Recorded on April 11, 2017.
Historian James Wright, author of Enduring Vietnam: An America Generation and Its War, joins Peter Robinson on Uncommon Knowledge to discuss the challenges and successes of the Vietnam War. They discuss why the Vietnam War mattered, how the United States entered the war, the changing feelings of Americans at the time of the war, and much more.
Wright expands on how the Vietnam War fit into the greater strategy of the United States in the Cold War and why the United States entered it. He argues against the common idea that the baby boomer generation was the “Me Generation” in that 40 percent of them enlisted or were drafted into combat. He argues that we need to recognize that the baby boomer generation served our country in this war because most people today have not had to deal with the challenges faced by many during the draft.
Wright interviewed more than one hundred people for the making of this book; in it, he discusses some of the stories he learned from the many soldiers who fought in the war. He tells the story of Hamburger Hill and how the Americans fought to take and then hold the A Sau valley in South Vietnam. He writes how he believes this was an important battle in the Vietnam War even though many professors he’s talked to at West Point and the Army College do not teach it.
Wright discusses the changing attitudes of Americans toward the war after four years, and how as the number of people drafted and the number of casualties increased, Americans began turning against the war. He goes into detail about the strategies Nixon began to implement a phase-out for Americans in the war and start handing more combat and control over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In the end, Wright argues that, even though Americans pulled out of the war because communist Vietnam did not prove to be a threat afterward because of their long-standing mistrust of China, the United States didn’t fully lose.
About the Guest
James Wright served in the United States Marine Corps for three years from 1957 to 1960. He was president of Dartmouth College from 1998 to 2009. He is a historian and the author of half a dozen works of history including Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them and the book discussed in this episode, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War.
- The Vietnam War Documentary: Doom and Despair
- On "The Vietnam War"
- No Safe Wars
- Why Can’t America Win Its Wars?
- Victor Davis Hanson: Why Did America Fight The Vietnam War?
- Why Were We in Vietnam?
- America’s Pivot to Vietnam
- Tiger in the Barbed Wire: An American in Vietnam, 1952–1991, by Howard R. Simpson (1994)
Peter Robinson: The cable television channels that are devoted to American history may seldom portray it. We'll come to the reason for that, but it's with us all the same, the Vietnam War. Today historian James Wright and his new book Enduring Vietnam. Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Historian James Wright served from 1982 to 2009 as the 16th president of Dartmouth College. Before beginning his academic career Dr. Wright served for three years in the United States Marine Corps. He enlisted at the age of 17 and he has returned often to the concerns of American veterans expanding the enrollment of vets at Dartmouth, for example, and sitting on the boards of bodies such as the Semper Fi Fund and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Dr. Wright is the author of half a dozen works of history including Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America's Wars and Those Who Fought Them and just published, here to discuss it today Dr. Wright's new book, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation And Its War. Jim Wright, welcome.
James Wright: Glad to see you Peter. May I, offer one, just a slight-
Peter Robinson: Correction? Addition?
James Wright: Footnote, no not a correction.
Peter Robinson: Alright.
James Wright: I did serve in the Marines for three years but I was not in Vietnam. I was in the Marines for 1957 to 1960. I'm very careful to make certain that people understand that I'm not saying I was a veteran of this war.
Peter Robinson: All right. By the way, you are a professional historian, so I should point out that this much of the book is footnotes.
James Wright: There are a lot of footnotes.
Peter Robinson: All right. We want to get to the war itself and I should stress that Enduring Vietnam is devoted to the combat experience, to the, largely, the infantry experience, although, of course, there are airmen you interviewed as well. But many of the viewers of this program, I realized with a start, as I prepared for the show, will have been born, been born long after the war ended. We have to begin by making this conflict comprehensible. Why did Vietnam matter? How did we get into it? You note in Enduring Vietnam that President Eisenhower directed several billion dollars worth of American aid a large portion of the aid he sent overseas to South Vietnam and that President Kennedy sent advisors and troops into the country so many that by the time he died there were some 16,000 American troops in Vietnam. Why? Why as far back as Dwight Eisenhower did Vietnam matter to the United States?
James Wright: Well, I think that there was a great concern, surely in the 1950s about the Soviet threat, about Communism and by the 1950s, by the early 1950s, China, the Chinese Communist regime, the People's Republic had come to be playing into that and there was a concern about all of Southeast Asia. The old Indochina, after the French finally pulled out of there and in fact, in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated, the focus was as much on Laos as it was on Vietnam, but there was a sense that we had to make a stand someplace. President Eisenhower talked about the dominoes falling, but he was very cautious about ground troops in Asia. Many people, where General MacArthur, the veteran, the rugged veteran of the Korean War went to Kennedy's Pentagon and said, "Be careful about sending ground troops into Asia."
James Wright: Kennedy was always very cautious about that. He said, "No ground troops." But, as you said, he increased from several hundred to 16,000 the number of troops there and he put them in uniform. They really had been advisors and civilian attire before that, but he put them in uniform. They began to play a more active role working with the Vietnamese. It was an evolving war.
Peter Robinson: I just want to stress the fundamental rationale if I've got it right. And it's a drawing of lines. In Europe, Berlin, we get West Berlin, the Soviets get East Berlin, we get Western Europe, the Soviets get Eastern Europe. There are lines being drawn in the policy of containment, containing the communists. In Korea there is a war fought and it divides the country in two. Again, a line is being drawn and so the notion is that in Vietnam the communists and there was substantial Soviet and Chinese support of the North Vietnamese. The notion is that we had to draw a line. Right or wrong, the notion was that we that this was a place the United States had to draw a line.
James Wright: There was. I think that part of it was based on the economic and geopolitical importance of Southeast Asia, the rubber of the Mekong Delta. There was also this idea if we don't fight them there, we'll be fighting in the streets of Los Angeles. My concern, and I'm not a student of the geopolitics and the diplomacy of the war although I've tried to learn as much as I can from those students and I do set the background, the context here, for that war, is that that everyone, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, all said, "We're not sure what we can do there." But they couldn't back down and I think that was that tragedy of that. When I said they couldn't back down I mean that they thought they couldn't, but I'm not suggesting that this was on autopilot and somehow they couldn't change it. Any one of them could have selected a different option.
Peter Robinson: Enduring Vietnam quote, "In 1965 the war began."
James Wright: That's when the American ground-
Peter Robinson: Why do you say that?
James Wright: The American ground war began. In March of 1965 Lyndon Johnson sent the troops in, American marines into Da Nang. That was the beginning of the American ground war. By summer there were 50 or 60,000 there, they were starting to engage more and more. At first, they went in to protect the airfields, then they realized they had to go out on patrols in order to protect that airfields, and they're taking the initiative more themselves and by late 1965, there's a major battle, the Battle of la Drang Valley and Americans are more and more involved and Johnson had made a commitment by summer to really increase the troops there but the objective and I think this is so true in many ways of modern wars, Peter, was not so much a military one. There was no equivalent of Vietnam, such as there's no equivalent in Iraq or Afghanistan or even Korea of troops coming onto the beach at Normandy and sweeping through western France and liberating Paris in the late summer.
Peter Robinson: Which is why there are no cable television shows about great battle in Vietnam. There were no great set piece battles.
James Wright: Well-
Peter Robinson: Is that fair?
James Wright: I focus on the battle of Hamburger Hill, I wrote a chapter on it that I do more on that battle than anything else in this book and I did check with some people at West Point and the Army War College and I said, "Do you teach the battle of Hamburger Hill in your military strategy courses?" And they don't.
Peter Robinson: They don't. Before, I want to come to Hamburger Hill. So the war begins in 1965, and you've got, as you describe it in Enduring Vietnam, the analytically, you provide a kind of analytical framework. The first four years, there's a transition moment and then the second and final four years and during those first four years is the American presence expands and expands and expands. I'm going to quote Enduring Vietnam, "It was president Johnson's assumption that the north Vietnamese would see the futility of supporting a war against the powerful American military force and that negotiations would then resolve the conflict in a way that preserved the independence of south Vietnam." Now, we know it didn't work.
James Wright: It didn't work.
Peter Robinson: But just as a general matter, you said by March of '65, we got something 50, 60 000-
James Wright: By the summer of '65.
Peter Robinson: By the summer of '65, by '68, we're up to over half a million troops. Why didn't it work?
James Wright: It didn't work-
Peter Robinson: What was wrong about Johnson's assumption?
James Wright: It would've taken, I would imagine, you'd have to really talk to some military scholars more about this, but it would've taken a couple million because you really had to hold places, you couldn't just fight and Vietnam is a large country, there was not an army in the field against whom we were fighting, we had to go search for the enemy and they would allow themselves to be found when they were ready to allow themselves to be found. We would come in, gently, it was a battle of company or platoon or even squad level, it was ambush, it was search and destroy, it was back and forth. There were no flag raisings on top of a hill, it was not about geography and I don't mean that there weren't key geographical places that we wanted to control, but it was not about liberating an area, there was no equivalent of raising the flag on Mount Suribachi, on Iwo Jima, we didn't raise flags there because we were very careful about not making it look like it was an American war.
Peter Robinson: Alright. The nature of the war itself, the basic statistics. The number of Americans who served in the Vietnam war, more than two million men, where some 10% of the American men who turned 18 during the conflict, killed in action, more than 55,000, wounded more than 150,000. Enduring Vietnam quote, demographic breakdown of those people who served, "The sons of blue-collar families African American, Hispanic and Native American young men were disproportionately out in the jungles of Vietnam." Why?
James Wright: I think they were out in the jungles because they didn't have the schooling and the background to get themselves an MOS, a military occupational that would allow them to be a clerk back at the base. I think it was as simple as that, I would not want to suggest that the military then did not have racism, did not have other factors, it really had to do with are they prepared to do other things? And I think that there was some pretty cold calculations there. People who joined the Marines, and there are only a few draftees in the Marine Corps, because they were able to be sustained by enlistments. Somebody who joined the Marines knew pretty well that they were going to go into combat because that's what marines were doing at Vietnam and that's what they wanted to do. Those who were drafted into the army very few of them volunteered for combat, many of them ended up in the front lines. But I also do point out in this book that while this very much is a war that is predominantly disproportionately blue collar, there are plenty of college dropouts or plenty of college graduates who are out on the front lines and they weren't only officers, it was the baby boomer's war and part of what I want to try and correct here, you go back to say the summer of '67, the summer of love, come to San Francisco with flowers in your hair. The Monterey pop festival, it's a summer in which there are major demonstrations all around the country, many of them racial but it was a march on the Pentagon in the fall of 1967, so there's a stereotype, an image, of the baby boomer generation doing these things with flowers in their hair in Haight-Ashbury, or marching on the Pentagon, but by 1967, war of the casualty shifted in Vietnam and more of them were baby boomers, they were kids who were born after 1946. By '67, '68, more and more of the kids who were fighting the war were baby boomers. 40% of the baby boom generation served in uniform. There are more baby boomers whose names are on the Vietnam veterans memorial wall in Washington who were killed, who died in Vietnam, than there were who went to Canada or went to prison for evading the draft. And I think we have tor recognize that this generation was more than flowers in the hair at Haight-Ashbury, it was a generation that went to war. These were the kids who grew up as the sons of World War II veterans and I interviewed 160 people for this book and I asked them, "Why did you go? What motivated you?" And I can't tell you how many would say, "Well my father was in World War II, I couldn't possibly tell him no, I won't go." And they grew up in the 1950s in a world where they were reminded regularly of the Soviet threat, they had duck and cover drills in schools to be prepared for a nuclear attack and they were reminded regularly that they had a responsibility to step up and serve when they were asked to do that. Jack Kennedy, in 1961 said, "The torch is passed to a new generation of Americans." He meant his World War II generation, within a few years, this World War II generation had passed that torch onto their children and these were the kids who were fighting in Vietnam.
Peter Robinson: So Tom Wolf famously called the baby boom generation, the me generation and Jim Wright says not quite.
James Wright: Not quite. There was that, I would want to deny some of the narcissism and the self indulgence of the baby boom generation, but let's also recognize that they served.
Peter Robinson: Jim, the draft. The draft is another component of the Vietnam experience that I think may simply be incomprehensible to some viewers of this conversation. That you write in Enduring Vietnam, that there was virtually no objection to the extension of the draft as late as 1965. The law said that congress shad to reauthorize the drafting-
James Wright: Reauthorize.
Peter Robinson: Every four years. So the draft, what proportion of those that served in Vietnam were drafted as opposed to enlisted?
James Wright: I think it was, good question, and I can't pull up the exact figure now, it was less than half. The numbers increased as the war went on and the number of draftees who were casualties increased significant as the war went on because draftees were more likely to be out in the front lines but the draft is something that many people don't understand today. Anyone born after 1955 have never faced the draft. I grew up in the 1950s, I enlisted in the Marines, but I could've been drafted so I chose, I wanted to be a Marine and I chose to enlist instead of that. That's not a decision, that's not something that people born after 1955 have had to confront. We're talking about a significant proportion of our population.
Peter Robinson: Jim, so much of Enduring Vietnam is going to be hard to convey in this conversation because you interview, well you just said that you interviewed does and dozens of people, you tell stories, the impact of the book comes through the layering of story after story, the reader really begins to feel the experience in Vietnam, the weight of it, through this accumulation. We can't do that on television but you can tell some stories. Tell a story of Hamburger Hill, the Battle for Hamburger Hill.
James Wright: Yeah it was very interesting. In May of 1969, under Operation Apache Snow, there was a decision made to try to clear out that part of the A Sau ... The A Sau valley is that huge valley up in what was south Vietnam. It's near Laos, it's within a few miles of Laos, it's nestled up near the corner, Khe Sanh and other places are north of there but it's nestled up in the north western part of south Vietnam. The north Vietnamese had pretty free rein there, coming in from Laos, some people called it the warehouse area where they really kept all of their supplies and the army said, "Okay, let's go in. Let's take them out of there." They took some Marines down from the north and then the army, 101st airborne division, went into Dong Ap Bia, which the soldiers came to call Hamburger Hill. They anticipated having a battle there similar to most of these encounters, which is that we would go in, somewhat massively as we did that time. The north Vietnamese would fight hardly for up to 20 or 30 minutes, the north Vietnamese knew that if they sustained the fight very long, then the Americans could bring in air power and artillery and firepower that the north Vietnamese simple couldn't match. So they would resist quickly and then they would fade out of there. All of a sudden, they didn't fade out of there, they stayed and there had been some intelligence reports before that indicating that this might be the sort of place they might stay and fight. We didn't expect that. I had an interview with General Weldon Honeycutt, Blackjack, who led the troops in there and he said that the briefing that he had before they went in, they didn't have any real idea what they were going to encounter. The Americans who went in that day, that I interviewed, said they had never seen so many helicopters at once and they said, "This is something big happening here." Because we knew that there were a lot of north Vietnamese there. They got on the ground, they said, "Okay, we're gonna head up to the top of the hill, we should be there by 1400 hours." 1400 is 2 o'clock in the afternoon. They were there by 1400 hours, ten days later. Most of them never made it to the top. Some of these units that went in the first day had 70 and 80% casualties coming in and the north Vietnamese stayed and fought. They had good supplies there, they had tunnels, they had access to Laos, we couldn't command with the massive ordinance that we might have otherwise. We couldn't bring in B52s, because our troops were right there close by. When we use B52s tactically in Vietnam, our troops really needed to be several miles away because it just was not that fine-tuned a weapon and we were all right there close together. It became a very controversial war because some soldiers were complaining about it, there was a story they said, "Weldon Honeycutt just kept sending us back up there." And there was a story in the newspaper about it, Ted Kennedy grabbed on this story, he was very critical of the military for sending-
Peter Robinson: Ted Kennedy, then a member of the senate.
James Wright: He was a member of the senate and it just became a very controversial battle. I interviewed many of the people who were there and there are some remarkable stories. This one, a young officer, Don Sullivan from Massachusetts, he was going to be a Jesuit priest and he went to BU and then he was drafted and Don Sullivan said when he was drafted, he went down to the local draft board army recruiting office and they said, "Why don't you become an officer instead? You'll have to serve on more year." And he said, "Why would I want to do that?" And they said, "I'll tell you why, because you can either be an officer inside the club drinking a cold martini or you can be an enlisted man outside walking guard duty." And he said, "Well I decided I would be an officer." And so he went into Hamburger Hill and it was just vicious fighting there and when they were ordered to go up again, on the seventh or eighth day, already taken maybe half casualties and their platoon, some of the men said, "No we're not gonna go. Enough, enough already Blackjack Honeycutt can go himself damn it, we're not going up there." And Sullivan said, "I'm not sure what I could do, nobody trained me to do if your troops appear mutinous." And as one of the officers there said, "What the hell can you do? Threaten to send them to Vietnam?" And so Sullivan said he went over and picked up his pack and his weapon and one of the men said, "What are you doing Lieutenant?" And Sullivan said, "Well I was told we're gonna go up the hill again today and I'm gonna go up the hill again today." And they said, "Oh damn it, wait we'll go with you." And just then as they were gathering up, the north Vietnamese hit them with some mortar rounds on top and it was over on the edge where they had some of their supplies that didn't injure any of the men, but it hit near where they had some packs and equipment and they went over afterwards to pick up their equipment and this one soldier picked up his pack and it was soaking wet and he had a can of fruit cocktail in there that he had been saving because the sweet juice of fruit cocktail was a real delicacy up there in the heat. He had been saving that and the mortar shrapnel had punctured it and he said, "Damn it, let's go get those bastards. You see what they did to my fruit cocktail?" So Sullivan said, "Sometimes it's can of fruit cocktail that can motivate men to go up." And they did go up. And Sullivan was one of the first people to the top of the hill but what you learn in these interviews and this true of World War II or any war, Peter, people aren't out there thinking about the stirring speeches back in Washington or anything else, they're out there, they're scared, they want to protect themselves, they want to protect their buddies and so the idea of a buddy means something in the military. It's not as personal as a friend back home you've known for years, some buddies they only knew each other by nickname but there was a closeness and they would never do anything to embarrass themselves or bring harm to their buddies and they fought for this.
Peter Robinson: We got Hamburger Hill after ten days.
James Wright: Yes.
Peter Robinson: How long did we hold it?
James Wright: We held it for maybe another eight or ten days and they pulled out, which became very controversial. Most of the men that I interviewed were not that troubled by it. We were not into holding territory and the idea of holding territory remember, Khe Sanh, where the Marines had really been surrounded a year earlier, Lyndon Johnson feared it was gonna be another Dien Bein Phu-
Peter Robinson: The French lost, yes.
James Wright: Where the French had been surrounded by the Vietnamese. If the only access to supply your troops was helicopter in and out and this was a few miles from Laos, it's a very vulnerable position, we went in to try and destroy the north Vietnamese network that was there, the army said, "We did that, we're pulling out." But because of so many casualties there, because of the extended fighting, it became very controversial. Is this the nature of Vietnam? Collin Powell has a wonderful story about the Vietnam war and he went over first in January of 1963 as an advisor, he was one of Kennedy's advisory team and he was up in the A Sau valley with an ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam unit, up there, and the south Vietnamese commander, a captain, said this is a very important outpost and Collin Powell said, "Why is it important, what's the purpose of it?" They said, "The purpose of this outpost is to protect this airstrip down below." And it was just a grass airstrip and Powell said, "What's the role of the airstrip?" And the south Vietnamese commander said, "It's to supply this outpost." And Collin Powell said, all he went back over again and another deployment of Vietnam when the fighting was very heavy but he said it was probably as good an explanation of what they were doing over there as he ever heard, it was not about taking territory, it was this sort of circular logic, we're here to fight the enemy.
Peter Robinson: The transition, Richard Nixon on May 14th 1969 quote, "We have ruled out any attempt to impose a purely military solution on the battlefield." In other words, we're giving up any notion of winning, as you'd understand, as people had understood. Winning, through most of human history. You also note in Enduring Vietnam, I'm going to quote you, "A January 1965 Gallup poll reported that 28% of Americans thought it would be a mistake to send troops to Vietnam by January 1969, that figure was 52%." So the public turns against the war, Richard Nixon, this circular reasoning, as everybody now understands, that what Lyndon Johnson was attempting, just wouldn't work.
James Wright: Except Lyndon Johnson wasn't, he never was as explicit and direct and candid as Nixon was. But he knew there was no military solution there, the month after he sent the troops in, in April of 1965, he gave a famous speech in which he said, "We're not here to win territory, we're here because we have an obligation to protect democracy." There's something very Wilsonian about it but then he also said, "We will draw our troops back tomorrow if the north Vietnamese will pull back." And moreover, he said, "We will give a billion dollars for a development project in Southeast Asia and we can make the Mei Kong Delta even greater than the Tennessee Valley Authority was in the 1930s." He was already looking for some way just to negotiate, get out of there. Even though he gave a speech about, "Let's hang the old coonskin on the wall." I don't think Johnson ever seriously thought that there would be a "military" victory in the conventional sense there Nixon was candid and explicit about that.
Peter Robinson: Alright. Now you write in Enduring Vietnam, again, we've talked about the first four years, set in the context of the Cold War, it makes sense, or it almost makes sense. The last four years, if you're going to pull out, why don't you just go home? Why does it take four years? So again, in my judgment, you have to work a little bit Jim, for viewers to understand why it took four years. So you argue here that Nixon had three objectives. Draw down American troops while shifting the burden of the fighting to the south Vietnamese, to negotiate a final settlement with the north Vietnamese, and throughout this period, to retain leverage over the north Vietnamese to cut a good deal with them. And the United States did shift the burden of the fighting to the south. It did engage in negotiation with the north Vietnamese, and it did on your account in Enduring Vietnam, exercise leverage over the north. Nixon bombs Hanoi, he mines Hanoi harbor, he bombs Laos and Cambodia and he engages in an opening into China, which complicates the north Vietnamese relationship with one of their sponsors, China and he engages in detent with the Soviet Union, which complicated the north Vietnamese relationship with their other sponsor, the Soviet Union. Why didn't it work?
James Wright: Well, he would say it did.
Peter Robinson: Alright.
James Wright: He would said it did. It depends what the it is that works, I think, Peter, was he really looking for some more time? Because by 1975, of course, the north Vietnamese are in Saigon, they renamed Ho Chi Minh city and that's kind of the end of that chapter of the story, Nixon and Kissinger, both on a number of occasions, referred to this as a bigger game and I do quote them here and I'm not, by any means, suggesting that they thought the war that was being fought there was game, they knew how costly it was and how difficult it was. But they saw themselves as master on a bigger chessboard and they were looking to the Soviet Union, Nixon did initiate some new ties with the Soviet Union. First Kissinger, then he went to China and he thought that would put more pressure on North Vietnam, he bombed heavily North Vietnam. In fact, there was major fuss because the south Vietnamese General Abrams wanted some more air power because of the north Vietnamese, the eastern offensive, the north Vietnamese and the south, and Kissinger said, "No we need our planes for the north." And Abrams said, "No we have fighting going on." And I talk about some of that, I talk about one kid who was killed in this, one American kid but they saw this, the fighting and who controlled Dak To and the highlands, was a small piece of a broader chessboard that they weren't involved in-
Peter Robinson: So you made-
James Wright: But they didn't not want to ... Nixon, you know Nixon and his personality, he was not gonna be the guy who would cut and run, he was gonna stay there and I talked to ... I was on a trip over to Normandy with David Eisenhower and Julie a couple of years ago and we had dinner together and we both gave talks on the Normandy invasion and he gave a wonderful talk about his grandfather and David asked what I was doing and I said I was working on this book and Julie said, "Ah Vietnam." She said, "They should've put Lyndon Johnson in jail, she said, what a mess he handed to my father." And Nixon thought that. Now in truth, Richard Nixon helped to create the mess himself, there was nobody who was more aggressively anti-communist in his rhetoric in the 50s and 60s, but when he was elected in 1968, he talked about a secret plan for the war and thought clear that there was a secret plan but it is clear that he knew, he recognized it was time to start drawing back and he did that.
Peter Robinson: Now you make the point in Enduring Vietnam that in the first four years of the war, roughly twenty-some-thousand of our deaths occur and in the second four years of the war, after the leadership in Washington is decided we're not going to win, we're not even going to try to win in any traditional sense, this long complicated draw down, the great roughly three fifths of the casualties occur, more than 30,000-
James Wright: I think the proportion's a little bit less than that but a significant number, twenty-some-thousand Peter, I mean you've looked at this more recently than I, but there's no doubt, your point is still very clear. A lot of kids died after that and it became-
Peter Robinson: What changes in the experience on the ground-
James Wright: It changes a lot because after Hamburger Hill, word came down to the military advisory command Vietnam from the Pentagon, no more operations like this. In the past, we've been seeking conflict and they said, "Try to decrease the casualties." We started Vietnamization in June of 1969, President Nixon announced that and basically the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army was gonna bear the larger part of the fighting and so Americans got the word where before they were supposed to be seeking contact, now they were supposed to try to avoid it and you end up with this sort of, why are we here? And I think the stories of mutiny, of fragging, of other instances in the combat units that I'm looking at, are exaggerated, these kids handle themselves professionally-
Peter Robinson: Even in the second, final phase.
James Wright: The second phase. But again, they were looking to protect themselves and their friends. They lost any illusion and it's an interesting question, why does a young man, one of your sons or one of my grandsons agree to go to war? You've got to feel there's some broader purpose there and this sense of a broader purpose had pretty much evaporated by '69. They knew we were getting out of there, it was true at the end of the Korean War, David Halberstaff wrote about this, who wants to be the one to die for a tie? Who wants to be the last one to die in a war we're not gonna win? And there was surely some of that attitude in Vietnam.
Peter Robinson: Alright. So here’s how it ends. In June of 1973, Congress approves the Case Church amendment prohibiting any further military action in Vietnam without congressional approval, Richard Nixon tries to oppose it but he's all caught up in the Watergate mess. Now August 1974, Nixon resigns, Ford becomes president. In March 1975, the north Vietnamese launch a major offensive in the south. Gerald Ford has no troops on the ground, we've already withdrawn combat troops, there are some advisors. But Congress has tied his hands with Case Church and other restrictions, there's nothing he can do and so Saigon falls and we see those pictures of people trying to grasp helicopter runner blades as the last helicopter leaves and the north Vietnamese have the city by April and they rename Saigon Ho Chi Minh city. It's over. So what does it all mean? When you talk to ... let me try. I'm going to ask you for two pieces of memory, you joined the faculty at Dartmouth College in 1969, which means you were teaching young men who went to Vietnam.
James Wright: I was.
Peter Robinson: And now you've-
James Wright: I even taught somebody who had been at Vietnam and I interviewed him for this book.
Peter Robinson: Right, contrast the feeling in '69 with looking back on it all today. The vets that you interviewed, what sense of meaning, is it just a waste of time? A sorry passage in their lives and the lives of the nation? Or do they look back on it with some pride? What meaning do they derive from it? Is there some consensus or overall tenor to the way they look back?
James Wright: I think that's such an important question and I don't have a good answer for that. I think that there is a sense of pride, that they had served well. They were asked to serve and they served.
Peter Robinson: And they did it.
James Wright: There's not a sense of closure, of completion, at least among the people that I interviewed, the accounts that I read, and the work that I've done, there's not the bitterness, there's some bitterness but not that you might think about, "Well we were cheated out of a victory." There's some of that, had Johnson come in with more, had Nixon not walked away but I think by then and most people who went to Vietnam probably had some real enthusiasm when they went there, we were here to fight the communists, if we don't them here, we'll be fighting them in Los Angeles. I have to say the guys that I interviewed within a matter of weeks, they had backed off from that. they realized that the south Vietnamese were not happy that they were there, the villagers who were so disrupted, had so many causalities and were caught up in a war that they didn't surely understand and didn't want. They realized that the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was not involved in combat they way they were. This was a conscious decision made in Saigon but they were the ones carrying the fighting. They thought, "Why are we here?" And many of them said, "The Viet Cong and the north Vietnamese were fighting harder, more professionally and more aggressively than ARVN, why are we here?" So I think that there is a disillusionment on the part of many, they didn't like the protestors particularly. But they also recognized that some of their younger brothers and sisters were among the protestors. There was not the hard edge hostility. Jane Fonda is still a symbol to them of some of the hard edge hostility. They clearly don't like nor do I, people who rooted for the Viet Cong to win, to defeat the Americans, to injure them. But I think that they had moved beyond it.
Peter Robinson: Jim, let me try. There's one author, one serious author of whom I'm aware, who makes what I consider, a reasonably compelling argument that in some basic way, the war was still a success. Michael Lind in his book Vietnam: The Necessary War, this is a longish quotation. But I want to try it out and see what you make of the argument. Quoting Michael Lind, "The fall of Indochina in 1975 resulted in a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States. A worldwide Marxist, Lyndon-ist revolutionary wave." You see it particularly in Africa, countries third world countries shift over their allegiance to the Soviets. "And discernible band wagon-ing," That is countries getting on the bandwagon. "With the Soviet Union by frightened American allies and neutrals in the mid-1970s." We might also add to that, the boat people. Thousands of people fled south Vietnam. As bad as all that was though, Lind argues that it could've been worse. "In 1965, war begins, Mao is trying to renew the Communist revolution at home and export it through Southeast Asia and the world. In 1975, Mao's last revolutionary spasm was a decade behind and China was a de facto ally of the United States against the Soviet Union. While the US effort in Vietnam had bought time for the non-communist countries of the area to achieve a degree of political stability, and rapid economic growth." As badly as the war ended, even though the United States never did negotiate freedom or independence for south Vietnam, my goodness it would've been worse if we hadn't gone into 1965. Mao has the cultural revolution, China is filled with rigor, and a decade later, we're in the Brezhnev era, the Soviet Union even feels, we now understand, they're beginning to have doubts about their system. Mao is a spent force, the people who fought in Vietnam saved much of the world. Do you buy it?
James Wright: I buy parts of it.
Peter Robinson: You're open to it, at least?
James Wright: I am open to it and a couple of things. A unified communist Hanoi controlled Vietnam, as we've learned has not proved to be as hostile and as threatening to the United States and some believed it would be. Part of that, I think Lind is right, Lind's a good scholar I think it had to with, by 1975, Mao no longer could exercise a lot of control. China could. But it's also the case, I'm not sure they could have in 1965, I think that the people who understood Vietnamese history and there weren't that many in the United States at that time, would've known the longstanding tension between Vietnam and China. I have on my desk something I picked up in Vietnam a few years ago. It's a tortoise with a sword in its mouth and it's based on a Vietnamese myth about one time historically when the Chinese oppressors were controlling or trying to control Vietnam and the Vietnamese were not certain that they could resist them. This tortoise, huge tortoise came out of the lake with a sword in its mouth and that inspired people, it's a symbol of Vietnam, it inspired them to fight back, there had long been a historical tension there, we've seen that since 1975, obviously. I think that Ho Chi Minh was a communist, he had studied in Russia, in the 1920s and 30s, but he also was a nationalist and I think that part of it was that Vietnam proved not to be as threatening. It was not a domino that fell. Now the important question is, would it have been ten or twelve years earlier, had we not resisted? And that's a question that we can only speculate on. I expect it couldn't been more difficult, it could've been more complicated, it's not clear how it would have evolved, even then.
Peter Robinson: Last question Jim. Revolutionary War, America achieved its independence. Civil War, United States ended slavery. Second World War, we defeated a militarist Japan and Nazi Germany. What's the one sentence that students need to grasp, need to understand, that they can carry, about the Vietnam War?
James Wright: That's a good question.
Peter Robinson: I'm asking a man who's written 75,0000-
James Wright: No, but you know me well enough-
Peter Robinson: 70-80,000words.
James Wright: I don't do one sentence answers to many things, Peter Robinson, you've known me enough years. But I think it demonstrated both some of the delusions of a post-war world where there was a sense that somehow it was our responsibility to deal with every problem everywhere. But also, it did represent a real strength and commitment of a lot of Americans. We are asked to serve our country and we'll do it. And that's the story that I want to tell here.
Peter Robinson: Jim, let's close. I'd like to hear some of your words in your voice, would you close by reading a passage from Enduring Vietnam?
James Wright: Sure. I'd be happy to read this. I spoke at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in 2009 and I told a couple of stories there, I wasn't intending to write this book at that time, but I did mention this young man. "I'd grown up in Galena, Illinois, an old mining town. I worked for a time there in the mine sand my boss was a World War II veteran with a purple heart. He was a good man and a good boss. I came to know his son as an English student at the local high school when I taught there in a student teaching program. This young man, Michael Lydon, had died in May 1969 with 187th on Hamburger Hill when a rocket propelled grenade fired by a north Vietnamese solider struck him and killed him instantly. So I dug a small hole and I left behind a piece of lead sulfide called Galena." And I just would interrupt for a moment here. This was in the midst of talking, I climbed Hamburger Hill when I was there and I asked two north Vietnamese soldiers who had fought the Americans there that I had interviewed and met at Ha Loi if they would climb the hill with me, and they did. So at the top, I pulled this piece of lead out of my pocket. "I'd been keeping this on my desk since I picked it up in the grand mine 50 years earlier. Now a small piece of his hometown could remain in Vietnam, on top of a hill that my young friend never reached. This book is about his war."
Peter Robinson: James, Wright, author of Enduring Vietnam and President Emeritus, at Dartmouth college, thank you.
James Wright: Thank you, Peter. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover institution, I'm Peter Robinson.