South Vietnam: America’s Speed Bump on the Road to Communist Expansionism

B52StrikeSouthVietnam

In 1969, author Tim O’Brien went to South Vietnam as an infantryman.  While stationed in Quang Ngai Province, he saw up close what American firepower had done to the Vietnamese countryside.  “I was…out in the middle of this bombed out mess.  The whole province was wasted…By the time I got there…our bombing and artillery fire had destroyed basically ninety percent of the dwellings. The villages were sometimes almost deserted…. “[1]

Reporter Jonathan Schell visited South Vietnam two years before O’Brien.  He also witnessed the effects of American firepower across Quang Ngai. In an attempt to understand the reasons for the widespread destruction, Schell interviewed American and South Vietnamese military men.  An American pilot who flew reconnaissance missions over Quang Ngai told Schell, “It’s a lovely countryside…One of my favorite activities is following waterfalls up through the valleys.  It’s a shame we have to destroy it.”[2]  This pilot assumed that Quang Ngai had to be destroyed because the Vietcong controlled so much of it.

John Merrell, who like Tim O’Brien, served as a grunt in South Vietnam, remembered seeing the results of a B-52 strike, “…we went down into the valley after the raid was over and we walked down the lanes created by the bombs, and there were massive lanes.  A B-52 drops big bombs and they just clear out the jungle.  It was like a four-lane highway – it was just that big.  You could walk down into a bomb crater and not see out the top standing down in the bottom.  That’s how deep they were.”[3]

In the mid-1970s, General Douglas Kinnard interviewed dozens of U.S. Army officers who had been deployed to South Vietnam during the years of major U.S. involvement.  Kinnard’s questions, and the officers’ answers, appeared in the highly-readable book, The War Managers.  Kinnard asked the officers whether they believed the U.S. air campaign in South Vietnam had been beneficial or harmful to the overall U.S. effort.  One respondent remarked that the deployment of heavy bombers, such as the B-52s, had not been “…worth the effort when considered in light of what it did to the people and territory of South Vietnam.”[4]

From 1964 to 1973, U.S. aircraft dropped four million tons of bombs on South Vietnam.  In contrast, the U.S. dropped a million tons of bombs on Communist North Vietnam.  South Vietnam thus ranks not only as the most heavily-bombed area in the world, it also ranks as the most heavily-bombed former U.S. ally.  Never before, nor since, has the United States bombed a friendly country, let alone an enemy nation-state, so intensely.

The majority of the aerial bombs dropped across South Vietnam were 500-pound fragmentation bombs.  But the U.S. also dropped 250-pound bombs, 750-pound bombs, 1000-pound bombs, 2000-pound bombs, and an earth-shattering 15,000-pound bomb given the odd name of “Daisy Cutter.”

The Daisy Cutter was so big and weighed so much that not even a B-52 could carry it.  It had to be hauled to its target by a C-130 Hercules and then rolled out the open back end of the cargo plane.  When the Daisy Cutter hit the ground, it flattened an area the size of a football field.

We don’t know how many bombs fell on South Vietnam.  However, it is possible to calculate an approximate number.  If half the bombs dropped were 500-pounders, and the other half consisted of the great variety of bombs in the U.S. arsenal (which is a reasonable assumption), then the U.S. dropped about fifteen million bombs across South Vietnam.

In addition to all the bombs, American planes dropped huge quantities of napalm on the forests, rice paddies, and hamlets of South Vietnam; and artillery crews, helicopter gunners, and the pilots of ground attack planes fired an absurd number of artillery rounds, aerial rockets, and exploding 40-mm cannon shells. According to Arthur Westing, author of The Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, the United States fired 229 million artillery rounds during the war.  The vast majority of those shells exploded in South Vietnam.[5]  No one knows how many rockets and 40-mm cannon shells struck targets across South Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, but the number could be in the hundreds of millions.

The destruction wrought by the United States upon South Vietnam raises an important question.  If American political and military leaders were so intent on saving South Vietnam from the Communists, why did they blow it apart? Or to put it another way, why did the United States bomb South Vietnam back to the Stone Age when its publicly-stated objective was to create a modern, prosperous, pro-Western nation-state?

As early as mid-1965, three of the most influential men involved in Vietnam policy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, doubted that the U.S. could prevent the eventual Communist domination of South Vietnam. On June 21, 1965, in a conversation with McNamara, the president stated, “I don’t believe they’re [the Vietcong and North Vietnamese] are ever going to quit. And I don’t see…that we have any…plan for a victory – militarily or diplomatically…You and Dean [Rusk] have got to sit down and try to see if there’s any people that we have in those departments that can give us any program or plan or hope.”[6]  None of the foreign policy experts in McNamara’s Department of Defense nor Rusk’s State Department provided Johnson, then or later, with a winning formula for the war in South Vietnam.

Although McGeorge Bundy supported the deployment of combat troops to South Vietnam, as well as the intense bombing and shelling of the South Vietnamese countryside, he did not believe the U.S. could win a military confrontation with the Communists in South Vietnam. According to Bundy biographer Gordon M. Goldstein, “The historical record demonstrates that during his years as National Security Advisor, Bundy was never confident that the United States could achieve a battlefield victory in Vietnam….”[7]

Defense Secretary McNamara shared Bundy’s doubts.  In December 1965, while the U.S. was in the midst of its huge troop build-up in South Vietnam, he told President Johnson, “The chances of achieving a military victory are one in three…At best one in two.”[8]  The president then queried McNamara, “Then no matter what we do in the military field, there is no sure victory?” McNamara responded, “That’s right.”[9]

Even though McNamara estimated the chances of U.S. success in the war at between one-in-three or at best one-in-two, Johnson still went ahead and ordered hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to South Vietnam.

In early 1965, President Johnson explained why the U.S. had to try and hold South Vietnam, despite the unfavourable odds. “I don’t believe I can walk out [of South Vietnam] …If I did, they’d take Thailand…They’d take India…They’d come right back and take the Philippines…I’d be another Chamberlain and…we’d have another Munich.”[10]  Johnson had decided that the U.S. had to go to war in South Vietnam to prevent the dominoes from falling across Southeast Asia.  An American show of force in Vietnam, even if it ultimately failed, would also discourage future Soviet and Chinese expansionism, something that if left unchecked would lead to World War 3.

All of Johnson’s closest advisors believed in a version of the Domino Theory and every one of them feared that without an American show of force in South Vietnam, the U.S. risked a larger, potentially cataclysmic, war with the Soviet Union or China at a later date.[11]

To keep the dominoes from falling across Southeast Asia and forestall World War 3, President Johnson did two things: 1) he sent U.S. ground troops into South Vietnam to kill as many Communists as possible; 2) and he unleashed America’s mighty air forces against the Vietcong guerrillas and their peasant supporters.

Three years later, during the Tet Offensive of 1968, when it became apparent to the American public and top officials in the U.S. national security bureaucracy, including McNamara, that the U.S. would lose the war, Johnson felt that he needed to explain to the American people why he had sent U.S. troops to South Vietnam in the first place.  In a live televised address to the nation on March 31, 1968, the president stated, “…the progress [in Southeast Asia] of the past three years would have been far less likely – if not completely impossible – if America’s sons and others had not made their stand in Vietnam.”[12]  In other words, Johnson believed that America’s military intervention in South Vietnam had bought time for the pro-Western countries of Southeast Asia to develop the economic, political, and military means to resist Communist expansionism.

According to Johnson, U.S. intervention in Vietnam had broken Asian Communism’s revolutionary momentum.  Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, and Indonesia remained pro-Western because American soldiers, sailors, and airmen had fought and died in South Vietnam.  Those young men, and the destruction they brought to South Vietnam, had stopped Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary ideology from moving beyond Indochina.  America had not been bogged down in South Vietnam.  Rather, revolutionary Communism had run out of steam in South Vietnam’s countryside, thanks to American power.

Knocking the wind out from under Communism’s sails in South Vietnam came at a great cost, especially to the people and environment of South Vietnam.  From 1964 to 1973, America bombed or shelled thousands of hamlets, denuded much of rural South Vietnam, killed millions of Vietnamese, and displaced millions of others.  All of that death and destruction propped up the dominoes.  As for South Vietnam – the United States eventually tossed it into history’s garbage bin, where painful truths and shattered places go, but only after it had served as America’s speed bump on the road to Communist expansionism.

Endnotes

[1] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 543.

[2] Jonathan Schell, The Military Half: An Account of Destruction in Quang Ngai and Quang Tin, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 119-120.

[3] James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 323.

[4] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1977), 48

[5] Arthur Westing, Ecological Consequences of the Second Indochina War, (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1976), 21.

[6] Michael Beschloss, Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 365.

[7] Gordon M. Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, (New York: Times Books, 2008), 232.

[8] Robert S. McNamara, et.al., Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 278.

[9] Robert S. McNamara with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, (New York: Times Books, 1995), 224-225.

[10] Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 238.

[11] McNamara, Argument Without End, 22.

[12] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 407.

 

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