was "not sufficiently 
severe" to change North Vietnam's policy. "On the other hand . . . we can 
expect increasing pressure to stop the bombing . . . from various elements 
of the American public, from the press, the United Nations and world 
opinion." The U.S. should try for a fast knockout before this opinion could 
build up, McCone said.

Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton's memo of early 1966 
suggested destruction of locks and dams to create mass starvation, because 
"strikes at population targets" would "create a counterproductive wave of 
revulsion abroad and at home." In May 1967, the Pentagon historians write: 
"McNaughton was also very deeply concerned about the breadth and intensity 
of public unrest and dissatisfaction with the war . . . especially with 
young people, the underprivileged, the intelligentsia and the women." 
McNaughton worried: "Will the move to call up 20,000 Reserves . . . 
polarize opinion to the extent that the 'doves' in the United States will 
get out of hand-massive refusals to serve, or to fight, or to cooperate, or 
worse?" He warned:

There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will 
not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world's greatest 
superpower killing or seriously injuring 1000 non-combatants a week, while 
trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission, on an issue whose 
merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably 
produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness.


One sign that the ideas of the antiwar movement had taken hold in the 
American public was that juries became more reluctant to convict antiwar 
protesters, and local judges too were treating them differently. In 
Washington, by 1971, judges were dismissing charges against demonstrators 
in cases where two years before they almost certainly would have been sent 
to jail. The antiwar groups who had raided draft boards- the Baltimore 
Four, the Catonsville Nine, the Milwaukee Fourteen, the Boston Five, and 
more-were receiving lighter sentences for the same crimes.

The last group of draft board raiders, the "Camden 28," were priests, nuns, 
and laypeople who raided a draft board in Camden, New Jersey, in August 
1971. It was essentially what the Baltimore Four had done four years 
earlier, when all were convicted and Phil Berrigan got six years in prison. 
But in this instance, the Camden defendants were acquitted by the jury on 
all counts. When the verdict was in, one of the jurors, a 
fifty-three-year-old black taxi driver from Atlantic

City named Samuel Braithwaite, who had spent eleven years in the army, left 
a letter for the defendants:

To you, the clerical physicians with your God-given talents, I say, well 
done. Well done for trying to heal the sick irresponsible men, men who were 
chosen by the people to govern and lead them. These men, who failed the 
people, by raining death and destruction on a hapless country.... You went 
out to do your part while your brothers remained in their ivory towers 
watching . . . and hopefully some day in the near future, peace and harmony 
may reign to people of all nations.


The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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