The Violent Legacies of the U.S. War in Vietnam

By Simeon Man, author of Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific

This guest post is part of our AAAS blog series published in conjunction with the upcoming meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies in San Francisco, CA, March 29-31, 2018. Browse related titles and share using #AAAS2018.


March 16 marks the 50th anniversary of an event that few Americans want to remember. In 1968, Charlie Company, a unit of the 11th Brigade, 20th Infantry, entered the village of My Lai in South Vietnam and systematically murdered the villagers. An estimated 500 Vietnamese, mostly women, children, and the elderly, died in the massacre. The brutality has been well documented: American soldiers raped, mutilated, and tortured the villagers before killing them; families were dragged from their homes, thrown into ditches and executed. Gruesome photos of the killings began to circulate in the public one and a half years later when journalists broke the story. In 1969, it sparked international outrage and fueled the antiwar movement. Fifty years later, “My Lai” has become synonymous with this dark chapter of the American war in Vietnam, and it continues to haunt and interrupt the nation’s attempt to remember the war in the service of reconciliation and closure.

If there is one thing that remains unspeakable about the My Lai massacre in the United States, it is that the violence was not an aberration, but routine and systemic. The soldiers were told by Capt. Ernest Medina the day before, “There are no innocent civilians in this area,” and that the enemy was “anybody that was running away from us, hiding from us, or appeared to be the enemy.” In the late 1960s, mock Vietnamese villages were fixtures of army bases throughout the United States, and it was in these mock villages where American soldiers learned “search and destroy” tactics that taught them to approach the entire village as an enemy target and to see all Vietnamese as potential “Viet Cong.” The mock village at Schofield Barracks in Hawai‘i included villagers played by Native Hawaiians. There, soldiers preparing for deployment to Vietnam honed the tactics of violence by reenacting the colonial violence in Hawai‘i that, at that moment, was being elided and renewed by Hawai‘i’s transition to statehood. Soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre trained there in 1967.

My book, Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific, examines this and other little known episodes of the Vietnam War to show that the war’s violence was intimately tied to the United States’ efforts to make good on its promise of securing freedom and democracy in the post-1945 world. The book tells the story of how the United States mobilized citizens of various nations and territories recently liberated from colonial rule for the war. Between 1964 and 1972, more than 340,000 South Koreans and 6,000 Filipinos fought in South Vietnam. They were drawn by the promises of working in a different country and earning higher wages. Their governments, determined to safeguard their nations’ newfound freedom, made pacts with the United States that allowed for the stationing of American troops in their countries and the use of their citizens for the American war. The United States’ rise to global dominance after 1945 depended on these countries and their citizen-soldiers in manifold and contradictory ways: to affirm the United States’ commitment to spreading freedom and democracy in Asia and to do the work of killing and dying in America’s war. The U.S. military also depended on these soldiers to commit the kinds of indiscriminate violence against the Vietnamese that seemingly no Americans—with the exception of lone individuals such as Lt. William Calley, the only soldier charged and convicted for the killings in My Lai—were deemed capable of committing.

As Americans continue to commemorate the Vietnam War, we would do well to remember that the war had profound and lasting consequences in other parts of the world. A half-century ago, the war thwarted the unfinished project of decolonization in South Korea, the Philippines, Hawai‘i, and other countries and island territories throughout Asia and the Pacific. Instead of achieving freedom from colonialism “in whatever form it appears,” their citizens were asked to fight in another U.S. imperial war, to kill and risk their lives in pursuit of an elusive freedom premised on their nation’s integration into the U.S.-led global capitalist economy. As we mourn the 58,000 American and 3.8 million Vietnamese lives lost, we should remember the unfinished decolonization is also a violent history that Americans bear.


Simeon Man is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.


After ‘Cronkite Moment,’ Johnson doubled down on Viet policy

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism

9780520291294One of the most cherished stories in American journalism is also a tenacious media-driven myth — a tall tale claiming great achievement for the media.

This cherished story/media myth is commonly known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly exposed the bankruptcy of the Vietnam War. Forty-nine years ago next week, Cronkite declared in an editorial comment at the end of a special TV report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might offer a way out.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which was published not long ago, the “Cronkite Moment” had few of the effects that are often, and extravagantly, attached to it.

Notable among those effects was that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment, understood his war policy was a shambles. It was like an epiphany for the president.

But we know that’s not true: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was in Austin, Texas, at that time, at a birthday party for a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. It is not clear whether, or when, Johnson saw the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, Cronkite said nothing about the war that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By February 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal way to characterize the Vietnam War.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong, which includes three new chapters and new material elsewhere, presents further evidence underscoring that the “Cronkite Moment” is a media myth.

This material elaborates on Johnson’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of Cronkite’s special report — the days and weeks when Cronkite’s assessment should have exerted greatest impact.

But instead of recognizing that Cronkite had shown him the light, Johnson doubled down. He mounted an aggressive defense of his war policy, demonstrating by his forcefulness that he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

Three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed that America would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

Johnson spoke with similar energy in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington, D.C.:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam, and slapped the lectern for emphasis. “We love nothing more than peace,” Johnson declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He disparaged war critics as ready and inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, Johnson insisted in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”

Thus at a time when Cronkite’s views should been most keenly felt, the president remained tenaciously hawkish.

The shift in the president’s approach came not in the immediate aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” (which was not referred to as such until many years later). It took place in meetings with an informal group of senior counselors who collectively were known as the “Wise Men.”

They included foreign policy notables such as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser, and George Ball, a former under secretary of state.

The “Wise Men” had met in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again in late March 1968, and most of them expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” George Ball later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted.

The counsel of the Wise Men probably was the tipping point for Johnson on Vietnam. On March 31, 1968, he announced the United States would stop almost all bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.


wjc_pnp_large_crop2W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C. He is the author of six books, including Getting It Wrong and 1995: The Year The Future Began.