Dear Mom and Dad, Today we went on a mission and I am not very proud of myself, my friends or my country. We burned every hut in sight…we burn all rice and shoot all livestock.
U.S soldier's letter home
MY LAI MASSACRE
On 16 March 1968, a company of American soldiers go into the hamlet of My Lai. Many of the men want revenge for the Tet offensive. They round up its 400 plus inhabitants, from babies to the elderly, and order them into a ditch. And they don't stop firing until there's no movement. Some of the bodies are then mutilated.
The massacre will be covered up for another 18 months but My Lai is only one of the worst examples of what was effectively military policy. And its effects, burning villages and civilian corpses, are constantly captured on camera and increasingly fill up the TV news. Victory seems impossible despite the conflict costing 40,000 Americans lives and a quarter of a million more casualties.
In May 1969, U.S. infantry take the strategically unimportant Hill 937. Viet Cong machine guns had chewed up hundreds earning the place its nickname. The hill is abandoned the next month. It comes to epitomise the absurdity of the American approach there.
President Nixon has been elected on the promise of ending the war and so he encourages South Vietnam to take up more of the fighting, a policy known as 'Vietnamization'. But America's involvement will last longer under Nixon, than under Johnson. Nixon does reduce the number of land troops (within four years, numbers fall from 500,000 to 150,000) but he massively increases aerial bombing. Troop fatalities fall as dramatically as civilian ones rise.
HELL, NO, WE WON'T GO
The reduction of land troops is a practical response to the fact that many Americans refuse to enrol when called by the draft. Between 50,000 to 100,000 desert and go into hiding or leave the country. Half of those who refuse the draft are African American. As far back as 1965, in Mississippi, young blacks distribute a leaflet stating:
'No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Viet Nam for the White man's freedom, until all the Negro People are free in Mississippi.'
In October of 1967, there are organised draft-card 'turn-ins' all over the country. By mid 1968, there are 3,305 ongoing prosecutions against men refusing the draft. In May 1969, of 4,400 men called to sign up, only 2,400 do.
In 1971, twenty thousand come to Washington to commit civil disobedience by stopping traffic. Fourteen thousand of them are arrested. It is the largest mass arrest in American history.
In the Pacific Ocean, two US seamen hijack their munitions ship to divert its load of bombs from airbases in Thailand. They stay awake by taking amphetamine pills so that for four days they can evade capture.
Patriotic veterans, such as Ron Kovic, actually born on the fourth of July, disrupt Nixon's speech at the Republican National Conventions. Confined to a wheelchair after being shot in Vietnam, the secret service unceremoniously ejects him.
During the Christmas period of 1972, for the first time, B52 pilots refuse to fly on the some of the most intensive bombings of the war.
On 15 January 1973, Nixon with no military solution in sight and under intense public pressure stops his campaign against North Vietnam. And on 27 January, Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, signs the Paris Peace Accords which ends U.S. military involvement.
Without American air support, it's only a matter of time before South Vietnam falls. In early 1975, the North Vietnamese attack and by April 1975, their troops enter Saigon. American embassy staff are famously filmed and photographed leaving in one of the largest helicopter evacuations in history. It becomes one of the last defining images of the Vietnam War.
Did you know?
By 2001, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam became, and remains, the world's second largest coffee producer. This 'communist' country sells nearly $400 million of its beans to its old capitalist enemy, the U.S. Not bad considering Vietnam's agricultural economy was so destroyed by bombing and chemicals in the early 70s that it went from being an exporter of rice, to dependent on rice imports., The racism against African Americans in the military (as in American society at that time) is well known, but imagine how much worse it was for Asian Americans. Historian Howard Zinn relates the experiences of a 20 yr old New York City Chinese American named Sam Choy who enlisted at 17 in the army. He was sent to Vietnam and made a cook. There he found himself the target of abuse by fellow GIs, who called him 'Gook', the slang term for the Vietnamese, Eventually he snapped, and fired warning shots at his tormentors. For this, he's sentenced to 18 months hard labour and is beaten daily.