The new President moved decisively to assure Americans that only the face on the national screen had changed. Kennedy had led them onto a “New Frontier,” and now Johnson promised that they would build a “Great Society” at home and ensure American power and credibility abroad. Johnson lacked the charisma and charm of his predecessor. But his success in passing civil rights legislation was the greatest advance for black Americans since the Civil War. Enjoying a huge and unusually pliable Democratic majority after his landslide victory over his extreme right-wing Republican opponent Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, he rushed a record number of bills through Congress, constituting a “War on Poverty.” He appeared equally dominant in foreign affairs. Before his re-election, while he positioned himself against Goldwater as a peace candidate (“we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”), he seized on the doubtful report of a second attack on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese torpedo boats by ordering bombing attacks on naval facilities.3 He then won overwhelming approval from Congress for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized him to take any actions necessary in Southeast Asia to protect American troops.
In early 1965 Johnson responded to the deteriorating situation in Vietnam by sending large-scale regular American combat units into the South while beginning a sustained bombing campaign in the North. These decisions transformed Kennedy’s failed counterinsurgency policy symbolized by the Green Beret into a conventional war in which American forces relied on their overwhelming technological power. As the Saigon generals plotted against each other in a series of coups, American generals took command of the struggle against the communist-led insurgency and North Vietnamese regular units.
The central American tactic was “Search and Destroy,” in which army or marine units would move in an arc through the countryside, seeking to lure North Vietnamese units to attack them so that overwhelming firepower from artillery, fighter-bombers, and airborne units could be rapidly employed. The goal was to kill as many of the enemy as possible in a strategy of attrition. Another tactic of the new strategy was to remove villagers from the countryside, so that they would not be in the way of American firepower and could not, whether willingly or through intimidation, support South Vietnamese guerrillas. To achieve this end, large areas of the countryside were designated free-fire zones, in which anyone not an American or South Vietnamese soldier would be considered an enemy combatant. To make the enemy visible and deprive him of food, the countryside was sprayed with chemical defoliants. During Operation Ranch Hand from 1965 until 1971, “17.6 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over approximately 3.6 million acres of Vietnam.”4 Johnson hoped that this massive effort would convince the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh that resistance by his primitive little country was too costly. In a major address at Johns Hopkins University on April 7 he promised that if the enemy would end their efforts in the South the United States would supply economic aid and expertise that would modernize all of Southeast Asia, transforming the Mekong River Delta even as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee River Valley Authority had improved a backward part of rural America during the 1930s as part of the New Deal. The Great Society would complete the liberal dream of a rationalized democratic progress abroad as well as at home.
Johnson and his advisers knew that the strategy depended wholly on the premise that an intimidated Vietnamese enemy would perceive that the only reasonable course left for them was to give up their “aggression.” The North Vietnamese and their allies among the indigenous population in the South, the National Liberation Front (NLF), saw themselves neither as aggressors nor as without hope of victory. They had been engaged in a struggle to win independence from foreign domination for centuries, and from their point of view the American war was the final episode of a struggle that had once been waged against China and more recently France. As Johnson steadily increased the number of American troops, the North Vietnamese matched each escalation with the steady introduction of fresh combat troops and supplies through the infiltration route known as the Ho Chi Minh Road. While Johnson’s policy also ostensibly involved winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese populace through American largesse, the result of combined American violence and economic aid was to increase the allegiance of some South Vietnamese villagers to the National
Liberation Front, labeled by the South Vietnamese government and Americans as Viet Cong or VC (Vietnamese communists), while driving approximately one quarter of South Vietnam’s population en masse into squalid slums in the towns and cities, where to survive they turned to begging, black-market activities, and prostitution.
Confronted with an unconventional war in which the imperative was to produce dead enemy while also seeking to win the hearts and minds of the people, American soldiers serving in regular American combat units found it difficult to distinguish the enemy from the “innocent natives” that they were supposedly protecting. Grunts, as they called themselves, began responding to the contradictions between their announced mission and their actual experiences with emotions of cynicism, outrage, and confusion. In such memoirs as Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976) and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977), they would testify to their experience of enlisting with dreams of answering the call of John F. Kennedy to do battle on a New Frontier only to find themselves committing acts against the native populace that they identified with such enemies in earlier American history as the British Redcoats and German Nazis. Servicemen involved in Operation Ranch Hand would play on the slogan of American conservation at home that “only you can prevent forest fires,” boasting that “only we can prevent forests.” The strategy of attrition left them with little sense of accomplishment as they fought repeatedly for the same ground they had previously won and given up, while the pressure to produce enemy dead and confusion regarding the sympathies of the native populace led to an unofficial policy of “if it’s dead and it’s yellow, it’s VC.” Serving on tours of 365 days, enduring a war often experienced as being the victims of ambushes and booby traps as they walked down jungle trails, soldiers counted the remaining days until they could leave “the bush” or “Indian country” to return to “the World” (the United States).
Americans at home, audience for the first television war, began seeing images that disturbingly turned upside down the dream of Vietnam as setting for the transformation of a New Frontier into a Great Society. The American mission in Vietnam became a nightmarish demonstration of the inability of Americans to fulfill the scenario of their national mythology. The wished-for Western or World War II film became a horror movie. One of the salient aspects of the 1960s became the disorienting experience of sitting at the evening dinner table while watching violent and shameful scenes that seemed to deny every aspect of the television Westerns and family sitcoms that formed an understanding of who Americans had been and were now.
In August 1965 CBS correspondent Morley Safer narrated a story in which American marines were shown using Zippo cigarette lighters to set aflame the thatched roofs of huts in the village of Cam Ne as distraught old men, women, and children stood by. This would be the earliest of a series of images that would impress themselves indelibly on Americans to create an image of Vietnam that functioned as a disturbing new landscape of American mythology, a cul-de-sac of their frontier myth, a no-exit inversion of their most cherished assumptions.
As the war dragged on, Americans learned week after week of the latest tally of the “body count,” the ratio of slain enemy to slain American and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops by which Secretary of Defense McNamara measured progress in the war of attrition. The audience became accustomed to scenes of body bags in which American dead were returned to the United States. At the same time, they saw images suggesting that the Vietnamese people the United States was supposed to be helping were instead being dragged down into a miserable parody of the American way of life. The news showed young Vietnamese women dressed up like American go-go girls selling their bodies to American servicemen and young Vietnamese boys begging or selling hoards of black-market American goods on the streets. In 1968, after three frustrating and increasingly disturbing years accompanied by promises from administration and military officials that progress was being made and that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” Americans watched nervously as North Vietnamese regular troops lay siege to a remote American base in the northern highlands of South Vietnam called Khe Sahn. The American military command reinforced the base in hope of luring the enemy into a decisive battle, confident that American air and firepower would produce the reverse of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Instead, the National Liberation Front used the Tet holiday to infiltrate the major cities of Vietnam and stage an uprising at the centers of the American presence, including a suicide mission that reached the inside of the compound of the American embassy. After initial disarray, the American military regrouped and succeeded in defeating the Tet Offensive with overwhelming firepower, inflicting massive casualties on the enemy. The scale of the attack, however, as well as the ability of the enemy to infiltrate the cities in such numbers, crystallized the growing doubts among Americans back home about the trustworthiness of their leaders’ representation of the situation in Vietnam. The press began speaking of a credibility gap, as the American people in increasing numbers expressed skepticism about their leaders’ pronouncements.
Images from the Tet Offensive undermined Americans’ most cherished images of themselves. With the enemy entrenched within the centers of the
Vietnamese cities, commanders called in artillery and air support to bring the buildings down on them. The idea that Americans were in Vietnam primarily for the good of the Vietnamese, and that Americans always acted as agents of progress, was vividly denied by the images of massive destruction of such ancient achievements of Asian culture as the citadel in Hue. The new perception of the absurdity of the announced American mission was immortalized by an army major who, in explaining the pulverizing of Ben Tre, said that “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”5 The claim that Americans were helping a beleaguered innocent ally against a savage enemy was similarly contradicted by the image, captured on both news photograph and television footage, of the captain of the Saigon police force using a pistol to blow out the brains of a bound Viet Cong captive. No amount of reporting of the missing context (the captive was said to have been a participant moments before in the slaying of a Vietnamese family) could drain the blood-spewing image of the larger meaning it seemed to convey, that Americans were embroiled in a vicious civil war in which savagery was to be found on both sides.
During the same year as the Tet Offensive, John Wayne, Hollywood icon since the 1940s of the American Western and combat film, starred on American movie screens in his Vietnam film The Green Berets. Even as they had been inspired by Kennedy’s call to serve on a New Frontier, Vietnam veterans would recount in their memoirs and oral histories of being inspired as children by images of Wayne as Sgt. Stryker fighting the Japanese in The Sands oflwo Jima (1949). With the images of the Tet Offensive on the news, Wayne’s Vietnam movie was greeted with scathing reviews and even bomb threats. Despite its financial success, this projection of American myth spawned no imitations or sequels as Hollywood avoided the conflicting passions Vietnam was creating at home.
Instead, Hollywood began producing Vietnam Westerns, or anti-Westerns, in which disturbing images of Vietnam on the news were projected back onto a revised portrait of the old West. Movies such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, both released in 1970, showed an old West in which innocent Native Americans were massacred by merciless white Americans. Vietnam was displaced to the old West, causing many Americans to reconsider the nature of the frontier myth itself, the story by which they understood the national history and character. The nation’s image of itself was cracking apart.