For over a decade now, it’s been commonplace for our leaders to urge us to put Vietnam behind us. My wife, Sybil, and I were face to face with our good friend George Bush when he said it again at his Inauguration in January. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society has front row seats at these affairs, and I swallowed hard when during what I would call his “plea for unity” acceptance speech he said, “Surely, the statute of limitations on Vietnam has run out.” I was not the only one in the Medal of Honor section who decided to take that remark with a grain of salt. New Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey and I exchanged knowing glances.
In case you don’t know, Bob Kerrey was a Navy SEAL team leader who lost a leg on a voluntary and highly risky midnight penetration of a VC island stronghold to abduct their political cadres for interrogation. In the pitch black melee, a hand grenade exploded right at Bob’s feet. He refused medical treatment until his gang and their quarry were back down the high cliff, into the rubber boats, and away. Good work, but in hindsight, all for naught.
I think Bob and I and many of our cohorts think there is much more to be written and said before the nation puts that Indochina chapter of our history to bed. I know there is material yet to be released that belongs in the public record. The total Vietnam War story involves just too many fundamental breaks in our national integrity to be buried in the vault. It is a package of lessons for the current age, and for the future.
I find that World War II guys, and, of course, President Bush qualifies as a hero among them, sometimes dust off the Vietnam experience as a one-of-a-kind mixup in which our civilian and military leaders misjudged the nature of the problem, and once in, sank into an unexpected quagmire that was beyond almost anybody’s practical control. From my study—and intuition—I find that impossible to believe.
I was there for ten years, and taking in data all the time—one year just flying, two flying heavy combat, and seven and a half in prison—not “languishing,” not “sitting out the war,” as used to be said when American POW’s had Geneva Convention protection, but fighting a torture battle—four of those years from a solitary cell in a penitentiary, surreptitiously commanding a secret and tricky underground organization, while regularly picking the brain of the prison-system commissar who sat on the North Vietnamese Army’s General Staff. Altogether, I’ve come to realize that this talk about “surprise” at the resistance we met—at least among our senior leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff—is sheer bunk.
Books lead me to believe that the war held scarcely any surprises for the informed military. Their relationship with McNamara’s whiz kids (who took over planning and running the war) was sort of like that of my prison pal who had come out of a dog fight in a parachute as the back seat (radar guy) of an F-4, with his front seat (pilot). The truth of the matter was that their plane came apart not as a result of enemy gunfire but because of a midair collision with one of their wingmen—a very rare event in that war, I assure you. One day years later I was sitting in a Hanoi prison cellblock while my pal’s pilot was describing to the rest of us his surprise, while in violent maneuvering against a division of MIG’s, to feel the unexpected impact of a blindside midair! “No surprise, Boss,” interrupted the popular back seater, smiling and shaking his head in the spirit of sardonic fly-boy humor. “I knew what to expect right after I heard your briefing in the ready room. The flight was briefed like a midair, and it was flown like a midair.”
A joke (sort of), but it was no joke with the Vietnam War as a whole. It was planned like a midair, and flown like a midair: a perfect disaster. But the planners didn’t have to go to prison. They didn’t even have to fight. They didn’t even know how to fight. They just knew how to “thread the needle”—how to get an army out there that would satisfy our elders’ drive. The Establishment drive, people like Dean Acheson’s and John McCloy’s Wise Men‘s drive—to meet Cold War verities, shackled sufficiently to keep the allies of the enemy below a high simmer, and our own general public in the dark and calm. No emotion, please. Early in the war Robert McNamara said: “The greatest contribution Vietnam is making is that it is developing an ability in the United States to fight a limited war, to go to war, without the necessity of arousing the public ire.” Can you think of any action more inconsistent with the basic idea of a democracy than the launching of the ultimate public endeavor, the committing of a generation of its young men to battle, the quintessential emotional experience, under the guise of their merely acting out their parts in some new sort of sterile half-speed surgical intrusion and thus well enough served without the encouragement and support of the public sentiment?
Oh, there was no doubt in the minds of the insiders, or of those of us who were out there on the firing line before 1965, that a “land battle” was what was in the works. You notice that I said that the needle-threaders got an army out there and shackled it. Nobody who understood the problem wanted the US Army out there trying to win hearts and minds in the weeds—least of all the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After two years of study and God knows how many confrontations with the President’s “defense intellectuals,” our JCS’s final formal recommendation (made in October 1964, just before “the” war shaping decisions were rendered by the Executive Department) hung in with the LeMay solution—to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong, back to the Stone Age if necessary; to keep the US Army out of the field except as a last resort; to “isolate” the battlefield and let the South Vietnamese have at it with the Communists in a fair fight. (There is data in the files that establish LeMay’s rationale as not to glorify the Air Force, but to save the US Army from ruin.) Their plan, the JCS believed, best utilized America’s military power, and best served her national purposes and well-being.
And take it from one who was there when the B-52’s finally did bomb Hanoi for a few days eight years later: that would have done it. “The walls came tumbling down”—the loss of life, American and Vietnamese, was miniscule in comparison to the “land war” we bought into (at most, 1 percent of what was commonplace in World War II bombardments—100 per day in Hanoi vs. 50,000 a day at Dresden being a not-illegitimate contrast). The noisy Hanoi streets went absolutely silent. Their military officers were first thunderstruck, then obsequious, setting our guards to the unprecedented task of making the rounds of the cellblocks with hot coffee at dawn before the daily barrage started. Within two weeks, their national authorities were back at the negotiating table, and, in so many words, in the process of surrendering.
The Chiefs “short war” recommendation of October 1964 was handed over to the young Establishment Intellectual LBJ had asked to draft his strategy. His name was William Putnam Bundy, Dean Acheson’s son-in-law. (Insecure Johnson had to have that old-boy Ivy League prestige behind him.) And according to the “25 years after” books coming out now, it was William Bundy who was arbiter of most things crucial during the “war shaping” period. (It was he who in May 1964 had drafted a “fill in the blanks” Congressional Resolution that became the Tonkin Gulf Resolution after the events of early August of that year; it was he who cooled the JCS idea of “keeping the pressure on with follow-up raids” while the iron was hot after our reprisal air strikes of August 5; he was a leader among those who insisted on not bombing Hanoi and Haiphong, raising the ludicrous flag of caution for fear of a China that was trying to get into America’s orbit during those very early Vietnam War years—the start of China’s political turnaround that took Nixon’s and Kissinger’s insight to recognize and capitalize on a few years later; and according to a good book entitled Four Stars, which came out this spring, it was this same William Bundy who rejected the idea of a clean declaration of war, something that public sentiment would probably have supported in that fall of 1964—a “bright line test” that would have assured our deploying soldiers of the congressional and public support they deserved in exchange for laying their lives on the line. Bundy rejected it (says the book) to save LBJ “an embarrassing pre-election political headache in his peace-oriented campaign against Goldwater for President.”
Admiral Lloyd Mustin appeared before William Bundy’s war strategy working group as advocate for the Chiefs’ “short war” plan in November 1964. His words tersely described the distillation of JCS thinking: “Instead of working to buttress the South Vietnamese government in order to defend itself, the United States should take stern actions against North Vietnam to make that defense needless.” (Over the years, the Chiefs had collected lots of data, including the horror stories of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann’s unsuccessful attempts in ’62 and ’63 to motivate or teach the South Vietnamese to fight “Western style.”) But the “short war” plan went down the tubes on December 1, 1964, in a formal meeting with LBJ and his principal advisors: Rusk, McNamara, the Bundys, Rostow, McCone, Ball, and Ambassador Maxwell Taylor. A campaign of reactive (tit for tat) gradualism won—the strategy of the game-theory advocates who claimed that if you titted for tat long enough, you could eventually convince your adversary that his cause was hopeless. (The “Prisoners’ Dilemma” game.) It seemed a “safer” theory—and by its implicit restriction of options to almost none except the stationing of our Army units right down there in the jungle, it had the old “morality play” aspect of compassionate paternalism—our troops acting out the theme of those 1950’s books like The Ugly American, helping our friends help themselves at the grass roots level. “Limited War,” they called it.
(If I sound cynical about grass roots support and “helping little people help themselves,” I am skeptical about it from both the rational and emotional sides. Rationally, it is generally thought of as a poor utilization of our Army’s fighting power. Our troops are not missionaries and to cast them in such roles is to get them into positions asking for the sort of abuse Sybil and I heard being poured on America at a conference in Paris a year ago last December. I can’t forget the insults of the Parisian anticommunist Vietnamese. In so many words, these leading Vietnamese intellectuals, who had sponsored the South Vietnamese government, charged America with intruding into South Vietnam’s internal affairs, and bringing about their country’s descent into Communism. In short, they claimed America owed Vietnam another war. We got so close we got pinned with the blame from both sides.)
The reason I think this rehash and analysis is worthy of your time is that it exposes the insidious dangers of that gradualistic paternalism that is so attractive to the timid. It could happen again. Remember Winston Churchill’s words in his introduction to The Gathering Storm?
It is my purpose, as one who lived and acted in these days . . . to show how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous, how the councils of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger . . . and how the middle course, adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.
It’s hard to believe, now, but “Limited War” was a new expression in early 1965. There was lots of discussion about it—just like when its modern counterpart, “Low Intensity Conflict,” was introduced a few years ago. Either can get confusing if you try to apply it to yourself as an individual combatant. In April 1965, a few months after our national Vietnam strategy had been decided, I was heading westward on the aircraft carrier Oriskany—starting my third eight-month cruise that would mainly involve flying missions over Vietnam. I was forty-one-years-old and had climbed to the top of Navy flying—Air Group Commander, senior combatant pilot on the ship. This was to be a full combat cruise (since we had left the United States we had heard about the Marines landing near Da Nang, and the start of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign). Three things triggered a speech I gave to all my Air Group pilots a few days before we raised the Indochina coast. (The full text appears in Admiral Sharp’s book, Strategy for Defeat.) The first trigger was informal chitchat among my squadron commanders about whether limited war required the same low altitude/ high accuracy bomb drop patterns as regular war. “I heard some squadrons on other ships were thinking about pulling out high,” some were saying. Second trigger: an easily detectable and understandable anxiety among my pilot population as a whole—85 percent of whom were facing their first combat. The majority (the juniors) were well educated, thoughtful, and sensitive—too young to remember the national fervor of World War II. (I still vividly remembered the whispered concern among several just like them aboard the carrier Ticonderoga the previous summer as we eyed the still-wet bomb damage assessment photos of the flaming wreckage of the Vinh oil storage yard following our reprisal raid of August 5. “Yes, sure enough, there are , bodies among that rubble.”) The third trigger: a letter from a bright and highly respected former commanding officer of mine, wishing me well on the one hand, and surprising me on the. other by suggesting that I might give thought to laying off pressing for Code of Conduct conformance of prisoners—that it was, after all, a regular war document.
I’ll quote myself just enough to give you the drift, and the tenor of the times:
Where do you as a person, a person of awareness, refinement and education, fit into this “limited war,” “measured response” concept? I want to level with you right now, so you can think it over here in mid-Pacific and not kid yourself into “stark realizations” over the target. Once you go “feet dry” over the beach, there can be nothing limited about your commitment. “Limited war” means to us that our target list has limits, our ordnance loadout has limits, our rules of engagement have limits, but that does not mean that there is anything “limited” about our personal obligation as fighting men to carry out assigned missions with all we’ve got. If you think it is right or sensible for a man, in the heat of battle, to apply something less than total personal commitment—equated perhaps to his idea of the proportion of national potential being applied, you are wrong. It’s contrary to good sense about self-protection—half speed football is where you get your leg broken. It’s contrary to human nature. So also is self-degradation. Don’t think for a minute that the prisoner’s Code of Conduct is just a “regular war” or “total war” document. It was written for all wars, and let it be understood that it applies with full force to this Air Group in this war. . . .
If you don’t agree with all the above, right now is the time to turn in your wings. It’s much less damaging to your pride if you do it here in mid-Pacific now, as a clearly thought-out decision, than after you see your shipmates get shot up over the beach. . . .
I hope I haven’t made this too somber. I merely want to let you all know where we stand on Duty, Honor and Country. Secondly, I want to warn you all of excessive caution. A philosopher has warned us, that of all forms of caution, caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness. In the same way, I believe that “caution in war” can have a deleterious effect on your future self-respect, and in this sense, surely your future happiness. When that Fox Flag is two blocked on Yankee Station, you’ll be an actor in a drama that you’ll replay in your mind’s eye for the rest of your life. Level with yourself now. Do your duty.
No one came forward to turn in his wings. By the time Orinskany returned to San Diego in December 1965, her pilots had earned a record total of decorations for flight heroism. Of the 120 pilots addressed in this talk, 13 did not return with the ship. Nine were killed in action and four, including myself, were shot down and taken prisoner.
On the Oriskany‘s next cruise, during the summer of 1966, five more from my air group joined us in the Hanoi dungeons—their killed-in-action list higher yet than ours. And in the summer of 1967, still more prisoners, and still more lives and airplanes squandered running up and down the same restricted tracks in North Vietnam in that gradual escalation to nowhere. In four months of that 1967 cruise, the Oriskany had 40 percent of its deck load of airplanes shot out of the sky.
So much for “limited war”; so much for the pussyfooters and needle-threaders who wanted to finesse a war with game theory, without disturbing anybody important. I say to them what my North Vietnamese jailers frequently said to me: “The blood, the blood, is on your hands.”
Those of us who entered prison early actually saw three different wars. The first lasted 3 years and 2 months—the war of reactive gradualism decided upon by LBJ and his jolly gang on December 1, 1964; the war that ran its course as described above. Then there was a 3 year 2 month “hiatus” war—like the “limited” war, practically as long as America’s World War II—but no airplanes in the sky, absolutely no American actions that we could detect having any effect on us one way or another. It lasted from late ’68 to late ’71—I was in solitary for the first half of it, and I was brutalized more in 1969 than in any year in prison. Some don’t like to hear this, but on the whole, life was easier for us in prison when America was bombing and hammering at their gates. To have our bombing “paused” was somehow considered contemptible. And then the old JCS “short war” loomed into view in late 1971—the mining of the harbors, the. tactical bombing of military targets in Hanoi and Haiphong, and the climax: seemingly endless streams of B-52’s bombing Hanoi and Haiphong military complexes starting on that wondrous night of December 18, 1972. In 11 days, North Vietnam was shut down completely.
That was commitment. A long time coming, and in hindsight, perhaps too late for an emotionally drained America. But for what it’s worth, I believe if the October 1964 JCS “short war” plan had been accepted and put in motion during that spring of 1965—a move that would have been perfectly natural and totally possible—then we would have a free and secure South Vietnam today; we would have about 40,000 fewer headstones in Arlington Cemetery right now; and we would have all been home before Christmas of 1966. What is known as the 60’s—antiwar disruption and all—would never have happened.
How did we get so screwed up? The American government tried to do something the Founding Fathers knew would never work: to send (“sneak” may be a better word) armies to war without a solid consensus of public support. Hear out two of my most trusted friends:
Ross Perot, a savvy patriot in everybody’s book, says, “If we didn’t learn anything else from Vietnam, it is that you don’t commit your men to the battlefield unless you commit the American people first. They fell just as dead in Vietnam as they did on Omaha Beach in Normandy. First commit the nation; then commit the troops.”
Fred Weyand, Combat General in Vietnam and former Chief of Staff of the US Army, says, “When the Army is committed, the American people are committed, and when the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the Army committed.”
The Founding Fathers drove a spike into the Constitution they framed, a spike aimed specifically at that crucial need for public commitment, insuring that no soldier marches off to a war that becomes an expendable sideshow of a Washington power struggle: the provision that only the Congress can declare war. My constitutional law professor friends at Stanford tell me that the debates at the Constitutional Convention revealed two basic underlying reasons for that clause. The first stemmed from a consensus among the Framers that no one person, not the President nor any other in government, was to have the authority to lead the United States into war. Thus Congress was given the obligation (not the optional honor) of being the watchdog in this matter. (There was debate about just making it the Senate, but the Framers decided they needed a broader base.) And there was a second reason to put Congress on the hook: it was decided that unless it unequivocally authorized a war at the outset, the Congress was a good deal more likely later to undercut the effort, leaving a situation that satisfied neither the allies we induced to rely on us, nor our men who fought and sometimes died.
I think it is fair to say that generally speaking, since World War II and our subsequent discontinuance of declarations of war, things have not gone well. And we are all sick of these arguments about what is a war, and what is a prolonged campaign, and how do you know in advance. Yes, and tired of having to agree to the obvious: that it’s neat that the President can pull off these successful flash-in-the-pan operations like the Libyan raid, and the Grenada rescue, and, too, the successful Persian Gulf presence, without the encumbrances of prior debate. But I don’t think it is any sort of a legal challenge to write a descriptive paragraph that clearly separates out the future Koreas and Vietnams from future Grenadas or Persian Gulfs. Basically, we’re not talking about naval and air actions or marine team landings, we’re talking about the United States Army in combat on foreign soil. And I think such expeditions (overseas wars) should be declared or not fought at all.
One of the obfuscating factors in getting this hammered out is the ambivalent stance of Congress. My law professor friends have drawn out for me examples of what they call the typical congressman’s “studied ambiguity” on the subject. It’s a fact that today the artful dodging of controversial questions is the road to reelection. They say that during Vietnam and in some conflicts since. Congress has shown itself to be consistently unwilling to end the fighting—in fact quite willing to continue to fuel it: “anything for the boys overseas!!”—but at the same time quite resourceful in scattering the landscape with rationalizations whereby the Congress could continue to claim that “it wasn’t really its war.” In general, the modern congressman is quite likely to be happy to let the President call the shots on war and peace while he devotes himself to the construction of his private political bomb shelter.
I have an interesting study of different wartime congressmen’s reactions to queries about their views on the Vietnam War in the light of their signatures on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution:
—”prevent further aggression?”; “I was sure they told me they meant only aggression against our armed forces!”
“Oh, that was only to handle further provocations against destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf.”
“I was told we were just going along with one of old LBJ’s international bluffs.”
Foreign Relations Committee report: “Although it can be interpreted to authorize full-scale war, that was not our intent at the time.”
Every day our newspapers report the details of some squabble over legislative vs. executive control of foreign involvement. They are competing for the prestige of running it. I’m talking about the other end of the stick—the obligation to take responsibility for it and stick with it when it turns to worms. If you want to see that flip-flop acted out in spades, come to a prison camp. When there’s reprisal and torture being meted out, some prisoner officers, senior and thus responsible, will shirk all leadership duties because they know they’ll be spotlighted, hammered, and exposed to bad press at home. But let the heat come off, and those same rankers who had been cowering in their cells for months, even years—not answering wall taps of those seeking guidance, dodging their responsibility of command—suddenly surface and present their credentials to lead the homecoming tickertape parade. That happened. Everybody wants the prestige of control when the heat’s off, but many shuck it like a hot potato when the fat is in the fire.
American congressmen—Vietnam antiwar congressmen who were lengthening the conflict even as American bodies were piling up—were able to get off easy with their constituents in spite of their signatures on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The American public didn’t hold them responsible because there was just enough ambiguity in the air about just exactly where this resolution (new word) fit in. But who can forget how quick they were to endorse this “engine” of the war that LBJ demanded in the heady times of summer 1964. The House of Representatives passed it unanimously after a total of 40 minutes of discussion. The Senate had two diehards and it took 8 hours and 40 minutes—but, as you might know, before a Senate Chamber that was less than one-third full.
I have an aside on this. Sentiment rules the world, said Napoleon—and those on the scene when important events take place have a good vantage point to see the degree to which sentiment and image have the final say over facts. The excuse for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was made into headlines that read like “North Vietnamese Torpedo Boats Make Midnight Sneak Attack on American Destroyers.” As most of you know, I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. Not a conspiracy, but a hysterical mix-up. I reported that, and Washington received it promptly, but we went to war anyway. Those early headlines, based on Washington’s word on what happened, set the tone for the reaction of the whole country, and two days later LBJ got his blank check for whatever kind of war he wanted—and a magnificent boost in the popularity polls for his upcoming election. But when we pilots who were out there really snickered was when we read the superimaginative graphic accounts of the sea battle in the news magazines a week later. If you have old Newsweeks, Time magazines, or Life magazines of that time, look at the stories, and drawings, and remember that there was nothing there but black water and American fire power. And then, contrast that 1964 public reaction to a nonevent to that 1973 reaction to a real event, to a magnificently handled de-arming of our enemy’s capital city, with pinpoint bombing of rail yards, transportation facilities, and missile sites, and an all-time low civilian casualty rate. How did our Congress react? In the middle of it, one of our senators said on NBC TV that it was “the most murderous aerial bombardment in the history of the world.” Headlines screamed it was a “Christmas bombing”—I was there and not one bomb was dropped on Christmas. It was billed as a “holocaust,” a carpet bombing—I was there and not one bomb was dropped downtown. But by 1973, the country had come to such a state that a vocal minority of our citizens who by that time did not want America to win that war were able to prevent the enforcement of the agreement that those 11 days of bombings had extracted from the North Vietnamese government.
What a mess! High-handed entry into the war, distrust of the JCS, mismanagement of the battle, squandering of the public trust, 58,000 of our soldiers dead with nothing to show for it! This could happen again. And we are asked to close the books and put the Vietnam War behind us? Sociologist Charles Moskos at Northwestern University predicts that won’t happen until the last of the generation that the old guard mangled are quiet in their graves—in the year 2030.
In those years, and perhaps now in some quarters of our government, the ideas of “declaration” and “mobilization” seem to be thought to bring with them the idea of moral approbation of the project—whereas the undeclared effort. especially one not even “worthy” of national mobilization, is less official, less real, less demanding of our internal sympathies. (It’s like when fifty thousand soldiers die in a national effort it’s bad press. When fifty thousand soldiers die in an undeclared “police action,” it’s just “the breaks.”) After losing out with his “short war” pitch, Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson (a very interesting man with whom I identify) made a push for national mobilization, not only for the manpower but for the public involvement, the public commitment.
(Harold Johnson was an ex-POW of World War II who made the Bataan Death March, and who described his time behind bars as being “in a great laboratory of human behavior.” I’ve never heard it better stated. He has been described as a skeptic, dedicated to integrity, hating absolutes, distrustful of easy solutions, dead set against US troop involvement in Vietnam. He said the Joint Chiefs were never asked to vote one way or another before they were sent in—the civilians said “go” and they went—and thus was understandably heard to refer to the Department of Defense as the Department of Deceit.)
Anyway, the key player who turned off General Harold Johnson’s mobilization proposal (on July 25, 1965) was ex-Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. He voiced the opinion that a “mobilized” Vietnam War would make his image as our UN Ambassador more tainted than would an “unmobilized” Vietnam War.
Well, I say then, from the national commitment viewpoint, that’s all the more reason for the soldier to want his war declared. That’s the only way he can be confident that the government really means it.
The worst part of all this is that in the undeclared case, it’s such a natural thing for our very Congress (being unaccountable to the public) to turn out to be an after-the-fact agent that nullifies our fighting men’s best efforts as an expendable miscue, a discard from the Washington power game. The Framers had it figured correctly. Our Constitution had to be written so as to protect our fighting men from shedding blood in pointless exercises while a dissenting Congress strangled the effort. But what has evolved in this modern age, apparently to everybody’s satisfaction but that of those fighting men, affords them no such protection.
I’ve heard just too many decorated veteran warriors from Vietnam say, “Our government better figure out some way to make it clear that they mean business next time, or I’m through with soldiering.” They are sick of being told that their lives have to be provisionally committed to a half-baked plan because it’s the only way the President can, in the national interest, get around adverse congressional sentiment. They shouldn’t have to take that.
These men were brought up pledging allegiance to the flag of a United States of America, which from its beginnings was committed to a separation of powers. From maturity they knew the strengths of this form of government that balances the legislature against the presidency. They also sense, as did our Founding Fathers and the six generations that followed, that our government’s weakness is a tendency to become fickle when the point of no return has passed, when the fat is in the fire and the troops are in the field. But over these generations a national confidence had grown up, particularly through those personal commitments, that bright line assurance, documented by congressional declarations of war. If in the post-Vietnam United States the soldier is just to be told that in modern time