U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The State of Vietnam Memory (Guest Post by Roger Peace)

Editor's Note

This is a guest post from Roger Peace, an historian of American Foreign Relations, former community college teacher,  and author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (UMass Press, 2012). He currently coordinates the website, United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide, and serves on the steering committee of the Historians for Peace and Democracy. – Ben Alpers

The fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War has rekindled the contest over interpretations and lessons of the war.  The battle is reverberating in the public square.

Let’s start with the Pentagon.  In 2008, Congress passed a law instructing the Pentagon to initiate a 13-year commemoration of the Vietnam War, beginning on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012, and concluding on Veterans Day, November 11, 2025.  Congress allocated $65 million for the Pentagon to reach out to schools and colleges with the patriotic message that America should “thank and honor veterans of the war.”

Okay, but why was the war fought?  The Pentagon’s “Vietnam War Commemoration” website contains an educational section that offers fact sheets, primary documents, maps, posters, an interactive timeline, and “This Week in History,” but never answers this question.  The interactive timeline highlights U.S. soldiers who received medals of honor, while the “Week in History” offers a chronologically-challenged and sanitized account of military battles.   What happened to those excellent Pentagon historians who wrote the Pentagon Papers?

The Pentagon’s national teach-in has excited the interest of peace activists, veterans, and scholars.  Upon learning of the Pentagon’s mandate in September 2014, former anti-Vietnam War activists created the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee (VPCC).  Its stated purpose is to “monitor the activities of the Pentagon, challenge them when necessary, and publicly elevate the role of the anti-war movement in ending the war.”  VPCC members met with Pentagon officials and requested that they drop their high school and college education campaigns.  That seems unlikely.

More successfully, VPCC sponsored a conference in Washington in May 2015, entitled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest. Telling the Truth. Learning the Lessons.”  Over 600 people attended.  Another conference is planned for October 21, 2017, a day-long event in Washington, DC, that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous March on the Pentagon.  Contact Terry Provance if you would like to attend or contribute.  Historians for Peace and Democracy (formerly Historians Against War) is a co-sponsor of this event.

Veterans for Peace (VFP), an organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of the causes and costs of war toward the goal of abolishing war, has created the Full Disclosure project to challenge the Pentagon’s version of the war.  In “An Open Letter to the American People,” the veterans declared their intention to “truly examine what happened during those tragic and tumultuous Viet Nam years.”  The group has published a 28-page newspaper full or rage and insights.  “The paper,” notes editor Tarak Kauff, “is especially important in relation to the upcoming Burns/Novick documentary about the Vietnam War, which will not present the war as the massive U.S. crime based on lies and betrayals that it was.”  Copies can be ordered here.

The forthcoming 18-hour PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, is sure to increase the heat.  It already has.  In a recent New York Times op-ed, the directors declared, “There is no simple or single truth to be extracted from the Vietnam War.  Many questions remain unanswerable.”  But do Burns and Novick ask the right questions, the questions that might enable them to discover essential truths about the war?  The scholar Camillo Mac Bica offers an excellent critique of Burns and Novick’s arguments in anticipation of the film’s release in mid-September.

More to the point, was the Vietnam War a crime?  John Marciano, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, asks this question in The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 2016).  He sides with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this one.  It was a crime.

But don’t take my word for it.  Read the history of the war framed by these questions:  Was the war necessary and just in terms of its purpose and conduct?  “The Vietnam War, 1945-1975,” is the most recent essay completed for the website United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide the authors being John Marciano and diplomatic historians Jeremy Kuzmarov and myself.  The 70,000 word essay is accompanied by over 200 photos and images, a resource guide, and links to antiwar songs of the era.  One-third of the essay is devoted to discussing and analyzing the antiwar movement.

The fall promises to be a teachable moment.

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  1. what never gets adequate mention is the role that jfk’s murder played in the war. up until then kennedy was disengaging (NSAM 263). 1,000 advisers out by the end of 1963 the rest to be gone by 1965. 125 made it out before orders were changed by lbj’s NSAM 273 a couple days after the murder. no vietnam war as we came to know it.

    it makes one wonder what the motivations of the conspirators were (oswald was just what he said he was: a patsy.)

    john newman did great work on this in his masterful “jfk & vietnam” which was published in the 1990s, i believe.

    for the best grunt’s eye view of the war is depths by michael herr.

    causes? oil, opium, strategic metals, rubber, etc.

  2. Thank you for the post and links.

    Re Andrew Parker’s comment:

    The JFK/LBJ thing, far from never getting “adequate mention,” gets fairly frequent mention, incl. by internet commenters such as yourself. There’s some evidence on your side, but I doubt this is a question that will ever be answered definitively.

    I think if I were to take the time to read another bk on this subject, which is not terribly likely right now, it might be Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. (Or maybe some of Mark A. Lawrence’s work. F. Logevall is also, I gather, worth reading. And there is new work that draws on hitherto unused North Vietnamese archives, though the name of the book is escaping me at the moment; maybe it’s in Patrick’s bibliography.) Yuen-Foong Khong’s Analogies at War is good on the key escalation decisions of 1965 (imo).

    Lastly, the title of the Michael Herr book is Dispatches, not Depths.

    • First, i know that the title is Dispatches, apparently the spell check didn’t.

      Some evidence?

      There is plenty of that (and it’s not the kind preferred by the government, say in the
      Warren Report). It’s just that the “academics” (If we are going to be dismissive like you apparently have decided to be; typically I don’t believe in behaving that way because it only gets in the way of the truth and causes unneeded friction and hostility) choose to ignore the documents because they are, I believe, afraid of what the truth will mean to their accounts and understanding of the 60s. Basically, the history of that era will require rewriting because it has been written on “alternative facts.”

      Maybe we can speak only of what was there at the time of his death and not extrapolate it, but what was there at the time speaks eloquently of what was happening and that was that Kennedy was pulling out.

      On September 21, 1963, JFK wrote to McNamara, saying: “The events in South Vietnam since May 1963 have now raised serious questions both about the present prospects for success against the Viet Cong and still more about the future effectiveness of this effort.”

      That said, General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McNamara were sent to Vietnam for “an on-the-spot appraisal of the military and paramilitary effort.”

      During this period, General Paul Harkins, commander of the Military Assistance Command in Saigon, said: “Victory in the sense it would apply to this kind of war is just months away and the reduction of American advisers can begin any time now.”

      Upon Taylor and McNamara’s return to the United States, they submitted a report to the president. This report contained two recommendations. The first was that “the Department of Defense should announce plans…to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of December 1963.” The second was that “the U.S. part of the task (i.e., the “security of South Vietnam”) can be accomplished by the end of 1965.” These recommendations were formalized in National Security Action Memorandum 263 on October 11, 1963.

      These recommendations were communicated directly to the American people as the secretary of defense took to the steps of the White House on October 2 to tell the press of plans to withdraw 1,000 troops from Vietnam before the year was out. Additionally, the fact that all troops were to be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1965 was reported in the October 4, 1963, Pacific Stars and Stripes under the headline “U.S. TROOPS SEEN OUT OF VIET BY ’65” and details of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan appeared in 1963 Facts on File.

      On October 31, Kennedy reiterated the McNamara announcement and added: “I think the first contingent would be 250 men who are not involved in what might be called front-line operations.” This statement describes the “220 or so nontechnical personnel who were in fact withdrawn from Vietnam on December 3, 1963.”

      This withdrawal was further discussed and agreed to at a conference in Honolulu on November 20 that was attended by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, McNamara, Admiral Felt, Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, and Harkins. In fact, “press accounts and the Pentagon Papers agree that the Honolulu conference not only announced but accelerated the withdrawal plan, to a new level which UPI put at 1,300 by year’s end.”

      There are other signs as well that Kennedy was charting a new course in Vietnam, in particular, the fact that the Diem regime which was hopelessly tied to a policy of no negotiations with the Viet Cong, is overthrown, and Diem and his brother Nhu are mysteriously assassinated. General Big Minh’s regime, incubated in Bangkok exile for exactly this purpose, takes over shortly and proclaims its intention of negotiating a settlement and a coalition government with the Viet Cong. It is no secret that Kennedy was behind the coup and the coming of Big Minh, although there is a question as to whether he was also behind the assassinations of Diem and Nhu.

      All this was to change, however, within days of Kennedy’s assassination as LBJ moved quickly to disengage the nation from Kennedy’s policy of Vietnamization.

      On Sunday, November 24, LBJ held a high-level meeting on the subject of Vietnam with his advisers — all of those persons who had been at the Honolulu conference plus CIA Director John McCone. At this meeting Lodge and probably most of the other civilians, told Johnson that ‘if Vietnam was to be saved, hard decisions would have to be made.’ Willingly or unwillingly, the new President agreed to an open-ended commitment to win in Vietnam, with the emphasis on a military rather than a political approach to the war.

      At the meeting Johnson left little doubt that his feelings about Vietnam were much different than Kennedy’s:

      He would never have brought off the Diem coup, he said, because he agreed with Rusk and McNamara that the only way to subdue the Viet Cong was to kill them and not to bring the New Frontier to South Vietnam.

      What emerged from the Sunday meeting was an agreement to pursue a decisive ongoing commitment in Vietnam, thus wiping out Kennedy’s policy of disengagement. The results of the meeting, ultimately, were embodied in National Security Action Memorandum 273 on November 26, 1963.

      It is particularly ironic that the primary impetus behind NSAM 273 and the subsequent military build-up was provided by McNamara and Taylor, two men who in the weeks leading up to the assassination had been paying lip service to Kennedy’s plan for disengagement. In a letter of January 22, 1964, Taylor wrote to McNamara:

      The Joint Chief of Staff consider that the United States must (i) commit additional U.S. forces, as necessary, in support of the combat action within South Vietnam, and (j) commit U.S. forces as necessary in direct actions against North Vietnam.

      What are the primary differences in Kennedy’s policy and Johnson’s NSAM 273?

      Where Kennedy had already. . .ordered troop withdrawals. . . Johnson’s NSAM 273 ‘stressed that all military and economic programs were to be kept at the levels maintained during the Diem regime.’ Where Kennedy, as late as October 1963, had refused to commit America to the ‘overriding objective’ (in language proposed by McNamara) of “denying” Vietnam ‘to communism,’ Johnson’s NSAM 273 (following a new proposal from McNamara) contained just this commitment; it made the ‘central objective’ of winning ‘the test of all U.S. decisions in this area.’ And where Kennedy had initiated troop withdrawals as the first step in a gradual U.S. disengagement from the areas. NSAM 273 ‘authorized planning for specific covert operations, graduated in intensity, against the DRV.’

      While it is true that NSAM 273 itself did not include plans for major American military operations, it was the first step down the long road that led to the Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Flaming Dart, the Ia Drang Valley, Operation Rolling Thunder, Tet, Khe San, Hue, My Lai, the Cambodian incursion, the Phoenix program, the Hanoi Hilton, the Christmas bombings, and, ultimately, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., upon which the names of America’s war dead are inscribed.

      There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence: In 1968, (Ret.) General James M. Gavin stated:

      There has been much speculation about what President Kennedy would have done in Vietnam had he lived. Having discussed military affairs with him often and in detail for 15 years, I know he was totally opposed to the introduction of combat troops in southeast Asia. His public statements just before his murder support this view.

      Paul B. Fay, undersecretary of the Navy under JFK, stated:

      If John Kennedy had lived, our military involvement in Vietnam would have been over by the end of 1964.

      To Larry Newman, Kennedy said:

      “The first thing I do when I’m re-elected, I’m going to get the Americans out of Vietnam. Exactly how I’m going to do it, right now, I don’t know.”

      JFK also advised Robert McNamara:

      “We are not going to have men ground up in this fashion, this far away from home. I’m going to get these guys out because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war it is impossible to win.

      In 1963 Kennedy remarked to his aide Kenneth O’Donnell:

      In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser, but now I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we had better make damned sure I’m re-elected.

      Senator Wayne Morse told the Boston Globe in 1973:

      There’s a weak defense of John Kennedy. He’d seen the error of his ways. I’m satisfied if he’d lived another year we’d have been out of Vietnam. Ten days before his assassination, I went down to the White House and handed him his education bills, which I was handling on the Senate floor. I’d been making two to five speeches a week against Kennedy on Vietnam. I’d gone into President Kennedy’s office to discuss education bills, but he said, ‘Wayne, I want you to know you’re absolutely right in your criticism of my Vietnam policy. Keep this in mind. I’m in the midst of an intensive study which substantiates your position on Vietnam.’

      The study which Kennedy alluded to was made known “through the Ellsberg Papers as the McNamara Study.” Volume 8 of this study details, according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “Kennedy’s plans to extricate the United States from the Vietnam War.”

      Although Newman’s work stands above all, Peter Dale Scott, an English faculty member at Berkely has done excellent work on NSAM 2732. (he is Canadian, however.)

      • I didn’t think I was particularly “dismissive.” I don’t think an acknowledgment that there is some evidence for a point is dismissive.

        But I’ve decided I don’t want to get into this w/ you. There was someone who used to post on Crooked Timber (under one moniker that I can’t quite remember) and, iirc, here (under another) who often made similar points, though usu. not in such detail as you do above. I don’t know if you are the same person and it doesn’t really matter. I think for now I’ll leave it at that.

      • There was ample opportunity for President Kennedy to pull out of South Vietnam, but he rejected numerous diplomatic entreaties and continued to expand the war. Kennedy and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge also opposed Ngo Dinh Nhu’s overtures to North Vietnam. See the above-noted website, United States Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide, section on Kennedy. It is impossible, of course, to prove what would have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated, but his order to withdraw some U.S. troops was conditional on the success of the South Vietnamese forces. See Frank Logevall’s thorough study, Choosing War.

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