In Saigon in 1965 I told Walter Cronkite, who was not yet known for having doubts about the war, that I had met a woman, a maid working for Americans in Saigon, who had visited her village, and found that it had just been bombed and bulldozed, and no longer existed. Her entire family had vanished. Cronkite gave me his professional opinion of her story: “Listen, these people are going to have to learn that you can’t fight a war without being hurt.”

I understand this episode better today because of Morley Safer’s recent book Flashbacks, in which he describes how in 1965 Cronkite’s usual skepticism (which Safer calls his “shit-detector”) was immobilized by his military escorts, who “saw to it that he had a chance to see and use everything, go on air strikes, be made to feel an ‘insider.’ ”

All the books about the Vietnam war under review are concerned with death, or at least concerned to show that their authors are not callous about it. Throughout his book Safer keeps asking the Vietnamese he meets if all the deaths were worth it. He describes how the North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap literally brushed the question aside, and he has much to say about the effects of showing dead young Americans on television.

William Colby of the CIA writes in Lost Victory that the Phoenix Program he presided over led to the “elimination”—deaths—of thousands of his enemies, but he wants it understood that they were properly killed, not assassinated. (One of his former employees, Orrin DeForest, casts doubt on this claim in his own book.) Colby, who describes the CIA as an institution of delicate judgment and sophistication, emphasizes that the needless killing by the US army disgusted him. He remembers seeing an American general “expounding on the need for higher body counts, stressing his point with an elongated arm and index finger strikingly evocative of the legendary skeleton Death.”

American policy makers could never decide how they felt, or should talk about, killing Vietnamese. Only a few, notably Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, and John Paul Vann in his last years, were open in saying that killing large numbers of Vietnamese was an effective way of breaking their morale. But according to the military historian Mark Clodfelter in The Limits of Air Power, even the air force, which wanted to bomb the North very heavily, didn’t include killing civilians in its “doctrine,” and it is important to Colby to say that few civilians were killed relative to the quantity of bombs that were dropped.

Death is very important to Hanoi, too. No one knows how many Vietnamese were killed. Most experts say that at least one million North Vietnamese died and Hanoi claims that 230,000 of its soldiers are missing, compared to 2,400 Americans. Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong, and General Giap spent their citizens’ lives freely to win the war—accepting one of the greatest losses of life in wartime, in relation to population, of any modern country. Once someone went down the Ho Chi Minh trail, he rarely came back unless he was one of a few fortunate wounded, who, Safer writes, were sheltered in their hospitals because Giap didn’t want anyone wounded twice. Some North Vietnamese officials like to boast that although they were badly defeated on the field during the Tet Offensive in 1968, when many of their soldiers were killed or demoralized, it was a psychological victory for them because Americans couldn’t stand the sight of their own dead.

The argument over the war never seems to end, for either side. A good many former American officials, like Rusk, Colby, and DeForest, not to mention General Westmoreland, still claim they could have won—if only there had been more bombing, or less bombing, or better intelligence; or if only we had not collaborated in the killing of Ngo Dinh Diem; or if only we had managed the press more effectively. A few years after the war, Westmoreland told me that Vietnam was the first war in history lost on the front page of The New York Times, and Colby, more subtly, makes similar charges.

Many of the Vietnamese to whom visitors manage to talk in private also feel they have been cheated out of victory, although they were the victors; and more deeply, as Safer shows, many feel a recurrent grievance at having been cheated out of the decent society they hoped for. Their country is poor and oppressive, and hundreds of thousands of people, some of them interviewed by Larry Engelmann and James Freeman in their books on the Vietnamese, have risked drowning, piracy, and rape to flee abroad.

Dean Rusk, the secretary of state for much of the war, admits to his son that he can’t understand how the people on the other side were able to endure the punishment they took. I was reminded by this of the late-eighteenth-century Chinese Emperor Qian Long, whose forces had participated in the two-thousand-year-long Sino-Vietnamese war: “The Vietnamese are indeed not a reliable people. An occupation does not last very long before they raise their arms against us and expel us from their country. The history of past dynasties has proved this fact.”1


Dean Rusk wants to have his say because he needs to draw closer to his son, Richard, who was a member of the Marine Corps Reserve and a student of political science at Cornell during the war and now lives in Alaska. Rusk had maintained that he would never write a memoir of his years as secretary of state to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but in 1984, when Richard, then almost forty and desperate for a closer relation to his father, drove from Alaska to his father’s doorstep in Georgia, Rusk agreed to talk openly with his son—to a degree—to “reforge the broken chain.”

The matter of death arises on Richard’s first page, where he refers to his father as “an architect of a war that killed fifty-eight thousand Americans and nearly a million Vietnamese.” After years of being unable to talk to his father about this, he wants to know what Dean Rusk thinks about it.

“I’ve always had a sense of inner self that was impenetrable,” Dean Rusk admits to Richard. The curtain lifts here and there, especially on Rusk’s rural southern childhood and youth, but on Vietnam only slightly, and then only when the main facts have already appeared in print, often in the Pentagon Papers. “Most disappointing of all,” Richard writes, “he remained somewhat tight-lipped on Vietnam, revealing little of his inner struggle, saying less about conflicts within the administration over policy.”

Richard writes with great affection of his father, but he also remarks on his lack of introspection or psychological curiosity about others. What emerges from his book as well is Dean Rusk’s deep respect for his superiors, George Marshall, John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, and “all my presidents,” for none of whom he can find anything serious to criticize, although occasionally he concedes that things might have been done otherwise. Rusk tells his son that he sometimes questioned a particular action, even the sending of American troops into Vietnam—“we should not make a commitment unless we are prepared to carry through”—but he hurries to assure Richard that he could never be described as opposing official policy—“I didn’t necessarily oppose sending combat troops to Vietnam.”

Two things about Rusk strike one at once: his professed incomprehension of the motives of the North Vietnamese, and his advocacy of a policy that called for killing large numbers of them. After telling Richard that Hanoi’s tenacity stemmed from its ideology, fanaticism, and rigid social controls, Rusk freezes when asked, “Short of blowing them off the face of the earth how could we have defeated such a people? Why did they keep coming? Who were these people? Why did they try so hard?”

“I really don’t have much to answer on that, Rich,” he finally said. Both of us were emotionally drained.

A bit further on, Dean Rusk returns to the inability to understand the North Vietnamese, which he refers to as one of his “two serious mistakes with respect to Vietnam.” The other mistake was overestimating the patience of the American people, who “strongly prefer peace and abhor war”—although he adds, “God bless us for that.” Rusk observes that if, instead of waging war “calmly” as a “police action,” the United States had committed 100,000 troops in 1962, “it is just possible that the North Vietnamese would have realized we were serious.”

Look at what could have been done, Rusk suggests: mining Haiphong harbor, bombing downtown Hanoi, destroying the northern dikes, invading the North, even using nuclear weapons. The United States, he reminds Richard, “in the late 1960s…could have lost ten thousand a week. We could have knocked out three hundred million people in the first hour.” (There were only eighteen million North Vietnamese.)

What continues to puzzle Dean Rusk is the Vietnamese capacity for absorbing even restrained American actions. “They took frightful casualties. In relation to our own population, their total casualties throughout the war were roughly equivalent to ten million American casualties.” But Rusk was willing to discover the limits to Vietnamese endurance:

I thought North Vietnam would reach a point…when it would be unwilling to continue making these terrible sacrifices…I thought Hanoi might come to the conference table and call the whole thing off. I was wrong.

Dead and wounded Americans did disturb Rusk; he recalled visiting an American army hospital in Saigon in 1966 where the nurse, a captain, “stared long and hard at me with a look of undisguised hatred…. From the look on her face she clearly held me responsible for what had happened to those men. I never forgot the look on that nurse’s face.”


Richard, too, became a casualty of his father’s willingness to support a policy of inflicting pain on others, even if it gave him bad memories:

Unable to stop the war, unable to take part, caught between my love for my father and the growing horror of Vietnam, I had begun to question the premises and assumptions that underlay my dad’s thinking. All this led to an emotional and psychological journey that ended, one year after he left office, in psychological collapse.

“You had your father’s nervous breakdown,” a psychologist told me seventeen years later…. [My father] was unprepared for such a journey, for admitting that thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese might have been lost in vain.

For Dean Rusk little has changed. “What was Vietnam all about?” he asks rhetorically. His answer is simple: Hanoi was attempting to impose its will on the South by force. And why did the Americans respond? “The United States had a clear and direct commitment to the security of South Vietnam and external attack. This commitment was based upon bilateral agreements between the United States and South Vietnam, upon the SEATO Treaty, upon annual actions by Congress in providing aid to South Vietnam,…” etc. Then there is honor: “When the president of the United States makes a commitment, it is vitally important that what he says is believed. When both my presidents said ‘Gentlemen, you are not going to take over South Vietnam by force,’ I felt we had to make good on that pledge.”

It does not seem to have occurred to Rusk to ask the central question: Was South Vietnam a country to which one could have commitments in the way that commitment is normally understood? I was reminded of Daniel Ellsberg’s statement about his days as a prowar government official that “there has never been an official of Deputy Assistant Secretary rank or higher (including myself) who could have passed in office a midterm freshman exam in modern Vietnamese history, if such a course existed in this country.”2 Morley Safer is convinced that “had the people in civilian and military command even the most rudimentary understanding of the history and language, this awful business would likely not have happened.” James C. Thomson, who was on the National Security Council staff between 1961 and 1967, noticed, as the quagmire of Vietnam deepened, “the replacement of the experts, who were generally and increasingly pessimistic, by men described as ‘can-do guys,’ loyal and energetic fixers, unsoured by expertise.”3

What claims had South Vietnam to being a legitimate country? No one has explored this issue more deeply than George McT. Kahin of Cornell. In Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam is this passage, which undermines Rusk’s thesis:

The French effort to divert the stream of Vietnamese nationalism away from the Vietminh [Ho Chi Minh’s forces] and into another channel was a failure. It did, however, provide the pretext for claiming that a colonial war had been transformed into a civil war, in which France was simply supporting one of the two contestants…. And the Truman administration soon participated in this charade, Secretary of State Acheson in particular helping to ensure that one of the most perduring myths of the Vietnam War gained popular acceptance in the United States—if not in France.

American officials, Kahin says, “could not accept the idea of a fusion of nationalism and communism in one movement; the prevailing view among them was that a genuine nationalist could not be a communist.”4 Kahin does not deny that there were genuine nationalists supporting the South Vietnamese cause but his work explains why so many South Vietnamese were reluctant to risk their lives for the regime of Diem and the governments that followed.

To say that the Communists were genuine nationalists and had taken over the nationalist cause, however, is not to justify their policies before, during, and after the war of refusing to tolerate non-Communist opposition; nor does it justify the way they freely spent the lives of their own soldiers and cruelly treated their prisoners. All one can say is that historical understanding of the reasons they acquired such power could have averted an American commitment to a hopeless cause, involving an immense amount of killing and destruction, not to mention the moral, social, and economic weakening of the United States that unnecessarily took place.


Although American intelligence officers during the last stages of World War II reported that Ho’s Vietminh were a strong nationalist movement, in the immediate postwar period Washington’s main concern was to help France retain its colony in exchange for French participation in the European anti-Soviet alliance. Nor did the Americans want the French to turn over Indochina to the US. Rusk acknowledges this. By 1949, he says, American anticolonialism was giving way to worries about an unstable Europe and the Communist victory in China. “If we pressed the French too hard, they might throw up their hands and say, ‘All right, Uncle Sam, we are leaving. Indochina is now your baby.’ ” Rusk says he never thought France would stay in Indochina and that, without US approval, the French diverted Marshall Plan funds to their colony, thus giving Ho the “chance to rally and align with authentic nationalist forces, and nationalism drove the Vietminh rebellion.” Rusk does not say what these authentic forces were.

George Kahin describes the French pressures on Washington. “Unwilling, and in fact unable, to take over France’s military role in Vietnam, the United States now became sensitive to a succession of hints that France might pull out and leave her ‘responsibilities’ there to the United States….” As to Rusk’s statement that Marshall Plan funds were misused in Indochina, Kahin notes:

The United States supplied Paris with a large quantity of modern weaponry—ostensibly for the defense of France and Western Europe, but with the understanding that a substantial part could be used for the military campaign in Indochina.

In 1947 the CIA foresaw the consequences: “To the extent that the European Recovery [Marshall] Program enhances Dutch and French capabilities in Southeast Asia, native resentment toward the U.S. will increase.”5

Then there was the added concern about China. Rusk remembers that “our reaction to the fall of China in 1949 was that of a “jilted lover” although he quickly adds, “China was never ours to win or lose,” while also admitting that “during the Truman years I had helped to invent the parliamentary device by which we kept the People’s Republic of China out of the United Nations….” Rusk describes China, during his tenure as secretary of state for Kennedy and Johnson, as “a militant, aggressive power” although he says as well that during the same years he signaled to Peking that Washington meant it no ill, and even quotes Napoleon on the importance of letting China sleep.

Here again Kahin is instructive, although the American preoccupation with China’s role in Indochina has been discussed by many others as well. One of the most enduring fears of officials in Washington, Kahin says, was of being accused of being soft on communism and incapable of stopping its spread. “This theme was given an enormous fillip by the triumph of Mao Tse-tung in China….” Opposition to Mao provided a justification for the previously murky US commitment to the French. Once Hanoi recognized the new Peking regime, on January 15, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson could say that all illusions disappeared “about the ‘nationalist’ nature of Ho Chi Minh’s aims,” which Acheson described as enmity to “native independence in Indochina.” For many in the US, Kahin says, “France was no longer fighting a dirty colonial war, but, rather, was America’s staunch ally in barring Chinese power from moving south.”

Hanoi and its supporters can no longer deny that China gave considerable aid to the North Vietnamese. The details of this have emerged during the bitter polemic between the Chinese and Vietnamese governments that has been going on since the 1970s, with Peking claiming that its gunners won the day for the Vietminh at Dienbienphu in 1954, and reminding Hanoi that thousands of Chinese dead lie in northern Vietnamese graves. Kahin exaggerates when he says that during the anticolonial struggle in Vietnam not a single Chinese soldier was present. He himself notes that “Chinese technical advisors” were present at Dienbienphu. But there is little evidence that Peking was doing more than ensuring that America’s power did not threaten China’s southern border. At Geneva, in 1954, Peking, in concert with Washington and Moscow, persuaded the Vietminh to agree to a partition of Vietnam. This excluded a total victory for what Kahin calls “strictly indigenous Vietnamese political elements” (although the allegiances of longstanding members of the Comintern such as Ho Chi Minh were not strictly indigenous). The Chinese were afraid of a repeat, this time in Indochina, of the Korean War, when they needed five years of peace to rebuild their economy. They again betrayed the Vietnamese in 1972 after Nixon’s visit to Peking.

Kahin also refutes Rusk’s notion of the honorable commitment to Vietnam because of SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which came into being on September 8, 1954, consisting of the US, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan. At Dulles’s urging, and over French objections, a so-called umbrella of protection was extended over Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam, none of which signed the treaty, and before long Cambodia and Laos withdrew from any association with SEATO. Until August 1964, Kahin writes,

SEATO provided the major rationale for the US military role in Indochina…. But that treaty itself did not—as successive administrations encouraged the public to believe—commit the United States to defend South Vietnam. In fact no such pledge was made either by the members of SEATO collectively or by the United States unilaterally.6

Indeed, as Kahin points out, when Dulles was persuading the Senate to ratify the treaty in 1955, he assured one Senator that in the event of Communist subversion, “all we have is an undertaking to consult together as to what to do about it.” He promised the Senate that the treaty’s references to outside aggression would not be used as “a subterfuge” to deal with subversion. “The Senators who endorsed the SEATO treaty had not reckoned with the power of a president to define insurgency as outside aggression.”7

Rusk distorts the SEATO treaty, declaring it committed the US to doing just what Dulles said the US was not committed to do. He then takes his stand on the distortion:

There was the treaty [SEATO] damn it. There was the pledge. During the fifties I questioned the wisdom of the treaty and taking on SEATO commitments. But I never questioned the wisdom of making good on the treaty once negotiated.

This concept of honor, along with the need to stop a general threat emanating from Moscow or Peking, continues to be cited in arguments about the war. On May 4, 1990, to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the week the last US forces pulled out of Saigon, three Americans who were employed by the government wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the American effort in Vietnam “eased insurgent pressure on the rest of Southeast Asia.” This is the “transcending legacy” of a war that the writers acknowledge “wreaked awful devastation.”

At the highest level of continuing resentment and justification, General Westmoreland has never abandoned the domino theory. In The New York Times as recently as May 28, 1990, he referred to the “pressure being applied by the Soviet Union and China on the countries south of Indochina” against which Indochina served as a buffer. Westmoreland maintains that reinforcing South Vietnam “stopped the ‘falling of the dominoes’ for ten years.”

Westmoreland, however, has some trouble establishing the link between the Vietnamese struggle and Chinese “pressure” on the rest of the region. He now also acknowledges what everyone can see, that there was a deep enmity between Vietnam and China, a two-thousand-year antagonism often pointed out during the war by those who disputed the domino theory. In April 1972, the North Vietnamese embassy in Peking only slightly veiled its complaint to some visitors, including myself, that “certain comrades in the socialist bloc were no longer giving their full support to the anti-imperialist struggle.” As at Geneva in 1954, Peking’s self-interest—in this case to draw closer to the US—determined its policies.

Quite apart from matters of grand strategy and national obligation, Dean Rusk is misleading on lesser matters. One of them concerns Morley Safer and the destruction of the village of Cam Ne. In August 1965, marines were filmed burning down the village and shown on the CBS Evening News. This event was reported by Safer and brought him more attention than he’d had before. It eventually led President Johnson to telephone CBS president Frank Stanton and ask, “Frank, you trying to fuck me?”

In Flashbacks Safer recalls watching and filming as marines “with Zippo lighters, begin systematically to set fire to each hut.” No enemy soldiers were killed or captured, Safer notes, nor was there found so much as a single bullet. One ten-year-old boy was killed, and 150 houses were destroyed.

The US government responded vigorously to the report. Not only did the President call Frank Stanton, but Graham Martin, the last American ambassador to Saigon, said of Safer, who insists they had never met, “I knew him well. I also knew he was a KGB agent—so did the White House.” “To this day,” Safer writes, “Rusk believes the entire Cam Ne story was staged.” So he does. In As I Saw It Rusk tells his son that reporters and cameramen once went into a deserted village being used as a Marine training base:

One reporter gave a Marine a cigarette lighter and asked, “Why don’t you light that thatched roof?” He did. That footage went all over the country with the story “Marines torch local village.”

As in the SEATO example, a falsehood is used to make a false point, in this case about the corruption of the press in Vietnam.


Safer’s Flashbacks is an account of his first trip to Vietnam since he left there in 1971 after four tours for CBS. It is a valuable book despite an irritatingly self-conscious manner—“fragging,” the use of hand grenades by American soldiers to murder their officers is called “unsporting”—and frequent infelicities of language—he “tosses slings” at colleagues and writes that blood, turned to dust, “stalks the bookshelves.”

Part of the book’s interest lies in Safer’s painful memories of how people died, memories that are coupled with anger at the Vietnamese for not apologizing for having killed Americans (Safer himself is a Canadian). Landing in Hanoi he looks at the North Vietnamese and remembers his previous glimpses of them,

only as piled-up corpses at the edge of bomb craters or as frightened young men, hands tied behind them, being urged on by the muzzle of a South Vietnamese or American rifle.

I had always thought that once a man went down the Ho Chi Minh trail he would either be killed, die of wounds, or not come back until the war ended. Most men were in fact lost. At the Thuan Thanh Institute, a hospital near Hanoi for limbless or badly disabled veterans, a veteran of five years fighting in the South tells Safer that only two of his twelve-man squad survived. “Nobody won the war,” he says. But some wounded soldiers were carried back up the trail by the members of a special company, although there cannot have been many survivors, because there were in all only two hundred bearers. There was a special thousand-bed hospital just within the Demilitarized Zone in North Vietnam to which the wounded were carried, in an area heavily bombed by the Americans, but a surgeon told Safer that the patients were well-protected: “We had orders from our commander-in-chief, General Giap, that no soldiers must be wounded twice.”

The next day Safer and his team visited General Giap, who was “almost eighty, looks very fit, and is beautifully tailored.” Safer decided instantly that Giap was “utterly brainwashed by ambition,” and that he had sent young men to die without “moral hesitation.” Safer says that a crippled North Vietnamese veteran had asked him to tell Giap that “one of his soldiers, a lot of his soldiers aren’t sure,” whether it was worth it. Then comes a vividly drawn picture:

When I tell Giap this story he dismisses it with a flourish I have seen only once before. Years ago I interviewed Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein and no slouch in the business of committing other people’s sons to battle. It is a movement of the back of the hand across the face…as one would discourage a pesky gnat.

Later, when he asks Giap whether he ever experienced pity for sending people to their deaths, Giap replies, “Never. Not a single moment.” Safer might have usefully connected this remark with what he told us earlier about Giap: “Any doubts about his commitment to rid his country of foreigners were swept away in 1941, when his wife and infant daughter died in a French prison and his sister-in-law was guillotined by the French.”

Safer keeps asking Vietnamese whether they regret the killing, and keeps getting the same answers. He doesn’t seem to understand that only a foolhardy Vietnamese would admit to a foreigner that the killing and dying weren’t worth it. But Safer likes some of his subjects—such as Colonel Bui Tin, who personally accepted the surrender of General Duong Van Minh, “Big Minh,” the very last Saigon president. Bui Tin talks of the terror of the B-52 raids and of the young men under his command who committed suicide. Safer does not find coldness or ambition in him when he smiles and “looks back with nothing more than pride in a job well done.” Bui Tin also admits to Safer that asking a young man to kill “is not a natural thing to ask of a person.” Safer then uses one of his tough-sentimental phrases when he refers to himself and the colonel as “two relics of the Children’s Crusade.” Bui Tin also appears in Larry Engelmann’s Tears Before Rain, where he describes, in a somewhat different tone, finding Big Minh and his cabinet waiting to surrender. The conqueror asked the general about his orchids and tennis. “I surprised them because I knew everything about them. Everything. And they knew nothing about me! Ha!”

Safer is baffled, he says, by

a war being fought, once you get past the slogans, to prove you can whip technology with sandals, and incidentally a million or so lives….The profoundly unliberated walk as much as a thousand miles to liberate the equally unliberated, to kill them when necessary, and to kill perfect strangers who’ve flown thirteen thousand miles to do the same.

This is facile journalist’s talk, as ignorant of history as Rusk’s. I wonder—without ignoring the rote patriotism of much of what Safer heard from the Vietnamese—if he would speak so dismissively of the French Resistance.

Another of Safer’s portraits, Tran Thi Gung, is a forty-two-year-old Saigon housewife who joined the Vietcong in 1964 when she was sixteen, and was eventually awarded a medal as Hero American Killer. Safer finds her “still quite attractive” but notes that when she smiles her mouth turns down, “giving her face a cast of cruelty.” Three times she tells Safer that she has no regrets about killing Americans—Can he really be so naive as to expect her to express any regrets she might have in an interview soon to be read by the authorities?—and he decides “she was extremely adept at killing people.” If she hadn’t killed Americans, she tells Safer, they would have killed her, and when she thinks about mothers and wives, they are Vietnamese. She also says that before she joined the front her father had been killed by South Vietnamese soldiers. True to form, Safer finishes this interesting chapter by using a meaningless detail to put distance between himself and his subject: “In my hand [her] cheap alloy medal is almost weightless.”

The best part of Safer’s book is his interview with one of the most famous journalists during the war, Pham Xuan An, who for ten years, right up to the American evacuation of Saigon, was a staff correspondent for Time. It turns out that An had also been a member of the Vietminh resistance since 1944, reaching the rank of colonel during the period when he was reporting the last moments of the American withdrawal for Time.

Who were you really working for? Safer asks. “Two truths…both truths are true…. I am very lucky I didn’t go insane.”

This time Safer is right to be puzzled. He recalls that as Saigon was falling, his old colleague had helped Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, “one of the most highly placed CIA agents in Vietnam,” to escape. Safer decides not to ask An about this event, for his answer would only reveal another enigma. He does not seem to realize that he may endanger the man by describing the episode in his book.

Nevertheless An speaks frankly and on-the-record of his disappointment with postwar Vietnam:

We called it a people’s revolution, but of course the people were the first to suffer…. As long as the people sleep in the streets, the revolution was lost….

But when Safer asks him if he has any regrets, An replies, “I hate that question…. But I hate the answer more. No. No regrets. I had to do it…. As much as I love the United States, it had no right here. The Americans had to be driven out of Vietnam one way or another. We must sort this place out ourselves.” As soon as he records Pham Xuan An’s statement, apparently unaware of the possible pressures on An to make it, Safer retreats into pontification. “I doubt that An ever was a believer. A god did not fail him. Men did.”


William Colby says in Lost Victory that he first went to South Vietnam in 1959, where he became the “chief American contact” with Ngho Dinh Nhu, brother of President Diem and husband of the notorious Madam Nhu. In 1975, as CIA director, he sent the final message from Washington to the Saigon CIA station. In between he served in Vietnam with the rank of ambassador and deputy to the commanding general.

The Americans suffered a defeat far worse than that of the French, Colby states, not only within Vietnam, but around the world, where the US also suffered the “loss” of Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Iran, and Nicaragua, and hesitated about protecting “its interests” in Central America and the Middle East. The “contrast between potential power and actual defeat cries out for explanation,” Colby says, which at last is “coming out of the closet of rejection in which it was shut for so many years.” His long experience with Vietnamese fighting the war at village level enabled him “to look at the American involvement in Vietnam through Vietnamese as well as American eyes.” Like many other writers on Vietnam Colby quotes the conversation at the end of the war between the American colonel Harry Summers and his North Vietnamese counterpart:

“You know,” said the American [Summers], “you never defeated us on the battlefield.”

The Vietnamese agreed. “That may be so,” he said. Then he added, “But it is also irrelevant.”

Colby sees the point, but his prescription for how the war could have been won differs from Dean Rusk’s. He says he was opposed to the use of great violence to force the other side to negotiate. But like Rusk, he believes that “South Vietnam fell to an alien invasion from the North,” and like Rusk, too, he claims that the “American attention span is short”—and that “the American democratic process worked.” Colby holds this process responsible for inhibiting the pursuit of long-term goals, and gives as the ultimate example the inability to face up to Hitler which “made the inevitable contest with him harder and bloodier.”

Colby provides a potted history intended to illustrate “the warlike and xenophobic character of the Vietnamese” and to show, too, that the North–South conflict had “ancient” roots, but he says little about the even more ancient struggle against invaders from China. Nor does he take up the central issue of Vietnamese nationalism in the twentieth century and the position of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh, so well explored by George Kahin, who notes that in 1945, the OSS, forerunners of the CIA, were impressed by evidence of [the Vietminh] enjoying support throughout most of the country,” while in 1948 the State Department acknowledged that

We are all too well aware of the unpleasant fact that Communist Ho Chi Minh is the strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina and that any suggested solution which excludes him is an expedient of uncertain outcome.”8

Colby admired Diem and Nhu, although he implies that they were not his sort of person. But he believes the US should have worked through them, rather than listen to the discontented opposition officers in Saigon, who undermined the brothers, preparing the way for the succession of weak regimes that followed. The US was seeking solutions, Colby says, “in terms totally counter to Diem’s personality and the realities of the Vietnamese power structure and society.” Colby, some of whose agents were involved (as he does not deny), gives a brutal picture of American complicity in the assassination of Diem and Nhu in October 1963:

[Ambassador to Saigon] Lodge [was] out in front in a buccaneering project to overthrow Diem with some quarters in Washington egging him on…. [There was a] pretense that “the generals” were acting on their own, and the President not taking a firm position…. Kennedy was protected against right-wing opposition to what was happening, while the left-wing pushed him against Mandarin Diem.

Then, according to Colby, there was the military mistake. American commanders, he says, concentrated on military defense and attack, “rather than on the ‘civilian’ activists who inhabited the rural communities or visited them to conduct the basic elements of the people’s war strategy—proselytizing, taxing, conscripting.” The CIA by contrast aimed to help the Vietnamese (he means Saigon) build a structure which would inform “us” of how the Communist structure worked. This involved close coordination of all intelligence work in what became the Phoenix program. This he says was a Vietnamese effort helped by the CIA. He claims that by 1970 Phoenix was so successful that

the war in the Delta essentially had been won…. The Phoenix program reported that the Communist provincial committee was now located at one of the sanctuaries over the Cambodian border and had lost all direct contact or influence with the provincial population.

Colby disputes the old charge that Phoenix was an assassination program. Between 1968 and 1971, he says proudly, 20,587 leaders of the Vietcong had been reported killed—“mostly in combat situations” involving Saigon’s regular or paramilitary forces. But since he was unable to state to Congress that not a single “wrongful death” had occurred, the press, he complains, were able to twist his testimony so that it seemed that he had made a sensational admission.

This account of the Phoenix program and of Colby’s role is directly challenged by Colby’s former employee Orrin DeForest, one of the coauthors of Slow Burn, and from 1968 until the fall of Saigon in 1975 the CIA’s chief interrogation officer in Military Region Three, one of the four such regions in South Vietnam.

DeForest spent several years capturing Vietcong and giving them what he describes as “tender loving care” in exchange for information which led to what he calls “wiring diagrams,” the tables of organization and orders of battle which permitted the Americans and South Vietnamese to either capture more Vietcong or to preempt their military actions. One of the reasons his captives responded to the tender loving care, De Forest admits, was the implied threat that they would otherwise be handed over to the Vietnamese or Americans who would torture and eventually kill them.

They were right to fear such a fate. The agency’s interrogation centers, DeForest says, were “commonly considered the sites of the worst tortures—in particular the water treatment…or the torture in which they applied electric shock to the genitals and nipples.”

As for Colby’s claim that Phoenix killed more than 20,000 members of the Vietcong leadership, “the more I learned,” says DeForest, “the clearer it was that the statistics were phony.” Most of the capturing was done by South Vietnamese forces. Everybody

went into the Phoenix hopper: the guilty, the innocent, the enemy killed in action, the casual bodies along the roadside. They’d carry them in and count them up. And that was Phoenix, at least in Military Region Three at the beginning of 1969.

Colby, says De Forest, rarely watched Phoenix in action; instead “he would buy the province briefing.” Phoenix, he says, “was nothing but a bust and a fake.”

Nor is this the only matter in which Colby’s account is suspect. He discusses the CIA’s relationship in Laos with “General” Vang Pao, a member of the Hmong ethnic minority, but although he concedes that the CIA was responsible for organizing the Hmong under Vang Pao as “a major paramilitary operation” for ten years, Colby omits an awkward fact: the Hmong grew opium, which was turned into heroin and flown to Vietnam, where it was sold to American troops, and then some of it was sent to the US. The center of the operation was at the CIA’s base in Laos at Long Cheng. (One of Vang Pao’s American advisers, a CIA veteran, told me years ago that Vang Pao kept a bale of heroin under his house as “insurance” in case he ever had to leave Laos quickly.) Vang Pao, for whom the US bought a farm in Montana, is still involved in Hmong guerrilla activities. In 1981, when I asked a Federal Drug Enforcement official why Vang Pao had been made welcome in the US, he replied; “Vang Pao carried the spear for us in Laos and we owe him.” 9

The matter of Vietnam, heroin, and the CIA is not a small one, contributing as it did to the drug problem in the United States. Colby says nothing about it. The CIA’s Orrin DeForest does so, and his revelations on this subject alone should cause a stir in Washington, especially since it doesn’t appear to bother him. For several years, he says, the wives of South Vietnamese officials were involved in the opium trade. (DeForest doesn’t say where the opium came from, but it was often carried aboard Air America planes—the CIA’s contract airline—flying between Long Cheng in Laos, and Saigon.) Using diplomatic passports and carrying boxes stuffed with piastres, they deposited the money from opium sales in Hong Kong, from which, after a 50 percent loss on the exchange, the money was transferred to Switzerland.

“The Agency’s finance officers found a creative way of using [the money],” DeForest says, after assuring his readers that the CIA wasn’t able to stop the money leaving Saigon—although he fails to say that the CIA was also involved in the movement of the heroin in the first place. DeForest describes how the CIA bought South Vietnamese piastres in Hong Kong at half price. “It was a fine, cut-rate way of financing operations. In essence, we were taking money back from the South Vietnamese leaders who were stealing it.” (Presumably the money was in addition to the sums discounted in Hong Kong and sent to the leaders’ Swiss bank accounts.) “And so we bought billions…and used the money to finance operations. None of us ever felt there was anything immoral about this.”

If confronted with this Colby would, I suppose, observe that it is an American characteristic—we have “short attention spans”—to object to such operations, which should be seen as part of the big picture. But what is now plain is that one of the long-unproved charges made by opponents of the war is true: the CIA was knowingly financing its operations from opium money. This made it possible, as was alleged years ago, for the CIA to escape Congressional oversight, which dealt only with federal funds.

There are two lessons from Vietnam, Colby concludes: Don’t fight the wrong kind of war, in this case a military one rather than a counterinsurgency, and don’t desert friends—in this case Ngo Dinh Diem. He argues that fighting counterinsurgency wars “may be the easiest and least violent way to protect real American interests and allies.” And not only is there hope, Colby feels sure, but we have actually learned something. El Salvador shows that the Carter and Reagan administrations profited from the CIA experience in Vietnam. In Nicaragua, by contrast, we made the mistake of trying to use a paramilitary force to overthrow the Sandinistas (Colby doesn’t question whether this is a legitimate goal) when we should have “developed a real political cause” while “gradually and secretly building resistance networks.” (Colby as a young army officer during World War II did this against the Nazis, in Norway, and cannot forget it.) And when it comes to not stabbing friends in the back, another hard lesson learned from Vietnam, Colby points to the departures of Somoza, Marcos, Pinochet, and the Shah, all examples of how the United States is learning “that we must not try to determine the leadership of small and faraway states whose cultures are different from ours.”


The mutual recriminations among the American participants can be seen as well in the question of bombing the North, in 1965–1966 and again in 1972, culminating in the so-called Christmas bombing. Did they work—and what was “working”? Should there have been no bombing in 1965, as some suggest, but heavier bombing in 1972? How big were the civilian casualties?

Colby, for instance, refers to the success of the “powerful” 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, compared to the earlier “delicately applied” campaigns. Despite the “hysterical opposition” of the “antiwar factions,” the 1972 bombings, he asserts, were “both precise and effective,” costing only 1,300 to 1,600 civilian deaths, which compares favorably with the high tolls of World War II.

He does not mention heavy bombing attacks in the South, although they were undoubtedly terrifying; the B-52s flew too high to be heard and the bombs exploded without the slightest advance warning. “Nothing the guerrillas had to endure compared with the stark terrorization of the B-52 bombardments,…an experience of undiluted psychological terror, into which we were plunged, day after day for years on end,” wrote Truong Nhu Tang, the National Liberation Front’s minister of justice (who has now become a critic of the Communist regime).10 Safer’s interpreter friend Hong tells him that “nothing can prepare you for [the B-52s]…. After the B-52 raids you go around and gather up the bits, the pieces of the bodies, and you try to bury them.” But terrible though the bombings were, Truong Nhu Tang says, owing to Soviet intelligence relayed from trawlers in the South China Sea, not a single important military or civilian front leader was killed by the bombing.

In his memoir About Face, Colonel David H. Hackworth, who was famous for being one of the most freewheeling and pugnacious infantry officers of the war, recalls watching while a North Vietnamese bunker was showered with 250-pound bombs. Soon afterward Hackworth found himself still pinned down by North Vietnamese fire.

It was a bolt from the sky. We were all being told—even the President was being told—that our combat power, unleashed on the enemy, would either blast him back to the Stone Age or make him give up…. The fortified positions were manned by hardcore mothers who didn’t give up even after their eardrums had burst from the concussion of our bombs and blood was pouring out of their noses…. All it did was make the enemy hate us even more, and become that much more determined.11

Mark Clodfelter, of the Air Force Academy, provides a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the bombing in The Limits of Air Power. On April 10, 1988, Clodfelter notes, Richard Nixon told NBC that if he had bombed and mined North Vietnam as heavily in 1969 as he had in 1972, “I think we would’ve ended the war in 1969 rather than in 1973.” This, says Clodfelter, is a widely held view in the Air Force, which in any event has always believed in strategic bombing.

Clodfelter compares LBJ’s bombing of the North between 1965 and 1968, called Rolling Thunder, with Nixon’s Linebacker I and II of mid and late 1972. The reason that Linebacker “worked”—that is to say it forced the North Vietnamese to make some concessions in Paris—Clodfelter says, was that Nixon had tacitly been given freedom to bomb by Moscow and Peking, with whom he was now dealing, and because he had only two aims: to leave Vietnam but not let Hanoi take over at once, and to convince President Nguyen Van Thieu that if Hanoi resumed fighting the United States would as well. In addition, since by 1972 Hanoi had invaded the South in division strength, with its armed units out in the open, American bombers could damage their enemies badly.

During the Johnson administration air force commanders and the Joint Chiefs conceived of Vietnam as a place suitable for conventional strategic bombing, while LBJ, terrified of bringing in the Chinese or enraging the Russians, and anxious not to lose congressional support for the Great Society, could never decide whether the bombing should be all-out. Within the White House, where at the famous Tuesday lunches LBJ and a few cronies chose the targets themselves, it was supposed, but not known, that bombing would stop the infiltration from the North—which in fact became extensive only after Tet 1968, when the Southern guerrillas, failing to inspire a “general uprising,” had been shattered by American and South Vietnamese attacks. Clodfelter says, “This perception [that bombing would ‘work’] was more a mood than a belief, resulting from frustration more than conviction.” Even after it was demonstrated to be useless, one Air Force general doggedly insisted that “the bombing of the North must have some influence in measuring the course of the war in the South against the costs in the North.”

The Joint Chiefs advised the President that wiping out the North’s petroleum supplies would require 416 aircraft sorties and cost forty-four dead civilians, and it would bring the enemy to the conference table. The Defense Intelligence Agency, however, pointed out that the North’s oil reserves were huge while only small quantities were required for its combat needs. The CIA also warned that bombing Haiphong would have little effect on the southern war where the daily supply needs for petroleum were only twelve tons, and that “amount would continue to move by one means or another.” A later analysis, code-named Jason, concluded that “North Vietnam…presents a difficult and unrewarding target system for air attack.” This shook Defense Secretary McNamara so badly, says Clodfelter, that he advised LBJ to “end the struggle through diplomatic rather than military force,” thus abandoning what had been called Option C, which was intended to demonstrate that “the U.S. was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.”12

Johnson, despite what was said of him at the time, feared that much larger civilian casualties would bring the Chinese and Russians into the war and cause international condemnation; and so he refused to adopt option C.

Clodfelter then draws conclusions: the CIA estimated that by 1967 147,000 tons of bombs caused 29,600 civilian casualties. He compares this favorably with the 147,000 tons dropped on Japan in the last six months of World War II, which killed 330,000 civilians. Out of a civilian population of 18 million North Vietnamese, Clodfelter estimates, 52,000 were killed by bombing; he might have noted that this estimate roughly approximates the number of Americans killed during the entire war.

Clodfelter writes that some Washington planners, who were not military men, were willing to cause horrendous suffering. Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton (the originator of the “good doctor” image), for instance, suggested destroying locks and dams, which would not drown people but would cause “wide-spread starvation unless food is provided, which we could offer to do ‘at the conference table.’ ” James C. Thomson remembered an assistant secretary of state’s vision of successful bombing: “It seems to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with periodic touches of brass.”13

In any event, it was all useless. Clodfelter points out that even though Hanoi’s forces were indeed badly damaged by the Linebacker bombings, which apparently drove the North Vietnamese back to the Paris negotiations, the Americans began withdrawing their ground forces, and by the time the North Vietnamese attacked again in 1975, quickly smashing their way to Saigon, Nixon had left the White House in disgrace and could not keep his promise to retaliate. Clodfelter retreats into a Nixonian fantasy, however, when he implies that if it were not for the Watergate scandal, South Vietnam would have been impervious to the North. But Congress, much of the public, and much of the business community were sick of the war before Nixon got in trouble and it seems highly unrealistic to believe they would have been willing to support a permanent US commitment to bombing and fighting the North Vietnamese. Rusk was disappointed that violent pressure didn’t work, Colby that the accomplishments of the Phoenix program were subordinated to the military’s obsession with higher body counts, and DeForest that his “wiring diagrams” showing the inner workings of the enemy’s organization came too late to be of use. Safer thinks everyone lost, and quotes his traveling companion, Hung: “Think about it…after all that war, we haven’t been able to change you and you haven’t been able to change us.”


But of course much has changed. Hanoi won the war, and partly because of the war and the American embargo, but also because of its own ineptitude, it now governs one of the poorest countries in Asia, from which hundreds of thousands of its citizens have fled. Some Vietnamese, like Truong Nhu Thang, who helped found the NLF, and one of his cofounders, the remarkable woman doctor Duong Quyinh Hoa, who stayed in Saigon, where she spoke to Safer, feel betrayed by Hanoi—although their nationalist feelings remain strong. Although communism is everywhere on the defensive, the US continues its embargo of Vietnam—which may now end, as Washington and Hanoi negotiate on Cambodia—while Hanoi, like Peking, denounces the Eastern Europeans for betraying socialism.

Gabriel Kolko, Hanoi’s best-known scholar-admirer abroad, says in his voluminously documented and hagiographic Anatomy of a War that the Communist “Party’s genius was its ability to survive and adapt to the most incredible challenges.” This is so, as is his statement that the Party was “able to rally vast numbers…due to the corrosive impact of wars on the traditional order,” and to “absorb better-educated revolutionaries of bourgeois origin.14

But is it true that the Vietnamese Communists, “the Revolution” as Kolko apotheosizes them, provided a political, organizational, and technical response “valuable to revolutionary forces everywhere”? And is it still so, if it were ever true, that “the critical role of the individual” remains fundamental to Vietnamese communism? Finally, if as Kolko says “the effort to master one’s environment and world is integral to the nature and extent of rationality in modern life,” does Hanoi permit such an effort?

I suggest that the answer to all of the above is no. For his revealing book Tears Before Rain Larry Engelmann, professor of History at San Jose State, interviewed more than two hundred people, Americans and Vietnamese, about their experiences during the last days of the fall of Saigon in 1975. Some of the Vietnamese are “the victors,” and their uniform statements about the inevitability of their success, their lack of bitterness toward the United States and about the US responsibility to help rebuild Vietnam may be partially true but they sound rehearsed. The conversation between Morley Safer and Colonel Bui Tin, who accepted “Big Minh’s” surrender, contrasts with what the colonel apparently felt constrained to say to Engelmann.

Where Engelmann’s book becomes valuable is in the interviews with the Vietnamese, many of them boat people, who often at great peril have made their way to the United States. Most of them feel unhappy in their new country, often dream of returning to Vietnam, and feel guilty about having fled. One, who was raped on the journey, wishes she had never left. Another says that if she were still in Vietnam she would probably be married and her hair would not be white. But in America, nonetheless, she says, “nobody has the big fear…. I enjoy that too.” Another refugee was the son of a Catholic South Vietnamese colonel, who underwent nine years of “re-education” after the Communist victory. Because of his father’s past, one of the sons was not permitted to enter medical school although he had the highest score in the entrance examinations. “They looked at his background and simply threw his score out.”

In another collection of interviews with fourteen Vietnamese now living in the United States, the anthropologist James Freeman, who is also at San Jose State, says of his subjects, “Most of these people saw themselves as victimized and betrayed by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The cost of their flight has been heavy: even if they appear successful in the United States, like Engelmann’s subjects, many of them feel lonely and unwelcome. They dream of harmonious and cooperative families, Freeman says, and a country where they could “feel at ease…. Such an environment exists neither in contemporary Communist Vietnam nor in America.”

What they were fleeing is the anxious, dreary life so familiar to those who have experience of the “people’s democracies,” which has little in common with what Gabriel Kolko saw during his six trips to North Vietnam. “This was the most terrible aspect of the Communist government,” an ex-school teacher tells Freeman. “We could not talk together, because every time they would ask, “What did you talk about? Was it against the government…. I could not trust anybody, even my wife or children, for inadvertently they might say something that could incriminate us.”

Particularly damaging to Vietnam, where the leaders remain committed to the kind of authoritarian rule found nowadays only in North Korea, Albania, and, ironically, in China, Hanoi’s archadversary, is the recent report of Amnesty International. Published in February 1990, while Amnesty was also preparing its recent indictment of human rights violations in China, this sixty-six-page document is based on the visit to Vietnam of an Amnesty team in May 1989. The team concentrated on traditional Amnesty concerns:

—The detention without trial of people associated with the Saigon regime. Thousands—Hanoi admits to 40,000—of these were detained without trial in 1975. Many were released only after years of harsh treatment. More than one hundred are still in jail.

—The detention without charge or trial of alleged opponents of the present government. These include Buddhist and Christian priests, writers, ethnic Chinese, students, lawyers, and those attempting to flee Vietnam without permission.

—What Amnesty calls “prisoners of conscience,” who are in prison without having had a fair trial.

—Torture and ill-treatment of people in police custody or detention.

—The use of the death penalty.

A prisoner of particular concern to Amnesty is Nguyen Chi Thien, “a writer and poet who has spent more than half his life in detention.” First arrested in Hanoi in 1958, he was repeatedly freed and rearrested until 1979 when he was detained for writing a collection of poems called Flowers from Hell.

Also detained are monks from the An Quang pagoda, charged with “working against the revolution” and similar crimes. As Amnesty points out, throughout the Sixties An Quang monks were in the forefront of demonstrations against the government in Saigon. I remember passing through a police cordon to visit the then abbot, Tich Tri Quang, who was strongly opposed to the war, and was later persecuted by the victors.

The case of the three Tran brothers, who were arrested in 1984, is a particularly telling one. Their father, Tran Van Tuyen, a famous human rights lawyer, was harassed by the Saigon government for defending political prisoners. He died in a Communist re-education camp in 1976. The Tran brothers were accused of various “anti-government activities,” including sending information to foreign human rights groups, collecting information about dead Americans and writing about re-education camps. They were treated harshly in prison, and two “were reported to have been held in total darkness before their trial.” One brother may have been released last year.

In an appeal similar to those it constantly makes to Peking, Amnesty calls for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience and the review of the cases of all political prisoners; it cautions the Communist regime against bringing criminal charges against them now, after their many years in prison. Amnesty argues that expressions of dissent, or attempts to leave Vietnam, should not be deemed “crimes against national security.” The practice of condemning prisoners in the newspapers before their trials take place should be stopped. Amnesty has many other concerns, but at least Vietnam, unlike China, permitted the organization to make an investigation, and Amnesty notes some improvement in the regime’s human rights record.

In April 1989, a well-known journalist, Nguyen Manh Tuan, whose writings are banned in several provinces but who has escaped from prison or “re-education,” told a foreign journalist,

The party always says that a human being is the most precious thing. But both law and human beings were tortured extremely cruelly.

As much as any other, the statement describes the Vietnam experience since World War II.

July 19, 1990

This Issue

August 16, 1990