The seeds for America's participation in the Vietnam War were sown in the aftermath of an earlier war. Although the legacy of World War II had been universal freedom from tyranny and oppression, the inheritance had soon proved to be dichotomous. A new type of fear, born of the atomic age and nurtured by a succession of vicious small wars of containment, pitted two diverse political ideologies against each other. The Red Communists openly disclosed their goal of world domination. The defeated anti-Communist Nazi Socialist of Germany and the Black Shirt Fascists of Italy, while having terrorizing Europe with their armies, had also contained the spread of Communism. By the end of World War II, the unchecked march of the red menace had crossed Eastern Europe and Northern China. It had spread rapidly like a malignant tumor, reaching out to infect non-Communist nations. Espionage and cold war, tempered by the threat of nuclear annihilation, replaced the bayonets and bullets of the defeated Axis powers.
While the free world realigned itself through treaties of mutual defense and the redeployment of its armies, a thunderhead of nationalism swept across Southeast Asia. The people of Burma, India, Indonesia, Indochina, and the Philippine Islands passionately longed for the inalienable right of self -determination. They had valiantly fought Japanese oppression alongside their colonial masters and now demanded sovereignty. Southeast Asia's participation in world War II had provided them with the military training, combat experience, weapons, and national dignity to force independence if necessary. The financial resources and manpower of both France and Great Britain had been drained by years of war. The time for independence had come.
To insure a peaceful resolution to the question of postwar colonialism, Asia turned to America. The United States, keenly aware that to not help would only promote anarchy, set an international paradigm in 1946 by granting independence to the Philippine Islands. Great Britain reluctantly followed in Burma and India during 1948. Although the Dutch remained hesitant to relinquish their holdings in Indonesia, by 1949 pressure from the United States had undermined their resolve. French Indochina remained the only colonial empire in Southeast Asia.
For almost a century the French had prospered from the extracted wealth and colonial servitude of the orient. Vietnam was amongst the world's primary sources of raw rubber. The French industrial giant, Michelin & Co., owned and controlled vast acreages of rubber tree plantings in the southern section of the Vietnam Peninsula. Although the French eventually withdrew their forces from Laos in 1947 and Cambodia in 1953, they adamantly refused to leave Vietnam.
The French Indochina Union had been assembled from the ancient dynasties of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Of the three, Vietnam was the richest in natural resources and by far the most dominant. Over a period of years, beginning in 1858, the French had conquered, annexed, and merged the borders of these separate countries into one. Vietnam's national identity had been purposely obliterated when France split it into three separate regions: Cochin China (southern Vietnam 1863), Amman (central Vietnam 1883), and Tonkin (northern Vietnam 1883). These regions, including the protectorates of Cambodia (1863) and Laos (1893), collectively formed the colonial empire of French Indochina. When the French suffered a stunning defeat in June 1940 by Nazi Germany, Japan - an ally of Germany - occupied French Indochina and governed the union through pro-Nazi Vichy French officials.
In May 1941 a mushrooming, 11-year old, Vietnamese, Communist party established the Vietnam Independence League to organize anti-colonial forces within Vietnam. To the international community they would soon be known as the Vietminh. The Vietminh established a Communist training base for guerilla warfare near the Chinese border in remote northern Cao Bang Province. The nationalistic posture and anti-colonial goals of the Vietminh attracted large numbers of Vietnamese who, while unwilling to proclaim themselves Communist, desired independence. The Vietminh, led by Vietnamese patriot and Communist - Nguyen Ai Quoc (born Nguyen Tat Thanh), became the most powerful anti-colonial organization in Indochina and would eventually prove more than a match for the French.
Consistent with their nationalistic policies, in 1941 the Vietminh joined the United States backed, Chinese nationalist, Vietnam Liberation League. The ideology of the two groups, however, soon clashed. Nguyen Ai Quoc's political intentions had become suspect by the Chinese, and he was imprisoned. Without his guidance the Vietminh lost their effectiveness against the Japanese. From prison Nguyen Ai Quoc convinced the Chinese to let him organize, train, and lead Vietnamese guerrillas against the Japanese in China. The Chinese, although desirous of his assistance but apprehensive of the possible negative affects his Communist reputation would have on the Americans, insisted that he change his name. Thus Ho Chi Minh spontaneously materialized into world politics during 1943.
Early in World War II President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made United States policy clear toward the independence of Indochina. He and his cabinet had repeatedly acknowledged that after nearly a century of French colonization the Vietnamese were worse off than before. This sentiment from the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world endeared Ho Chi Minh to America. During the later years of World War II, Ho Chi Minh worked closely with the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) to rescue Allied servicemen from the grasp of the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh's pro-western attitudes and political brilliance had been admired and well-documented by the Office of Strategic Services.
On March 9, 1945, the Japanese violently ended French colonialism. They arrested Vichy French political leaders and attacked French military outposts. Many French units caught completely unaware surrendered. Others fought. Those survivors who escaped the vicious treachery of the Japanese found refuge with the Vietminh, who honored a promise to help any French soldier willing to fight the Japanese. By 1945 the Vietminh had a superb organization in place to rescue and shelter downed Allied airmen, they now used their resources to ally with the French to defeat the Japanese in Vietnam.
After the Japanese unconditional surrender in August 1945, Indochina was left without a government. Ho Chi Minh sized this opportunity to declare the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In his September 1945 declaration to the world community, Ho Chi Minh used the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence to declare Vietnam's independence. The United States had a blatant admirer in Southeast Asia who, unfortunately, was also a Communist.
Vietnam's independence was short-lived. British and Chinese occupation forces arrived to accept the surrender of the Japanese and to insure the political stability of Indochina. Although there was no political unrest, the majority of the population supported the nationalist stature of the Vietminh. To bolster their ranks, the British utilized defeated Japanese soldiers. This incredulous insensitivity both insulted and infuriated the Vietnamese. It was all too obvious that the British and Chinese were there to pave the way for the return of the French.
In response, Ho Chi Minh appealed to the United States for assistance several times throughout 1946. The administration of the new president, Harry S. Truman, was not sympathetic to the nationalistic demands of the Communist Vietminh. Their benefactor, President Roosevelt, had died in office near the end of World War II. Now the chill of cold war hysteria gripped American's leaders and rendered them fearful of Communist aggression. Ho Chi Minh's Communist background overshadowed all favorable analyses concerning the Vietminh's political motivation from the Office of Strategic Services and their successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. The leadership of America desired a non-Communist buffer in Southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh's pleas were ignored. The world's greatest arsenal of democracy turned their backs on Indochina. The century long oppression of the people of Vietnam would continue, and the seeds of America's future involvement with war in Asia were sown.
French forces began returning to Vietnam during 1946. Although they quickly attempted to reestablish control in Cochin China, pockets of local resistance compromised their rule. Relations between the French and Vietminh steadily worsened. By the end of 1946 the uneasy peace ultimately failed. The Vietminh attacked French forces in Hanoi on December 19, 1946, heralding the beginning of the First Indochina War.
In 1949 the French established the State of Vietnam and installed a puppet regime headed by Bao Dai. To win support of the Vietnamese people, the new government espoused a nationalistic political platform. All of France's allies, including the United States, supported Bao Dai's government. In response, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam turned to Communist bloc nations for financial aid and military supplies. Both governments in the North and the South claimed to represent all the people of Vietnam. This resulted in open hostilities and bitter violence directed against Vietnamese civilians, as well as French colonist.
The slaughter continued into 1954 when, in April, representative from each faction, including their benefactors (United States, Soviet Union, France, Great Britain, China, Laos, and Cambodia), met in Geneva to discuss a peace settlement. The direction of the conference was dramatically altered in May 1954 when French forces were resoundingly defeated at Dien Bien Phu. As a result, on July 21, 1954, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned - for a period of two years - to permit time to develop an acceptable unilateral political solution for the reunification of both Vietnams. The Vietminh and other Communist supporters settled in North Vietnam and French sympathizers and Catholics went to South Vietnam. Future elections in 1956 were planned to reunited all of Vietnam under one government. Bao Dai continued to head the government in the South and Ho Chi Minh the North. After the humiliation at Dien Bien Phu, the French had had enough. Their century of dominance in Southeast Asia had come to a bitter end.
As the French Tricolor was unceremoniously lowered for the last time in Hanoi on October 9, 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency - operating under cover of the American Embassy in the same city - implemented a cold war policy of psychological warfare and sabotage against the Vietminh. Although a French presence lingered until 1956, the United States had effectively assumed control of Vietnam's destiny. From the perspective of the Vietminh, a powerful new colonial leader had replaced a less powerful older one. The die for United States involvement in war in Southeast Asia had been cast.
The legal and moral justification for western intervention in South Vietnam had already been established earlier on September 6, 1954, with the formation of the unilateral defensive pact called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). This broad spectrum alliance was designed by the United States for the sole purpose of containing Communist bloc aggression in Asia. Although its mandates were vague, it permitted the use of arms to defend Asia, specifically South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Although the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Britain, France, and Pakistan were all parties to this treaty, the latter three wisely declined any active intervention in the affairs of Southeast Asia.
In 1955 the people of South Vietnam replaced Bao Dai, who was universally accepted as being flagrant and morally corrupt, with Ngo Dinh Diem. He established the Republic of Vietnam and installed himself as its president. He rejected the Geneva mandated elections of 1956 on the assumption that the Communists would corrupt the vote. Vietnam remained divided.
President Ngo Dinh Diem's discriminatory policies against the poor farmers of the Republic of Vietnam led to rebellion in the South during 1957. The rebels, known as Viet Cong, were openly supported by Ho Chi Minh's government in the North. In 1960 the Viet Cong were organized into the National Liberation Front. The expressed purpose of this political and military organization was to lead a revolution in the south. From this time onward hostilities in Southeast Asia would dramatically intensify, drawing the United States and several other free world nations into a limited conventional war by 1965. The contemporary free-world thinking of the era was that the domino cascade of small, non-Communist, rice-bowl nations had to be checked before the red menace infected all of Asia. In response, the United States clenched its political teeth and planted its colors in Saigon.
Thus began the Second Indochina War, as the Communist called it, and the Vietnam War, as it was known in the free-world. To the youth of the United States, however, it would be referred to simply as Vietnam! Reflected in that single word would all of the erupting frustrations and dissatisfactions of an entire youthful generation with its government be catalyzed into social upheaval and domestic anarchy. The legacy of their progenitors for a peaceful existence and a hopeful world had been hollow. In slogan and anthem the youth of America repeatedly advocated not to trust the words and wisdom of anyone over 30-years of age. The times, they were - indeed - a changing!
During the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson the United States entered into its historically most prolonged and morally most devastating military conflict. Throughout an entire decade of fighting there would be no great battles or occupation of enemy soil. Although there had been costly and enduring clashes, such as the tenacious defense of the besieged Marine fire support base at Khe San and the vicious urban infighting surrounding Tet 1968, the primary strategy of the United States military was limited to a conventional reaction to irregular enemy insurgency. The strategic combat mission of the United States Army in Vietnam was politically defined as seeking and destroying the enemy within the Republic of Vietnam, preventing the enemy from crossing at the borders, establishing and securing lines of communication and transportation, destroying enemy base areas, securing key installations, and encouraging and supporting rural development. To satisfy these political criteria in Vietnam, the United States Army - conceptually organized and trained in the principles of fire and maneuver - found itself tactically required to slug it out with a highly elusive enemy from fixed positions. (The Enclave Theory, ironically, hadn't worked for the French in Vietnam either but senior US Army planners had failed to notice this, and America's youth ultimately paid the price.) It would not be until the closing years of the Vietnam War that United States Forces would pursue the enemy across borders (operations Cambodia - 1970 and Lam Son 719/Dewey Canyon II - 1971) but by then it had been little more than a ill-timed incursion that resulted in many hostile, as well as friendly deaths. It did little to break the resolve of the enemy or end the war.
Experience gleaned over the years in South Vietnam had taught that the enemy American boys faced could be everywhere and nowhere. Finding and closing with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army was a morale eroding task. The Army typically mounted daily, small-size, reconnaissance patrols to scour the paddies, forests, mountains, valley, plains, jungles, and waterways of South Vietnam. Missions were categorized into three operational tasks: Search and Destroy, Clear and Secure, and Maintain Security. By the early 1950s the threat of nuclear holocaust had regulated massed troop formations of previous world wars to antiquity. The ultimate world legacy of the Los Alamos Wiz Kids was Armageddon. The Atomic Age had, inadvertently, furnished a deterrent for conventional world war. Now the militarily weakest of all nations, if allied with an atomic power, could strike out and destroy both adversary and planet. An unconditional surrender demand could evoke massive nuclear retaliation. The time-honored measures of victory and defeat - the taking of ground - had changed to a measurement of bodies counted in piles of corpses. The era of body counts began to flourish in Vietnam, and its prolonged effect on traditional North American culture and values, not to mention the United States military, would be devastating.
The majority of the 2.5 million servicemen sent to Vietnam were born in the aftermath of World War II. The evil forces of their parents' generation had been defeated at horrific costs in humanity, money, and material. The resounding universal pledge to the children of the 1950s had been world peace and the promise of a better life than that of their parents. Although the world had remained essentially nonbelligerent, the fearful creep of Communism negated the lessons of history and common sense. Old allies grew suspicious of each other's global ambitions. New battle lines were formulated delineating zones of hostility. Cold war had become an international political institution.
Instead of world peace, postwar children - labeled Baby Boomers - were nurtured in an environment of cold war hysteria. Public schools routinely instructed students to save themselves from aerial bombardment and nuclear firestorm by sticking their heads in metal wall lockers or by hiding under classroom desks. On television Buffalo Bob never displayed violence or bad language, and the good guys who wore the white hats always prevailed. Post World War II children grew up in an idyllic era of rapid advances in technology, regional suburbanization, a growing economy, and an emerging middle class - all symbolized in the media by a Hollywood inspired John Waynish morality and heroics. Yes, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and - by God - the enemy never broke a cinematic square. But in actuality many hypothetical squares had been, and would be broken. But far worse, the core of traditional American values was shrinking, replaced by an emphasis on self-awareness and a corresponding liberalization of laws. The youthful army America sent to Vietnam represented little more than the rear guard of a society whose cultural values were rapidly changing. America's once dominant, agricultural, heartland was challenged by outspoken liberalism. The neophyte, bourgeoning, socioeconomic middle-class was already in flux. Those generations who followed World War II would find it increasingly difficult to understand and accept the sacrifices that their parents, older brothers, and sisters had made. For them, and most Americans, Vietnam was a faraway land and culturally as alien and geographically as distant to them as the stars in the evening sky.
By the time the whirlwinds of war in Southeast Asia swept me to Vietnam, the 9th Infantry Division had already served over 800 days in combat. Advance elements of the Division had arrived three years earlier on October 19, 1966. This initial element, the 15th Engineer Battalion, had immediately started construction of a division-size base camp on a vacated 1st Infantry site called Camp Martin Cox in Bien Hoa Province, north of the hamlet of Long Thanh (approximately 20 miles northeast of Saigon). Additional units had arrived by air the following December 8. The bulk of the Division, deployed aboard United States Navy transport ships, landed between December 16, 1966, when then Division commander, Major General George S. Eckhardt, ceremoniously landed the colors along with 5,000 troops on the beaches of Vinh Long. Of the seven infantry divisions deployed to Vietnam, the 9th Infantry Division would be the last to arrive in-country and, ironically, the first to be withdrawn.
The 9th Infantry Division consisted of approximately 25,000 troops who were divided into seven major commands, including three brigades of infantry and four combat support battalions (aviation, reconnaissance, artillery, and division support) There were also several attached combat and support units, as well as non-assigned units that directly supported 9th Infantry Division operations throughout the Mekong Delta Region. During 1969 the Division's headquarters base camp, Dong Tam, was situated along the north bank of the My Tho River in Dinh Tuong Province. Also headquartered at Dong Tam was Navy Task Force 117, the Mobile Riverine Force. This unique unit was composed of specialized naval vessels and crews, plus a brigade of infantry.
Although the 9th Infantry had historically operated in 23 of Vietnam's 44 provinces throughout I (Demilitarized Zone), III (Saigon Area), and IV (Mekong Delta southward) Corps Tactical Zones, by 1969 Division military operations were confined to just a few provinces in III and IV Corps Tactical Zones. During 1969 one of the Division's primary military responsibilities was to keep National Route QL-4 open to traffic. This critical artery of commerce linked the fertile rice-growing provinces in the south to Saigon and the northern provinces. To deny the enemy their objectives, the Division utilized three maneuver brigades of infantry. Major elements of the 1st Recondo Brigade were positioned along Route QL-4 in a string of fire support bases stretching westward from Dong Tam, along the southeastern edge of the Plain of Reeds, to the ferry crossing on the Tien Giang River. The 2n River Raider Brigade was housed aboard United States Navy barracks ships and operated with great nautical mobility along the numerous waterways and inundated areas south and east of Dong Tam. They also maintained a complex of small bases east of Ben Tre in Kien Hoa Province. Elements of the 3rd Go Devil Brigade were deployed in fire support patrol bases north of Dong Tam in Long An Province at the eastern edge of the Plain of Reeds. Units from all three infantry brigades were periodically rotated into Dong Tam and camps in the surround area for stand-down, or to provide security beyond Dong Tam's perimeters.
The year 1969, the final namesake of a turbulent decade, was high-water for United States commitment in Vietnam. Since 1967 America's taste for victory in Southeast Asia had steadily soured. Beginning in late July 1969 the great army of the 1960s began systematically withdrawing. Although the war was far from over, domestic politics demanded that the army be disengaged before anarchy collapsed the home front and mutiny disrupted the ranks and file. Sadly, during the next three years more soldiers would be sacrificed in an ever-expanding conflict that Americans now wanted to forget.
None of these things, however, meant much to a male child of draft age, growing up in post World War II, middle-class America. For him Vietnam was just a word identifying a country as alien in culture and distant in geography as were the stars in the evening sky.
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