By spring 1965, large swaths of the South Vietnamese countryside had fallen under Vietcong control. Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, a man who prided himself on his analytical skills, wrote in a memorandum dated March 24, 1965, that “The situation in general is bad and deteriorating. The VC have the initiative. Defeatism is gaining among the rural population, somewhat in the cities, and even among the soldiers – especially those with relatives in rural areas. The Hop Tac [pacification] area around Saigon is making little progress; the Delta stays bad; the country has been severed in the north. GVN control is shrinking to the enclaves, some burdened with refugees.” [Herring, Pentagon Papers, 116] McNaughton’s reference to the demoralization of ARVN troops with relatives in rural areas is instructive. The morale of the ARVN began to plummet because South Vietnamese troops found it increasingly difficult to visit family members in the many hamlets that had recently been lost to the Vietcong. Continue Reading »
In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base consisted of Catholics, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the military’s officer corps (which was also heavily Catholic), landlords, the country’s business elite, and the urban middle class. In a sense, the American Catholic Church, as well as the presidential administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy represented another important segment of Diem’s base. Without the backing of those groups, he risked losing his hold on power. Because his political influence did not derive from the peasantry, and never had, Diem, during his nine years as the leader of South Vietnam, largely ignored the interests and aspirations of South Vietnam’s rural population. He did not believe he needed the rural populace in order to remain in office. Another factor that contributed to his neglect of the peasantry related to the perceived military threat by the Communist North. Up until at least 1959, neither Diem nor the Americans believed the Communists would conduct a large-scale, rural-based insurgency in the South. The American Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon concluded that the northern-based Communists, if they did seek to topple the Saigon regime, would launch a conventional cross-border invasion. MAAG advised Diem that he should train and equip the ARVN to confront North Vietnamese regulars rather than peasant guerrillas. If an insurgency should emerge in the South, MAAG believed conventional ARVN forces could handle it. Continue Reading »
Between June and August 1965, General William C. Westmoreland formulated his strategy to defeat the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam. His strategy evolved in a political and military environment rife with uncertainties. The unknowns made the general’s planning for the conduct of the war exceedingly difficult. Westmoreland did not know how many U.S. ground troops President Johnson would agree to send to South Vietnam. Would the president cap the U.S. ground force level in South Vietnam at 100,000 troops or 200,000 or would LBJ be willing to commit even larger forces to South Vietnam? Westmoreland did not know. Each troop increment would provide Westmoreland with greater latitude; while a small force would limit his military options. Continue Reading »
Since the end of the Vietnam War, General William C. Westmoreland has been criticized for approving the construction of large U.S. military bases throughout South Vietnam. Critics, who included the highly decorated Colonel David Hackworth, argued that the bases were unnecessarily large, provided too many amenities to soldiers, exposed the Americans stationed on the bases to enemy fire, reduced the combat effectiveness of U.S. units by providing soldiers an all-too luxurious life in the rear, and increased the overall cost of the war without any discernible benefits. Hackworth once described the 9th Infantry Division base at Dong Tam as “Four hundred acres of sitting ducks.” [Hackworth, Steel My Soldiers, Photo Caption] But critics, such as Hackworth, failed to acknowledge the multiple political, economic, and military reasons Westmoreland favored large bases. Continue Reading »
Robert Strange McNamara was born on June 9, 1916, in San Francisco, California, to Robert James McNamara and Clara Nell Strange McNamara. Yes, his middle name, as he so often told others, was in fact “Strange,” which was his mother’s maiden name. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, McNamara graduated from Piedmont High School in Piedmont, California. From there he went on to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated with honors in 1937. Following his undergraduate studies, he pursued, and completed, an M.B.A. at the Harvard Business School. He was an exceptional student. One of his professors, Edmund Learned, remembered the young McNamara, “…I almost got the feeling he was ingesting these systems [as part of his studies in systems analysis] as if he’d somehow known them all before, in another consciousness….” [Hendrickson, Living Dead, 86]. Continue Reading »
In the first week of May, 2012, I traveled to a remote location in western Nebraska to hunt the elusive turkey. I chose to hunt in one of Nebraska’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). Not all WMAs provide wildlife with good habitat. The ecological viability of the WMAs varies greatly. Many of the WMAs in western Nebraska are waste lands, abandoned or sold by their original owners because the land no longer possesses any economic value whatsoever. For instance, there is a WMA near Big Springs, Nebraska, that is nothing more than an old gravel pit that has filled in with water. The pit is surrounded by a thin belt of planted trees and invasive European grasses. I visited this “Wildlife” Management Area to see whether it contained any turkeys. It did not. I did not see a single living creature inside its borders. It took a real stretch of the imagination to consider this place as wildlife habitat. Certainly the loud, incessant traffic on Interstate 80, which darted past the site less than 50 yards to the south, did not induce birds and animals to inhabit the place. Continue Reading »
In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier. He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.
To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning. Even though he spent much of his day in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif. He particularly enjoyed tennis. When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally caught a game together. Westmoreland never displayed unpredictable or reckless behavior. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse. The most foul words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.” Continue Reading »
The South Kaibab Trail makes a steep descent from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Colorado River. The difference in elevation between the top of the trail and its bottom is nearly a mile. On its way down to the interior of the canyon, the trail frequently cuts a thin, serrated line along the edge of the canyon’s steep walls. At a few places, the trail stands hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. A freak gust of wind, a misstep, or a tumble along those precarious segments of the trail could easily send a hiker over the precipice to his/her death on the rocks below. Continue Reading »
Bright Angel Creek runs clear and cold from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim to the Colorado River. It’s a fast, boulder-strewn stream. Along its lower reach, it makes a lot of noise as it passes over the smooth, round stones lining its banks and bed. Statuesque cottonwoods grow on the edges of the creek near its juncture with the Colorado. When spring and summer winds blow up the narrow, high-walled valley of Bright Angel Creek, the dangling cottonwood leaves make a gentle rustling sound. The flapping leaves, with their silvery undersides, resemble so many butterflies trying to alight from the branches. The lower canyon of Bright Angel Creek, which is known as ‘The Box,’ is an oasis in an otherwise inhospitable land. Vegetation grows in abundance here. That vegetation in-turn attracts wildlife. Nearly tame mule deer graze the grasses growing next to the trails, while more cautious ravens perch in the high trees, waiting patiently for a fatigued hiker to inadvertently drop a scrap of food.
Within the Annamese Cordillera is a sub-region known as the Central Highlands. The Central Highlands are actually the southernmost segment of the cordillera. The Americans knew the Central Highlands as the mountainous region stretching from the 17th Parallel south to the area of Da Lat. However, the Vietnamese have defined the highlands as the mountain and plateau area that extends from Kontum Province in the north to Lam Dong Province in the south. Continue Reading »