"The Vietnam War" on PBS

September, 2017

Washington -- Like many others, I am watching "The Vietnam War" on public television. Part of my perspective is unavoidably that of a one-time member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club, as those of us who served there were sometimes called.

First episode:

"The Vietnam War" got off to a bad start with me in its first minute. No one talked about the war after we came home? That's not the sense I had. For months and years, I was asked about my experiences and my feelings about the war by fellow veterans and non-veterans alike. Often. So to start off the program with a former Marine who says he was friends with another former Marine for twelve years before they knew they had both fought in Vietnam – that just seems wrong.

The episode recovered with its look at the history of Vietnam under French colonial rule. The best part of the program was the description of well-intentioned efforts by the U.S. to end colonial rule after WWII, especially the work of Colonel Peter Dewey working for the OSS. His death at the hands of the people he was trying to help is not only ironic, but tragic. His death in 1945 is not considered the first U.S. fatality of the Vietnam War. Rather, the first name on the Vietnam Memorial is Major Dale Buis of Pender, Nebraska, killed in Bien Hoa in 1959. More should be done to remember Dewey.

Not everything can be covered in the program, of course, but I wish mention could have been made that France asked for air strikes from U.S. aircraft carriers operating off the Vietnam coast in 1954 to relieve the siege at Dien Bien Phu. President Eisenhower declined in part because his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Radford, was conflating the issue of the siege with his desire to use the occasion to demonstrate how nuclear weapons could be used in a conventional war. Eisenhower also declined because he felt the American public would not understand a decision to agree to the French request, which is ironic since American taxpayers were already paying for eighty percent of the French Indochina war, including the troops under siege at Dien Bien Phu. Some of us in those same waters a decade later knew the story and wished dearly that America had not propped up French colonial rule and paid for a proxy war.

Second episode:

The most memorable line of this episode is the one from a volunteer American soldier who in retrospect thinks he was a member of the last generation who thought the U.S. could do no wrong and that our government would never lie to its people. Not all of us of that generation were quite that naïve; instead, we hoped for a conclusion to the war that would replace autocratic, brutal governments in both the North and the South. I had just finished a master's thesis that dealt with the aftermath of decades of broken treaties with Native American tribes, immunizing me considerably from the idea that we could do no wrong.

Third episode:

Congress's Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, this episode explains, was premised on a North Vietnamese patrol boat attack on the destroyer USS C. Turner Joy in the Tonkin Gulf. My classmate Dave Wetherell was on the Turner Joy that summer in training, while I was on the USS Waller in the Mediterranean. When we got back to Naval Science classes that fall, Dave told his classmates that the attack didn't happen. We were stunned to contemplate that Congress authorized a widening of the war based on an event that was essentially made up. Only decades later did the truth come out, but we knew it in Lincoln, Nebraska, in September, 1964.

Fourth episode:

The war is escalating in 1966-67 and the country is becoming more divided about it. The episode shows selected, gung-ho soldiers and marines, and their subsequent disillusionment, juxtaposed against students and other war protesters. This is typical for a documentary of this type, but misleading. I wonder if the program will get around to giving equal time to those who served but were not gung-ho about the war, of which there were many. And if the program will take a look at those who were gung-ho, could not get enough of killing gooks and slopes (as they called the Vietnamese), came home and now vote to Make America Great Again, of which there are also many.

This episode exposes the shortcomings of Robert McNamara and his misguided reliance on systems analysis in decision-making. Is this what it's like to run government like a business? Yes. (Take heed, all who campaign for elective office on such platitudes.) It also exposes Lyndon Johnson's self-defeating body language in discussions with his top advisors. He slouches, they slouch. He grimaces, they grimace. He shakes his head in hopelessness, so do they. The answer to tough questions about the war? More slouching, to a point the president is literally horizontal in his chair. Can people think clearly from such positions? Apparently not.

George Kennan, the intellectual leader of the post-WWII strategy of communist "containment," gives cover for the Johnson Administration to extricate the country from the war, but the best and the brightest in the government, left over from the Kennedy Administration, demonstrate that they are anything but, as they do not take advantage of it.

Fifth episode:

Well into this episode, the NU campus in Lincoln appears on the screen as a backdrop to an interview with Barry Todd, an NU graduate who went into the Marine Corps in 1967 and within months turned against the war. He must have been two years behind me, as I don't recall him. The campus is shown in turmoil because of protests against the war. I never witnessed the demonstrations in Lincoln, as I was mostly in the Tonkin Gulf in 1967. I recall the Regents came down hard on faculty that did not support the war, in particular one political science professor.

The episode shows captive American pilots being paraded through the streets of Hanoi, my NU classmate Dick Ratzlaff presumably among them. He would not be released for several more years, in 1973. He died a few years later of causes related to his captivity. He and I traveled together in college as players on our Navy basketball team, which competed in tournaments around the Midwest. He was a great player.

If it wasn't already obvious that President Johnson was deluding himself about the progress of the war by 1967, this episode confirms it. He also was delusional about the causes of the mass protests going on at home, across the country. He would not accept the CIA's determination that they were not organized by communists. He also is revealed to be a man of all talk and no listen.

Sixth episode:

Bloody and appalling was the Tet Offensive, and the later mini-Tet. It was a remarkable feat by both ARVN and U.S. forces to turn back the NVA and the Viet Cong in Saigon, Hue, and throughout the rest of South Vietnam. But President Johnson's claim of victory was not taken seriously because he had lied so much about the war before. Tet was a huge miscalculation by North Vietnam but the U.S. was unable to take advantage of it.

I was in and out of the combat zone aboard USS Arlington in 1968, having left USS Rainier after a year. Operating off the DMZ, we heard and saw night combat inland. Once in June several ships operating close to Arlington came under fire – friendly fire from from the U.S. Air Force, which at night mistook us for North Vietnamese. Two sailors aboard HMAS Hobart were killed. Too bad the program hasn't been able to cover these kinds of incidents.

Seventh episode:

Richard Nixon is elected president by a slim margin. His promise to end the war may have provided that margin. His treachery in delaying the peace talks to provide a campaign edge cost American lives, no doubt. Was it treason, as Lyndon Johnson complained to Everett Dirksen? But Johnson had no moral high ground from which to make the complaint, with all of his own deceit to account for.

Merrill McPeak, later chief of staff of the Air Force, says in this episode that we were fighting on the wrong side of the war. He was impressed by the NVA and disgusted by the corruption in the South Vietnamese government. To me, that goes too far. The North Vietnamese government was cruel and deceitful to its own people, so there was no right side of the war to be on. I hoped for different governments in both the North and South.

Eighth episode:

The country is coming apart in this episode, with revelations of the My Lai massacre and the shootings of students at Kent State and Jackson State. President Nixon exacerbates the divisiveness with his failure to acknowledge peaceful protests.

Several veterans of Vietnam are shown as having second thoughts about the war and their role in it. They should not beat themselves up so much, in my opinion, if their service was honorable and they did not commit atrocities. Their country put them in an impossible position.

Ninth episode:

Only after hours and hours of programming on Vietnam do we come across the name Bernard Fall. It is not spoken, but we can see on screen it in an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers. To those who had read his works on Vietnam, the relevations in the Pentagon Papers were hardly explosive. Fall, a historian and former French soldier, advised the Pentagon but simultaneously was under surveillance by the FBI, illustrating the duplicity of the U.S. government when it came to the war. He was killed in Vietnam in 1967. (His widow, Dorothy Fall, recounts it all in her biography Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar.)

I read three of Fall's books, including Hell in a Very Small Place, while in the Navy. I bought them in Kaoshiung, Taiwan, on a port call there in the summer of 1967. It was clear to me, as it was to the Pentagon as later revealed in the Pentagon Papers, that we were not going to win the Vietnam war, at least as we were fighting it.

A question not yet raised in the PBS program is why America was so determined to keep deceiving itself about this war. A simple answer is that our presidents kept lying to us about it. Why didn't the truth get out? I knew in 1964 (see above) that the Tonkin Gulf incident on which the expansion of the war was premised did not happen, and in 1967 that the Pentagon internally knew no victory was reasonably in sight. Maybe the question will be tackled in the final episode.

Tenth episode:

The final espisode is predictable but powerful. It left me numb, shaking my head as to how a great country – my country – could have stooped so low. This is not one of those occasions for which there is plenty of blame to go around. Some can be apportioned to Americans of the love-it-or-leave-it stripe, who indulged two presidents in their shameful lying about the war; some can be apportioned to twisted soldiers who committed war crimes. But Presidents Johnson and Nixon must bear most of the blame. History is judging them hard, and rightly so.

Which raises the question of whether our constitutional government is flawed in that it lacks checks and balances on the commander-in-chief. Congress could assert itself, as it has attempted to do in the War Powers Act, but this remedy has fallen short. There is not much Congress can do through the power of the purse, as the country must have a defense trained, equipped, and ready at a moment's notice to meet threats. This episode should renew a debate on the subject.

And what of my own role and culpability in all this? I served in the Navy; the ships to which I was assigned did not fire on anything. I was a part of the American war effort, as all Americans were, from taxpayers to workers in defense industries to draftees. Also, I had taken an oath to serve, albeit before the war started, but nevertheless an oath that I did not take lightly. I might have broken it were I put in a position that required a choice between conscience and that oath, but I never was. Conversely, I would have fought without hesitation had there been a realistic chance to replace the brutal North Vietnam government with different leadership, which would have saved lives, especially after America left Vietnam. "Vietnam's Vietnam," as explained in the final episode, might not have happened, had America been successful in achieving regime change. But such was not the goal of American strategy. American strategy was all about U.S. elections.

I viewed my time in the Navy as an opportunity to learn, first hand, what the American presence in Southeast Asia was all about, so as to be able to put the experience to use in the future. Three such opportunities presented themselves in the years that followed.

First, in a subsequent assignment in 1969 to the Defense Communications Agency in Stuttgart, Germany, I was engaged in establishing communications circuits. These channels connected U.S. ships, air bases, army posts, U.S. embassies, and the like throughout Europe and around the world. One set of circuits I helped set up was for the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), which produced reductions in nuclear weapons. For my work at DCA Europe, I was given the Joint Services Commendation medal for "exceptionally meritorious" work. That award was mostly for cost-cutting, the result of my devising a method for eliminating duplicate channels, but I like to think it was also for playing a small role in the ultimately successful SALT outcomes.

Second, after I left the active-duty Navy in 1970, I was invited back and offered a billet fighting in the brown-water forces in-country. If I did not accept, I was offered a billet of my choice anywhere in the world. It quickly occurred to me that I would be taking a billet of another Navy officer who would then be sent to the one I had declined. Not only did I decline, I severed all interaction with the Navy until 1978, when I joined a Navy Reserve Unit but did not participate in training. When I declined to resign my commission, I was transferred to the Retired Reserve and gave up my commission only as required at age sixty-two.

I had a third opportunity to put my experiences to use when working in the U.S. Senate for a member of the Armed Services Committee. There were not many Vietnam veterans working in the Senate. I was a voice of caution, I hope, against impulses to believe in easy military solutions to international problems.

The Vietnam War, as a PBS program, is now over. Maybe it will stimulate Vietnam veterans to serve their country one last time by calling for new checks and balances against American presidents of both parties who are inclined to shed the blood of others for transitory and hollow election victories.