May 4, 1970: The Kent State shootings take place.
The shooting of unarmed students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, was one of the most notorious domestic events of the Vietnam War Era. It took place in the midst of a protest which itself was a reaction against government policy; antiwar sentiment was widespread throughout the nation, particularly among young people, so when President Nixon announced in late April that the U.S. military was to conduct military operations in Cambodia in pursuit of the PAVN and Viet Cong forces (which seemed to contradict his policy of Vietnamization and détente), student-organized protests on university campuses across the country erupted. These student strikes eventually involved at least 400 campuses, although the National Guard was deployed to only twenty-one of them, one of which was Kent State University in Ohio.
The Kent State demonstration began on May 1; the National Guard was called to the campus on May 2 by Governor James Rhodes, who denounced the student protesters and claimed that they were ”the worst type of people that we harbor in America”, comparing them to Nazi brownshirts and the Ku Klux Klan. Many in Kent and across the nation agreed with the governor’s condemnation of student protests, but just as many disagreed, to varying degrees. When the shooting and killing of Kent State students made national headlines, the issue remained just as divisive, with many believing that the students had brought the violence upon themselves. On May 4, the tensions between the guardsmen and students heightened. Tear gas was used in the guardsmens’ attempts to disperse the crowd, and at some point in the confusion, for some still unknown reason, a little under half of the 77 guardsmen present began to fire into the crowd of students. The guardsmen later claimed that they had been shot by a sniper and were firing in self-defense; this claim was denied vehemently by the students, who admitted to throwing rocks, and also by the New York Times reporter who had been on the scene. The reporter also wrote:
As the guardsmen, moving up the hill in single file, reached the crest, they suddenly turned, forming a skirmish line and opening fire.
The crackle of the rifle volley cut the suddenly still air. It appeared to go on, as a solid volley, for perhaps a full minute or a little longer.
Some of the students dived to the ground, crawling on the grass in terror. Others stood shocked or half crouched, apparently believing the troops were firing into the air. Some of the rifle barrels were pointed upward.
Near the top of the hill at the corner of Taylor Hall, a student crumpled over, spun sideways and fell to the ground, shot in the head.
When the firing stopped, a slim girl, wearing a cowboy shirt and faded jeans, was lying face down on the road at the edge of the parking lot, blood pouring out onto the macadam, about 10 feet from this reporter.
Four students were killed, and nine were wounded (one was permanently paralyzed from chest down). Of the four killed by rifle fire, two had not been participants in the protest. According to eyewitness accounts, the students were shocked at the fact that the guardsmen had fired upon them and even more shocked that they had fired live ammunition instead of blanks. John Filo, the photographer who captured the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller (pictured above), also believed at first that the guardsmen were firing blanks. President Nixon expressed regret for the killings, although he suggested that the students’ disruptive activities had “[invited] tragedy”, and, according to a Gallup poll, the public agreed - according to the survey, only 11 percent placed blame on the National Guard, while 58 percent blamed the students. Eleven days later, two black students were killed at Jackson State University during an antiwar protest, though these events failed to capture national attention as the Kent State shootings did.
Today is the 45th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre.
Photo gallery (images may be graphic)
March 2, 1965: Operation Rolling Thunder begins.
“Rolling Thunder” was an aerial bombardment campaign conducted over North Vietnam by the U.S. and South Vietnamese Air Forces and U.S. Navy from March 1965 until its discontinuation in November of 1968. By that point, the operation had, according to American estimates, killed 182,000 North Vietnamese civilians. It was the successor to Operation Flaming Dart, a shorter joint operation carried out over the course of seventeen days in February, and it was an escalated effort by the American government with broader targets and broader goals - namely, the destruction of North Vietnam’s infrastructure and industry and the demoralization of the North Vietnamese government and people. The North Vietnamese were undeniably outmatched in terms of technology, but the Americans were met with their own problems, which limited the effectiveness of the entire operation. Historians debate whether Rolling Thunder crippled North Vietnam’s capacity to fight, or whether the United States’ lack of coordination (among many other shortcomings) made Rolling Thunder a failure.
Its failure, if it was indeed a failure, was not due to a lack of firepower; by 1968 around 900,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by American aircraft during Rolling Thunder alone, compared to 698,000 throughout the entire Korean War.
February 1, 1968: Nguyễn Văn Lém is executed.
Lém was a member of the Viet Cong whose execution on the streets of Saigon was captured in a photograph that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize, to many people, an ugly war that many Americans now wanted no part in. AP photojournalist Eddie Adams’ photograph was in some ways the antithesis of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Both were widely distributed, iconic photographs, and both had been taken during major military engagements (the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Iwo Jima) - one launched by the Viet Cong and the other by American military forces. One was captured during the country’s least popular, most detested war, and the other during a war out of which the United States emerged victorious and stronger than ever before. One invigorated a fierce antiwar movement, and the other strengthened morale and national pride.
The executioner in the photograph was South Vietnam’s chief of National Police, then Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, who was described by many who knew him as hot-tempered. The prisoner had reportedly been the commander of a death squad and had, prior to his execution, killed one of the general’s colleagues and his family, including his wife and their six children. After shooting him, the general said (according to another Pulitzer Prize winner) “They killed many Americans and many of my people” to the journalists gathered around the scene. Eddie Adams, who later apologized to the general, lamented his role in destroying the man’s reputation:
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”
Others disagreed with Adams’ sentiment, however; many maintained that, regardless of the exact context of his specific photograph, it effectively and succinctly captured the horror and brutality of the Vietnam War. Adams also stated that he “would have rather won the Pulitzer” for his photographic series “Boat of No Smiles”, which documented in photographic form the struggles of Vietnamese refugees.
Other links: Eddie Adams speaking about his photograph
December 19, 1946: The First Indochina War begins.
The “dirty war” was fought between France, its colonies and allies (most significantly the United States), and the State of Vietnam versus the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was supported by the Soviet Union and China, and led byHồ Chí Minh. It began as a rebellion against French occupying forces, which sought to retake its pre-World War II Southeast Asian colonies, including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. What began as a small insurgency movement became full-blown war, which was stalemated and also highly unpopular in France, which was suffering from its own domestic problems.
Initially the United States sought to remain neutral because of its proclaimed opposition to imperialism, but as the Cold War congealed and fears of a communist takeover of the region grew, the U.S. found itself increasingly involved in the conflict. The communist People’s Republic of China, established partway through the war, could now provide more substantial aid through resources and weapons to rebel forces - although the United States provided more aid to France than China ever did to Vietnam. By the end of the war the United States was paying for 80% of the war’s costs. But whatever advantages in firepower and artillery the French possessed over their enemy, the Vietnamese made up for with an overwhelming superiority in manpower. At the end of the war, President Eisenhower introduced the idea of the domino theory in reference to communism in Indochina, the principle that would be used to justify the Second Indochina War (the Vietnam War):
…you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
The war came to an end after the climactic battle at Dien Bien Phu, which culminated in a decisive victory for the Viet Minh over French forces. Soon after, the Geneva Conference began. The agreements of the conference temporarily split Vietnam into northern and southern regions, divided along the 17th parallel, to be unified in the future based on free and democratic elections, which were never held.
November 12, 1969: An American journalist breaks the story of the My Lai Massacre.
When it took place in March of 1968, the My Lai massacre, which resulted in the death of at least 400 civilians, went unnoticed by the American public. On March 16, American soldiers entered the village of Son My (which contained the My Lai and My Khe hamlets) expecting to engage Viet Cong fighters directly there; in fact, the company’s commanding officer was quoted as telling his men: “They’re all V.C., now go and get them”. The inexperienced soldiers found no evidence of any enemy fighters in the village. Instead of moving on, they began rounding up (unarmed) civilians and shooting them, indiscriminately, brutally - quickly. By the end of the day, the soldiers had finished off (and in some cases tortured or raped) between 347 and 504 civilians. Only one American was injured.
The Americans who attempted to stop the atrocities - Hugh Thompson, Jr. and his helicopter crew - were denounced by some government officials as traitors; when the My Lai Massacre was revealed to the public, the three men received hate mail and death threats, although all three later received the Soldier’s Medal for their actions, which included saving several villagers.
Conversely, the conviction and sentence of 2nd Lt. William Calley, who reportedly personally took it upon himself to mow down civilians with a machine gun, was received with anger by the American public. Flags across the country were flown at half-mast in his honor, and more than one state legislature requested clemency on his behalf. Still, when Seymour Hersh broke the story of the massacre on November 12, 1968 in a report for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, American anti-war sentiment reached new heights, and outrage over the massacre and subsequent cover-up was not only domestic but international as well. In 1970, the United States Army charged over a dozen officers in connection with the massacre, but in the end, only William Calley was convicted - even Calley’s sentence was reduced from life in prison to three years under house arrest. Senior army officials reasoned that Calley had believed that he had simply been “following orders”…
Most photographs of the event were taken by Ronald Haeberle; some of them can be viewed here.