Vietnam, at its core, was a political conflict.
After the French colonized Vietnam and ruled there since the late 1800s, they were overthrown, first by the Japanese during World War II, and then later by a communist Army that rose up to fight the Japanese.
The Geneva Conference in 1954 divided the country into north and south. In the years after, communist support in the south grew, eventually becoming the Viet Cong, the fierce guerrillas known for terrorist tactics. The Cold War already had begun, and America’s effort to quell the communists in Vietnam was heating up.
The purpose, as retired Gen. Robert Shoemaker put it, was to create a country with civil and military institutions to counter what China was doing with the North Vietnamese and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
“The operations in South Vietnam, I believe then and I believe now, were designed to counter that,” said Shoemaker, who served two of his three Vietnam tours with the 1st Cavalry Division. “I’m not sure that we, as a division, went around thinking about that.”
Shoemaker commanded two squadrons with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and later, as brigadier general, led the First Team and other units into nearby Cambodia to shatter North Vietnamese supply strongholds.
“We almost always were on a special mission,” Shoemaker, 91, said last month. “The challenge was to understand the mission, get the troops to understand and do the tough work that infantry troops have to do. To me, as a professional soldier ... it was just my line of work.”
By 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson began increasing the U.S. presence in Vietnam to counter the communist movement, which was growing more violent.
As American troops prepared to face vicious combat, the political side of the war had been boiling over for years.
In 1965, Johnson “began sending U.S. ground troops to stave off the defeat of the South Vietnamese Army,” according to a history of the U.S. Army’s role in Vietnam by the Center for Military History. “At first, Army combat units played a defensive role, protecting Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and other important cities and bases. The president authorized the Army to send 20,000 support troops to establish a supply network that had to be built from the ground up.”
The build-up continued and by 1965, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, sent the 1st Cavalry Division — the Army’s first airmobile unit — to the rugged Central Highlands, where it defeated North Vietnamese regulars in the monthlong Battle of the Ia Drang, according to the Center for Military History. By 1966, Westmoreland had 240,000 soldiers in Vietnam.
As the war waged on, American support for the war waned, eventually giving way to protests and increasingly less support from political leaders in the U.S.
“In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon introduced a program called Vietnamization, in which the South Vietnamese Army assumed an ever-larger combat role, as (U.S. forces) began a phased withdrawal of over half a million U.S. soldiers and Marines. Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, continued search and destroy operations, gradually reducing their frequency as the drawdown progressed,” according to the Center for Military History.
Back home, protests popped up all over the United States, including Killeen. In May 1970, Jane Fonda came to Killeen and spoke at the Oleo Strut, a coffee house. She “deliberately defied the Army by stepping onto the Fort Hood reservation at the East Gate, handing literature to two soldiers,” according to “Historic Killeen: An Illustrated History.”
Fonda was detained for a short time, then barred from entering the post again.
An anti-war march was organized in downtown Killeen at the time. About 200 protestors were met with about 150 supporters wearing “western-style clothing and cowboy hats, many of them carrying American flags, ... chanting ‘All the Way, U.S.A.’,” according to “Historic Killeen.”
Fonda did return to Killeen the next year, this time with fellow actor and anti-war activist Donald Sutherland. The Killeen community vehemently denied any public venue to be used for the protest, which was held in a packed Oleo Strut.
Eventually, the war effort and the protests died down. The number of American troops in Vietnam decreased every year, and in 1975 Saigon fell to the communists, marking an end to the war.
For many American soldiers, the politics of the war was a distant cousin to what they were seeing and feeling everyday on the battlefield or jungle camps.
For commanders like Shoemaker, however, he was able to see a bigger part of the war than most.
“As I back up now and look at it, and think of the things that we were told to do,” Shoemaker said, he’s been able to reflect on where the U.S. forces fit in with creating a South Vietnam that was “friendly to us and capable of securing themselves.”
Added Shoemaker: “Everyone knew the hearts and minds of the civilian population were key to this.”
In the end, Vietnam was a lot about trying to isolate the civilian population from the Viet Cong, which in the early days, was causing an ever-increasing amount of unrest, Shoemaker said.
He called the Viet Cong a “terror outfit.”
Forty years after the fall of Saigon, President Barack Obama is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China.
In a meeting freighted with symbolism, Obama on Tuesday welcomed Vietnam’s Communist Party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, to the White House two decades after the onetime enemy nations formally normalized relations.
“Trong is a hard-liner who does not want to give away anything on the human rights side,” said Marvin Ott, an Asia scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “But if he can have a good visit and he and Obama have some chemistry ... that will be a signal that the last real resistance inside the Vietnamese leadership has gone away.”
Obama has touted Vietnam and Malaysia, where last year he became the first U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson to visit, as among the Southeast Asian nations that have been responsive to U.S. engagement in a fast-growing region.
Beyond the strategic politics, there remains “a kind of residual American public curiosity about Vietnam,” Ott said. “We invested so much there; it cost us so much. But since then you’ve had a remarkable tableau of people-to-people contacts with tourists and Marines going there, and it brings something real to the impetus for normalization. In a peculiar way, there’s a real bonding going on.”
The Washington Post contributed to this report.