The following interview by Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. originally appeared in our premier issue of Vietnam Magazine in 1988. Their discussion remains as thought-provoking today as it was more than a decade ago.
That the Vietnam War was one of the most complex wars in our history was little understood at the time, and it is even less understood today. Many still believe, for example, that the war was lost to black-pajama-clad VC guerrillas, armed only with primitive weapons and revolutionary fervor.
Their attitudes evidently fixed in the early 1960s, when the VC were at their height, such critics fail to appreciate–as the North Vietnamese now freely admit–that the VC guerrillas were virtually annihilated during their abortive 1968 Tet Offensive, and from that time on the war was primarily an North Vietnamese regular army affair. It was a NVA 22-division, cross-border blitzkrieg, supported by tanks, missiles and heavy artillery–not VC guerrillas–that finally overwhelmed South Vietnam in the spring of 1975.
Then there is the notion that the war was lost because of the failure of American arms. Again, there is little realization that American ground combat forces began to withdraw from Vietnam in 1969–not because of enemy pressure but because of political decisions made in Washington. By the end of 1971, most of the Army and Marine combat divisions had left, and in August 1972 the last American ground-combat unit, the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, departed Vietnam. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in March 1973 (more than two years before the fall of Saigon), all remaining American naval, air and logistics support forces were withdrawn.
The 1975 North Vietnamese spring offensive, which finally conquered South Vietnam, did not defeat the American military for the simple reason that by that time there was no American military there to defeat. Not only had American forces been withdrawn years earlier, Congress had categorically and unequivocally prohibited their reintervention.
Vietnam was a defeat for American foreign policy and for its political goals of containing Communist expansion and maintaining a free and independent South Vietnam. And it was a defeat for the ill-conceived plans and strategies of the Pentagon’s senior military and civilian leaders.
But America’s fighting forces did not fail us. ‘You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,’ I told my North Vietnamese counterpart during negotiations in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. He pondered that remark a moment and then replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.’
In a narrow strategic sense, he was right. Whether they defeated us on the battlefield or not, they did win the war. But in another sense he was dead wrong, for that fact was relevant indeed to the almost 31/2 million Americans who served in Southeast Asia during the war. Many of them still bear a burden they do not deserve and blame themselves for what went wrong there.
No one is better qualified to set that record straight and put the fighting abilities of American combat forces in Vietnam in historical perspective than General Frederick C. Weyand. A 1938 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, he entered military service in 1940 and served as an Intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India theater in World War II. During the Korean War he received the Combat Infantry Badge and Silver Star for gallantry in action while commanding the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. Under his leadership the battalion received a Presidential Unit Citation for its part in turning back the 1951 Chinese spring offensive.
In March 1966, then a major general, he brought his 25th Infantry Division to Vietnam. Headquartered at Cu Chi in War Zone C, his ‘Tropic Lightning’ division saw hard fighting in areas west and northwest of Saigon and along the Cambodian border. His battlefield successes led to command of II Field Force, a corps-level headquarters responsible for military operations in III and IV Corps (i.e., the southern third of South Vietnam from the southern boundary of the Central Highlands through the Mekong Delta).
During the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet Offensive, General Weyand’s timely and effective maneuver of II Field Force’s combat elements–including the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Division, 101st Airborne Division, 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and the Australian Task Force–was instrumental in saving Saigon from capture and in the subsequent rout of the VC attackers.
Later that year, after 2 1/2 years in-country, General Weyand was reassigned to Washington as chief of the Army’s Reserve components, then to Paris as an observer at the Paris peace talks. Returning to Vietnam in 1970, first as deputy commander and then commander of MACV, he supervised the U.S. military withdrawal and was America’s last military commander in Vietnam.
In 1975, by then Army chief of staff, General Weyand was sent back to Vietnam by President Gerald Ford to assess the military situation there. Although his recommendations fell on deaf ears in the administration and in Congress, he did not allow himself–or the Army–to become embittered. Named ‘Man of the Year’ at the University of California at Berkeley in 1976, he left office later that year and returned to civilian life, but not before being credited by Congress for his leadership role in preventing a’stab-in-the-back’ syndrome from developing in the American Army after Vietnam.
Vietnam: If you had to pick one thing that disturbs you most about the Vietnam War, what would that be?
Weyand: What particularly haunts me, what I think is one of the saddest legacies of the Vietnam War, is the cruel misperception that the American fighting men there did not measure up to their predecessors in World War II and Korea. Nothing could be further from the truth.
VN You saw firsthand the combat soldiers in World War II?
Weyand: Yes, as a young officer I went into Burma in June 1944 to serve as an Intelligence officer on General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell’s staff. And I watched Merrill’s Marauders go into the battle for Myitkyina. Now here was an outfit that had been organized for one mission and ended up taking part in five. By that time they were pretty badly beat up, but those soldiers left hospital beds to rejoin their outfit to take part in the battle. One could not help but be impressed. They set a pretty high standard for others to follow.
VN You’re saying that others did?
Weyand: They did. As a lieutenant colonel I went into Korea in August 1950 with the advance party for the 3rd Infantry Division, then staging in Japan. In January 1951, I took command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the ‘Cottonbalers’ for their defense of New Orleans under Andy Jackson during the War of 1812. They had just come back from blocking for the 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division during the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, and the battalion only had 162 Americans. The rest were KATUSAs [Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army– South Korean civilians press-ganged into military service and used to round out understrength U.S. units], most of whom could not speak English. But the battalion was all that a commander could wish for. Three months after I took over, the Chinese hit the Eighth Army front with nine field armies–some 250,000 men organized into 27 infantry divisions. We were blocking on the UijongbuSeoul road and the Chinese hit us head-on. The battalion put up one hell of a fight, especially Captain Harley Mooney’s Able Company and Ray Blandin’s Baker Company. Two soldiers–Corporal John Essebager and Corporal Clair Goodblood–won the Medal of Honor posthumously, and for that rear-guard action the battalion, officially credited with ‘killing over 3,000 enemy troops and wounding an estimated 5,500,’ won a Presidential Unit Citation. The point of all this is that my earlier experiences provided a personal standard with which to measure battlefield performance. And by those standards the soldiers I served with in Vietnam fully measured up to those of Merrill’s Marauders in World War II or the Cottonbalers in Korea. In many ways, they even went them one better.
VN How did they do that?
Weyand: Well, in World War II and Korea an infantryman’s task was straightforward: Close with the enemy and destroy him with fire and maneuver. After a while on the line a kind of numbness took over. I can still remember going up and down those ridges in Korea. A few days of that and it became simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until you hit the enemy, and then it was pretty much conventional ground combat. But in Vietnam it was another story. I recall one week where one element of the Wolfhounds [the nickname of the 27th Infantry, two battalions of which served in Weyand’s 25th Infantry Division] was in hard fighting in the Boi Loi woods, where they took 15 killed and an even greater number wounded. Another element was conducting a division training program in long-range patrolling. Yet another was conducting training classes for the 25th ARVN Division. Still another was providing security for a medical team in a local village. And finally some were at a local Catholic school the men had adopted, where their donations had bought textbooks, paid teachers’ salaries and provided school lunches for the children. Ten days later the unit that had been in the Boi Loi was conducting training programs, and the unit that had been at the school was beating the bush. One day they were safe, watching little children at school; the next they were in mortal danger, watching for someone to pop out of the ground and try to kill them. It’s hard to put in words what a terrible burden that imposed. You had to go through it to fully understand the incredible psychological strain they were under. It was a hell of a burden our soldiers in Vietnam had to bear. They really had to have their heads screwed on right to survive. Yet throughout it all they performed magnificently. They did everything that was asked of them and more. I have every reason to be proud of their service. And America should be equally proud and grateful to them.
VN You mentioned the local school sponsored by American soldiers. The common perception is that American forces in Vietnam did more to abuse the local population than it did to assist them.
Weyand: I guess that during my five years in Vietnam I paid more than a thousand visits to U.S. units in the field. And in almost every case they would begin their briefing with an account of what they had been doing to help the villagers in their area–medical team visits; help to local churches, schools and orphanages; road building, construction assistance and the like. For every terrible aberration like My Lai, there were thousands of acts of charity and compassion. Yet you would never know that from what was reported here at home.
VN Although the American people may be unaware of those facts, the South Vietnamese people certainly know the truth. When Marine veteran Bill Broyles returned to Vietnam in 1984, he found an enormous reservoir of goodwill toward Americans. So perhaps we planted some seeds there that may someday take root. And speaking of the way things were reported here at home, one of the worst cases has to be the news coverage of the VC’s Tet Offensive of 1968. You commanded II Field Force then and have been credited with frustrating the VC’s plans to capture Saigon. Did you have advance warning of the attack?
Weyand: Not as such. We did know that something was coming, but our intelligence was not good enough to pinpoint exactly what they were up to. And as a former Intelligence officer, I have to admit that lack of proper intelligence has been a grievous inadequacy in our military forces for years. In Korea I’d get orders to attack at 0500, but not a word about what was out there. In fact, I don’t believe I ever went into battle knowing what I was going to run into. To the armchair analysts years after the event, everything looks neat, orderly and predic-table. But that’s certainly not the case at the time. Anyway, our radio intercepts began picking up the movement of units toward Saigon, which caused us to cancel a major multidivision operation we had planned to launch in the northern part of III Corps, about 100 miles north of Saigon. That really proved to be a stroke of good fortune, for if those units had gone north, the VC would have had a field day in Saigon.
VN What other actions did you take?
Weyand: On the basis of this sketchy intelligence I did reposition some units and moved the forces into blocking positions covering the approaches to Saigon. Although all II Field Force units were put on full alert several hours before the VC launched their attack, we really had no precise information on exactly where they would strike. We certainly didn’t know they’d get inside the U.S. Embassy grounds in the heart of Saigon. Although that made for some sensational news photos, from a military viewpoint it really didn’t do them much good. Seizing a position and holding it are two different things. And the VC were unable to hold. They were repulsed everywhere with staggering losses–so much so that, as the North Vietnamese now freely admit, they ceased to be an effective fighting force. The last seven years of the war–from 1968 to 1975–were almost exclusively a North Vietnamese regular army affair.
VN How did the VC fail?
Weyand: I think the VC made two major mistakes. First, by attacking everywhere at once, they fragmented their forces and laid themselves open to defeat in detail. Second, and most important, they believed their own propaganda and thought there would be a ‘great general uprising’ wherein the South Vietnamese people would flock to their banner. There was a great general uprising all right, but it was against them rather than for them. The vast majority of the South Vietnamese people wanted nothing to do with the VC. During the entire course of the war there were never any mass defections by the South Vietnamese. But it is interesting to note that in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, more than 150,000 VC deserters came over to our side.
VN But that’s not the way it was reported here at home. The news media–and especially the television news media–portrayed it as a major defeat. President Lyndon Johnson reportedly said that when the CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite came out against the war, he knew that it was all over and decided not to run for re-election.
Weyand: I can understand the initial reporting. After all the glowing reports that the war was about to wind down, the Tet Offensive came as a terrible shock. But the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 was also a terrible shock. Like the VC’s Tet Offensive, it was a desperate gamble to win the war in a single stroke. And it, too, initially provoked some sensationalist headlines as the U.S. forces reeled back and entire units surrendered to the enemy. But as it progressed, the news media finally got the story straight.
VN I think you’re saying that unlike the Battle of the Bulge, with Tet the initial impression became the accepted wisdom. But there were some balanced accounts. It was Peter Braestrup, once the Saigon bureau chief for The Washington Post, who exposed such shoddy reporting in his book, The Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. It was Vietnam war correspondent Don Oberdorfer who wrote Tet: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War, which also set the record straight. And it was another former war correspondent, Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History, who got the VC to admit how badly they had been mauled.
Weyand: True. But unfortunately those books were written long after the event, and long after the damage had been done. Don’t get me wrong. I believe strongly that a free press is essential to our democracy. And I’ve never subscribed to the simple-minded notion that the media lost the Vietnam War. I think most of the war correspondents in Vietnam were competent and capable professionals. But I also think–and the reporting of Tet is a prime example–that the media wields such great influence in shaping public opinion that it must be especially careful to get the story straight. The American people deserve at least that.
VN Your comment about public opinion raises another issue. Several years ago Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger laid out six preconditions for the commitment of U.S. military forces to combat abroad. One of the most controversial was his conviction that there must be some reasonable assurance of public and congressional support. Do you agree with that assessment?
Weyand: I think he had it exactly right, and the Vietnam War proved his point. In 1976, in a message to the Army, I laid out some of my observations on the Vietnam War. ‘Vietnam was a reaffirmation of the peculiar relationship between the American Army and the American people,’ I said. ‘The American Army really is a people’s army in the sense that it belongs to the American people, who take a jealous and proprietary interest in its involvement. When the Army is committed, the American people are committed; when the American people lose their commitment, it is futile to try to keep the Army committed.’ When the American people lost their commitment after the Tet Offensive of 1986, for all intents and purposes the war was lost. I think President Nixon realized that fact, and that’s why soon after he entered office he ordered a gradual withdrawal of American combat forces and the ‘Vietnamization’ of the war.
VN Why did they lose their commitment? Was it just because of the perceived defeat in Tet?
Weyand: No, it was much more than that. Tet was just the final straw. The fundamental reason, as you pointed out in your book On Strategy, was the lack of clear-cut and understandable political and military objectives. That was true from top to bottom. When Clark Clifford took over as secretary of defense after Tet 1968, he found that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no concept of victory and no plan to end the war. And that was the case in Saigon as well. As you know, a Letter of Instruction is the means by which the president, as commander in chief, issues orders to his commanders in the field for the conduct of military operations. For example, President Roosevelt’s Letter of Instruction to General Eisenhower in World War II began, ‘You will invade the continent of Europe….’ But during our quarter-century involvement in Vietnam, no president–not Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon or Ford–ever issued such clear-cut instructions to their military commanders in Vietnam. In 1974, Brigadier General Douglas Kinnard did a survey and found that ‘almost 70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.’ As he concluded, that ‘mirrors a deep-seated strategic failure: the failure of policy-makers to frame tangible, obtainable goals.’ It was this lack of a sense of purpose that finally turned the American people against the war. The anti-war movement likes to take credit for it–why anyone would want to take ‘credit’ for the resulting massacre of some three million Cambodians, the consignment of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to forced-labor camps, and the suffering of over a million Indochinese boat people is beyond me–but I believe they’re wrong. The turnaround was more pragmatic than ideological. It was the fall of 1967 when polls showed that for the first time more Americans were against the war than in support of it. And I think that shift took place because of public suspicion that the government didn’t know what it was doing. When the Tet Offensive hit several months later it merely confirmed that suspicion–especially when President Lyndon B. Johnson gave up on the war.
VN Such a misreading of events could have led to the development of a’stab-in-the-back syndrome’ within the American military. The feeling among German army veterans after World War I was that their political leaders had betrayed them, and that led to the destruction of the Weimar Republic and brought Adolf Hitler to power. The same type of reaction led to open military revolt in France after Algeria, and to a military coup in Portugal after Angola. But it never happened here, and when you retired from active in duty in 1976, the House of Representatives and the Senate gave you credit for preventing such a reaction in the American Army. How did you bring it about?
Weyand: Well, for one thing I thought the whole notion of a stab-in-the-back syndrome was overblown. All military officers take an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution without any reservation, and to defer to the civilian command of the president. I took that responsibility very seriously, as do virtually all of the members of our armed services. In any event, I was fortunate to have a solid foundation on which to build. It had been laid by my predecessor as Army chief of staff, General Creighton Abrams, who turned the Army away from its Vietnam troubles and reoriented it to its vital security interests in Europe and northeast Asia. He persuaded the Congress to stabilize the Army’s manpower and obtained its approval to activate three new divisions rounded out with brigades from the National Guard. Most importantly, he gave the Army a sense of mission and a sense of self-worth. After his tragic death in office, I saw it as my responsibility to continue the work he had begun. It is General Abrams who should get the lion’s share of credit.
VN It’s now 15 years since all American combat forces were withdrawn from Vietnam. Do you see an improvement in public attitudes toward Vietnam veterans?
Weyand: As I said earlier, America should have been proud of them from the start, for they were a remarkable group of young men and women. Now they’re finally beginning to get their due, and it’s gratifying to see the increased public recognition of the dedication, bravery and compassion the overwhelming majority of these men and women displayed while they were serving in Vietnam.
The article was written by by Colonel Harry G. Summers and originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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