Friday, December 11, 2015

Vietnam, bits and pieces

"War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had been seduced into uniform by Kennedy's challenge to 'ask what you can do for your country.' America seemed omnipotent then."

-- Author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo, "A Rumor of War."

Many books were written about Vietnam.
As Fairfield prepared to flee the onrush of the great Dam of Brookville, the world did not stop happening. Tumultuous times, the 1960s.

Halfway around the globe, in a peninsula called Indochina, a war had broken out.

By the time the Vietnam conflict ended, it became America's longest war and one of its most unusual, presuming there is a rational form of it.

A casual cursory count of the archives shows that about 500 men and women from Franklin County served in some capacity during the Vietnam war, including more than a few from Fairfield or the township.

My source for that is a book produced by Brookville librarian Julie Schlesselman. The book is available at most libraries in Indiana. I think you can buy it, but it may be in limited quantity. "Remembering Those Who Served."

Vietnam was not unlike the Korean war a decade earlier in that it had far more spectators than participants. The nation did not mobilize to fight the war, and support or opposition was quite divided.

There are no stories of gallantry or of total community sacrifice. We simply watched the war on television and made it up as we went along. Our knowledge of Vietnam and Indochina was limited to that of academia. The place meant nothing to people who had no reason to ever go there.

But many Americans had a reason to go there. Many of them were ordered to go there.

Johnson visited troops in Vietnam.
American involvement during the Kennedy administration began as early as 1961 and became a military operation about two years later. The U.S. had aligned itself with a corrupt, incompetent South Vietnamese regime and found itself firmly fighting the North Vietnamese communists by 1964. About 15,000 U.S. troops were propping up the South by the time Lyndon Johnson became president after Kennedy's assassination.

The so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 led to full-scale American intervention that was roundly applauded by the U.S. public. U.S. troop strength doubled.

LBJ gradually accelerated the pace of American bombing, and by the middle of 1965, the U.S. was firmly at war with Viet Cong from the North.

Student protests began to occur in early 1965 and LBJ had increased U.S. troop numbers to nearly 150,000 by summer of that year. About 35,000 were monthly being drafted into service by July.

In a speech, LBJ said:

"I have asked the commanding general, General (William) Westmoreland, what more he needs to meet this mounting aggression. He has told me. And we will meet his needs. We cannot be defeated by force of arms. We will stand in Vietnam."

Protests intensified around the country.

By year's end U.S. troop levels in Vietnam reached 184,300.

American bombing grew to near-saturation levels and essentially accomplished nothing. LBJ's political opponents began to grumble louder.

Nearly 400,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines were in Vietnam by the end of 1966 and nobody was winning anything. And the president admitted it.

In July 1967, Westmoreland requested an additional 200,000 reinforcements on top of the 475,000 soldiers already scheduled to be sent to Vietnam, which would bring the U.S. total in Vietnam to 675,000. President Johnson agreed only to an extra 45,000.

Lots of peace rallies across the country.
The war had turned ugly, and Americans were feeling a bitter taste as the casualties mounted. California Gov. Ronald Reagan said the U.S. should get out of Vietnam because it wasn't possible to win with Johnson's strategy. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara resigned over a dispute about the president's program.

By the end of 1967, more than a million U.S. service personnel had served in the war and half that number were on the ground in Southeast Asia.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese took advantage of a Tet offensive and effectively turned the war in their favor.

The U.S. began looking for ways to get out of Vietnam. Casualty numbers were routinely faked. By the middle of the year, even the most optimistic experts said the conflict would end in nothing but a stalemate.

Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy announced plans to challenge Johnson in the presidential primaries. In March, Johnson decided not to run again and the Kennedy campaign took full advantage of that.

In June, Kennedy was assassinated.

In November, Richard Nixon became president and began the long arduous path toward carving out a strategy that would allow America to get out of Vietnam.

Throughout the 3.5-year bombing campaign, the U.S. dropped a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the equivalent of 800 tons per day, with little actual success in halting the flow of soldiers and supplies into the South or in damaging North Vietnamese morale. In fact, the opposite occurred.

By the time Nixon took office, the U.S. had recorded more than 30,000 deaths. By August 1969, more than a half-million Americans were serving in Vietnam as peace talks in Paris slowly moved forward.

Nixon ordered bombing in Cambodia.

War protests grew in size and intensity.

America was fighting back against the war even as Nixon had begun dismantling the American presence in Vietnam.

Opinion polls in 1971 indicated Nixon's approval rating among Americans had dropped to 50 percent, while approval of his Vietnam strategy had slipped to just 34 percent. Half of all Americans polled believed the war in Vietnam to be "morally wrong."

In early 1973, the Paris Accords were signed that ensured sovereignty for both governments, but North Vietnam violated the Paris treaty and overwhelmed the South.

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops raised their flag over Saigon and took control of the entire country.

During 15 years of military involvement, nearly 2 million Americans served in Vietnam with 500,000 seeing actual combat. Another 47,244 were killed in action, including 8,000 airmen. There were 10,446 non-combat deaths, and 153,329 were seriously wounded, including 10,000 amputees. More than 1,300 American POWs/MIA are still unaccounted for. It is unlikely that any MIA/POW who remain will ever be found.

On Sept. 16, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford announced a clemency program for draft evaders and military deserters. The program ran through March 31, 1975, and required fugitives to take an oath of allegiance and also perform up to two years of community service. Out of an estimated 124,000 men eligible, about 22,500 took advantage of the offer.

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