The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. is celebrating the wrong anniversary for the Vietnam War

Until we acknowledge the conflict’s real start, we can’t come to terms with the origins or our nation’s involvement.

American military personnel in South Vietnam in August 1963. (AP Photo)

We’ll soon experience a new outpouring of angst and controversy about the Vietnam War as the official, authorized 50th anniversary ceremonies begin in earnest. But I have an objection: Why has our government decided to set the anniversary for this year, with commemorative events due to break out in a big way as Memorial Day approaches?

Their answer, I suppose, is that 3,500 Marines arrived in Da Nang in March of 1965—50 years ago—but commemorating the anniversary this year ignores the record. By ’65, there were already thousands of so-called “advisers” in country. The Pentagon is expected to spend up to millions for anniversary-related events, even as protests have begun, claiming that the government’s Web site pays scant attention to the wartime protests of the 1960s. Now, as then, our collective failure to properly mark the real start of the Vietnam War reflects our failure to fully grapple with the origins or our nation’s involvement.

The buildup of American military personnel in Vietnam was in fits and starts. Under terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the French Indochina war, troop levels were limited to the number present at the time of the cease-fire. The United States reportedly had only a few hundred advisers until early 1961 when policymakers began to increase those numbers without the public’s knowledge and raised its commitment to propping up the government of Ngô Đình Diệm.

By late 1961 and 1962, a handful of journalists began writing about the corruption of the Vietnamese regime and of our government’s secrecy about what men and matériel we had there. In some cases, for their efforts, reporters were harassed, roughed up by Vietnamese police, denied visas or expelled from the country. These early days of what the American government refused to call a war—steadfastly declining to acknowledge what those who were there could see with their own eyes—is referred to by William Prochnau, who covered Vietnam in the 1960s, as “the time of the advisers.”

In Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett—Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles, Prochnau’s excellent account of the lives and struggles of several of those reporters, he begins with the arrival of Malcolm Browne on Nov. 11, 1961, to be the Associated Press’ first permanent correspondent in its Saigon bureau. Prochnau points out that on that same fateful day, back in Washington, members of the National Security Council met in an unusual Saturday session and decided to up the ante and secretly send in more advisers in something they dubbed “Project Beef-Up.” “It was the true beginning of the war, the day that Mal arrived,” Prochnau has said.

Whatever the government thought it was hiding, a month later an aircraft carrier glided through the city down the Saigon River in full view of anyone strolling along the banks, its deck loaded with helicopters. In his classic, Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow reported watching that carrier from a café window in the Majestic Hotel—and that the U.S. Army press officer sitting with him said he hadn’t seen it. The New York Times reported on Dec. 12, 1961, that although “South Vietnamese and United States official circles kept the entire operation under strict security wraps,” on Dec. 11:

…thousands of persons lined both banks of the narrow, muddy Saigon River to watch the former World War II auxiliary aircraft carrier tie up at a pier in front of the Majestic Hotel. The gray-painted ship, dozens of khaki-colored helicopters and hundreds of grinning, waving service men appeared as dramatic evidence of the United States’ intention to bolster its assistance to South Vietnam in the face of the increasing threat from the Communists.

The whole time, the government denied they were there, denied we were at war. “The growing U.S. military investment in Vietnam,” writes Karnow, “was kept secret, partly because it violated the Geneva agreement, and partly to deceive the American public.”

Skip ahead to today, and the Defense Department is rolling out its anniversary plans, despite accusations that short shrift has been given to the late-1960s’ public protests of that war and the war’s true chronology. Former California state legislator Tom Hayden, a well-known ‘60s-era activist, put it thusly: “All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth.”

For its part, next month the Newseum in Washington, D.C., will mark the milestone with “Reporting Vietnam,” what it calls a provocative exhibit of “how journalists brought news about the war to a divided nation.”

What’s amazing is that the war’s real starting point remains lost in the historical fog surrounding political tensions about whether the United States should have been there in the first place, whose fault it was that we eventually left Vietnam with our collective tail between our legs or disagreements about the stifling of dissent at home and the role of the press.

Despite the fact that by war’s end we lost over 58,000 Americans, hostilities in Vietnam were never even formally declared. Until the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, our government essentially pretended we weren’t there. But if we’re ever to come to terms as a nation with the horrors of that conflict, we first need to acknowledge when it really began.

Just as the government is late with its 50th-year commemoration—perpetuating, decades later, the notion that American involvement started only with the Da Nang landing—the public came late to questioning the war. But just because the public wasn’t aware of the war’s real start doesn’t mean that’s not how it actually happened.