The American Green Beret in the photo is Lt. Martin S. Schiller, Jr. He was killed in Vietnam in 1970, long after the war should have ended. He was my cousin.
The catastrophe of Vietnam represented many firsts for the United States. It was the first time that Americans who openly gave aid and comfort to the enemy were not vilified, but praised, by a significant percentage of the population. The first time large parts of the media distorted their message to damage the national interest and advance their own careers. And the first time America’s warriors were spit on and harassed for fighting a war with no clear objectives. – William Alan Webb
Historical events are the culmination of forces and pressures that have, most likely, taken many years to converge. Dissecting those historical events, laying out their component parts for examination and then re-assembling them to arrive at some level of understanding of what happened and why, is often as hard or harder than forecasting them. In Legacy of Discord: Voices of the Vietnam Era, Gil Dorland tries to conduct just such a post-mortem on both the causes of the Vietnam War and the reasons it was lost.
As a veteran of Vietnam, for him there is a cathartic component to Dorland’s motivation for writing his book. Catharsis is only part of his reason, however. “The idea for this book was born in a note to me from Gen. Barry McCaffrey about the Vietnam War. ‘Those were painful years. Our young soldiers deserved better’, he wrote.” (Dorland, page xii) Not wanting to write “just another book; the subject had been beaten to death”, (Dorland, page xii) the author looked for a unique approach. He finally settled on interviewing a number of influential voices during the war to see if their views had changed in the twenty-five years since the shooting stopped. “I knew of no book containing a collection of such divergent, high-powered perspectives. I began thinking the most honest way to record their viewpoints would be in interview form.” (Dorland, page xii) Dorland defines the objective of his book when he writes “Throughout the interviews, I tried to wrap my arms around the question of why the United States, with its massive intellectual resources, neglected to heed the lessons of history. Fundamental decision-making assumptions were gravely flawed because of this failure.” (Dorland, page xv)
19 personalities were eventually chosen to represent the various viewpoints Dorland wishes to chronicle, including journalists, soldiers and civilians. The first subject is Peter Arnett, since become famous for his feverish coverage of the Gulf War in 1990-91, but one of the first journalists working in South Vietnam in the early 1960’s. “On June 26, 1962, Arnett arrived in Saigon as a full-time AP reporter…” (Dorland, page 2) Arnett and his early associates, from John Paul Vann to David Halberstam, all gained fame (or infamy) for their work, which was often critical of American involvement in South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese themselves, both their government and military. Those journalists were often accused of sympathizing with the Viet Cong and North Vietnam and allowing that to slant their work, but Arnett disputes that claim. “If I see something and report it, it’s probably true.” (Dorland, page 3) After giving his reasons for first going to Vietnam, Arnett returns to what seems a sore point with him, namely that he did not report the truth about the war. “I was an independent observer who reported what I saw. I didn’t want Westmoreland’s opinion that we were winning. I wanted to see proof.” (Dorland, page 7)
In April of 1970 Lt. General Mike Davison led 30,000 troops into Cambodia to destroy the North Vietnamese supply dumps and weapons caches located there, the ‘sanctuaries’ without which the Viet Cong and NVA would have been hard-pressed to keep up the fight in the south. Dorland has chosen him to follow Arnett. Davison gives a tremendous insight into the effects of political meddling on troops in the field, in particular Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his circle of non-military advisors. “Most of my colleagues and I saw the ‘whiz kids’ (young Defense Department civilian intellectuals) as very smart and energetic but lacking in basic knowledge of the armed forces and matters affecting operational and tactical doctrine and training. On occasion, their decisions were inappropriate or destructive.” (Dorland, page 18) As a fighting man Davison also had strong feelings on the part played by the press, with contributor Arnett no doubt included in that group. “Morale could have been higher if the media had focused on positive aspects of their accomplishments rather than on the negative. The press loved to jump on the few exceptions and magnify them. And, too often, the media took examples of people back in the rear areas with a lot of free time and applied them to fighting soldiers.” (Dorland, page 22)
Daniel Ellsberg was a natural for this book, since it was his leak of The Pentagon Papers that helped turn the tide of public opinion against the war. A one-time proponent of fighting to save South Vietnam, Ellsberg found himself in serious trouble when he changed that viewpoint, prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with worse. During his interview Dorland posits that it would have been easier for Ellsberg to shut up and do nothing, knowing the consequences of speaking up would be dire. “I know. But it seemed quite logical , reasonable, and responsible for me to speak out because I had taken part in the escalation of the war. I had a responsibility to try and correct that mistake once I thought it was the wrong course.” (Dorland, page 39) Ellsberg did not see himself as being anti-American. “I always considered myself a patriot from my earliest days to the present.” (Dorland, page 39) Perhaps more than any other figure in the book, Ellsberg embodies the divisive nature of the war, a former Marine who helped escalate the war only to later work to undue all that he had done.
A man who doubted nothing about the war was Alexander Haig. As a military advisor to Henry Kissinger, combat infantry commander in the jungle and advance man to China before President Nixon’s trip in 1972, Haig knew the war from a number of different angles. Could we have won the war? “Absolutely, had we taken the war to Hanoi, and I mean airpower and at least demonstrated credibly that we were prepared to use ground troops.” (Dorland, page, 42) He saw first hand what micro-managing by politicians could do to a military venture, trying to wage war while simultaneously not alarming our enemies. “When our political leaders try to have it both ways, they frequently bring about the very outcomes they most wish to avoid.” (Dorland, page 43) This meddling from the top was made worse by what Haig saw as political soldiers who put themselves before their duties. “…we have produced on occasion, since World War II, a breed of military leader unwilling to stand up if doing so would risk his career.” (Dorland, page 44)
Peter Arnett’s colleague David Halberstam would agree with Haig about almost nothing, and certainly not about whether America was winning the war in the early 1960’s. “U.S. policy was all about public relations to make the U.S. look like it was winning as Kennedy got ready for a tough political year. The big game was in Europe.” (Dorland, page 57) Halberstam had been skeptical from the start about South Vietnam’s chances of surviving against the North, his viewpoint changing from pessimism about America and her ally to something approaching admiration for the Viet Cong and NVA. “The communists had a dynamic that worked. They promoted people based entirely on merit. The VC were very good soldiers. They never wasted men. They moved at night. You could never encircle them.” (Dorland, page 60) This opinion was directly at odds with the American stance that the war was going well during Halberstam’s time there, so his opinion of Robert McNamara should come as no surprise. “He was a pathological liar. He’s still lying in his new book. He’s still not telling the truth about why he made such egregious mistakes. He’s got to know; he’s not stupid. But he won’t deal with that.” (Dorland, page 62)
In the annals of Vietnam protesters there is no bigger name than Tom Hayden, but he shows a much more nuanced position than might generally be thought, including understanding the feelings that the various communist governments had for one another. “China didn’t want a Soviet ally on their southern border. They were thinking first and foremost from their own viewpoint, not that of the Vietnamese.” (Dorland, page 72) Hayden’s opposition was as practical as it was idealistic, he seems to say throughout his interview, but the idealism was there, too. He states that he wanted to save American lives, downplaying the effects his activities might have on morale, sympathizing most with those who went late in the war. “Think of the guys who were dragged over there in 1969 and ‘70. They knew half the country was totally against the war. They knew their chances of getting killed or wounded were significant. They got into drugs. They got into undisclosed levels of mutiny…The soldiers from 1969 to 1971 have to be considered the ones who did the dog’s duty and suffered the most.” (Dorland, page 79)
It’s not hard to understand why the author included his next subject, Le Ly Hayslip. “I recall seeing young girls like Le Ly, perched on top of water buffalo and carrying their infant siblings on their hips, as I trudged through nameless villages.” (Dorland, page 81) As a teenaged girl uprooted from her small village, she sold goods to Americans by day and supported the VC by night. For purposes of this book she represents the face of the enemy, an enemy who has, disconcertingly, married an American and moved to California. Her early life was more a lesson in avoiding death. “…if you know what is going on, you die. If you don’t know anything, you still die. But if you know what to do, you survive.” (Dorland, page 88) She is a very religious woman, true to her Vietnamese heritage. “Every breath I take, every word I say, is not by me but from someone up there. I am nothing but a puppet to follow what heaven wants me to do.” (Dorland, page 93) She does not address the seeming paradox between her religious beliefs and the communist government she supports, but her interview makes clear the cultural differences with the Vietnamese people we both supported and fought.
Roger Hilsman understood the nature of the Vietnam War, having been an OSS guerilla behind Japanese lines during World War II, and was tasked by President Kennedy with keeping Vietnam from becoming an American war. McNamara despised him, but Hilsman knew that Americans could not have cared less about Vietnam in the early 60’s. “Most Americans at that time didn’t know where Vietnam was on the map. If you asked them where Vietnam was, they wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about.” (Dorland, page 97) He refutes the anti-war claim that the war was kept going by the so-called military-industrial complex. “The military-industrial complex loved having cold wars, but it hated having hot war. The only industry that benefitted from the Vietnam War was the helicopter business.” (Dorland, page 98) Nor is he shy when speaking about President Johnson, after Kennedy was assassinated. “I don’t know if Lyndon Johnson knew about Kennedy’s intention to withdraw. I think a guy with his political skills knew that Kennedy was never going to get us into a shooting war, but it became perfectly clear to me that Johnson wanted a war.” (Dorland, page, 104)
Senator John Kerry’s interview seems, at times, almost paranoid. “Seated behind me is his speechwriter, pen and paper in hand. It’s the only instance…in which I wasn’t alone with the subject. I suspect that the young man is there to make sure I don’t misquote the senator…” (Dorland, page 107) But Kerry is also more open at times than might be expected. Did he enjoy combat? “Yeah, at times I did. There was an excitement, an exhilaration in combat. You come out of battle as aware of the fact that you are alive as at any time in your life. There was a high to that.” (Dorland, page 110) What about having to kill people? “When we were in battle, we were doing our job to the best of our ability. I wanted to win. I had no ambiguity about that whatsoever.” (Dorland, page 111) As his views changed and he came to oppose the war, he seems to have lost faith in leadership of the military. “I was stunned by those early battles where the generals had lied.” (Dorland, page 114) Of the 19 people interviewed for the book who address the subject, Kerry’s opinion on Congress cutting off funds for the South Vietnamese is the lone voice supporting that decision. “…cutting off funds by Congress represented the absolute failure of policy but the absolute victory of American people asserting their choice.” (Dorland, page 115)
Dorland seems almost amazed that he was able to interview Henry Kissinger, whose writings on Vietnam and foreign policy are voluminous, his interviews many. And if there is a rehearsed feel to many of Kissinger’s answers, there are several passages that appear quite spontaneous and genuine. In response to a question of where Kissinger was when the last helicopter left Saigon, Dorland received an answer he didn’t expect, including this requiem: “‘It was a very sad moment,’ he said. ‘An appallingly conducted war, an American disaster, self-inflicted, and unnecessary.’” (Dorland, page 119) His response to Congress cutting off funds for Congress, in contrast to Kerry, was not so sanguine. “I thought then, and I think now, that they were responsible for the collapse of Vietnam.” (Dorland, page, 122) His view of the greatest lesson to be learned is an essential truth of military operations, often forgotten. “If we go into a war, we have to be prepared to win or we shouldn’t go at all.” (Dorland, page 124)
Anthony Lake seems almost out of place here, yet his stint as special assistant to Kissinger makes his insights important. He was a Democrat in a Republican administration and gives a different take to life inside the Nixon White House. Perhaps his most important personal knowledge is on the issue of whether nuclear weapons were ever seriously considered. “To my knowledge, and I witnessed a great deal of what was going on, I never saw any reference to or heard any discussion of a nuclear threat.” (Dorland, page 132) His interview does have a rehearsed feeling, though, the cadence in places sounds almost like he’s reading a memo.
Cau Le is the counter-point for Le Ly Hayslip, a South Vietnamese Colonel who fought bravely for his country and survived years of torture in northern hands. Cau Le’s feelings toward the North Vietnamese communists had not softened in the intervening years. “But when I mention communism, his whole persona tightens and his voice hardens. I can feel the intense hatred that burns inside him for the communists who destroyed his homeland.” (Dorland, page 138) Throughout his interview he seems poignantly aware that he is a voice for all of his countrymen who cannot speak for themselves, a defender of those who are gone. He seems especially upset by those who denigrate the fighting men of the South. “Many authors and journalists have not written the whole truth. They said that the ARVN were not good soldiers. That is wrong.” (Dorland, page 141) He also leaves no doubt about the brutality of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. “As I told you earlier, the NVA captured five thousand civilians in Hue citadel in the 1968 Tet Offensive and mercilessly murdered them in the jungles. The NVA were war criminals.” (Dorland, page 145)
As the book winds into its last 7 interviews, they are dominated by military men. As previously mentioned, Barry McCaffrey was an advisor and company commander in Vietnam, and first sparked Dorland’s interest in compiling his book. McCaffrey proves an enlightening subject, especially on the always difficult issue of motivation for seeking combat. “Romanticism. I was taken by the notion of fighting with an American combat unit.” (Dorland, page 150) That did not last long. “That was the end of romanticism for me-that first tour in Vietnam.” (Dorland, page 151) His insight into the quality of American fighting men in Vietnam is also illustrative. “Our young soldiers were nearly all draftees. They were a joy to work with. The had enormous courage and were ferociously devoted to each other.” (Dorland, page 154) Quite the iconoclast, this McCaffrey, wrecking the anti-war totems depicting a drug-addicted, de-moralized fighting force during the Vietnam War. “We were fighting for the Army-not America. I told them to divorce themselves from the stuff going on back home.” (Dorland, page 156)
By now, most Americans know the story of John McCain and his five and a half years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. His inclusion in this book seems almost mandatory, given his high profile in American politics. Unlike most politicians, however, McCain is blunt in his opinions on Vietnam. “We tried to win the conflict on the cheap, with no clear strategy for success.” (Dorland, page 170) Even more to the point: “…to enter the Vietnam conflict in the belief that a few thousand men and some airpower were going to stop Ho Chi Minh was stupid.” (Dorland, page 171)
Lt. Col. H.R. McMaster was not a participant in the Vietnam War, but Dorland notes that his exceedingly influential book Dereliction of Duty certainly warrants his inclusion in this work. Two historians discussing a mutual interest could be dull; fortunately that is not the case here, due to McMaster’s strong and informed opinions about what caused the war. “Far from inevitable, the war was only made possible by lies aimed at the American people, the Congress, and even members of Lyndon Johnson’s administration.” (Dorland, page 176) Like McCain, McMaster amplifies this as the interview continues. “One of the most striking aspects of how and why America went to war in Vietnam is the absence of clearly defined political goals or objectives.” (Dorland, page 178) And if McMaster has a lesson to impart, it would likely be this: “…ultimately, an administration can get the military advice it wants by virtue of whom it appoints and how it crafts advisory relationships.” (Dorland, page 181)
The CIA is represented by Norman Polgar, one of the last Americans to leave the Saigon embassy as the NVA rolled through the gates. A theme emerges in these last interviews that Washington abandoned South Vietnam to its fate, despite solemn promises to support its ally. Condemnation of Congress is common. Polgar begins the excoriations. He personally advised his superiors that the NVA was planning to swallow the South, only to be told that he was wrong. “Because of a stupid bureaucratic decision, Washington had willfully blinded itself to the truth. It was ridiculous.” (Dorland, page 188) As a direct result of this head-in-the-sand reaction: “Congress passed the bombing ban and reduced military and economic support, thus abandoning South Vietnam with no weapons and ammunition to fight with. It was [an] unconscionable double cross by Washington.” (Dorland, page 189) And what did Washington think of his first-hand information? “I was not debriefed on Vietnam by the CIA or by the State Department. It seemed that all wanted to forget.” (Dorland, page 200)
Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf picks up the baton of blaming Washington’s decision makers for sacrificing South Vietnam. His fifth General’s star obviously gives him the credibility to say whatever he feels. “I am absolutely convinced that we would have won had we bombed the north and mined Haiphong harbor…We fought the war locally. We never really fought the war strategically. We never took the war to the north.” (Dorland, page 204) He isn’t afraid to take on Robert McNamara or his one-time superior, William Westmoreland. “I fault Westmoreland for not standing up to McNamara and reminding him that his job was in the policy business, not in the war-fighting business.” (Dorland, page 206) As to the theme of Congress breaking its solemn word to support Vietnam, Schwarzkopf pulls no punches. “That was an act of betrayal-an absolute act of betrayal…It was treacherous and, I repeat, a clear act of betrayal. It was one of the blackest moments in the history of the United States of America.” (Dorland, page 209)
Now Senator from Virginia, James Webb graduated from the US Naval Academy and carried an M-16 in Vietnam as a Marine company commander; his novel Fields of Fire is considered one of the best Vietnam books yet written. He brings an on-the-spot perspective and doesn’t mince words. “In my company there was very little drug use among the rifle platoons in the bush. They were highly disciplined, and they disciplined each other on this point.” (Dorland, page 218) Most interesting, perhaps, is his view of war protesters who crossed the line. “I have some strong feelings about a lot of people who abused our system during that period…I believe Jane Fonda committed treason during her visit to North Vietnam. Not only did she oppose our involvement, but she actively encouraged the enemy by making speeches against America on Hanoi Radio.” (Dorland, page 220) He also weighs in on Congressional non-support for South Vietnam in the 1970’s. “I believe that cutting off the supplemental appropriation for the South Vietnamese was the most shameful act of our government in its entire history.” (Dorland, page 224)
Finally, Dorland secured an interview with General William Westmoreland, the man under whose command the war escalated in the early and mid 1960’s. There are countless questions only a man like Westmoreland might answer, but he was quite old by the time Dorland spoke with him. A few examples show the value of his interview, though. On possible Chinese intervention: “I was quite aware what my military capabilities were and did not want to encourage the Chinese to come to the battlefield.” (Dorland, page 229) On why he never disputed Washington’s policy vis-a-vis the South Vietnamese: “Well, the thing is that the President of the United States was in a better position to know whether it was right or wrong than I was.” (Dorland, page 229) Westmoreland’s memory was failing at this point, however, and the author fills in what he could not ask during the interview with quotes from the General’s book A Soldier Reports.
Dorland’s book asks hard questions from people who participated in the Vietnam War from a number of different positions, and many of the answers are invaluable to understanding that conflict. The people selected for interview all had a major personal stake in the war and the author tries very hard to include all viewpoints. The interviews here all run roughly the same length. At no point does the reader begin to feel that any of the interviews are ‘stretched’, first-class material runs throughout the book. Any attempt to highlight important information for further research will almost surely fail: revelatory passages abound one every page.
To the author’s credit he did not use a back and forth format that surely must have been very tempting, from an anti-war view to a pro-war one. Sort of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ setup, except in this case it would have been ‘good war, bad war’. That might have seemed obvious but Dorland shied from doing this, instead structuring his book to follow certain lines of inquiry that make it flow smoother. In the catalog of books on the Vietnam War, Legacy of Discord rises to the head of the list as a primary work.