Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Vietnam Thesis- Part VII

Part seven in my continuing series on Vietnam.

Many at home and in Vietnam had been holding out hope that the war would suddenly go in America’s favor, and that the North Vietnamese would give up. No one knew for sure until Tet that the enemy was never going to throw in the towel. “The enemy had too much strength and will to be defeated in the South.” This idea crystallized in the weeks after the Tet Offensive, and even with Johnson’s administration on the way out, the soldiers saw no way to secure victory without even greater costs. The need to survive in Vietnam now trumped the need for victory. “I think perhaps this experience is changing me...not as I expected. I have not found much opportunity to help the people...It’s now a war of survival.” This appraisal of the nature of war in 1968 by Sergeant Doug McCormac is not as optimistic as earlier soldiers’ letters home. The thought of not being able to succeed in the ways that Americans had in other wars made many men like McCormac skeptical of the reasons the U.S. had for staying in Vietnam. Leadership in the government and high levels of the military became more and more suspect every day.

An anger began to build during this period in 1968 as soldiers continually saw the ineffectiveness of their superior officers, and were constantly in harms way. The My Lai Massacre is a perfect example of how bad things got for men in the field, and no one in the government really knew what was happening to the men under their command. After Tet, on March 16, 1968 Charlie Company, led by platoon leader Lt. William Calley, attacked a village in the My Lai area, where there was believed to be a stronghold of Viet Cong soldiers and agents. The village was completely destroyed and 400 civilians, women, children and elderly people were brutally killed. Of the attack, Kenneth Hodges said, “This was the time for us to get even. A time for us to settle the score.” 

While it was arguably one of the biggest disasters in the entire war, the My Lai Massacre illustrates a strong point. The mental strain on all the soldier fighting in Vietnam was much greater than anyone at the time thought, and nothing was done about it. Had some of these things been brought to light earlier this dark episode might have been avoided and Calley could have been spared the dishonor that the incident brought him. Unfortunately, My Lai would not be the end of the carnage.

Life at home was becoming increasingly turbulent as well, with more protests of the war and of the government. The draft was creating a good deal of the friction, forcing young men to either go to war, jail or Canada. With Richard Nixon’s win in the 1968 election, there was a feeling that maybe some of the wrongs that had occurred earlier in the year could be rectified, including a failed peace talk in mid-1968. Nixon said at the start of his term, “I will not be the first president of the United States to lose a war.” Unlike Johnson, who had been more focused on domestic issues, Nixon set his sights on foreign policy. 

This new policy, known as Vietnamization, was to be the cornerstone of Nixon’s approach in Vietnam. The idea was to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, and slowly bring troops home. Soldiers did not see the advantages to this new plan. “This gradual withdrawal is going to cause more damage than good. As there become less and less GIs over here, it means that the guys still here will have to depend more on the ARVNs (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). I would not want to have to depend on an ARVN for anything.” wrote George Ewing in the summer of 1969. This attitude permeated the U.S. ranks in the first months of Nixon’s withdrawal plan. To those not in the know, the withdrawal of troops seemed like the war was going better, and that it might be coming to an end. For GIs still having to stay and fight, the plan for turning the war over to the South Vietnamese as the U.S. pulled out was not a viable option.

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