i wanted to write this today, so that it would be available for folks to read on my birthday tomorrow. I hope to touch on two things that had a major impact on the first 11 to 12 years of my life; the Gulf of Tonkin and the Cultural Revolution. In a way, they started 50 years ago tomorrow.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the final large scale social-political movement launched by Chairman Mao Zedong in China. It officially started in May 1966 when the Party leadership tried to do away with the Four Olds; old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. The initial rumblings came much earlier. The results were the injury or deaths of millions of people, often at the hands of the Hong Weibing, or Red Guards. The Cultural Revolution officially ended in October 1976 when the People’s Liberation Army stepped in and crushed the Red Guards. Mao had died the previous month, and his severe ill health for the preceding several years was one of the reasons it got so badly out of hand.
I hear a lot of people in this country call themselves “culture warriors”, but they have no idea what a real culture war looks like. Most are all mouth. As one of my friends used to say, “They talk one hell of a fight.”
The effect that the Cultural Revolution had on me was one that might not be the most obvious first choice; it made me curious. I wondered who these people were, waving their Little Red Books and shouting, and I wanted to know what they were so angry about. It started a life long study and love of China. When I was in Intelligence I was a China expert. (I predicted the results of the Tienanmen Square protests in both a school class and government report). I am a founding member of the Tennessee China Chamber of Commerce.
As for the Gulf of Tonkin, that had a deep and profound effect on almost every family I grew up with.
You see, I was born on the day that the Vietnam War officially started.
First, a very brief background. During the 19th century quest for empire, France finally solidified its hold on Indochina in 1887. At the end of the First World War, the occupied peoples of the world were shocked to discovery that the Allies were not really fighting for Freedom and Democracy like they had claimed all along. Delegations of various peoples left the Versailles Conference dejected to see the imperial powers strengthen their hold on their homelands. One such person was a 29 year old Vietnamese man named Nguyen Sinh Con. He returned to his small apartment in the slums of Paris and soon joined the Parti Communiste Français. The world would come to know him as Ho Chi Minh, the Light of the People.
In 1941, Japan invaded Indochina and Ho and his Viet Minh fought them. Aided by the United States, he expected support after the war, not the French troops who arrived. The Viet Minh fought them too. The Americans turned against Ho and aided the French, but defeat came in 1954. Indochina was broken up and Vietnam was temporarily divided into two zones, with democratic nationwide elections to follow soon. Spurred on by the CIA, Ngo Dinh Diem held rigged elections only in the south, and declared the Republic of Vietnam. Supported by the US military, South Vietnam launched repeated attacks against the North and political opponents in the south. The Viet Minh, now rechristened Viet Cong, fought back.
On August 2 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was on a signal intelligence mission well within the territorial waters of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. Several attacks by the South had occurred the night before. Three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats approached. Maddox was far better armed and armored and outnumbered the Vietnamese 10 to 1 in manpower.
Captain Herrick reported that the torpedo boats fired first, but the 1971 Pentagon Papers revealed the truth. The captain ordered the five inch guns to open fire on the Vietnamese, and called in an air strike from F-8 Crusader jets to bomb and strafe the boats. All of the torpedo boats were badly damaged, with four men dead and six wounded. Only one single machine gun bullet struck the Maddox.
A more sinister incident happened on August 4. USS Maddox returned to the same area with the destroyer USS Turner Joy. Under orders, the two vessels began to sail around, firing their guns randomly. Navy Commander James Stockdale, flying in a plane above them, reported the bizarre behavior and the fact that there were no other vessels in the area. He was threatened with court marital, and did not reveal the truth until the 1980s. (He was captured during the war, was was afraid he would tell the enemy how the war truly started, but never did).
That night, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television to tell the American public about the “unprovoked attacks”, and to say that air strikes had been ordered on the North.
On August 7, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution, authorizing the president to conduct large scale military operations without declaring war. They would later grant him additional powers that presidents have used to this day.
American troops came to Vietnam in massive numbers, and the Viet Cong fought this fourth enemy. It all ended on April 30, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army. Over thirty years of warfare had finally ended, and well over six million people had died, with millions more wounded.
Many people are still bitter about Vietnam, and some hold the physical or emotional scars as well. And not just in this country. The US has had formal relations with Vietnam for 20 years. If you really don’t like them, there are LOTS of products you need to stop buying. I hear the blamers all the time, but I have never heard a single one ever say that perhaps the Vietnamese won because they wanted it the most; or that they were good soldiers. We were just one of a series of invaders to them.
And where was my Air Force dad during this fateful week? He was away on an extended series of missions. A few days after I was born, he was on a long 1500 nautical mile mission. One of the engines burst into flames and the pilot panicked. My dad, navigator that day, had 23 years of flying experience at that point. He heaved the guy out of his seat and piloted the burning plane back to base. He later said that he wanted to live to see his new kid for the first time.