Last month, I did a series of posts commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam on March 8, 1965. Today marks another significant date in the Vietnam War: the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. To mark that anniversary, here are forty quotes that tell the story of the Vietnam War.
“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”—The first lines of the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, issued on September 2, 1945, quoting the American Declaration of Independence.
“Our long-term objectives are… to see installed a self-governing nationalist state which will be friendly to the US… We have an immediate interest in maintaining in power a friendly French Government, to assist in the furtherance of our aims in Europe. This immediate and vital interest has in consequence taken precedence over active steps looking toward the realization of our objectives in Indochina.” —Department of State, “Policy Statement on Indochina,” issued on September 27, 1948, explaining why the United States supported French policy in Vietnam even though U.S. officials believed it ran counter to their long-term objectives for the region.
“You have a row of dominoes set up; you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.” —President Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking at a press conference on April 7, 1954.
“Well, Lyndon, they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” —House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) speaking to Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1961 after the newly inaugurated vice president extolled the brilliance of the members of President John F. Kennedy’s new cabinet.
“Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.” —President John Kennedy in a June 1961 interview with the New York Times reporter James Reston.
“If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I’ll gladly supply the gasoline and a match.” —Tran Le Xuan, better known as Madame Nhu or “the Dragon Lady,” dismissing the fact that Buddhist monks had set themselves on fire in the summer of 1963 to protest the rule of her brother-in-law, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, for whom she acted as an unofficial first lady.
“I don’t think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the communists.” —President John Kennedy in a televised interview with Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963.
“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” —Newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson at a White House meeting on November 24, 1963 responding to U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. telling him that Vietnam “would go under any day if we don’t do something.”
“There is nothing in the resolution, as I read it, that contemplates [sending American armies to Vietnam]. I agree with the Senator that that is the last thing we would want to do. However, the language of the resolution would not prevent it. It would authorize whatever the Commander in Chief feels is necessary.” —Senator William Fulbright (D-AR) during the Senate debate on August 6, 1964 over the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
“I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to mistake such a historic mistake.”—Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) on the Senate’s impending vote to adopt the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964.
“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” —President Lyndon Johnson in a speech at Akron University on October 21, 1964, two weeks before the presidential election.
“We do this [escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression. We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Vietnam who have bravely born this brutal battle for so many years with so many casualties. And we do this to convince the leaders of North Vietnam—and all who seek to share their conquest—of a simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.”—President Lyndon Johnson, speaking to the nation on April 7, 1965 explaining his decision to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam.
“My solution to the problem would be to tell them frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Ages.” —General Curtis E. LeMay, in his book Mission With LeMay, 1965.
“I think we have all underestimated the seriousness of this situation. Like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case. I think a long protracted war will disclose our weakness, not our strength.”—Deputy Secretary of State George W. Ball answering President Lyndon Johnson’s questionat a White House meeting on July 21, 1965 about whether the United States could win a war in the “jungle rice-paddies” of Vietnam.
“It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas.” —Ronald Reagan, October 10, 1965, interview with the Fresno Bee during his California gubernatorial campaign.
“Declare the United States the winner and begin de-escalation.”—Senator George Aiken (R-VT) offering advice to President Lyndon Johnson on October 19, 1966 on how to handle the politics of reducing the U.S. commitment in Vietnam.
“We seem bent upon saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh, even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it. I do not intend to remain silent in the face of what I regard as a policy of madness which, sooner or later, will envelop my son and American youth by the millions for years to come.” —Senator George McGovern (D-SD) speaking on the Senate floor on April 25, 1967.
“We are fighting a war with no front lines, since the enemy hides among the people, in the jungles and mountains, and uses covertly border areas of neutral countries. One cannot measure [our] progress by lines on a map.”— General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. military forces in Vietnam, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 28, 1967.
“There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.” —Robert McNamara in a memo to President Lyndon Johnson on May 19, 1967.
“We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” —General William C. Westmoreland speaking to the National Press Club on November 21, 1967 as part of a Johnson administration effort to shore up sagging public support for the war.
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” —AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoting a U.S. major on the decision to bomb and shell Ben Tre on February 7, 1968 after Viet Cong forces overran the city in the Mekong Delta forty-five miles south of Saigon during the Tet Offensive.
“For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” —Walter Cronkite in an editorial at the close of the CBS Evening News broadcast on February 27, 1968 reporting on what he had learned on a trip to Vietnam in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
“Our objective in South Vietnam has never been the annihilation of the enemy. It has been to bring about a recognition in Hanoi that its objective—taking over the South by force—could not be achieved.” —President Lyndon Johnson in a nationwide address on March 31, 1968 explaining his decision to halt the bombing of North Vietnam.
“The commitment of five hundred thousand Americans has settled the issue of the importance of Vietnam. For what is involved now is confidence in American promises.”—Incoming National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger writing in the January 1969 issue of Foreign Affairs.
“The time has come when the United States, in our relations with all of our Asian friends, be quite emphatic on two points: One, that we will keep our treaty commitments… but, two, that as far as the problems of internal security are concerned, as far as the problems of military defense, except for the threat of a major power involving nuclear weapons, that the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.”—President Richard M. Nixon speaking at an informal press conference on Guam on July 25, 1969 setting forth what becomes known as the Nixon Doctrine.
"I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point." —National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger speaking in July 1969 to NSC aides as he charged them with developing a punitive military strategy that would coerce North Vietnam into negotiating on American terms.
“And so tonight—to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.” —President Richard Nixon in his address to the nation on the war in Vietnam on November 3, 1969.
“Let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”—President Richard Nixon in his address to the nation on the war in Vietnam on November 3, 1969.
"If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”—President Richard Nixon in a nationwide address on April 30, 1970 explaining his decision to invade Cambodia.
“The United States, which brought these actions to enjoin publication in the New York Times and in the Washington Post of certain classified material, has not met the ‘heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement of such a [prior] restraint.’" —U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 30, 1971 overturning the injunction barring the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
"The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time." —President Richard Nixon to White House Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman and Attorney General John Mitchell on April 4, 1972 in deciding to launch what would become known as Operation Linebacker,a massive escalation in the war effort that that included mining Haiphong harbor, blockading the North Vietnamese coast, and launching a massive new bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
“Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”—Senator George McGovern (D-SD) in his address accepting the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention on July 14, 1972.
“We believe that peace is at hand.” —National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger speaking at a White House press conference about the Paris Peace negotiations on October 26, 1972, two weeks before the presidential election.
“I have asked for this radio and television time tonight for the purpose of announcing that we today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia.”—Richard Nixon informing the American public in a nationwide address on January 23, 1973 that the United States had reached agreement with North Vietnam on the Paris Peace Accords.
“Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned. As I see it, the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence…. We, of course, are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina. But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.” —President Gerald R. Ford in a speech at Tulane University on April 23, 1975.
“During the day on Monday, Washington time, the airport at Saigon came under persistent rocket as well as artillery fire and was effectively closed. The military situation in the area deteriorated rapidly. I therefore ordered the evacuation of all American personnel remaining in South Vietnam.” —President Gerald Ford’s statement announcing the evacuation of United States personnel from the Republic of Vietnam on April 29, 1975.
Rachael Kauss and Alex Laplaza assisted in the preparation of this post.