This article originally appeared at the NewYorkTimes.com.
By George C. Herring.
From the early stages of the Vietnam War, American officials insisted that winning the hearts and minds (yes, the acronym was WHAM) of the South Vietnamese people was the key to victory. But the Americans tasked with carrying out that strategy were ill equipped, linguistically and culturally, to make it work. And in the end, that deficit destroyed whatever good will might have existed on either side and doomed America’s foray into Vietnam to failure.
Bui Diem, South Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington from 1965 to 1972, once called the two countries “peoples quite apart.” And indeed, American and Vietnamese culture had little contact before 1950, when the United States began sending personnel to assist in the fight against Communism. Very few of the Americans sent to South Vietnam had more than a cursory understanding of the country’s language, history, religious traditions, etiquette or politics. The cultural disjunction was exacerbated by a strategic one: While the two nations agreed on the fundamental goal of preserving an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam, the stakes of the war for each were grossly disproportionate. The United States sought merely to uphold its credibility; South Vietnam fought for its existence.
Theirs was a patron-client relationship. The United States, the world’s strongest country and still riding high off its victory in World War II, was confident in its power — and its virtue. It expected to lead, and to be followed. In contrast, the South Vietnamese, citizens of a fragile state newly freed from colonial rule and threatened by internal insurgency and external invasion, recognized their desperate need for American help, but they were also acutely sensitive to dominance by an outside power. They struggled to uphold their dignity and autonomy.
Between 1950 and 1965, America’s role in the region, while significant in terms of money and matériel, occupied a limited footprint in the lives of everyday Vietnamese. That changed between 1965 and 1967, when the Americanization of the war brought hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians into the country and put an American face on the increasingly widespread destruction wrought by both sides.
Bui Diem noted the absence of communication between the two peoples during the major escalation in 1965, the “un-self-conscious arrogance” of the Americans and the impotence of the South Vietnamese. “The Americans came in like bulldozers and the South Vietnamese followed their lead without a word of dissent, for the most part without a thought of dissent.”
After 1965, the United States took on the burden of defeating the enemy militarily. It declined to establish a combined command structure with the South Vietnamese, as it had in Korea. It relegated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to pacification, a task many Vietnamese considered demeaning. Americanization of the war also produced among South Vietnamese a “takeover effect,” inviting them to stand by and let the Americans fight the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Tragically, American actions encouraged dependency in a nation whose independence it sought to sustain.
As the American presence swelled, tensions between the two peoples grew. Vietnamese resented the way their visitors looked down on them and imposed their ways on a presumably inferior people. They were annoyed by American impatience. Some envied the opulent lifestyle of the Americans, with their enormous bases equipped with all the conveniences of home, including air conditioning, shopping centers and movie houses. Others protested that the troops acted “despicably” toward them, speeding their trucks and cars through traffic at life-threatening speeds. Some claimed that America dispensed aid as though it were being “given to a beggar.”
Most of all, many South Vietnamese resented their dependence on their ally and its suffocating presence in their lives. Some labeled the “American occupation” a “demoralizing scourge.” Vietnamese recognized that the Americans were not “colonialists,” the journalist Robert Shaplen observed, but, he perceptively added, “there has evolved here a colonial ambience that can sometimes be worse than colonialism itself.”
In the bonanza atmosphere that followed Americanization, South Vietnam’s economy centered upon serving the needs of the new arrivals. Prostitution became a special problem. As the number of Americans in Saigon surged into the tens of thousands, the number of houses of ill repute expanded proportionally, provoking criticism in the United States and South Vietnam. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas fumed that Saigon had become an “American brothel.” South Vietnamese Catholics and President Nguyen Van Thieu were especially concerned about prostitution, and pleaded with American officials to do something about the suffocating presence of so many troops.
The result was Operation Moose (Move Out of Saigon Expeditiously), implemented mostly during 1967. Thousands of G.I.s moved to base camps outside the city (where the prostitutes soon followed), some joking that they had been “Moosed.” Saigon was also declared off limits for R & R. The pace was sufficiently slow that the operation was unofficially tagged Goose (Get Out of Saigon Eventually).
The exodus left around 7,900 American soldiers in the city. Moose did not satisfy President Thieu, and it provided no more than a partial solution to the prostitution problem. It also left Saigon more vulnerable to the urban attacks launched by the Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet offensive.
The American way of war also inflicted a huge toll on village life in South Vietnam. To limit its own casualties and cope with unfamiliar and often inhospitable terrain, the United States unleashed extraordinary firepower on the country it was trying to save. Areas of suspected enemy strength were bombed and shelled and burned with napalm, often with little consideration of its impact on civilians. Defoliants were used to deny the enemy food and cover, with horrific short- and long-term consequences for Vietnamese.
American firepower destroyed homes, villages and crops and alienated those whose hearts and minds were to be won. American commanders declared entire areas free-fire zones. Troops would round up villagers, burn their hooches and relocate them from their ancestral lands into squalid refugee camps. The area would then be bombed and shelled. During Operation Cedar Falls in 1967, Americans forcibly relocated some 6,000 civilians from the village of Ben Suc. Caught between the Viet Cong and the Americans, villagers who wanted only to be left alone became sullen or outright hostile. By early 1967, over 1.5 million refugees had drifted into urban slums, where they were susceptible to Viet Cong propaganda.
To be sure, many Americans developed close ties with Vietnamese. Many also committed acts of kindness such as providing medical care and food to people in need. Especially in the early years and in remote areas, American advisers formed attachments with Vietnamese soldiers and villagers. Thousands of troops married Vietnamese women.
Still, most Americans arrived in the country without knowledge of the land and the people. “My time in Vietnam is the memory of ignorance,” one soldier later wrote. Not knowing the language or culture, the Americans did not know what the people felt, or even at times how to tell friend from foe. “What we need is some kind of litmus paper than turns red when it’s near a Communist,” one officer half-jokingly told a journalist.
Relations with South Vietnamese soldiers were likewise strained. Unaware of the difficulties their counterparts labored under, American troops disparaged their fighting qualities. The newcomers expected the people they were defending to offer the sort of gratitude they believed their fathers had gained for liberating France in World War II. When instead they encountered indifference or even hostility, they grew resentful.
For many Americans, the South Vietnamese became an object of contempt, even hatred. “The people were treacherous,” one soldier later recalled. “They say ‘G.I. No. 1’ when we’re in the village, but at night the dirty little rats are V.C.” The ability of the villagers to step around mines and booby traps that killed and maimed Americans provoked suspicion of collusion — and anger.
Americans also brought with them deeply entrenched racist attitudes that prompted the use of slurs such as “gook” and “dink,” which they applied to enemy and friend alike. Contempt could quickly change to a rage that might be turned on Vietnamese civilians. During the summer and fall of 1967, the notorious Tiger Force, an elite commando unit, was assigned to remove civilians from the Song Ve River Valley, suspected to be a source of rice for Viet Cong units. The very name of the mission, Operation Rawhide, suggested a cattle roundup, which had a dehumanizing effect. When the civilians resisted, the Tigers vented their rage by burning their villages. Unhappy with the assignment and under constant fire from enemy snipers, the Americans declared the area a free-fire zone and shot anything that moved, resulting in the brutal killing of numerous civilians.
Nevertheless, the Tigers were assigned another, similar mission, to remove civilians from Quang Tin province. Early in the operation, they were caught in a deadly ambush and suffered heavy losses. After that, all restraints came off. Commanders abetted their vengeance by setting a body count goal of 327 kills (to match the number of the 327thInfantry Regiment, of which the Tigers were a part). The Tigers proceeded to kill hundreds of civilians and compounded their crime by mutilating the bodies of victims, including old women and even babies. The carnage stopped only when the operation ended in November.
The actions of the Tiger Force were replicated with even more savage results at My Lai, in Quang Ngai province, in February 1968, where American soldiers killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians. Such atrocities were not typical of American behavior, and even at My Lai there were soldiers who pushed back against their commanders’ orders to kill. Nevertheless, the atrocious violence reflected attitudes toward Vietnamese that divided the two peoples and made the Vietnamese subservient to Americans. Given the frustrations and failures and mounting casualties of the American war effort, atrocities were perhaps only a matter of time.