The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive foreign conflicts in United States history. For teens and young adults today, the context of Vietnam remains shrouded in the fog of the Cold War and anti-communist sentiment. But, the recently released PBS series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick offers fresh insights to a new generation about how and why the United States became embroiled in such a controversial conflict that would last for nearly 20 years.

Professor emeritus George Hopkins

Professor emeritus George Hopkins

Professor emeritus George Hopkins spent more than 30 years at the College teaching history, including the Vietnam War. The College Today posed a few questions to Hopkins about the historical context of the Vietnam War, the Burns-Novick series and what we can learn from how the United States handled that conflict. Episodes of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War are airing every Tuesday on SCETV at 9 p.m. through November. Episodes can also be streamed through the PBS website and app.

What was the conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam that led to what we consider the Vietnam War?

This is not a simple tale of North Vietnam versus South Vietnam. It needs to be put in a larger perspective to really understand it. This conflict involved Vietnamese opposition to foreign domination, complicated by civil war over what kind of government would be established when the country was reunified and independent following French rule. Outside military intervention only increased the complexities of the conflict.

How and why did the United States get involved?

The Vietnamese had long ago fought for many years against foreign domination, beginning with efforts to free their country from Chinese rule. After several centuries of independence, the French invaded and claimed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as their colonies in the mid-19th century. That led to protracted war against the French by the Vietnamese.

Then came the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II, facilitated by the collaborationist Vichy government in France. During World War II, the U.S. sent OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA) teams to aid and train Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh fighters in the armed resistance against the Japanese. When the Japanese left and Ho declared Vietnam’s independence in August 1945, but the United States never recognized his government.

A Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, moves an alleged Viet Cong activist to the rear during a search and clear operation. Photo: US Marine Corps /PFC G. Durbin

In the post-World War II era of the Cold War, France was transformed from an imperial power in Southeast Asia into a “Defender of the Free World” against communism. Although Ho was a Vietnamese nationalist, he was also a communist because only the communists supported an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist policy. The U.S. supported the French effort to reconquer Vietnam, which lasted from 1946-1954. After losing the battle of Dien Bien Phu, France agreed to a negotiated settlement in 1954. The Geneva Accords ended French rule in Vietnam and temporarily divided the country into northern and southern areas at the 17th parallel for two years. In 1956, there was to be a national election to reunify the country under one government.

But with the United States supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, a conservative Catholic nationalist, to head the South Vietnamese government, and Ho Chi Minh establishing a nationalistic communist government in northern Vietnam, the stage was set for lasting conflict.

Diem refused to participate in the national election in 1956, with support from the United States. The election to reunify the country was never held, violating the principle of national self-determination. As a result, many southern Vietnamese did not view Diem’s government as legitimate. During a press conference at the time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained that he did this to contain “international communism” and to prevent the loss of people, resources such as rubber, tin, tungsten, coal and rice, and the geo-political position in Southeast Asia.

American military advisers began training a South Vietnamese army [ARVN] and police force. In 1959, the first two U.S. service personnel were killed in a grenade attack; their names are the first ones of the Vietnam Wall. In 1963, the U.S. authorized a coup by South Vietnamese generals, which ousted Diem. This led to further instability. The total number of U.S. military personnel, including ground troops, in Vietnam would eventually swell to more than 500,000 by the late 1960s.

What made the Vietnam War different from previous military conflicts in which the United States had been involved?

The Vietnam War was different from World War I, World War II and the Korean Conflict for several reasons. In South Vietnam, there were no clear battle lines, as there had been in previous wars. Nor did the VC (Viet Cong)/NLF (National Liberation Front) wear distinctive uniforms; they dressed as ordinary peasants did in rural areas and as typical civilian Vietnamese in urban areas. That meant there were no “safe places behind the lines,” as in other wars. Guerrilla attacks – grenades, rockets, snipers and ambushes – could occur anywhere in South Vietnam at any time. This created great uncertainty and stress for U.S. troops, who did not know who to trust in South Vietnam. The U.S. tactics of “free-fire zones” and “search-and-destroy” in village areas led to many civilian deaths, which increased fear and suspicion on all sides. And U.S. involvement in this civil war within a war to reunify the country was unlike previous conflicts.

Another important difference was that the U.S. never declared war on North Vietnam or the VC/NLF. Instead, a Congressional Resolution in 1964 permitted the president to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further [alleged] aggression” by North Vietnam. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, but it was not viewed as a “blank check” for unlimited expansion of the U.S. military in Vietnam.

Soldiers cross a deep irrigation canal along with other members of the company who are enroute to a Viet Cong controlled village. Photo: Robert C. Lafoon

Why was the United States’ involvement in the war controversial, particularly in the latter years of the conflict?

U.S. involvement in Vietnam became more controversial as troop levels increased. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson told voters that Vietnam was “an Asian war for Asian boys.” But by the spring of 1965, as concerns mounted that the VC/NLF would defeat ARVN, LBJ decided to send U.S. combat troops and “Americanize” the ground war. That also meant that draft calls would greatly increase, with many more young men going to Vietnam, and many more caskets and wounded veterans returning home. The military draft also allowed for deferments and exemptions from service for those going to college and graduate school. That meant that most elite and middle-class males could avoid service, while most working-class men could not. Given the socioeconomics of the country, that also meant higher percentages of minority men were drafted.  And as U.S. death tolls mounted and no end to the conflict seemed in sight, critics questioned the legality, constitutionality and morality of the war.

By 1968, the U.S. had 550,000 personnel in Vietnam (only 10 percent of which were on active combat duty – the rest were support troops, who were still at risk in the cities). Then, in late January, 1968, the Tet Offensive began: a coordinated attack on every major South Vietnamese city by VC/NLF and NVA troops. This seemed to contradict administration claims about progress in the war. In the end, the Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the VC/NLF and NVA.  But it also proved to be a psychological and political defeat for the U.S., especially when Gen. William Westmoreland asked for 206,000 additional troops. Public opinion, which had been moving against the war, now led LBJ to refuse that request, initiate a bombing halt of North Vietnam, and decide not to run for re-election.

Following his election in November 1968, President Richard Nixon revealed his “secret plan to end the war and win the peace” through “Vietnamization,” a tactic of withdrawing U.S. forces and turning over the ground war to the ARVN forces. Peace negotiations began in Paris. With victory no longer the goal, U.S. soldiers were concerned with “not being the last GI to die in Vietnam.” During 1969-1972, AWOL and desertion rates in Vietnam rose, as did individual and small-unit “combat refusals.” So did attacks on officers and NCOs who ordered patrols and ground assaults against VC/NLF and NVA positions. Meanwhile, anti-war demonstrations increased in 1969 and into the 1970s. In 1971, a major anti-war march in late April also featured Vietnam Veterans Against the War, another growing sign of opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Then in early May, over 20,000 demonstrators descended on Washington D.C. for non-violent civil disobedience, insisting: “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we’ll stop the government.” Over 7,000 people were arrested for blocking traffic and interfering with “business as usual,” which further increased tensions in the country.

In October 1972, on the eve of the presidential election, Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, announced that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. The 1973 Paris Peace Accords withdrew troops from South Vietnam while allowing the NVA to stay. The Watergate scandal grew and Nixon resigned in August, 1974. The ARVN continued to lose ground. On April 30, 1975 NVA and VC/NLF forces entered Saigon as the U.S. embassy hurriedly evacuated. Vietnam would soon be re-unified and fully independent. Meanwhile, Americans pondered our first defeat and wondered what had gone so wrong for so long.

What did the Burns-Novick series “The Vietnam War” get right?

Burns and Novick demonstrated the complexity of the war – not a simple “good guy vs. bad guy” story. Their use of multiple viewpoints, including those of VC/NLF and NVA soldiers and officials, added depth and fuller dimensions to the story. Burns and Novick clearly showed the brutality of the war on civilians and soldiers, both north and south. This micro-level view helps personalize and humanize all participants in the conflict.

Burns and Novick also showed how American leaders of both political parties misled, misrepresented, distorted, omitted or lied to the American public for personal and political reasons. The Cold War context of the conflict meant that none of these presidents wanted to be the answer to the question “Who lost Vietnam?” Nor did these presidents want to endanger their re-election chances, particularly JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Burns and Novick also show how Richard Nixon sabotaged the 1968 efforts at peace negotiations by promising South Vietnamese President Thieu a better deal than Hubert Humphrey would allegedly give him. Thieu then pulled out of the negotiations. If those talks had been successful by fall of 1968, Nixon knew he would probably lose the election. Instead, Nixon won election and re-election – and the U.S. effort in Vietnam dragged on until 1973, with air and naval support until 1975.

Veterans for Peace at the March on the Pentagon. Photo: Frank Wolfe

What was problematic about the series?

Burns and Novick begin the series by declaring that the Vietnam War “was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.” While the series does show misunderstandings, miscalculations, and overconfidence by U.S. policymakers, the series also demonstrates that to simply characterize those policymakers as “decent people” acting “in good faith” is too facile and simplistic.

These policymakers need to be put in a larger context. The U.S. has intervened in many countries since the late 19th century, and continued in the Cold War era covered in the Burns-Novick series. Both Truman and Eisenhower supported the French effort to reconquer Vietnam. Eisenhower also approved the overthrow of the democratically elected governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. These interventions used force to achieve American political and economic goals. They are glossed over in one sentence in the series, and their significance is not made clear. Eisenhower also made clear that the resources, people, and geo-political position of Vietnam were important to U.S. interests – not just efforts to protect alleged “freedom and democracy in South Vietnam.” While the 1961 effort to overthrow the Castro government was planned under Eisenhower, JFK approved it – although it failed at the Bay of Pigs and led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. LBJ intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to insure a “pro-American” government there. And Nixon was deeply involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile in 1973.

These episodes cast doubt on the “good faith” of such “decent people,” as asserted by Burns and Novick. They also cast doubt on notions of American innocence and exceptionalism. In this fuller context, the U.S. resembles other countries in pursuing its own economic, political, and strategic self-interests, by diplomacy when possible and by force when deemed necessary and feasible.

What else is missing from the series?

Burns and Novick cover the civilian anti-war movement, although most demonstrators were hostile to policymakers – not soldiers. The series did highlight the role of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But Burns and Novick miss or omit the anti-war movement within the U.S. military. By the late 1960s, most U.S. bases at home and abroad had dissident GIs who published underground, anti-war newspapers. They also met at off-base coffeehouses to discuss the war, ways to stop it, and ways to get out of the military, such as conscientious objector status.

In Vietnam, GIs resisted by going AWOL, refusing combat missions, abusing drugs and alcohol, and initiating lethal attacks on officers and NCOs. Colonel Robert D. Heinl reported in the June 1971 issue of the Armed Forces Journal that “The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” This aspect of the war merited significant coverage in the series because it contributed to the pressure to Vietnamize the conflict and leave as soon as possible after 1968.

One of the goals of the series is to generate a national conversation to lead to reconciliation and closure on the Vietnam War. That cannot be accomplished, however, without coming to terms with the full range of issues the conflict encompassed.

Tanks and ACAV’s secure supply route in 25th Infantry Divison area. Photo: Donn A. Starry

Why is it important for the next generation to study and understand conflicts like the Vietnam War?

For many high school and college students today, the Vietnam War is ancient history. But for many of these students, that war still has lingering impacts on their families – through a parent, grandparent or other relative. A family member may still be coping with PTSD or the effects of Agent Orange or loved ones may still be grieving the loss of someone killed in the war.

Beyond their immediate family situation, this generation and the next one need to understand conflicts like the Vietnam War because the U.S. keeps getting involved in similar situations. The U.S. government often intervenes without really knowing the history and culture of the country, remains overconfident despite past errors, assumes its involvement will be well received, and rarely has a Plan B or C in case things go wrong. Current examples include: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan – and now Niger, amid a growing U.S. presence in Africa. Young people need to study why the U.S. has almost 800 military bases in over 70 countries around the globe. What is the United States’ role in the world, according to us and according to others? What is the role of multinational corporations run by Americans or others? How does all that affect trade, jobs, taxes, access to resources and markets, the economy – and the likelihood of war? Critical thinking and analysis are always needed for representative government to function well.

One result of the Vietnam War reflected today is the switch to a volunteer military. But the end of the draft has also led to a decline in interest in foreign affairs in many Americans, unless it directly affects them or their family. When only 1 percent of the population serves in the military, that can lead to problematic views of the armed forces by civilians and vice versa. Some have called for a national service requirement for all young Americans. The military would be one option. So would the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, nonprofits, public agencies, and other qualified organizations. Does being required to serve your country in some authorized capacity have positive social value or is it an infringement on personal liberty? What is the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities? According to whom?

Another relevant lesson of the Vietnam War is that dissent is not unpatriotic. Questioning authority and criticizing government policies or officials are the hallmarks of a vibrant civic culture. Government officials are accountable to the people; they are supposed to serve us. Blind allegiance and unquestioning obedience to a leader, party, or group are not characteristics of a thriving democratic republic. Engaged and informed citizens can challenge dubious policies and shine spotlights on problematic situations so they can be resolved constructively.

As Mark Twain astutely commented: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”  The two should not be confused or merged together. Presidents come and go, and political parties win and lose. But the country and the Constitution endure.

This widely-viewed series has provided a good and necessary start for honest and candid discussions of the Vietnam war and its continuing legacies.