At the beginning that assumption was correct. I recall the day that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed in congress (August, 1964), which authorized the use of American troops for the war effort. The sense among many of us was that we, the American people, were doing something heroic and good. We were standing by a small nation in need, and unlike Neville Chamberlain, not backing down. One of my professors at the college where I was student held back tears as he told his class, “I have lived to see my students go off to World War II, then the Korean War, and now…”
But the war was bungled and nothing seemed to go right. President Diem had built an officer corps loyal to him but incompetent and corrupt, and averse to hard fighting. He was overthrown and killed (1963) in a CIA backed coup, but this proved not to be a remedy. One general after another succeeded in the presidency and produced instability, and little reform. A brilliant strategy of establishing strategic hamlets (fortified villages) was sabotaged because the director of that effort was a double agent for the North Vietnamese and he made sure it failed.
Contrary to the slogans of the extreme Left, the American presence was not an imperial presence. There was no Roman-like Proconsul to dictate who would run the government, which corrupt officers would be cashiered, or what type of land reform would go into effect. All the American advisory establishment and diplomats could do was try to influence, advise, and hope for some competent government to arise and do all of that. It never quite happened.
General Westmorland evaluated the situation and believed it could be salvaged by sidelining the South Vietnamese Army, then defeating the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army with a massive American and Allied build up. He estimated a less-than two-year campaign to achieve total victory. President Johnson trusted that assessment.
Limiting civilian casualties
To its credit, the American high command attempted to limit civilian causalities to the minimum. The generals understood that in a guerrilla war one had to win over the “hearts and minds” of the population. Reducing civilian casualties was mostly done through “rules of engagement.” That is, in order for American troops to fire their weapons, they had to see the target and see that it was a hostile foe. This would prevent the type of incidents that took place at the beginning of the Korean War (as described in Part 1). This was a major step forward in attempting to have a moral face in war.
In the first years of American direct combat these rules were largely effective. Morale was high, and our soldiers had a sense of the anti-Communist purpose of the war. There was also a sense of having to live up to the military valor and achievements of the WWII generation who were their fathers and uncles. Many times American soldiers did not fire when responding to attacks if it would harm civilians, and at times suffered casualties for their restraint. Viet Cong troops understood this and purposely used civilians as shields, as the North Koreans had done decades before.
However, the lack of smart bombs in Vietnam proved costly in inflicting unintended civilian casualties. One use of a dumb bomb resulted in the famous picture of a burned, young Vietnamese girl running away from an air strike. The picture shocked many in America and throughout the world. Without the smart bombs designed and deployed later, the number of pilots shot down was also increased as they attempted difficult bombing runs against bridges and port facilities.
Ironically, the Germans had developed a competent anti-shipping smart bomb in World War II that was radio controlled – but could be jammed by electronic counter-measures. The US also had a smart bomb that was used several times to attack bridges with success, but one had exploded prematurely and damaged its own bomber. Unfortunately, these weapons were not perfected, but in fact shelved. The thinking of the Air Force high command was that no smart bombs were needed in the future as any competent pilot could deliver an atom bomb within a hundred yards of the aiming point – more than close enough.
As the war dragged on, morale was undermined by the anti-war movement in the United States. As cynicism towards the war grew, fire discipline began to break down among the ground forces. Surviving a year’s tour in this “crazy Asian war” (one of the phrases of a popular song) was the highest priority of the average soldier, not winning the hearts and minds of the population. At the village of My Lai, a platoon of the Americal Division, which had repeatedly experienced sniper and bobby trap casualties, massacred the entire village population. Ironically, at the same time, China was on a genocidal campaign which used massacres as a policy—but denying it and enforcing a press blackout. The Left in America and Western Europe ignored this slaughter of perhaps 1.2 million Tibetans as they vociferously protested the Vietnam War.
The opposition to the war grows
Initially, there was little immediate resistance in the United States to expanding the war and sending ground units. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed for this, passed Congress with only two dissenting votes in the Senate. But since war was not declared, that opposition publicized its opinions and reasons and steadily grew in influence and numbers.
Those opposed to the war can be divided into roughly three groups. The most driven and ideological was formed around the Marxist-Leftist faculties and students from various universities, Berkley being the standard bearer in this type of opposition. This group was both highly ideological and unwittingly anti-historical. The radical Left’s understanding was that the war was caused by “American imperialism” and its quest for world domination coupled with the greed of the military-industrial complex for profits from selling munitions, etc. None of this was true, but it was ideologically informed and had an interior logic to it. This narrative was presented with passion and repeated endlessly.
It is significant to note that Karl Marx considered that ideologies distorted the understanding of reality. As common to his writings, his insight was both true but incomplete. He believed ideologies were the product of the ruling class defending itself. He did not understand that ideologies could also form through other social groups, as in the setting of a university with its Leftist faculty.