Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (New York: 2007), p. 247; George W. Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of Intelligence Failure in Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001); Michael Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (London: The Free Press, 1989), 134; and Barry Miller, “Litton Develops Fighter Air Data Systems,” Aviation Week, September 19, 1960, p. 95.
Frank Baldwin and Diane and Michael Jones, America’s Rented Troops: South Koreans in Vietnam (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1973), cited in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Political Economy of Human Rights 1: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 321.
Following raids in Dai Lai village in the rural Thai Binh province (southeast of Hanoi) in October 1967, French journalist Gerard Chaliand witnessed men and women weeping as they swept debris from the floors of destroyed homes and recounted how their neighbors had been burned alive by the fires. Bui Van Nguu, age forty-six, told Chaliand that he had been outdoors making brooms for the cooperative when a bomb exploded in his kitchen, burying his three children. The only thing left of them was mangled limbs, shreds of flesh, and the ear of his eldest daughter which was found in a garden seven yards away. Rescue teams in the village dug out many other children who had been buried alive, burned to shreds, or asphyxiated in the bombing massacre that was one of many in the war. A woman who had lost her parents and six siblings in the bombing of Phy Le told visiting peace activist David Dellinger to “ask your president Johnson if our straw huts were made of steel and concrete” (as LBJ claimed) and to ask him if “our Catholic church that was destroyed was a military target….Tell him that we will continue our life and struggle no matter what future bombings there will be because we know that without independence and freedom, nothing is worthwhile.”
Reorienting American thinking about the war was an uphill climb. The generation that came of age during the Vietnam War was raised on heroic World War II stories, pumped full of national pride, and indoctrinated to believe in the benevolence of American foreign policies. Still, the purported “threat” of a communist-led government in a small country halfway around the world did not elicit the same fighting spirit as defending the nation in the aftermath of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This was true for the general population as well – the necessity of the war was not obvious. Hence, the administration had to work assiduously to persuade the public that developments in Vietnam did indeed pose a dire threat to the security of the United States as well as to the survival of the so-called Free World.
The American massacre of civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968, was part of the U.S. counteroffensive following Tet. The area in which the My Lai village was located was labeled “Pinkville” and a U.S. unit known as Charlie company – led by Captain Ernest Medina, with 2nd Lt. William Calley commanding the First Platoon – treated it as a free-fire zone, killing some 500 unarmed men, women, children, and infants. A number of women were raped as well. Not all soldiers participated in the murders; one broke down and cried; another shot animals instead. Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot surveying the scene from above, spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape. Realizing that a massacre was taking place, he landed his chopper and rescued ten civilians while ordering his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. On the same day, another U.S. unit, Bravo company, murdered some 90 civilians in the village of My Khe, two kilometers to the east. These massacres were not acknowledged by military authorities at the time. The task force commander overseeing operations wrote in his after-action report that the day’s maneuvers were “well planned, well-executed, and successful.”
Pacifists generally abhorred the dehumanization of war, promoted conflict resolution and reconciliation, encouraged individual conscientious objection to war, and supported nonviolent social change for justice in the manner of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Jr. Many pacifist and pacifist-leaning groups had long experience in organizing campaigns (founding dates noted): FOR (1915), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, 1917), WILPF (1919), WRL (1923), Congress on Racial Equality (CORE, 1942), and Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO, 1948). Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste, a practical pacifist with experience in labor and civil rights movements, played a unifying role in the antiwar movement until his death in February 1967. Some pacifist groups, such as WILPF, leaned toward the liberal wing of the movement while others, such as WRL, pulled to the left. WRL International issued a statement in August 1968 declaring its intent to work with “our brothers and sisters in the various liberation movements” to “bring an end to colonialism and imperialism … but without yielding up our belief that the foundation of the future must be laid in the present, that a society without violence must begin with revolutionists who will not use violence.”
The American people, by and large, are against colonialism and aggression, and believe in the right of every country to manage its own affairs free from outside interference. Rarely have these simple principles been so clearly and grossly violated as in the present United States policy towards Indochina…. Are we going to take the position that anti-Communism justifies anything, including colonialism, interference in the affairs of other countries and aggression? That way, let us be perfectly clear about it, lies war and more war leading ultimately to full-scale disaster.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the son of an émigré Hebrew scholar, addressed the issue of the moral responsibility of intellectuals in a special supplement in the New York Review of Books in February 1967. Based on a thorough examination of U.S. policy in Vietnam, he judged that it was genocidal in conduct and imperialist in intent. Like other intellectuals on the left, he viewed U.S. involvement in Vietnam as neither an aberration nor a simple mistake but rather as part of a larger design to extend American hegemony. Chomsky examined the role of the intellectuals in World War II, particularly those in Germany and Japan who failed to speak out against the atrocities committed by their respective governments. Considering the relative freedom of Western societies, he argued that academics and intellectuals had a responsibility to “seek the truth hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
Such harsh penalties undoubtedly dissuaded many GIs from directly challenging military authority, but other ways were found to debate and protest the war. With the support of local peace groups, coffee houses sprang up near military bases where GIs could freely exchange ideas. GIs began publishing off-base newspapers, one of the first being Vietnam GI in late 1967. More newspapers followed. Cortright counts a total of 259 over the course of the war, although many lasted only a few issues due to personnel relocation. In December 1967, the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) was founded by socialist Andy Stapp, who purposely entered the Army in order to organize among soldiers. ASU developed chapters in bases at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Benning, Georgia, and offered legal assistance to servicemen in support of GI rights. An increasing number of GIs also applied for C.O. status while in the service. Even if denied, their applications backed up the military courts and sometimes delayed deployment orders. At the Oakland Army Base, a primary embarkation point for Vietnam, the Pacific Counseling Service aided GIs in filling out C.O. applications, resulting in 1,200 soldiers successfully delaying their deployment orders by March 1, 1970.
Continuous arrests fill the jails and prisons to the rafters, as at this precise moment, public opinion and the press are reduced to silence…. Political parties and religious sects have been eliminated…. Today the people want freedom. You should, Mr. President, liberalize the regime, promote democracy, guarantee minimum civil rights, recognize the opposition so as to permit the citizens to express themselves without fear, thus removing grievances and resentments.
The West is backing, with its eyes open … a reactionary police state. . . . The Asians are intelligent people, and well able to contrast the declaration of principles of . . . the United States, with the facts of the regime under which they live. No intelligent Vietnamese can fail to be cynical when he hears American professors lecturing of political freedom in one province, while Diem’s army and police are imprisoning thousands of suspected Communists without trial in another.