Dr. Thomas Schwartz, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

Interview Transcript from The Vietnam War: East Tennessee

East Tennessee PBS

Dr. Thomas Schwartz appears in 3 episodes of The Vietnam War: East Tennessee: A Sense of Revolution, A True American, and Generations. His extensive interview touches on causes of the Vietnam War, who fought in the war, how did the war impact the U.S. southern states, minorities, and low income families, the spread of communism, the draft, the U.S. youth movement and counterculture, and more.

Was the Vietnam War a Civil War?

Yes. It was a civil war and one comparison one could make is the way in fact the American Revolution was a civil war between those who wanted to stay attached to Britain and those who wanted to break away from it. And in Vietnam there were people who were strongly anti-communist, anti-Viet Minh or Viet Cong, And the communists were better organized. They had won the initial struggle against the French. But there was a substantial body of Vietnamese who did not agree with the communist party and were our allies in the South.

Who fought in the Vietnam war besides the U.S. ?

The South Vietnamese major ally was, of course, the United States. The United States was central to the existence of South Vietnam, and it helped negotiate and organize it. So, the United States was a key power. But South Vietnam also had other allies: South Korea also sent troops to fight in the war. Australia sent a small contingent. New Zealand and the Philippines sent a small number of forces. Thailand, and even Taiwan, which was Nationalist China at that time, although that was kept much more secret to avoid irritating the Chinese. On the North Vietnamese side, the North Vietnamese largely fought against the direct Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese would join the Viet Cong or Communist army. But they also received substantial assistance from China and the Soviet Union. Russians manned, helped, and assisted in the anti-aircraft protection of North Vietnam. The Chinese sent thousands of their workers to help repair bomb damage. They largely stayed in North Vietnam, they didn’t come to fight in the South. But they were a substantial presence.

What were the main issues in the war?

The main issue of the war was the attempt by the communist North to reunify the country, and to conquer South Vietnam and bring it under communist rule. The leader of North Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh, who was a renowned Nationalist, and who was respected by many as a type of George Washington figure. But he was a communist as well as a nationalist, and he wanted to bring about a fully unified communist Vietnam, which would also carry out a communist revolution: collectivize agriculture, put it under the State, collectivise private ownership, bring about a real transformation of Vietnamese society in a communist direction.  

There were many in South Vietnam who resisted that. Catholics, for example, who were about ten percent of the population, who saw the communists as atheists and possibly hostile. There were other, more prosperous Vietnamese, who resisted. The central issue was the attempt of the communists to take power. From the other point of view, the United States had committed itself after World War II, particularly after the experiences of Communism in Europe, the communist conquest of China, trying to contain what it saw as World Communism, and the attempt of World Communism to expand. From the United States’ point of view, it was attempting to prevent the expansion of communism in Vietnam, and to stop the conquest of the South by the North.

Briefly, why did the South lose?

That is impossible to say briefly, there were so many factors involved in the defeat of the South. One reason for the failure was the absence of a workable strategy against the North. There were many other reasons. The absence, for example, of an honest and trustworthy South Vietnamese government that would gain a widespread acceptance among South Vietnamese, and for whom they would fight enthusiastically for, although many did, even for a corrupt and authoritarian regime. The fact that the United States lost interest in the war, and that there was hostility towards the war in the United States, also lead to the defeat of the South. If one compares, for instance, the situation in South Korea with South Vietnam: the United States also stayed in South Korea after that armistice. In the case of South Vietnam, we left, and so South Vietnam was more or less on its own against a North Vietnam that was heavily equipped by Soviet and Chinese. There are many factors that were involved in the defeat. No one issue can explain it.

Could you tell us about soldier alcohol and drug use in Vietnam and was it different than in wars prior?

Actually, the use of drugs and alcohol by servicemen in Vietnam was not terribly different than what had been experienced and seen in both WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. What was different, of course, was the widespread presence of marijuana and drugs in Vietnam, compared to other wars. The drug of choice in WWI, WWII, and Korea was largely alcohol. Alcohol created all sorts of morale and discipline issues in both the European Theater and Asian Theaters in the World Wars and in Korea. But in Vietnam, the cultivation of both marijuana and heroin, which were near the Golden Triangle and in Burma, meant that drugs were much cheaper and more prevalent and accessible to soldiers. And drug use actually happened on both sides. The North Vietnamese smoked a version of marijuana as well, that was rather common. So drug use was certainly there. In that sense, some of the problems connected to drug use in the war was not so distinct from earlier wars. I think what did shock Americans was the prevalence of heroin, particularly towards the end of the Vietnam War when that became a major social issue in the United States. The Gulf War was very difficult with it being Islam. During n the Gulf War, all volunteers and all professionals, could be disciplined, but even then it [substance abuse] went on.

Discuss the fear of Communism in the U.S.

Fear of communism goes back a long way in our history. There was a Red Scare after WWI, where there were bombings and activities of East European and Russian immigrants after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The fear of communism cuts to the core of what many Americans believe is central to our own ideology, namely free enterprise, freedom of religion. Communist states were seen as antithetical to our traditional American liberties of commerce, of worship, of free association. And communist states were seen as hostile to that. But Communism after WWI was only in Russia.

After WWII, Communism seemed to be on the march. The Russian army had liberated much of Europe and was deep in the center of Europe. Communism soon would take over China, at the time over 80 million people, and communism seemed to be on the march in Asia.

So Americans feared Communism. They also feared it because there were, of course, communists at home. There were a large number of people, for example, who had been active in the labor movement, who had been active in social change. And many Americans feared that that type of social change, that radical type of social change, would affect their lives.

And so it was possible, I think in the aftermath of WWII, which had been fought against a power like Nazi Germany, that Fascism and Communism were often associated together by many Americans, to have the fear that Communism would take the same role as Hitler and the Nazis, and would be able to march across Europe and actually challenge and threaten the United States.

So the fear of Communism became quite intense. It was also encouraged, in some ways, by the government as a way of mobilizing and encouraging people to want to serve and to want to support a new military establishment. For the first time since WWII, the United States did not demobilize its military and it kept a very large military presence in Europe and in Asia. This was expensive. So Americans had to be motivated and believe that they had to maintain that presence. So that fear of Communism was a very, very strong factor in the thinking of Americans after WWII, and it was an important factor for why Americans believed they had to fight in Vietnam.

Tell us about all the different conflicts going on in the United States at this time.

The Vietnam War comes after a period of time in our history that had been relatively tranquil domestically. The 1950s is often seen as the “Leave it to Beaver” era, sort of very placid, suburban, conformity, and a sort of period of social peace. In reality, of course, there were things already stirring at the time, particularly in the South in the Civil Rights Movement, which is the major social change which is coming along even before the Vietnam War.

The demonstrations during the early 1960s, the march on Washington. But as the 60s progressed you saw a series of other social movements.

The Civil Rights movement became much more associated with Black Power, which is a much more insistent and dramatic demand for equality among black citizens, with disturbances and even insurrections among American cities during the summers of the late 1960s. Along with that came a series of other social movements. Particularly, the Women’s Movement towards the end of the Vietnam War, challenging the hierarchy of gender, and challenging the role of women in American society. You saw the beginning of the Gay rights movement with the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. Other minorities, the Hispanic, Mexican, Chicano rights, was also part of this period. In effect, the Vietnam War helped to catalyze a larger number of social movements that began to challenge traditional American hierarchies of privilege and traditional American values and norms, and to demand greater equality across the board. And in that sense, the war acted as a sort of catalyzing agent for protest throughout society.

Tell us about the Youth Movement and the Counterculture.

One of the things that was most characteristic in America in the 1960s was the enormous presence of young people. After WWII, you had the Baby Boom. And you had returning servicemen having relatively large families, which were much more characteristic of the 40s and 50s. Beginning really in 1964-65, many of these groups now were coming of age. And this was an enormous blooming in the population of young people. And this was a very affluent generation. It was a generation going to college in numbers unprecedented because of the expansion of higher education. And the youth movement of this time also stimulated a type of counterculture. Groups that didn’t accept American society, didn’t accept the values of Capitalism, believed in different values in the use of drugs, sexual relationships. And you had small groups in the counterculture who rejected this and were particularly located, for example, in cities like San Francisco, and Berkeley, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. So in the midst of this enormous population, or generation coming of age, you had smaller groups who were disdainful of traditional American culture and tried to create their own communal, gender-oriented, sexual-oriented, drug-use cultures around the country. Because of their size they had a cultural power that was really unprecedented.

Let’s talk about the draft and its effect among low-income families, even Southern families in TN.

The draft was largely supported by most Americans. Coming out of WWII, the idea that every American male had an obligation to serve was widely accepted. And in the 1950s this was actually fairly universal. One thinks of Elvis Presley as an example of someone who was drafted, and even though he was wealthy and famous, he served. But by the 1960s, when the war begins to pick up, one of the things about the Vietnam War was the decision in Washington to rely on the draft for its manpower, rather than calling up the Reserves, which had been the traditional American approach to wars. To use draft calls. And part of this was the availability of manpower. Along with this huge new population of Baby Boomers came a huge population from which you could draw for military service. Now, military service in the United States was not universal. It was called “Selective Service.” The idea was that you would serve, but you could also be deferred if you were doing other things that were seen as socially valuable. Well one of the things that possessed a deferment during this time was college. And college students could go to college and even graduate school and defer their service. But college was still, largely, a province of middle-class and upper middle-class, which meant that the draft tended to fall more heavily on those of lower status, lower incomes, and particularly the South, which was a poorer part of the country, was more affected by this discrepancy. And so draft calls hit more deeply in the Southern rural areas and Southern cities than it did in the north and western parts of the country, not necessarily, not completely, but certainly it was there. And the draft, in effect, created a sense of inequality about the war. Because effectively, many people could be shielded from service by being able to be in college and the privileges of wealth: doctors wrote notes that the middle-class could get, but lower middle-class and lower class couldn’t. So there was this perception that the draft fell unequally among Americans, particularly those of less income, non-whites and others. And this would remain really a sore point and an issue all the way through the war, and it was one of the reasons why the Vietnam War led to the abolition of the draft in 1973.

Was there any advantage to volunteering for the draft?

Yes, this was actually something the military encouraged. If you volunteered, you had to serve for four years, usually. This was the downside of volunteering, which was the extension of your time of service. But if you volunteered, the advantage was there were more choices afforded to you. So people who volunteered often were able to choose military service in Germany, Korea, or an area that was not as threatening as Vietnam. Whereas draftees were much more liable to end up in Vietnam. Now they had shorter service tours, only two years compared to the four years of volunteering. But in effect, the draft was an incentive to volunteer for many young men who could see it as a chance to control the service they entered, for example entering the Navy, was usually less liable to put you into danger than say, Infantry in Vietnam. And so, the responsibility, or the legal obligation to serve, meant for many Americans an encouragement to volunteer and to avoid Infantry service in Vietnam.

Can you speak to why black soldiers seemed to be heavily concentrated into Infantry combat units?

One of the things that the Pentagon saw early on in the first deployments to Vietnam, in the early 1960s, was a disproportionate number of African-Americans. I think one of the reasons for this is that the military services, which were formally integrated by Harry Truman back in the late 1940s, were in fact seen by many African-Americans as far more open to upward mobility than many other avenues in American life. And so more African-Americans entered the military in the 1950s and early 1960s, and were therefore in the first units sent to Vietnam disproportionately affected. In the early years of the Vietnam War there were a higher proportion of African-American casualties from this fact. And it would only be later in the Vietnam War, as the military recognized how badly this appeared, appeared as racially discriminatory, that it began to try to prevent units from having a disproportionate number of African-Americans. By the end of the war the overall African-American casualty rate was close to that of white servicemen. But early in the war it was much higher.

Were African-Americans more directed to the Army?

There was the perception that the  Navy was more hostile to African-Americans. One of the more famous episodes of the Vietnam War is the coming into command of Commander Elmo Zumwalt. Zumwalt comes into command in 1970 and he issues strong orders for integration, and disciplinary procedures against white officers in the Navy who had been discriminatory. Until 1970, the Navy was perceived by many African-Americans as far more hostile to their service than the Army. I’m not sure about the Marine Corps. There was, of course, Marine Corps is connected in some ways to the Navy, but many African-Americans were much more attracted to Army or Marine Corps than they were the Navy during this time. The Army was always much more open to African-Americans than the Navy or the Air Force or some of the more elite services.

Was there a difference in racial tensions between, say the Infantry, who had to look out for each other, and forces in the rear echelons?

This is one of the things that is actually quite characteristic of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the military often likes to talk about the ratio between “tooth-to-tail.” Tooth being the Infantry and the actual combat, tail being supply. The ratio in Vietnam was about 8 or 9 to 1. So you had a large number of troops in the “Tail” supply areas functioning behind the lines. And racial conflict was most severe behind the lines in Vietnam. Racial conflict, segregation, hostility, some of the worst instances of unrest happened behind the lines, not in actual combat infantry where soldiers had to rely on themselves to stay alive. As the war went on, as demoralization and anti-war activity increased, by 1969, for example, Colin Powell, our former Secretary of State who had served in Vietnam, when he went to Vietnam in his second tour, he had actually been there early in the war, but when he went on his second tour in ‘68-’69, he was afraid of being fragged – killed by his own troops. And so he shifted where he slept every night. These types of things. The hostility, racial hostility that even an African-American like Colin Powell could feel, was common. Much more common, particularly behind the lines. In the major American base camps you had large numbers of soldiers, often engaging in supply operations, bored, and conflict was not unprecedented or unusual.

Let’s talk about Geneva Convention limitations.

Here we have to make some distinctions. What they’re talking about is the Geneva Convention rules, which had to do with the treatment of prisoners, which had to do with the treatment of non-combatants, had to do with the use of firepower and civilian areas, these sorts of things. And those rules were things that sometimes may have restricted American soldiers. On the other hand, operated under “free fire” zone areas, where basically the civilian population was told “if you’re there, you’re subject to being killed” because this is considered an enemy area. So, the idea that the Geneva Conventions were restricted elements, restricted the actual combat ability of American soldiers, I think, is somewhat overstated. What I think some might be referring to is the Geneva Conference that divided Vietnam in 1954. There was in the Geneva Conference of 1954, formerly Cambodia and Laos were considered neutral countries. And there was a neutral demilitarized zone. So, early in the Vietnam War, for example, American soldiers in hot pursuit of enemy forces could not necessarily go into Cambodia or Laos, or technically were not allowed. As the war went on, this seems to have been violated, or had been not more observed in spirit than in practice, and in hot pursuit many Americans soldiers did go into Cambodia and Laos. However, in eastern Cambodia, there were substantial North Vietnamese base camps, and Viet Cong camps, and in fact, it would be Nixon in 1969 who would launch the secret bombing of Cambodia in these neutral areas, and in April of 1970, actually launched an invasion into Cambodia. In Laos, the CIA ran a secret war against violations of neutrality on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which went through Laos. So the Geneva Conference did formally set up restrictions, but how seriously these were observed by either side is very, very doubtful. And in fact, all of Indochina was pretty much a battle zone.

Did the protests against the war have any effect on it coming to an end?

Yes. The protests against the war, I think, did cause American decision makers to think about ending the war. They always tended to say the protesters had no effect. Richard Nixon was famous for saying during the first moratorium that he was going to watch football and not observe the moratorium demonstrations that were outside his window. But the cumulative pressure from citizen protests against the war wore down on decision makers. It didn’t stop the war in the way people sometimes believed it should, namely immediately, but the more we look at the documents, the more we look at how decision makers discussed the war, particularly Johnson and his conversations with others, which we have on the telephones. Through the Nixon tapes, we realize that they were effective, and that this did encourage them to end the war more quickly than they might have otherwise. I think, even though, it went on much longer than any protester believed, and many protesters were convinced that their efforts were futile, because the war seemed to continue, I think the historical record would show the protests against the war did push and create pressure to ending the war. Although, I should say, ending the American involvement in the war, not ending the war itself, but ending the American involvement, which did, of course, serve to end the war because then the North Vietnamese conquered the south, and that ended the war.

Were poor coordinates unique to the Vietnam War, or is this always a part of war, until modern technology?

I can’t speak to that with any great authority, outside of anecdotal stories. I do think it was an issue but I can’t speak to it with any authority. I’ve never looked at it. I don’t know if the military has looked at it carefully. Certainly, the contemporary military, and the high tech military, operate very differently. But, yes, I would imagine there were, you’re talking about the days of training people with compasses, and things like that. When you look at that type of thing, you’ve got to imagine there were many opportunities for error.

Can you discuss what it was life for soldiers coming back, economically?

I would argue that many Vietnam Veterans came back to a recession. The first major recessions hit the United States, 1970, ‘69-’70, and then, of course, the oil crisis in ‘74-’75, for the recession then. So, in fact, many Vietnam Vets felt themselves quite hindered. If you read the contemporary comments, there was a lot of discussion about the problems of readjustment for Vietnam Vets, and the economic issues, because the United States moved into a slower growth period, particularly the ‘70s, and the oil crisis being partly responsible for that. More recently, of course, the numbers are very different. The number of soldiers is much smaller than we’re talking about in Vietnam. So, even though they have faced  readjustment issues, it’s a smaller number. The soldiers coming back now were often intending to make the military a career. And often, these soldiers  didn’t reintegrate as quickly as some of the Vietnam soldiers did. So, the question is a little more complicated, I think, and the experiences are, probably more comparable in the experiences and difficulties of getting jobs at various points, but not totally dissimilar.

Was protecting business interests a motivation for the U.S. to participate in the Vietnam War?

Michelin Tire was in Vietnam. They had rubber plantations, and there was fighting around those. In the big picture way of looking at it, anti-communism was, at least, in part connected to wanting to preserve a free economy, and preserve this possibility of trade and business. But, in the narrow picture, France was certainly opposed to the Vietnam War. The French, if they were defending their interests, they thought the United States should get out of Vietnam, so they didn’t see a reason for the United States to be there. American trade in an economic involvement in Vietnam was minuscule. We had almost no real major investment or trading there in the 1950s or ‘60s. Vietnam was seen as important, not for what it was, but for what it might turn into. Mainly a domino that would trigger a loss of broader numbers of countries, and that would have an economic effect, if the United States lost access to a broad region of Asia. It’s paralleled by the view that Middle Eastern wars are about oil, except in this case, there’s a more tangible element. Oil is far more central to our economy. Vietnam was just not that important in that way. It was far more important as a symbol and a domino than as a real tangible economic interest.

Vietnam was oppressed by white people and Asian people. Can we talk about that?

The interesting thing about fighting in Vietnam, and certainly there was a racial component, and a belief that the Vietnamese, among many Americans who served, had racial feelings against the Vietnamese, similar to anti-Japanese feelings in the Pacific War. That’s certainly there. On the other hand, you know, one of the more interesting things that I’ve come across, is the fact that Lyndon Johnson always believed that some of the people who opposed the war in the United States, like J. William Fulbright, the Senator from Arkansas, opposed it because he didn’t think the United States should fight for these people. That he didn’t think Vietnamese were good enough to be up for Americans to be sacrificing their liberty to try and defend Vietnamese liberty. And there were ways in which this was an interesting element in the war. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, said why are Americans fighting to save the liberty of Vietnamese, when they don’t preserve the liberty of African Americans at home. So there were ways in which our involvement in Vietnam cut across a lot of lines of our racial problems. And certainly there were racial hatreds involved, but there were also ways in which fighting in Vietnam also served this underlying idea: should we be protecting the liberty of non-white people, as well as white people. It is a complicated question, but certainly racial questions were there, and certainly part the background, for example, some of the atrocities of the war, like Mi Lei, happened in part because of the dehumanization of the Vietnamese by some American soldiers. But on the whole I think, the attitudes of Americans toward Vietnamese was actually very complex. Some Americans certainly found themselves connected to Vietnamese in all sorts of ways.

Dr. Schwartz: You haven’t asked me if Vietnam Veterans were spat upon.

Nolpix: Our sociologist said that was greatly exaggerated and there is no scholarship that supports it.

Dr. Schwartz: The thing is, I think it’s actually quite symbolic, like of how many Vietnam Vets felt, that they vett that. I think the real issue was the indifference Americans felt toward their sacrifice. That, not hostility. Indifference is hard to take, especially when you have sacrificed like that, in comparison to the WWII veteran and the celebrations of service. I think the indifference many soldiers felt when they came back was a terrible burden. That people didn’t want to talk about it, that people didn’t care, and that indifference, I think, is something many Vietnam Vets felt deeply.


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