Ho made his first appearance on the world stage at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, following World War I. Wearing a borrowed suit and using the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho presented a letter to the leaders of the victorious nations respectfully asking for recognition of the rights of the Vietnamese people. These rights included equal justice in the courts; freedoms of the press, speech, assembly, education, and travel; and the “replacement of the [colonial] regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had previously indicated his support for the principle of self-determination, telling Congress on February 11, 1918:
In other words, while their casualty rate may have been disproportionate at first, that fact reflected their actual representation in the infantry and airborne, not that they were being pushed to the fore of combat while non-Blacks were being held back.
John Tirman, “Why do we ignore the civilians killed in American wars?” Washington Post, January 6, 2012. See also “Casualties,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), p. 175.
In 2015, Rawlings began the “Letters to The Wall” project, encouraging anyone directly impacted by the war – as a soldier, conscientious objector, antiwar activist, or as a loved one of any of these – to write their personal story. On Memorial Day 2015, the first batch of 132 letters and 32 postcards were laid at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, all copied beforehand for publication on the Vets for Peace . The National Park Service collects these letters left at The Wall and may feature some in its forthcoming educational center.
If the legacy of the Vietnam War is to offer any guidance, we need to complete the moral and political reckoning it awakened. And if our nation’s future is to be less militarized, our empire of foreign military bases scaled back, and our pattern of endless military interventions ended, a necessary first step is to reject – fully and finally – the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world. Only an honest accounting of our history will allow us to chart a new path in the world. The past is always speaking to us, if we only listen.
The man at the helm of the “death machine” from June 1964 to June 1968, General William C. Westmoreland, was callous in his attitude toward Vietnamese civilian deaths and saw technical advances in Vietnam as inaugurating a new way of war. He told an army lobby group in October 1969 that “on the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation and automated fire control. With first round kill probabilities approaching certainty, and with surveillance devices that can continually track the enemy, the need for large forces to fix the opposition will be less important.”
Much of the stomping was done by aerial bombing. Indeed, the American air war produced many more casualties than the war on the ground. According to the military historian Michael Clodfelter:
In another mission from May 10-20, 1969, U.S. and ARVN troops fought an intense, uphill battle (literally) for Hill 937, or “Hamburger Hill,” near the Laotian border. The U.S.-ARVN forces succeeded in taking the hill, with significant casualties, but since no territory in the countryside could be permanently retained without sizable forces present, the hill was quietly abandoned on June 5. Two weeks later, military intelligence reported that more than 1,000 North Vietnamese Army troops had moved back into the area. In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts asked on the Senate floor, “How can we justify sending our boys against a hill a dozen times, finally taking it, and then withdrawing a week later?”
Wilcox’s first book, Waiting for an Army to Die, chronicles the effects of Agent Orange on American veterans. Many became sick or died from diseases that normally do not afflict young men, including rare cancers, while others reported that their children were born with birth defects similar to those seen in the offspring of female laboratory animals exposed to dioxin. The veterans considered themselves to have been guinea pigs in scientific experiments by their own government. They brought a class action lawsuit in 1980 against the government and Monsanto, which was settled out-of-court in 1984 for $180 million dollars.
Among the factors contributing to the killing of civilians were the bureaucratic labeling of whole districts as NLF territory and thus free-fire zones; a “body count” reward system that identified civilians killed as communist guerrillas; lack of official accountability such that the generals did not want to know about, report, or investigate civilian casualties; psychological factors including revenge, sadism, racism, and boredom, any of which might impel a soldier to slay or rape civilians; a military culture that encouraged racist views of Asians and Vietnamese, commonly referred to as “gooks”; and the massive firepower readily available to U.S. soldiers that killed indiscriminately.
The administration’s peace rhetoric was aimed at domestic and international audiences, not the Vietnamese. Indeed, UN Secretary-General U Thant worked tirelessly during the 1960s to broker a peace agreement based on the Geneva Agreements of 1954, but to no avail. The real difficulty for Johnson and company would be to explain to the American people why American blood had been shed in Vietnam at all. Having passed up ripe opportunities to resolve the burgeoning war in Vietnam in late 1963, following the Diem overthrow, and in late 1964, following his re-election as the “peace candidate,” President Johnson sabotaged another opportunity to negotiate an end to the war in late 1966. The Hanoi government was prepared to sit down with U.S. representatives in secret talks arranged by Poland, code-named “Marigold,” when Johnson authorized bombing raids on the center of Hanoi for the first time on December 13 and 14. The North Vietnamese pulled out, the talks collapsed, and the war expanded.
The first mistake of U.S. leaders was to label the communist-led patriots of Vietnam “enemies” of the United States, despite the fact that they posed no threat to U.S. national security and held no animosity toward Americans before the United States intervened in 1954. With the onset of the American War in 1965, the masses who regarded Ho Chi Minh as their liberator and national hero were deemed “fellow travelers” of the resistance and treated accordingly.