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Lessons of Combat: 25th Anniversary of U.S. Withdrawal from Vietnam

April 12, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: America’s military involvement in Vietnam can be traced back to the Eisenhower years, the 1950’s, when the conflict in Indochina was small and far away. South Vietnam was preparing itself for a battle with the Communist North. The American military presence at first involved only a few hundred advisors. The stated goal for three successive U.S. Presidents: Preserve the South while limiting American casualties.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: To those new states who we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more tyranny.

GWEN IFILL: But the war quickly escalated. In President Kennedy’s term, U.S. advisors grew five-fold, eventually numbering 16,000. U.S.soldiers fanned out into the Vietnamese countryside, battling communist guerrillas. One hundred U.S. soldiers died in 1963. The next year, in the Gulf of Tonkin, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on two American vessels, including the U.S. Destroyer, “The Maddox.” Congress gave President Johnson the authority to expand the war, and U.S. planes began bombing North Vietnam. In 1965, U.S. ground troops arrived — the first large contingent landing near the coastal city of Danang by the end of 1965. Some 180,000 U.S. troops would be based in Vietnam. Before long, the Vietnamese countryside became killing fields for American and Vietnamese troops. Vietnam was by now a full-scale war, but the U.S. government limited where U.S. troops would go, as they tried to prevent the fighting from spilling into China. As casualties continued to mount, both the American public and the fighting troops began to wonder what America was hoping to accomplish. War veteran and future Senator John Kerry:

JOHN KERRY, Vietnam Veteran: (1983) There were people who believed that we were fighting Communism and that this was terrific and it was important, and who were all swept up in it, but I think most people did not, and most people began to see that we weren’t gaining any territory, we weren’t winning the hearts and minds of anybody. We certainly weren’t securing any particular strongholds or strategic objectives.

GWEN IFILL: But President Johnson continued to defend the U.S. role.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Every country that I know in that area that is familiar with what’s happening thinks it’s absolutely essential that Uncle Sam keep her word and stay there until we can find an honorable peace.

GWEN IFILL: New domestic strains developed as the military began drafting more young men to swell its ranks. Troop levels peaked at 540,000 in 1968, before President Nixon began a gradual withdrawal, shrinking American forces in Vietnam to 160,000 within three years. Similarly, the number of dead soared to more than 16,000 in 1968, then fell gradually to 641 in 1972. In all, 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

For the South Vietnamese army, an estimated quarter million died, along with 900,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrilla fighters. And Vietnamese civilian toll was more than one million. When the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973, the stage was set for the departure of American combat troops and the release of more than 600 U.S. prisoners of war. The last American combat troops departed in 1973, but even today, some 2,000 soldiers are still listed as “Missing in Action.”

GWEN IFILL: We get four views. General Charles Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. He served two tours in Vietnam as a rifle company commander. Colonel Ronald Joe served in Vietnam after joining the army in 1966. He was commandant of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute from 1991 to 1996. Richard Kohn was Chief of Air Force History from 1981 to 1991. He’s now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters served in the Army from 1976 to 1998. He is the author of several books on the future of warfare.
General Krulak, what stamp has the experience of Vietnam left on the American military, in your opinion?

GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK (Ret.), Former Marine Commandant: Well, I think we’ve learned many lessons. But at the strategic level, I think what we learned was “don’t let your enemy have a strategic sanctuary”, in this case, a place that they can go that you can’t reach them, Cambodia, Laos, the demilitarized zone itself, portions of Hanoi and certainly the Harvard Hyfong. If you can’t hit the enemy, you’re going to have a tough time beating them. And the second is to define in very real terms what national interests mean, have a debate with the people of America to ensure that they understand national interests and only use power when those interests are at stake.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, what would you say was the legacy of Vietnam on the U.S. military.

RICHARD KOHN, Military Historian: In answer to, that I would say that the American military tried to fight a war…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead. We were having some problems with your audio, but I think you just kicked in.

RICHARD KOHN: I think the American military learned that it not only wants clear objectives, about you it wants to remain close to the…

GWEN IFILL: We’ve lost you again. We’ll come back to you, how’s that? We’ll go back here to Colonel Peters. What’s your answer to that question?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (Ret.), U.S. Army: Well, I think the legacy of Vietnam was very complex. But really we’re suffering in today’s military from the legacy of the Cold War. You see Vietnam today in the way the forces are structured, for instance, the Army consciously put forces into the Guard and reserves so that they couldn’t go to war without involving the country. But we’ve turned over two generations in the military. The vast majority of officers no longer remember Vietnam. In fact, the majority of officers don’t remember Desert Storm. It’s a much younger force. So I think the legacy is really slipping away. On the other hand, it’s very strong on Capitol Hill because, although the military, because of our career demographics, has turned over, the generation that was on campus during Vietnam is really in the throes of power on the Hill and in the White House. So when you look at the legacy of Vietnam, I think you’re seeing it stronger on the other side of the Potomac from the Pentagon.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, I’m going to bring that this back to you and I wonder if you agree with that, the point being that maybe Vietnam is farther away in our memories than we gave it credit for being.

RICHARD KOHN: Well, I think that it’s not very far in our memories because it looms like a shadow. We don’t want to get sucked into quagmires. I this the Pentagon has been very resistant of some of these missions and gradual interventions in the 1990’s for precisely the reason that the objectives were not clear, the exit strategies were not obvious, and the American people seemed to be indifferent to some of them. So I see that legacy quite alive, and I think it’s been passed down by the generation of military leadership that served there as young officers and in the mid grades to the generation now that has not served. You see it in the polls of officers, you see it in the reading matter and in their reaction to many of the military issues of today.

GWEN IFILL: Colonel Joe, you just heard the word quagmire. You also hear the term national interests. You hear a lot of terms question which apply to U.S. intervention in foreign wars that you didn’t hear before Vietnam. How has Vietnam, in your opinion, changed the way we look at ourselves in warfare?

COL. RONALD JOE (Ret.), U.S. Army; I think that I agree with what I’ve heard thus far about the strategic portions of warfare. But I certainly want to say that I think the Vietnam War had a profound effect on us in term of our way of dealing with African Americans, people of color and women. Vietnam was the first war in which we really employed our forces based on military occupational specialty or based on their capabilities, as opposed to being overly concerned about their race or color. And I think it was the first time that we had, for example, General Davison, Fred Davison, who commanded Army forces, all forces as African American in combat. I think we learned top respect each other, to work together we came home and that it’s made a difference in our armed forces. I think it’s a hard struggle be, so it’s going to be a continuous struggle, but I think it’s made a tremendous difference. It’s given us Colin Powell and I think it’s made for a better society for us all, in spite of the fact that there’s still much work to be done.

GWEN IFILL: So Colonel Joe, you would say that this is considered in so many circles to have been a bad war, there was good that came out of it in a societal sense?

COL. RONALD JOE: I think it certainly was a bad war, so I wouldn’t even go to that question because I think it’s a deep one. It was certainly a bad war and of course in the military we go and do what we were asked to do and many soldiers did that. But I do think if you look at the percentage of officers, of senior non-commissioned officers, of the leadership positions that women, people of color, African-Americans in wars prior to Vietnam and the leadership positions that they hold now today and the positions they’ve held since then, that this war was absolutely essential in having all of us understand that color did not in any way dictate the level of performance and efficiency on the part of people who were doing the very tough job that the nation was asking them to do.

GWEN IFILL: General Krulak, when we talk about bad wars and good wars, if you can even call them that, is it permissible 25 years later yet to say that America lost the Vietnam War?

GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: Well, that wasn’t a victory parade off of the top of the Saigon embassy. I don’t think we won the war. I would like to take exception to a man I respect greatly and that’s Mr. Peters, but I don’t think that the leadership of the military has forgotten Vietnam and that it’s as strong a sense in the leadership as it is across the river in the Congress. The military remembers Vietnam, both the good and the bad, and what you’re seeing as we move into the chaos of the 21st century, is the willingness of the military to reach back to that Vietnam experience and try to come out of it with some knowledge that will help us as we move in to the chaos that we’re going to see in the 21st century.

GWEN IFILL: Certainly. Reach back and learn what, Colonel Peters?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, I think there’s plenty to learn and we’re mislearning some of the lessons. I agree with General Krulak. The military leadership has not forgotten, but there were a small number of men and they’re leaving, that last three star and four-star level is going. My point is there are enlisted people serving today… It’s foreign to them, it’s as foreign as World War II, so the leadership hasn’t. But I’m really much more concerned with the lessons on the political side, the wrong lessons, the mislearned lessons. For instance, the casualty issue and I think General Krulak would probably agree with me on this– I’ll let him have his say-but the idea that American people would not accept casualties. The lesson of Vietnam was that the American people are sensible, they don’t want their sons and daughters’ lives wasted in European-style wars of political nuance without results. But we’re a nation of fighters and the idea of zero tolerance for casualties I think is silly. If you give Americans a good cause that they understand, a villain helps– they will fight. They will accept casualties, but the other lesson we mislearned is the idea that a body count’s a bad thing. You’ll never fight a war without giving the American people a body count. We have a Super Bowl mentality and they want to win and win big. They will accept casualties, but they want them disproportionately on the other side.

GWEN IFILL: But it’s got to be a very defined mission now in a way that it wasn’t before.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Yes. And I think what General Krulak was getting at very nicely was the problem is we don’t have defined missions. They’re very hazy and nebulous. And successive administrations have done a very poor job of articulating the strategic environment and what we are specifically trying to do in one mission after another.

GWEN IFILL: General.

GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: He hit the nail right on the side. And I would agree 1,000 percent. The bottom line is the mothers and fathers of this great country of ours are willing to send their daughters and their sons into combat, but they’d better have a dog gone good reason for going. And they’ll accept the casualties, but they need to have at least had a debate over why and where and how we’re going to prosecute this conflict. And we have not been doing a good job of that.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, are you with us?

RICHARD KOHN: I hope so. I’d add a thought about victory and loss in the Vietnam War, Gwen. Certainly we lost the campaign in Vietnam, but Vietnam was a campaign of the Cold War, and if you think of it in that context, we had that debate during the Vietnam War itself, and America sent its mostly sons into that war, understanding that it was part of that larger struggle. And while we lost the Vietnam War itself, as a part of the Cold War, I think we have to understand that it had as tragic as it was, as poorly as it came out for us, it had importance in the history of the United States’ activity in the Cold War.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk… Colonel Joe, let’s talk a moment about exactly what’s happened to the military. We know and we focus on what’s happened to society. But is the military a different place? Is it structured differently now than it was pre-Vietnam, or have things which have happened since, is say the Gulf War or things that happened before, like World War II and the Korean War had a greater impact in shaping the military we see today?

COL. RONALD JOE: I think from the perspective that I’ve addressed myself, that our military has changed, and it’s a much better military. I, in my time at the Army — through studying and talking to leaders in the Department of Defense and the military, have absolutely said that our military absolutely sets an example, not only in the nation but in the world of ensure people that they can enter the military, armed forces, that they can work hard and achieve and go to the very highest levels based on how hard they’re willing to work. And I think that Vietnam showed all of us that we could work one with the other and that we could, you know, work hard and get ahead. I think that our nation, as has been said earlier, is committed to not sending our forces again off to war without having a definitive purpose for going and without having an exit strategy for victory. We came back from Vietnam, it wasn’t a victory, for the first time, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, were not hailed as returning heroes, and it had a profound effect on us. But I think our army is a much better place. I should say I think our armed forces, all of our armed forces are a much better place.

GWEN IFILL: Does that mean, Colonel Peters, that we’re only willing now to fight wars at a distance, Cruise missiles and air wars?

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: No, absolutely not. And I’d like to just say on the subject of who won, while we lost the war, but we won the century. And my point about casualties is that that’s a total misreading, the idea that you have to do it cleanly with stand off weapons. First of all, you can’t do it. Some things you can do neatly with high-tech weapons. Other things, especially in this decaying world– much of the world is really coming apart, in Africa, and parts of Asia, Colombia– it’s close in bayonet fighting, the kind that General Krulak really understands and I’d really defer to him on that.

GWEN IFILL: But General, we’re talking about a force that now has to be prepared for peacekeeping in regional conflicts, more than the kinds of wars that we’ve fought in the past. Isn’t that a fundamentally different shift for the military?

GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: Well, that’s if you believe we’re preparing for peacekeeping. I refer to it as the three-block war, where we’ve got to have these young men and women of character ready to, at one moment in time, be conducting humanitarian assistance, the next moment in time peacekeeping and the next moment in time, they’re in highly lethal — mid-intensity conflict and it’s going to take place over a period of 24 hours and within three city blocks. We saw it in a Somalia — the army having this tragedy where they suffered major casualties when they went through all three blocks of the three-block war in a matter of about an hour and a half. That’s what we’re going to be faced with. And what we need to do is to train our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to fight in an environment that is totally different than the one we’ve seen before. It is not going to be the son of Desert Storm. It’s going to be the stepchild of Chechnya and we’d better be ready for it.

GWEN IFILL: That’s all the time we have. Officers and gentlemen, thank you all very much.

JIM LEHRER: Next week our Vietnam series will focus on what the war did to journalism.