Live Blog: The Vietnam War – Episode 5, This is What We Do (July 1967-December 1967)

“The Vietnamese didn’t care whether you were from Roxbury (black) or South Boston (Catholic). They saw you as American, and they wanted to kill you because you were American.” – Roger Harris


It is a tragedy that we often require a common foe in order to realize how similar we are. Blacks from one Boston neighborhood may have hated Catholics from another part of the city, but in war, they came together and shed the same blood, for the same cause. But while black and white Americans fought side by side in Vietnam, back in the United States, dozens were killed in race riots as the fight for civil rights intensified.

The de-humanization of the enemy became a necessary step of living with the violence inflicted by both sides. Young soldiers found it tough to kill human beings, but killing an “object” was much less difficult. Attaching hatred to these “objects” made the act of killing one even easier, and the more scared a soldier was of the enemy, the more he hated it.


A strength of the episode were the dual perspectives of a battle in the demilitarized zone (The irony is not lost on me), with a soldier from each side talking about it from his point of view. As awful a day as it was for the marines, the North Vietnamese suffered far higher casualties in “winning” the battle. So often, we grow up learning about one side of historical events; The Roman perspective at Carthage, the British perspective at Waterloo, the French perspective at Verdun, or the American perspective at D-Day. While we can debate the political justice of various regimes, the individual soldiers bearing the brunt of the horrors of war are often as far removed from the decision-making process as the ordinary citizens.

In 1967, no candidate who wanted to end the war was allowed to run in the South Vietnamese elections. Adding to a growing list of infractions, the United States was manipulating a foreign government, in defiance of the principles of self-determination, sovereignty, and democracy, which the U.S. holds so dear in its own elections. In a corresponding act, North Vietnamese communist leader, Le Duan, consolidated his power by removing those opposed to his military plans, and temporarily sending other powerful figures like Ho Chi Minh abroad.

In the United States, anti-war protests continued, culminating in a 50,000-person march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon. While protesters could view American military personnel sympathetically, the Government itself became an enemy in the eyes of many. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, having lost confidence in the war, and favoring a withdrawal, was removed from office. While it seems he did his best to win the war while in office, one can fault him for both supporting it in the first place, and then not publicly voicing his doubts when it still could have made a difference.


As the war continued, troops fought battle after battle over territory which could not be held, and which did not have strategic value, only to be immediately relocated either to never return, or worse, to return again and again to fight over the same ground.

Click here to go to The Vietnam War documentary’s home page.


Posted in History, The Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Blog: The Vietnam War – Episode 4, Resolve (January 1966-June 1967)

“If you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important.” – Army Adviser James Willbanks.


In episode 4 of The Vietnam War, Burns and Novick remove any doubt of how large a commitment this war would be for the United States. 1965 had seen the U.S. military increase its presence from the 10s of thousands to the 100s of thousands. By the end of this episode, around half a million Americans were serving in Vietnam.


In hindsight, we see the flaw of trying to quantify something as complicated as war. Robert McNamara tried to find a “formula” for victory in Vietnam, capitalizing on the growing power of computers, and collecting more data than would ever be processed. Unfortunately, as Willbanks referenced in the quote above, that which was quantifiable became important, at the expense of all other factors which were at least as important in winning the war, but could not be expressed as numbers. If body count was what was deemed important, that mindset filtered all the way down the ranks, becoming the deciding factor in whether or not a military action was considered a success or a failure.

As the American involvement in Vietnam increased, so did the anti-war protests at home. 1967 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. started to speak out against the war, and many blacks saw the irony of being sent to fight Vietnamese, when it was white Americans who were, often violently, oppressing blacks. As the draft had to expand to college students and married men, the white middle class finally felt the burden of fighting in Vietnam, which had previously been fought mostly by the poor and minorities. This significantly increased both the size and power of the anti-war movement.


The most powerful moment of episode 4 came when a former North Vietnamese soldier described seeing American soldiers weep for their dead, and working to rescue the wounded. This was when he realized that Americans also had some humanity. So often, we are myopic in characterizing our own side of a conflict as being just and humane, while our enemies are beasts, savages, or pure evil. This moment was so touching, because it turned on its head the cliche of Westerners realizing the humanity of a people we are fighting. Very little displays the tragedy of war like realizing we are all essentially the same.

Click here to watch episode 4, now through October 15th.

Posted in History, The Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Blog: The Vietnam War – Episode 3, The River Styx (1964-1965)

2017 10-12 Bruce_Crandall's_UH-1D.jpg

With Lyndon Johnson now president, following Kennedy’s assassination, episode 3 of The Vietnam War details the continued escalation of the U.S. war effort during LBJ’s first two years in office.

As Burns and Novick present the evidence, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was not as malicious a fabrication as some conspiracy theorists believe, and Ho Chi Minh was opposed to the initial action taken by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2nd, 1964. However, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, following false reports of an attack two days later, undoubtedly led to a broader U.S. presence in South Vietnam, and an escalation of the overall hostilities.

Before this series, I didn’t know how omnipresent the National Liberation Front/Viet Cong was in South Vietnam from the very outset. The Geneva Conference of 1954 split Vietnam in two, allowing 300 days for supporters of the Viet Minh to move north of the demilitarized zone, and supporters of the Republic of Vietnam (overseen by the French and British) to move south of it. Many sympathizers to the Viet Minh cause remained in the South, and they were reinforced by support from the North via the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia, as well as by sea.


LBJ increased the army and military presence in South Vietnam in order to combat the guerrilla warfare popping up in province after province. At the same time, he relied primarily on the air force to deliver vast payloads of bombs and chemicals against targets in North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and in support of American ground troops in the South. The reliance on air power was at once a benefit of American military superiority (causing damage to the enemy with relatively few American casualties) and a curse, as collateral damage and civilian deaths led to increased support for the opposition.


Despite winning an election to retain the presidency, LBJ was now deeply involved in a conflict with no clear path to victory, and no support from traditional U.S. allies like Britain, France, and Canada.

Click here to view episode 3 through October 15th.

Posted in History, The Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Tweeting “Grant” by Ron Chernow


Ron Chernow (author of bestselling biographies about Hamilton and Washington) has just released his latest book, Grant. I’ve been tweeting quotes and thoughts as I listen. I’m almost halfway through the 48-hour audiobook, so below are my tweets thus far, in case you missed them. Check my Twitter for more tonight, tomorrow, and Friday, if necessary.

Click here for the Fountain Notes of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.

Click here for the Fountain Notes of Michael Korda’s Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.

Click here for the Fountain Notes of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Posted in Biographies, History, Useful Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Live Blog: The Vietnam War – Episode 2, Riding the Tiger (1961-1963)

“We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the communists and get the American people to re-elect me.” – John F. Kennedy in April of 1963.


The second episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary focuses on the events in Vietnam during JFK’s presidency (Click here for my blog post about episode 1). Prior to watching, I had a vague impression in my head of JFK being the president who “got us into the war”, but knew very little about what actually happened during those years.

Especially after listening to a pair of Eisenhower biographies (1, 2), it is clear to me how much JFK wanted to differentiate his administration from his predecessor’s by being more overt in his actions to thwart the spread of communism. Even before LBJ‘s now-famous lamenting about getting drawn further into the conflict, JFK was wrestling with a bad situation getting even worse.


Perhaps more consequential than his increase of American military presence in Vietnam, was his lukewarm support for a military coup to remove the troublesome South Vietnamese autocrat, Ngo Diem. Orchestrated by South Vietnamese generals, the coup ended with the murder of both Diem and his powerful brother, to the shock of a remorseful Kennedy. A revolving door of new South Vietnamese government leaders followed, ensuring that the United States had uneven support in the years to follow.


This coup was the climax of the Buddhist crisis, perhaps most infamous for its self-immolations by Buddhist monks. Between the political crisis, sectarian violence, and powerful independence movement spearheaded by the National Liberation Front (aka Viet Cong), one gains a clearer picture of how tough a situation the U.S. military was about to confront.

Click here to stream the episode anytime through October 15th.

Posted in History, The Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Live Blog: The Vietnam War – Episode 1, Deja Vu (1858-1961)

The newest documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick aired recently on PBS stations. A 10-part, 18-hour series about the Vietnam War, PBS has made it available to stream through October 15th. I am taking advantage of that, and will be live blogging short posts after I finish each episode.

Having just finished Jim Newton’s, Eisenhower: The White House Years, this episode, which covers from the French occupation of Indochina in 1848 through the end of the Eisenhower administration at the start of 1961, seemed like a natural transition. Newton had mentioned Laos, but not the pair of U.S. military advisers killed in Vietnam during Eisenhower’s second term. Newton claimed the only U.S. combat casualty during Eisenhower’s presidency (following the Korean War) had been one shot by a sniper during Operation Blue Bat in Lebanon (1958). If I remember correctly, Jean Edward Smith didn’t even mention this one in his biography, Eisenhower: In War and Peace. Either way, we are safe in stating the military casualties during his presidency were extremely low, when compared with FDR, Truman, LBJ, and Nixon.


I knew almost nothing about Ho Chi Minh before this episode. He was very well traveled, had spent 30 years in exile from his native land, and considered his desire for an independent Vietnam to be in keeping with American values. He even went so far as to quote the Declaration of Independence in a speech. Of course, the relationship soured after the end of World War II, when the United States would not support their struggle against French rule.

I think the biggest lesson from this episode is just how messed up the situation was even before any substantial U.S. involvement. When Ngo Dinh Diem seized power in South Vietnam, removing all hope of elections to reunify Vietnam as promised at the Geneva Conference of 1954, the U.S. got sucked into supporting an oppressive autocrat simply because he was anti-communist. It was not the first time, and would not be the last, but perhaps it was the costliest.


Watch The Vietnam War – Episode 1, Deja Vu (1858-1961) here through October 15th.

Posted in History, The Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eisenhower’s Brand of Conservatism and the ‘Middle Way’

Dwight Eisenhower was a profoundly conservative man, dedicated to the conviction that government served society best by safeguarding the individualism of the governed, and allowing maximum liberty within those limits. His “middle way”, as he shaped and explained that idea, explicitly rejected the notion that government should control the lives of citizens, or eliminate all fear or want, but he also stood firmly apart from those who would, as a matter of principle, reject the useful services of a government that could advance the economy, or protect its people.” – Jim Newton, writing in Eisenhower: The White House Years.

2017 10-3Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959.jpg

“When I refer to the “middle way”, I merely mean the middle way as it represents a practical working basis between extremists, both of whose doctrines I flatly reject. It seems to me that no great intelligence is required in order to discern the practical necessity of establishing some kind of security for individuals in a specialized, and highly industrialized, age. At one time, such security was provided by the existence of free land, and the great mass of untouched, and valuable, natural resources throughout our country. These are no longer to be had for the asking. We have had the experience of million of people – devoted,  fine Americans – who have walked the streets, unable to find work, or any kind of sustenance for themselves and their families. On the other hand, for us to push further and further into the socialistic experiment is to deny the validity of all those convictions we have held as the cumulative power of free citizens exercising their own initiative, inventiveness, and desires to provide a better living for themselves and their children.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, writing to a friend in 1954.

Eisenhower’s birthday is coming up on October 14th, and I am hoping to have Fountain Notes ready for both the aforementioned Eisenhower: The White House Years and Jean Edward Smith’s, Eisenhower: In War and Peace.

You can connect to the Fountain of Chris Twitter for short quotes and updates, Facebook for the good stuff that won’t fit on Twitter, and Instagram for my dogs, daily antics, and some business stuff.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment