Were Americans truly against the Vietnam War toward the end, or has history been rewritten by the victors?

Could it be that we teach our Vietnam history wrong?

That’s a question I’ve been mulling over after a recent email conversation with a Vietnam vet, who went back for a second tour late in the war.

He wrote me a couple of months back, introducing himself and making a comment about a past article I wrote. He mentioned in the introduction of his email that he had served in Vietnam as a Marine and returned for a second tour from November 1970 to June 1971. It was just a side comment of a broader email, but I was really curious why someone would return so late in the war.

I asked him: “So tell me, in ’71 — as they teach history these days — it seemed clear that America was headed out of Vietnam and the public was completely against the war. Was it that clear back then when you returned for your second tour? Or has the 10,000 foot look back at history tinged how it really was and it wasn’t until more like ’72 that things were so clear (for the American public)?”

His reply blew me away and I begged him to let me share it on my site. He has authorized me to post it as long as I protect his identity. Here is his answer:

“As they say, the victors get to write the history. In this case, the ultimate victors were the tiny minority of leftist radicals in the media and in the Democratic party.

“We knew in ’71 that we were going to continue to draw down the numbers of Americans in country, but would continue to provide Naval Gunfire and aerial support. We would also keep advisors and special ops types of folks active.

“General Abrams had replaced General Westmoreland as MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) Commander and was making real improvements in overcoming the horrendous World War II tactics we had been forced to use. Abrams reinstituted the “CAC” (Combined Action Company) approach first advocated by General Lew Walt and we were seeing real results. My platoon had an RVN (Republic of Vietnam) platoon (Regular army, not militia) we buddied up with for patrols and operations. This was a great concept. Most of us spoke a few words of Vietnamese, but they always had several people who were fluent in English (and French). It helped both of us do a much better job.

“As far as the on-going lie that ”the majority’ of Americans were against the war — not true. Never was true. A clear example of telling a lie often enough that it becomes ‘fact.’ Keep in mind that in 1972, Nixon won re-election by taking 49 states, and he was the one in charge of the on-going war. Hell, McGovern couldn’t even win his own state (South Dakota), and only managed to grab the very liberal state of Massachusetts.

“The really big point about the ’72 election is that McGovern was the ‘Peace’ candidate — vowing to end the war in Vietnam even if he had to “crawl on his knees to Hanoi” to make it happen.

“Nixon was the ‘Peace with honor’ guy, vowing to end the war but keep our allies safe. The 49-1 thumping in the presidential election was an indisputable statement of how the people of American really felt about the war. It wasn’t “popular,” and neither has any other war been — but it did have the support of the vast majority of people.

“Every survey through about 1973/74 showed a clear majority of Americans supporting what we were doing in Vietnam. They were a ‘protected entity’ of SEATO and we were a member nation. The North (and CHICOMS and Russians and North Koreans) had clearly invaded the South and we were meeting our treaty obligation to help defend against the invasion. We — and about 12-15 other nations.

“The RVN government was pretty screwed up (by our standards), but quite good compared to most of the rest of the world. During WW II, the Japanese did a thorough job of slaughtering any emergent leaders and the French had been screwing things up for about a century. Even though they had been a nation for thousands (yes, thousands) of years, they were having a hard time of it trying to quit being a colony and start being a nation. Their politics (and politicians) were about as mucked up as Hogan’s Goat.

“The much maligned ‘Domino Theory’ was proven to be true after the downfall of Nixon and the subsequent cutting off of funds to the RVN’s by the ‘Watergate Congress’ (93rd or 94th). The NVA blitzkrieged over the RVN’s in their communist bloc armor, the South fell, and the only stabilizing influence in the region (that would be us) was gone. The subsequent massacre of millions throughout SE Asia by the NVA, Pol Pot over in Cambodia, and various warlords in the remote areas created a void that may never be filled.

“Lewis Sorley wrote about the best account of the latter years of the conflict in “A Better War’. He pulls no punches, but demonstrates clearly how close we were to finishing the job over there.”

So, having not lived in that time, I’d love to hear from some of you on how you perceive it. I really want to especially here from those who lived and experienced the war and its ending, not just those like me who are forced to look back on it through the way it’s taught in history.

Was there still pretty solid support (in your opinion) for the Vietnam War in 1971 and 1972?

Have the “victors” rewritten history and altered it for the younger generations such as myself who only know of it through books, movies, and historical accounts on TV?

Love to get some good feedback on this.

Stan R. Mitchell

Oak Ridge, Tenn.

P.S. If you enjoy fast-paced books, you just might like my works. “Sold Out” tracks the life of a legendary Marine Sniper after a CIA unit decides to kill him for reasons of national security. “Little Man, and the Dixon County War” tells the uphill fight a young deputy faces after surviving three years of war only to find himself in the sights of a mighty cattle baron. And “Soldier On,” a short novel, follows the lives of several German soldiers in a depleted infantry company trying to make it through the final, miserable months of World War II.

24 Comments

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24 responses to “Were Americans truly against the Vietnam War toward the end, or has history been rewritten by the victors?

  1. This is one of those subjects where I am reluctant to stick my head up out of the foxhole. I was a CAC commander and concur that that was one model for the way the war should have been fought: first priority- the population must be kept safe. Westmoreland’s Search and Destroy was based on the notion that we could win with body count. As he trolled around the country with battalions and larger, our enemy often had the initiative. They could to choose to engage or not, depending on the favorability of the circumstances.
    When I came home in May 1968, the sentiment of much [majority? don’t know] of the country had turned against the war, particularly among the young and those of draft age. Many of the visible protesters were “radicals” perhaps, but to pigeonhole the broad anti-war movement as such is simplistic. My father, a decorated WWII Marine pilot, had turned against the war.
    Ho Chi Minh was a communist, yes. But more, he was a nationalist. Who among us would not have wanted to throw out the the brutal French colonialists? There was a moment we lost after Dien Bien Phu when we might have made accommodations with the Vietnamese patriots. Viet Nam has historically seldom been on good terms with China– note the war they fought after we left and today’s headlines.
    Our air power (more ordinance dropped in Viet Nam than in all other wars in history combined), tanks, etc. were not enough. We were on the wrong side of nationalism. And, while the Marines and the Vietnamese and the Montagnards whom I had the honor of commanding were willing to fight,
    it must be said that the North Vietnamese were more willing to die. They wanted victory more desperately than did our allies in the South, and more than did the American nation as a whole.

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    • Excellent perspective, Mr. Haines. I really appreciate you taking the time to type all of that out and dredge up old memories you probably would rather have left alone. (And, really, really interesting that your Father had turned against the war. That seems to imply that maybe a fair number of Americans WERE against the war. I’m hoping others weigh in on this to get a clearer picture.)

      And it goes without saying, but besides taking the time to comment, I thank you so much for your service and for all you had to deal with, both abroad and upon your return.

      Semper Fidelis,
      Stan

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      • Oldgyrene points out how our two perspectives on support for the war were colored by where we landed back in the USA- he in Northern Ohio, me in Massachusettes (in a town dubbed The People’s Republic of Cambridge, ouch). The McGovern/Nixon race is evidence of the country’s support for the war. Many were simply of the mind of Henry Kissinger who could only conceive that if we ratcheted up the punishment, any reasonable person/enemy must come to the table, allowing us to get out with “honor”. In the overwhelming electoral victory for Nixon, it should be pointed out that 37.5% of our population did vote for the “peace candidate”. At the time, it felt like our country was at odds with itself, even more so than today.
        Quick notes, after my return to VN, on the victors writing history:
        Firstly, the war remains huge in our consciousness compared to the Vietnamese (nearly 70% of whom were not alive when I was there). The American War seems to be only the last small chapter in a long narrative that begins with centuries of the Chinese and is obsessed with the period of the Colonial French.
        The Hanoi Hilton, for example, was first a French prison where horrendous things were done to the Nationalists. McCain’s flight suit is on display. I was informed by my pleasant 21 year-old guide, “The Americans were treated well. They played volleyball.”
        2. In Saigon (still called that by Southerners), there is a large war museum. Every birth defect in the country has been laid at our doorstep because of Agent Orange. Featured are photographs (almost all taken by American reporters) of American atrocities. No mention is made of the fact that guerrilla warfare is largely terror warfare. As far as I am concerned, Lt. Calley and the like should at best be just now be getting out of prison. However, in my experience in Viet Nam, it was our enemy who perpetrated the worst crimes- routinely.
        The War Museum is a trove of weapons: from aircraft, artillery, and tanks to hundreds of the most obscure small arms. I did not see a single AK-47.

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        • Thanks for the add’l insight, Mr. Haines. Especially interesting how the Vietnamese view our war.

          And it’s weird, but I can totally see how the Northerners of Vietnam, especially, would only see the American part of the war as just one chapter.

          One quick sidenote: One thing that infuriates me to no end is how we never learn from our mistakes…

          We train up the Viet Minh to fight the Japanese in WWII. The Viet Minh become the Viet Cong.

          We train and build up the Iraqi Army to counter the Iranians. We go fight them. Twice. (Oh, and we’re increasingly worried about Iran, who rightly hates our guts…)

          We train a bunch of tough bastards in Afghanistan, so they’ll drive out the Soviets. Then, oops, some of then turn into Al Qaeda.

          (I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but it’s just a constant theme… And it drives me nuts to no end. Maybe this is just how the game is played when you’re a super-power. Maybe Rome did the same thing. I guess, come to think of it, the British certainly did the same thing — training people who in the end switched sides and helped drive them out.)

          Well, I’m rambling… Thanks again for the comment!

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          • Stan, [if you call me Mr. Haines again, I’ll have to call you Mr. Mitchell],
            I must comment on one unusual phrase in this post “…Iran who rightly hates our guts,” because I wholeheartedly agree. For most Americans,
            Iran is the radical Muslim country who took our hostages. Few seem to acknowledge their very legitimate grievances and anger at the USA.
            1. In spite of the Shah’s pretensions as the heir of 2000 years of the Peacock Throne– he was, in fact, a CIA-supported upstart Lt. Colonel.
            He was a torturer. And he was massively corrupt. I have a friend who did profitable business in Iran in the early 70’s. In the beginning, his problem was finding the right connection to the bagman. The Shah took 5% of all foreign trade, right off the top.
            2. You point out whose side we were on when Iran had their war with Saddam’s Iraq. My teacher Marine Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor
            (author with Gordon of “Cobra Two” and more) was a military observer
            during Iran’s last major offensive– on the Iraqi side, of course.
            Semper Fi,
            Peter

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            • Peter,

              Again, thanks for those remarks. Often, people get defensive, or even pissed, when I talk about Iran rightly hating our guts. So, I appreciate you elaborating that point so clearly. (And don’t tell anyone, but between you and me, I’ve noticed: Sometimes, patriotism can blind even the sharpest.)

              Personally, I try to always see it through at least two prisms: ours and theirs. Now, when I was 19 and a LCPL, things were much clearer. You give me the coordinates, I’ll gear up, shoot the azimuth, and take the hill.

              But as you get older, and a little wiser and better educated, things are unfortunately much murkier. (Related to this topic, for example, how about the fact that we weren’t exactly squeaky clean on that whole Gulf of Tonkin incident, which ultimately led to our rapid escalation in Vietnam? Note: I’m not saying they were perfect either, but the whole “they attacked us” argument doesn’t fly with me. It’s far more complicated than that.)

              But back to what I was saying, again, if you’re 19 and carrying the latest version of the M16 toward whoever the latest folks are that don’t speak your language and are certainly doing what they believe is right, it’s probably best not to know this or think too much on it at night. It just muddies the waters.

              But once you’ve served your time with honor, I think you owe it to the lads and gals who will follow in your footsteps to study the issues and attempt to educate and steer the country’s leaders toward the best possible outcomes.

              The 19 years olds will do their job, no matter what. It’s up to us, to make sure we’re doing ours, as well.

              Only responsible citizens, who are well informed and engaged, can maintain a great republic.

              And if we fail, then we can study the history of Rome for an early prediction of roughly how things will end.

              S/F,
              Stan

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  2. I agree with Peter Haines. Johnson and Nixon both were worried about the anti war protestors at home. I feel our government dropped the ball on Vietnam. On a personal note, my tour was in 1969 & ’70, and we saw the slow troop withdrawal by then. I met a chopper pilot many years after the war, who had served in 1971. He was shot down, and told me ground support was almost non-existent at that time, and he had to make his way back to friendly lines on his own. No rescue. I don’t think all of our men regret serving in Vietnam, though I’m sure a few may. But most feel that our government let us down. God Bless all our combat veterans, and all our men and women in uniform everywhere.

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    • Hey, Tom! Great to hear from you, as always! And I don’t think anyone would disagree with your statement that our government dropped the ball.

      (I was always stunned to read how we refused to assist the French when they were begging for our help at Dien Bien Phu, but then years later decided Vietnam was a crucial American priority. I still shake my head at this… And don’t even get me started on the DMZ and a whole host of other issues…)

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      • Jim Stelling

        I love the comments and they ring true. I had no experience with anti war folks after either of my two tours but then I was around military towns–San Diego and O’Side. I had relatives in San Bernardino, CA and when visiting a couple of bars there I was unable to buy a drink for myself. During my second tour (1970) all the news we had in Vietnam was that everyone stateside hated our guts. I thought screw ’em, I’ll fight for the Marine Corps Flag.
        When the French asked us for help in 1953 and 1954 during the Dien Bien Phu siege, they wanted US Troops, armour and guns under French Officers and command—President IKE said NO WAY. That’s why we didn’t engage at that time. Ike did however, sign the SEATO (South East Treaty Organization) when they met in Manilla to slow the spread of communism.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jim Stelling

          An ad-on about the WWII folks–I have met a few that were against the Vietnamese War. However, those folks were democrats and some with good reason. A lot of them felt that FDR and Truman were heroes in their eyes and at times both were, despite their many other faults.

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  3. Nancy England

    I am not a former soldier, although I respect the breadth of the job given to the armed forces. However, I firmly count myself as part of the “questionable” majority (minority?(which?) that was against the Vietnam war. I remember the last time I had any sympathy for the war was when Dean Rusk thumped his chest about the Domino Theory. Since then, I have come to the conclusion that our soldier’s lives, our tax dollars (ten years’ worth of draining the American budget since Iraq, as well as the lives of thousands upon thousands of nationals of other countries, should not be countenanced. Along with that is included the bad rep we’ve gotten with so many countries. Let’s spend our not-exhaustible resources on things like improving our schools, health care, supporting national infrastructure such as bridges and highways, allowing the National Guard to be available for home-grown natural disasters, and getting our deficit back to the Plus side, as Clinton left it.

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    • Hey Nancy!

      Great to hear from you, and thanks for the comment! Out of curiosity, do you remember what year this was said? And if you don’t mind dating yourself a bit, could you say how old you were when this happened? (I’m just curious if you were like a little girl or maybe already in college and really interested in world affairs when it took place.)

      Thanks so much! Hope you and Brandt are doing well!!!

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    • @Nancy England – Will you be responding to Stan’s requests? I too am interested in anything that might amplify your initial comments. Do you recall approximately when you saw Secretary Rusk accurately describe the sequence of events in Southeast Asia known as the “Domino Theory”? I personally find it fascinating that he had the foresight to predict that way back in 1951. Everything I’ve read and remember about the man was that he was quite mild-mannered and self-effacing. To describe him as having “thumped his chest” is not an action I would expect.

      Without parsing your words too finely, when you say that you “respect the breadth of the job given to the armed forces”, is there nothing you have to say (or respect) about the people?

      You describe what you think should not be countenanced, but don’t describe what should. Personally, I was against the tactics of Desert Storm and OIF, but strongly felt that the initial strategy in Afghanistan was superb. If our decision makers had allowed the Special Operators to run both OIF and OEF they would have been done at a fraction of the cost and been more successful by orders of magnitude. More importantly, we wouldn’t still be squandering American treasure in the effort.

      I was going to ignore your last phrase but – alas – I can’t: “…and getting our deficit back to the Plus side, as Clinton left it.”. That is not a true statement, has never been true, but the truth is ever a casualty in American politics. Just as there became an alternative reality for the definition of “is”, so too – apparently – the definition of “deficit”. When Clinton took office, the total deficit (according to the U.S. Treasury) was 281 billion. When he left, it was 133 billion. Reduced the deficit? Yes. Left a surplus? No. Clinton and his twin brother Gingrich did improve the rate of increase of the public debt.

      Finally, no-no-no. I am not a Republican. I first registered to vote about 47 years ago as an Independent and haven’t yet seen a reason to change. My opinion of both sides of the political aisle is that we would be better off picking our representatives by lottery.

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      • Jim Stelling

        There is a difference between the national deficit and the national debt. I was taking a college course at night, before I retired, and made an A-Plus in accounting and understood none of it. It’s true that Clinton reduced the national deficit but he also increased the national debt by over one trillion dollars.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jim Stelling

          Another add-on I was also an instructor at the SNCO Academy at CamPen. When were you there?

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          • Old Retired Guy

            Hi Jim,
            I was at Brigade Schools from about June to Sept 1970. Then transferred to 3/3, then back to RVN in November (2/1).
            Vic

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        • “increased the national debt by over one trillion dollars.”

          What a piker! I think I saw that he (ONLY) left us about 5.4 Trillion in debt. Just look at us now.

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  4. Active duty Marine, July 1964-Dec 1972.
    0311/0369/0302 (Temporary)

    Some interesting comments so far, and I imagine (hope) they will generate some open discussion.

    I have some random thoughts after reading the comments thus far posted. They are not in any particular order, and I am NOT any kind of writer.

    I see that Peter Haines was born in the same town as my son – and probably in the same hospital (but two wars later). His perspective seems to be that of someone who came home from Vietnam and immediately set up in Massachusetts. My perspective is that of someone who came home from Vietnam (first tour) and went on recruiting duty in N/W Ohio and S/E Michigan.

    Our two experiences with the attitudes of the American people were dramatically different. A couple of college campuses (UofM and Wayne State come to mind) were distinctly anti-military, but other than those small pockets the folks in uniform enjoyed outstanding support from the everyday people we met.

    I spent a few months living in a boarding house with several other bachelor Marines. We all agreed that it was the best duty we’d ever had (we were all fresh back from Vietnam) and seldom had to buy our own dinners – much less drinks. The USO had 4 seats right behind the catcher for all Tigers games and the beers and hotdogs kept coming non-stop. The people seated around us particularly loved Marines, since there was no way we could drink/eat it all and just gave away the excess.

    Another measure of the support of the everyday people (how do I put this delicately?), none of us ever lacked for companionship on those cold mid-western winter nights. (Cue up that certain Beach Boys song…).

    Before returning to Vietnam, I briefly taught counter-insurgency at the Staff NCO academy at Camp Pendleton. In my research, I learned that Ho Chi Minh was more than simply “a nationalist”, he was OUR nationalist – until Truman turned his back on Roosevelt’s promises and let the French back in after WWII.

    The Japanese had brutalized the Vietnamese people during their occupation and were thoroughly hated. Some of the people Ho worked with – and possibly Ho himself – provided the allies with intelligence about the activities and troop dispositions of the Japanese. We used these people to help us win the overall Pacific/Asia campaign and then dumped them when the war was over. Instead of having a superb leader as our ally, we created a ferocious enemy. Great comment by Peter about what a great buffer they would have been against the ChiCom aggression.

    I think the comment about our guys being will to fight/those guys being willing to die is a good one – and highlights one of the worst tactical mistakes we made: “The Rotation”.

    All of our guys knew that their primary personal goal was to survive the 12 or 13 months of a “tour” and they would be on the way home. Their guys knew that they were heading south and wouldn’t be coming home until the war was over. Pretty simple to see who was more motivated to do whatever was needed to win.

    Tom Johnson talks about some guy claiming to have been shot down and having to make his own way back to friendly lines. When I read or hear things like that, my BS flag starts waving like Maggie’s Drawers. One of the things the American military does better than almost anything else is take care of our own. If for no other reason than protecting the fortune it takes to train a pilot, we don’t leave them on their own when they go down. When we were down to only two regiments of Marines in the Da Nang AO, there was still always at least a platoon on the ready pad as a ‘reaction’ force in case it was needed. We could be used to reinforce anyone who was in trouble, or go secure a crash site in the case of aircraft.

    Whoever first said that truth is the first casualty of war sure had it right about Vietnam. I have met/heard/read more complete and total BS about the war (and about the actions of so many alleged Vets), and it still makes my skin crawl…but I’ll save that discussion for another time.

    Tom also mentions “But most feel that our government let us down.” – how sadly true. Not only the Vets who came home desperately needed help they never got (F’ing VA), but also those who got left behind in Vietnam (and Korea and WWII). The “unaccounted for/missing” troops in those wars probably runs into the thousands, but it just wasn’t politically expedient to get them all back. The name Richard Garwood comes to mind, and I sure wish I knew the real story behind that.

    Nancy England has never heard of the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia, which is too bad. In the original post up top, the second to last paragraph has this line: “The subsequent massacre of millions throughout SE Asia by the NVA, Pol Pot over in Cambodia, and various warlords in the remote areas created a void that may never be filled.” Sadly, what Dean Rusk warned of (in 1951, BTW) was proven true.

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    • Yes, what you say is true. I hear war stories from ex military quite often. The one I like best is that the VC still has a million dollar bounty on their head (LOL). I think there have been too many movies and fiction novels written portraying the G.I. as Rambo. I wasn’t in Vietnam in 1971 (my tour was 1969 & ’70), nor did I know the fella personally who claimed to be a chopper pilot shot down without ground support, but I sure wasn’t going to tell him it was a lie since I wasn’t there with him. He was a PA at a VA Clinic. I also met a Vietnamese gentleman now making $300.00 for ten minutes as a foot doctor. I had a feeling he was probably ex VC, brought to the US and educated at tax payers expense. But that’s life.

      Liked by 1 person

      • @Tom: Lord save us from all the Rambo’s out there. I figure if everyone who now claims to have served in Vietnam actually had, the country would have sunk into the sea.
        In the late 70’s early 80’s I worked out in SoCal with a lot of Vietnamese refugees and (as a group) they were incredibly hard workers. Worked hard, saved their money, and their children were exemplary. Good people!
        That whole country should have been a strong ally, but instead we’ve had 50 years of grief.

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    • Excellent comments, OldGyrene! Thanks for weighing in, and for your service.

      And your point about rotating is so dead on…

      S/F,
      Stan

      Like

  5. What a fascinating discussion, Stan. History is really made up of so many narratives in the end, rather than one clear truth, I suppose. Thanks for this insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

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