5 Lies About the Vietnam War You Probably Believe
When you think about the Vietnam War, there's a good chance you picture the Hollywood version, complete with long-captive POWs, gobs of bush fighting, and Christopher Walken playing ultra-violent games of Russian roulette. But just as Russian roulette was known to have been played during the war precisely zero times, many of the things you think you know about Vietnam turn out to be complete bullshit, such as the "fact" that ...
The Communists Kept American POWs After the War
If Rambo is to be believed (and many of us were raised in his ways), hundreds of American POWs remained captives of the commies after the end of the war. And this story definitely wasn't invented by the movies -- in the 1980s, President Reagan said that recovering the POWs was "the highest national priority." Hell, Ross Perot gained 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election thanks in part to his support of the MIA/POW issue, and it was used as a stick to bash efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam decades after the fall of Saigon. As a matter of fact, the black POW/MIA flag still flies atop federal buildings to this day.
Not to be confused with the KMA MIA flags that fly atop Cleveland buildings in remembrance of LeBron James.
It's true that after the war ended and all POWs had been accounted for, there were still 2,646 Americans listed as missing in action. But -- and this is not to minimize the profound effect this must have had on the families involved -- you have to understand that there's a long list of MIAs after every war. For instance, there were more than 20 times as many (70,000 plus) after World War II, but nobody assumed the Germans or Japanese had them stashed away somewhere. They're just presumed dead, and their families do their best to move on.
"We've mourned enough, now let's boom a baby into you."
So why did it become an issue after Vietnam? Well, first off, the Nixon administration. Nixon elevated the issue for two reasons: so that getting them back could serve as a substitute for victory in Vietnam, and -- unlike the returning soldiers who criticized the war -- the POWs and their families still supported the war effort by default, thereby serving as heroic endorsers of Nixon's policies.
Subsequent investigations have been successful in discovering the remains of 998 of those 2,646 MIAs -- they've even managed to identify the soldier previously buried in the Tomb of the Unknown. For their part, Vietnamese officials have offered assistance in putting the remaining soldiers to rest as they also search for their own MIAs ... all 300,000 of them.
"This would go a lot faster without all this rain, RAIDEN."
But that's not the stuff you tend to hear about in the media. As in any tragedy, conspiracy theorists kicked into overdrive, suggesting that the Vietnamese kept American captives even after they returned 591 American servicemen during Operation Homecoming. Since then, plenty of well-publicized evidence has been brought up before being quietly discredited, mercenaries have offered themselves up as POW rescuers, and '80s action movies did no small part to help popularize the idea. Yet as historian H. Bruce Franklin pointed out in 1991:
Every responsible investigation conducted since the end of the war has reached the same conclusion: There is no credible evidence that live Americans are being held against their will in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or China.
It's a tough call, but we're going to have to take the word of the leading cultural historian and Rutgers University professor over that of a fictional character portrayed by Sylvester Stallone. This time.
He is, however, still the leading authority on settling child custody disputes.
The North Vietnamese Were a Poorly Equipped Guerrilla Force
You'll see this one in any decent Vietnam movie: While the Americans are surrounded by an obscene amount of weaponry, equipment, and prominently positioned crates of Coca-Cola, their enemies appear to be running an entire war with nothing more than improvised booby traps and some snazzy bandannas. Some of them had AK-47s they kept stashed under their mud huts.
"Screw the AKs, I just found that sound system that keeps fucking playing 'Fortunate Son' and 'For What It's Worth.'"
The implication is clear: The communist forces were a poorly armed, untrained bunch of ragtag misfits who managed to win a war through sheer determination and familiarity with the local flora.
The North Vietnamese may have used guerrilla tactics to their advantage, but that doesn't mean they were poorly trained or equipped. We've mentioned the North's badass air force before, and the Soviets supplied Hanoi with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and heavy artillery. In fact, the equipment the Soviets were sending them was so good that they had to stop shipping it through China because the Chinese kept swiping it. And despite supposedly being an independent group, the guerrillas in the South were fairly well-integrated into the regular North Vietnamese forces and could expect at least some training before seeing combat.
"If you hear anything that remotely sounds like 'Ride of the Valkyries,' run like hell."
Perhaps most important were those AK-47s we mentioned. These guns are so ubiquitous as the "poor terrorist" weapon in action movies that it's easy to forget that at the time they were absolutely state-of-the-art and superior to anything the Americans were carrying. Meanwhile, the bulk of South Vietnamese forces fighting alongside the Americans were stuck using ancient World War II-era M-1 rifles up until the 1970s. To make things worse, the M-1 had been designed for use by Americans, who tended to be much taller and bulkier than your average Vietnamese -- meaning that they were too long and unwieldy for South Vietnamese soldiers to carry easily, let alone, you know, aim.
As for the Americans, they hurriedly switched guns mid-war, to the new M-16. It, unfortunately, was a bug-ridden mess at the time and had a tendency to jam under combat conditions (up to 80 percent of U.S. troops in Vietnam experienced a jam while firing, which can apparently be sort of awkward when you've just charged into an NLF tunnel complex screeching a war cry). There was actually a congressional investigation into the American M-16 to find out why it sucked so much.
Vietnam Vets Were Spit on by Protesters
We're going to reference the Rambo series a second time, and we are not going to apologize for it. In the first film, John Rambo recounts his experience coming back stateside after the war:
And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer!
Later generations would spit on him and call him franchise killer.
The "spitting" part is a sadly common story, specifically the fact that anti-war protesters/hippies were waiting at airports to spit on veterans returning from combat. It's a striking image -- these tired, grizzled men returning from a nightmare, only to be covered in hippie saliva the moment they hit the ground. The story always ends with the vet walking sadly away, in shame, knowing he has been rejected by the country he was fighting for. Eventually, the theme from The Incredible Hulk begins to play.
Wow, we knew anti-war sentiment was sky-high around that time, but did it get that bad?
First off, if it happened, it was never reported.
That's right -- there was not a single reported instance of a Vietnam vet getting spit on. And it's hard to believe that such an outrage would be covered up, no matter how anti-war the media were (and the media were actually pro-war until after the Tet Offensive). But no, it's always a story passed along from your uncle's friend's cousin who lives in the next state, and it always takes place when a returning GI steps foot inside the airport. Hey, did we mention that those military flights didn't land at civilian airports? They landed at military bases. And it's much harder to arrange a group spit protest there, as you can imagine.
That's not even factoring in how stoned most of the organizers would be.
And if you think about it, the whole urban legend is rather insulting to the men in green. Seriously, you're telling us that a man who's been trained to take out Charlie with his bare hands, and who's just spent hours in a cramped airplane seat, is going to allow some acne-riddled teenager in John Lennon specs to hock one on him without repercussions? Even if the spitting itself didn't make the news, surely a returning soldier snapping a hippie over his knee like a brittle twig would have.
A Monk Set Himself Aflame in Protest of the War
It is simply one of the most iconic photos ever taken. It's the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire as part of a peace protest on the streets of Saigon:
No, it's not just a Rage Against the Machine album.
It's common knowledge that Quang Duc staged this gruesome, fiery spectacle in protest of the American presence in Vietnam -- at least, that seems to be what all the Americans who copycatted him thought.
And you thought Americans copying Asian tattoos that they didn't understand was a stupid trend.
Because American history classes and news media both tend to relay everything in terms of how it affects the USA, it's easy to wind up with the impression that everything kind of revolves around us. But of course, the world is more complicated. For example, this protest couldn't have been less about the Americans in Vietnam -- they wouldn't even land combat troops there for almost two more years. The protest was completely and utterly about the Diem regime's anti-Buddhist policies.
And here is where a lot of us say, "The what regime?"
To briefly summarize, Vietnam had a lot of Buddhists, but as a former French colony, it also had a lot of Catholics, one of whom was to become the devoutly religious leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem's Vietnam regime set out a number of anti-Buddhist policies, like giving land, food aid, and military promotions only to Catholics. He even went so far as to ban the flying of Buddhist flags, while flying the Catholic Vatican flag on government buildings. This of course made the Buddhists very un-Buddhistly pissed off and sparked a number of protests that were violently suppressed by the government.
To send a message to the Diem regime, the Buddhist monks decided to show just how serious they were about equal religious rights by arranging the public self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. In what could have resulted in the tragic waste of one perfectly good monk, Western reporters nearly ignored the monks' invitation to the streets of Saigon to witness the protest. Only a few showed up, including one photographer by the name of Malcolm Browne, who would capture the now ubiquitous and much misunderstood image.
Browne's photo proved just how much political power a single snapshot can possess; when the image spread throughout news outlets around the world, it forced the first lady of South Vietnam to make a political concession to the Buddhists ... by proclaiming that she would bring mustard to the next Buddhist monk BBQ. Yeah, we can't lie, shit got pretty ugly around that time.
It Was America Versus North Vietnam
This one's basically self-evident, since we Americans decided to call it the Vietnam War. The war saw the Americans and the South Vietnamese fighting against the commies of North Vietnam. Fairly straightforward, right?
After all, if you were watching a Vietnam movie and suddenly you saw a bunch of, we don't know, Australians, you'd think they were playing a joke on us. And if you saw a whole division of Koreans fighting on the same side as the Americans, you'd think that Hollywood casting directors were too racist to realize their mistake.
Except for Frank DuBois, C.S.A., who takes painstaking effort to make sure all his racism is intentional.
First of all, Hollywood loves to downplay the contribution of the South Vietnamese. Everyone knows they were involved, but if you got all your information from movies, you'd think their role was limited to providing general support and committing the occasional war crime, when in reality the bulk of the anti-communist force was always Vietnamese. Even after most of the U.S. ground troops had withdrawn, the South proved perfectly capable of defeating major offensives. It was only after the U.S. continued to withdraw financial backing that they crumbled entirely.
"War without money just wasn't very fun."
But Uncle Sam had already made up his mind about cutting them off.
No one ever talks about the South Koreans either, despite the fact that they sent over 300,000 freaking troops to Vietnam ... meaning that they actually had a higher per capita involvement in the war than the U.S. Meanwhile, North Korea sent fighter pilots to aid the communist cause. And we haven't even gotten to the Australians and New Zealanders (about 60,000 Australians served there -- did you even know there were 60,000 people in the Australian military?).
"It takes balls to put on this uniform ... which you can clearly see the outline of in these shorts."
On the ground, things got even more confusing. A telling story is that one of the largest battles of the war didn't involve the North Vietnamese at all, but was essentially a proxy fight between the CIA and the French. You see, the war had started with the colonial French fighting the Viet Minh before they were forced to bow out after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
Amazingly, the French weren't willing to give up 80 years of profiting from Vietnam that easily, and French intelligence tried to retain some influence. Things got ugly when the CIA installed the virulently anti-French Diem as president of South Vietnam, and before long the French had assembled a coalition that included an absurdly powerful criminal organization called the Binh Xuyen, who also officially controlled Saigon's police force. The battle against them involved more soldiers than the Tet Offensive, and eventually got so nasty that CIA agent Edward Lansdale suggested orchestrating a coup against the French government to "make a lady out of a slut."
He was basically a Game of Thrones character.
This could go on all day, so let's just sum up: The Americans fought the North Vietnamese, who fought the Australians, who fought the Pathet Lao, who fought the Montagnard, who fought the nationalist militias, who fought the Catholic militias, who fought the Viet Cong (who were really the NLF), who fought the South Koreans, who were bombed by the North Koreans, who helped the Khmer Rouge, who fought the French, who bribed the sects, who betrayed the gangsters, who also fought the Americans. And everyone screwed over the peasants. There. They can work all that into a movie, right?
Related Reading: Next, why not bust some World War II myths -- like the idea that Americans did most of the Nazi killing. Follow up by busting a few entrenched Civil War myths, such as "There was nothing the South could have done to win." Last, learn the truth behind America's first war, including the revelation that we couldn't have won our independence without France.
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