Astonishing and Rare Images of the Vietnam War
The nature of war has always been tragic, but the Great War in the 1910s forced the international powers to address the destructive power of new weapons like aerial bombers, chemical horrors, and rapid-fire machine guns.
After the end of the Second World War, the globe became entrenched in the fight between the Western Bloc of nations – led by the United States – and the countries aligned with the Soviet Union.
When the wills of these two alliances met in a small tract of land in southeastern Asia, then known as French Indochina, a twenty-year battle between them was watched by the civilian population in ways that had never before been possible. Click through to see the rare photos of the Vietnam War that made even our jaws drop.
Vietnam: A Nation Divided by the Cold War
Because American involvement in Vietnam gained the eye of the public in the latter part of the 1960s, many forget that the war officially began from international policies being shaped in the path of World War II.
France fell quickly to the Germans after just a month of fighting in 1940, leaving its colonial outposts effectively in the hands of the Axis through a puppet government known as Vichy France. The German-owned France ceded effective control of French Indochina resources and the task of governance to the Japanese who shuffled daily management to a new puppet empire under the rule of Emperor Bảo Đại.
The railways that went through Vietnam were a major supply line for the Chinese, The agricultural output of Vietnam was diverted towards the Japanese and combined with a turn in the weather to create a widespread famine starting in 1944. Through the course of the starvation period, as many as 20% of Vietnam’s 10 million people died due to hunger and malnutrition.
Statue of Ho Chi Minh in Ho Chi Minh City
The logistical importance of Vietnam was enough to prompt British and American efforts to support resistance efforts in the region, if not directly commit troops that were busy elsewhere.
One of these groups was a Vietnamese independence group known colloquially as the Việt Minh, a shortened form of Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội. The Allies were willing to overlook that the rebels had gathered under Hồ Chí Minh to oppose all Imperialism whether that be the Japanese, the French, or anyone else.
As a result of their efforts to oppose the Japanese by leading food raids and organization resistance against obscene tax rates, their popularity with the people of the region grew immensely. They used this popularity to establish local committees tasked with taking leadership of their cities and communities when Vietnam achieved independence.
Ngô Đình Diệm, Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam
After the war was over and control of Vietnam was left in the fumbling hands of a remnant Japanese occupation forces and an ineffective French overseer, the Việt Minh swept control away from the Japanese in the August Revolution.
A tenuous peace with France followed with British and Chinese forces splitting occupation duty at the 16th Parallel, but it fractured under the weight of the disagreements over contested regions in the southern half of Vietnam. The country split formally into the Communist-backed Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Hồ Chí Minh in the north and the Capitalist State of Vietnam led by Bảo Đại and his more influential prime minister, Ngô Đình Diệm.
The North and South exchanged heavy words with each other while enacting mass executions on their own people from 1954 to 1960, but the overwhelming support for the north’s policies amongst the more populous lower class led to uprisings against the rising taxes and powerful landlords that had been put in charge of the southern economy. Diệm had been initially successful in gaining some support for the state, but the political leanings alongside Diệm’s push for Catholicism over the traditional Buddhist beliefs of the citizens left him in constant fear of a revolt strong enough to remove him from power. The largest group of rebels was the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, better known in the west as the Viet Cong.
A Path on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Diệm, in his paranoia, slammed the ranks of his military with sycophants who would comply with his desire to use the south’s army to keep a grasp on Saigon rather than attempt to mount an offensive. The soldiers spent more time assaulting and murdering civilians in the hunt for suspected conspirators and mulling about on guard for uprisings than engaging with their northern counterparts.
The strife between Diệm’s Catholic leanings and the Buddhist population provided the final nail in his popularity’s coffin when a protest over the display of a Buddhist symbol resulted in the killing of a woman and eight children.
By 1963, Diệm was ousted and killed by the quiet blessing of the United States rather than by a communist insurrection. The CIA overlooked a military coup that placed a small cadre of generals in control of South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the North had pushed through Cambodia and Laos to overtake the western flank of its adversary.
The long and narrow shape of Vietnam meant the North could now sneak in supplies and trained agents to the Viet Cong through the cover of the dense foliage. The pathways, known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, were strategically vital throughout the duration of the war. The conflict was still shy of full-scale war between the two halves of Vietnam. The North fervently denied any involvement with the southern rebel forces, and the cease-fire held on by the barest threads as both sides began to prepare for the inevitable battle.
President Kennedy Shortly before His Assassination
Shortly thereafter, President Kennedy was assassinated while riding in an open limousine through the streets of Dallas, Texas. He was shot twice, once in the back and once in the head, and Lee Harvey Oswald was quickly fingered for the crime.
Oswald fit the bill of what the expected assassin in the era of the Red Scare would look like, having served as a sniper in the U.S. Marines and having just recently returned from living in eastern Europe with his Soviet wife. Peculiar circumstances, like the assassination of Oswald before his trial by a Dallas nightclub owner, have caused the general public to doubt the official line of how the assassination took place.
Regardless of who committed the crime, the assassination rocked the soul of America and left President Lyndon B. Johnson with the task of pushing back the Iron Curtain that had snuffed out the beloved king of Camelot.
The Catalyst for U.S. Involvement: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident
From 1955 to 1963, America’s involvement in the conflict between North and South Vietnam was limited in scope to military advisors for the South that helped train troops and formulate battle plans. Eisenhower knew the issues with fighting a long-distance land war and refused to entertain the idea of joining one in an Asian jungle.
Kennedy, while he may have eventually escalated the conflict into a full-scale war, was content to let the South Vietnam government do the fighting despite wanting to turn the contest of wills into a much-needed victory for his administration. That’s not to say that the previous Presidents refused to use force, but that they did so in a low-key fashion. Hidden amongst the advisors to the South throughout all three administrations were CIA operatives that took part in the intelligence gathering and helped to train civilian irregulars to fight against the Communists.
Just as the South was dealing with the assuredly independent attacks of the insurrectionists, the North was being repeatedly hit by commando raids on strategic locations and on surveillance missions. Johnson, on the other hand, was also looking for a way to jam an American foot into any crack in the doorway to a war with the communists.
The USS Maddox on Patrol
The USS Maddox, designation DD-731, was a Sumner-class destroyer that measured 376 and a half feet long, sailed at a top speed of 34 knots.
It was loaded with an array of 5-inch cannons, nearly two dozen anti-aircraft batteries, ten torpedo tubes, and eight separate places for launching depth charges.
She set sail towards the end of WWII where she patrolled the Pacific as a picket boat, protecting her fellow sailors from submarines and aerial attacks while occasionally providing artillery fire along shorelines. After the end of the Korean War, she was assigned to patrolling the oceans around the southeast of Asia.
The Gulf of Tonkin
Part of the Maddox’s regular duties included sweeping across the coasts of Vietnam while collecting radio signals that were traveling through the area. On the 2nd of August, 1964, the Maddox suddenly found itself being pursued by three torpedo boats that belonged to the North Vietnamese Navy.
A commando raid by South Vietnamese forces the day before, targeting a radio station along the southeastern coast, had occurred while the Maddox was relatively close to the conflict. She avoided the bustle of activity that night, but the Vietnamese were now on her trail in connection with the attack.
When a patrol of P-4 torpedo boats tracked the Maddox the next day as she was sailing her typical patrol, they began to follow her. Intelligence intercepted radio transmissions between Northern forces that indicated an assault on the Maddox was imminent. She turned into the Gulf of Tonkin and rallied to confront the enemy.
A P-4 Torpedo Boat in Drydock
Compared to the Maddox, the P-4s were immensely outsized and outgunned. The Vietnamese boats were just over 60 feet long with a scant weapons configuration of just two torpedoes (not two tubes, but a pair of underwater missiles) and two high-caliber machine guns. The torpedoes were not particularly impressive, either, with a maximum effective range of just 1,000 yards and a middling payload. In reality, the P-4 was more akin to a small, fast motorboat that had makeshift weaponry strapped to it than a tried and true vessel of war.
The one major advantage of the P-4 was its incredible speed and agility, especially when compared to a lumbering destroyer. Their top speed was over 20 knots faster, and they had to deal with the forces generated by less than 1% of Maddox’s 2,200 tons. The speed differential is why the Maddox was left with no choice but to give the Vietnamese the fight that they wanted.
Under the orders of Captain Herrick, the Maddox gave three warning shots to the sea in front of the Vietnamese before going on standby for the approach. The P-4s nimbly danced through the long-range cannon barrage from the Maddox, becoming the targets on a 10,000-yard shooting range with live ammunition in the chambers. Two of them fired too soon in fear of taking a hit from a 5-inch shell, but the last raced forward. Its torpedo used explosive force on the Maddox, but it was not very effective; the Maddox sustained zero damage in the assault, and none of her sailors were injured.
A U.S. Navy F-8 Crusader
Still, the Maddox could not quite land a killing blow on her assailants. When a patrol of four F-8 Crusader fighters from the USS Ticonderoga came to the aid of the Maddox, they were able to put enough holes into the P-4s to convince them to run from the battle.
The Vietnamese did manage to pass a parting blow to one of the fighters which clipped off a wing, but there was enough remaining to return safely to the Ticonderoga. In the end, the P-4s had taken mostly small arms fire and the total losses only came to four sailors.
The only damage on the Maddox was a solitary bullet hole that matched the caliber of the P-4’s heavy machine guns. She spent the next day in port while.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara Giving Vietnam Briefing
On her very next patrol, the Maddox and an accompanying Sherman-class destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, were involved in another incident where it exchanged fire towards more torpedo boats, perhaps even those that had attacked before.
The attack was the last straw for anti-war efforts in the American government and upper military echelon.
President Johnson received a blank check to send as many troops as he wanted into Vietnam for as long as he chose to do so. By 1965, Johnson had committed more than 400,000 boots onto the soggy ground of Vietnam.
President Johnson in a Meeting
The second incident had a tremendous impact on the foreign policy of America, but the truth of what really happened that day has been a matter of debate after hundreds of classified reports became available under the Freedom Of Information Act in 2005 and 2006.
There were no Vietnamese ships in the Gulf on Tonkin on the night of August 4th, or at least none that had made aggressive overtures towards the small patrol fleet. At most, there was a single torpedo launch early on the 4th that was ineffectual.
The Turner Joy and Maddox had been firing into empty space at the behest of unusual weather patterns having undue influence on signals intelligence operators who were on high alert after the events two days prior. The reports that revealed the hiccup were hidden for half a century by the U.S. government.
Weapons of the Vietnam War
From the onset of the war, it was clear that the Americans had a distinct firepower advantage over the standing North Vietnamese army whether you looked to the land, sea, or the air. South Vietnam’s armies were outfitted with weapons supplied by the Americans, although their lack of training and poor management made them less effective in their hands. The overall design philosophy behind most weapons of the Vietnam War remains the same in their modern-day counterparts with only capability and sophistication altering over time.
American soldiers wore drab olive uniforms that were made from a material that managed to allow freedom of motion while being rugged enough to withstand the damp, hot, and rough terrain of the Vietnamese jungle. Everything from boxers to boots had to be redesigned throughout the 50s to tolerate operating there. The main weapon of choice for infantry was the 5.56mm M-16 assault rifle despite early design flaws that required impeccable maintenance to keep the rifle from jamming. Each infantry squad would typically have at least one 7.62mm M-60 that would be deployed when heavy firepower was needed.
The standard sidearm was the M1911A1 Colt Pistol for infantry with the option of the M3A1 sub-machine gun, both of which fired .45 caliber rounds. Shotguns and flamethrowers made their way onto the battlefield on occasion, but their limited tactical roles kept them from overtaking the standard assault rifle in usage. Marine snipers relied on the .30-06 M1903 Springfield until the 7.62mm M40 was rolled out in 1966. Additional equipment might typically include fragmentation grenades made from TNT and cast iron, bright signal flares for marking locations and sending messages, smoke grenades for cover, the M79 grenade launcher, and the Claymore fragmentation mine.
Northern Infantry Uniform
The color and styling of the northern infantry uniform was distinct enough to be differentiated from American forces despite it being possible to describe them with almost the exact same language: a full-body drab outfit – in tan, rather than olive – with plenty of handy pockets that was made from durable and weather-resistant material. The most distinct element was the light tan safari hats that they used as helmets.
The service rifle for the north was the ever-present AK-47 (and its Chinese clone, the SKS), a favorite choice of militaries and militants around the world for its inexpensive production costs, reliably powerful impact, easy to understand design, and its ability to endure conditions from the dry desert to the damp rainforest with fewer malfunctions and necessary maintenance than almost any other assault rifle.
Additional equipment issued to northern soldiers was typically limited to the F1 fragmentation grenade that was frequently used as the killing method in makeshift traps.
American M113 Armored Personnel Carrier
The roads of Vietnam struggled to earn that moniker even within the highly populated regions, limiting the overall effectiveness of ground vehicles in the war. Armored personnel carriers and transports ferried troops and supplies as fast as they could through muddy roads and poor infrastructure.
The North made ample use of vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft weaponry as a way to quickly respond to American aerial assaults. Battle tanks like the M48 Patton helped American infantry advances, but there were almost no direct conflicts between tank regiments in the war.
One of the more interesting ground vehicle developments was the replacement of the main cannon on the M48 Patton tank with a M7 flamethrower to create the M67 “Zippo” Flametank.
The USS Bon Homme Richard, Flagship of the Fleet in Vietnam
Heading out to sea, the U.S. Navy had full run of the open seas throughout the war, as evidenced by the horrible embarrassment suffered by the P-4 assault against an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
America’s aircraft carriers were able to conduct sorties at their leisure, connecting the naval superiority intrinsically with the quick grasp of aerial control that the Americans managed. Not a single American warship was lost throughout the war, although a few came close while engaging in shore bombardment or the raid by MiGs and torpedo boats at Đồng Hới in 1972.
The flagship of the fleet was the USS Bon Homme Richard flying the flag of Admiral George Stephen Morrison. The Essex-class carrier was one of the older ships in the group, but it still possessed enough aircraft to match the North’s entire air force, plane for plane, with just its own pilots. The twenty-odd carriers were separated into groups that were under the constant protection of picket lines made from destroyers, cruisers, aircraft, and patrol boats.
A U.S. Navy River Patrol Boat, or PBR
The interior rivers were more open for active contention due to the limited displacement that a vessel could have and safely navigate them evening out the firepower levels.
The southern rivers fell under control of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Game Warden, but just patrolling their waters for opportunistic Viet Cong attacks prevented any attempts to push their control to the north.
Patrol boats and Navy Seal teams kept commerce flowing through the rivers, but they were also the most likely Navy personnel to die in the conflict. This is often the case, where the most dangerous jobs are also often the most valuable.
The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress
American air strength formed the backbone of the military strategy for the war. The logic of hurdling enough explosives and vehicles at your enemy until they cease to exist seems reasonable at a glance, but the North proved resilient in the face of an open sky frequently meaning certain doom.
In order to consistently deliver the properly American amount of bombs on northern positions, the U.S. used the huge capacity and range of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. The design sacrificed maneuverability for its specialization in bombing runs, a tradeoff that has proven successful enough to warrant the continued use of the aircraft for by the U.S. Air Force as of 2016, the year of this article’s publication.
The bombing runs were successful in controlling the regular armies of the North, giving ground forces time to attempt to curb the swelling ranks of the Viet Cong throughout the population in the south.
MiG-17A in North Vietnamese Colors
The only reason the Stratofortresses could freely unleash devastation was the protection of fighter jets engaging hostile aircraft. North Vietnam received several hundred jets from the Chinese, primarily in the form of the MiG-17 and the MiG-21, but they never received enough nor had the production capacity to truly compete with America’s aerial warriors.
The MiG-17 was available in greater numbers, but the faster and better equipped MiG-21 claimed twice as many aerial victories as the older planes. American air superiority came in large part due to the success of new self-guided missile technology that American fighter jets were adding to their payloads. The workhorse of the American skies was the F-4 Phantom.
The MiG-17 was able to outmaneuver the F-8 Crusaders used in the early years of American involvement, and the U.S. fighter squadrons avoided losses due to the greater skill and experience of their pilots combined with superior numbers. The F-4 adopted a different strategy of lightning-fast attack runs with the intent of achieving a missile lock using an infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder or a radar-homing AIM-7 Sparrow.
The Huey and the Chinook
Fighter success also enabled the helicopters of the U.S. Army to fulfill their mission duties. Transport helicopters like the Chinook and Huey were able to quickly relocate tactical teams and equipment while bypassing dangerous terrain.
When a landing zone was needed in a jiffy but the pesky jungle was in the way, bombing craft could add a BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bomb to their payloads that had been engineered to rip through the trees and create a flattened circle of ground.
Attack helicopters like the Cobra, were used to break open enemy positions, provide escort for transport helicopters, remove the limited number of ground vehicles and artillery put into play by the North, and provide close fire support to infantry from all branches. Small and light helicopters were used for intelligence gathering and could provide machine gun or rocket fire if necessary.
North Vietnamese SA-2 Surface-to-Air-Missile (SAM) Battery
Although the North Vietnam forces could not push the Americans out of the sky, they did receive support from their allies in developing an extensive network of anti-aircraft weaponry with thousands of guns and hundreds of guided missile launchers.
American aircraft were still categorically in control, but their tactics had to change dramatically to fast strikes by the best planes in order to minimize losses. This is a true example of how war isn’t always as it seems.
While the troops on the ground suffered more losses than their enemies above, whenever they were able to take down a plane, it was a huge victory.
The Hidden Warriors of the Viet Cong
Understanding the frustration and terror that the anti-Communist forces faced in Vietnam requires knowing how the Viet Cong conducted their operations.
There was no mistaking that the Americans held nearly every advantage that a military commander could want if they were intent on winning the war without regard for the costs involved. By 1954, the collection of independence and communist resistance groups in the areas controlled by South Vietnam had organized loosely into the National Liberation Front.
Their forces were mostly irregulars that performed attacks of opportunity and intelligence operations, but they did maintain a reasonably sized standard army.
Soldiers Entering Viet Cong Tunnels for Operation Oregon
One of the most famous tactics of the Viet Cong is the construction of vast underground tunnel networks. The largest network was located in the Củ Chi province right outside of the southern capital of Saigon. The tunnels were constantly being dug by insurgents who lived within their confines during the day, scouring for food once the sun went down. The hidden entrances that dotted the landscape allowed Viet Cong irregulars to ambush American and South Vietnamese patrols.
Once the location of one of the entrances was compromised, the pathways to the rest of the network were either sealed off to prevent access or left open to tempt the enemy into braving the cramped, dark corridors that could as easily lead into any number of cruel booby trap designs as it could a group of vicious mole-men warriors. Despite repeated efforts to destroy the Củ Chi tunnel network, the painstaking time that it took to safely clear them allowed the Viet Cong to make tactical use of it for nearly the entire length of the war.
Fed up with the slow approach, the B-52 bomber force was eventually redirected to Củ Chi. They pummeled the ground with the explosives and sent shockwaves into the earth that collapsed many of the haphazard tunnels. The effectiveness of the tunnels diminished greatly, but the Viet Cong had already milked more than a decade of use out of them. The war would end within a year of the tunnels becoming operationally irrelevant.
Bombing of the Brinks Hotel, 1964
The Viet Cong war strategy was continuous and unrelenting guerilla warfare meant to further destabilize the tenuous grasp that the South Vietnam government had on its people and destroy American resolve to continue serving as the occupying force.
To do so, they frequently engaged in terrorist attacks against civilian and unhardened military targets. Estimated death tolls from attacks on civilians by the Viet Cong are estimated to be over 50,000. In 1964, Viet Cong operatives drove a car laden with explosives into the garage below the Brinks Hotel, a housing center for American officers.
The detonation killed two Americans and injured more than sixty others. Other famous attacks included the bombing of the American embassy in Saigon, the Massacre at Hue during the Tet Offensive, and the Đắk Sơn Massacre.
A Soldier of the People’s Liberation Front
The resistance fighters’ efforts were instrumental in public perception of the war and causing instability in the State of Vietnam.
While exact numbers of Viet Cong forces were difficult to determine due to the large number of irregulars and poor records, the standing army of the NLF was at least over 100,00 men strong. This number comes from the amount seen in the Tet Offensive, a series of strikes by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong in January of 1968.
Despite the military failure of the Tet Offensive, it struck one of the strongest blows to the popularity of the war in America. When peace talks were being held near the end of the conflict, the liberation army had enough size and power to warrant a seat at the negotiating table.
The Birth of Modern War Correspondence
War is a gruesome and loud monstrosity that has always attracted the attention of those nearby. In the days of armies lining up to fire rows of muskets and cannons at one another, civilians would frequently sit on nearby hillsides to watch the deaths of the soldiers while having a delightful picnic and scribbling their thoughts about the battle.
The presence of official war correspondents varied depending on the theater, the time, and the forces involved. Some, like the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, were covered extensively by newspapers, artists, photographers, and even crews carrying new video recording equipment. Occasionally, the commanders on the field would do their best to push away bystanders to limit the amount of information that might fall into enemy hands; this was the case in the first Great War.
Initially, the media did not jump on the story of Vietnam. Reports were slow and mostly examined the rise of Communism in the region. As things heated up, the media perked up and the press corps in Vietnam rose rapidly – from just 40 to over 400 between 1964 and 1965. In 1964, the U.S. appointed Barry Zorthian to the task of managing the sudden interest of the media and the image of American war efforts through the MACV (the US Mission and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam).
A Bolex 16mm Hand-held Video Camera
A great camera doesn’t make a great photographer, but better equipment does allow for more ways to capture the essence of the setting and the actors in the frame.
It certainly helps when you have a full video camera that can collect exponentially more moments and connect them into a series of events.
Advances in camera technology had shrunk down handheld video recorders to a size that could be carried by a determined film crew. Of course, their cameras barely compared to the ones included almost as an after-thought to the feature-filled smartphones of the 21st century.
A Family Gathered around a Television, c. 1960
At the same time as recording video became easier to do, it was becoming easier to disseminate the visual information thanks to the spread of television networks. Only 9% of the populace owned a television set during WWII, but by the 60s, over 90% of the nation owned a television and over half of them got most of their news from the TV set. With only a few channels on the air for a few hours a day, shows like the nightly news were frequently the only thing available for those who wanted to watch the tube.
Early on in the war, journalists typically ridiculed everything in sight aside from the sacrosanct U.S. military. The nightly news was doing its part to lend aid to the war effort, informing the American public about the good ol’ boy efforts to take down the dirty Reds. The media had the military’s back, and the public, by and large, did as well. Even the use of the term “Viet Cong” to refer to resistance forces in South Vietnam is owed to the period when publications were riddled with the broad brush of prejudice-laden propaganda that helped turn the enemy into something less than human.
As the war dragged on, the highest rated segments for the networks were those containing footage and information from the conflict across the world. Every night brought a new tale of violence into the living rooms of people who otherwise thought little of the war beyond their unwavering support for whatever Uncle Sam thought was best on behalf of Democracy, Capitalism, and Freedom. As the only footage available often depicted American forces struggling to control occupied territory, that is what the nightly news used to fill the valuable evening airtime. Until the networks showed otherwise, the average American rarely doubted the official line that the war in Indochina was progressing smoothly, which was a reasonable assumption if you were only aware of the standing military forces involved.
The My Lai and My Khe Massacre
The surge in the number of war correspondents and influence of the U.S. television media networks on national politics caused a tipping point in support for the war after the supposedly downtrodden North Vietnam forces staged multiple attacks against the south in conjunction with the Viet Cong in the campaign known as the Tet Offensive that stretched across most of 1968. For the first time, the American public knew that the rebels in the South were a serious concern to operational security. The loss of the Battle of Hue led to a civilian massacre by North Vietnamese forces, and Americans were coming under terrorist attack even in the center of the southern capital. The American populace grew weary of the continued military losses and humanitarian tragedies, but more was yet to come.
In 1969, reports surfaced of the events that took place in two small hamlets near Sơn Mỹ village in March of the previous year. A platoon of marines, believing the towns to be entirely comprised of Viet Cong forces and sympathizers, placed the villagers under armed guard. Tensions rose as reports of return fire came from helicopters near the platoon. In a chain of horrific events, the soldiers began to kill the gathered civilians. Execution methods ranged from the tried and true bullet to the head of the defenseless to one unfortunate soul who was tossed down a well with a frag grenade following close behind. Fears of booby-trapped babies left no mercy even for women clutching infants to their breasts. It took the intervention of a nearby gunship crew before the killing ceased.
In the end, the death toll reached over 300 and may have been as high as 500 Vietnamese civilians. The media turned into a vicious beast after My Lai came to light, shifting its sensationalism efforts from the Vietnamese to their own troops. While atrocities occur in every war, the news networks had a direct hand in the negative public opinion of Vietnam veterans who had by and large served honorably and proudly, as well as the resulting lack of support for those who had no hand in deceiving the public. It wouldn’t be long before Americans withdrew from the conflict in response to public outrage.
The Americans versus the Forests of Vietnam
One of the strongest natural defensive features used by the Vietnamese irregulars in their guerilla tactics was the dense and sweltering jungles of their country.
The constricting forests were so thick that visibility frequently dipped to mere feet in any direction – even in the middle of what would be a bright day if you could breach the canopy above.
Soldiers not only had to worry about opposing troops taking advantage of the home field advantage and low visibility, but also the natural predators of the jungle who became far more dangerous and deadly due to the camouflage effect.
Literal “Fire” Power
Flamethrowers became popular in both World Wars for their ability to flush out bunkers and tunnels while striking fear into any soldiers trapped by the fires, useful when clearing out a line of trenches or island fortress.
A variant of the M2 infantry-carried flamethrower used in WWII, designated M9A1-7, saw use in Vietnam as a way to combat the effectiveness of Viet Cong guerilla warfare tactics such as their tunnel network and use of vegetation cover.
Most military flamethrowers use flammable liquidthickened into a substance similar to napalm, but commercial flamethrowers tend to use high-pressure propane and gasoline, which is considered safer as they both die out faster and are easier to put out.
An American “Zippo” Tank
The dangers and limitations of man-mounted flamethrowers led to them being phased out in favor of vehicle-based delivery systems.
On the ground, flamethrowers were placed into tanks that could carry more fuel with less safety hazards. In the sky, bombers dropped napalm and bombs designed to clear out trees, but their effectiveness was limited by the payload that they could carry.
A flame tank is a type of tank equipped with a flamethrower, most commonly used to supplement combined arms attacks against fortifications, confined spaces, or other obstacles.
Even the napalm bath from above was not removing the jungle fast enough for the generals, and they began looking for a way to reduce the tree population en masse. Aerosol sprays were incredibly tempting for their ability to spread over much wider areas than the fuel used to start napalm or the blast of explosives.
Of the various herbicides and other chemicals that were tested on the forests of Vietnam, the most infamous is known as Agent Orange.
Produced by agrochemical giant Monsanto, Agent Orange was a mixture of two powerful herbicides that had been contaminated with the deadly carcinogenic toxin, dioxin. Exposure to Agent Orange has been linked to cancer in veterans, and the U.S. government may have known about the poisonous hazard as early as 1957.
The Counter-Culture Revolution
Although Vietnam was nowhere near as bloody as the Second Great War, the media presence sending vivid imagery back home constantly, overtones of the imperialism that had led to WWII in the first place, and the shame of the military losses invoked enough anger in the generation of Love and Peace to cause them to regularly act out passively against the conflict.
This is one of the first times that the public became active against the government.
Citizens began to question those in power and why we went to Vietnam in the first place. This got worse as time passed.
The Music of Protest
The Music of Protest“Come on mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam. Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate; to send your sons off before it’s too late. You can be the first ones in your block to have your boy come home in a box!” — “I-feel-like-I’m-fixing-to-die-rag” by Country Joe and the Fish.
The media covered the brutal realities of the war on the ground, but the music was the rallying cry to a dispossessed youth being forced to fight for a war they did not believe in. Artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Country Joe McDonald, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandalles, and many other artists spread messages of peaceful resistance and spoke out against the travesties of the foreign war.
The music of the era both emerged from and fueled the peace movement. Hippy culture, while not wholly focused on anti-war efforts, existed in large part due to the reaction of the youth to the atrocities of the war and the music was a binding force that kept the culture alive and growing.
African-American Influence on Protest Music
Often forgotten when discussing the music of the anti-war movement is the important role played by black artists in shaping the musical landscape of protest. Well versed in the power of music in driving a movement, with the Civil Rights Movement still going strong, many well-known black musicians saw the anti-war movement as an extension of the same message of equality and respect that lay at the core of Civil Rights.
This held special significance as young black men were trapped in the same Draft that young white men where, with less opportunity to escape. Coming on the heels of a nation that was still struggling to accept them as equal citizens, being ordered to fight and die on foreign soil seemed especially pernicious. This brought us recordings like “War” by the Temptations (and later covered by Edwin Starr) – with the memorable and often quoted refrain of “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” – which was not released as a single due to concerns about the response from the more conservative side of the nation.
Marvin Gaye crooned to us all about the need for peace and love in “What’s Going On” in which he reminded us that “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.” Even Martha Reeves and the Vandellas got in on the act with “I Should Be Proud”, offered as the first anti-war song from the Motown label in 1970.
Record Label Blockade
Not everyone was keen on the music of the moment – while we remember the era as one of deep turmoil for the country, the reality is that many Americans still leaned towards being supportive of the US Army and our fighting men. Record labels, as a result, were not eager to alienate large segments of their customer base by allowing artists to record and perform music that was seen as antagonistic to the nation or our soldiers.
Protest songs from major labels were relatively rare as a result, though some artists were granted more leeway than others, particularly if their primary audience was more likely to be receptive to the message being delivered. While the record companies outwardly were resistant to much of this music, they didn’t hesitate to turn a pretty profit off of it. Revenue from tapes and records sold in 1970 with an anti-war focus brought in over $2 billion, almost 80% of the total revenue for rock and roll of the era.
They made so much, in fact, that it prompted some observers of the era to question whether the music was a product of artists finding their voice and reflecting the realities they saw around them or, as George Lipsitz asked, “..was it the creation of marketing executives eager to cash in on demographic trends by tailoring mass media commodities to the interests of the nation’s large age cohort?”
Folk Artists Fight Tunes
Much of the protest music we think of today emerged from the folk music revival of the 60s. These songs were highly beneficial to the movement, requiring little musical training to reproduce and being particularly easy to recall and share, with a simple rhythm that was tailor-made for driving a crowd during a protest or sit-in. All one needed was an acoustic guitar to provide the background music.
Bob Dylan penned perhaps the most infamous protest song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ despite debuting it in Greenwich Village in 1962 with the introduction, “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write no protest songs.”
Joan Baez essentially built her career out of penning and performing socially conscious tunes, and anti-war songs were no exception. Her 1967 rendition of Nina Duscheck’s poem “Saigon Bride” laments the need for the unnamed soldier to make his farewell to his bride to fight for reasons that, “will not matter when we’re dead,” cut to the heart of the anti-war sentiment.
The Evolution of Artists
Many artists who crafted anti-war music did not start their careers with an eye towards the political. The impact of the war shifted the nature of their music. John Lennon, of Beattles fame, began his career recording pop hits for the kids to go wild over, yet his song ‘Imagine’, released in 1971 and still receiving plenty of air time forty years later, was very clearly a call to political action.
He even recorded “Give Peace a Chance” (which was later sung en masse by half a million people at a protest rally against Nixon and the war) as his first single upon leaving the Beatles. Bobby Darin started his life as a teen idol with “Splish Splash” in the late 50s, but by ’69, Darrin was calling for an end to the war with his tune, “Simple Song of Freedom.”
In 1960, Dion hit the airwaves with “Lonely Teenager” and follow up this young love gone sideways hit with another 18 tunes of the same flavor. Yet by the end of the decade, Dion was offering up “Abraham, Martin, and John,” reflecting the violence at home and abroad.
While we now think of activism and college campuses as indistinctly linked, there was a time when college campuses were relatively free of political strife. Prior to the 60s, political activism on campus was relatively rare.
The formation of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) marked a dramatic shift in that status quo. Student protests were not focused on just anti-war issues. Rather, students saw the problems in the nation and abroad as all part of a broader picture of social injustice. Not all of the student movements were wholly peaceful.
The SDS, for example, splintered as the decade progressed into several opposing factions. While they all wanted the same social liberation, how they saw the path forward varied dramatically. Some saw the need for guerilla tactics meant to inspire faster action, while others wanted to focus on specific aspects of the broad progressive agenda to improve their results.
The 1970 Strike – Kent State
“Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down. Should have been done long ago. What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground. How can you run when you know?” – Ohio, Neil Young.
Nixon’s decision to send troops into Cambodia in 1970 sparked outrage amidst college students across the States. As a result, planned protests erupted and strikes on campus occurred at over 700 schools. National Guardsmen were sent in to restore order to campuses around the country. On May 4th, altercations between the Guardsmen and the students at Kent State resulted in soldiers opening fire, killing four students and injuring another nine. Ten days later, another two students were gunned down and killed at Jackson State College.
The images of fallen students inspired Neil Young to pen the song whose lyrics are listed above, demanding some sort of action in response to the tragic deaths of young people, the divisiveness of the war, and the seeming collapse of our national values. It also sounded militant to many radio stations, who flat our refused to play the tune on air.
Military conscription has long been used in the United States, but none of the previous wars resulted in quite the same outrage over its use than Vietnam. Roughly a quarter of the active forces in Vietnam were acquired by means of the Selective Service lottery, which was considerably less than the number of conscripted soldiers during WWII (in which 66% of those who served were conscripted).
The difference was primarily in public support. Most of the country was behind the need to enter WWII. The American sentiment towards Vietnam was somewhat different. Young men between the ages of 18-25, and their loved ones, waited nervously for their local draft board to determine eligibility. Once selected, the draft board would review the candidate and determine if they were fit for service.
This system had plenty of flaws. Privileged young men rarely were impacted by the draft -they were able to use their influence, education, and money to either avoid service entirely or land jobs in the service that kept them well out of harm’s way. It also lent a considerable amount of power to the local community members that sat on the draft board, who were able to use their influence to exempt those young men called to the draft.
The poor construction of the draft led to underprivileged classes, combined with the usual methods of military recruitment, led to an outsized percentage of the underprivileged Americans representing the active armed forces in Vietnam.
Of those sent overseas to fight, 80% were poor or working-class, with almost no representation from the upper class. A tenth of the active duty soldiers were black, and 12.5% of the deaths in Vietnam were black men (at a time when black men of military age represented 13.5% of the total population).
The draft changed so many lives, and the effects of the war on all of those veterans are still felt today.
In an effort to respond to growing criticisms of the draft’s many flaws, the Selective Service decided to hold two lotteries – the first since 1942 – to determine which eligible young men would be required to report for possible service. This was meant to strip away the power of the draft boards and make a more equitable determination that saw no color or class lines.
The draft lotteries used birth dates to determine the order in which names would be called. 366 blue capsules, each containing birthdates (including the elusive February 29th) went into a glass container. From this container, each capsule was drawn out by hand and assigned a number from 001 to 366. The lower the assigned number, the more likely it was that the men with the birthday attached would be called up. The second lottery, held on the same day, used a similar system but instead of birth dates used the letters of the alphabet to determine the selection of men with the same birthdate. This system looked at first, middle, and surname initials to determine rank.
This lottery system was used in 1970, 1971, and 1972. The final lottery draw, held in 1972, was never actually used. The draft was abolished the year following, and the end of active ground involvement by US soldiers was ushered in by the Paris Peace Accords, signed in January of 1973. The last conscripted soldiers were brought in on December 7, 1972. While the Selective Service continued to assigned priority numbers until ’75, just in case the draft was extended, those numbers were never utilized. Another change made alongside the introduction of the lottery was a change in how draft boards treated age. Previously, ‘oldest first’ had been the policy. Now, the draft board could select the 18-year-old first. This was seen as a mercy, since the older man was more likely to have career and family obligations the younger man would not.
Beating the Odds
During the Vietnam era, roughly 27 million young American men were eligible for military service. Of those, the draft drew in over 2 million. 15.4 million men were granted deferments – predominantly to pursue their educational goals, but also for mental, physical, or family hardships. Over 300,000 young men either deserted or dodged the draft – with two-thirds of them resisting and the remaining deserting. Of those, thiry-thousand fled to Canada.
When the draft was first initialized, dodgers were largely viewed by the general public as being cowards worthy only of contempt. As the death tolls rose, however, sentiment shifted. In the mid-60s, student protestors famously burnt their draft cards in protest, but they were a vocal minority. By the 70s, induction-refusal had hit its apex, with over 200,000 cases reported. Those who fled the country faced criminal charges if they returned home.
Later on, dodgers were granted amnesty. First, in 1974 from then-President Gerald Ford who offered amnesty in exchange for a shorter military service of 6-24 months, and later in 1977 on President Jimmy Carter’s first day in office, when he offered a full pardon to all draft dodgers who requested one.
Collection of Full Metal Jacket Memorabilia
A substantial number of feature-length films have been set in the era of the Vietnam War: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, the Rambo films, Forrest Gump, Taxi Driver and more.
If you are familiar at all with these movies, you should see a pattern of intense subject matter and evocative storytelling.
Television producers haven’t been nearly as enamored with the war with most shows falling into the documentary category; This could be due to an extended series featuring a consistent barrage of emotional defeats in a war-torn land not seeming like a good investment, but the existence of shows like Game of Thrones proves that logic to be faulty.
Vietnam Anti-War Protests
In American foreign policy discussions, Vietnam was the go-to reference for any conflict that would become a resource grinder with little chance for victory or benefit given the amount of effort the President was willing to exert.
The importance of the support of the populace and the ability of the news media to influence it had become self-evident, and media management – as much as is possible without violating the 1st Amendment – would become a standard practice for the U.S. government.
It also hearkens to mistreatment of American military veterans who suffered severe physical and mental disabilities as a result of their service.
A Perturbed and Exhausted President Johnson
By the end of the war, President Johnson had already rewritten American Cold War policy to avoid protracted ground engagements by U.S. forces.
Instead, the U.S. would attempt to supply and support anti-communist forces in a more limited fashion, as was the case in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration and the early portion of Johnson’s reign.
After the election, Johnson’s primary focus on Vietnam was to get Saigon to join the Paris peace talks. Ironically, only after Nixon added his urging did they do so. Even then they argued about procedural matters until after Nixon took office.