US troops went into Vietnam. MAX HASTINGS saw them humbled by an army of peasant fanatics amid horrors that haunt him to this oday.
They waded ashore from the landing craft in full combat gear, weapons held high as they splashed out of the surf onto a beach where there was no enemy, only a gaggle of newsmen and a crowd of curious locals.
On March 8, 1965, a brigade of the U.S. Marine Corps landed at Da Nang in the north of South Vietnam, the first American combat troops to be deployed in the crusade launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson against communist insurgency.
And if the Marines’ first encounter with Indochina was bloodless, it stopped being so within days of the troops plunging inland, starting the campaign to carry the war to the enemy.
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Vietnam received four timegs as many bombs as were dropped in the whole of World War II. The U.S. lost 3,720 aircraft and 5,000 helicopters. Anything up to two million dollars Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians died.
The war generated a passion, indeed agony, around the world far more intense than any emotion unleashed by this century’s conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.
It spawned a host of epic movies such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill; memoirs like Dispatches and A Rumour Of War; huge door-stopping histories of the shambles the war became such as The Best And The Brightest and A Bright Shining Lie.
Although the classic movie and TV comedy series M*A*S*H claimed to be set in Korea, a war earlier, in truth it caught the manic, crazed mood of America in Indochina.
I was there. Like a million others, I remember it with a vividness that will never fade: the red dawns, the relentless clatter of rotor blades, the hammer of automatic weapons fire in the paddy fields, the mute, unknowable faces of Vietnamese peasants and soldiers, dense columns of smoke rising from hamlets stricken by bomb or shell.
For my generation of journalists of every nationality, Vietnam was the place we wanted to be: to watch unfolding an epic human and political tragedy and also, let us be frank, to test our young manhood.
To criss-cross the cool sky in Huey helicopters, sitting at the open door with our feet on the skids — no sissy seat-belts; to plough on foot through the impossibly hot and humid country, cursing the leeches and hoping the American soldier in front and not oneself would trip a mine or meet a burst of AK-47 fire.
Even as a very young man, I could understand the Americans were losing the war, and even see why: because they despised the culture and poverty of the people they were supposedly fighting to defend
The story really began not in 1965 but 20 years earlier, when the British Army — yes, our soldiers — arrived to take control of French Indochina, liberated from Japanese occupation.
Fierce fighting broke out between the would-be liberators and Vietnamese nationalists, bitterly opposed to a renewal of French colonial occupation.
Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, urged both the Dutch overlords of Indonesia and the French rulers of Indochina to parley with the nationalists, but neither took heed. France’s pride had been so devastated by World War II that its government was determined to reassert mastery of the Asian jewel in their colonial empire.
The upshot was a decade of struggle, during which the French army, and particularly the Foreign Legion (including more than a few veterans of Hitler’s army), bled prodigiously in the attempt to hold the country.
The story ended with an epic French defeat, at Dien Bien Phu on July 7, 1954, followed by the independence and partition of Vietnam.
The North fell into the hands of Ho Chi Minh and his communist regime; the South surrendered to what Americans then dubbed ‘a military strongman’ — Ngo Dinh Diem.
Through the following decade, the communists pursued an increasingly bitter guerrilla struggle to gain control of the South.
These were the iciest days of the Cold War. America and its allies had fought a three-year war to save Korea from northern domination, and in 1953 forced the communists to accept a stalemate, enabling the South to embark on a long journey towards democracy and prosperity.
In Washington during the Kennedy era, the ‘domino theory’ held sway: if the communists were allowed to seize one Asian country, others would relentlessly follow. If Vietnam fell, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand must inevitably go, too.
The British had fought a successful Fifties campaign to defeat a Chinese communist insurgency in Malaya. Why should not America do the same?
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