Better late than never, as the saying goes! Sorry for the delays. This episode covers the war in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971. Also covered are events in the United States at the same time that affected the war: more antiwar protests, and the publication of the Pentagon Papers.
This episode is dedicated to Ben G., Willem P., and Alejandro F., for the donations they made to the podcast. This time the donations were particularly generous. I don’t know if that was in response to the announcement I made at the beginning of July, about the need to cut back on the time I was spending recording and editing, but I am always thankful, even when the donations are small. Since today’s episode is focused on war stories, may all of you continue to live in peace and prosperity, even in these crazy times. And speaking of war stories, let’s get on with the show!
Episode 93: The Second Indochina War, Part 20
or, Vietnamization Continues
Greetings, dear listeners! If you are a regular listener, you will remember that for the past three episodes, I have been promoting the Intelligent Speech Conference, an online conference of 40 producers of educational podcasts. That took place last Saturday, June 27, 2020, and I certainly had a great time, meeting podcasters I have been listening to for as long as five years. The presentation I gave went well, too; afterwards all the feedback I got for it was positive. I have been informed that the videos made of the presentations will be made available to speakers like myself, but I don’t know how that will work yet. Maybe I will upload my video on YouTube, for the benefit of those who missed it. Go to the podcast’s Facebook page to keep up to date on that.
Alright, what’s in store for today’s show? Today we are resuming the narrative for the part of the Second Indochina War that took place in Vietnam. You probably know this conflict better as the Vietnam War if you are in the United States, or the American War if you are in Vietnam. We broke off the Vietnam narrative in Episode 89, when we reached the end of 1969. So that’s the episode you need to listen to, in order to understand what’s going on in this one. Or if this is the first episode you have listened to in this podcast, in order to catch up on the Second Indochina War, you will need to listen to Episodes 71 through 92, except for 76, 77, and 85.
If you’re still here, I will assume you already listened to the other episodes, and are ready for this one. To the Batmobile, let’s go!
1970 and 1971 were relatively quiet years in Vietnam, compared with what had happened there over the past decade. To be sure, there were still clashes, and some soldiers on both sides would be killed, but the fighting was on a small scale – no major campaigns were launched by any of the four armies active in Vietnam: MACV, the American force, ARVN, the Army of South Vietnam, PAVN, the Army of North Vietnam, and the National Liberation Front, better known as the Viet Cong. During these years, most of the action was not in South Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos. Go to the previous episode, Episode 92, for the events in Cambodia at this time, while Episode 79 covered the events in Laos. Now why did the four players hold back in Vietnam?
If you listened to Episode 89, you know why the Americans didn’t want to act – they were winding down their own involvement, and turning over the war’s responsibilities to the South Vietnamese, so they could go home. The South Vietnamese had been training for this, through a program called “Vietnamization,” but they were not confident yet, and thus showed little initiative where the Americans were not around to back them up. By contrast, the North Vietnamese were confident, but they were not ready to act yet. And in the episode on the Tet Offensive, we saw how the Viet Cong had suffered losses so severe that they would not recover for the rest of the war, so instead of acting on their own, they followed the lead of the North Vietnamese.
We noted previously that the United States had gotten five of its allies to send troops to fight alongside them in Vietnam. Of these, South Korea made the largest commitment, and because they had fought communists at home, in the Korean War, the Koreans hated communists, and they fought so hard here that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong learned to fear them. Still, at the peak of their involvement, the South Koreans had 50,000 troops in South Vietnam, about one tenth the number of US servicemen in the peak year, 1969. Now all five allies were following the American lead, and reducing their involvement, too. The Philippines had already withdrawn its troops in December 1969, while Australia, New Zealand and Thailand pulled their troops out by 1972. The last ally to go was – you guessed it – South Korea; they had a few soldiers in South Vietnam until early 1973.
One theater with events related to the war was not in Southeast Asia at all, but in the United States. We will get to those events shortly. Finally, there was Paris, France, where peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam had been deadlocked since 1968. One sticking point was that the communists refused to recognize the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government, while the South Vietnamese wouldn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Viet Cong. This impasse was resolved by only naming North Vietnam and the United States as participating parties; Viet Cong officials could join the North Vietnam team without being recognized as Viet Cong, while South Vietnamese delegates joined the US team. Aside from that, the only real change was that during the Johnson presidency, the issue of several hundred Americans being held prisoner in North Vietnam was largely ignored, but Richard Nixon’s negotiators now made it a priority to demand the release of those prisoners. A former foreign minister, Xuan Thuy, continued to lead the talks on the North Vietnamese side, while after Nixon became president, the chief American negotiator was always a former ambassador, first Henry Cabot Lodge, and later David Bruce.
Meanwhile, to break the deadlock, Nixon gave his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, a special mission. While the official peace talks continued, Kissinger would meet secretly with another North Vietnamese official, Le Duc Tho. In Episode 89 I mentioned a four-man team running North Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh’s death; since Tho was not part of that team, he ranked as the Number Five member of the Hanoi Politburo. They had their first meeting on August 4, 1969, and a steady series of secret negotiations between them began on February 12, 1970. Here is how Stanley Karnow, Time-Life’s Vietnam War correspondent, described Tho. Quote: “Le Duc Tho, a gray, austere, aloof man then in his late fifties, had none of the charm of Ho Chi Minh, the flair of Vo Nguyen Giap, or the warmth of Pham Van Dong.” End quote.
Le Duc Tho was born in the Red River Delta in 1911, the son of a worker in the French colonial government of Vietnam, so he got to attend French schools, and then became a nationalist upon graduation. When Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, Tho was a charter member. For this, the French imprisoned him twice, from 1930 to 1936 and again from 1939 to 1944. This included time on Poulo Condore Island, the French prison island in the South China Sea; now it’s called Con Son Island. Between prison sentences, Tho spent most of his time running or hiding from the police. After World War II ended, he joined the Viet Minh, and for the First Indochina War, he was in the southernmost part of Vietnam, serving as Deputy Secretary, Head of the Organization Department of Cochinchina Committee Party. With the partition of Vietnam in 1954, Tho had to move to the North, but after the Second Indochina War began, Tho was the senior party member overseeing the communist insurgency in the South. This meant he sneaked into the South from time to time, to supervise the development of the Viet Cong movement; this time, when he hid in jungles or villages, it was to escape the Americans. After the war, he did not talk about what he did in the war, aside from the peace talks, and refused to be interviewed. He died of cancer in 1990, and today we know less about him than about other North Vietnamese leaders.
At the peace talks, Tho saw negotiations as another form of protracted guerrilla warfare. Thus, he would drag out the talks by haggling over the smallest details. Still, Kissinger developed a perverse kind of respect for him. Quote: “I don’t look back on our meetings with any great joy, yet he was a person of substance and discipline who defended the position he represented with dedication.” Unquote. Despite the lack of progress, Kissinger and Tho would keep meeting for secret talks, on and off, for nearly three years. The North Vietnamese liked having a place where they could meet with a senior US official, and not have the South Vietnamese getting in the way, while Kissinger was free from the supervision of Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Indeed, those two Cabinet members did not know about the secret peace talks until a year after they started. Don’t worry, they didn’t miss anything! On October 7, during a TV speech, President Nixon proposed a “standstill” cease-fire in which all troops would stop shooting and remain in place, to wait for a formal peace agreement. Hanoi did not respond; they weren’t ready yet to cease hostilities in any way. We will come back to the peace talks when the secret talks became known to the public, in 1972.
Meanwhile, Nixon announced on April 20, 1970, that another 150,000 Americans would leave Vietnam within a year. But then just ten days later, Nixon stunned Americans with another announcement, that US troops and South Vietnamese forces would be going into Cambodia to fight North Vietnamese troops there. We covered this action in the previous episode of this podcast; Nixon said the purpose of it was, quote, “…not for the purpose of expanding the war into Cambodia but for the purpose of ending the war in Vietnam and winning the just peace we desire.” Unquote. Many Americans didn’t see the Cambodian incursion this way; they saw it as a step in the wrong direction. A tidal wave of protests followed from politicians, the press, students, professors, clergy members, business leaders, and many average Americans against Nixon and the Vietnam War.
As before, college campuses became hotbeds for antiwar protests. The worst clash was in Ohio, at Kent State University, where on May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen shot student protestors, killing four and wounding nine. In response to this, more than 400 colleges and universities across the United States shut down. In Washington, nearly 100,000 protesters surrounded various government buildings, including the White House and historical monuments. Still, a Gallup poll taken at the time showed that most Americans felt the National Guard wasn’t responsible for the violence; they had acted in self-defense. This encouraged Nixon to feel that by and large, the American people were on his side; he called them the “silent majority.”
On June 22, 1970, American usage of jungle defoliants in Vietnam was halted, after studies were published showing that chemicals like Agent Orange can cause birth defects. Then two days later, the US Congress repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The president would no longer be given a quote-unquote “blank check” by Congress to do whatever he pleased in a war zone. President Nixon pushed back by claiming he had the authority to continue the war to protect American soldiers in Vietnam. Still, the US troops in Cambodia were pulled out by the end of June. In December, the Cooper-Church amendment was added to the US defense appropriations bill, forbidding the use of any more US ground forces in Laos or Cambodia.
Here I will share with you what Stanley Karnow wrote about Nixon’s situation in mid-1970, from his book, Vietnam: A History.
<play Karnow quote>
In Vietnam, the last big battle between Americans and North Vietnamese was the battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord. By now, because of troop pullouts, the only American division left in full strength was the famous 101st Airborne Division. To regain the initiative against the enemy, the commander of the 101st, General Ben Harrison, was put in charge of an operation codenamed “Texas Star.” The plan was to go into the A Shau valley, and use helicopters to rebuild an abandoned firebase on four hilltops, Fire Support Base Ripcord. We mentioned the A Shau valley in previous episodes; located just west of the important city of Hue, this was the site of some other battles. Once completed, the firebase would be used as an outpost for a planned offensive by the Marines, to search and destroy North Vietnamese supply lines in the mountains overlooking the valley.
While the 101st Airborne Division was at work, the enemy was gathering intelligence. From the middle of March until the end of June, the North Vietnamese used mortars, anti-aircraft guns and small arms to launch sporadic attacks, and they silently moved as many as 25,000 NVA troops into the A Shau Valley. The main battle began on July 1, 1970, and lasted until July 23. During that time, the firebase was bombarded with mortars, as 30,000 North Vietnamese, a force almost ten times the size of the 101st Division, tried to take the firebase. It was only the high ground and the bravery of its defenders that kept the enemy from overrunning Fire Support Base Ripcord.
The final death toll of the battle was 138 Americans killed and 3 missing in action, versus 422 North Vietnamese killed and six captured. Among the dead was 1st Lt. Bob Kalsu, rookie of the year for the Buffalo Bills in 1968; he was the only active pro football player to die in Vietnam. Another killed in action here was Weiland Norris, brother of the actor Chuck Norris. I know what you’re thinking, Chuck Norris should have been there to save the day! Three Medals of Honor and six Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to those who took part in the battle. Afterwards, ARVN troops replaced American troops at the northern border of South Vietnam. The Americans supported ARVN’s move with B-52 raids on the Demilitarized Zone.
Next came a campaign called Operation Jefferson Glenn. This was the last US offensive in Vietnam, and the last operation involving the Marines. Begun on September 5, 1970, it involved the 101st Airborne Division, the 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division, and the South Vietnamese 1st Division. Based in Thua Thien, the province containing Hue, the purposes of the operation were to locate and destroy enemy rocket belts around Hue and Da Nang, and to strengthen the defenses of Hue, Da Nang, and Quang Tri. It went on for thirteen months, until October 6, 1971. On the American and South Vietnamese side, the casualty count was 60 killed, 291 wounded, 1 missing, while 2,026 enemy combatants were reported killed in action; of course this was called another victory for anti-communist forces. Finally, it is worth noting that shortly after Operation Jefferson Glenn was finished, the 101st Airborne began preparations to depart South Vietnam, and returned to the United States in March 1972.
For 1970, American troop levels dropped from 428,000 at the year’s beginning to 280,000 by year’s end. 6,173 Americans were killed in action for that year.
February and March of 1971 saw the most ambitious venture ever attempted by ARVN – an invasion of Laos from the area of the Demilitarized Zone. We looked at this operation, called Lam Son 719, in Episode 79. The objective was to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, North Vietnam’s supply line to its forces in the South. Unfortunately the operation was bungled from the start. As Henry Kissinger later described it, quote, “the operation, conceived in doubt and assailed by skepticism, proceeded in confusion.” Unquote. American strategists estimated that sixty thousand soldiers would have been needed for the operation to succeed, but Saigon committed an inexperienced force only half as large. Naturally the prime minister of Laos, Prince Souvanna Phouma, protested at this violation of his country’s sovereignty, and the combatants simply ignored him. The ARVN troops took an abandoned Laotian town, Tchepone, and then the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, ordered them to turn back before they reached the Trail, so the operation was a failure. The Americans could not send ground troops to accompany the South Vietnamese, but they could provide air support, and lost more than one hundred helicopters by the end of the operation.
Afterwards, an upbeat President Nixon declared that, quote, “Vietnamization has succeeded,” unquote, but the failed offensive indicated true Vietnamization of the war might be difficult to achieve. As a result, ARVN would never go on the offensive again. The one bit of good news was that the North Vietnamese had to postpone their next campaign in South Vietnam until 1972, because they lost so many men and supplies in Laos.
The last US Marine combat units departed from Vietnam at the end of April 1971. However, those who thought the troops weren’t leaving fast enough continued to hold anti-war demonstrations. In the past, Nixon dismissed the protesters as, quote, “bums blowing up campuses.” Unquote. But he couldn’t do it for one group of servicemen called Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who began a week of protests on April 19. Their main demonstration was in Washington, DC, of course, where the high point came the next day, with the appearance of one of the organization’s leaders, Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
<play first Kerry quote>
It was hard to argue with what Kerry said here. However, earlier in the same speech, he also claimed the troops had committed a number of atrocities:
<play second Kerry quote>
Did you listen to Episode 90, where I discussed the My Lai Massacre? Here Kerry was making it sound like My Lai-style events were the rule, not the exception. After the war Kerry went into politics, becoming a senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate for president in 2004, and a Secretary of State, and a lot of veterans have hated him for what he said, arguing that it not only hurt them, but it was also used in communist propaganda. On April 21, more than 50 veterans marched to The Pentagon, and tried to give themselves up as war criminals. A Pentagon spokesman took their names and turned them away. The fact that the veterans were never prosecuted shows that no American leaders took Kerry’s atrocity claims seriously.
On April 23, another group of veterans, including Kerry, went to the Capitol building to return the medals and ribbons they had been awarded for their service, and when a fence was set up to keep them out, they tossed their medals over the fence. The police were ordered not to arrest any of these demonstrators, because they were widely respected by the American people. As Pat Buchanan, a White House spokesman, put it at the time, quote, “The Crazies will be in town soon enough, and if we want a confrontation, let’s have it with them.” Unquote. Right on cue, another mass demonstration, numbering 200,000 and led by hippies, took place in Washington after the veterans were done. Here more than 7,000 protestors were arrested, for shutting down traffic in Washington on May Day 1971. This was the largest mass arrest in US history, according to the historian L. A. Kauffman. Public opinion polls taken after the demonstration showed that most Americans approved of the police getting tough on these protesters. Meanwhile, membership in Vietnam Veterans Against the War peaked that year, at around 25,000. Membership shrank when American servicemen came home from Vietnam, but the organization is still around today, with about 2,000 members demonstrating against war in general.
On the morning of June 13, 1971, President Nixon picked up the latest edition of The New York Times. The president’s daughter, Tricia Nixon, had gotten married the day before, and on the front page, next to the story about the wedding, was another article, entitled Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement. The article was written by Neil Sheehan; you may remember him from Episode 73, when he was the first reporter to call the battle of Ap Bac a defeat for the Americans. This was the first excerpt published from the “Pentagon Papers,” a Defense Department archive of the paperwork involved in decisions concerning Vietnam, made by previous White House administrations. Dated from 1945 to 1967, these papers had been collected by Robert MacNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, so that a future history text could cover how the United States got involved in Vietnam, and they were supposed to be kept secret. The Pentagon Papers did not make Nixon look bad, because they talked about things done by the presidents before him, but Henry Kissinger pointed out that some day the Times might also get its hands on papers discussing Nixon’s activities, so publication of these classified documents infuriated Nixon.
Completed in January 1969, just before Nixon took office, and bound into 47 volumes, the Pentagon Papers were 3,000 pages of narrative combined with 4,000 pages of supporting documents. One of those involved in the project was Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine who had worked as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and at the Department of Defense. Ellsberg had originally supported US involvement in Indochina, but later came to oppose the war, feeling it was unwinnable. When Sheehan found out about the papers, he persuaded Ellsberg to photocopy some of them and give the copies to the Times. That was the source of the upcoming articles revealing the most damning information on US policy, including the Kennedy administration’s approval of the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, and the fact that bombing raids had been carried out over Laos and Cambodia, long before they were reported in the news.
The New York Times published three articles in the series by June 15, when Nixon attempted to stop further publication by obtaining a federal court injunction against the Times, arguing that publication was detrimental to national security. Instead, The Washington Post began its own publication of the Pentagon Papers; Ellsberg had also given them copies of the documents. The legal case quickly went to the Supreme Court, which saw this as a First Amendment issue, and at the end of June it ruled 6-3 in favor of the New York Times and Washington Post, since the information in the papers did not threaten what the United States was doing in Indochina now.
That should have been the end of the matter, but the White House went on to press legal charges against Ellsberg, which took until 1973 to be dismissed. As for the Pentagon Papers themselves, they were declassified on June 13, 2011, the 40th anniversary of the first article taken from them, so they are all available for public viewing today. In response to the Pentagon Papers affair, two Nixon aides, John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson, established a group called the “White House Plumbers,” to investigate Daniel Ellsberg and to “plug” future news leaks. Colson also compiled an “enemies list” featuring the names of 200 prominent Americans considered to be anti-Nixon. One year later, in June 1972, all this would lead to the “Plumbers” breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters, starting the Watergate scandal and eventually causing the downfall of the Nixon presidency, but those are topics for another podcast.
Now let’s go back to South Vietnam, where it was time for new elections. Parliamentary elections were held first, on August 29. Then the presidential election took place on October 2, 1971. Nguyen Van Thieu was worried that the Army’s poor performance in Laos, from earlier in the year, would hurt his chances for re-election, but that fear was groundless. The two candidates who initially challenged him were the vice president, Nguyen Cao Ky, and General Duong Van Minh. We met both Ky and Minh in earlier episodes of the podcast. Thieu and Ky stopped getting along after they had been elected together in 1967, and now they were fierce rivals, while Minh simply wanted to end the war through a peace settlement with North Vietnam. Thieu found a technicality that disqualified Ky from running, and Minh, knowing that he would lose, dropped out of the race, so when their names were taken off the ballot, Thieu was the only candidate left. South Vietnamese who opposed Thieu called this a “one-man election.” Thieu was re-elected easily, with 94 percent of the vote, a much better performance than the one he gave for the 1967 election. However, there was a new vice president; Ky’s replacement was Tran Van Huong, who had been prime minister in late 1964-early 1965. Huong was 67 years old, making him twenty years older than Thieu, and nobody expected him to give any trouble. Little did anyone know, this would be South Vietnam’s last election.
On December 26, 1971, President Nixon ordered the initiation of Operation Proud Deep Alpha, an intensive five-day bombing campaign against military targets in North Vietnam just north of the Demilitarized Zone, citing violations of the agreements surrounding the 1968 bombing halt. 1971 ended with 156,800 American troops left in Vietnam. 2,357 Americans had been killed in action that year. At the same time, almost ten times as many South Vietnamese troops had been killed, and this was cited as more evidence that the Vietnamization program was working.
And that’s all for now. I honestly thought we would get to cover 1972 in this episode, but here we are at the end of 1971, and have run out of time already! After all, we want enough information in each episode to feel that we thoroughly understand the subject matter, and I told you in the past that it’s easier to do several short episodes, than one that takes multiple hours to finish. Currently I estimate we will need three more episodes to finish the Second Indochina War narrative. So join me next time as we continue our coverage of the war into 1972. We are in the home stretch on this story, that’s for sure!
Podcast update: Remember at the beginning of the episode, when I said I was going to upload my presentation from the Intelligent Speech Conference to YouTube? And then I would post a link to the video from the podcast Facebook page? Well, all that has been done already! Several days passed from the time I recorded the beginning of the episode, until I recorded the part you’re hearing now, and the first part sounded good enough that I didn’t want to record it again. I think I will also post a link on the Blubrry.com page hosting this episode. Watch and enjoy! End update.
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