By Katie McLaughlin, CNN August 25, 2014
The Vietnam War began in the decade before, but the conflict, and especially U.S. involvement, escalated in the 1960s. For the first time, Americans witnessed the horrors of war, played out on television screens in their living rooms. I’ve added (16) iconic photos of the war to this article [Pdoggbiker]
1. U.S. involvement in Vietnam began with Eisenhower.
In the late 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration, Vietnam had split into North Vietnam, which was communist, and South Vietnam. Cold War anxieties dictated that if the North Vietnamese communists prevailed, the rest of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes. When he took office in 1961, President John F. Kennedy vowed not to allow South Vietnam fall to communism.
2. The United States and South Vietnam had Catholic presidents who were shot to death in November 1963.
By the early 1960s, South Vietnam’s conventionally trained army was no match for the Vietcong’s guerrilla-style tactics. In addition, South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority revolted against their president, Ngo Dinh Diem. They saw the Catholic ruler as a tyrant.
The Western-educated Diem, however, wielded absolute power and rose to dictator level by the summer of 1963. The CIA discussed toppling the regime.
With U.S. knowledge, Diem was killed by South Vietnamese generals on November 2, 1963. Kennedy immediately regretted Diem’s death and U.S. support for the coup.
Less than three weeks later, on November 22, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One later that day. Soon after, Johnson told a grieving nation, “John Kennedy’s death commands what his life conveyed, that America must move forward.”
3. TV forever changed the way Americans viewed war
As casualties rose, the country increasingly turned against the war. The official line was that Americans were winning in Vietnam, but the evening news told a different story.
“What Vietnam did to America via television was introduce us to a new kind of America,” said author Lawrence Wright. “One that was not pure, one that committed the same kinds of atrocities that are always committed in war, but we had never allowed ourselves to see them.”
Reporter Morley Safer recalled the shock of witnessing Marines burn down 150 houses on the outskirts of the village of Cam Ne. An officer told the newsman that he had been ordered to level the area. Three women were wounded in the attack, one baby was killed, and four people were taken prisoner.
Safer asked a soldier if he had regrets about leaving people homeless, and the soldier replied, “You can’t expect to do your job and feel pity for these people.”
Another soldier told Safer, “I think it’s sad in a way, but I don’t think there’s any other way you can get around it in this kind of a war.”
Americans back home were stunned when the CBS report about the Cam Ne village hit the news.
After the broadcast, Johnson reportedly called then-CBS president, Frank Stanton, and said, “Frank, this is your President, your boys just s–t on the flag of the United States.”
4. Some Americans resorted to self-mutilation to avoid the draft.
Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll defined the 1960s. But the decade was also a time of pivotal change — politically, socially and technologically.
Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev speaks to the East German Communist Party Congress on January 14, 1963. His public statements in Berlin indicated the USSR did not immediately plan a full-scale revival of its efforts to force the Western occupation powers out of the former German capital. 1963 was a seminal year, not only because of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but advances in technology, entertainment and evolving political relationships also kept the world on its toes.
The end of World War II set the stage for the struggle between communism and capitalism that pitted East against West and pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Crimean resort town of Yalta was the setting for an historic meeting of British, U.S. and Soviet leaders — Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin — in February 1945. With the defeat of Nazi Germany imminent, the Big Three allies agreed to jointly govern postwar Germany, while Stalin pledged fair and open elections in Poland.
By 1960, television was firmly entrenched as America’s new hearth. Close to 90% of households had a TV, making the device almost ubiquitous. The ensuing decade would see the medium grow in both importance and range.
When the choices were Vietnam, jail or draft-dodging by going to Canada, some young men panicked and devised ways to fail the military’s physical exam, including mutilating themselves, starving or pretending to be gay.
The compulsory draft, which had been initiated during World War II, meant registration for young men was mandatory at 18.
Working-class men were more likely to get drafted over those in the middle class because college students could get deferments.
In January 1965, 5,400 young men were called for the draft. By December of that year, more than 45,000 young men were called. When the monthly draft call rose from 17,000 to 35,000 per month, young people across the nation began engaging in civil disobedience.
On November 27, 1965, the March on Washington for Peace in Vietnam took place, attracting tens of thousands of protesters.<img class="size-full wp-image-14012" style="font-size:18p A helicopter raises the body of an American paratrooper killed in action in the jungle near the Cambodian border in 1966. Henri Huet, a French war photographer covering the war for the Associated Press, captured some of the most influential images of the war. Huet died along with LIFE photographer Larry Burrows and three other photographers when their helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971. <img class="size-full wp-image-14006" style="font-size:18p Legendary Welsh war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths captured the battle for Saigon in 1968. U.S. policy in Vietnam was based on the premise that peasants driven into the towns and cities by the carpet-bombing of the countryside would be safe. Furthermore, removed from their traditional value system, they could be prepared for imposition of consumerism. This “restructuring” of society suffered a setback when, in 1968, death rained down on the urban enclaves. In 1971 Griffiths published “Vietnam Inc.” and it became one of the most sought after photography books.
5. U.S. troops endured 120-degree temperatures while sitting in swamps.
Facing temperatures sometimes of up to 120 degrees F in the wet jungle terrain, soldiers regularly became afflicted with infections such as ringworm.
Author and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes recalled the difficulty of dealing with losing his friends on the battlefield.
“You’d throw them on a chopper and that’d be the last you’d see of them,” he said, “and so you were constantly shoving it down because if you didn’t you couldn’t function.”
Johnson, who made great strides with civil rights legislation at home, did not want to be remembered as the American president who lost Southeast Asia.
In a taped 1965 conversation, Sen. Richard Russell told Johnson that he “couldn’t have inherited a worse mess.”
“Well, if they say I inherited it, I’d be lucky,” Johnson said, “but they’ll all say I created it. Dick, the trouble is, the great trouble I’m under, a man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere, but there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”
Luci Baines Johnson on her father’s legacy:
When CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who was called the most trusted man in America, traveled to Vietnam in 1968 and announced it was time for America to pull out, Johnson reportedly told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Journalist Marvin Kalb noted that Johnson “realized he was no longer in charge of the war. The war was in charge of him.” In 1968, Johnson announced that he would not be running for re-election.
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