The United States’ combat involvement in Vietnam began in 1964 with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon. During the Cold War (the period of strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II), many in Washington were convinced that there was a vast communist conspiracy to take over the world. South Vietnam was seen as a test of the Domino Theory, the conviction that if communist forces succeeded in South Vietnam, then other south Asian countries would fall like dominoes. Because Vietnam had been divided into two countries after the French-Indochina war, and because North Vietnam’s communist government joined the Vietcong rebel forces in their attempt to overthrow the government of South Vietnam, the United States decided it was in the national interest to support the South Vietnamese in repelling communist aggression.
Thus began ten years of war not only in Vietnam but in Laos and Cambodia as well, in which more than fifty-eighty thousand American soldiers were killed, as were millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian citizens. In 1969, to fill a shortfall of soldiers for the war, a draft was instituted, and a lottery was held to determine the order by which young men between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five would be required to serve. This coincided with the peak American involvement in the war, the period of the Tet Offensive. After 1969, domestic opposition to the war, fueled in part by revelations of U.S. war crimes such as the My Lai massacre, slowly forced the United States to withdraw from Vietnam. It was not until 1975, however, when the North Vietnamese forces took over Saigon and the United States was forced to evacuate its embassy, that troops were entirely withdrawn. The Vietnam War is the only war the United States has ever lost.
My Lai Massacre
On March 16, 1968, the men of Charlie Company, Eleventh Brigade, Americal Division, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, entered the village of My Lai with orders to ‘‘search and destroy.’’ Instead of searching out enemy fighters and destroying them, the men rounded up all of the inhabitants of the village—five to seven hundred people—including old people, women, children, and infants, and brutally murdered them. Later accounts by eyewitnesses included horrifying details about old men being bayoneted, infants being shot, and the rape and murder of at least one girl. A few soldiers refused to take part, including Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who landed his helicopter and put himself between Calley’s men and the remaining survivors of the village in order to rescue them. The U.S. forces attempted to cover up the massacre, and it was nearly a year before freelance reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story. He was aided by Ronald Ridenhour, who heard eyewitness reports of the massacre from soldiers who had taken part. Ridenhour tried unsuccessfully to alert the authorities to what had taken place. When news of the massacre became public, Lieutenant Calley was charged with murder. He was sentenced to life in prison but was released on appeal in 1974. In 2009, William Calley finally apologized for the massacre, saying, ‘‘There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai.’’ In 1994, O’Brien visited the area and wrote, ‘‘I more or less understand what happened that day in March 1968, how it happened, the wickedness that soaks into your blood and heats up and starts to sizzle. I know the boil that precedes butchery. At the same time, however, the men in Alpha Company did not commit murder. We did not turn our machine guns on civilians; we did not cross that conspicuous line between rage and homicide.’’
Visual Media and Antiwar Sentiment
The Vietnam War never had the sort of clear purpose that previous wars had, but to most of middle America, the idea of opposing the government was antithetical to their values. However, Vietnam was also the first war to be covered extensively by television news, as well as by print media that were willing to publish graphic photographs that were unflattering to the U.S. war effort. Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS Evening News , where his authoritative delivery and reputation for integrity earned him the title ‘‘the most trusted man in America.’’ In 1968, Cronkite traveled to Vietnam to report on the aftermath Offensive. returned, he did a special report for the network, and asked to close with a three-minute editorial opinion in which he said, ‘‘For it seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.’’ When President Lyndon Johnson heard this, he reportedly said, ‘‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’’ It was not only television reporting that brought the war home to Americans to whom Southeast Asia was a remote and frightening place. A number of iconic photographs hold a place in the nation’s collective memory and have come to stand for the Vietnam experience. In particular, three stand out: Nick Ut’s photograph of nine-year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc screaming in pain after being burned with napalm, Eddie Adam’s graphic photo of the moment the bullet shot by Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan enters the skull of a captured Vietcong officer, and Ronald Haeberle’s photograph of the murdered victims of My Lai lying in the drainage ditch. These photos and others like them brought the reality of the war home to the American public. The growing antiwar movement, an unpopular military draft, and the high rate of U.S. casualties, combined with a declining economy and the growing realization that the best we could hope for in Vietnam was, as Walter Cronkite said, a ‘‘stalemate,’’ all contributed to the strong sense by the early 1970s that we had to get out of Vietnam.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Published by Gale Group, 2001.