DISASTER AND STRUGGLE — a Timeline of the Vietnam War, the Pinky Show Transcripts Part II

A lot of the information that people think they know about the Vietnam is wrong. Factually incorrect. There's a lot of misinformation and false assumptions. In order to fully appreciate my upcoming posts about the fall of Laos from an insider's perspective (my fathers) and the day my father made that fateful call to my mother, it is important that you understand the reasons the U.S. fought the Vietnam War. You'll be surprised to find that the seeds of our involvement goes all the way back to WWII.

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IMAGE CREDITs ABOVE: Amnesty International's take on the Infamous Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo.  If you prefer not to wait for the balance of the posts to be rolled out over the next few days you can watch the entire 40-minute episode of the Pinky Show in Part One of this series of posts here
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THE CLIFF NOTES, edited from transcripts. Presented here are the real reasons as well as the U.S. government presentation of facts to the American public.

Vietnam existed for aeons before Americans suddenly started thinking about it in the 1960s as this far-away and nightmarish place. Jungles, rice paddies, war, etc. The Vietnamese are an ancient people, with their own culture and their own identity. Even in ancient times, they had to struggle against foreign domination.

• China occupied Vietnam for approximately a thousand years. The Vietnamese finally expelled the Chinese in the 10th and 11th centuries, but then again in the mid-1800's, Vietnam again fell under foreign domination - this time colonized by France. The French ruled Vietnam through the use of Vietnamese puppet-governments, but the exploitation and oppression that the Vietnamese people suffered was no less severe because of it. French control of Vietnam would last almost a hundred years, until 1940, when Japan, following its own Imperialist dreams, began its own militarized occupation of Vietnam. The Japanese kept both the French and the figurehead Vietnamese emperor in place, while exercising control from behind the scenes - essentially a double-puppet government.


• In 1941 and continuing throughout the World War II years, the Viet Minh form. They are a group of Vietnamese nationalists, who dream of an independent Vietnam, free from foreign domination. Their first political and military objective is to oust the occupying Japanese and French from their homeland. Their leader, communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, is supported by the United States and China because he fights their mutual enemy, the Japanese, from within Vietnam.

• As WWII was winding down, it started to become clear to that Japan was going to lose the war, and many Vietnamese believed that maybe their independence would be close at hand. It didn't happen. In summit meetings held at Yalta and Potsdam, leaders from the United States, Russia, and Britain sat down to decide how they were going to divide up the world after World War II Needless to say, the Vietnamese, or anybody else who 'didn't matter', they weren't invited. The planet was to be divided into spheres of influence - for example, the U.S. and Britain would have influence over Western Europe and the Soviet Union would have Eastern Europe, the United States would get control over North, Central, and South America, the U.S. and Britain would share control the Middle East, and so on.

• Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't a big fan of European Imperialism and he knew the people of Vietnam had suffered tremendously under French rule. But he was also very sensitive to his WWII allies - the English, the French - and English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a close friend of Roosevelt, he felt that if Vietnam were to gain its independence, that would be bad example to their own colonies in the British Empire, especially India. In the end the three powers agreed to let France 'keep' Vietnam.

• Back in Vietnam, the Japanese surrender to the Viet Minh at the end of WWII. The Viet Minh declare Vietnam independent, and essentially there is a lot of partying in the streets. The good feelings don't last long. With Japanese Imperialism no longer a threat, the U.S. revokes its backing of the Viet Minh and Vietnamese independence, and instead transfers its support to the French, who immediately try to re-establish Vietnam as a colony.

• It's obvious to the Viet Minh that they've been betrayed and they resist - full-scale war breaks out between the Vietnamese and the French in 1946. Although the war is generally referred to as the French Indochina War, behind the scenes the United States is France's 'silent partner', financing up to 80% of France's war costs. Even with all the money and guns on their side, the French are decisively defeated by the Viet Minh in 1954 after nine years of very bloody fighting. For the second time in ten years, it looked like the Vietnamese were on the verge of total independence.


• Again this was not the case, no independence yet. You would think that getting trounced on the battlefield means that the loser just picks up and leaves immediately, but in real wars, the situation is never that simple. The French had been in Vietnam for almost one hundred years, and the war amd the effects of colonization itself, had left the country in a disorganized mess. Also the formal terms of France's surrender had to be discussed. The French and the Viet Minh - along with China, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union - they all meet in Geneva, Switzerland in 1954 to sort everything out.

This is where it gets really interesting, but also a little bit tricky.

• At the Geneva Accords, the first thing that needed to be decided was how to actually end the fighting and separate the combatants. It's decided that Vietnam would be temporarily divided in half into two "regroupment areas" - the Viet Minh forces would collect north of the 17th parallel, and the French forces south of the 17th. The French would then leave, and after a period of two years, a unified national election would be held in both the North and the South - at which time the Vietnamese people would be formally, and finally, independent and sovereign under a single government of their choice. This was the plan.

• The two sides agreed to these terms for different reasons. Ho Chi Minh felt that that even though Viet Minh could have eventually wiped out the remaining French forces, he also knew that many more people would have had to die unnecessarily. Besides, Viet Minh had strong support among the Vietnamese people - he was sure that they could easily win a national election.


• The French and Americans, also wanted an end to the fighting - the French were incapable of a military victory and continuing would have been senseless. A two-year window before a national election was attractive to the Americans because they also knew that if an election were to be held right away, that the Viet Minh would easily win. The U.S. didn't want a communist government in Vietnam, a government that would be more politically and economically aligned with China or the Soviet Union rather than the United States. The U.S. saw the two-years as a window of opportunity during which they'd have the chance to pour money and material goods into the southern half of Vietnam to create some semblance of a good economy. This would maybe win over enough of the Vietnamese peasants to elect a government that would be more open to U.S. influence.

• That's exactly what the U.S. did. As the French left Vietnam, the United States seized the moment and immediately embarked on an enormous project of 'nation building'. The result was a new nation - "South Vietnam". This in itself is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of the Vietnam War. One of the fundamental 'facts' that Americans 'know' about the Vietnam War era is that there was a North Vietnam (communist) and a South Vietnam (democratic), and that the United States was helping the South Vietnamese repel communist aggression. What most people don't realize is that South Vietnam was essentially invented by the United States as a base for building and maintaining its own interests in Asia. There was nothing in the Geneva Accords that explicitly stated that Vietnam was to become two separate countries.


• Most people just say 'South Vietnam', 'North Vietnam', like it was always this way. They don't realize that a particular situation was exploited by the United States and that the division was created in an attempt to create a foothold from which they could exert their interests in the region. The Vietnamese people by and large did not want their country split in half.


• Next, the United States installs a puppet government in the newly created South Vietnam. They choose a devout anti-communist Catholic named Diem - recently emerged from exile in New Jersey - to head their new government in Saigon. The two years go by quickly and as the agreed-upon national elections approach, it becomes clear that Diem and his American backers are still not popular enough to win an election against the more popular Ho Chi Minh. The U.S. encourages Diem to block the 1956 elections, which he does - the elections never take place.

• Diem's regime is characterized by corruption and oppression, and by around 1960, grassroots opposition - with support from the Viet Minh leadership in the north - begin to coalesce in the southern countryside. They are the National Liberation Front, or NLF - Diem and the Americans call them the Viet Cong. This is one of the more common misunderstandings about the Vietnam War. We know that we fought against an enemy called the Viet Cong and just assume that the Viet Cong were from North Vietnam. In actuallity, especially in the earlier phases of the war, most of the Viet Cong were from the South. They received guns and supplies and other kinds of support from the Viet Minh in the north, but the Viet Cong were actually rooted in the Vietnamese peasantry of South Vietnam. This pretty much contradicts what most people have in their imagination. Americans and South Vietnamese in the South, Viet Cong in the North [in North Vietnam], everybody fighting against each other somewhere in the middle in the 'battlefront' area. This is not accurate.


• The Viet Cong were essentially a social and political revolutionary movement dedicated to ousting the Americans and their puppet government by force. The United States considered them the enemy and that's why almost all of the fighting during the Vietnam war took place within the borders of 'South Vietnam'. Ironically, you had the President of the United States telling the American people that we're there to help the Vietnamese maintain their independence, and at the same time we're over there in their country fighting them as the enemy?

• It's important to point these kinds of things out, because understanding the geography of the war also reveals a certain reality that somehow still manages to escape American consciousness - that essentially, the U.S. military was trying to squash an armed uprising of Vietnamese, who were in turn just trying to get the American occupiers out of their country.

• By 1963, the Viet Cong had gained widespread popular support throughout South Vietnam. The United States was getting annoyed by Diem's inability to control the situation and orchestrates his assassination in November of that year. Immediately after that the U.S. starts exercising much more direct control over South Vietnam. Back in America, President John F. Kennedy is himself assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumes the presidency.



The following year, 1964, represents a crucial turning point. Privately, the Johnson Administration has decided that an all-out war is the only way to defeat the Vietnamese, but American public opinion remains sharply divided. The solution: the Administration orchestrates a 'wartime media-event' - the infamous "Gulf" of Tonkin Affair - in which the U.S. accuses North Vietnam of firing torpedos at an American destroyer with torpedo boats. This never actually happened, but the story is good enough to galvanize the American people and Congress. Infuriated by the (imaginary) act of aggression, Congress overwhelming approves The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964. The resolution gives President Johnson broad powers to use military force at his discretion. And this he does - U.S. warplanes begin bombing North Vietnam almost immediately - the first of several intense bombing campaigns that would continue for almost a decade. By 1969, there are more than half-a-million U.S. troops in Vietnam, all fighting in a country most Americans can barely find on a map, fighting an enemy that no one seems to understand.

John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas crop.png

John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963 Photo by Victor Hugo King, cc, others CLICK for IMAGE CREDITS

This 'war-time" media-event reminds many current thought leaders of Iraq and the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" campaign. Or the U.S.S. Maine and the Spanish American War. "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

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• Reading all of the the text takes a wee bit of time, something many in our attention-span challenged culture have so little of — so Chapter III of IV Chapters will be posted tomorrow. Or if you just want to know everything right now go back to the first post in this series and watch the video. It requires a 40 min and 23 second commitment. (after the jump scroll down the page to reach the video)

Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]

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  1. Cultures in Conflict: The Viet Nam War. Robert E. Vadas. Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut/London, 2002.
  2. The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War, 1961-1975. George Esper and the Associated Press. Villard Books, New York, 1983.
  3. Herbicidal Warfare: The Ranch Hand Project in Vietnam. Paul Frederick Cecil. Praeger Publishers, New York/Westport, Connecticut/London, 1986.
  4. The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War. Brian Beckett. Multimedia Publications (UK), 1985.
  5. The Pentagon Papers: as published by the New York times. Bantam Books, New York, 1971.
  6. A People's History of the United States, 1492 - Present. Howard Zinn. HarperPerennial, New York, 1980, 1995.
  7. A People's History of the Vietnam War. Jonathan Neale. The New Press, New York/London, 2001, 2003.
  8. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg. Penguin Putnam, 2002.
  9. The Truth About the Most Dangerous and Destructive Nation. Raymond Hirashima. Vantage Press, 1978.
  10. The Umbrella of U.S. Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy. Noam Chomsky. Seven Stories Press, New York, 1999.
  11. Vietnam. Larry Burrows. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002.
  12. Vietnam: A Long History. Nguyen Khac Vien. The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1993.
  13. Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. H. Bruce Franklin. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2000.
  14. Vietnam: A Visual Encyclopedia. Philip Gutzman. PRC Publishing Ltd., 2002.
  15. The Vietnam Experience: The Aftermath, 1975-1985. Edward Doyle, Terrance Maitland, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
  16. The Vietnam Experience: The Fall of the South. Clark Dougan, David Fulghum, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
  17. The Vietnam Experience: Raising the Stakes. Terrance Maitland, Stephen Weiss, and the editors of the Boston Publishing Company. Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1982.
  18. Vietnam Front Pages. Hal Drake (editor). Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, New York, 1986.
  19. Vietnam: The Secret War. Kevin M. Generous. Bison Books, New York, 1985.
  20. Vietnam: The War in the Air: A Pictorial History of the U.S. Air Forces in the Vietnam War: Air Force Army, Navy, and Marines. Col. Gene Gurney, USAF (ret.). Crown Publishers, New York, 1985.
  21. The Vietnam War: An Almanac. John S. Bowman (general editor) & Fox Butterfield (introduction). Bison Books, New York, 1985.