According to the American government, their involvement in the Vietnam War started on November 1, 1955, and lasted until the Americans pulled out in early March 1973. The War, and the protest movement it created, defined the baby boomer generation.
Decades later, this war is still shrouded in myths, either from the propaganda during the war, or from the typical Hollywood dramatization that succeeding generations were weaned upon.
10. This Little Girl’s Terror Was Caused By American Bombers
On June 8, 1972, Nick Út captured this picture of a naked Kim Phuc running with her family, away from her village that had just been fire bombed. Most assumed it was the Americans that did the bombing, but it was actually an ancient prop Sky Raider, from the late 40’s, flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force.
Decades later, US Vietnam war veteran John Plummer, then a Methodist minister, tried to take credit for ordering the strike. He was found to have exaggerated his role though, and later admitted that the planning, order, and execution of the strike was within the South Vietnamese command structure.
9. Only America and the Vietnams Were Fighting
Movies like to portray the Vietnam War as America vs. the Communists, but most of the fighting took place between the South Vietnamese, who had the largest military forces on the ground, and the Communists of North Vietnam. During the War’s peak though, multiple nations had been sucked in, essentially turning Vietnam into World War III. Allied with the South were the Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, and most of the local Asian countries (including Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea.) On the Communist side, Chinese, Soviet, and North Korean forces helped out the North Vietnamese.
8. Ho Chi Minh and General Giap Were In Charge Of The Communists
As time slowly destroys the Iron Curtain holding back the Communist Vietnam’s secrets, we learn more and more about the political structure of the “Party” during the war. Recently revealed documents and interviews have shown that, far from the omnipresent legend he is normally portrayed as, Ho Chi Minh was merely a powerless figurehead, who opposed total war against the Americans and the South. Also, General Giap, famous for winning the battle against the French in Dien Bien Phu, was also sidelined by the real power players: Le Duan, leader of the Communist Party, and his right-hand man, the indomitable Le Duc Tho. These two handled all the main decisions, and kept North Vietnam’s resolve for victory against the South.
7. The Fighting Was Only In South Vietnam
Incredibly, many people think that the War was only fought in South Vietnam. Yet, as the Ho Chi Minh trail traveled through Laos and Cambodia, these countries too were dragged into the war. In fact, HUGE amounts of bombs ripped apart both countries, and still have effects today. Laos is actually the most bombed country per capita in history, with over one ton of explosives dropped for each Laotian. Cambodia didn’t fare any better, as it was invaded multiple times by the Americans and South Vietnamese, and received more than 350% of the tonnage that was dropped on Japan during World War II.
6. America Never Lost A Battle In Vietnam
This one might seem a little pedantic, but a whole legend has grown around a famous quote between a US general and his NVA counterpart. After the War was finished, officials from America and the now-unified Vietnam met. US Colonel Harry Summers said, “You know you (the Vietnamese) never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
This exchange has spawned a whole mythos around America never losing a battle, not one. It’s simply absurd thinking, as it’s all but impossible to lose every battle and still not surrender. The Communists actually won numerous times; probably the most infamous of which was the Battle of Fire Base Ripcord, which the US military was able to cover up for years afterwards.
5. The Vietnam War Was Purely A Guerrilla/Jungle War
At the beginning of the War, the South Vietnamese and their allies were fighting the Vietcong in the jungle. As the war dragged on, more and more of North Vietnamese resources were sent South, until the Vietnam War turned into a full-fledged set piece battle, involving tanks and artillery battles between both sides. The Eastertide Offensive of ’72 was the largest land movement since the Chinese forces swarmed over the border during the Korean War. Thousands were killed and, depending on who you ask, between 500 and 700 Communist tanks were knocked out of battle.
4. If JFK Had Lived, He Would Have Kept America Out Of The War
Kennedy has inspired hundreds of myths about himself, so of course there’d be one about Vietnam. Namely, that he would have fought tooth-and-nail to keep us out of there. Not so; for one thing, when Kennedy was in power, America was already involved in the War. And far from seeking to pull out, Kennedy actually wanted to double-down with the military intervention. On September 2, 1963, he gave this quote to Walter Cronkite: “These people who say we ought to withdraw from Vietnam are totally wrong, because if we withdrew from Vietnam, the communists would control … all of Southeast Asia … then India, Burma would be next.” So much for that idea.
3. American Media Coverage Of Vietnam Was Negative
Many people still believe that the war was lost not not on the battlefield, bt because media coverage was so negative, that the entire US turned on its own cavalry, shooting their morale to pieces. As it turns out, the exact opposite was true. During the War, the media was a pure lapdog to American policy. At the height of the war, in 1968, there was the Tet Offensive, My Lai massacre, and the peak number of Americans serving in Vietnam. Yet not a single major newspaper thought the US should leave Vietnam. The mainstream press not only helped cover up military disasters, but framed the reporting to meet American needs and goals. The only time the major media outlets reported bad things in Vietnam were if other smaller alternative news outlets did.
After the Mai Lai massacre, Vietnam veterans wrote letters to multiple media outlets about the killings and the media refused to touch the story. It took more than a year and a half before some small newspaper syndicate published info about the massacre. Even then, the main reason was that they were friends with the main reporter, Seymour Hersh.
2. The US Army Was Comprised Mostly of Draftees
Far from being mostly unwilling draftees, the men who served in Vietnam were almost exclusively volunteer. Only 21% of the force was drafted; this compared to, say, World War II, where 63% were drafted. Here is the breakdown:
World War I – 2,810,296 drafted / 4,734,991 served in WWI = 60% drafted
World War II – 10,110,104 drafted / 16,112,566= 63% drafted
Korea – 1,529,539 drafted / 5,720,000 served in Korea = 27% drafted
Vietnam – 1,857,304 drafted / 8,744,000 served in Vietnam= 21% drafted
1. It Was Exactly Like Platoon
Far from everyone being based in the jungle front lines, most of the Americans in Vietnam were there on cushy base assignments. 75% of US soldiers lived on bases that were done up like little islands of Americana, with all the amenities of living back in the good ol’ US of A. While their brethren were duking it out in the jungle with Vietcong ninjas, the biggest threat the 75% faced was injuring themselves from playing sports, or catching VD while partying in Saigon.