September 30, 2017


Much of America, including yours truly, has been watching the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series, ‘Vietnam.’  Instead of clarifying that confusing conflict, the series has ignited fiery controversy and a lot of long-repressed anger by soft-soaping Washington’s motives.

This march to folly in Vietnam is particularly painful for me since I enlisted in the US army at the height of the war.  Gripped by youthful patriotism, I strongly supported the war.  In fact, the TV series even showed a pro-war march down New York’s Fifth Avenue that I had joined.  Talk about déjà vu.

At the time, 1967, the Cold War was at full force.  We really believed that if the US did not make a stand in Vietnam the Soviets and Chinese would overrun all of South Asia.

No one in Washington seemed to know that China and the Soviet Union had split and become bitter enemies.  As ever, our foreign human intelligence was lousy. We didn’t understand that Vietnam deserved independence after a century of French colonialism.  Or that what happened in Vietnam was of little importance to the rest of the world.

Three American presidents blundered into this war or prolonged it, then could not back out lest they lose face and risk humiliation.  I don’t for a moment believe that the ‘saintly’ President John Kennedy planned to end the war but was assassinated by dark, rightwing forces, as is claimed.  This is a charming legend.  Richard Nixon, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all feared that a withdrawal from Vietnam would lose them the next election.   Republicans were still snarling over ‘who lost China’.

The current 17-year old US war in Afghanistan has uncanny resemblances to the Vietnam War.  In Kabul and Saigon, the US installed puppet governments that command no loyalty except from minority groups. They were steeped in drugs and corruption, and kept in power by intensive use of American air power.   As in Vietnam, the US military and civilian effort in Afghanistan is led by a toxic mixture of deep ignorance and imperial arrogance.

The US military understands it has long ago lost the Afghan War but cannot bear the humiliation of admitting it was defeated by lightly-armed mountain tribesmen fighting for their independence.  In Vietnam, Washington could not admit that young Vietnamese guerillas and regulars had bested the US armed forces thanks to their indomitable courage and intelligent tactics. No one outside Vietnam cared about the 2-3 million civilians killed in the conflict

Unfortunately, the PBS program fails to convey this imperial arrogance and the ignorance that impelled Washington into the war – the same foolhardy behavior that sent US forces into Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps may do so in a second Korean War.  The imperial spirit still burns hot in Washington among those who don’t know or understand the outside world.  The lessons of all these past conflicts have been forgotten:  Washington’s collective memory is only three years long.

Vietnam was not a ‘tragedy,’ as the PBS series asserts, but the product of imperial geopolitics.  The same holds true for today’s Mideast wars.   To paraphrase a famous slogan from Vietnam, we destroyed Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to make them safe for ‘freedom.’

One of the craziest things about the Vietnam War has rarely been acknowledged:  even at peak deployment, the 550,000 US soldiers in Vietnam were outnumbered by North Vietnamese fighting units.

That’s because the huge US military had only about 50,000 real combat troops in the field. The other half million were support troops performing logistical and administrative functions behind the lines:  a vast army of typists, cooks, truck drivers, psychologists, and pizza-makers.

Too much tail to teeth, as the army calls it. For Thanksgiving, everyone got turkey dinner with cranberry sauce, choppered into the remotest outposts. But there were simply not enough riflemen to take on the Viet Cong and tough North Vietnamese Army whose Soviet M1954 130mm howitzer with a 27 km range were far superior to the US Army’s outdated WWII artillery.

Poor generalship, mediocre officers, and lack of discipline ensured that the US war effort in Vietnam would become and remain a mess.  Stupid, pointless attacks against heavily defended hills inflicted huge casualties on US troops and eroded morale.

The monumentally stupid war mismanagement of Pentagon chief Robert McNamara, a know-it-all who knew nothing, turned the war into a macabre joke.  This was the dumbest command decision since Louis XV put his girlfriend Madame de Pompadour in charge of his armies.

We soldiers, both in Vietnam and Stateside, scorned the war and mocked our officers. It didn’t help that much of the US force in ‘Nam’ were often stoned and rebellious.

The January 30, 1968 Tet Offensive put the kibosh on US plans to pursue the war – and even take it into south-west China.  Tet was a military victory of sorts for the US (and why not, with thousands of warplanes and B-52 heavy bombers) but a huge political/psychological victory for the Communists in spite of their heavy losses.

I vividly recall standing with a group of GI’s reading a typed report on our company barracks advising that the Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands to which many of our company had been assigned for immediate duty had been overrun at Tet, and all its defenders killed.  After that, the US Army’s motto was ‘stay alive, avoid combat, and smoke another reefer.’

The war became aimless and often surreal.  We soldiers all knew our senior officers and political leaders were lying.  Many soldiers were at the edge of mutiny, like the French Army in 1917.  Back in those ancient days, we had expected our political leaders to be men of rectitude who told us the truth.  Thanks to Vietnam, the politicians were exposed as liars and heartless cynics with no honor.

This same dark cloud hangs over our political landscape today.  We have destroyed large parts of the Mideast, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan without a second thought – yet wonder why peoples from these ravaged nations hate us.  Now, North Korea seems next.

Showing defiance to Washington brought B-52 bombers, toxic Agent Orange defoliants and endless storms of napalm and white phosphorus that would burn through one’s body until it hit bone.

In spite of all, our imperial impulse till throbs.  The nightmare Vietnam War in which over 58,000 American soldiers died for nothing has been largely forgotten.   So we can now repeat the same fatal errors again without shame, remorse or understanding.


Copyright  Eric S. Margolis 2017




This post is in: Vietnam


  1. Read McGehee’s Deadly Deceipts. CIA field agents were prevented from documenting the fact that the war was lost before it ever started and taking people off the land, forcing them into strategic hamlets, making their land free fire zones was not winning any hearts or minds…

  2. North Korea situation just got a lot scarier… The Donald, “Trump tells Rex Tillerson to stop ‘wasting his time’ negotiating with North Korea

    President Trump said he’s told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stop negotiating with North Korea because “we’ll do what has to be done.”

    “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted Sunday. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!””

  3. Hi, sir

    I’ve been watching this PBS “documentary” and it disgusts me that it glosses over so much detail. I’m glad individuals like you can provide us with a more realistic view of this horrible war.

    Great article.

  4. Call me cynical…
    I would not have thought that PBS, or any publicly funded endeavour could properly undertake an article on the Vietnamese war. They are too dependent on receiving monies from a placent American society. Enrage them, and the funding dries up very quickly. I haven’t seen the Vietnam series, but, I suspect that the ‘meatier’ topics have been removed.
    If these items are expunged, there is very little to talk about. It was a typical American war. They bombed, they burned and they tried to destroy a country… and like so many other American wars to follow, failed miserably.
    The biggest changes were to occur within America itself. As the war progressed, and made less and less sense, the people were starting to rally for the end. I still recall Country Joe’s lyrics, “Be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box. And, it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for…” Prior to withdrawal, there were starting to be violent anti-war demonstrations… something I was unaware of in the past.
    It still took the politicians a couple of years before they came around to doing what their electors wanted. Maintaining the ‘status quo’ has stopped this time of enlightened political awareness. It rears up every so often, but, because everyone has a porkchop on his plate, little or nothing is done. At the time of the Vietnam war, I would suggest the population was far better off, in particular, those demonstrating.
    It was a time of my youth… I was actively involved with bringing draft dodgers up to Canada… helping find them accommodations, work, legal assistance, whatever… We had 20 or 30 arrivals a month. I had to be very careful not to draw attention; my mom had high security clearances, and, I did not want to jeopardise these.
    The current government simply returns ‘draft dodgers’ to the US under the pretext that they signed up by choice and were deserters and not draft dodgers. I simply note that this is another manner in which Canadians have failed the world… we are joined at the hip to the southern neighbours. Very few countries see Canada as anything but an American mouthpiece. Our politicians play silly games to give a different illusion, but, fail. Canada, was a great country, but, starting with Dief… we’ve slid downhill.
    I had signed a petition in first year engineering. I think it was involved with Hawker-Siddeley recruiting on campus. It’s been more than 50 years, so memory is a little fuzzy. A couple of weeks or a month later, my mom presented me with a part of the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper. It was a middle section with thousands of names in about 3 pt. font… and somewhere in the middle, my name was circled. This had been presented to her by ‘someone at the office’. I knew I had to be extraordinarily careful and that some people were really diligent when it came to their work.
    We had a young engineer in the office that was Vietnamese, Trung, and he had no recollection of the war; very likely his parents were involved or affected. Memory of history is short lived… he was never informed of the actions or success of his people, or the failure of the Americans… The war had simply disappeared from him and his future generations.
    We had a politician in the south of Winnipeg that was of the opinion that the horrendous burns suffered by the Vietnamese were caused from exploding gas stoves. The idea of napalm and white phosphorus never entered into his vocabulary. That was the first time I realised that politicians were unenlightend bottom feeders, and the label has stuck for decades.
    I’d picked up a hitchhicker, passing through Alberta, and in the course of the conversation, I was enlighted to know how to ‘smoke weed’ using an M16. Clever people, these Gis. That was a different time.

  5. Well said Eric! I agree with most everything you said here.I am a history buff and have studied the Vietnam Conflict thoroughly.
    To this day,it often brings tears to my eyes when I think of how badly the U.S. soldiers were treated by there own people.The dead,the maimed the psychologically crippled were treated like trash by there fellow citizens.
    Men;(boys really) who served there country out of a sense of honor and patriotism were dishonored by there leaders and there fellow citizens.
    I see nothing wrong in protesting the war,but the peaceniks should never have thrown there verbal bile and invective at the GI’s.That is just wrong on so many levels.A lot of the men who served were drafted and had no REAL choice.
    I have the utmost respect for any man who serves his country in a time of war and hence have the utmost respect for all who served there country in Vietnam.
    I salute you one and all.

    • The American soldiers were treated terribly by the ‘people back home’, but, pales in comparison when compared to how the Americans treated the Vietnamese…

      No sympathy extended to those poor suffering veterans.

  6. Excellent column, as usual. I agree only partly that the PBS series on Vietnam did not convey the US’s imperial arrogance and ignorance in that era. I think that it was partly conveyed by the series, albeit not sufficiently. Also, the people who put it together completely ignored the fact that China detonated its first atomic bomb in Oct. 1964, in the middle of that year’s presidential election. It was done to send a clear message to the US and led President Johnson to back away from a much wider conflict that would have ensued if the US had invaded North Vietnam. (I recall that Eric told me once in an e-mail that it later came to light that had the US invaded N. Vietnam, China would have used its nuclear device against the US. Perhaps by late 1964 or early 1965, Lyndon Johnson was in receipt of a direct but secret threat from China, although the White House tapes from the Johnson years did not indicate that.)

    There are those who say that the US carried out the Vietnam conflict as long as it did partly to keep its military-industrial complex operating in full gear and provide the US with full employment levels. (This is something that was also not addressed in the PBS series.) Maybe so, because that might explain in part why there was no real strategy to defeat the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army – something that Clark Clifford soon found out after he replaced Robert McNamara as Defense Secretary. But, whatever the reasons for that war and why it dragged on for so long, it was indeed a great tragedy, both for the US and particularly for the people of Vietnam. It was a war that the US should never have fought. And now that it has refused to learn the lessons of that war, it has repeated its mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  7. Joe from Canada says:

    Thank you, Eric, for a fine, comprehensive article.

    You have thoroughly articulated my own thoughts on Vietnam and today’s seven or more American wars. (I find my word “war” inadequate to describe the ongoing aerial slaughters of so-called militants from Libya to Yemen to Iraq).

    I visited Vietnam and saw endless miles of lands that were pocketed by carpet bombing. In Vietnam, as in today’s assaults, it seems justifiable to kill anything that moves, even the people US supposedly is trying to protect.

    The noble words “mistake” and “tragedy” fail to express culpability. This was not a “foolish error”. It was, and today’s American intrusions are, war crimes.

    Please help me with this thought, Eric: after WWII, did the German soldiers come home to monuments, parades and a legacy of “having fought for flag and country.” A legacy promulgated at major athletic events, with flag, anthem, and fly-overs…?

    How were German troops received at home after their war?

  8. They also carefully avoided any mention that what triggered the war was Vietnam trying to end France’s brutal colonialism and exploitation and when Ho Chi Minh came to America seeking help America sided with France because there is nothing America hates more than the idea of non Europeans wanting to kick Europeans out and run their own country.

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