In the summer of 1967, Air Force Col. Robin Olds (later brigadier general) returned to the U.S. following a tour of duty in Vietnam. Olds had been an ace pilot in World War 11 and achieved fame in Vietnam for his bravery, Hollywood good looks and strategic and tactical brilliance.
Invited to the White House to brief President Johnson, Olds said, “Mr. President, get us out of this G…damned war.”
When LBJ asked how, Olds replied, “Win it.”
“Win it” probably sounds delusional in today’s world where the prevailing opinion is that the Vietnam War was “unwinnable and irredeemable,” in the words of documentary producer Ken Burns. A lost cause from the beginning.
In 2005, Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, World War 11 hero, NATO commander, West Point superintendent, staff secretary to President Eisenhower and deputy U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1968-69, was asked his opinion about Vietnam. He answered emphatically that the war was winnable (an opinion shamed by most Vietnam veterans, in my experience).
No offense, Mr. Burns, but I agree with Goodpaster. And with President Reagan, who called Vietnam “a noble cause.”
The cause and the American forces who prosecuted the war (while never losing a battle) were quite simply betrayed by the political leadership in Washington, beginning with President Johnson, aided by the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, led by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who were in turn abetted by an increasingly corrupt news media and many craven military leaders in the Pentagon who knew and said privately what was needed to win the war, but were dissuaded from speaking out publicly (or resigning in protest) by the lies, false promises and promotions proffered by the civilian leadership.
The result was the catastrophe that unfolded in April 1975, when the North Vietnamese army invaded and conquered South Vietnam, producing the indelible images of helicopter evacuations from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, plus the accompanying tragedy of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees drowning at sea as they tried to escape, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese interned in concentration camps, and more thousands murdered by the communist regime; not to mention the more than 2 million people in neighboring Cambodia tortured and liquidated by the psychopathic Pol Pot regime.
Domestically, the Vietnam War poisoned the political atmosphere in the U.S., helped create a hostile and cynical press corps, and fostered a loss of confidence in American institutions that persists to this day.
For me as a Vietnam veteran, contemplating Vietnam Veterans Day, the lingering sense of loss and resentment is still palpable. Not, I hasten to add because of my personal experience. I served as a junior officer on a Navy destroyer, engaged in shore bombardment and aircraft carrier plane guard duty in the Gulf of Tonkin for two deployments and never really felt in danger.
Rather, my anger and resentment are brought back because of the needless death of 58,000 Americans (including two classmates in my small elementary school in Ohio), the 150,000 wounded and the hundreds of thousands who went on to suffer from what we now call PTSD, plus the ordeal suffered by the people of Vietnam.
When Col. Olds told LBJ to “win the war”: I think he meant that he should use the full resources of the United States to bring the war to a swift and victorious conclusion, which is to say ensuring an independent South Vietnam.
In 1965, newly elected by a landslide, Lyndon Johnson had the backing of the American people for an all-out push for the defeat of the communists in South Vietnam. He also had the troops and equipment necessary to accomplish that goal.
But LBJ consistently ignored this approach and opted instead for a policy of erratic escalation, with no strategic goal articulated, pursued by severe restrictions on bombing targets in North Vietnam (resulting in a horrendous loss of U.S. pilots and planes) and permitting Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, to pursue a grinding strategy of attrition, which resulted in daily televised body counts, and film of endless battles and skirmishes with the bloodied bodies of the wounded and the corpses of dead troops brought in color into the living rooms of Americans every evening.
In January 1968, the final blow came as Hanoi directed the South Vietnamese Viet Cong to launch a coordinated attack against cities throughout South Vietnam in the expectation that the local populace would rise up against the South Vietnamese government. The people of the South, despite being massacred by the thousands, stuck with the government against the communists.
In battles throughout the south, Viet Cong forces were utterly obliterated and eliminated as a fighting force. This great tactical victory by the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces was portrayed in the U.S. as a huge defeat, however. CBS anchor Walter Cronkite announced that America had lost the war. Johnson agreed. On March 31, 1968, the president announced that he would not seek re-election and that he would pause U.S. bombing and seek peace talks with Hanoi.
South Vietnam’s fate was sealed.
We got a powerful demonstration of what could have been three years later, however, when Hanoi, then at the Paris peace talks with the Nixon administration, suddenly launched a massive invasion of South Vietnam. Only about 50,000 American troops remained in Vietnam at that time, mostly air and naval forces, but an infuriated President Nixon launched an all-out attack on the North Vietnamese.
American naval ships steamed into Haiphong harbor and shelled the port; North Vietnamese harbors were mined, unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam commenced, 20,000 South Vietnamese troops interdicted the Ho Chi Minh trail and American B-52 bombers flew in tactical support of the South Vietnamese forces (ARVN), killing communist troops by the thousands. and terrifying the living with the deadly “daisy cutter” bombs. ARVN troops, trained by Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, did almost all the ground fighting and generally performed well.
The result? The North Vietnamese came back to the negotiating table, the parties signed a peace agreement and American prisoners were freed.
The peace did not last, however. In 1974, with Nixon weakened by the Watergate scandal, Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam and forbade the use of American air power to aid the South Vietnamese. Predictably, Hanoi, armed to the teeth by China and the USSR, invaded South Vietnam again in April 1975 and the tragedy mentioned earlier came to pass.
What are the lessons of Vietnam? Well, Reagan expressed one lesson this way: “Young Americans must never again be sent to fight and die unless we are prepared to let them win.”
Judging by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that lesson has yet to be learned.
• James Roberts is the president of the American Veterans Center.