The Vietnam War can be viewed in two different perspectives. One of them is a struggle by the local population against a foreign (imperialist) power, assisted by their locally-installed puppet leaders. In its history, Vietnam has been the battleground of conquerors, particularly its powerful to the north, China. Yet, despite being invaded several times, the Vietnamese showed remarkable resilience in the face of adversity as they valiantly and vigorously resisted the foreign occupiers even when they were conquered. In the 19th century, Vietnam was conquered by the French in retaliation for the persecution of European missionaries. Although Vietnam was colonized, the French allowed the Vietnamese monarch to continue reigning though his power to govern was taken away from him. Even though the French brought some vestiges of western civilization to Vietnam, their discriminatory practices drove several Vietnamese to embrace socialism (Marxism) because it was the only ideology that empowered them to fight for their freedom after giving up on liberalism which appeared to do little other than provide sympathy for their plight.
What made Marxism appealing to them was that it encouraged them to rise up and topple their oppressors if they wish to be free of their sufferings. Modern Vietnam’s founding father, Ho Chi Minh was able to synthesize Marxism with Vietnamese nationalism which further empowered the Vietnamese people to fight for their freedom. Not all Vietnamese who took up the cause were really communists as the French, and later the Americans might think. They simply wanted to be free and they had nowhere else to turn to. When one is to look at it from the perspective of the Vietnamese, it was not a conflict between democracy and communism, it was a conflict between freedom and tyranny, first from their colonizers, and later to liberate their brothers in the south from an oppressive and unpopular regime.
Furthermore, Ho and his followers believed that Vietnam must not be divided. Ho was well versed in the ways of the west and he knew what they were up to when they created South Vietnam; it was a case of “divide and conquer.” He did not buy into the rationale that they created South Vietnam to be a bastion of democracy in the face of communism, he saw it as a continuation of western imperialism. There was essentially no ideology involved (Marr 100).
The Vietnamese simply wanted to be free; they just do not like to be subjugated by a foreign power and they have proven it many times throughout their history against the Chinese (ancient times), French, the Americans and the Chinese once more in 1979. The conflict with the Chinese in 1979 underscored the fact that ideology was not a factor nor did it bring the two communist states together. Vietnamese nationalism just happened to be intertwined with socialist ideals which appeared to be compatible to their culture of wanting to remain free from any subjugation.
Vietnam’s history also showed the strength of their resolve. Even though they may lose battles, the Vietnamese do not care. What matters to them is winning the war by simply persevering. Vietnam is their home. They live there, the foreigners do not. Ho knew this and eventually, when they see that keeping a colony where the people will continually resist them (win or lose), it will be very costly for them in terms of material and human resources and will realize it will not longer be worth keeping and will eventually leave on their own accord without having to defeat them in battle. This was the case in dealing with the United States. Ho simply waited for the tide of opinion to turn in the United States and when it happened, he knew that they (Vietnamese) had already won, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Even though he died in 1969 and never lived to see the outcome, the fall of Saigon in 1975 had proven that he was right all along.
On the distaff side, the Vietnam War was viewed from an ideological point of view. Vietnam was must another ideological battleground between the forces of democracy (or capitalism, as the Marxists would put it), and communism. This is in conjunction with the “domino theory” espoused by the Eisenhower Administration and carried over to the succeeding administrations. The theory goes that if one nation becomes communist, the adjacent states will follow suit like a row of falling dominoes. The United States has taken it upon itself to defend the rest of the free world from the menace of communism. Based on what they have learned about communist regimes, they are totalitarian and have no regard for human rights and they exercise repression to anyone who attempts to exercise his or her rights; the worst thing that can happen to one is death for trying to be free. It is for this reason that the United States is fully committed to defend freedom wherever it is threatened. In this postwar period, they have proven it in Korea and they saw Vietnam as another chance to stop the expansion of communism.
Whereas the communist bloc would embark on expansion by spreading the communist ideology in any way possible through formal political process or revolution, the west responded by containment to keep communism from spreading. This has worked in Germany, Japan and Greece when they provided economic aid to help bring stability to society. A stable society will not foment unrest. The communists needed instability to foment unrest by agitating the people. The problem with (south) Vietnam was that the French and the Americans sided with the wrong leaders who were authoritarian and lacked the charisma of Ho Chi Minh. Because they were so repressive and corrupt, they would command the respect of their people nor did they possess charisma to gain their support. This was the mistake made by the French and the Americans and did not win them the support they need to continue fighting the war until victory was achieved (Yerxa 29-30).
Another misfortune of the American war effort was they did not entirely enjoy the support of the media as they were growing in power and influence as they accompany troops in the field. It was rather unfortunate that they covered reports of atrocities and abuses committed by South Vietnamese and American forces like in My Lai, but did not give much attention to the terror tactics employed by the Vietcong in villages that refuse to cooperate with them. Even sympathetic journalists had to bow down to the pressure of the liberal press in downplaying this but it was apparent that the media during the Vietnam War was a far cry from the “Yellow Journalism” at the beginning of the 20th century which was the opposite.
Until now, this is how the Vietnam War is seen – in two different perspectives. If one were to insist on a definite answer, it would be subject to a very vigorous debate would probably have no end in sight.
The U.S. Military attaché in South Vietnam at the time of the fall of Saigon, Colonel William Legro, said that anti-war activists, the U.S. government, and particularly the U.S. Congress were guilty of betraying the South Vietnamese. After anti-war activists had significantly prolonged the war by giving aid and comfort to the enemy, the U.S., he said, had withdrawn from the country after having made promises to the South Vietnamese which it was honor bound to keep. Instead, “when in [1974-’75] the going got rough, the Americans cut and ran.” In light of what you have learned from the spotlight reports, lectures, and readings, especially in chapter 13 of McMahon and appropriate essays in Gilbert (to which you MUST make specific reference), analyze and evaluate this contention.
If there is a main thesis to be found here, it is on who is to be blamed for the debacle in Vietnam. Col. Legro gave such a provocative remark when he mentioned specific people who had contributed to America’s loss of the Vietnam War. The author agrees with his statement. What was strange was that US military did not lose in the field of combat, they lost in the court of international public opinion (Gilbert 77). The United States was doing pretty much well in prosecuting the war but ultimately, they pulled out in disgrace because those who were there felt they were abandoning their South Vietnamese allies who were counting on them for support (Yerxa 29). Legro had singled out liberals in America from the “hippies” on the street to the powerful men in Washington, DC who were regarded as defeatists disguised as sympathy for the North Vietnamese.
The United States military has never lost a war in its long history and Vietnam was the first debacle. It was not from the battleground but in the hearts and minds, not only of the Vietnamese but of their own people. The people in the States did not seem to understand or appreciate what they are doing fighting to defend democracy in Vietnam and defeat communism. These liberals saw it the other way. They saw America’s involvement as meddling in a civil war between two Vietnams that were trying to unify. They appeared to have ignore the fact that Vietnam was to be unified under communist rule.
Because of this notion, they felt America had no business here and it was not worth sacrificing the lives of young American men just to satisfy the vested interests of a few politicians. They saw their soldiers not as heroes keeping Vietnam free, but killers who wrought havoc to the countryside with their “search and destroy” missions. Ironically, some of these anti-war activists were veterans. After being “in-country” it was easy to understand why they were disillusioned after coming back to the States and their testimonies helped reinforce their cause. They ceased to believe their commanders anymore. They believed that the goals and missions were not clear enough or to a certain extent, not worth taking because they simply felt it was not worth it.
The policymakers in Washington were also being blamed. The common argument of the veterans and military leader was that the powers-that-be in Washington did not want them to win on the account of the micromanaging of the war from afar and making decisions from there to the commanders in the field to follow (Gilbert 117-118). Such would be not taking the offensive to North Vietnam, limiting it to air strikes in Hanoi. The commanders “in country” assumed that the people in the White House and the Pentagon thought that the same strategy they used to win the Second World War would also work in Vietnam.
The media was partly responsible for the defeatist attitude of the people in the States, thanks in part to television which brought footages of the fighting to every living room in the States which also included the brutality that went with it, especially at the height of the Tet Offensive when a South Vietnamese police officer shot a captured Vietcong in the head at close range. News footage of downed airmen captured in North Vietnam, American casualties in the field and even incidents of atrocities and abuses committed by American troops such as the My Lai massacre, helped shape the image of the war in the minds of the people back home and influence their public opinion which led to adapting the defeatist attitude.
One might think that the US military was blameless for the defeat in Vietnam but it turned out that they should also be held accountable for the following reasons: the leaders in The Pentagon did not give sound advice to the White House on how to prosecute the war which resulted in giving wrong directives to the commanders in the field; they allowed inter-service rivalry to fester and was not kept under control for effectiveness; the use of the wrong strategy such as relying purely on heavy firepower to defeat the enemy; abuse of mismanagement of human resources – the troops in the field; and failure to recognize the limitations of air power which was similar to the situation among the political leaders in Washington. Furthermore and looking at it from a different perspective, it would appear the leaders in the Pentagon, especially those who support the commanders in the field appeared to have lacked the heart or will to resist what was considered “war-losing” policies coming from the White House and even Congress (Gilbert 118-133). The most obvious mistake US military leaders made was to fight an unconventional war against an unconventional enemy, in this case the Vietcong.
The senior military leaders failed to grasp the new trend in warfare which was low-intensity conflict – guerrilla warfare and to a certain extent, terrorism. This was partly because of the myopic mindset of The Pentagon and the White House because they abhor such “dirty” tactics because it is so “Un-American” and decided to stick to the usual way Americans fight wars – through the use of technology and superior firepower. They thought that such firepower would intimidate the enemy into submission but it only showed how much they underestimated their enemy which used guerrilla tactics. They will not attack whenever they were on the offensive; rather they will strike whenever they were at rest such as attacking fire bases at night. Conventional “pacification” tactics, known as “search and destroy” and basing their victories in enemy “body counts” were exercises in futility as the Vietcong cleverly hid in tunnels where Americans with their large build and physique, could not pursue them. Sometimes, the frustration of not engaging the enemy would lead them to turn on the villagers whom they suspect of aiding and abetting them.
As stated before, the leaders in the Pentagon underestimated the Vietnamese resolve to resist in the light on continual aerial bombardment. What later dawned upon them was air power does not win wars by itself. Because they abhorred low-intensity conflict, they failed to recognize the value of American special operations forces such as the Special Forces (Green Berets) and the US Navy Sea Air And Land (SEAL) Teams which were created for this very purpose with the blessing of President John F. Kennedy who recognized it. Unfortunately, the generals in the Pentagon and even the commanders in the field paid little heed to their capabilities and did not employ them effectively or in a way that would make them maximize their full potential such as using Special Forces troops as regular infantry, forming auxiliary armies and setting up outposts, something that are not part of the job description of the Special Forces. Even the SEAL’s were constrained to certain parameters on the extent of their operations though they had enjoyed remarkable success in their operations which were mainly hit and run tactics, using the same tactics of the Vietcong against them.
It could be said that the conduct of the war in Vietnam was flawed from the very start despite having a good idea. Kennedy knew what he was facing in Vietnam and already had a plan but it was skewed by the succeeding administration which led to the quagmire the moment American troops hit the ground.
Most of the feature films I showed you this semester focused on the role and impact of the Vietnam experience on those Americans who participated in or were affected by it. Taking for your examples one film from each of the following groups:
“China Gate” (1957)
“Quiet American” (1957)
“The Green Berets” (1968)
“The Boys in Company C” (1977)
“The Deer Hunter” (1978)
“Apocalypse Now” (1978)
“Who’ll Stop the Rain” (1978)
For this activity, three films were selected form each group. It is also noticed that the way the films are grouped, it would appear that there is a progression stage going on which also reflects how America’s involvement in Vietnam had also progressed. The first one is the 1957 film, The Quiet American which was remade in 2002. In the second group would be The Green Berets and the third would be Apocalypse Now. The Quiet American is the story of an idealistic young American economist working for an aid organization in Vietnam. If there is one American value or virtue exhibited here, it is the American sense of and idealism altruism where Alden Pyle (played by Audie Murphy and later Brendan Fraser) came to Vietnam with the hope of making it a better place by helping out the indigent people by acting as a “Third Force.”
In The Green Berets, the film idealistically depicts the best soldiers in the United States Army. The film serves to “market” or promote the capabilities of the Special Forces. The men who join this elite unit represent the best not only in the US military, but of America as well, as the line in their ballad goes, “these are men, America’s best.” They are depicted as patriotic and very noble in their intent and deeds as shown when they were conducting civil-military operations in a Montagnard village as well as putting up a gallant stand when their camp was attacked by Vietcong forces. It also helped that John Wayne appears in the movie as a senior-ramking Special Forces officer. John Wayne was an iconic figure, not only in Hollywood, but in America as he would display the kind of attitude Americans ought to have – tough (when necessary), sincere and generous and never backing down from a challenge or a fight. Apocalypse Now also shows the similar values mentioned above though the film would take a darker turn in the latter scenes. One particular virtue that can be found here to be American is the sense of purpose exhibited by Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) who is the central character of the film where he was given a special mission to find and neutralize a rogue US army officer who could hurt the war effort. There was also his commitment to the mission where he wants to see the mission through to the very end despite the difficulties he and the boat crew were facing as they drew nearer to their mission.
In The Quiet American, the plot and setting is prior to overt American involvement in Vietnam, beginning with civilian aid workers, as Alden Pyle is depicted in the film. He was in Vietnam in his capacity as a private US citizen, not connected in any way to a particular government agency. As an aid worker, he was employing the “winning hearts and minds” strategy as part of America’s master plan to contain the spread of communism by conducting relief work, medical missions and building or rebuilding villages which communist guerrillas would destroy. In essence, Pyle epitomized an American on a crusade to fight communism, initially as an aid worker. Even though he did not take up arms, he was doing his part in helping win the Cold War against communism. Yet, in the course of his mission of mercy, he became the victim of intrigue by an embittered English journalist Thomas Fowler (Richard Redgrave and later, Michael Caine) when Pyle stole his mistress and Fowler concocted a story that Pyle was actually a CIA agent.
In The Green Berets, the Special Forces soldiers see their work as vital to winning the war on communism. Despite their “Special” tag, they are not super-soldiers. They are special because they possess exceptional skills that make them special from the average American soldier. Not only do they specialize in a plethora of skills such as engineering/demolitions, communications, field medicine, as well as the “traditional” commando skills. They possess language and cultural sensitivity skills which enables them to easily interface with the local population. By using these “special” skills, they can win people to their side and would be a big help, or what is called a “force multiplier.”
The idea here is to enhance the image of the locals by giving them the confidence to protect themselves rather than be overly dependent on the Americans. Because of their cultural sensitivity skills, they are different from how an American soldier is depicted in films like Platoon, Casualties of War and even Apocalypse Now. The film ends with the Special Forces troops conducting a commando operation that saw the capture of a high-ranking North Vietnamese general. This goes to show that Special Forces soldiers are not wholly killers. By capturing the general for intelligence-gathering purposes, it goes to prove that live prisoners are more valuable than body counts. The Green Berets is essentially an optimistic film and as stated before, it intends to promote the unit
In Apocalypse Now, the movie underscores how the war has spiraled out of control as far as the conduct of the war is concerned. This is seen in the mood and disposition of Captain Willard as he travels deeper into Colonel Kurtz’s turf. He was completely transformed into a brutal, cold-blooded killer as seen on how he first killed a dying woman and later Kurtz. It reflected how the war, in all its brutality and madness can transform men into cold-blooded killers like Willard and in the case of Kurtz, a demented man with delusions of grandeur yet delighting in violence.
With regards to the accurate portrayal of the characters in the three films, The Green Berets tend to portray the characters a lot more precisely than the other two films. The reason for being is that this is what Special Forces soldiers still do to this very day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reason for their existence and their general mission remains the same and it is reflected in their official motto, “De Oppresso Liber,” to free the oppressed. They fight an unconventional war, conducting operations deep behind enemy lines and at the same time win the hearts and minds of the local population. This film truly captures the image of the Special Forces soldier which is a far cry from the John Rambo movies starring Sylvester Stallone which is the opposite and unrealistic portrayal of the Green Beret soldier. As for Alden Pyle, it is rather hard to tell if a civilian like him is really an altruistic American who is serving out of the goodness of his heart or if he was really working for the CIA. Fowler had to invent one out of spite though he did harbor suspicions on Pyle’s activities. In Apocalypse Now, Coppolla appeared to have put too much drama and exaggeration into the portrayal of several of the characters like Colonel Kurtz and Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall). If there is any accuracy, it is the proliferation of drugs among American soldiers and this showed when one of the boat crew was so high that Willard had to guide him.
By way of conclusion, the three films show a progression on how the public saw their involvement in a war. It began with idealism (The Quiet American) starting with individuals and later actual involvement (The Green Berets), seeing that the Vietnam War was a worthy cause but somewhere along the way, the direction was lost (Apocalypse Now) to the point that even the soldiers in the field do not even know what they are fighting for. If one were to believe that the portrayal of Willard, Kilgore and Kurtz is truly reflective of the conduct of Americans in Vietnam, public opinion would surely wane quickly and make them realize it was not a worthy cause after all as seen also when Kurtz went rogue. The idealism that was there in the early stages seemed to have evaporated and everyone seemed to have forgotten what was it all about being there.
Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Gilbert, Marc Jason ed. Why the North Won the Vietnam War. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Maurer, Harry ed., Strange Ground: An Oral History of America in Vietnam. 1945-1975. New
York: Perseus, 1998.
Taylor, Keith. “A Vietnamese War.” Historically Speaking, November/December 2007.
Xerxa, Donald A. “Triumph Forsaken? A Forum on Mark Moyar’s Revisionist History of the Vietnam War 1954-1965.” Historically Speaking, November/December 2007.