BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Neil Sheehan, author of "Bright Shining Lie," about two months ago you were
here. We spent two and a half hours talking about your new book, "John Paul
Vann and America in Vietnam." What's been the reaction to the public since we
Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN, AUTHOR, "BRIGHT SHINING LIE": It's been wonderful for me. I when you when you're a
reporter, you never believe anything's going to happen until it happens, and
the reception has been just marvelous for me. I pinch myself all the time.
The most moving reactions have been from Vietnam veterans, letters and an
occasional phone call I get, in which people say, `You you put me back there,
and that's what it was like. But now for the first time I know why it
was why it happened. I know what it was all about.' And that's what I
wanted to do when I wrote the book, and I'm I'm I'm deeply moved by those
LAMB: On your screen, you'll see what the book looks like, and we spent a
long time talking about the contents of the book and we're going to go to the
phones fairly soon because the people are already calling and anxious to talk
to you. Where have you been?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I've been all over, most recently San Diego, San Francisco,
Seattle and Denver, and then Atlanta and Miami, and then up to New York for
the book award.
LAMB: What kind of things have you been doing to talk about the book?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I've been on television, radio and and a good a good bit
of of of newspa a good many newspaper interviews. People have been
wonderful to me and I'm I'm I'm deeply grateful to them.
LAMB: Any hostile reaction anywhere?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Once in a while you get people calling in on on call in shows,
you get people calling in occasionally and they're really angry because, of
course, there's still there's a lot of anger out there over the war, and you
don't know quite whether they're angry at you or they're just angry, and
they and they they they talk about the media doing them in or Lyndon
Johnson doing them in or and you see letters occasionally. I saw one
recently not about my book but about the saying Nixon had done us in. It's
amazing the amount of anger out out out there over the war.
LAMB: What's the question that's most often asked?
Mr. SHEEHAN: `Why?' `How could this have happened?' I mean, `How did our
government get us in this deeply and stay there that many years?' That's the
question I get most often asked.
LAMB: You won a big award. I you know, it's it was all over the
papers the National Book Award. How did that work?
Mr. SHEEHAN: That was quite extraordinary because you go to a you first of
all, you have a a reading the night before, in which all the finalists read,
and then you go to a dinner and they give they have two two categories,
fiction and non fiction. And first they read the fiction f certificates,
and then they give each of five finalists a t certificate, and then the jury
announces its award. And non fiction was second, so we waited until the end
and it was it was enormous tension there. It was like going into battle, in
a way. And then they announced the the award and I was just I of course,
absolutely thrilled, deeply moved, to to to to have b have been awarded
the National Book Award by the jury and deeply grateful to them.
LAMB: Who who gives the award?
Mr. SHEEHAN: A jury does of people who are picked each year by the National Book Awards and they're writers, most of them, and they make the decision.
LAMB: And you say you had to read part of the book?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, the night before, at St. Peter's Church in the Citicorp
building in New York. They ask each of the authors and eight out of 10
came both the fiction and non fiction, to read a portion from their book.
And I read a section on the argument between General Westmoreland and General
Krulak, who was a Marine general, ov over whether we ought to be fighting a
war of attrition or not, and then what happens to the Marines up at the DMZ.
I re I I read the the beginning of that, and to me, que because to me,
that's one of the most moving sections of the book.
LAMB: Who were you up against?
Mr. SHEEHAN: There was there w there was four other books. One was by
a by a very fine writer named Brenda Maddox. It was a biography of James
Joyce's wife, Nora. And then there was a a book on Reconstruction by Eric
Foner and and then a biography of Freud by Peter Gay. So th so th th it
was quite a quite a spread.
LAMB: What's it meant? I mean, y the reason why I keep asking you a lot of
these questions about that particular award is that you got so much publicity
out of that. Wha what does it mean? I mean, have you gotten offers to write
another book or go do a movie, or w when you get this award, isn't isn't it
in itself enough to satisfy you?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, the the award in itself is is is a wonderful thing
because it's it's it's from your peers. It it's it's it's given to you
by other writers. And and Richard Rhodes, for instance, who won the award
previously, was one of the judges, and Scott Berg, who wrote a fine book on
Maxwell Perkins, the the famous editor, was as was another of the judges.
And it's it's and a Professor Garrity at Columbia, an historian, who was
another. And it's it's very moving when you get something like that from
your peers. But, of course, there has I've gotten letters from everyone and
it it did get the book some more publicity. And a about movies, I don't
know, but there's been a lot of movie interest. I hope somebody will make a
good movie out of the book.
LAMB: How's it selling?
Mr. SHEEHAN: It's doing well, thank thank goodness. It's it's been on The
Times best seller list and it's been on the local best seller lists that is,
in you I run into it in Seattle; it's been on the best seller list here in
Washington and it's it seems to be doing quite well.
LAMB: All of our East Coast lines are already lighted and we have three other
lines on the West Coast, for those who live out on the West Coast, that you
can use. It's (202) 737 3 I mean, 787 2727. And we also have an
international number that you'll see on the screen here in just a moment. For
those of you who live ar around the world, outside of the United States, it's
(202) 737 6734. Begin dialing now and we're going to go to the phones here in
just a couple of minutes, like two minutes or so, till we take our first call
for Neil Sheehan, who's going to spend a whole hour and a half. This is after
you asked to have Mr. Sheehan back after you saw those interviews and wanted
a chance to talk directly with him and ask him questions and give us your
In the book, what chapter do you find that people are most interested in?
Mr. SHEEHAN: The pe people talk to me most about ab about it depends on
the individual. The thing that seems to fascinate people most is the
character of John Vann, the fact that the man has in him these great
qualities, these qualities of greatness, which he had, th o of and also
these great flaws. The the mixture of the two in the man seems to fascinate
people, and that's what I get the most comments about. People ask me about
the man `When did you discover the flaws?' for instance. `How do the
flaws how do the flaws in your mind, how oh, is he still a sympathetic
figure to you?' I mean, of course, he is. He remains a sympathetic figure to
me. `Do you consider him a hero?' Yes, I consider John a hero in the Greek
sense of the of the man of great virtues and great philosophy. But that's
the the character of John and the way it it melded together with the history
of the war is what seems to to interest people most.
LAMB: Any reaction more reaction from his family about the book?
Mr. SHEEHAN: They've been very good about this whole thing. His family had
been very good. They are people of the Vanns are people of great moral
courage and great honesty, and they've been very supportive about the whole
LAMB: Let's go to the phones for Neil Sheehan. "Bright Shining Lie" is the
name of this book. You know a lot about it, especially if you saw the series
and the interviews, and it's a chance for you to talk directly with Mr.
We go to Urbana, Illinois, for our first first call. Go ahead, please.
Caller #1: Brian, it's been about a year and a half since I got
in when Tom Wicker was on, another New York Timeser, and I can answer a
question that came up at that time. How many people voted or how many
newspapers went for Republican and Democrat? I saw just before the election
and just after the election, sorry to say, that there were 44 percent who did
not ca cast for either Bush or Dukakis and fift of the other 56 percent, you
may be interested to know that 2:1 I've kept exact figures it was for Bush.
Now what I want to ask Mr. Sheehan about is the impact of the lack of foreign
language capacity among the American advisers, and not only those in Vietnam,
but I'm a 64 year old man and I went to college after the Second World War
and studied a foreign language, which happened to be French, and I was
struck I am struck in reading your wonderful book by the incapacity of so
many of our advisers and not only there but at home to deal with the
cultural impact of the French experience the cultural and military impact of
the French experience in Vietnam in the in you know, in our earlier
engagement there. To what extent do you think that some larger lessons might
be learned about Americans learning about the about the culture of the la of
the countries they are going into or I don't want to discuss for the moment
the morality of going in. I just want to discuss the truly practical
implications of or you to discuss I'm sorry to say I me I mean, the purely
practical implications of the inability of Americans, apparently, to relate
LAMB: OK. Thank you, Urbana.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think that in that period of time, the 1960s, when we
went to war in Vietnam in '62, Americans didn't think they needed to know
history, and we thought that history didn't apply to us. I think,
obviously again, the question of whether you intervene aside that's that's
another matter. But the one of the lessons of Vietnam is you ought to know
a a what what where you are intervening. You'd better look before you
leap. And obviously, one of the lessons is that we didn't know the Vietnamese
we went in to support, and we didn't know our Vietnamese enemy. And it would
have helped an awful lot if we had studied the his if we had known something
about the history of those people and their culture, and I think it would help
for the future. We didn't think, at the time, we needed it.
LAMB: Metairie, Louisiana, go ahead, please.
Caller #2: Yes, sir. Thank you. I was concerned about
something that you said about Vietnam veterans saying that `Now that I've read
your book, I understand what happened while I was over there.' Being a Vietnam
veteran and having read some of your writings, I can only say to them that
please do not take you as the only source of what happened over there because
I I do not agree with your outlook. I don't even think that you understand
what the war was all about specifically, that Tet was a complete victory for
us. And I don't think you understand that the turning point of the war was
not in Vietnam but was here in this country and that you were a part of it.
And in my opinion, sir, you hold some responsibility for the deaths of
millions of innocent people. I know you have the last word. It is now yours.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Do you have a question or do you want me to simply make a
statement? I don't f first of all, I think one has to look at you mentioned
the Tet offensive. I don't think anyone has all the answers on Vietnam, and I
certainly wouldn't pretend to have them. I've done my best in this book to
tell what really happened there and why it happened. You mentioned the Tet
offensive as being a victory for the United States. What happened at Tet was
that the Viet Cong guerrillas were destroyed, and so it was a military it was
a military defeat for the Viet Cong.
But, unfortunately, nothing changed on the Saigon side. The Saigon government
remained as corrupt and as incompetent as ever. And the North Vietnamese army
was there ready to move in and take over. And the surprise blow of Tet broke
the will of the American public to continue the war, and that's actually what
happened at Tet. Now it's very difficult to accept the fact that Tet dealt a
death blow to the war that is, it broke the will of the public and and of
the Johnson administration to continue but that's what happened. And I think
as a if you're going to write history, you have to write it the way it
happened, and that's what I tried to do.
LAMB: Follow up, Metairie?
Caller #2: Yes, if I could respond to that I think that this is one of the
few things that you have said that is accurate. Tet broke the backbone of the
American people. The point that you didn't say was the reason why. On
network television and I understand that they have to show exciting
scenes but they portrayed Tet as a defeat for us. They portrayed it as
mayhem and the enemy taking over our embassy, all of which was not just
disinformation. It was out and out lies. Many reporters wrote about things
that were just totally false. I've seen reports where they say such and such
a base was rocketed when, in fact, they were not even there. It would have
been a ter it was a terrorist attack, in some instances, and from Saigon.
They write about rocket fire because they speculate, just like you did about
very much, sir. I I realize we have different differences of opinions, and
that's what makes our country great.
LAMB: All right, sir. Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: I'm afraid you just can't accept what happened in Vietnam.
That's the problem. You you you don't want to accept what happened. The
fact is that the Viet Cong moved 15 battalions into Saigon totally
unexpectedly. In the book, I relate how the American ambassador was woken up
by his own Marine guards at 3:00 in the morning Mr. Bunker he told me this.
And they they told him that he didn't even have time to put on his clothes,
just pull on his bathrobe. They were going to take him away in an armored
personnel carrier. General Westmoreland had just announced to the American
public that victory was imminent. And the Viet Cong did penetrate the embassy
compound. The Vietnamese Communists attacked all over South Vietnam. It was
a complete surprise, and, of course, it had the predictable effect in the
United States of causing a political and psychological collapse. Now this
wasn't the fault of television. This actually happened. And if you can't
accept it, that's that's something that you will have to come to grips with
yourself. I simply try to tell what happened.
LAMB: Mesa, Arizona, go ahead, please.
Caller #3: Hi. Mr. Sheehan, I very much enjoyed your book and
it illuminated again the lines of protest and accolade I had for the Vietnam
War, but illuminated only in the sense of the other side that's still
unexposed of our First Amendment involvement, the corrupting involvement of
our First Amendment in that whole fiasco. Your book, again, reminds me that
our sectarian involvement, corruptly with the Diem gov government,
originally, and a quiescent Congress led us into that morass, and it's still
amply unremarked that that involvement ever occurred. Now we're into the
Constitution's body itself, with the separation of powers doctrine lately only
bandied about with the intelligentsia after the election when, in fact, it was
the most crucial aspect to that election.
Mr. SHEEHAN: What's your question, sir?
Caller #3: Well, I'm I'm saying that I I'd I'd ask for Mr.
Sheehan's he he does illuminate again in his book our sectarian involvement
with South Vietnam. Yet the First Amendment is unremarked, and I think it
should be broadly discussed because that was the downfall, initially, of our
LAMB: Why do you say the First Amendment was the downfall?
Caller #3: Well, because we were, in effect, extrapolating from the First
Amendment corru corruptly. By taking a sectarian side in South Vietnam, we
were therein establishing a religion.
LAMB: OK. You understand?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I think the gentleman is referring to the fact that the
Amer the United States, when it intervened in South Vietnam, relied very much
on the Catholic community there. The first president the president whom we
put in power in 1960 in 1954 was a Catholic mandarin named Ngo Dinh Diem. I
think the United States actually relied on the Vietnamese Catholics because
they were anti Communists. It had less to do with the fact that they were
Catholics than they were anti Communists. Now they happen to be
anti Communist because they were a minority within Vietnam and because this
goes back into French Colonial history, but I don't think it was an attempt to
sort of to set up a separate religion. I think it was an attempt to find a
group who opposed the Vietnamese Communists.
LAMB: New Port Richey, Florida, for Neil Sheehan. Go ahead, please.
Caller #4: Hello, Brian.
Caller #4: Mr. Sheehan, I bought your book after your last interview on CNN
and I am delighted that I got your book. Since that time, I've bought four
copies for my four children, all of whom were too young to understand what
really happened at the time we were involved in Vietnam. But they understand
now, having read your book. I thank you for it.
I wanted to say something to you about the title, "A Bright Shining Lie."
These were words, if I understand correctly, that John Paul Vann himself used.
Is that right?
Mr. SHEEHAN: That's right, yes.
Caller #4: Yes. I find it ironic that this man, whom I consider tragic and a
victim as much as all the rest of us, those who gave our lives and those who
protested the war, are in this instance. And I do not agree at all with that
terminology. I think that Mr. Vann, in the final analysis, lied to himself
because the lies which were told regarding our involvement in Vietnam were
neither bright nor shining. In my opinion, they were dark and they were
tarnished. Would you please address yourself to that?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I used the the the words, "A Bright Shining Lie" because they
were John Vann's words. And, of course, in the end, he had lost his grip on
reality by the by the end of the war. But I th I felt that they were apt
because John had a had a kind of apt way of putting things. And what the
title is meant to reflect is all of the ironies and the delusions and the
misguided good intentions that went into that war. And, of course, some of
them were dark. They weren't all bright and shining, and but that and
that's part of what the title means. And I think that's what he meant, too,
when he used the words bright and shi bright shining. He he was
referring he was referring to to darkness as well as light.
LAMB: Springfield, Pennsylvania, go ahead, please.
Caller #5: Thank you. I heard Mr. Vann, while serving over
there in Vietnam, and I think when I did hear him I thought that perhaps he
was losing it also, and this was in 1971. Mr. Sheehan, I wish you would
address a statement I believe it's on page 153 of your book that the the
Germans were, in fact, more barbarism than the Japanese. I believe something
like 40 percent of American prisoners of war died under the Japanese, while
something under 5 percent des died under the Germans. And you blamed the two
million deaths in Vietnam under the Japanese on the French and their
Vietnamese underlings. I simply cannot accept that. I think that's a a
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, to begin, le let me an answer the first part of your
question last part of your question first. The French colonial
administration, the Vichy French, those who collaborated with the Nazis in
Europe, also collaborated with the Japanese in Indochina. And until March
1945, when they were disarmed by the Japanese because the Japanese thought
they were going to turn against them and side with the free French, they
administered Indochina for the Japanese. And there's no doubt whatsoever that
the French authorities were involved in those forced rice collections that
led to the the widespread famine in North Vietnam and in parts of central
Vietnam in '44 and '45. There's just no doubt about that.
To back up I use that term you were ta I was I was speaking in general
of of of the Germans being the greater or you mentioned in the book, on
page 53 there, I was speaking there of American racism towards Asians in
general and the fact that during World War II we perceived the Japanese as
the most dangerous enemy when, in fact, the Germans were because they had the
technological capacity. And when I spoke of barbarism, obviously the Japanese
were were terribly barbarous towards our prisoners. And the Germans did
treat our prisoners better than the Japanese treated them. That was because
the the the Germans were Europeans and they saw us as Europeans. I think
you have to look at German barbarism in terms of the of of using an
industrial system to kill millions of people, which is what the Germans did in
creating those in those death factories at Auschwitz and in the other
concentration camps. That's what I was talking about. To me, that's the
LAMB: Portland, Oregon, go ahead, please.
Caller #6: Mr. Sheehan oh, excuse me, let me turn my TV off.
I just I bought your book after the last interviews I'm a Vietnam veteran,
too. I kind of wanted to comment, kind of through you, to the brother from
Louisiana. We really kind of have to quit fighting the war, which a lot of us
are still doing, and figuring out why we lost rather than dealing with what's
going on now.
Primarily, I think your comment's just about blaming the messenger. I mean,
the comment that the media did us in is just not true. If you go back and
read Michael Herr's book, "Dispatches," which was written, I think, in '68,
you'll see a book which comments on the heroism of the the warrior in the
ultimate futility of the war. I mean I think he had a beautiful phrase: `We
weren't for the war or against the war; we were in the war. That was our
position.' And I think it be makes it a lot easier for him to deal with the
kinds of bitterness and anger that a lot of us, of course, have now.
I'd like to comment on your book and to ask you ask you a question. I'm
about halfway through it. Between that and Taylor Branch's book on
Martin Luther King, you know, I've got my reading set up right now two fine
books that came out. I hope they do make a movie of it. I heard of John Paul
Vann when I was over there. He was he became a legend. I have basically two
questions. One, how did he hold up that kind because I haven't finished the
book that kind of dedication to that war, knowing all he knew from very early
in the war, yet he spent 10 years of his life there?
Second, we keep referring to Tet, which was was described correctly by by
both you and the caller; basically a military victory which changed the war
from a guerrilla war to a to a war against the North Vietnamese
Army straight war.
But something else happened during that period which wasn't reported for a
year and a half. I was hit on the first day of Tet ...(unintelligible) a few
days before I could go out. So I came home, and Tet kind of it took a lot
out of me because I came back I was in the hospital for a few days, came
back and got out of the service an and and saw this very negative feeling,
you know. Coming home from two years in a in a war and expecting to feel
proud of it and running into the negative attitudes, I I remember, was a real
effect. Then a year and a half later, I'm in college and we get the report on
My Lai, and I haven't heard in any of your interviews I watched all the
eu earlier thing what effect, really, do you think the reports of My Lai
Caller #6: Not a lot on me personally. I I basically was `Bring them home.
that's it.' You know, `We're not supposed to be involved in that sort of
LAMB: All right, Portland. Thanks.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, a to answer I'll answer the the first part of your
question and then go on to the second. On John Vann John Vann was a natural
leader of men in war. I mean, h when he he was in Vietnam because
he he that was something he did best. He was he was one of the most
brilliant Army officers of his time and and w and he in war, everything is
important, everything has meaning, everything has urgency. Now in those early
years, John saw the realities of Vietnam very, very clearly. What happened
was, he couldn't let go of the war. And after Tet '68 he had so much of
himself invested in it that he couldn't he couldn't give it up. And then he
began to rationalize what was going on in Vietnam to say that, `Well, we
didn't have to worry as much about the corruption in the Saigon regime. We
didn't have to worry about it as much about the incompetence.'
He began to rationalize these things and came up with a number of the ideas,
in fact, which were incorporated in Nixon's Vietnamization strategy and which
was another delusion. And Vann began to then lose his grip on things. But
prior to that, I think what kept him there was the fact that that it
satisfied him professionally and it satisfied him emotionally and and and
so and also, of course, he had that that complicated personal side, which he
was also able to satisfy in Vietnam in a way he couldn't anywhere else.
The second part of your question about Tet and the veteran, I think and and
My Lai I think all of this ties together. Not only do you have this this
scapegoat theory that the media did us in in Vietnam or Lyndon Johnson
chickened out you've got a whole lot of other scapegoat theories but one of
the things I think that's been most unfair to the American fighting men in
Vietnam is the fact that he came home and he was blamed for the ugliness of
the war. The the I think the one shouldn't blame the fighting man. One
should blame those those in charge, those who victimized the American
fighting man. And My Lai was a case of of of of the American soldier being
brutalized some American soldiers being brutalized over a period of time by
the by the by the way the war was being fought by the generals, and then
we you had a sadist in Calley, who who who enjoyed, obviously, killing
people, and you had a massacre that was made but the massacre was made
inevitable by the way the war was fought by the generals. I do again, I
don't think the soldiers should be blamed agai aside from individual blame
for Calley and those who were guilty in that particular massacre, but the
massacre has to be seen in terms of the whole war.
LAMB: Next call, Clearwater, Florida. Go ahead, please.
Caller #7: Mr. Sheehan, I'm reading your book and I want to
thank you for your years of research and labor to bring this book to the
American people. My wish is that every American adult would read it. My
question is to Mr. Lamb. Is it possible, Mr. Lamb, to purchase the transcript
of the five interviews that you had with Mr. Sheehan that I heard one Sunday?
I would love to obtain those, if possible, to send them to my son, who is in
the military, because I don't think right now, he'd have time to read this
book, and I would so like him to read it.
LAMB: Let me suggest to you that you give us a call a in our office at (202)
737 3220 tomorrow and ask for Matt Moore, who is involved in our archives,
and and we'll see what if there's enough interest in this. Frankly, we do
not have a transcript of those series, but we do have arrangements where
people can buy tapes, and we'll have to discuss it with you, if it's all
Caller #7: Well, I'll certainly call. May I confirm that number with you
LAMB: Sure, (202)...
Caller #7: ...(202) 737 3220.
LAMB: Correct. OK. Thank you very much for the call. Let's go to Bellevue,
Nebraska, next. Go ahead, please.
Caller #8: Yes, Mr. Sheehan. A question: I'm only halfway
through your book, but what prompted buying the book was, I had just finished,
belatedly, David Halberstam's the "Best & the Brightest," and that really got
my interest up. I am a Vietnam veteran and a 20 year career officer who
recently retired. But do you think that what the current situation with the
NSC is is almost a separate power entity within the government and sometimes
almost not responsible to Congress to what the Iran Contra affairs and our
military excursions with Grenada, Libya, Central America, Lebanon is there
any reason to believe that we couldn't, with our `all Communists are bad'
approach to foreign affairs or so it appears in many regards within the
Reagan administration could we get in the same situation again? Could we,
eight or 10 or 20 years after Vietnam, in, for instance, Central America, go
in and and have the same outlook on a very noble cause but not ev but
falling into the same type of trap with the military saying, `Of course we can
do it. We can do it. We can do it'?
LAMB: OK, Bellevue. Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think that if we don't learn the lessons of Vietnam,
some other kind of disaster can befall us, and Vietnam was a disaster that we
brought o that that that we brought on ourselves and and that we
inflicted a tragedy we we inflicted on ourselves and on the peoples of
Indochina. I think that the war has changed us, at least for the foreseeable
future, in that the president no longer has the ability to commit the armed
forces of the United States with the freedom that Kennedy and Johnson had.
Now, of course, you can make short term commitments, as Reagan has. He did in
a l Beirut. This the Grenada thing was really a very limited thing. If
you're talking about one a a very small o o o opponents on a on a on an
island, it was a very limited thing. But in terms of a major commitment of
the American armed forces, I think there is a recoiling against that
that's that has resulted from Vietnam, and I think it would be quite
difficult for any president, a at at least unless the issue is clear to the
public, to commit the Army, the Navy and the Marine Corps and the Air Force,
as Johnson and Kennedy could do, with great freedom.
LAMB: Reno, Nevada, you're next.
Caller #9: Hi, Mr. Lamb.
Caller #9: I was very interested in hearing your report from England, and it
was interesting to hear one of the s gentlemen guests mention the fact that
it's that the possibility of one world and also the fact that we are the we,
the let's say the Western world, are the only people and not the Eastern Bloc
or Russia helping out the the poor countries of this world, the Third World.
So what I want to talk about today is where we're going with what happened in
Vietnam. The way I see it, it was a justifiable war. It was better
than there were 50,000 men killed instead of five million men going to war
and being murdered by the Chinese crossing the border because, at that time,
China wanted to take over, and they were willing to go to war with us except
for the nuclear war. So we fought the war instead of letting the South
So because I've heard so many things since this war of people like Mr.
Lamb I've mentioned Mr. Horowitz's comments and how the Communists in this
country were working to see that they would help the expansion of communism in
the world I think one world is dangerous. One world would mean who's going
to make the rules Russia? Who is going to where are the freedoms of the
people? You can't have one kind of leadership. We should remain separate
nations and we should stop interfering with other countries.
LAMB: OK. Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think, ma'am, if you take a look at what happened in
Vietnam, you'll see it's a lot more complicated than you think. There's an
incident in the book, in fact, in which John Vann's assistant is captured by
the Viet Cong guerrillas, and he's on his way to a prison camp, on his way to
seven years of terrible captivity in in in prison camps in the in the rain
forests of South Vietnam. And one of his escorts is a 16 year old guerrilla,
a a young farm boy, and he asks Doug Ramsey, who was Vann's assistant who was
captured Ramsey spoke Vietnamese he asks him, `Why are you Americans in this
country making war on us?' And Ramsey explains to him that we're there we
were there because the we were stopping the Chinese from expanding into
And this young Vietnamese guerrilla says to him, `You're crazy. The Chinese
are our traditional enemies. We're not going to let the Chinese take over
this country just because we share the same form of government they do the
s same type of government,' and and Ramsey began to argue with the young
man, and two older guerrillas jump in and they say to Ramsey, `You're wrong
and the boy's right.' And of course, what happened after the war was that
Vietnam and China went to war with each other. Two Communist countries the
unthinkable went to war with each other. And what you have to remember that
is, after our defeat in 1975 I think what Vietnam shows us is th is that the
world is an awfully complicated place and you cannot look at it in black and
LAMB: White Plains, New York, you're next.
Caller #10: Yes. Mr. Sheehan, I was particularly interested
in in your last comment, which kind of dovetails with my observation, in in
that in your book, you don't really cover the decisions of the Eisenhower
administration i to not go along with the Geneva Accords and leaving it to
the Kennedy administration to to figure out whether we were going to contain
communism or not. I think that the the real contrast in Vietnam lies with
Korea and that Truman went in with the United Nations, and if you consider a
20 year span or a 40 year span, we w sort of won in that we contained
communism in North Korea. Had we done likewise in Vietnam I mean, had we
acceded to the Geneva Accords and went along with the then attitude of Ho Chi
Minh, maybe we wouldn't have had all this difficulty in Vietnam.
LAMB: Mr. Sheehan.
Mr. SHEEHAN: I I do deal in the in the book with the fact that the
Eisenhower administration, as as far as the Geneva c Accords were concerned,
sought to turn what the the provisional military demarcation line up there on
the DMZ, the 17th parallel, into a into a permanent frontier and to create a
separate South Vietnam. So I I do deal with it; that is, they put in power
in in Saigon the Catholic mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem. But you can't really
compare Vietnam and Korea. They're two different two different situations.
In South Korea, you had a nationalist government in Syngman Rhee, which had
credibility with its own population. The the Koreans were willing to accept
these people as a genuinely Korean government.
The problem in Vietnam so that we could solidify things. You could apply
military action, defeat the Chinese and the North Koreans, and then you'd have
something in South Viet in South Korea which would endure. The problem in
Vietnam was that you had in Saigon a government which had which was composed
mainly of people who had sided with the French during the first war,
compromised themselves politically. The government was terribly corrupt and
inept, and it wasn't anything you could ever build on. It was sand. That was
the real problem. And so the two situations really aren't comparable.
LAMB: Putnam County, New York, go ahead, please.
Caller #11: Thank you, Brian. Mr. Sheehan, I want to thank you
for a very thought provoking book. My question is essentially this: Had the
war been executed according to John Vann's earliest ideas in '62 and '63,
was would have the effort still have been worth it? Was the fault in the
execution or in the entire effort itself? I'm not quite sure, after reading
your book, where you actually come down on that question.
Mr. SHEEHAN: What I try to do in the book is to lay it out as it happened and
let people come down their own way. And I'm glad you asked me the question
because that was deliberate on my part. I didn't want to preach or draw those
kind of conclusions. I think if you look at it in retrospect, there are two
things and two things that emerge from to me, from the story, and and
probably would emerge from the book if one reflected on it.
One, the entire effort was probably doomed from the beginning, because we were
dealing with with a a structure in South Vietnam which which couldn't
survive by itself: the Saigon government. Now, Vann, in those in that early
period and I think you'd have to include his his ideas when he came back in
'65, '66. John saw very sharply, very clearly then that the Saigon regime was
corrupt and incompetent, couldn't stand by itself, and his idea was to not
fight this big American war of attrition, because that would be applying
military force in a void. His idea was to take over the country, take over
South Vietnam, completely reform the Saigon regime and create a government
that would have some support in its own country that could stand by itself
when we left.
Now, of course, the war was fought in the worst way possible. The only thing
that the American generals did was to defeat themselves, to apply all of this
military force in a void. Had Jo had Vann's ideas been followed, I suspect
we would still be in South Vietnam. I'm not re that is, we would have
prevailed in the extent that we would have probably crushed the guerrilla
rebellion in South Vietnam. I am not sure that, in the end, you could
thoroughly remake a society in the way he had thought one could. He would he
had come up with the most realistic solution any American could come up with
in that time frame, there's no doubt about it. But whether it would have
worked over the long run, I'm really not sure. I suspect it probably wouldn't
have worked, and we would have ended up in South Vietnam, occupying the
country. It would have ended up with a with a permanent economic drain on
our resources and a running moral sore in that we would have been dominating a
people who who will not accept foreign domination, and the Vietnamese are
like that. That's why their communism it was like Yugoslav communism and it
was like Titoism, very national as nationalistic as as it was Communist.
LAMB: Ukiah, California, go ahead, please.
Caller #12:Hi. I haven't read your book yet. It's on order,
but I have a a rather general question. Why doesn't somebody in the
Democratic or Republican Party stand up and say that America is feeding the
evil guys? We're supporting the evil guys all over the world we we the
dictators, the anti people p people. I get I get a tremendous enragement
about what I feel the United States is doing all over the world doing bad
things to the people everywhere by supporting the bad guys. And why isn't
there somebody who will speak up in in either the Democrats or the Republican
Party and say this?
LAMB: Caller, can you give us a an example or two of who you consider to be
Caller #12:Let's see. My mind goes blank and I I'm s I I read widely, I
read extensively, and I feel that we're and I my and I just have a lot of
LAMB: OK. Let me ask Mr. Sheehan if he has an do you agree or do you have a
view on this?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I don't think we always suppor I don't think we always support
the bad guys all over the world. I I I I think that would be an
oversimplification of what the United States does in the world. The United
States behaves like a big power. It behaves with often with great
expediency. Now if you take a look at the sh Chinese or the Soviets, you'll
see the same kind of behavior, very often. They the U United States
some sometimes supports people like I suppose you could pick out people in
Central America, like Somoza, who who certainly are are are I are not
very good people. But at the same time, there are other instances where we do
support the right people.
It I don't think you should one should blanketly condemn American foreign
policy. That, to me, is is an oversimplification. The great tragedy of
Vietnam one of the great tragedies of it was that it was all really
unnecessary. Had the United States not started out at the beginning
supporting the French attempt to reconquer Indochina, had we understood that
Vietnamese Communism was also na a nationalistic force, the whole thing
probably would have been the whole thing could have been avoided. And it's a
terrible tragedy that it wasn't avoided.
So but I don't draw from that the inference that we're always supporting the
bad guys. I think that's terribly over that that's an oversimplification.
Where we do support the bad guys undoubtedly, we ought to be supporting the
right people, but that's a matter of sorting it out case by case.
LAMB: Forty five minutes with Neil Sheehan to go. Atlanta, Georgia, next.
Go ahead, please.
Caller #13: Hello, Mr. Sheehan. I have one question. I am a
naturalized American. I am French. And I wanted to know: When the French
finally pulled out, why did we pull in? Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Because we thought that, first of all, we could gather
and and and maintain a nationalist government in South Vietnam in the person
of the of an anti Communist the anti Communist one of the anti Communist
leaders; then we brought in a man named Ngo Dinh Diem. We thought that,
because we were Americans, we could really do anything. We could do anything
we wanted. And we assumed that all Communist governments were the same, that
they were run by i i I'm oversimplifying it, but not oversimplifying it too
much we assumed at the time that all Communist governments were run by a
switchboard out of the Kremlin in Moscow, that that that it the Communist
world was also not as not a complicated place. And we thought that we could
s organize the anti Communist nationalist forces in Vietnam and create a
viable government out of them.
Now it turned out that there really wasn't an anti Communist nationalist
solution that you could that a foreign power like the United States would
come in and put together out of ou out of in effect, out of the air,
because when you come in as a foreigner, you really don't know what you're
doing. You're dealing with a local situation, and we really didn't know what
we were doing. And if you read the book, you'll see that. There was a
great there was great ignorance on our part, barring our intentions were
to to create a nationalist government in South Vietnam which would stand
against the Communist government in the North.
LAMB: Atlanta, Georgia, go ahead, please. I'm sorry. Herndon, Virginia. We
just had Atlanta. Go ahead, please.
Caller #14: How you doing?
Caller #14: I have a quick question. I agree 100 percent with what you said
about how we have a tendency to oversimplify our views, but one thing which
really bothers me in the media and in education in general is that we are
correctly concerned with how complicated things are with Vietnam, and yet,
we're taught that World War I was started by some relatively unknown
individual who gets assassinated. We're taught how World War II is is you
know, this this totally unexpected surprise attack from these bad guy
Japanese. We're taught, you know, how incredibly bad Hitler was and, yet,
welcome Stalin as an ally a man who probably killed three times the people.
I'm maybe a comment on just why is it that everything else seems so
simplified in our culture and in our education except for Vietnam?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think Americans tend to oversimplify things.
That that isn't to agree that that that that Stalin was worse than Hitler
or vice versa. I mean, Stalin was a monster and and and Hitler was a
monster. I think we we tend to oversimplify things, be part we have in the
past because we tended to to we liked to think of ourselves, for example, as
a simple people with simple and right minded motivations who always act from
those right minded motivations when, in fact, I think we're a very complicated
nation. I think it it's part of the American inability the American
difficulty in coming to grips with history. And and probably it's it it
may have to do with some in some ways with the way history is taught in this
country. I really can't say. But I think that prior to Vietnam, in any case,
Americans had a very simplistic view of the world and we tended to romanticize
what happened in World War II, so some of your comments may reflect that.
LAMB: Sedona, Arizona, for Neil Sheehan. Go ahead, please.
Caller #15:Yeah. I haven't read the book, but I've been
listening to the program, and I'm a Vietnam veteran as well as a Korean
veteran of 25 years in the service. And I I'd like to make a couple of
comments I've been in Vietnam of the Da Nang, and I think we I we couldn't
win the war in the beginning and we could never win the war because we were
fighting, essentially, a guerrilla war. And the United States military is not
set up to fight a guerrilla war, has never been set up to fight guerrilla
wars. We don't have the equipment and the knowledge. And when you combine
that, that we were fighting with a nationalistic pride in in the country and
the fact that we weren't equipped for a guerrilla war, we we were doomed to
defeat when we started. But people in this country think that, like the
author has said, we are the greatest power in the world. And the truth is, we
may have a lot of power, but we cannot do everything. And I think Carter had
the right idea when he made a comment at one time to the effect that we can't
be the policemen of the world. And as long as we think we can, we got big
problems ahead of us.
LAMB: All right. Thank you. Neil.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think you can you can overdo this, as as as as you
say. I mean, we s we we obviously I happen to believe this is is is
the the last best hope of man on Earth, this country. This is the best
country that does exist. I think we do what Vietnam has given us a sense of
is that we also have limits. And prior to going into Vietnam, we didn't think
we had any limits. We thought we could do anything simply because we wanted
to do it and and that it was always that it would always be right and good,
also, because we Americans wanted to do it. And Vietnam has disabused us of
that idea and and, I I think, disabused us of it very very painfully, and
that's why it's so difficult to come to grips with the experience, but it's a
very necessary one if we're to learn from Vietnam.
LAMB: For Neil Sheehan, we go to Yonkers, New York.
Caller #16: Mr. Sheehan, there's a group of us here, and one of
my friends here said that they thought you were born in a Communist country.
Is that so? And because I'll tell you why because we have Hanoi
(unintelligible) and we have Marxist Ted Kennedy, and now we have sell out
Sheehan. Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I'm sorry, but I don't see myself in that light. And if
you do, that's your problem.
LAMB: What's next?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I don't really know. I have been busy with the publication of
the book now, and what I'll do next, I don't know. I'm sure I'll stay busy.
I I have always stayed busy and and I'll I I I probably won't write
another book on Vietnam. There's no encore to this book.
LAMB: Are you tired one last question before I g grab this call. Are you
tired of talking about this subject?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No, no, no. Vietnam doesn't I one I don't think a subject as
important as Vietnam is one that one ever should get or one ever will get
tired of talking about. I certainly will never get tired of talking about it,
nor a man as fascinating as John Vann. I mean, to me, the two
are are Vietnam was the most important event of who whole post post World
War II period. There's no doubt in my mind about it. It's changed this
country, it was an enormously traumatic event and I don't get tired of talking
LAMB: Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, for Neil Sheehan.
Caller #17: Yes. I I've enjoyed your comments and I enjoy this
program. It's the first time I've talked to you in about three years now.
But this is a particularly subj subject that's very close to my heart. First
of all, I would like to ask you, what do you think about the policies that set
up the rules of engagement that so severely handicapped and restricted any
military operations? And secondly, why hasn't Mr. McNamara received the blame
that he should have as the architect for the disaster that we faced? Thank
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, if you read the book, you'll see that our military
operations in in Vietnam were not restricted within Vietnam itself
within particularly within South Vietnam. Obviously, the the we couldn't
cross the borders into Cambodia until late, and we couldn't cross the borders
except in a you couldn't send American troops in uniform across the borders
into Laos. You could bomb there. And a there there were restrictions on
the bombing of North Vietnam, although they don't really they didn't really
affect it in the end because the only target in North Vietnam that that would
have would have had any effect was the population, and I don't think
Americans would have wanted to kill millions of women and children.
The problem was the way the war was fought. The the m Army generals had
this idea that they could it was a called a war of attrition. They had the
idea that they could kill off the Vietnamese Communists faster than they could
replace themselves the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. And all this
succeeded in doing it was it was it was a zany idea when you look at it
because it didn't make any sense. All it it did in the end was to cause the
deaths of a lot of m thousands tens of thousands of American soldiers and
undercut the political will at home to to carry on the war, so that when Tet
'68 occurred, the surprise Communist offensive, it caused a psychological and
political collapse here. And that really is the problem in the way the
mil the the war was prosecuted militarily.
LAMB: Robert McNamara.
Mr. SHEEHAN: (Audio loss experienced) ...and he couldn't do in later years
for for obviously personal reasons. He couldn't come to grips with I I
suspect emotionally was. He never could come out and publicly say what
he what he had said in secret, in private, within government. That's
something Mr. McNamara was unable to do in all those later years of the war.
LAMB: Corvallis, Oregon, you're next.
Caller #18: Mr. Sheehan, I spent a couple of years out there
teaching in the universities, and I agree almost entirely with everything I've
heard you say. I've not read your book, but I'm going to. And looking at it
from where I was, I never met any Vietnamese who said they would support the
government of South Vietnam. I think that we could only have made the war
bigger. I don't think we could have won it. The Chinese didn't want in the
war. We went to fight the Chinese; the Chinese didn't show up and I think
much to our embarrassment maybe, but we were probably fortunate. I do agree
with you that I think we are likely to make the same mistake again, perhaps in
Nicaragua or some other like place. I think, generally, our foreign policy
i in the Third World n needs much to b leaves much to be desired.
And I don't know if I have any further comment other than I shall read your
book, and I think you're doing us a great service because the Vietnamese would
have died to the last man before they would ever have allowed us to stay
Mr. SHEEHAN: That that was essentially the problem in Vietnam. I mean,
you you you have a a situation where the Vietnamese won't tolerate the
Vietnamese are people who will not tolerate foreign domination. They're like
the Irish, and in the most recent case, the Soviets discovered, the Afghans.
They won't tolerate foreigners. The Vietnamese whom we supported, as I said
earlier, were the Vietnamese who had sided with the French. By and large,
they were the Vietnamese who had sided with the French during the first war.
Now not that there weren't a l a good many really good men on the Saigon
side, and a quarter of a million Vietnamese died fighting for the Saigon side.
But you're right, in general. It the the society the s s sou South
Vietnamese society and the government lacked a will to survive. And it lacked
popular support. And that's, I think, what you were running into with the
Now whether we're going to do do thi make this kind of mistake again, I
don't know. I would hope we wouldn't. I would hope we would have learned
from Vietnam and not make the same kind of mistake on that scale
that that that we would if if we draw lessons from it. I think one has to
look at Vietnam as as as let's let's contrast it to World War II.
In World War II, our soldiers brought home victory and glory. And thank God
that they did because our cause then was the cause of humanity. In Vietnam we
were defeated. But I think that Vietnam can be that defeat can be as
valuable in in its time as victory, if one learns from defeat. And tha if
we do learn from what happened in Vietnam, then the lives of those men who
died there will not have been in vain. Well, I think that we have to find
some way to redeem the lives of those men whose names are remembered on the
wall and I and and and to to redeem to the extent one can one can never
truly redeem it, obviously the the the millions who died who died in
Indochina and the devastation of those those lands, redeem it to the extent
one can by by by drawing wisdom from it.
LAMB: Wilmington, North Carolina, go ahead, please.
Caller #19:Yes. The the caller who was so emotional from
California, I imagine, talking about how the United States' foreign policy is
corrupt, though he could not list where we're corrupt in what areas but do
you remember that call?
LAMB: Yes, sir.
Caller #19:I was very interested in that call, especially the due to his
emotional aspect. But there is quite a number of foreign policy programs,
initiated by this country that that are corrupt, and since you asked him to
name a few that you can name more than you can count on your fingers very
easily what we did to Iran in '54 and why for the oil; what we did to
Guatamala it was '53 or was it in Iran? And then in '54 we did Guatemala in
for who? The United Fruit Company, obviously. What we did to Chile in '73,
what Henry Kissinger did to s Chile in '73 he ended up with the Nobel Prize
for what he did in Vietnam. But what did he get for what he did with AT&T and
Anaconda and Ralston Purina and Guess Who?
Guatemala in 1980, 16,000 people were dead just like that. Indians,
peasants, they called them. Sixteen thousand dead. It wasn't released in the
United States, nowhere in the press. But they had a UN Geneva conference on
human rights which determined that Guatemala w had genocide going on in '79
and '80. It was front page news throughout Europe, if not the rest of the
LAMB: All right, sir. Any comment on the list?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I I really can't comment on most of those situations
because I haven't studied them in detail. And I'm the kind of person who, if
I haven't studied something in detail, I don't want to address it. So I'd
have to just pass it. The only thing I can say is that I've tried to look at
Vietnam in detail and see what happened there and and and in hopes that, as
I said earlier, we'd draw some lessons from it.
LAMB: Overland Park, Kansas, go ahead, please.
Caller #20:Yeah. I wanted to address a question an earlier
caller had concerning how much we've analyzed the Vietnam War. And I think
it's just like a basketball game or something. You tend to analyze the losses
and point fingers a lot more than you do the wins. And I think from that
standpoint, if we'd looked a little bit harder at World War II, saw that by
moving the Pacific fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor and the MacArthur's
headquarters from Hawaiian Islands to the Philippines, we'd been in a a
little less of a threatening stance to the Japanese. If we'd have lost or
drawn a stalemate in Europe in World War II, why, there'd been a little more
finger pointing at the idea of an invasion of France and and, you know,
the the meeting which, basically, Roosevelt gave Eastern Europe to the
Russians in exchange for them continuing to put pressure on the Eastern front.
And that's that's my viewpoint on why we analyze the loss and the tie, Korea,
more than we have the wins. And I just wondered if your guest would have any
comment on that. Thank you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I I would say to you that, first of all, v I in
war World War II was a war of survival. And it was an an incredible success
story for this country. It was a and and it but it was also in it was
in in the line of our prior wars. In American experience, wars have always
been good experiences. They have been morally cohesive things, they've pulled
people together morally. And and th they have been experiences in which you
went off, you fought, you defended your cause or your country and you came
home and you were praised for it. Even the Confederates, who lost in the
Civil War, were honored in their own communities.
The problem with Vietnam was it was the it however you look at the war in
Vietnam, you say that it was a war fought in the wrong way, or let's say you
say that it was a war in which our cause was not just. It was a bad war. It
was a terribly painful experience, as divisive more divisive than any war
since the Civil War. And it's it's terribly difficult for Americans to come
to grips with it. There's an awful lot of anger out there. And I think what
you heard from that caller was a l that kind of anger. I mean, there's just
an awful lot of anger out there.
And it's very difficult for people, therefore, to to und to to come to
grips with o with with what with the reality of it. They tend to blame it
on others: blame it on Lyndon Johnson; blame it on restrictions on the
military; blame it on the news media. The president of CBS didn't order the
Marines into Vietnam in the first place, whoever he was at the time. He
didn't station the Marines at Khe Sanh. Television certainly had an impact in
driving home what was happening in Vietnam, but television didn't decide how
to fight the war. It was the generals who decided how to fight the war.
So you these these scapegoat myths don't stand up to historic examination.
The media didn't lose the war in Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson didn't lose the war
in Vietnam. It's a very complicated thing, but I think the reason it's
difficult for Americans to come to grips with it is because it's just so
painful. And I think we're only now beginning, after these years, to come to
grips with it. And what I wanted to do but the reason I was willing to stay
with this book, through the grimmest of my long years with it, was the hope
that I would help my country to come to grips with that war and to finally set
it to rest by facing the truth of what happened there.
LAMB: Los Angeles.
Caller #21: Yes, Mr. Sheehan, I, too, am a Vietnam veteran. By
the way, you left out one of the scapegoats and we're it. But I would like to
ask you a question regarding the role of the press. It seems to me that
America had never really dealt with war, a aside from the Civil War had
never really dealt with war on a daily basis, had never had to look at it, had
never had to do everything but smell it and recognize it for what it is.
Lately, however, it seems that what has come of that is that there's been a
tremendous restriction placed on the press in terms of its ability to not
compromise the action itself but to be able to report the action in an
accurate fashion. I would like your comments on how you feel America has
since placed restrictions on the press, or whether you feel they have, as
regard to their ability to report what war is. Thank you very much.
Mr. SHEEHAN: I I think that first of all, I'd like to make one comment
on on on the fact that you you you said I left out one scapegoat, the
veteran. I didn't leave out the the fact that the veterans have been
scapegoated, although I did mention it earlier in the program. I think it's
wrong that the fighting men were blamed for what happened in Vietnam. It's
not the fighting man's fault. The American fighting man fought with great
gallantry in Vietnam.
I recount an incident in the book, the the first battle between the North
Vietnamese army and and the the US Army, which I happened to cover, at a
place called the Ia Drang, and the the American fighting men there fought,
for example, with great gallantry. I I think that what you're thinking of
when you talk about restrictions on the media, perhaps, is the unwillingness
to allow reporters into Grenada. That was the most recent example of it.
That, I think, came out of Vietnam and out of the anger that that set in as a
result of of Vietnam and the bad relationship that has developed between the
news media and some in the military as a result of it. It's it's twofold.
You people forget that in Vietnam reporters did have military censorship. We
did w you could not write about future operations. At one point in '65 and
'66, when I was there, you couldn't give the exact number of
casualties American casualties. You could say they were light, they were
medium or they were heavy. There were a number of re the but they were
mil they were questions of military security.
The argument was over whether the press was saying we were winning or losing.
Now that's something you can't hide and preserve a credible news media. When
people talk about censoring the news media `If we'd only had censorship, we
could have won' they forget that if let's say the news media had gone to
Vietnam, the television and radio, and had only reported good news. When Tet
'68 occurred and the Viet Cong moved 15 battalions into Saigon, caught the
American command totally by surprise, moved into the compound the American
Embassy compound let's say the American news media said, `All of this is
fine. Don't worry about it. Everything is grand.' I think people would have
ceased to believe what they were reading in their own newspapers, and they
would have ceased to believe what they were watching on television.
The news media of this country would have lost their credibility. We would
have ended up with Pravda and Izvestia and Soviet television and people would
have listened to s gotten their news from somewhere else because the wo the
truth would have come back somehow. You have to deal with the truth. And
it's only wait lately, one sees, in fact, in Soviet media that now the
Soviets are beginning to believe what they read in their own newspapers
because, as a result of glasnost, the Soviet media are finally printing the
truth and so they don't have to get it from Voice of America. But I think
this is a complicated thing and that people don't think of it in those terms.
LAMB: Hang on, Massachusetts. You're next.
Caller #22:Mr. Sheehan, I'm a Vietnam veteran and I was over
there between '69 and '70. When I was a MAT team leader, and they had
me the first guy I met was after going through was John Paul Vann, who had
me in his office and me and some other officers. He was really gung ho at
that time. And then about, oh, when I was in the Delta, about four and a
half, five months later, they had me in a they brought me in from the field
to at this cocktail party for Colby Andrien at the time. And, you know, he
was talking to me and stuff and he was heavily drinking, whatever. And he
seemed like a really depressed guy at the time. I haven't read your book, but
when did he change his views on it?
Mr. SHEEHAN: John began to change his views on the war after Tet '68. And
he began to rationalize things at that point. I'm surprised that you would
find him drinking because he rarely drank much at all. The the he was not a
man given to alcohol. The he he drank almost hardly at all. The the what
happened was after Tet '68 he couldn't let go of the war and because it
satisfied him so much. And he began to rationalize what was happening there.
Prior to that he had a very firm grip on the fact that the war of attrition
the American generals were fighting wasn't going to work. That it would just
help to undercut political support for the war at home. The fact that you had
to have a decent Saigon government, not the corrupt regime we had, in order to
prevail in Vietnam.
But after Tet '68, he began to rationalize and say, `Well, the Viet Cong are
gone. We've only got the North Vietnamese Army to deal with. Somehow we
can we can we can we can crush what's left of the Viet Cong and we can
prevail against the North Vietnamese.' And he began to say, `Well, it doesn't
matter that the second regime is corrupt anymore. It doesn't matter as much.
It doesn't matter that their incompetence we can somehow overcome all of
that.' He he started to rationalize the whole situation there. And he came
up with a number of the ideas, in fact, that were were put into Nixon's
Vietnamization strategy, which was another delusion that you could transfer
the burden of the war to the South Vietnamese and progressively withdraw the
American forces in order to grain gain political tolerance for the war at
home. And what happened, finally, of course, was that when the American
forces were withdrawn, the North Vietnamese attacked in 1972 and the whole
situation started to come apart.
The South Vietnamese panicked. By that time Vann was a general commanding the
II Corps up in the Highlands; he was our first civilian general in history.
He'd left the Delta and gone to the mountains of the Central Highlands and the
central coast. And he stopped the North Vietnamese offensive there in a
battle that I'm which I recount in the book at a t town called Kontum. He
stopped the panic. He took it over himself. But he didn't see that in having
to take it over himself, the Saigon system didn't regime didn't have any will
to survive of its own. And so he won the battle and then he was killed a week
later. He died in a helicopter crash thinking, when he died, that he'd won
his war, but, of course, he hadn't.
LAMB: Baltimore, Maryland, go ahead, please.
Caller #23: Mr. Sheehan, there is such an awful unrest in the
world. Do you feel it tonight from the callers? And I was just wondering,
Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher seem to be making so many changes, but the
changes seem to be orchestrated by a larger group. And I can remember after
World War II I was reading a book, and I think it said that a group of very
wealthy and influential men were forming then and they were going to make this
one world. Do you believe this is happening when so much is happening in the
world and no one seems to be able to understand?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I'm not given to conspiracy theories of history, ma'am. I I
happen to think that history is made by individual countries and by individual
leaders of those countries with, obviously, major trends and forces involved,
but but trends and forces that are affected by individuals. You mentioned
Mrs. Thatcher. She has changed in major ways Britain. Some people say for
the better, some people say for the worst. But this is the affect of an
individual. I'm not given to these con conspiracy theories of history. No,
I don't think that everything's been been been planned in some big room by a
bunch of wealthy men.
LAMB: Boise, Idaho, you're next.
Caller #24: Yes. Mr. Sheenan, the question that I have is more
or less really a comment, I guess because it it seems to me that in your
book which is a fine piece of work by the way, and I was glad to see it is
that for the people of America this war is over. In your book, a lot of the
programs that I've seen, this war is over for the veterans. And the thing
that that I have to deal with every day and that I know more of you know,
they're all over the place is that this war is not over. The the only
problem is that the enemy has changed. It used to be the Viet Cong in the
Delta. For the veterans the the enemy now is the American political system
as far as the anger and frustration that's been caused in, like, disabled vets
who can't receive aid or treatments that are they're termed anti social when,
in reality, it's nothing more than anger and frustration for being really
messed over and denied benefits when they get back.
My primary concern with this is like, I'm from a family where my father was
in Vietnam. Then later I served. My father is now dying of Agent Orange
cancer and the Veterans Administration says, `Oh, no, there's no such thing.'
So he can't receive aid. My father's, well, about 60 now. I was in an
airplane accident; my back was tore out. And the Veterans Administration and
all this stuff they denied the benefits. It creates more anger, more
frustration, not just for the veterans but for the families, for everybody
around the families. It it really makes me me angry when I when I hear all
these people going over to Vietnam an and it's the attitude that the war is
over and it's not. And...
LAMB: OK, sir. Thank you. Neil.
Mr. SHEEHAN: I didn't say the war was over. I I said that the war was still
very much with us in that the pain and is with us and we're only now
beginning, I think, to come to grips with it. I can't comment on the
individual cases that you you specified, your own and your father's, because
I don't know the facts of them. I do think it is was was terrible that the
Vietnam veteran was made a scapegoat for what happened in Vietnam. But
what in in fact, the the American fighting man in Vietnam was a victim of
his own military and political leadership senior military and senior
political leadership. A superb Army went to Vietnam and it was destroyed
there by its own senior leadership. It was the best Army we have ever fielded
from the training camps of this country to the battlegrounds of Vietnam.
I mean, I saw those men go into to battle. I was extremely proud to be there
as a reporter to see them. I I recount in in in the book a an example of
the first battle with the North Vietnamese a at a place called the Ia Drang
in the mountains of South Vietnam. One company s came in, the first day,
100 men strong. The next morning they got hit by a Viet by a North
Vietnamese battalion on their side of the perimeter and only 40 men walked
away unharmed. But no North Vietnamese got through that line. Those men were
absolutely superb. And I think it's terrible that that they have be been
made scapegoats for what happened there. I I think that that the American
veteran from Vietnam ought to be treated with with extreme consideration
and and ought to be helped in any way that this country can help him.
LAMB: For Neil Sheehan, we go to Dayton, Ohio.
Caller #25: Yes. Just a comment on a comment you made. You
said the generals fought the war. The generals didn't fight the war. The
American people in Congress fought the war. Goldwater, if you remember, said
to us, `Get in there and get it over with or get out,' 11 years before the war
was over. The people called him a warmonger. Congress cut off the money
without giving us any way to get out of there with any respect whatsoever
because of the the way the pol politics was running at the time. I'd just
like for you to comment on that.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think that Barry Goldwater's solutions to Vietnam were
simplistic and I don't think they would have worked. He recently said, for
example, that he would have he would have won the war in Vietnam by by
bombing North Vietnam into a swamp in 1965. That would have broken their will
and stopped the Communists from taking over South Vietnam.
There are two things involved here. First of all, if you bombed the North
Vietname North Vietnam into a swamp, you would be attacking the population of
North Vietnam. You would be killing millions of women and children. Now that
choice was available to President Johnson and he chose not to take it. I'm
not sure the American public and the flyers themselves talking about the
pilots, the airmen would have wanted to do that. Do do we want to kill
millions of women and children?
Secondly, it would not have won the war in Vietnam in 1965 because the Viet
Cong guerillas were winning in South Vietnam. And if we had bombed North
Vietnam into a swamp, it wouldn't have stopped the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
They would have gone on to victory. The only thing that temporarily stopped
them was sending in the US Army and the Marine Corps into South Vietnam
So these solutions so called solutions, which were which which were
propounded i in in retrospect and at the time, the simplistic ones, really
just don't stand up to historic examination. If you read the book, I think
you'll see that.
LAMB: Birmingham, Alabama, for Neil Sheehan.
Caller #26: Yes. I wanted to ask a couple of questions about
the Tet Offensive. It seemed that when you were talking earlier that that was
a loss for the US of course, I guess emotionally or psychologically it
probably was, but it was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese. I've
never seen any records where they gained any significant ground hold or
permanent advantage from that.
And the second thing was it always seems like Vietnam is the one loss and
everyone talks how we lost the war, whereas the facts, militarily, we did not
lose the war. We essentially, effectively pulled out in '73, and Saigon and
the rest of Vietnam really didn't fall till '75 after a gradual deterioration
of cutting off aid to them and supplies. I wanted to get your comments on
Mr. SHEEHAN: First of all, we didn't cut off aid and supplies. The South
Vietnamese had plenty of fighting equipment. The problem in 1975 was that
they wouldn't fight; they ran. They fought one last stand at a place called
Xuan Loc north of Saigon. But prior to that they ran because the whole system
collapsed the panic broke out. That same panic broke out in 1972, as I
recount in the book, and had John Vann not been there, the country would have
split in two in 1972. Vann took over in the in the Highlands. He was a man
of great force and great character, who by that time had become part of the
South Vietnamese system as much as he was in the American system. He was kind
of an American Lawrence of Arabia. He took over and won a major battle at the
town called Kontum and stemmed the panic. But that panic broke out in '72 in
'75, three years later, and undid South Vietnam. It wasn't the fact that the
United States cut off aid.
Secondly, if if you take a look at at that earlier period of time, you will
see again that it's it's not a question of us of of of these simple
solutions. There just weren't simple solutions in Vietnam.
LAMB: Los Angeles, California, go ahead, please.
Caller #27: Yes. Mr. Sheehan, I just finished reading your
book. I'm a Vietnam vet. I was with the 25th Division at Ku Chi in 1966.
And one thing I wanted to say is the reaction I had as I was reading the book
was one of rising anger as I read what you were the case you were building
against Westmoreland and the way he he used American soldiers and just
threw threw us away. And and this may not even be a question to direct to
you. I guess what I don't understand is how, 20 years after the war or a
little less than that even Vietnam veterans still invite Westmoreland to be
grand marshall of their parades and treat the man as a hero. And I wonder if
you could just comment a little bit about what the attrition theory was if we
keep losing Americans, you know, we we might stop them.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, the attrition theory was that and that the Army generals
ha ha had evolved was that you could kill off the Vietnamese Communists
faster than they could replace themselves. And you would bleed them to death,
as Westmoreland said, and and break their will. Well, the theory didn't make
any sense because, first of all, their military manpower pool was huge.
And and once you've committed American soldiers to battle on the ground
against them, what would happen was that you would run up very large American
Early on in the war John Vann saw that this wouldn't succeed. All it would do
would be to run up American casualties at home and undercut the American
political will to fight the war. A Marine general named Victor Krulak, a
brilliant Marine general, in 1965 when we were going to war there, the big
American war was starting also took a look at this whole attrition theory.
He worked out the mathematics of it and said, `This isn't going to this isn't
going to work. We're just going to undercut ourselves. We're going to we're
going to get Americans killed off. You can't' he he calculated it would
take 175,000 deaths on the South Vietnamese and American side to reduce the
military manpower pool on the Vietnamese Communist side by 20 percent. The
whole thing was ridiculous when he worked out the figures. But you couldn't
get the Army generals to listen. And McNamara and Johnson, at that point, had
faith in the Army generals. Well, what Krulak wanted to do was the same thing
Vann wanted to do. He wanted to follow a pacification strategy and reform the
See, the the the Vietnamese have had a history of defeating powerful
invaders. Every time a new dynasty came to power in China, it would
inevitably invade Vietnam. And the way the Vietnamese, and including the
Monguls, who the Vietnamese def who invaded three times and whom the
Vietnamese defeated in in two of the invasions were major ones and the
Vietnamese defeated them. They they defeated them by wearing them down. And
what the the Vietnamese Communists did to us was they would create these man
traps of bunkers, complexes out in the rain forest. And our generals,
following this attrition theory, would send our infantry out there again and
again to take these ridges in the middle of nowhere on the theory that we were
going to wear down the enemy and all we did was wear down ourselves because,
of course, when you get out of a helicopter in a rain forest, you're on the
same basis as that fellow who's also a well armed infantryman and and and a
lot of them and the Vietnamese were living out there for months at a time.
The American soldier who landed in the middle of nowhere, he'd he hadn't been
there before. He didn't he didn't know anything about what he was facing.
And and our people didn't win all the battles in Vietnam as that's another
myth. We won all the battles but we still lost the war. We didn't win all
the battles. And even if we had, it would have been irrelevant.
LAMB: Five minutes for Neil Sheehan. We go to Columbia, South Carolina.
Caller #28: Yes, sir, Mr. Sheehan. I'd like, first, to
compliment you on your book. I found it just an excellent piece of work. And
have you read a book by Andrew Krepinevich? It's called "The Army & Vietnam."
He has much the same ideas as you do, that that the Army leadership
of essentially got everything they wanted and didn't learn anything from the
war. Do you see any change in the especially in the Army any change in
their ideas or views about how to win wars after the war now?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I think that if you take a look at the military leadership
in general, post Vietnam, you see people who are being a lot more cautious.
You have well, let's take an example in the Army. The first of the Vietnam
generation to become chief of staff was a general named Edward Myer. Shy Myer
is his nickname. He I met him when he was a lieutenant colonel, first as
executive officer and then a battalion commander in Vietnam. He served two
General Myer, as as he said, inherited a hollow Army because Vietnam
just the the American Army was destroyed by the war in Vietnam, and and he
had to start rebuilding it. He was a man who, in his in his views, as far as
intervening abroad, was one of those who has said, unlike the generation of
the '60s the military leaders of the '60s were always telling the president,
`Look, just used armed force. Turn loose the Army, turn loose the Air Force,
turn loose the Marine Corps and force will solve your problems.' Myer and a
number of the other military leaders of his generation were saying, `You
better be careful. Look before you leap. Don't don't intervene unless you
know what you're doing. The the lesson isn't not to intervene at all, but
you better know what you're doing before you intervene because a lot of
consequences are going to follow once you do intervene.
Now whether the institutions will really learn, in a sense that they will
truly see all the bureaucratic problems they have, which which created which
were behind a lot of the Army behavior in Vietnam the s six months only in
command the so called ticket punching. You had to have a battalion in order
to to to get promoted to to full colonel. You had to have a brigade in
order to get promoted to general and so you had officers rotating in and out
of these command slots six months at a time learning nothing, all all those
other bureaucratic patterns. Whether the Army is going to come to grips with
those things and really learn from them, I don't know. I think only time will
tell. And the Army is an institution, and this is truly the Air Force as
well will have to learn from itself.
LAMB: Last call for Neil Sheehan. Chicago Heights, Illinois.
Caller #29: Yes, Mr. Sheehan, I never read your book, but I
read a book in 1981 by a four star general in the Marine Corps who was in
Vietnam and he was in Korea also. And you know very well, and I wish you'd
tell the public, the reason we didn't win Korea and Vietnam. And you news
media and you people write your books you kind of leave it out. The reason
is is because of our detente, assault one, assault two, the American people
aren't really aware of that we have rules; the enemy don't have any. We have
a DMZ line. We can't take real estate. How are you going to win a war if you
can't take real estate? You know that. And not only that, the general wrote
a book and there's a very you probably read the book, I bet. Have you or
Mr. SHEEHAN: Which general are you talking about, sir, and which book?
Caller #29: Lewis Walt. He wrote the book "Eleventh Hour."
Mr. SHEEHAN: "Eleventh Hour"?
LAMB: Lou Walt.
Mr. SHEEHAN: I know General Walt and I've read one of his books. It's
not it wasn't called "Eleventh Hour," though. I read an earlier book of his
on on Vietnam. I think your your view of Korea is I I did know General
Walt quite well in Vietnam and and and talked to him talked to him a number
of times was with him quite a bit there. But to go on, I think your view of
Korea is somewhat oversimplified. We had a problem in Korea because MacArthur
went into the mountains of North Korea with an Army that was fu he and was
fully unprepared to take on about three hundred th hundreds of Chi thousands
of Chinese who were waiting for us there.
I recount this in my book because John Vann was involved in in in Korea.
And we were defeated in the mountains of North Korea in the winter of 1950 and
had to retreat 125 miles down that peninsula, the longest retreat in American
military history. And in Vietnam, again, you have a very complicated
situation with the generals fighting the war in the worst way possible the
Army generals against the advice of the Marine generals, including,
initially, General Walt. And so you you you have, really, a a a pretty
complicated business. I'm afraid you're looking at it in a much too
LAMB: Time's up. Neil Sheehan, the author of this book, "A Bright Shining
Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." Published by Random House.
Neil Sheehan, thank you very much for coming and joining us...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Thank you.
LAMB: ...for an hour and a half of calls. And to our audience, thank you for
your comments and questions. Have a good evening.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2001. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.