The cemetery lies in the midst of a run-down working class neighborhood in the center of Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). To its west, gray concrete apartment buildings, their sides streaked black by mold and rot, rise high above the tombs. Behind masses of electrical wires and hung clothing, the residents are visible slowly shuffling back and forth in dark rooms. To its south, on a hill overlooking the rows of dead, stands a Buddhist monastery. As the hot tropical sun sets in a blaze of orange off to the west of the city, the monks leave the shade of their rooms to sit quietly on a long veranda. They’re waiting for a cool evening breeze. North of the graveyard is a thatch and wood squatter’s hut. Barren earth, devoid of any vegetation, surrounds the simple house. Two rough-looking dogs and a scrappy rooster run across the dirt yard with no apparent direction at all.
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 »
Up to the 1880s, the Indians of the northern plains utilized bullboats to traverse the region’s rivers and streams. Tribes, such as the Omaha, Ponca, Teton Lakota, and Arikara, built bullboats by first cutting down the thin willow saplings that grew in abundance along the banks of the Missouri and its tributaries. Employing axes and stout knives, craftsmen cut away all the branches and leaves from the trunk of each sapling. They then weaved the long, pliable willow poles together to form a bowl-shaped frame. Bison sinew, tied between the saplings, reinforced the crude frame. The top, open end of the boat, was then laid face down on the ground, with the curving bottom of the frame facing up. Wet bison robes, shorn of all hair, were placed over the bottom and sides of the frame and fastened to the saplings. The bullboat was then allowed to dry in the sun. In a day or two, the robes shrank and hardened around the frame of willows. In the final stage of construction, the Indians oiled the bison robes, making the small vessel waterproof. 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 »
The United States and Soviet Union emerged from World War II as the world’s two most powerful nation states. Yet, the United States far surpassed the Soviet Union in economic and military might. For instance, four years after the conclusion of the war, it was estimated that the United States possessed a Gross National Product (GNP) of 250 billion dollars compared to the U.S.S.R.’s 65 billion [May, Interpreting NSC-68, 36]. The larger, diversified U.S. economy translated into an impressive standard of living for its citizens. The American people experienced an unprecedented material abundance. No other society in world history had ever been so wealthy. Nor had any other country developed such high levels of efficiencies in manufacturing and agricultural production. U.S. economic strength underpinned the U.S.’s military might. 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 »