Eddie Adams’ The Execution
Several years ago, I wrote about the power of photography in war in this blog. The Camera at War post is one of my favorite posts. And in teaching Vietnam, it is one of my favorite lessons to teach. The VHS video I used for 17 years had started to deteriorate. For the past two years, I have had to make adjustments to the lesson and was unable to show the video. I felt I was shorting my students.
Today, while trolling YouTube for a Malcolm X video to download, I stumbled upon the Camera at War finally being posted on YouTube. I could not download the video fast enough. The Camera at War was produced by BBC2 in the mid-1990s. Many of its participants and photographers have since passed away. It is an emotional video to watch as these were the images of my youth. For my students, it is a unique experience for them to see the images I saw as a young child from six years old to twelve. I will still have to wait three weeks to show it, but this morning, I am really excited!
DISCLAIMER: The following links are for educational purposes only
Hopefully, the videos will stay uploaded on to YouTube for a while!
So, there America was; defending freedom in Southeast Asia – keeping the Communists contained, stopping the domino theory. Ever since the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the subsequent United Nations division of the French Indo China, the United States had been aiding South Vietnam. Through training of soldiers, equipment, and advisers, the presence of the United States was felt throughout the region to keep Communism at bay. After the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, and the resulting Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, President Johnson had unlimited powers to in SE Asia. The document states:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
*That the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.
*Section 2. The United States regards as vital to its national interest and to world peace the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia. Consonant with the Constitution of the United States and the Charter of the United Nations and in accordance with its obligations under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, the United States is, therefore, prepared, as the President determines, to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.
*Section 3. This resolution shall expire when the President shall determine that the peace and security of the area is reasonably assured by international conditions created by action of the United Nations or otherwise, except that it may be terminated earlier by concurrent resolution of the Congress.
Within a year, the US had troops on the ground in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam.
People back home in the US were supportive of the war to a point. I remember as a child turning on the evening news at 5:30 to watch Walter Cronkite. We would sit down to supper and see reports about the war. Looking back, it is hard for a young child to understand terms and phrases such as search and destroy, winning hearts and minds, destroyed the village to save it, and I can see daylight at the end of the tunnel. But these were the sound bytes of the day from 1965-67. Even with a buildup of over 500,00 soldiers, Americans were assured and assuaged that 1968 was going to be the year in which the US won in Vietnam. The communists would give up and our boys and men would be back home before Christmas.
The Public only knew what the generals wanted them to think. For General Westmoreland, he believed the US was winning the war.
*We were succeeding. When you looked at specifics, this became a war of attrition. We were winning.
Starting on January 21, 1968, North Vietnamese forces began an attack at the US base at Khe Sahn. There are some who still see this attack as a diversion to draw troops, supplies, and resources away from Saigon. As the Lunar New Year, or Tet Holiday, approached, many thought a cease fire would take hold as agreed upon by all parties.
Early in the morning of January 31, 1968, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong launched coordinated attacks all throughout South Vietnam. More than 100 towns were attacked including the capital of Saigon. The Vietcong were actually in the American Embassy in Saigon. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the North. Khe Sanh and the Battle of Hue would last longer, but most of Tet was wrapped up by the end of the day and the north took heavy casualties.
Initially, the US claimed victory. The American public did not see it that way. The public had more answers than they were getting. If the US was winning this was of attrition, then how could the North attack wherever and whenever they wanted. The images coming out of Tet clashed with the words of the military command. One in particular was Eddie Adams’ The Assassination.
The image itself shocked Americans and marked a turning point in the war. How could the US support the South? This was not democracy.
From February of 1968, Vietnam for the American Public was never the same. The Tet Offensive, while a military disaster, proved to be the turning point of the war. For if the North could attack at will, the American Public would never support the war. The psychological victory proved too much as television and the still image did its part.
To his dying day, Westmoreland still believed it was not the military’s fault. He states:
*Militarily, we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there.
The Tet Offensive was lost psychologically because the US and the South could never shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For years, supplies, men, and women poured into the South via a footpath. LBJ tried carpet bombing, Nixon tried invading Cambodia, but neither effect worked. As a result, a course of a war, the course of two nations, and the course of thousands of lives changed in the coming year.
President Lyndon would not seek re-election. Nixon would be elected and the dominoes of American History fell. Atrocities in My Lai, Cambodia, and the nether regions of a jungle were broadcast into the living rooms of a public that neither cared nor wanted to see them anymore. By 1973, US combat troops were out, most of the P.O.W.s would be on their way home, and only “advisors” were left. Two years later in 1975, Saigon fell and Vietnam was united under a communist flag. It would be another ten years before American ended the malaise that started with the Tet Offensive.
For Further Reading
A Bright, Shining Lie
Vietnam: A History
Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam