The Erosion of American Support for the Vietnam War

To begin, a massive amount of Americans are considered to be nationalistic and resonate with patriot appeals. A well known U.S rhetoric quote claims that America is “the greatest nation in the world”. This can be used to U.S military advantage because it encourages or motivates United States citizens to support their country politically and to remain patriotic.

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As a result, in the 1950s, Americans had almost unconditionally support for their countries military actions and were fully on board with America’s vigorous response to communism. With respect to the Vietnam War, the perception of the war was portrayed to the public as advanced America, number one in military power would have very little trouble going up against a Third World nation such as North Vietnam.

At the time, less than four in ten Americans thought the U.S. had made a mistake in deploying troops to Vietnam. A Gallup poll in October 1965 showed that 64 percent of the American public approved of our involvement in Vietnam while just 24% said it was a mistake (1). In the spring of 1966, the Gallup recorded some of Americans’ personal reflections on Vietnam. One specifically stood out, “You really don’t win a war like the one in Vietnam. But, as long as you don’t really lose it to the communists, you’re ahead of the game. I hate war, but you just can’t pull out.” – 35-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, housewife. This statement reflects the mindset of many Americans at the time. They believed war is a necessary evil to make sure communism does not take over the world. Over the next few years, the polls fluctuated but showed increasing disenchantment with the war.

It was not until 1964 when The United States officially entered the Vietnam War after years of publicly condemning communism and dispatching secret operations and assistance to the conflict. For the following four years, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent half a million soldiers to Vietnam, causing doubtful American citizens to protest. However, what was considered warfare in Vietnam consisted of guerilla-style combat as opposed to large battles. North Vietnamese Army and southern communist rebels known as the Vietnam Cong soldiers launched hit and run style attacks and ambushes, and United States troops conducted search and destroy missions on a small scale. ()

In the fall of 1967, The White House started up the “Success Campaign” in attempting to fabricate the face of the war. Similarly, Walt W. Rostow, Presidential advisor on national security affairs, was given the position of an interdepartmental Psychological Strategy Committee and his only job was to nurture a positive image of the war. Americans were led to believe by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, that they no longer had to worry because the war would shortly be over and America would triumph. General William Westmoreland, the commander and public face of the Vietnam War, got ahead of himself and told Meet the Press on November 19, 1967 that the U.S could win and be out of the war within two years, and then later proclaimed on Feb. 1, that the enemy forces were “about to run out of steam.” However, he was not done there. Westmoreland gave the public false hope, claiming that the North Vietnamese had indeed quickly run out of steam, saying that “almost everywhere except on the outskirts of Saigon and in Hue the fighting was over in two or three days.” Due to these statements and assurances that the North Vietnamese were too impaired of assembling a massive counteroffensive made by America’s trusted officials, citizens were misled and gave them more of a reason to ignore the likelihood of the Tet Offensive. General Westmoreland was quoted as voicing that there was, “light at the end of the tunnel,” and that, “Victory’s just around the corner” (Montagne). Not to mention, there was even talk about most troops coming home for Christmas of that year. By this time, a grand majority of Americans were confident and obtained complete optimism that the Vietnam war would be a success. Through the point of view of millions of Americans at the time, one thing, in particular, seemed extremely likely: It was only a matter of time before the limitless military of the United States would prevail.

For a while, The North Vietnamese leadership contemplated how to move forward with the war and strategies they had in mind. Some in government advocates taking a defensive approach and had an open mind when considering opening negotiations, whereas others were interested in undertaking a conventional military path to reunify the country. The North Vietnamese had suffered a large number of losses and due to the American bombing campaign, their economy was down as well. With these factors in mind, the decision was made to launch a large-scale Offensive against the United States and South Vietnamese forces. This tactic was justified by the acceptance that South Vietnamese troops were no longer combat effective and they were fed up with the American presence in their country. Ho Chi Minh and leaders in Hanoi were responsible for the Tet Offensive in the hopes of obtaining an influential victory that would terminate the conflict that infuriated military leaders on both sides. The Worst case scenario, the North Vietnamese had faith that it would serve to stop the everlasting escalation of guerrilla attacks and bombing in the North. The ultimate goal of this uprising, however, was the destruction of the South Vietnamese government, sabotage of Saigon regime, and give the United States no other choice but to comply with a negotiated settlement, and eventually withdraw their forces.

Not long after, on January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a series of surprise attacks on more than 100 South Vietnamese cities, better known as the Tet Offensive. That particular lunar new year was the first spring of the Second Republic of Vietnam. Originally, the Tet truce offered by the communist guaranteed people a safe holiday, free from the lingering anxiety of war. Saigon families planned to spend their day praying before altars of their ancestors in Temples. One can infer that many prayed peace might be brought back to their homeland. It did not take long for the traditional firecrackers of the Tet celebration to become a warfare nightmare. Tong Viet Duong, a guerrilla fighter with the National Liberation Front in Saigon describes the preparations for the Tet offensive: “Taxis carried chrysanthemums into Saigon for the Tet market. Hidden underneath them were AK-47s. The people supported the revolution. They helped us – we were able to penetrate the security in the city. We changed our clothes and carried fake identity documents. The people of Saigon hid us in their houses.” The Viet Cong strategy to take advantage of the noisy celebration worked in their favor because no one was expecting it. North Vietnamese troops violated the truce they proposed themselves by launching massive surprise attacks in mountainous regions on the Laos-Cambodia border. Aside from attacking 100 towns, eighty-five thousand North Vietnamese troops attacked five major cities in South Vietnam including villages and military bases. The biggest shock was when they attacked the United States embassy in Saigon.

Just listen to the memories of a former guerrilla fighter, Tong Viet Duong, from the National Liberation Front, Saigon: “At 8 o’clock in the morning of March 23rd, we hit them. Our artillery destroyed aircraft. We killed not only some guards, but also the American quartermaster. Our commando unit also attacked the police training school. We killed many trainee police officers whilst they were watching a movie.”. Another recent interview took place where a number of officers look back a half-century to their accounts of the Battle of Hue. “What I saw was probably the most intense ground fighting on a sustained basis over several days of any other period during the war,” says Howard Prince, an Army captain who worked with South Vietnamese forces. Alongside Jim Coolican, a Marine captain who adds “we were under fire, under heavy fire,”. Lastly, Mike Downs, another Marine captain, recalls, “We didn’t know where the enemy was, in which direction even.”.

The strikes on the major cities of Hue and Saigon proved that the North Vietnamese troops were not as incapacitated as expected by the presidential administration, hence, having a strong psychological impact. Somehow the troops even managed to rupture the outer walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The strategic move designated a major turning point of the Vietnam War, and not only militarily, but in terms of politics, policy and public opinion back in the United States as well.

“The shock of Tet was just enormous,” says Barry Zorthian, who managed press relations for the US Military Command in Saigon. “That front page of The Washington Post in the morning, with the pictures of the American Embassy ” the symbol of everything, not destroyed, but pretty well damaged ” and dead people all around ” that had to be one of the great, great shocks and traumatic events in Washington.”

Intense fighting with many casualties continued for months. February was a long, bloody month with the Battle of Hue ranging a little over three weeks. During this time, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong found the opportunity to oversee house searches, and arrest any suspected officials, religious leaders, civilians, etc, connected to the United States or South Vietnamese government. As a result, the people rounded up were branded as counter-revolutionaries and some were even executed. The Battle of Hue ended with a total of 2,800 bodies massacred and 3,000 residents reported missing. In addition, 150 marines were killed, along with 400 South Vietnamese troops. That is not to say that the North Vietnamese came on top. In reality, North Vietnam suffered even heavier casualties, losing around 5,000 men.

Every year, the American casualty rate steadily increased. Jack Valenti, an aide to President Johnson, recalls the situation: “I would go in the president’s bedroom, at 7 o’clock in the morning. Every morning, he’d be on the phone, with a 12-hour time difference, checking the casualties of the day before. ‘Mr. President, er, we lost 18 men yesterday, Mr. President, we lost 160 men, we had 400 casualties’ – morning after morning after morning.” In the end, Johnson was becoming an unpopular figure because of Americans sudden conscience and by the rapid growth of the anti-war movement in America. By the time the fighting halted, they had lost an estimated 58,000 men. The United States lost 4,000 troops and more than 14,000 South Vietnamese civilians including men, women, and children had been killed. There was no clear victory on either side.

North Vietnam was trying to do a massive offensive to impact America in a militarily successful way, and although it was a military failure. Despite a lower number of casualties, the United States did not emerge as winners either. As it was foreseen, the United States was compelled to form a large force of ground troops in order to prevent the fall of the puppet regime in Saigon. As McNamara stated: “It became more and more clear that President Johnson was going to have to choose between losing South Vietnam or trying to save it by introducing U.S. military force and taking over a major part of the combat mission.” For Americans, the offensive started to raise troubling questions, and they were losing faith in their government officials. As former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky wrote in a 2002 memoir, “Because they had been told that victory was just around the corner, Tet shook America’s confidence in the war and in its government.” (P. 271, Ky, Buddha’s Child.)

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