How Did We Get Here… er… um… There?
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and there was no question that our involvement in World War II was justified. Things got a bit more complicated with the Korean War. Korea was under Japanese rule until the Soviet Union (Russia) liberated the northern half and U.S. forces liberated the southern half. After World War II, the United Nations recognized two separate countries, North Korea and South Korea. The North was communist, supported by China and the Soviets and the South, a free democracy like the United States.
After World War II, there was a fear that the Communists would take over the world. We only had to look towards the countries liberated from the Nazis by the Soviets to see a trend. Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, etc. were ALL communist and part of what we called the “Soviet Bloc.” In the aftermath of the War, Germany and Berlin were each divided into four parts and each administered by one of the Allies. The United States, Great Britain and France each relinquished control of their parts to become West Germany. The Soviet controlled portions became East Germany and East Berlin and eventually, the Berlin Wall would go up. Understanding this it was not hard to see our justification in defending South Korea when the North invaded.
This is important background information if you want to understand Vietnam. Bear with me for just another minute.
Thus began the Cold War and school children, like me, were taught to “duck and cover” and drilled in this so we’d know what to do when the Russians finally bombed us. There was a predominant fear that the Communists, led by the Soviet Union, would conquer more and more countries and this became known as the “Domino Theory.” We couldn’t let them advance and had to stop any more countries from falling to Communism. This is why the Soviet support of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro just ninety miles off our shore was so disturbing. We felt that our very existence was threatened if any more countries fell.
Next Stop is Vietnam
Prior to World War II, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and portions of Thailand were all part of what was known as “French Indochina.” When France fell to Hitler, it was natural for his Axis ally, Japan, to invade French Indochina. In Vietnam, a resistance army was formed and led by Ho Chi Minh. It must be remembered that during World War II, the Soviet Union, China and Ho Chi Minh were our allies along with the French and we were all fighting against Germany, Italy and Japan.
Remember I said it was easy to justify our fighting in World War II and though a little more complex, we could understand Korea too? We knew why we were fighting in those two cases. Vietnam was far more complex.
During World War II, President Roosevelt made it clear that the French would not regain control of Indochina after the War. As the War came to an end, Chinese troops occupied the northern half of Indochina, cleaning up the Japanese there, while the British and the French took care of the south. What came next is so complex that I can’t hope to explain it all here. I have already taken considerable license in simplification already and I’m next going to take it up a few more notches and over simplify things on an astounding level. I think if you are going to understand Vietnam it is important for me to do this.
The British left the area and Thailand was made whole. Laos and Cambodia were liberated and recognized as separate and free countries. The French were not going to completely relinquish control in the region and decided that they were going to remain in Vietnam. Our former ally and a communist, Ho Chi Minh, declared North Vietnam to be independent of the French or anyone else for that matter. The French set up a government that was sympathetic to their cause in South Vietnam.
Many in South Vietnam hated the French and Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam felt that there should be a united Vietnam. Let the fighting begin.
The French were unable to gain the upper hand throughout the 1950’s. It was during the 50’s that the United States began sending military advisors.
So why did we care about Vietnam? Was it to help clean up the French mess? Remember, Roosevelt said that the French would not reacquire there territory in Indochina, so why were we fighting for that? Maybe it was because of the Domino Theory and we couldn’t let another country topple, giving communism a stronger hold on the world. Apparently these reasons were not good enough as President Kennedy specifically said he had a plan to withdraw from Vietnam and the first troops would be coming home by December 1963.
On 22 November 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson (commonly referred to as “LBJ”) became the 36th President of the United States. None of the 23,000 troops in Vietnam would be coming home. In fact, five years later when LBJ turned over the office to Richard Nixon, he had increased the number of troops there to over 500,000.
Tom Paxton said it best with his protest song, which you will hear on Sunday, where he said…
“Lyndon Johnson told the nation
Have no fear of escalation.
I am trying everyone to please.
Though it isn't really war,
We're sending fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam from the Vietnamese.”
I think if I had to put my finger on one reason that this nation was divided it would be this dichotomy. President Kennedy, who stood up to the communists over the Cuban Missile Crisis, didn’t see any need for us to be involved in Vietnam so why was LBJ keeping us in Vietnam and escalating our involvement? These were our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers, being sent half way around the world to die in some rice paddy or jungle. Was it worth it? For what reason?
Most of my parents’ generation, the “Greatest Generation” that won World War II, felt that we had to stop communism at all costs. Most of my generation felt we had no business sticking our noses in where they didn’t belong.
War protest was not new in America. While the Revolution and the War of 1812 were like World War II and there was no question that we were justified, when we went to war with Mexico in 1846 there was a question of why. Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in protest to the Mexican-American War and slavery. Americans have been protesting War ever since.
The Counterculture of the 60’s was largely fueled by the Vietnam War and the protests thereof. This was the first televised war and each night we saw it on the news, complete with body counts, reporters crouching behind tanks as machine-gun bullets whizzed by and interviews with soldiers in the field. As the war entered our homes, the question of whether we even belonged there was hotly debated at kitchen tables and in living rooms across the nation. The divide was becoming so great that a new term started to become popular, the “generation gap.” It was probably the most defining factor in being a part of the “Baby Boomer” generation, growing up in this household I just described. The War was depicted on TV in such detail that for a while, I was not allowed to watch the news! They didn’t want me exposed to the violence of destroying villages with names that sounded like “Dum Phuc.” (Dumb Fuck?)
Soon there were marches and other protest events across the country. The Counterculture began to embrace manners of dress and literature along with its anti-war philosophies and beliefs. And then there was the music. In my series, “Sue’s Sunday Sojourns,” I often mentioned Vietnam because I just couldn’t separate it from living in the time and listening to music. I covered a lot of Vietnam in my Bob Seger sojourn. I talked about the day I lost my innocence when National Guard troops fired upon and killed four war protesters at Kent State in 1970 in my DEVO sojourn. My final sojourn with Phil Ochs was entirely about the Vietnam War and protesting it. I see no need to repeat anything I have previously covered so I have linked those sojourns here, above. Feel free to read more of about it and learn about my experience along with more history. If you have already read them and not lived through those times, I hope my explanation here has helped you to understand better a very complex time in our history.
The nation was so divided that in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’"
Pete Seeger, an avid war protester from my parents’ generation put out many good anti-war tunes. He talked about his father who was a musician and a communist back in the 1920’s and how he believed that music should be a part of the struggle of the people and this was impressed upon Seeger. He has quoted his father as saying, “If there’s going to be a new society, there must be a new music.” It’s this music I plan to share with all of you this Sunday. The songs will be mostly Rock and Folk music but there will be a couple of Blues tunes and some Country thrown in.
In the end we must remember that 58,318 Americans were killed and 303,644 were wounded in Vietnam. There are still 1,610 missing or unaccounted for. What did we gain? Was it worth it? I answer with a resounding, “NO!” Maybe Thoreau was onto something when he discussed how governments weren’t always right about things like going to war:
“Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”
Ho Chi Minh, President of North Vietnam and our enemy in the 60’s, was actually an ally during World War II against the Japanese. He and his resistance force were responsible for rescuing many downed American pilots and kept them from being killed or captured by the Japanese. Many American airmen during World War II owed their lives to Ho Chi Minh.
Your Vietnam Glossary
I’ve compiled some terms that you may hear in some of the songs or if you read up on the era. These are useful ones to know.
Charlie: The communist forces fighting the guerilla war were known as the Viet Cong (see below). This was shortened to “VC.” The military uses something called the “Phonetic Alphabet” when verbally communicating letters since many sound similar, especially over a radio. “VC” converted to the Phonetic Alphabet equivalent becomes “Victor Charlie,” which was eventually shortened to just “Charlie.” Robin Williams had a great funny line in Good Morning Vietnam when he said, “It isn't easy to find a Vietnamese man named ‘Charlie.’"
Draft Cards: When men turned 18 they were required to register with Selective Services and be eligible for the Draft. They were issued draft cards as proof that they had complied with the law and done so. Many men would publicly burn their cards in protest of the war. It was illegal to knowingly destroy or mutilate your draft card and one case even went as far as the Supreme Court where they decided that freedom of speech did not cover destruction of government property.
Hanoi: The capital of North Vietnam.
Hanoi Hilton: This was the nick name the Americans gave to the prison in North Vietnam that housed many of the American POW’s. It was originally built by the French as a prison for political prisoners.
Hanoi Jane: This is the derogatory nickname that American servicemen gave to Jane Fonda. Fonda protested the war but took things too far when she visited North Vietnam, posed for publicity photos for them in antiaircraft guns used to shoot down American planes and even recorded “Tokyo Rose” type broadcasts that were used to demoralize American troops and prisoners. Many believe she is guilty of treason for this.
Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?: This was a chant that protesters would use to taunt President Johnson anytime he appeared in public. It is in reference to the number of 18 and 19 year olds he was sending over to Vietnam to only be shipped home in a box a few months later.
Ho Chi Minh: President and leader of North Vietnam. During World War II, he led the resistance against the Japanese.
Ho Chi Minh Trail: No one in Indochina liked the French, so when they tried to reclaim Vietnam and went to war with Ho Chi Minh and the North, they had no support in the region. Laos and Cambodia let Ho Chi Minh and his army across their border and use their countries to safely shuttle supplies and men between North Vietnam and places in the South. The French, and later the Americans, couldn’t engage them over there in those countries. This supply line became known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” This led to a secret war in those countries that we weren’t at war with.
Khe Sanh: A battle that lasted from January to July of 1968. In it the North laid siege to the American base near Khe Sanh as part of the Tet Offensive. (see below) In March 1968 the order came directly from LBJ to “to hold Khe Sanh at all costs.” The siege was finally broken and relief arrived to the American forces in April. In the end, the base had to be evacuated anyway and after great loss. Over 1500 American soldiers were killed and over 7500 wounded. Bruce Springsteen mentions a fictitious brother killed at Khe Sanh in Born in the USA…
“I had a brother at Khe Sahn,
Fighting off the Viet Cong.
They're still there, he's all gone.”
Saigon: Capital of South Vietnam. After the city fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975 it was renamed “Ho Chi Minh City.”
Tet Offensive: Tet is the Vietnamese New Year and is the biggest celebration of the year with both secular and religious meaning. The North and VC took advantage of the agreed upon nationwide cease fire for the holiday and launched an attack that caught the South and the Americans off guard. On top of that, it was a nationwide operation hitting most major cities and towns at the same time. The Americans eventually came back from their initial losses but it was costly.