Ken Burns’ Vietnam: Episode 1

I watched the start of Ken Burns’ 18-hour retelling of the Viet-Nam* saga last night with my wife and daughter.

I found the material even-handed, and I know a lot about the material, but the back and forth between the French Indo-China history and the late 1960s American combat scenes confused more than enlightened.Hotel Constellation_Reader Final

And while I did not understand the use of Tim O’Brien at the end of the episode, I certainly identified with his statement to the effect that just taking a step in Viet-Nam was an act of courage.

The experience got me thinking, or I should confess, my wife telling me it was time to self-publish my memoir of my Viet-Nam and Laos experience got me thinking. I’m still thinking.

But here is my version of how America’s Viet-Nam experience came about from HOTEL CONSTELLATION: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos.


In the Beginning

1945 – 1970

“If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged.”

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke

December 31, 1960


Between 1954 and 1975, the United States waged war in lands on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. The nations where Americans fought and died – Viet-Nam, Laos, and Cambodia – never attacked or threatened our homeland. Americans died by the tens of thousands on foreign soil.

Rather, America’s leaders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower through Richard Nixon treated the war as a crusade against an un-American ideology: International communism. The leading proponent of communism, the Soviet Union, had been an uneasy ally of the U.S. during World War II.

After the battles against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan were fought and won, the U.S. and its democratic, capitalist allies – Britain and Western Europe – slid into a new type of “Cold War” against the Soviet Union, its satellite countries in Eastern Europe, and China, which fell to the communists in 1949. This Cold War was fought by proxy in developing countries all over the world. The Soviet Union – a communist empire built around today’s Russia – and China supported and supplied the communist factions while the U.S. and allies backed any political party, movement, or strongman opposed to communism. Both sides wanted to avoid a “hot” war because the major adversaries had in their arsenals nuclear weapons capable of destroying Earth and everyone on it.

The Cold War blazed into a shooting war in 1950 on the Korean Peninsula when the communist government of North Korea invaded the South. Non-communist forces under the aegis of the United Nations, but dominated by the U.S., jumped in to prevent the takeover of the South. After two years of carnage, Korea reverted to the pre-1950 status quo, formally divided along the 38th parallel; the frightening and costly contest between communism and capitalism chilled again and shifted focus south along the coast of China to the former French colonies of Indochina.

The French had colonized Indochina in the mid-1800s and created three artificial countries whose boundaries were drawn around the three predominant ethnic groups of the region – the Vietnamese, the Khmer of Cambodia, and the lowland Laotians. After World War II, when colonies throughout Asia and Africa were claiming their independence, Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh’s communists defeated France and forced it to give up its Indochina colonies.

Among the three new nations, Viet-Nam was by far the largest, most developed, and aggressive. In fact, French intervention had halted Vietnamese expansion into both Laos and Cambodia in the 1800s. The French recognized the assertiveness of the Vietnamese character and used Vietnamese to fill the ranks of the colonial bureaucracy in all three countries.

After the Korea experience, however, successive U.S. government administrations saw not assertive Vietnamese, but aggressive Vietnamese communists seeking new territories to conquer. In particular, policymakers feared for Thailand just across the Mekong River from Laos and Cambodia.

A hallmark of the Cold War was the wink-wink, nod-nod complicity of all parties in keeping their Cold War activities secret from their own people as well as the rest of the world. The Soviets, Chinese and Americans pretty much knew what the others were doing; they kept it quiet (except when they could score a propaganda victory) because they were doing similar things.

In this atmosphere, the U.S. tiptoed into Laos and South Viet-Nam in 1954, using small teams of military advisors, CIA operatives and a secretive airline, Air America, to contain the Vietnamese communists.

A decade into the fight, most Americans had still never heard of Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. During the mid-1960s, however, television started to bring the growing war in Viet-Nam into living rooms across America with an impact far surpassing anything that newspapers and magazines could ever hope to achieve. As American involvement grew, so did casualties, from 416 dead in the nine years between 1956 and 1964, to 1,928 in 1965 alone.

As the casualties mounted, and more and more Americans knew someone whose family had lost a son, America started to tear itself apart over the war, split along generational lines, political lines, even geographic lines, riven by opinions about why we were fighting so far from home and whether we should use military conscription (“the draft”) to fill the ranks of the armed services.

America had instituted a draft of fighting-age (18-26) men as the danger of World War II lurked on the horizon. After the victory was won in 1945, the military downsized but the draft remained in place. As the U.S. shifted from advising the South Vietnamese to fighting battles for them, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson relied on the draft to fill the military’s needs. Overnight, military service went from a relatively safe career option to a potential death sentence.

In 1966, American casualties in Viet-Nam tripled from the previous year to more than 6,000 dead; they almost doubled again in 1967 to more than 11,000. In 1968, the number of dead rose to almost 17,000 young men – 325 a week, almost 50 per day. The three TV networks – their half-hour evening newscasts a dominant source of news in a pre-cable TV, pre-Internet information environment – broadcast the deaths in living color to Americans as they ate their evening meals.

Suddenly, every American male faced an enormous, life-changing decision as his 18th birthday approached: What to do about the draft?

It was no simple decision, this question of the draft. The Selective Service System, as the draft was formally known, was full of loopholes and ruled by an alphabet soup of more than 30 categories of risk. A noisy few chose defiance, refusing to register for the draft and risking jail for doing so; others quietly slipped into Canada or fled to Sweden, beyond the reach of American law but also far from their families and friends.

Most tried to game the system. College students could be deferred from the draft from year to year as long as they remained enrolled or until they turned 24; college classrooms swelled with young men rated as 2-S deferred students. Married men and ministers were exempt altogether, and the ranks of young marrieds and divinity schools swelled. The unlucky majority – overpopulated by poor and working class kids who could not afford college – were classified 1-A, an open invitation to join the military.

I grew up during those years of the anti-communist crusade, but I didn’t understand how they had shaped me and my country.

And so my story begins.

It seems so long ago — both the experience and the writing about it.


* Burns spells the country name as one word; I follow the Vietnamese spelling of hyphenating the two words.

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