Sunday, July 15, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Introduction and Prelude

The following are a series of articles my father, Rick Johnson, wrote while working as a reporter for the Indianapolis Star. They were originally published during October and November of 1966.

I present them to you here as he originally wrote them, without edits.

The original, typewritten versions of these stories are now in the possession of the Indiana Historical Society.

It is my sincere hope that you enjoy these articles, and come away with the realization that we, as a great nation, need to learn from our past and not repeat our mistakes.

Paul Johnson

By Rick Johnson

For all the outstanding men I met while a correspondent In South Vietnam. For all those who served then and those who came later…

Especially for my wife, Phyllis, and my family.


During parts of October and November 1966, the Indianapolis Star sent a veteran reporter to South Vietnam to look at the war.

In his treks from the Demilitarized Zone to the Delta, from border outposts to the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin, he interviewed many people, listened and observed. The dispatches he filed with his paper are a weave of serviceman's humor, irony and the horror and sorrow found in a war.

Several articles may remind readers of the dispatches filed by the late Ernie Pyle during World War II. But there is more. The dispatches include important disclosures about the war. Among them are—widespread American distrust of the South Vietnamese Army, whose soldiers, Americans said, either would not fight at all, or ran away in the midst of a battle.

The government of South Vietnam, which we were struggling to preserve, was a corrupt military dictatorship, unresponsive and indifferent to the people. Key figures in the government grew ever richer upon bribes from those wanting to avoid military service and upon graft and corruption in the black market and in the administration of American aid.

Little had been done by the government of South Vietnam to instill national pride, educate its people, or to install the framework of a new government acceptable to the majority. The plight of the farmers and refugees was pitiful and very little was being done to ease their situation. The threat of death from disease in South Vietnam was a more distinct possibility than a Viet Cong bullet.

Infiltration by the North Vietnamese had not been stopped and could not be stopped. Captured supplies coming from the North, down the Ho Chi Minh trail and through hundreds of other points, were measured in tons. But the supplies never stopped coming. The inability to stop infiltration was attributed to the unbreakable grip with which the North Vietnamese and VC controlled all rural areas and the populace.

The author believed Ho Chi Minh's philosophy of conducting war, which was successful in defeating the French during the 1950s, was being reapplied. That philosophy was based upon an illustration Ho used of a fight between an elephant and a tiger.

In a head to head confrontation, the tiger would be crushed by the elephant. However, if the tiger is patient and persistent, darts in, slashes, cuts and escapes enough times, the elephant will topple and die from loss of blood.

After a good look around, the author saw ample proof the war in South Vietnam was, in fact, being conducted on Ho Chi Minh's principles.

Before the reporter left South Vietnam he concluded: we were not winning the war, would not win and should get out.

The Indianapolis Star published his dispatches with only slight editing. Read in their entirety, they constituted an unflattering picture of existing conditions in Vietnam.

After the newspaper finished publication of his columns in late November 1966, the reporter sought to write other articles, urging rapid withdrawal of American forces and an end to the buildup in Vietnam. Though he had much to support that view, he was denied permission to write the articles.

In late 1966 it was neither proper nor popular to criticize the war. Those who did so were looked upon as a suspect, probably unpatriotic minority. Even so, there were a growing number of dissenters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson had support in Congress, from a majority of the American people, and key support from a large group of newspaper publishers, among them Eugene C. Pulliam, owner-publisher of the Star and other newspapers.

By March 1968, LBJ's firm grip was gone. His once nearly undisputed power was swamped by a wave of public opinion created by the continued heavy loss of American life in Vietnam and the lack of even a hint, which showed we could win the war.

Civil unrest swept the country. Anger rose over the lives lost and the dollar cost of conducting the war. Legislators and publishers turned their backs on LBJ and began battling the war.

The following is a previously unpublished account of one newspaperman's effort to come out strongly against the war in 1966, and what happened when he did.

Vietnam Prelude

By mid-1965 ominous rumblings were beginning to be heard in Washington D.C and around America regarding the tiny Republic of South Vietnam.

Larger numbers of Americans were being sent to Vietnam and more of them were dying.

Vietnam became a frequent, often heated, discussion topic among my colleagues in the city room of the Indianapolis Star. In our often-frothy debates, we agreed there was much more to know about South Vietnam than was being published.

Many times after a terrorist incident had been reported and Americans died, our confabs would begin in shouted tones of frustration, "What the hell is going on over there?"

"How long do we have to stand in a pigsty before we wise up?" Another would ask.

Our military commitment seemed to grow in direct proportion to the protest movement and the number of casualties.

Our conversations were based upon what we read in variety of newspapers and periodicals and from what we saw of the on going Vietnam coverage presented on the evening television news. What we saw, heard, and read served as endless challenges to our professional abilities.

Our day-to-day duties were to cover, and write news stories, each of which had a beginning, middle, and an end.

All were neatly packaged with the answers to how and the journalistic W's, who, what, where, when and why.

In examining Vietnam as a news article, it was a story with a beginning shrouded by the distant past and political rhetoric.

The middle had become an odious, tentacled, bulging, ever expanding balloon, gorged with death, suffering, and military armaments. This misshapen ogre who clutched America had an insatiable appetite for human life and money. The thermals of politics, intrigue, diplomatic double talk, deception and indecision gave this machination its forward impetus.

As for the end, which, in 1965 was not in sight, all we could foresee was disaster.

Those journalistic W's and how, to which we were nearly always able to reply in our normal coverages of events, were riddled with gaps when we tried to apply them to Vietnam.

The what was war.

The where was Vietnam.

The when, why, who, and how were dark prisms in a torquing, murky kaleidoscope from which we could obtain no clear view or satisfying answers.

Undaunted by those obstacles, we were an audacious, aggressive assemblage of beat men and general assignment reporters, all veteran newsmen and fairly well informed people. Though none of us claimed to be an expert on the history of Vietnam or the events which were unfolding there, brashly self confident perhaps, we were positive any of us could pry more and better news out of Vietnam than we were getting.

We noted as American commitment in South Vietnam increased, more Hoosiers were dying there. By the end of 1965, 60 Hoosier servicemen had died in Vietnam. We knew if 60 people had died in an air crash or a train wreck in the state, our newspaper would at once launch a fierce, far reaching investigation, rapidly determine the cause and see to it that remedial measures were formulated and enacted.

But these 60 young men did not die spectacularly at one time. It was their sad fate to die far away from Indiana and at the rate of one or two at a time.

With the exceptions of the surviving loved ones and a few reporters, the tragedies of their deaths were buried beneath an avalanche of other daily news.

The deaths of Hoosier servicemen drew us, as reporters, closer to the war and inflicted a measure of pain upon those of us who wrote many of the obituaries. Each time a serviceman from Indiana was killed, one of us was often chosen to write the obituary.

The newspaper's policy dictated that obituary information be verified with a member of the family. In conversations with family members, we felt their pain and despair. Often, we became impaled on their grief.

The wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other family members with whom we spoke, were aware of the divisiveness which was growing in America about the war and our purpose for being there. Invariably, they shattered all of our news papering aplomb as they sought a plausible reason for the death of their loved one with the one word question—WHY?

There was no suitable answer for those grieving survivors then and there is still none today.

In the office critiques, we voiced our doubts regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the virtual blank check for escalation, which President Johnson picked up from Congress with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

The public utterances of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara were always treated as suspect. There was something about the bespectacled, slick headed, tight lipped bean counter from the Ford Motor Company, which triggered suspicion and lively city room sessions each time we heard him speak.

Many of us wondered why McNamara, President Johnson, and others ignored earlier warnings from distinguished military leaders, regarding the dangers of America becoming involved in a ground war in Asia.

We believed McNamara was hiding the truth about Vietnam and escalating the war routinely as administration policy.

Much later, it was disclosed, McNamara, was in fact, a man torn apart by the events in Vietnam.

During April 1965, under Secretary of State George Ball decided the time had come to-"cut our losses and withdraw from Vietnam." Though his remark was publicized it did little more than align Ball with the growing number of doves.

We were disgruntled too with the quality of leadership shown by the Vietnamese and their lack of action to make good on even the most fundamental issue of holding free, open elections. We wondered too, where were the South Vietnamese leaders whose stirring speeches and actions would unite and lead that country to victory?

None of us knew and we were not being told.

None of us burned our draft cards. We wanted to believe our country was doing right, but we hated the killing. By the end of 1965, more than 2,000 Americans had died in Vietnam.

We were certain if the Viet Cong ventured into face-to-face battles with our military forces, the VC would lose. But the VC was content to skirmish, to booby trap, to ambush, sabotage, mortar and rocket attack, and use guerrilla tactics to bleed ARVN and U.S. forces.

Our nation's history thoroughly outlined how successful such tactics can be. But that history ignored, was to be repeated. Our forces, large, stationary and highly visible, became the same sort of targets to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as the British had been to the Minutemen of the Revolutionary War.

Our cynicism caused us to doubt every reason offered for the American presence in South Vietnam. Suspicion spawned more suspicion and gnawing frustrations.

A few of us wondered if the war was being prolonged only to benefit militarists and industrialists, who were reaping huge profits from the manufacture of arms and equipment. We hated to believe that sorrowful suspicion could be true. We had no ammunition with which to blast the flag waving theory with which we were plied. That premise being, we were trying to thwart the spread of Communism and assist the Vietnamese in preserving their freedom. We strongly doubted the domino theory. (Should Vietnam fall to the Communists, all of Southeast Asia would fall under the Communist bloc)

When the Marines marched ashore at DaNang in March 1965, one veteran reporter said, "Hey, those guys are assault troops. Don't think for a minute they're going to sit around weaving baskets. There's going to be a lot of killing."

Everyone at the paper did not agree with us. Some reporters ridiculed the war and termed it a "Brush Fire."

We believed those few thereby absolved themselves of any duty to try to understand the conflict at home and abroad. Usually they did not join our discussions.

My interest in the war soon became personal. In October 1965, my youngest brother finished Army training at Ft. Holabird, Maryland Military Intelligence School, and was shipped to Vietnam for a year tour of duty.

Shortly after his arrival in November, he survived a mortar attack on the Tan Son Nhut airfield.

His letters gave us a slightly clearer picture of what was happening in Vietnam than any news article we read. Although his letters were limited in detail, he assessed we were not really wanted in Vietnam by a majority of the Vietnamese, and, if it was the true desire of the Vietnamese to gain freedom for themselves, that freedom was coveted so they could pursue their careers as pimps, or brothel owners, bootleggers, taxi drivers, drug pushers, racketeers and black marketers.

Huge numbers of the Army, Republic of Vietnam, ARVN, refused to fight and threw down their weapons and ran in the face of the enemy.

My family and colleagues were angered. We felt misled and powerless.

Our curiosity was continually spurred by subsequent actions in Vietnam. We read all we could regarding that tiny country and American involvement, but we received neither revelation nor respite.

By the end of 1965, U.S. troops in Vietnam totaled nearly 150,000. Our casualties were more than 2,000 dead, 10 times that many youngsters were wounded. The military buildup continued, and no publication, no individual, could predict when we would take our final step.

The blood bath accelerated in 1966. By the end of that year 4,664 more young Americans were dead and 37,738 others had been wounded. Included in the casualties were 228 Hoosier servicemen.

American combat strength had more than doubled from the prior year to 389,000 men. Hoosier deaths in Vietnam nearly quadrupled in 1966, and the increased number of obituaries did not escape us.

Management, despite being alerted by us, the underlings, took only passing notice of the increased battle deaths. Perhaps they, like many others, wished Vietnam would just go away. But, it wouldn't, and neither would the questions.

In the late summer of 1966, a set of facts and circumstances blossomed into a personal opportunity. One of my hobbies was auto racing. I was scheduled to visit Japan during early October 1966 with the Vita-Fresh Orange Juice racing team for a motor race at Mt. Fuji Speedway. As an adjunct to that trip, I asked the city editor, Lawrence Connor, if I could go to Vietnam for a stint as a correspondent and, perhaps, visit my brother who had been stationed at Nha Trang.

Connor's face registered mild surprise. He knew my brother was in Vietnam and of my interest in the conflict. He said nothing and gave a nod, acknowledging he'd heard my request.

It seemed a duty to ask for the assignment even though chances of getting approval seemed slight. A few days later, the city editor came by my desk with a sheaf of wire copy in his hand and stopped. He scanned one of the stories, then looked at me, "About Vietnam...It's a go. Better start getting ready," he said.

He never changed expression. He returned to his desk and continued to shuffle the wire copy. It was as though he had given me a routine assignment to cover a fire or a traffic accident.

My first thought was, "What have I gotten myself into?"

A rush of uncertainty struck me, followed by pangs of inadequacy. There are times in all of our lives when getting what one asks for, at first, is sometimes more a crushing burden than a joy.

Though unspoken, clearly, a challenge had been issued--"Put up or shut up."

There was nothing to do but accept.

My pals were pleased with news of my assignment and gave every possible encouragement. In later talks, management guidelines for the trip were:

No more than 30-days and out, talk to as many people as possible, present their views, and stay alive.

My wife, Phyllis, though not thrilled by the idea her husband was going to a war zone, knew the opportunity was rare for a newspaperman, and gave her consent and support. My absence would make it tough for her. We had four active youngsters, two sons and two daughters, and we shared their upbringing.

For a month or more, all the responsibility would fall upon her. We discussed the matter with the children and they promised they would help their mother every way possible while I was gone. None of them had ever broken a promise to either of us, and we knew they would not under the pressures of the future.

In readying myself mentally for the trip, it seemed proper to discard all the anger, preconceptions, and bias accumulated regarding Vietnam, and approach the assignment with an open mind.

Listen--Listen--Listen. Go where the facts lead and honestly and accurately report what is said and what is seen, was my doctrine as a reporter.

Hopefully it would continue to serve me well.

Though my brief experience in Vietnam cannot compare to the tours of duty servicemen and other correspondents served, it marked me forever to see war first hand and to see South Vietnam.

Additionally, I was the only correspondent The Star sent to Vietnam and the only Hoosier newspaperman to serve there as a correspondent.

The following are more than 40 dispatches in the order they were published by The Star beginning October 16, 1966, and concluding November 28.

My first day in South Vietnam was Oct. 10, my last November 6.

In all, 45 dispatches were filed. Two columns were combined. The dispatches were not published in the same order they were written. The few unpublished dispatches are included in this presentation.

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