If you can read this, it’s time to download/listen to another episode in the History of Southeast Asia Podcast! Last time, we came to the Tet Offensive, which many consider the climax of the Second Indochina War. However, we still have a long way to go before the Vietnam story is finished. Today’s episode covers events in the rest of 1968, in Vietnam and the United States.
This episode is dedicated to Louis E. and Louis C., for donating to the podcast. Thanks to both of you for keeping the lights on, at a time when so many people can’t go out to work. Both of your names have been added to the podcast’s new Hall of Fame page, of course. And since Louis C. donated last year, he has now qualified for the coveted water buffalo icon! Both of you are among those who can keep your heads when most other people are losing theirs. May both of you also be among the few who can prosper in these troubled times.
Episode 88: The Second Indochina War, Part 15
or, Should the Americans Stay or Should They Go?
Greetings, dear listeners! Actually, the correct question about American involvement in this episode is, “Should they win or should they quit?” Anyway, if you are listening in the spring of 2020, around the time I recorded this episode, you are probably staying home most of the time, to avoid the Corona virus, while outside it seems that the world has gone crazy. For example, if you walk into a bank, now you’re expected to wear a mask. Who’d have thought that would happen?
Are you looking for something to do that won’t infect you with the virus, or violate the new rules on “social distancing?” Then you’ve come to the right place! Podcasts are still a safe form of information, entertainment, or just a good way to pass the time. Now I have heard that listenership to podcasts is down, and I’m not sure why; maybe people who are used to listening to them elsewhere have forgotten about them while at home. And some podcasters have cut back on the amount of recording they are doing, due to the need to make money or simply stay alive in this troubled time. Well don’t worry listeners, the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is alive and well! Because I wasn’t working a day job when the trouble started, this podcast is as active as ever.
Unless this is the first time you have listened to this show, you know that for several episodes we have been covering the wars that occurred in Indochina during the mid-twentieth century. “Indochina” is the name usually given to the part of Southeast Asia that France conquered in the nineteenth century, when several Western nations went overseas to build colonial empires for themselves. Today Indochina is three countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The First Indochina War, which we covered in Episodes 64 through 68, finished with the expulsion of the French and independence for all three countries, but it also led to Vietnam’s division, into communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam. Because of that, most of the fighting which came after 1954 took place in Vietnam; here in the United States we call it the Vietnam War.
In the previous episode, we reached the Tet Offensive in early 1968. Many consider this the climax of the war; although the Americans and their South Vietnamese partners won the battles, scenes of death and destruction from those battles also convinced the American people that they could not win the war. Now Americans would look for a way to quit their involvement in the war, preferably through a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam.
After the climax of a story comes the denouement, and the denouement for this story is not a short one. Americans will remain active in Vietnam for almost five more years, and the war will continue for two years after that. And the number of American servicemen in Vietnam will increase, before it starts to decrease. Here are the previous episodes in this podcast’s Second Indochina War series, in case you missed any:
Episodes 71 through 73 covered Vietnam from 1954 to 1963, telling how the war got started there.
Then we went to one of the countries next door, Laos. Episodes 74 and 75 covered the war breaking out in that country, up until 1964.
For Episodes 76 and 77 we took a break from the narrative, covering special topics instead. After that we returned to the war in Laos for Episodes 78 and 79. That brought the Laotian narrative up to the year 1974, so the only thing left to talk about concerning the war in Laos is to tell how it ended. I’m saving that for an episode where we cover how the war ended in all of Indochina.
Next, we went back to Vietnam, where it was time for the Americans to get involved completely. We did that with Episodes 80 through 84, had another special episode with 85, and then continued the story with Episodes 86 and 87. That brought us up to April 1968.
Now if you haven’t listened to all of the episodes I just mentioned, you know what your assignment is. Go download or listen to those episodes, from wherever you got this one, and then come back here. As for those of you who are ready to move on in the narrative, move on out!
For the United States, 1968 was one of the most turbulent years in its history. To start with, there had been racial unrest for the past few years, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 sparked a new round of riots in more than 100 American cities. And protests against the Vietnam War grew more frequent, and got worse every year; now the idea among Americans that the Tet Offensive had been a defeat added fuel to the fire.
In New York City, students at Columbia University had been protesting the University’s plan to build a new gymnasium since late March. The gym was to be built at the edge of the community of Harlem, on land that had been recreational space for Harlem’s residents. Since this was public land, the university promised this would be a gym for everyone, but when the building plans were revealed, the only part of the gym that would be open to the public was the basement, and the public had to go through a back door to get to it; the rest of the gym was only for students and faculty. Harlem residents, who didn’t want the gym in the first place, considered this both an insult and an act of segregation; they called the back door the “gym crow door,” with “Jim” spelled G-Y-M.
At first the protests were on the site where the gym would be built, Morningside Park, and the protesters came from the Student Afro-American Society, or SAS, a black student organization. Soon they were joined by the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, an anti-war group made up mostly of white students. Then on April 23, when the New York Police Department drove them away from the gym’s proposed site, 150 SAS and SDS students moved to the center of campus, and rushed into Hamilton Hall, the building holding Columbia’s administrative offices and some classrooms. They took over the building and took Henry Coleman, the acting dean, as a hostage, holding him for one day before letting him leave unharmed.
Over the next few days, a total of five buildings were occupied. Some students held counterprotests, calling for university life to return to normal. There was also a fallout between the two groups leading the protests; the SDS was more interested in opposing the war than advocating civil rights, and soon the SAS ordered the SDS to leave Hamilton Hall. Attempts to negotiate and mediate followed, with the administration agreeing to suspend work on the gym, but it refused amnesty for the protesters. Then on April 30, police moved in and cleared the buildings, arresting 712 students. More than 100 students, four faculty members and a dozen police were injured by the time it was over. Students called a strike, and the campus shut down for the rest of the semester. The project to build the gym was also canceled, so you can say the SAS won eventually.
Meanwhile in the rest of the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans took part in demonstrations in seventeen cities on April 27, because that day happened to be a Saturday. Most of the demonstrations were against the war, and some were against racism as well. The largest demonstration was in New York City, where more than 100,000 people marched in four separate parades to protest the war. By contrast, a May Day parade, held in another part of the city on the same day, was intended to show support for America and the troops, but it only attracted a crowd of 2,700. The other cities with demonstrations included Albany, NY, Austin, TX, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, Seattle, and Portland, OR.
We saw in the previous episode that on the last day of March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for president again. By the end of May, the Democratic presidential campaign had turned into a race between three candidates, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Minnesota Senator Eugene J. McCarthy. Kennedy and McCarthy were against the war, while Humphrey either called for continuing the war or beginning peace talks; in other words, Humphrey wanted to continue whatever Johnson was doing. On June 4, Kennedy won the primary elections in California and South Dakota, while McCarthy won in New Jersey; this meant Kennedy was now the candidate most likely to get the nomination. But then the next day, he was shot and mortally wounded in Los Angeles. With Kennedy gone, his supporters either switched to McCarthy, or went to a new candidate, South Dakota Senator George McGovern. The Democratic Convention for 1968 was probably the most violent in American history. 15,000 protesters came to Chicago to disrupt the convention; opposing them were 12,000 police, 6,000 Army troops, 6,000 National Guardsmen, and 1,000 intelligence agents. Revulsion against the protesters prompted the convention delegates to nominate the Democratic candidate the protesters liked the least, Humphrey.
To complete the election picture for 1968, the Republicans also nominated their most recent vice president, Richard M. Nixon. He consistently promised to end the war under his watch if elected, but many old-timers remembered he had been fiercely anti-communist in the 1940s and 1950s, and now they feared he would get violent if peace talks did not go the way he wanted. But the most conservative candidate running was not Nixon; it was Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace entered the race as a third party candidate, and while he was mainly interested in domestic issues, he showed he wanted to wage the war aggressively, by picking a fighting general, Curtis LeMay, for his vice presidential candidate. However, Wallace also promised to get out of the war immediately, if he could not find a way to win after 90 days in office.
Now let’s get back to what was happening in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese wanted to infiltrate the South by blazing a trail straight across the Demilitarized Zone, but as we saw in the last two episodes, several bases manned by US Marines on the south side of the DMZ blocked their way. In late April they tried to take out Dong Ha, the base which held the 3rd Marine Division headquarters, meaning it was the most important base in the area. Near Dong Ha was an abandoned village named Dai Do, so the resulting battle is called either Dai Do or Dong Ha. Leading the communists were two regiments from North Vietnam’s elite 320th Division, a force numbering between 6,000 and 10,000 men; some 600 guerrillas came with them as well. ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, had two battalions of the 2nd Regiment, 1st Infantry Division patrolling around the mouth of the Cua Viet River, but it failed to catch the enemy sneaking past them, nor did they catch the enemy building bunkers around Dai Do. The North and South Vietnamese had their first clash on April 29, about four and a half miles north of Dong Ha. The next day, a North Vietnamese unit at the junction of the Bo Dieu and Cua Viet Rivers fired on a US Navy patrol boat, forcing it to return to Dong Ha.
The nearest American unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marines, was sent to investigate. This unit had been nicknamed the “Magnificent Bastards” for the previous battles they participated in, and because they were now understrength, a platoon from the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, which included two T-48 medium tanks, was sent with them. A platoon from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, was sent separately, as well an Army unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry, and some boats from a Navy assault group. This meant the American force had a strength of 250 men, and they were going against an enemy force 24 to 40 times larger.
At Dai Do and Dong Huan, another abandoned village, the Marines ran into heavy enemy fire. The leader of the “Magnificent Bastards,” Lieutenant Colonel William “Wild Bill” Weise, launched an attack to clear the area. But Weise soon found out he was heavily outnumbered, and the Marines were forced to fall back to defensive positions north of the Cua Viet River. Still, he had stopped the enemy advance, and it was the North Vietnamese turn to retreat when the Army battalion arrived and occupied Nhi Ha, a village to the northeast. On May 3, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marines joined the battle, only to find out the North Vietnamese had fled.
The battle of Dai Do counts as a victory, because if the “Magnificent Bastards” and their partners had failed to stop their opponents, the North Vietnamese would have gone on to take Dong Ha and maybe even Quang Tri, thereby undermining all Allied defenses along the DMZ. However, the cost was high. The Marines suffered 81 casualties and another 297 seriously wounded; among the wounded was Colonel Weise, who received a Navy Cross for his leadership under fire. The Army battalion at Nhi Ha sustained 29 deaths and 130 wounded. But the enemy suffered even greater losses; they left 1,568 bodies on the battlefield.
I mentioned in the previous episode that North Vietnam gave up its plan to invade South Vietnam with a conventional force in 1968, because of the heavy losses it and the Viet Cong suffered in the Tet Offensive. However, they also dropped the idea because they could not break through the defenses along the DMZ. They could still infiltrate the South by sending troops and supply trucks down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but that road was unsuitable for tanks. The North Vietnamese Army will wait four years, until 1972, before trying again; by then most of the Americans will be gone. And (spoiler alert!) it will actually take seven years, until 1975, for the conventional invasion to succeed.
Another major battle, the battle of Kham Duc, took place a few days later, and about 120 miles to the south. During the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese 2nd Division had tried unsuccessfully to take Da Nang, and after it was driven off, it moved southwest, into Quang Nam Province. The Americans knew where the 2nd Division was, but they did not know its intentions. This prompted the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, to upgrade the defenses at Kham Duc, a Special Forces camp located ten miles from the border of Laos. An isolated base, Kham Duc had been established in 1963 to monitor North Vietnamese infiltration. 260 South Vietnamese troops were flown in, as well as 125 engineers to lengthen the runway on the air strip, clear underbrush that the enemy could hide in, and build a perimeter defense. Unlike Khe Sanh, the remote base attacked in the previous episode, Kham Duc looked like an easy target, because it was surrounded by jungle-covered high ground and it lacked supporting artillery. The North Vietnamese were so confident they could take the base that they brought along a film crew, to record the “devastating defeat of American forces at Kham Duc”; such a victory would put them in a position of strength before the peace talks began. A Viet Cong battalion, from the VC 1st Regiment, also took part in the assault on Kham Duc.
Near Kham Duc was an outpost named Ngok Tavak, defended by a multinational crew of Americans, South Vietnamese, and hill tribesmen or Montagnards. Three Australian officers led this garrison, and the commander among them was Captain John White. In early May, an artillery platoon of 43 Marines, with a Navy hospital corpsman and two 105 mm howitzers, were sent to strengthen Ngok Tavak. This prompted the North Vietnamese to attack Ngok Tavak first, with a mortar bombardment before dawn on May 10.
Captain White had made one Montagnard unit camp outside the perimeter, because it contained Viet Cong agents and he did not trust it. Now when the battle began, this unit came to the entrance, called out, quote, “Don’t shoot, friendly,” unquote, and then they threw explosive-filled satchels, killing several Marines inside the garrison and knocking the howitzers out of commission. Next, North Vietnamese with flamethrowers surged forward and lit a vehicle on fire. An AC-47 helicopter gunship saved the day when it arrived overhead and fired its three multi-barrel machine guns on the attackers. The North Vietnamese tried to use tear gas, but the wind blew it back onto their own positions. Half the attackers then withdrew, turning their attention to Kham Duc, leaving only the Viet Cong force to deal with Ngok Tavak’s remaining defenders.
Marine helicopters brought reinforcements from Kham Duc, but rocket-propelled grenades hit two of them on the landing zone, ruining both the helicopters and the landing zone. White had 70 wounded that his men could not carry out on foot, so he called for a medevac helicopter to pick them up. 5th Special Forces headquarters ordered White to hold out for more reinforcements, but he knew that was impossible. The outpost was surrounded, and water and ammunition were running short. Therefore White called for napalm strikes on the pathway of the main attack and broke out with his surviving troops—83 Montagnards, three Australians, five Special Forces and 14 Marines—running along the burning pathway. Marine helicopters picked up the escapees and took them to Kham Duc that evening. The attack on Ngok Tavak killed 16 Americans and wounded 23. Among the Montagnards, 30 were killed or wounded and 64 were missing, including those who deserted.
By the end of May 10, the US Air Force had flown in 628 more men and two howitzers to Kham Duc, which was now encircled by the North Vietnamese division. The North Vietnamese in turn managed to score a direct hit on one of the howitzers, killing two and wounding 35. More reinforcements were sent in on May 11, but at the same time, the top American generals in Vietnam took a look at the situation, and they recommended to General Westmoreland that the camp at Kham Duc be “relocated,” because of its poor defensive position. At first the generals decided to undertake a three-day evacuation, starting on May 12, but when the enemy captured all seven outposts surrounding the base, orders were changed to a one-day evacuation.
Most of the airlifting would be done with the big cargo carrier among helicopters, the CH-47 Chinook. However, one Chinook was shot down when it was just above the runway, and though the crew escaped, this burning wreck had to be cleared off the runway before any planes could land or take off. Moments after the runway was cleared, a C-130 cargo plane landed under heavy fire, which shot out one tire and damaged the wing fuel tanks. The pilot, Lt. Colonel Daryl Cole, was airlifting in supplies; he had not heard that the mission had been changed to an evacuation, and now a horde of hysterical Vietnamese civilians, the families of the Montagnard soldiers, swarmed aboard. The C-130 could not take off, thanks to the combined weight of the cargo and passengers and the damage it had suffered. After the families were removed, and two hours of repair work was done on the plane, it was able to take off again; this time the only passengers were three members of the Air Force Combat Control Team, whose radio equipment had been destroyed. However, when this plane reached Cam Ranh Bay, the Combat Control Team was ordered to return to Kham Duc to manage the evacuation of everyone else. By the time they arrived, the evacuation was all but done. The pilot of the C-123 plane that was supposed to evacuate the three men did not see them, and had to leave before his plane came under enemy fire, but as he took off, a crew member spotted the Combat Control Team on the ground, so they alerted the next C-123 coming in. Although the camp was now being over-run by the North Vietnamese, and two C-130s had already been shot down, the pilot of this C-123, Lt. Colonel Joe M. Jackson, landed on the air strip under intense fire, gathered all three controllers, and took off. For this rescue, Jackson would be awarded the Medal of Honor.
While the battle of Kham Duc was happening, Hanoi announced that it was ready to talk with the Americans. Negotiations began in Paris on May 13. The American team was led by William Averell Harriman, a statesman with an impressive resume; among other things, he had been a governor of New York, a former ambassador, a former Secretary of Commerce, and most recently the Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs. For the other side, the chief negotiator was Xuan Thuy, who had been North Vietnam’s foreign minister from 1963 to 1965. When he attended the Geneva conference on Laos in 1961 and 62, an American diplomat described him as, quote, "a top-drawer negotiator, a dreadful fellow to face across the table day after day." Unquote.
Unfortunately, the initial talks got nowhere. The United States insisted that all North Vietnamese troops be withdrawn from South Vietnam, while Hanoi declared it had no troops below the 17th Parallel. Hanoi also insisted that, before serious negotiations could begin, the United States would have to halt all bombing raids over Vietnam, and it called for a coalition government in South Vietnam, which would make the Viet Cong partners of the Saigon regime. Because of the stubbornness on both sides, it would take nearly five years for the peace talks to produce an agreement. Most of the time, all sides simply restated their positions and refused to make any concessions. For a while in 1968 the negotiators even argued over whether the table they used for their meetings would be rectangular, which would represent two sides, or round, which would make everyone look equal; in the end they went with a round table.
Meanwhile, President Johnson decided it was time to put a new general in charge of the war. Westmoreland’s pursuit of a war of attrition increased the body count all around, but now he had been in command for four years and looked no closer to winning than when he started. Looking back with hindsight, it appears clear to me that Johnson and Westmoreland should have known better. We saw in Episode 68 that the last French commander in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, tried to win with a war of attrition, and that led to the disaster at Dienbienphu. Anyway, Johnson recalled Westmoreland to Washington in June, promoting him to Chief of Staff of the Army. To take his place in Vietnam, Johnson made Westmoreland’s deputy, General Creighton W. Abrams, the new commander.
Whereas Westmoreland was a “fuss and feathers” general, who was immaculately groomed and always spoke with optimism when he made a public appearance, Abrams was not inclined to hold press conferences; when he did, he was gruff and sometimes disheveled. He inspired the troops with his competence, plain talk and combat record. During World War II, he was a tank commander under George Patton, and a hero of the Battle of the Bulge; he received two Distinguished Service Crosses, America’s second-highest award for valor, and Patton called him the best tank commander in the US Army. For those reasons, the tank used by the US Army today, the M-1 Abrams, is named after him. The troops serving under Abrams considered him a soldier’s soldier. And while Westmoreland was fond of search-and-destroy missions, which got the troops out quickly after the fighting was done, Abrams believed it was more important to secure populated areas and win over the hearts of the civilians. Thus, he would be the ideal general to have when the Americans began to turn over the whole war effort to ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.
The first important operation to take place under Abrams was the Phoenix Program, which began on July 1. The Vietnamese name for it was Phung Hoang, meaning “All Seeing Bird.” Formulated and paid for by the US Central Intelligence Agency, this was a program where American, South Vietnamese and Australian forces would work together to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure across South Vietnam, using infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination. Previously, the South Vietnamese government had set up several intelligence agencies to locate and root out Viet Cong agents, and they ended up competing with each other for power and money. The American solution to this problem was to centralize all anti-Viet Cong activities that weren’t being carried out by the armed forces under one program, and to put a department of MACV, the US military command in Vietnam, in charge of the program. This department was called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, CORDS for short. The head of CORDS, Robert Komer, did more than anyone else to get the Phoenix Program approved by his superiors, including President Johnson, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, the CIA executive who replaced Komer in 1968. According to its own figures, in 1969 alone the Phoenix Program “neutralized” 19,534 Viet Cong members; 6,187 of them were killed, while the rest were either captured or persuaded to switch sides.
South Vietnamese paramilitary forces in the Phoenix Program were organized into special police units called Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRUs. Created, trained, equipped, and managed by the CIA, the PRUs worked in secret, so all kinds of stories were made up about them, and while the PRUs were declared counter-terror units, we may never know what they really did.
Unfortunately, Americans involved in the Phoenix Program described it as being like agencies in the South Vietnamese government and army; full of inefficiency, corruption, and abuse. South Vietnamese officials resisted working together, stole much of the US aid assigned to the program, and were so easy to bribe that 70 percent of the Viet Cong suspects captured were able to buy their freedom. Even worse, the program assigned monthly quotas to villages, and village officials would meet those quotas by announcing that anyone killed in a local skirmish was a Viet Cong member. Sometimes they would round up innocent peasants, with the intention of declaring them all Viet Cong and turning them over to the police, but then released those who could pay them off. And other times they would torture suspected peasants, when the only evidence against them came from jealous neighbors.
In the United States, the Phoenix Program generated huge controversy when reports leaked out of alleged assassinations of suspected Viet Cong operatives, by South Vietnamese trained by the US. Antiwar activists, who got part of their information from North Vietnamese propaganda, denounced the Phoenix Program as “mass murder.” This eventually led to Congressional hearings in 1971, and the termination of the program in the same year. When he testified before Congress about this, Colby stated, quote, "The Phoenix program was not a program of assassination. The Phoenix program was a part of the overall pacification program." Unquote. Colby declared that 20,587 Viet Cong had been killed, quote, "mostly in combat situations…by regular or paramilitary forces." Unquote. No more than 14 percent of the Viet Cong victims had been killed by PRUs.
In fact, despite its shortcomings and excesses, the Phoenix Program turned out to be one of the most successful things the Americans tried in Vietnam. After the war, communist leaders admitted that it had eliminated around sixty thousand authentic Viet Cong members. Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a veteran Viet Cong leader, told Time-Life correspondent Stanley Karnow in an interview that the Phoenix Program had been, quote, “very dangerous,” unquote, and added, quote, “We never feared a division of troops, but the infiltration of a couple of guys into our ranks created tremendous difficulties for us.” Unquote. A deputy commander of the Viet Cong, General Tran Do, described the Phoenix Program as, quote, "extremely destructive." Unquote. Colonel Bui Tin, a North Vietnamese officer we will hear from again at the end of the war, called it a “devious and cruel” operation that cost, quote, “the lives of thousands of our cadres.” Unquote. The former VC minister of justice wrote in his memoirs, quote: "In some locations… Phoenix was dangerously effective. In Hau Nghia Province, for example, …the [VCI] infrastructure was virtually eliminated." End quote.
Finally, Nguyen Co Thach, a senior North Vietnamese diplomat during the war, and a foreign minister after the war, stated, quote, "We had many weaknesses in the South because of Phoenix. In some provinces, 95 percent of the communist cadre had been assassinated or compromised by the Phoenix operation." Unquote. He further stated that Phoenix had, quote, "wiped out many of our bases." Unquote. That action alone caused many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to flee across the border, to their secret bases in Cambodia. Afterwards, the Viet Cong was no longer able to operate effectively. When North Vietnam launched the Easter Offensive in 1972, and the Ho Chi Minh Campaign in 1975, the Viet Cong were only minor participants.
To keep the South Vietnamese government informed of what was happening at the peace talks, President Johnson met once more with President Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, in Honolulu, Hawaii on July 19, 1968. In October the US and South Vietnamese navies launched Operation Sealord, the largest combined naval operation of the war. Here more than 1,200 American and South Vietnamese Navy gunboats and warships targeted North Vietnamese supply lines, along the coast of Cambodia and in the Mekong River delta. They also successfully disrupted communist supply camps in the delta and along other waterways during the two-year operation.
Because the peace talks were deadlocked, Johnson came under pressure to make a concession to the North Vietnamese, because real progress towards peace would help Hubert Humphrey win the presidential election in November. On October 31, Johnson gave in; he announced a complete halt to the US bombing of North Vietnam, thereby ending the bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder. During the three and a half years that Operation Rolling Thunder went on, US planes had dropped a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam, the equivalent of 800 tons per day, with little actual success in halting the flow of soldiers and supplies into the South or in damaging North Vietnamese morale. In fact, the opposite happened as the North Vietnamese patriotically rallied around their Communist leaders during the onslaught. Bombing campaigns almost never break morale. The only case I can think of where one did was during the Kosovo phase of the Yugoslav Civil War, when US planes bombed Serbia for ten weeks in 1999. Anyway, by the time Operation Rolling Thunder ended, many towns south of Hanoi had been leveled, with a US estimate of 52,000 civilian deaths. In return, using sophisticated, Soviet-made air defense equipment, the North Vietnamese managed to shoot down 922 US fighters and bombers.
The concession did not work as planned. On Election Day, Republican Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey, to become the next president. I will finish today’s narrative with a disclaimer. Most of my sources claim that Nixon won by pulling a trick with the peace talks, the first of a series of “October surprises” that Republicans and Democrats have accused each other of doing since then. Supposedly Nixon did it with the help of Anna Chennault, one of his supporters and the widow of General Claire Chennault, the leader of the Flying Tigers squadron during World War II. I mentioned General Chennault in Episode 64, when Ho Chi Minh had a meeting with him. Anna was a personal friend of South Vietnamese President Thieu, and so the story goes, she passed him secret messages from Nixon, urging him to stay out of the peace talks because if he did so, Nixon would give him a better deal after he became president. Thus, Thieu did not participate in the talks, and Nixon went to the White House.
Later on, at least by the time of the Watergate scandal, Nixon would look like the type of scoundrel who would undermine a peace agreement to get elected, but the truth of the matter is that in 1968, there was no peace agreement to scuttle. Nobody at this date – not Johnson, Humphrey, Nixon, Thieu, or the North Vietnamese leaders, would have accepted a peace agreement, unless it was completely on their terms. Thieu had no intention of participating if the Viet Cong were going to be there, and the North Vietnamese Communist Party Boss, Le Duan, only would have accepted an agreement that called for a complete withdrawal of American forces and a dismantling of the Saigon government. Of course the Americans in charge at this point would not accept an agreement like that, since the purpose of American involvement in Vietnam for nearly twenty years had been to support a non-communist government in Saigon.
Lien-Hang Nguyen, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of the book Hanoi’s War,is an expert on North Vietnam’s foreign ministry records, and in a 2015 interview, she stated that Le Duan, quote, “wasn’t ready to negotiate seriously until the summer of 1972,” unquote. It took the defeat of the Easter Offensive to convince him that North Vietnam could not win, as long as the Americans were around. Still, he gained an advantage by demanding unacceptable terms in 1968. When Nixon took office, he would find himself stuck with a bombing halt hindering his war effort, and peace talks that had no chance of success.
Okay, that brings us to the end of 1968. Lately I have ended each year of the Second Indochina War with a series of numbers to tell you how the war was going. For 1968, the year ended with 495,000 American troops – almost half a million! – in Vietnam. This was the most expensive year in the war for the Americans; they spent $77.4 billion, which is worth $569 billion in 2020 dollars – almost half of what was spent on the entire war. 1968 was also the bloodiest year for the Americans and their allies. More than 1,000 Americans were killed each month, for a year-end total of 14,000 – almost half of the 30,000 American deaths suffered to date. The South Vietnamese suffered nearly twice as many losses; 27,915 ARVN soldiers were killed. For the other side, it was estimated that around two hundred thousand communists were killed, roughly five of them for every American and South Vietnamese soldier lost.
An estimated 150,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1968. Although the US conducted up to 200 air strikes against the trail each day, up to 10,000 North Vietnamese trucks were driving on it at any given time. And we saw with Operation Sealord that North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies were now sneaking in by way of Cambodia, too, but I couldn’t find any figures on how much got to the Viet Cong that way.
I think you will agree with me when I say this about 1968: “That was certainly a busy year, wasn’t it?” Not only did it take two whole episodes to cover wartime events in 1968, there were plenty of other events unrelated to the war, from the Olympics in Grenoble, France and Mexico City, to Apollo 8, the first manned flight to the moon. Twenty years later, Time Magazine printed a special issue all about memories from 1968, entitled “The Year That Shaped a Generation.” So join me next time when we move on to 1969 and see a new administration take over the American side of the war. What will they do that is different? We will say goodbye to one of the key players on the North Vietnamese side as well, though that won’t affect them as much as the change in presidents will affect the United States.
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