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Book Examines Vietnam War from Viet Cong’s Point of View

April 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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On the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Ray Suarez talks to retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. James Zumwalt about his new book on the Vietnam War, as seen through the eyes of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong veterans.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, on this 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, a different perspective on the conflict.

And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: When these pictures were engraved into history 35 years ago, only half of the current U.S. population, and an even smaller share of the Vietnamese, were alive, the American departure from South Vietnam, an ugly retreat after a 10-year war that killed 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of South and North Vietnamese.

But those who participated in the war continue to put their memories and the lessons they drew from the conflict into scores of books, movies and documentaries, mostly, of course, from an American point of view. Now there is a new book, “Bare Feet, Iron Will: Stories From the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields.” As its title suggests, it tells the story from the perspective of the Vietnamese.

The author is retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt. His father, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commanded U.S. Naval forces in Vietnam, and later was the Navy’s highest ranking officer.

In 1984, “NewsHour” correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault spoke to Admiral Zumwalt about the war and his decision to step up the aerial spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange.

ADM. ELMO ZUMWALT, former Chief of U.S. Naval Operations: You must remember that we were watching the defoliation take place at a time when, in my case, for example, my sailors were taking casualties at the rate of 6 percent per month, so that, on the average, my sailors and officers had about three-quarters of a — about a 75 percent probability of being a casualty during their year there.

Anything that could be done to reduce the fearsome casualties that we were taking was an intelligent thing to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Charlayne also spoke to Admiral Zumwalt’s son, Elmo Jr., a naval officer who served on swift boats in the Vietnam War.

ELMO ZUMWALT III, Vietnam War veteran: The areas around us were heavily defoliated, so defoliated that they looked like burned-out areas, many of them. You know, almost every day that you were in riverboat patrol, you were having — you were being subjected to the Agent Orange factor.

RAY SUAREZ: The younger Elmo Zumwalt died from lymphoma in 1988. It’s an illness associated with Agent Orange, which drew this reflection from his father.

ADM. ELMO ZUMWALT: It is the case that the particular area in Vietnam in which my son’s boat operated a great deal of the time was an area that was sprayed upon my recommendation. And, in that sense, it’s particularly ironic that, in — in a sense, if the causal relationship can be established, I have become an instrument of my son’s own tragedy.

RAY SUAREZ: But, for Admiral Zumwalt’s second son, James, the war carries its own set of memories and emotional journeys, from bitterness towards the foe and the loss of a war to a special kind of healing.

Well, James Zumwalt, welcome.

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT, author, “Bare Feet, Iron Will”: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: You note in the opening pages of your book that a lot of ink has been spilled chronicling America’s experience in Vietnam and how it involved, changed, affected Americans, and how very little was written about the Vietnamese.

Were you the guy to fix that?

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: I would say that I was presented with the opportunity to fix it. And once I had face-to-face meetings with our former enemy, and got a better understanding of what they went through on their side of the battlefield, I felt an obligation to record it.

RAY SUAREZ: Were you already in the midst of a journey, a transition, a change in the way that you understood the war?

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: I was.

I — with the loss of my brother, I felt a lot of anger and animosity towards the Vietnamese. And it wasn’t until I returned to Vietnam in 1994 with my father to see what we could do to get the Vietnamese government to do a joint study on Agent Orange, and I started meeting with our counterparts over there, that it really was a wakeup call for me.

RAY SUAREZ: Here we were, a war involving a rich country and a poor country, a huge country and a small country. What were the Vietnamese fighting forces working with?

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: They were working with whatever they were provided by their allies, the Soviets and the Chinese. But, many times, because they simply didn’t have the same kind of logistical system that we had, they had to look to other sources to be replenished with those supplies.

RAY SUAREZ: Your book, for me, provided a reminder of just how ingenious they could be trying to withstand the attack of a much more powerful enemy.

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: Exactly.

And, as I focused more on the history of Vietnam, I came to realize that it almost is something that is built into their DNA. There were encounters in the past with invading forces, most of the time with the Chinese, where they came up with very creative methods of defeating a superior force.

RAY SUAREZ: So, give us some examples of the kind of techniques and tactics the North Vietnamese used successfully against a much-better-armed, much-better-equipped enemy.

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: Well, one that stands out in my mind is the — what they did along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail, as you know, was a logistical supply line that brought men and materiel from the north down to the south. Obviously, they had to cross rivers at certain points. And the only way you cross a river is with a bridge. They would build bridges for the specific purpose of having as a target — having a target that we would go after.

They — what they would do then is, upstream or downstream of that bridge, they would come up with very clever ways of hiding bridges. Well, how do you hide a bridge? One is a concept known as a submarine bridge, where they actually built a bridge platform underneath the low watermark.

And, for those who served in Vietnam, they know that the — the water is basically brown, so you cannot see from the air if there was anything under the water. But these submarine bridges were very effectively used.

As convoys would cross them, they would have guides standing on either side of the bridge platform guiding them as to where the edges of the platform were. These existed for the duration of the war, and we never knew about them.

RAY SUAREZ: This was a people that was going to be hard to defeat by anybody.

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: This was a people who, again, going back to their DNA, would not tolerate being invaded.

Could we have won the war? We had the military power, and we never lost a battle in Vietnam. We — if we committed ground forces in the North, we could have driven them out of the cities, but all that would have done was delayed the inevitable, which was that they would keep eating away and eating away, and drawing the war out for as long as it took for us to get out.

RAY SUAREZ: James Zumwalt, thanks a lot.

LT. COL. JAMES ZUMWALT: Thank you very much for having me.