"I had prayed to God that this thing was fiction," Colonel William Wilson remarked in 1969 upon completing his investigation of a massacre in the My Lai village in South Vietnam.
For ten weeks, Wilson examined the inconceivable claims of an ex-serviceman named Ron Ridenhour, who wrote of masses of Vietnamese civilians—including women, young children, and infants—slaughtered in cold blood by U.S. infantrymen and their lieutenant. The Colonel prayed that the author's grim assertions were false, that Ridenhour himself was insane, a deranged lunatic, or a bitter veteran seeking to discredit the United States Army.
"I hoped to God it was false," Wilson said, "but if it wasn't, I wanted the bastards exposed for what they'd done."
In a letter dated March 29th, 1969, and addressed to dozens of top American officials, including 23 members of Congress, the Secretary of Defense, General William Westmoreland, and President Richard Nixon, Ron Ridenhour described in detail a series of grisly stories he'd heard from fellow soldiers. Many of the men he spoke with were members of the "C" Company, of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade—better known as the "Charlie" Company.
As soldiers often do, they spoke about the warfront to pass the time, but reports of an incident at a place they called "Pinkville"—the My Lai hamlet—deeply disturbed him.
Ridenhour learned that in one of many "search and destroy" operations conducted in the South Vietnamese countryside, the Charlie Company was ordered to eliminate a hamlet said to be infested with enemy Viet Cong soldiers and sympathizers. If his sources could be believed, "then not only had 'Charlie Company' received orders to slaughter all the inhabitants of the village," Ridenhour wrote, "but those orders had come from the commanding officer...or possibly even higher in the chain of command."
It was that kind of war.
The USS Maddox was a hulking battleship: 2,200-tons, and armed with machine guns, torpedoes, and depth charge anti-submarine weapons.
Cruising along the North Vietnamese coast in the summer of 1964, it cast an intimidating shadow in the Tonkin Gulf, one that distressed authorities in Hanoi. For nearly a decade, American support for the South Vietnamese government had been increasing. U.S. military advisors, American weaponry, and economic aid sustained Saigon and helped strengthen combat units in the South. For leaders in the North, the battleship served as an irksome—and potentially dangerous—reminder of the Saigon-Washington alliance.
On August 2nd, 1964, as the Maddox passed near two small islands that had been attacked by South Vietnamese gunboats, a fleet of North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats charged the ship, chasing it out to the middle of the Gulf. The U.S. naval officers opened fire on the PT boats, forcing them to veer from their target and return to shore.
The Maddox escaped the attack without damage or human casualties, but leaders in Washington were unwilling to allow the "deliberate and unprovoked" assault on the battleship to go unpunished.
But had the USS Maddox been on a peaceful tour in the Tonkin Gulf? Was it simply patrolling international waters with no knowledge of the South Vietnamese gunboats, and unaware of the Southern campaign to attack the North? Officials in Hanoi were certain that not only had the United States known about the raids, but it had helped the South carry them out.
Just a few days before, North Vietnamese leaders had approached the International Control Commission, a mediating organization set up by the 1954 Geneva Accords. In July, the officials reported, South Vietnamese gunboats had fired upon fishing vessels—some containing families—near the northern coast of Tonkin Gulf and assaulted two North Vietnamese islands. The American naval destroyer, the USS Maddox, they claimed, had provided protection for the gunboats and, therefore, condoned the attacks. Though it had been patrolling international waters and hadn't fired shells, the Maddox had violated the Geneva peace agreement.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara denied that the Maddox helped the South Vietnamese gunners in any way, insisting, "our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any."
It was, in essence, a blank check for military operations in Vietnam.
But the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was not a declaration of war, for Johnson planned to bring Hanoi to its knees before full-scale warfare could develop.
The assumptions underlying his scheme, however, were deeply flawed. Johnson's administration concluded that leaders in Hanoi controlled the rebel organizations in the South who sought to overthrow the Saigon government. North Vietnam, Washington believed, funded the National Liberation Front (NLF), armed the Viet Cong (VC), and delegated the rebel military campaigns carried out in South Vietnam. If leaders in Hanoi chose to surrender, it was presumed they would be able to halt all hostilities in the South. Civil war in Vietnam would end.
President Johnson and his military advisers discovered, however, that severe assaults on the North had little to no bearing on the strength and determination of Vietnamese guerrilla forces in the South.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was one of several major U.S. foreign policy decisions in Vietnam based on poor judgment and misinformation. And the bombing raids that followed marked one of many moments in which such policy decisions led not to an end in fighting, but to the escalation of warfare.
Whether he'd intended to or not, Johnson had bargained with Congress for war, and he got exactly that. A skirmish that the president had expected to win within the year became a full-scale, decade-long struggle—one that the U.S. ultimately lost.
The Vietnam War was the first televised war in American history—a "living room war" experienced by families as they gathered around the television each evening to watch the national news. Photographers and cameramen delivered horrifying images, including the charred body of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, the assassination of a Viet Cong sympathizer, and the bloodied, deformed corpses of Vietnamese villagers slaughtered in American "search and destroy" missions.
American reporters, traveling alongside U.S. troops, broadcast the gritty reality of life—and death—on the Vietnam warfront.
The national and local printed press was also an important site for information about the war. National publications like the New York Times published detailed reports from the warfront. One dispatch from Jack Langguth in June 1965 included descriptions of the carnage left after U.S. saturation bombing and napalm strikes in Quang Ngai—hundreds dead, many more severely wounded, burned, or mutilated, and most of them women.blank">Richard Nixon, who blamed the anti-war movement for American failures in Vietnam, were just as wrong as those anti-war activists who believed that in fact, they'd forced a stoppage.
The decision to end the war was never in the hands of the U.S. government or the U.S. people. The decision ultimately rested with the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese alone.
On March 12th, 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress, hoping to promote U.S. aid to anti-communist governments in the Middle East and Asia.
"At the present moment in world history," President Harry S. Truman proclaimed, "nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life." On the one hand, he explained, the choice is life "based upon the will of the majority," and "distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression." Truman painted the other option—communism—as life in which the will of a few is forcibly inflicted upon the majority. "It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedom."blank">indicted for serious crimes, including conspiracy, burglary, and perjury, he was unable to fulfill his promise. Deprived of American support, the South Vietnamese government—a disjointed and corrupt administration—quickly collapsed.
In 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled across Saigon, seized command, and declared victory at last.
Though five American presidents had grappled with problems in Vietnam and had attempted to achieve victory against the communists—or, at the very least, "peace with honor,"—it was ultimately the Vietnamese who decided the fate of their country.
On May 8th, 1963, Vietnamese Buddhists honored the birthday of the Supreme Buddha. As they did each spring on the day known as Le Phat Dan, Buddhist communities in Vietnam paid tribute to the founder of their faith with festivals, parades, and ceremonies conducted in villages and cities throughout the country.
It was the spiritual leader's 2,527th birthday, and it was a day that held special significance for the vast majority of the population.
But in South Vietnam, the tone of the sacred holiday reflected far more than devotion to Buddhist philosophy or reverence for the divine prophet. Since the rise to power of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955, Buddhist organizations had used the event to protest the regime's oppressive policies and its religious intolerance. This year was no different. In Saigon's city center, monks paraded, waving brightly colored Buddhist prayer flags—a bold demonstration, for these men, of both religious pride and political defiance.
President Diem, an elite Vietnamese Catholic, was a widely unpopular ruler, despised for his ruthless policies and his religious bigotry. In a country dominated by small farmers, peasants, and Buddhists (roughly 85% of the population), Diem unapologetically favored the Catholic minority and the landlord class.