Vietnam ’67: ‘Selling’ the War

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The first installment of our newsletter about the year that changed the Vietnam War.
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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

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Gen. William Westmoreland appearing before a joint session of Congress in 1967.
Gen. William Westmoreland appearing before a joint session of Congress in 1967. Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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My name is Clay Risen, and I am the deputy editor of The Times's Opinion Pages (I’m on Twitter @risenc). As the editor of Vietnam ’67, a series exploring how events of 1967 changed the war and changed America, I welcome you to read the inaugural edition of our weekly newsletter. 

As you will see, each edition will feature essays, links to articles from the Times archives and calendar notices for Vietnam-related events around the country; you’ll also find first-person accounts, Q&A’s with authors and photo essays. I’m always looking for new material, so if you have your own story from the war, news of an upcoming event, or suggestion of any kind, let me know at vietnam67@nytimes.com.

Also please share this newsletter with your friends, family or anyone else you think might be interested in reading this series. They can sign-up here

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William Westmoreland’s War
Near the end of the 1974 documentary “Hearts and Minds,” there is a scene in which William Westmoreland, the former general in charge of American forces in Vietnam – and the subject of an essay today by Gregory Daddis – sits beside a South Carolina lake, talking about the Vietnamese attitudes toward death.
“The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner,” he says, dapper in a seersucker suit, as birds chirp quietly in the background. The clip, coming after a searing montage of South Vietnamese funeral mourners, nails Westmoreland to the wall: He’s not just the man who lost Vietnam, but he’s a racist, inhuman monster.
Fifty years after Vietnam, many of the era’s villains have been rehabilitated. Lyndon Johnson is now an icon of liberalism; Richard Nixon is the ghost of conservatism past. But Westmoreland has received no such sympathy —  generals who lose wars (and aren’t named Lee) rarely do – and he doesn’t necessarily deserve it.
But we often make monsters to avoid asking hard questions. Westmoreland isn’t the reason America lost Vietnam. We’d do better to examine, with some degree of sympathy, how he struggled to answer the unique challenges of the war. His failure to do so, as scholars like Gregory Daddis and others have begun to argue, is less about Westmoreland’s limits, and more about the mismatch between America’s goals and expectations and the cold realities of this new type of conflict.
Westmoreland was an easy scapegoat once the war turned ugly for the same reason he was such an appealing choice at its outset: He was a decorated veteran of World War II and Korea, Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1965, a clean-cut, square-jawed oak tree of a man who looked like he came out of the womb knowing how to fold hospital corners. In 1964, he was the emblem of confident postwar America. By mid-1967, for many back home, he was the emblem of a morally corrupt, rotting global empire that saw overwhelming violence as the only answer to a complex independence movement in a far-away country.
But Westmoreland understood, and struggled with, the challenges of the Vietnam War perhaps even more  than the political leaders in Washington did. He realized it was, at heart, a multidimensional political conflict: He spent almost as much time handling competing factions in Saigon as he did the battlefield, and he knew that how he dealt with both would determine how the war was viewed back home – and ultimately whether Washington would give him the support and latitude to win.
As Professor Daddis illustrates in today’s installment of Vietnam ’67, Westmoreland spent an extraordinary amount of time communicating with the American public, even embarking on a speaking tour of the United States in 1967,  something unheard-of by a commanding general during wartime.
Which is not to say Westmoreland understood how to win. In the same way that Jimmy Carter recognized the old political order was breaking down but lacked the vision to see the new one emerging, Westmoreland failed because he ultimately fell back on bluster and firepower, even after the disastrous events of the Tet offensive in early 1968 (Johnson removed him a few months later). He rejected alternative strategies, like the pacification approach favored by John Paul Vann, until it was too late. In this way Westmoreland was a tragic figure, aware enough to feel the ground shifting beneath him, but too narrow-minded to respond creatively.
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From the Archives
Articles from The New York Times, 50 years ago this week
In a sign of the political troubles looming for President Johnson, leading Republicans, including several already shortlisted for the 1968 presidential nomination, began staking out antiwar positions.
Khe Sanh became a household name by the end of 1967, but even in the spring, these South Vietnamese hills near the Laos-North Vietnamese border were appearing in the news. On May 10, The Times reported on heavy fighting in the area, with 24 Marines and 31 North Vietnamese killed in one five-hour battle.
In The New York Times Magazine, the economist Milton Friedman made an extensive case for ending the draft and creating an all-volunteer force – a controversial proposition at a time when tens of thousands of young men were being inducted but adopted by the Pentagon less than a decade later.
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First Person
Stories from the Vietnam War, told by the people who experienced it
“The Coffee Pot,” by Ron Steinman, former Saigon bureau chief for NBC News
There were a few necessities that made life palatable for us journalists in South Vietnam. A good cup of Vietnamese coffee was one. An ice-cold beer, preferably German or Japanese, was another. An unfiltered American cigarette, usually Camel, Pall Mall or even Salem, always within reach, that we would smoke to the butt. A sizzling steak on Sunday night.
But this is not about those perishable sometime joys. It is, instead, about the bruised and battered stainless-steel percolator in the NBC bureau in Saigon that made coffee for anyone who had the courage to drink it.
I first saw the coffee pot in 1966. It apparently arrived in the early 60s when the office belonged to the German economic attaché. The bureau had three rooms: one for equipment and maintenance; my office, the center of all activity for the bureau; and what we called the correspondents’ room. That is where the pot resided.
Made of lightweight stainless steel, it stood about nine inches high, was seven inches at its base and about eight inches deep, with a small spout and enough room for eight cups of coffee. I had my first cup of its evil brew in April 1966, and my last sometime in 1972. The pot, battered and bruised, dinged and dented, had generations of coffee gunk solidified at the bottom.
To my knowledge, no one had ever emptied or washed it in all the years of its existence. The office boy and the maid, who cleaned the bureau office every day, though they had orders to wash the pot, stayed away from it as if it had an evil spell cast on it that no incantation could ever dissolve.
When someone made coffee, he (and it was always a he) added more grounds, usually American, sometimes French, to the metal basket, filled the pot with about eight cups of bottled water and turned on the electric ring on which it sat. What odd, strong, strange coffee it made. When ready, and sipped or gulped, the coffee acted on you as if you had just popped your first wheelie on a dirt bike. Reporters and camera crews returning from the field immediately went for the coffee as they composed their copy. I can only assume they hoped for some magic to emerge from the black drink quickly coursing through their veins. A liquid drug that made everyone faster, funnier and harder-working. As bad as the coffee truly was, we all lived to tell the tale of the pot.
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Coming Events
On Thursday, May 11, Prof. Bob Dean of Eastern Washington University will lead the first in a series of forums on the Vietnam War produced by KSPS Public Television. The forum will run from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Room 109 in  Showalter Hall on the Eastern Washington campus in Cheney, Wash.
On Monday, May 29, the filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will give the keynote presentation at the annual Memorial Day observance at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The event begins at 1 p.m.
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Let us know what you think so far, or share any comments about what you’d like to see in the newsletter or the series, by sending your thoughts to me at vietnam67@nytimes.com. And again, if you like what you’re reading, please share it with your friends on Facebook or Twitter and suggest they sign up here.
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