40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam

Larry Holzwarth - June 23, 2019

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
The military claimed that bombing in Vietnam was limited to clearly military targets. USAF

17. Myth: The United States conducted a limited bombing campaign in Vietnam

There are those who believe that the American aerial bombing campaign was designed to limit air strikes to strategic targets and to interdict the movement of supplies into Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. American bombers and fighter bombers targeted these and anti-aircraft weapons emplacements, rather than targeting cities and civilian targets, such as industrial facilities. The bombing was conducted with precision, using the techniques developed through the experiences of the Second World War and the Korean War, especially in the area of close air support of units deployed on the ground. The air war was intended to support the units of the US military and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), not stand on its own.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
F4C Phantom fighter-bombers strike at targets in Indochina. The US bombed Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam and North Vietnam over the course of the war. USAF

18. Fact: The United States bombed Indochina relentlessly for nearly a decade

Over 7 million tons of aerial bombs were dropped in Southeast Asia by American aircraft during the Vietnam War, more than three times the total tonnage dropped in all of the Second World War in the European and Pacific Theaters combined. The tonnage dropped on Laos alone was equivalent to one ton for every resident in the nation. About 4 million tons were dropped on targets in South Vietnam, including suspected troop and Viet Cong concentrations, villages and towns, and targets called in by troops heavily engaged on the ground. Besides aerial bombing, Vietnam was also heavily targeted by big guns from US Naval warships, including cruisers and destroyers and in 1968 the battleship USS New Jersey.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
USS New Jersey returns to Pearl Harbor after duty bombarding the coast and installations in Vietnam in 1968. US Navy

19. Myth: The United States always intended to limit the war to supporting the South Vietnamese

In a famous interview with respected news anchor Walter Cronkite shortly before he was assassinated, President Kennedy discussed the war in Vietnam, indicating to the newsman that in the long run it was the South Vietnamese’ war to win or lose. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford all at some time or other took that view, at least publicly. The impression delivered to the American people was that the United States was in Vietnam at the behest of the South Vietnamese, who were determined to resist the encroachment of the communists from the North, who were themselves mere puppets of the Chinese or the Soviets, depending upon which theory one subscribed to.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
While serving as Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon suggested using atomic bombs to break the siege at Dien Bien Phu. National Archives

20. Fact: Richard Nixon proposed using nuclear weapons in Vietnam when the French were still fighting there

Richard Nixon, as Vice-President for Lyndon Johnson, was an early hawk on Vietnam, believing as early as 1954 that American troops would be required there in order to contain communism, and pushing Ike for a more vigorous American response to the war between the Viet Minh and the French colonial troops. Nixon prodded the Chiefs-of-Staff to authorize Operation Vulture, an aerial assault on the Vietnamese troops attacking Dien Bien Phu with both conventional weapons and three atomic bombs, which according to Nixon would have ended the Vietnam War then and there. Nixon later proposed using the threat of nuclear attack in Vietnam to bring the North Vietnamese leadership to the peace table. In both instances, cooler heads prevailed, Ike canceled Operation Vulture in 1954, and Kissinger persuaded Nixon to abandon the idea in 1969.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Protests against the draft, such as this one in New York in 1967, are indelibly linked to the public remembrance of the Vietnam War. Wikimedia

21. Myth: The war in Vietnam was fought predominantly by draftees

A long-standing myth about the war in Vietnam is that it was fought predominantly by reluctant draftees who opposed both the war and the fact that their lives could be disrupted by forced military service. Supporters of American involvement often cite the fact that a greater percentage of the armed forces during World War II were draftees than during Vietnam. This is true, but ignores the fact that in 1942 voluntary enlistments were suspended, so that the military could draft men into the branches of the armed forces based on the prevailing needs of the services rather than individual preferences. During Vietnam, men were drafted into the Army, and could avoid army service by volunteering for the Navy or Air Force, thus staying out of combat zones.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Regardless of the stridency of protests, the fact was that only about 25% of the troops sent to Vietnam were draftees. Library of Congress

22. Fact: About 25% of the troops which served in the combat zones were draftees

According to statistics kept by the US Army, and corroborated by other sources, approximately 25% of the troops which served in combat roles in Vietnam were drafted into military service. This fact does not take into account the number of men who joined other branches of the military in order to exempt themselves from the draft. Others managed to evade the draft by performing national service in the National Guard, and others sought college deferments. Some received medical deferments for conditions such as bone spurs. The draft was clearly more likely to target those who had less access to options which exempted them, and thus members of lower socioeconomic standing were more likely to be caught in its mesh. Still, not all draftees were sent to serve in combat units. The percentage of troops sent to Vietnam that actually saw combat is debated, particularly among veterans, with some claiming up to 100%, and others less than ten%.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Richard Nixon explains a temporary American incursion in Cambodia in 1969. It too fell to a communist backed regime. Wikimedia

23. Myth: The United States saved the rest of Southeast Asia from communism

An argument for American involvement in Vietnam is that the domino theory, which first saw the light of day during the Eisenhower Administration, was proven by the war and the American sacrifice in Vietnam prevented all of Southeast Asia from being overrun. The argument was that once one country fell, others would follow in a manner resembling the collapse of a row of dominoes one-by-one. The argument continues to be made that the United States saved the rest of Southeast Asia from becoming victims of the theory, which is based on countries being overrun by outside interests such as China or the Soviet Union, rather than internal communist parties which are supported by outside interests.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Supplies moved along the Ho Chi Minh trail, partially through Cambodia, were part of the justification for Americans crossing the boundary. Wikimedia

24. Fact: The Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia and Laos during the time of American involvement

Communist supported troops in Cambodia and Laos were actively involved in civil wars in both of those countries during the period of American involvement in Vietnam, and American troops deployed, secretly in both cases, to contain them. American involvement by then was not based on the defeat of the communist movements but rather the necessity of securing an American withdrawal from the combat areas under what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger called Vietnamization of the war – the transfer of responsibility for the defense of their country to the South Vietnamese, rather than the American troops on the scene. America left Southeast Asia dominated by communist regimes when it withdrew after more than a decade in Vietnam.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
US Navy A6 Intruders drop their bombs over targets in Indochina. US Navy

25. Myth: American airpower dominated the skies over Vietnam during the war

Over the years of its involvement in Vietnam, American airpower, projected by the United States Air Force and the United States Navy and Marines for the most part, at least as far as fixed wing aircraft were concerned, dominated the skies. American warplanes outperformed those of the North Vietnamese, including those flown by both Chinese and Russian pilots. US losses were considerably lower than they had been in comparison to the number of missions flown during the Korean Conflict (where that had also faced Chinese and Soviet pilots) and during the Second World War.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
The United States lost several thousand helicopters in Vietnam, nearly all of them to ground fire. US Army

26. Fact: American and South Vietnamese aircraft losses were heavy during the war

Over the course of American involvement in Vietnam, the United States Air Force lost 2,251 aircraft, about 20% to accidents, and about 2,200 of them were fixed wing airplanes. The US Navy lost over 850, with 532 attributable to combat action. Most of the losses were to anti-aircraft missiles and gunfire. Over 5,600 American helicopters were lost, and with the losses to the US Marines included Americans lost over 10,000 aircraft during the Vietnam War, roughly 1,000 per year. This tally does not include American equipment provided to and lost by the Republic of Vietnam, nor those captured at the end of the war. By contrast, North Vietnam lost about 200 aircraft, though they did not deploy as much as a tenth of the missions launched by the Americans and allies.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
By the time Walter Cronkite visited Vietnam in 1968 drug use was becoming a serious problem among American troops. US Army

27. Myth: Drug use among American troops in Vietnam was no worse than among the civilian population at home

Since the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of explanations and revisions regarding some of its less than savory incidents, there has been a growing and increasingly vocal argument that drug use among the deployed troops was at a rate which reflected American society. Soldiers who served in Vietnam did not become regular active users of drugs until after they returned to the United States and dealt with, in addition to the stresses of the war which they had lately left behind, the hostile reception which was offered them upon returning to the United States by those in opposition to the war. During deployment, according to the argument, drug use was limited to a few who used cannabis, and the beer which was provided to the troops by the military for their recreation when not in the line.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
With anti-war sentiment at a fever pitch the military attempted to keep its growing drug problem hidden from the American public. Wikimedia

28. Fact: The Vietnam War unleashed thousands of addicts upon the US healthcare and legal systems

In May 1971, reports in American newspapers and periodicals addressed a growing and tragic crisis among American troops deployed in and returning from Vietnam. Heroin use reached epidemic proportions among American troops. “Tens of thousands of soldiers are going back as walking time bombs” an officer responsible for curtailing the crisis told the New York Times, adding that the government had no system in place to deal with the epidemic other than to deny its existence. An official US Army estimate, classified at the time, was that up to 37,000 American troops were using heroin at the level qualified as addiction in May 1971. The official government response was to cover it up, an action which remains more or less in effect almost fifty years later.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Shortly after Westmoreland boasted to Congress that the end was in sight the Tet Offensive stunned the South Vietnamese and Americans. USMC

29. Myth: The United States crushed the Tet Offensive in 1968 quickly and efficiently

After recovering from the surprise which accompanied the unleashing of the Tet Offensive, in which over 100 cities were attacked, and numerous bases and installations overrun or destroyed, the United States and ARVN responded quickly, recovering most of the territory lost in a matter of a few weeks, and dealing heavy casualties to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a crushing defeat for the North Vietnamese and the communists, but the presentation of the event to the American people by a hostile media led to the American attitude toward the war in Vietnam becoming one of defeatism. Although the American military defeated Tet quickly, they lost the support of the American people.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
The ruins of Hue following the Tet Offensive, which was itself followed by two more major offensives which did not receive as much publicity in the United States. USMC

30. Fact: Other offensives followed closely upon the heels of the Tet Offensive

Just under one month after the Tet Offensive was brought under control (which took about eight weeks of heavy fighting) the Viet Cong launched a second offensive, which while less ambitious than Tet indicated their offensive capability was intact. In August, 1968, a third offensive was launched, and 1968 became the bloodiest year of the war. The intent of the three offensives was to destroy the American will to continue fighting and to hopefully (by the North Vietnamese) encourage defection by ARVN units. Though no defections of whole units occurred, desertions by individuals increased dramatically. The year of communist offensives also gave the lie to the rosy reports by General Westmoreland that the war was all but won by the spring of 1968, and revealed the communist troops were still very much a fighting force, despite his claims that they had been all but destroyed.

31. Myth: The Viet Cong was an independent guerrilla/militia force fighting on their own

The Viet Cong has been presented to the public since the time of the war, and continues to be today in media and myth as a wholly independent, locally raised force aligned with the North to oppose the ARVN and their American allies, using primitive weapons or those captured from the enemy. The Cong and their predecessor, the Viet Minh which fought against the French, continue to be viewed as locally raised and organized units which fought against enemies which entered their territory, as well as a group which terrorized villagers in their areas who were found to be sympathetic to the government of South Vietnam and their American allies.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
A captured Viet Cong fighter awaits interrogation during the Tet Offensive. National Archives

32. Fact: The Viet Cong was well armed and supported independently of the North Vietnamese government

In truth, the Viet Cong were a well-armed and trained organization, with much of their support coming from North Vietnam, whose officials directed and planned their operations – Tet is a good example – and whose supplies came to them directly from both the Soviet Union and China. Armed primarily with AK-47s, the world’s most ubiquitous assault rifle then and now, they often outgunned their enemies in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, who often carried the M-1 and M-14 rifles which the US military had discarded as a front line assault rifle, at least until late in the war as the US was abandoning the ARVN to its inevitable fate. Up to $5 billion dollars in military aid was supplied directly to the Viet Cong by the Chinese and the Soviets between the mid-1950s and 1968, according to the CIA.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
America’s last military operation in Vietnam was the evacuation of refugees as Saigon fell to the communists. National Archives

33. Myth: As South Vietnam collapsed the elite of its society fled to the United States

During the fall of South Vietnam and the collapse of Saigon, which occurred with stunning speed, refugees fled to the American ships and airbases outside of the country. Most of these refuges were the elite of South Vietnamese society, those who had supported the Americans and the fight against communism until the bitter end. Better educated and with valuable skills, they were given priority during the frantic evacuation of Saigon and during later evacuations spearheaded by the United States, to bring out refugees who had initially fled to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other locales to escape communist persecution and imprisonment. These were the refugees who became known as the boat people, with many eventually rescued by the Americans.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
Vietnamese ‘boat people’ fled the communist regime to other Asian countries and the United States. US Navy

34. Fact: The majority of the refugees admitted to the United States were not part of the South Vietnamese elite

The overwhelming majority of the refugees which fled Vietnam to other Asian countries in the hope of eventually reaching the United States were not the elite of society. Most of the so-called boat people were from rural areas not yet under firm control of the new government, including former members of the Viet Cong. They were farmers, artisans, mechanics, less educated, and often families of lower level officials who had already been sent to camps for “re-education”. Between the fall of Saigon and the end of the 1970s more than 400,000 were admitted to the United States, where they established Vietnamese enclaves in many American cities. More refugees continued to be admitted to the United States at the end of the 1980s, the children of American servicemen and former political prisoners.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
The myth that the burden of the Vietnam War fell disproportionately on black Americans began during the Johnson administration. US Army

35. Myth: A higher percentage of black soldiers fought the Vietnam War

According to a long-standing myth, black Americans were more likely to be drafted, more likely to be sent to Vietnam, and more likely to be killed or injured in combat. This myth has been repeated in news articles and essays, depicted in film and television, and brought forth as an example of the racism prevalent in America at the time, in which the children of privileged whites could obtain exemptions not available for black Americans. Vietnam was the first war fought by the United States with a legally integrated military since the Revolutionary War (in Korea integration had been ordered, but was not yet fully practiced). The myth remains of the Americans drafting blacks to fight an unjust war, which was itself racial in scope.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
A US Army rifle squad disembarks from their helicopter, during a training mission. US Army

36. Fact: The US Army was overwhelmingly white in Vietnam

The troops which deployed to Vietnam during the years of American involvement, including the crews of the US Navy ships which served offshore in the conflict, were just over half of a middle-class background, better educated than in any of America’s preceding wars (79% had a high school diploma) and were overwhelmingly white (88%). Of all the combat deaths which were suffered by American forces over the course of the war, 86% were white. The myth of the prejudicial use of black troops to conduct the most dangerous missions, exposing them to the greatest risk of injury or death, is directly traceable to the civil rights movement which occurred simultaneously with the worst years of the Vietnam War, in which more radical factions created the falsehoods to rally their followers.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
The US Embassy in Saigon came under heavy attack during the January 1968 Tet Offensive. National Archive

37. Myth: Portions of the US Embassy were occupied by the enemy during the Tet Offensive

During the confusion and fear prevalent in the early hours of the Tet Offensive, the United States Embassy in Saigon was under attack by Viet Cong forces. US Marines, supported by Army troops and ARVN forces, fought the Cong guerrillas within the compound and along its perimeter. The Associated Press, witnessing the ferocity of the fighting near the embassy grounds, reported that several floors of the embassy itself had been occupied by communist troops. The report was confirmed by the AP’s main competitor, United Press International. The inability of the Americans to protect their embassy within the limits of their ally’s capital city was a blow to the prestige of the American military.

38. Fact: The American Embassy was not overrun by communist troops during the Tet Offensive

American defenders of the embassy in Saigon included the guard force of US Marines, supported by Army troops from Saigon and some ARVN forces which joined them. Although a breach was achieved in the security wall by the Viet Cong, they were unable to exploit it by having troops enter the grounds, and the attack was eventually repelled by the combined Allied forces, with heavy losses to the communist troops, mostly Viet Cong. Although news releases denied the reports of the embassy being partially occupied, which had been promulgated by the Associated Press and United Press International (and repeated by other news agencies) the denials were largely ignored as the press turned its attention to events elsewhere in the country, including the fighting at Hue.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
ARVN soldiers with a hatless American advisor during the war. US Army

39. Myth: Americans had to do the bulk of the fighting in Vietnam because the ARVN wouldn’t

Another longstanding myth of the Vietnam War is the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, known as ARVN, could not and would not fight. The myth, perpetuated by films, television, literature, and the prejudices of many, states that the ARVN for the most part did not support the puppet government installed by the Americans and in any case lacked the modern equipment necessary to conduct combat operations successfully. The ARVN was ineptly led, poorly equipped, inadequately supplied in the field, and lacked the motivation to defend its own country against the communists, leaving the Americans the burden of defending South Vietnam against communist aggression.

40 Myths and Facts about the War in Vietnam
ARVN Troops flush suspected Viet Cong from hiding circa 1968. US Army

40. Fact: ARVN fought hard and sustained heavy casualties throughout the war

The South Vietnamese Army was poorly equipped early in the conflict, since the Americans had to ensure that their own troops were adequately armed and supplied, leaving only obsolescent weaponry available to supply their ally. By the time of what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger called Vietnamization – the transfer of responsibility for successfully prosecuting the war to the South Vietnamese – the weapons provided to ARVN were the same as carried by the Americans. Though corruption was present in the ranks of senior officers throughout the war, the front-line troops fought bravely and well, and many paid the price for their courage once Saigon fell and the futile war against the North Vietnamese ended after more than twenty years of continuous conflict.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U. S. Involvement”. Neil Sheehan, The New York Times. June 13, 1971

“The Nation: Pentagon Papers: The Secret War”. TIME Magazine. June 28, 1971

“Congress Approves Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, August 7, 1964”. Andrew Glass, Politico. August 7, 2016

“The Truth about Tonkin”. LCDR Pat Paterson USN, Naval History, US Naval Institute. February 2008. Online

“The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973”. Carl Berger, Office of Air Force History. 1977

“In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”. Robert S. McNamara. 1995

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Escalation of the Vietnam Conflict”. Robert M. Gillespie, Clemson University. 1994

“China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-1969”. Chen Jian, The China Quarterly. June, 1995

“The Campaign and Election of 1964”. Kent Germany, Miller Center, University of Virginia. Online

“What We Did: Reckoning with Vietnam 50 years after My Lai…” Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs Magazine. July 8, 2018

“The US Spent $141 Billion in Vietnam in 14 Years”. The New York Times. May 1, 1975

“We Were Soldiers Once…and Young – Ia Drang: the battle that changed the war in Vietnam”. Harold G. Moore, Joseph L. Galloway. 1992

“Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954 – 1975”. Military History Institute of Vietnam. 2002

“Remember the Brutal Air War in Vietnam”. Gerald D. Skoning, The American Spectator. October 13, 2017. Online

“Dien Bien Phu: Did the U. S. offer France an A-Bomb?” BBC News Magazine. May 5, 2014. Online

“How the Draft Reshaped America”. The New York Times. October 6, 2017

“Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia”. William Shawcross. 2002

“The Air Force in the Vietnam War”. John Correll, Air Force Association. 2004

“GI Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam”. The New York Times, May 16, 1971

“Vietnam, heroin, and the lesson of disrupting any addiction”. Sanjay Gupta, CNN. December 22, 2015

“The Tet Offensive shocked the nation and permanently changed US attitudes toward the Vietnam War”. Steve Atlas, Public Radio International. October 11, 2017

“History of Special Forces in Vietnam, 1961-1971”. Francis John Kelly, United States Army Center of Military History. 1973. Online

“Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus”. Larry Clinton Thompson. 2010

“Black and White in Vietnam”. The New York Times. July 18, 2017

“What happened in the Tet Offensive’s first 36 hours”. Associated Press (1968), reprinted in Military Times. January 31, 2018

“The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army, 1950-1972”. Brigadier General James Lawton Collins, USA, United States Army Center of Military History. 1975

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