Too often, when people are asked to talk about the Vietnam War, it is decontextualized from the 1960s, or, conversely, the 1960s are defined by the war. I want to argue today that the '60s defined the Vietnam War as much as the Vietnam War defined the '60s, and that, if you want to understand the war in Vietnam, you need to understand the Great Society, the civil rights movement, the monumental personalities in the United States, as well as many of the major international transformations going on.
It is also important that anyone who talks about the Vietnam War talks about the modern media. There is no doubt that, in the 1960s, the nature of media coverage of war and society changed, in large part because of the prevalence of television and the easier access to photo imagery. The first war really covered by photograph is the Civil War, but it is a small number of still photographs that have to be either studio posed or that take a long time to produce, whereas in the Vietnam War you get a proliferation of photographs from the field in a way you never have before.
Where we need to start, though, is actually before the 1960s at the end of World War II. For most Americans who had lived through World War II, even if they were too young to have served, it structured their imagination of what America did in the world. Americans were defined by the experience of going to war. Americans defined their self-image as a society that beat the bad guys and rebuilt the societies that produced the bad guys. We rebuilt Europe after we destroyed Europe. We rebuilt these societies, we got them back going in the right direction, and we were containing these societies from the spread of Communism. We were fighting the Good War, and we were capable of doing it. People believed that American society could do what it needed to do in places where it needed to do it. That is the assumption that people coming out of World War II had.
The assumption was also that the presidency could transform societies at home and abroad. Whether you believed in the civil rights movement or not, it was clear by 1964 and 1965 that it was possible for the American president to fundamentally affect the ordinary behavior of individuals. The Civil Rights Act did that, all of a sudden opening public accommodations to integrated citizen activity in a way that had not been the case before. So, there was a belief in a good American mission to the world and a belief in a powerful presidency as part of that mission.
What became shocking to Americans were images like the one, taken by Nick Ut, of South Vietnamese aircraft using American-made napalm to bomb a village in South Vietnam—on our side. Why were we bombing the village? We all know the answer: because there were suspected Viet Cong, suspected insurgents, in there. Many Americans were asking themselves while at the same time questioning their politics in the late '60s, how this could happen. How could we go from this world of doing the right thing to doing the wrong thing? How is that possible? How could good people do that? We study history not because bad people do bad things, but to understand why good people do bad things or why good people, believing they are doing good things, often produce bad results. It is the world of do-gooders that often creates some of the problems in our world, but we would never want to eliminate the effort to do good in the world.
The question is: why do well-intentioned policies often produce these kinds of outcomes? This was not the fault of Lyndon Johnson, though he was partially responsible. It was not the fault of particular individuals. It was part of a historical development, a set of policies, and a set of experiences that did not match the aims to those on the ground. There was a disconnect between the policy aims and the experiences on the ground, just as you could argue there was a disconnect between the politics within American society and many of the developments happening on the ground as well. Lyndon Johnson was heroic in his ability to make policy that connected with transformations and views of race in American society, and he contributed to those. He was heroic in his efforts to bring change to a place like Vietnam but not heroic in the outcomes, and that would apply as much to his predecessor and the man who came after him.
Let's talk about the Vietnamese civil war and what was going on in Vietnam that was so hard for Americans to understand. Ho Chi Minh was an extraordinary figure. He was born in rural Vietnam, or French Indochina, as it was called at the time, and very early on became an activist against French imperialism. He was a nationalist who became involved in anti-imperial activities. He also, in the process of working toward what he saw as an alternative to French rule in Indochina, became deeply involved with communist activists. Communism was appealing to Ho Chi Minh, as it was to many other young anti-imperial activists in what was then called the Third World, because what communism offered was an alternative to the capitalist free market activities that seemed to support empire.
The French used their empire in Indochina to extract resources. They ran their empire in a different way from the British. No empires were good, but you would prefer to be under the British than the French, certainly. In Indochina, the French extracted as many of the resources as they could for their own usage—in particular, rubber, tin, and a number of other basic products they would get from the area. They also used Indochina to make themselves a great power. They had been there since the mid-nineteenth century, but, after World War II, in particular, it became one of the ways of asserting that France was still one of the big players that had a right to be in the Security Council—because they still had an empire. Indochina was part of that world for them.
For Ho Chi Minh to be a communist made perfect sense because communism promised that all the property and resources that were owned, used, and manipulated by the French would be returned to the Vietnamese. They would own their own stuff. Nationalization of property makes a lot of sense when some foreigner owns all your property. The communists also were ardent supporters of anti-colonial activities. Ho Chi Minh spends his early life working in various labor and communist activities with an aim [of achieving] Vietnamese independence. He spends time in France but then spends most of his career, until the 1940s, in Russia and in China. The most influential figures in his life are actually Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. He spends fifteen years basically working with the Chinese communists to bring the revolution to China and learning how Mao makes a peasant revolution. Ho Chi Minh believes that nationalism and communism can go together, that they are one and the same. During World War II, he's willing to work, at least on the margins, with the United States to get the Japanese out of Vietnam, and, after the war, declares Vietnamese independence and tries to set up his own communist Vietnamese state.
What becomes the country of Vietnam is a long, narrow country with large land and sea borders. That tells us three things immediately: one, it is a society with a lot of people and a lot of things coming in and out, and it is very difficult to control entry and egress. It is very easy to control and defend an island like Japan, but it is very hard to defend an area like Vietnam. Borders are very porous. The second issue is that the distance from north to south is actually quite far, while the distance from east to west is not, which means there is going to be a lot of difference in the way people live in the north and the way they live in the south. The southern part of Vietnam was much more Francophilic, and the northern part was more Chinese. The third important point to be raised here is that there is no obvious center. As my nine-year old would ask: where do you put the castle? There's no obvious place to put the castle. In fact, the Vietnamese have a long history of resisting foreign invaders. They were never actually fully under Chinese control, and the French authority was often more precarious at the time than it would appear.
At the time of post-World War II reconstruction in Vietnam, there are three different positions that are going to make up the Vietnamese civil war. There's the Northern position, which becomes the state of North Vietnam, which is Ho Chi Minh's area. Ho's argument is to build a communist state allied with China in North Vietnam, especially after the Chinese communist revolution in 1949. There is also an effort to build a South Vietnamese state. These are Francophilic activists who don't want to remain part of the French empire but still want somehow not to become communists and want to remain connected to the West more than to China. It is natural that that would happen around Saigon. Third are those who believe the French empire should be put back, and those, of course, are French activists, but many others want this as well. The French after World War II make the argument that they need their empire back here to maintain order as the Japanese leave but also primarily because this is a way of securing the region.
After World War II, the United States does not want the French return to Vietnam. The American position is not French imperialism in Vietnam. Roosevelt was very clear that he did not like the French, and he did not like the French empire. He didn't like the British Empire either, by the way. Roosevelt is no friend of empire. Now, that doesn't make him an altruist, either. His belief was that if you end these empires, it is better for the United States. Truman had no great love for French imperial behavior either. He was not as knowledgeable about it, but there is nothing in his record as a senator from Missouri that shows any great belief that the French empire is the future of international politics.
But, after World War II, the United States is opposed to [French imperialism], but the United States has a lot of other things on its hands. Truman is unable to figure out how the United States can manage a post-imperial Vietnam without the communists coming to power, without the French in control, and without the United States having to be in control. None of those are things he wants to see happen. Truman's effort is to have someone else deal with this, and the French are in position to dominate this discussion within the western alliance. One of the most important lessons of international politics is it is not always power that matters, it is often position. The French are positioned even though the United States has the power. Then, with the most important conflict of the Cold War—the Korean War—the United States very quickly finds itself supporting the French in Vietnam.
At the start of the Korean War, the United States increases its contributions to French activities in Vietnam because of the perception that the communists are moving and that, unless we directly support the anti-communist forces, soon the whole region will be overrun. I tell my students, "No Korean War, no Vietnam War." American policy is not about American policy preferences, but it is about reactions to circumstances. This civil war is brewing within Vietnam, and, by the 1950s, the United States has to make some difficult choices. The United States has found itself reluctantly, almost against its interests, supporting French activities in Vietnam; now, the French have been defeated. Ho Chi Minh is now receiving extensive support from the Chinese and the Soviets in the early 1950s, and he's building a state. The question is what to do next.
At the Geneva Conference in 1954, an agreement is reached that divides Vietnam. A line is created to divide a North and a South Vietnam with the promise of elections in 1956—elections that are never held because, in fact, neither side wants to hold elections. The United States is afraid that Ho Chi Minh will win. Ho Chi Minh doesn't want to hold elections because that would mean a power-sharing scheme for him. He doesn't want to do that either. Two separate states therefore come into emergence: the North Vietnamese state under Ho Chi Minh and the South Vietnamese state under Ngo Dinh Diem.
Ngo Dinh Diem emerges as the figure the United States wishes to support because of his connections to the United States. He's called by some the "miracle man." He speaks English well. He spent most of the 1950s in seminary in the United States. He's Catholic, which makes him appealing to certain members of the United States establishment, particularly the Kennedy family. He becomes the figure who Americans believe, or hope, will bring some order and some civilization to this conflict.
What is striking is that Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were never fooled by him. When you read the records or listen to the phone conversations, you realize that American leaders recognized his limitations immediately—that Ngo Dinh Diem liked to appoint his brothers to government office, that he was pursuing a policy of anti-Buddhist activities within a Buddhist country, which was a bit of a problem. They recognized these issues. Dwight Eisenhower was told by his closest comrade from World War II, J. Lawton Collins, who was the leader of the American military mission in Vietnam, that Ngo Dinh Diem was not someone we could invest our future in. But there was the belief that we had to have someone, that there had to be some figure who could provide an alternative to Ho Chi Minh. This is a recurring problem with American policy: the desire to find the right man rather than the right process. It is because leaders are too busy to invest in trying in every way to build a policy and a process in a place that is, so far, so poorly understood by them.
In 1963, the policies of Ngo Dinh Diem have created internal issues that go beyond the problems that preexist in this civil war. There is a photo of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, immolating himself in the center of Saigon to protest the behavior of his own government and ostensibly the United States and its relationship to Vietnam. The rising tensions within South Vietnam will convince many people around John F. Kennedy, including Kennedy himself, that Ngo Dinh Diem should be removed. In November 1963, just weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, Ngo Dinh Diem is removed in a coup that is supported not necessarily by the White House but by important elements in the American embassy in South Vietnam. This will mark, before Johnson becomes president, the beginning of what I would call direct American control over South Vietnam. Once you take away the leader whom you yourself have supported and you are responsible now for creating the new regime, you have taken over this problem.
Lyndon Johnson inherits this problem. This was not Lyndon Johnson's war. Lyndon Johnson inherited this war, and he inherited the slicked-back Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 leads to the first direct American military engagements, and then, by March 1965, we see the first deployment of thirty-five hundred Marines at Da Nang in Vietnam. The United States finds itself stepping into a civil war, seeking not simply to lead one side to win, but actually seeking to bring order to this situation. For Lyndon Johnson, the American perspective is not that this is about the United States winning for one side. It is, for Lyndon Johnson, about bringing a modern social order to Vietnam that would look more like the New Deal than a civil war struggle between two different visions of politics. That is the image that Americans believe they are bringing, and that is the approach they hope to bring on the ground.
There are many problems that arise immediately. The Americans who arrive in Vietnam are there with a plan that does not match the society they are operating in. Policy is not about hearts and minds. Policy is about relationships. There is an asymmetry that is never bridged, an asymmetry that comes from the amount of power, interest, and determination that Americans bring and the different interests of the South Vietnamese. Many South Vietnamese did not want to live the way Americans wanted to live. Many of them believed, in fact, that there was an argument to be made by the communists in the North. But most of all, the biggest problem the United States had was that we were not seen as the saviors. We were just seen as one more player coming in. McNamara and Westmoreland see themselves as liberators in the way we were liberators in Germany. They are not seen as liberators by the Vietnamese in this context. They are seen as one more set of military actors coming in. The context you operate in matters as much as your intentions.
Context means everything at home. There was a mismatch between American aims and the reality as seen by Americans at home that reinforces a preexisting dynamic at home, which was that American politics were departing from our ideals. The whole argument of the mid-1960s among left and right activists was that we were not living up to our ideals. We were not living up to who we were supposed to be. Vietnam reinforced that. By 1967, you have thousands of young people coming to Washington to protest not what America stands for but the way our power seems to have departed from what we should stand for. The daisy in the gun is saying that we're using our power in the wrong way, and it should be reallocated.
Richard Nixon comes to power promising that he has a secret plan to end the war. He and Henry Kissinger promise that they can get the United States out. The biggest problem they encounter immediately is the evidence that the United States is getting more deeply involved and that the problems are getting worse. Once you scratch the surface, you see worse activities.
On March 16, 1968, a group of American soldiers entered the village of My Lai. Viet Cong, North Vietnamese-supported soldiers, had fired on and killed some Americans. When the American soldiers arrived in the village, the Viet Cong were not there. They found women and children and old men. When asked where the Viet Cong forces had gone, the villagers of course said they didn't know what they were talking about. The villagers are caught in a no-win situation, right? The U.S. military is angry at them, but, if they tell the Americans where the Viet Cong have gone, they are going to get killed. They are doing all they can. Second Lieutenant William Calley, commander of American forces, is frustrated to say the least and deeply, deeply angry about what's going on. He orders his men to round up the civilians. The numbers are debated, but it is somewhere between 360 and 500. They are put into a ditch, and they are shot by American soldiers. Killed wholesale. And then the Pentagon covers it up. It is only uncovered in 1969 by an enterprising young journalist named Seymour Hersh.
What happens in the Nixon years is that the war really does come home. If the late 1960s was a period of disorder and disruption, by the early 1970s, the war has become a domestic phenomenon in the United States. In 1973, Kissinger negotiates a "decent interval" for the United States to get out of Vietnam—some would argue with a deal they could have probably had in 1971. It is not that what happened at home forced the United States out. That is wrong. The United States was not losing the war, but they were not winning the war, either. Don't believe for one minute that there was a military solution in Vietnam. There wasn't. There was a military option of continuing to fight and to fight harder, but there was no victory in sight. What happened at home was that the American people made it clear that they no longer wanted to pay the price of continuing this war. It was not that we lost the war at home, but our preferences and our policies led us at home to decide to no longer fight this war. That is different from saying the domestic public made us lose the war and different from saying the military lost the war. Wars are fought based on domestic political debates. We leave Vietnam because we do not hold together over the causes of that war and over what it is we think we're doing there. It is the domestic politics that determine the outcomes of wars; it is the domestic politics that determine whether to end war or not.
When Americans finally leave Vietnam in 1975, it is not the last time they face these debates, these issues, these questions. The question is not, "Do we have the power?" Of course, we have enormous power to bring to different parts of the world. And the question is not whether we want to do good. I have never studied a foreign policy maker of the United States who did not want to do good for the world. It is only by doing good for the world that we do good for ourselves. We do not have evil policymakers, and we do not have dumb policymakers. The question is what we want to invest in as a society and how we think, in a difficult world, we can best pursue our ideals and our priorities. The Vietnam War took the United States far from its ideals and priorities, and that is why the United States had to withdraw the way it did. The question for today is a similar question: in a world with many threats, how can we best maintain our interests and our priorities, with military engagement where necessary, but how can we also prevent ourselves from military engagements that will depart from our ideals and our interests? That is the difficulty of policymaking. Every day the President of the Untied States is confronted with different pressures to intervene somewhere. Obama did not wake up in the morning saying, "Where am I going to send American military forces?" Nor did Lyndon Johnson, nor did Richard Nixon. Presidents are reactive, as much as anything else. What they have to struggle with is where are the right places to put our forces to maintain our ideals. That is the biggest difficulty for us to face, and that is what we need to talk about at home. Debate at home should be debate over what we care about and where are we willing to use force to support what we care about. And that is what we want our students to start talking about as well.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the department of history and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books, most recently The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office, released by Basic Books in September 2017. Professor Suri also writes for major newspapers, magazines, and blogs around the country. He appears frequently on radio and television. His research and teaching have received recognition from the Smithsonian Institution and Princeton Review, among others.