Commemorating Saigon, 11 December 1961: a date on the dark side of history

US helicopters and their crews arrived in Saigon on December 11 1961, ostensibly to take South Vietnamese troops deep into the jungle to wage what US advisors deemed to be a new kind of war: guerrilla warfare. Many see this event as the start of the Vietnam War.
Dan Clayton
11 December 2011

Four days ago President Barack Obama marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with some well worked homilies: of drawing, “strength from the example set by these [American] patriots and to honour all who have sacrificed for our freedoms” - the survivors of that calamity “remind[ing] us that no challenge is too great when Americans stand as one."[i] Today we reflect on a date less amenable to being commemorated from a position of national strength and self-assurance: 11 December 1961, the date when USNS Core reached Saigon Port, on President John F. Kennedy’s orders, with 32 CH-21C Shawnee helicopters from the 8th and 57th Transportation Companies and an air and ground crew of 400 to operate them, starting – for some – the Vietnam War.[ii] 

The helicopters were used to train Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units in airmobile operations, and the 8th and 57th Companies began operations on 2 January 1962, transporting 1000 AVRN paratroopers from Tan Son Nhut Air Base to jungle drop zones around Saigon.  Encounters with communist-directed insurgents (dubbed the ‘Viet Cong’ by the Americans) were negligible on that day. But AVRN chiefs were impressed by the morale boost the helicopters gave its beleaguered troops, who were struggling to secure supply lines to their outposts; and their requests for greater air support led to arrival of the first Marines Corps squadron of HUS-1 Seahorse and HU-1A Huey helicopters in April 1962, where they were soon dispensing the defoliating chemical Agent Orange as well as missiles and troops across the Mekong Delta and beyond.[iii] In November 1961 the Joint Chiefs of Staff called for more combat forces, but Kennedy held back.  It was another four years before a sizeable US ground force started to arrive in Vietnam.  However, today might be counted as the 50th anniversary of the onset of US combat operations in Vietnam.

In 2009, when, as Frank Rich observed, analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan were “the rage,” contrasts were drawn between how Kennedy acted on the advice that took him to 11 December 1961 and how Obama responded to the advice he received over Afghanistan. The basic difference, for some, lay in Kennedy’s greater ability to take advice but then make up his own mind.[iv]  But this does not exhaust how we might appraise this today.  The Vietnam War has stirred many a cautionary, incendiary and inconclusive tale, and we should be mindful of Andrew Bacevich’s comment that “Seldom has a war been so fervently memorialized even as it was being so thoroughly drained of meaning.”[v]

I am not a Vietnam War expert and want to leave in abeyance questions of whether or not the war should be seen as a tragic mistake, of whether or not it was ‘winnable’, and about the ‘lessons’ the US did or did not learn from it.  Rather, I have been interested in my own work in how environment and landscape, distance and speed, and different spaces of vision, calculation and combat are implicated in war and militarism, and particularly in the impact that jungle warfare in tropical settings like Vietnam had on western military doctrine and the experience of war.[vi]  It is in this geographic vein that 11 December 1961 conjures up two sets of connections for me.

The eclipse of America’s moral authority

First, while it was on this date too that Adolf Eichmann, the logistical mastermind behind the Nazi concentration camps, was found guilty of war crimes, and the same date twenty years before that Germany declared war on the US, I am struck by the distance between ‘our’ day and these ‘other’ markers of war.  If the fallout of World War II helped to install America as the global arbiter of what counted as right, normal and true (and what did not), the Vietnam War was, for many, central to the eclipse of America’s moral authority. The White House meetings and Foreign Embassy communiqués that led to Kennedy’s 1961 decision mark the first lengthy – and from that point on always vexed – engagement with the problem of what Franklin Lindsay, a year later, termed “unconventional warfare.[vii] On 12 December 1961 the US Department of State sought to assure NATO that the US did not want to be cast, “in the role of VietNam’s former French masters” and had no plans to send combat troops to the region; it would play “a predominantly advisory and supporting role.”

However, what we should alight on now is the parenthetical observation in this communiqué to the effect that the US needed to play this role because Vietnam was not, “a combat theatre in the conventional sense of the term.” [viii] Just three months later, Roger Hilsman, the Director of the Intelligence at the Department of State, advocated, “adopting the tactics of the guerrilla himself.  Conventional tactics are ineffective…  There are no Siegfried lines in the jungle.”[ix] But the advice was not heeded. 

Fact-finding missions…

Upon taking office in March 1961 Kennedy sent a series of fact-finding missions to Vietnam.  The most significant of them was headed by General Maxwell D. Taylor, the President’s senior military advisor, and he recommended adding new combat and intelligence functions to what he called the “normal model” – one harking back to World War II.  Taylor also wrote of a “Berlin model” and “Korean model”, but there was no Vietnam model. [x] There never was.  General William Westmorland (the senior US commander from 1964 to 1968) later acknowledged that the US military was doctrinally ill-equipped to wage a counter-insurgency war in the Vietnamese tropics.  Indeed, as Robert Thompson, a veteran of Britain’s ‘successful’ jungle war in Malaya and advisor to Kennedy later remarked, when it came to fighting a war that had no clear front, and against a scattered enemy that used hit-and-run tactics, turned open terrain into a death trap for Americans, and could seemingly restore its fighting capacity overnight, few US Army commanders were, “able to see the woods for the defoliated trees.”[xi] 

In short, the Vietnam War fractured the idea that the normal – regular or conventional – way of waging war was in a temperate environment, ideally on an isotropic plane, and through the heavy deployment of military material.  This had lasting and troubling consequences for the US military.  The technological fantasy of being able to blast through the environmental thickets of communist insurgency and engineer a clearer – more ‘regular’ – battle space floundered.  Helicopter blades gyrated with a dream of airmobility that could quickly turn into a nightmare: of being everywhere yet always astray in the landscape and book-keeping of war.  North Vietnam’s celebrated military leader, General Vo Nguyen Giap, proclaimed that the Americans were neither strategically nor psychologically geared to fighting on the “tropical battlefield” of Vietnam.[xii] Or as the iconic revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara observed, the US had literally got “bogged down in Vietnam and was unable to find a way out.”[xiii]

…and helicopter scenes

Second, the helicopter should be as much the centrepiece of our commemoration as a political decision, and it is with the iconography of Vietnam as a helicopter war that I will end, via two other ‘anniversaries’.  In 1941 the great Annales historian Lucien Febvre published one of my favourite essays, on emotion in history; and in 1971 the equally brilliant Hannah Arendt titled her review of the Pentagon Papers - the government papers leaked to the New York Times exposing the ways and extent to which politicians had deceived the American public over Vietnam - “Lying in politics.”[xiv]  

One of the lessons learned from Vietnam – and which we now perhaps regard as part of our understanding of warfare and how to question it - is that the truth and emotion of battle is bound up with the still and moving images we have of it.  The ‘credibility gap’ between political rhetoric and the reality of the Vietnam conflict that Arendt pinpointed and deemed symptomatic of the erosion of democracy as a conflicting pluralism was fuelled, not least, by journalistic coverage of US troops fretfully patrolling dense jungle, paddy fields and swamps, and of helicopters deploying troops in remote spots and firebombing and napalming Vietnamese civilians.  The American media undermined the notion that an omniscient American war machine was bearing down on a transparent or compliant combat theatre in pursuit of a just war.  The helicopter was pivotal to all this – to what Karen Rasmussen and Sharon Downey have called “dialectical disorientation” and “subversion of the mythology of war.”[xv] 

The numerous helicopter scenes in the best known Vietnam War films - The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket – promise yet never quite afford a bird’s eye view and virtuous account of the war.  These films trade on this angst, as does much war photography.  The angst betrayed by such scenes beseeches the viewer to see the war not simply as destructive or senseless, but also, as Febvre saw things (from Paris under German occupation), as benighted - transporting us to the “dark side” of “emotional life,” to places and periods in history when fear, hatred, wanton violence and destruction, and blind devotion overshadow “civilised life” (where emotion is channelled and ritualised in less harmful and devastating ways). 

Febvre argued that those who wage and witness war are drawn, both wittingly and unwittingly, into this gloom – that war cannot be on the side of the civilised life - and as Rasmussen and Downey suggest, the “principles governing behavior in war—militarism and moralism - become inoperative” (or at least murky) as a result.  Febvre and Arendt were the first to admit that mighty mythologies surround the idea of ‘civilised life.’  But are we any farther from Febvre’s “dark side” of history today than he was in 1941 or Saigon was on 11 December 1961?


[i] “Pearl Harbor’s 70th anniversary remembered in US,” BBC World News, 7 December 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16073654.

[ii] Other start dates touted include: November 1955 (the creation of the American advisory mission to Vietnam); March 1959 (North Vietnam’s declaration of “people’s war” against the south); August 1964 (the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowing the US to use armed force in Vietnam); and March 1965 (when the war started to be “Americanised,” and with over 500,000 American troops eventually in the region).

[iii] The details are from Simon Dunstan, Vietnam choppers: Helicopters in battle 1950-1975 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2003), pp. 18-19; and Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The helicopter war (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), pp. 11-19.

[iv] Frank Rich, “Obama at the precipice,” The New York Times, 26 September 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/opinion/27rich.html.

[v] See Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington rules: America’s path to permanent war (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010), p. 128.

[vi] See – soon - Gavin Bowd and Daniel Clayton, Impure and worldly geography: Pierre Gourou and tropicality (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing), chapters 6 and 7.

[vii] Franklin Lindsay, “Unconventional warfare,” Foreign Affairs (1962) 40:2, pp. 264-274.

[viii] Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1961-1963 Volume I, Vietnam 1961, Doc. 317: Telegram from the Department of State to the Delegation to the NATO Ministerial Meeting, Paris, 12 December 1961.  http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d317

[ix] FRUS, 1961-1963 Volume II, Vietnam, 1962, Doc. 42: Paper Prepared by the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hilsmann), 2 February 1962, http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v02/d42.

[x] FRUS, 1961-1963 Volume I, Vietnam, 1961, Doc. 284: Memorandum From the President's Military Representative (Taylor) to the President, 27 November 1961, http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d284. Another important advisory document, produced by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is reproduced in Neil Sheehan et al eds., The Pentagon papers as published by the New York Times (New York: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 150-153.

[xi] Robert Thompson, No exit from Vietnam (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969), p.9.

[xii] Vo Nguyen Giap, The military art of people’s war: Selected writings (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), p.70. Also see Andrew Krepinevich, The army in Vietnam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 75-80, 258-275.

[xiii] Che Guevara, “Message to the Tricontinental” 1967, in his Guerrilla warfare (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), p.205.

[xiv] Hannah Arendt, “Lying in politics: Reflections on the Pentagon PapersNew York Review of Books, 18 November 1971, pp. 30-39; Lucien Febvre, “La sensibilité et l’histoire: Comment reconstituer la vie affective d’autrefois?” Annales l’histoire sociale (1941) 3, pp.5-20 (my translations below).

[xv] Karen Rasmussen and Karen D. Downey, “Dialectical disorientation in Vietnam War films: Subversion of the mythology of war,” Quarterly Journal of Speech (1991) 77:2, pp. 176-195.


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