Hearts and Minds is the classic antiwar documentary film of the Vietnam era. It was released in 1974, one year after the United States withdrew its military forces from Vietnam and a year before North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces toppled the American-sponsored South Vietnamese government, ending a war that in its various phases lasted nearly thirty years. The film captures as few other accounts do the range and depth of emotions aroused by the American war in Vietnam. It explores the reasons why the United States intervened there, how it fought, and the pain it inflicted on the Vietnamese and eventually on itself.
The film is episodic in its treatment of people and events rather than following a straight historical line. It does have a rough chronology, however, taking U.S. involvement from its origins through its several stages, and therein addressing the reasons behind America’s commitment to and escalation of the war and the causes of its ultimate failure and withdrawal.
To understand America’s involvement in Vietnam, it is essential to understand the nation’s post–World War II mood. The United States emerged as the world’s greatest power, with economic wealth and military strength unequaled by those of any other nation, and indeed unprecedented in world history. Yet this power did not bring comfort and security. In a world devastated by war and drastically shrunk by technology, Americans felt vulnerable for the first time in their history. The Soviet Union’s takeover of Eastern Europe in 1944–45 reawakened old and deep-seated fears of Communist expansion. Alarmed by a perceived Soviet threat to Western Europe, the United States in 1947 launched a policy of containment of Communist expansion, and through the Marshall Plan, which provided massive reconstruction aid for Western Europe, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which committed the United States to respond militarily to Soviet aggression, gave that policy substance. The Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb and the fall of China to Communism in 1949 enormously increased American fears and insecurity. Containment was expanded to East Asia in June 1950, when the United States sent military forces to defend South Korea against Soviet-backed North Korea.
That same year, the United States made its first, seemingly innocent but ultimately fateful, commitment in Vietnam. Since 1946, nationalist insurgents under the leadership of
Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh organization had been fighting a bloody guerrilla war to defeat French efforts to reimpose colonial rule on Vietnam. Although dubious about French purposes and methods, the United States ultimately decided to support the war. Ho’s Communist background made him suspect in American eyes, and the United States feared that a French defeat in Vietnam would undermine the containment policy in Europe and dangerously strengthen the Communist position in Asia. Americans were also motivated by what became known as the domino theory: the belief, almost an article of faith until the 1960s, that the fall of Vietnam to Communism would lead to the fall of all of French Indochina, then to the loss of insular Southeast Asia, with its wealth of natural resources and its strategic shipping lanes, setting off shock waves that might extend as far west as India and east as Japan.
The United States thus began to support the French war in Vietnam. A small commitment of military and economic aid in 1950 grew until America was bearing almost 80 percent of the cost of the conflict. When 12,000 French forces were surrounded by Vietminh troops at the remote fortress of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in what loomed as the decisive battle of the war, the United States for a brief period contemplated intervention with air and naval forces, perhaps even with ground troops. French foreign minister Georges Bidault later claimed (it was never confirmed by other evidence) that a top U.S. official had even offered the use of atomic bombs to relieve the Vietminh siege. Eventually, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, decided that such intervention would be ill-advised. They acquiesced in the fall of Dien Bien Phu and subsequently agreed to a settlement negotiated at the Geneva Conference that provided for a French withdrawal and temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, awaiting elections to unify the country.
Over the next ten years, the United States gradually expanded its commitment in Vietnam. Sabotaging the Geneva provisions that called for elections, it poured millions of dollars into building up South Vietnam as an independent government and a bulwark against further Communist expansion in Southeast Asia. When Vietminh followers who had remained in the South after the Geneva Conference formed the National Liberation Front and launched an insurgency against the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government of Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, the administration of John F. Kennedy expanded its military aid, sharply increased the number of military advisers, and authorized them to take part in combat. North Vietnam backed the NLF by infiltrating growing numbers of men and quantities of supplies into South Vietnam along the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail. As North Vietnam expanded its commitment to the struggle, the United States also escalated its efforts. Finally, in 1965, faced with the likely collapse of the shaky and embattled South Vietnamese government, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, initiated the bombing of North Vietnam and dispatched U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam to forestall what appeared certain defeat and disaster.
Between 1965 and 1968, the United States steadily expanded its war effort in Vietnam, relying on its wealth, formidable military weaponry, and modern technology to defeat a seemingly primitive enemy. In a bombing program called Rolling Thunder, the United States increased the tonnage of bombs dropped on North Vietnam from 63,000 in 1965 to 226,000 in 1967, inflicting an estimated $600 million in damage on an already underdeveloped economy. Eventually, the United States would drop more bombs on the small country than were dropped by all nations in all theaters in World War II! Seeking to deny the enemy food and cover, the United States sprayed more than 100 million pounds of such chemicals as Agent Orange over millions of acres of forests, destroying an estimated one-half of South Vietnam’s timberlands and exacting horrendous human and ecological costs. During this same period, American combat forces in Vietnam expanded to more than 500,000. U.S. general William Westmoreland launched extensive “search-and-destroy” operations against North Vietnamese and NLF forces, seeking to engage them in decisive battles to eliminate the military threat to South Vietnam.
Despite this vast effort, the United States could do no better than a stalemate against a tough and infinitely resilient enemy. The Vietnamese had fought outside invaders for more than a thousand years, repulsing numerous incursions from their much larger northern neighbor, China, and driving out the French. Resistance to external threats was deeply imbedded in their culture, and they countered American technology with sheer human effort and remarkable ingenuity. The gradual expansion of the bombing gave the North Vietnamese time to adapt and adjust and permitted the development of a formidable air defense system, which took a growing toll on American aircraft and provided hostages in the form of prisoners of war. The availability of sanctuaries in neighboring Laos and Cambodia and across the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam permitted the North Vietnamese and NLF to control their losses and retain the initiative in the ground war. When losses became excessive, they could withdraw and take time to recover. Westmoreland’s attrition strategy thus represented an open-ended commitment that required increasing manpower and produced growing U.S. casualties without bringing any signs of victory.
The United States also sought to win the “hearts and minds of the people,” in the parlance of the day, through programs that would promote economic development and prosperity and extend American-style democracy to South Vietnam. Billions of dollars were spent, but the results were minuscule. The benefits of U.S. aid were often offset by the devastating consequences of U.S. military operations, especially the lavish use of U.S. firepower. The South Vietnamese government went through the motions of democracy, holding elections under U.S. supervision in 1967, but it remained a corrupt, authoritarian government kept in power mainly by American military backing.
In a war with unclear goals, increasingly fought to maintain U.S. credibility, American forces became confused and sometimes dispirited. Fighting an elusive and formidable enemy in an inhospitable climate on behalf of people who seemed not to care—and where it was often difficult to tell friend from foe—provoked anger and frustration among American GIs, leading many to dismiss all Vietnamese as “gooks” and some to commit atrocities.
As the war dragged on, with growing casualties and no end in sight, opposition at home began to swell. “Hawks” protested Johnson’s policy of gradualism, pressing him to use any means necessary to achieve victory. On the other side, a heterogeneous and increasingly vocal group of “doves” questioned the wisdom and morality of the war and began to conduct marches and encourage draft resistance and other forms of protest. The mounting cost of the war was more important than the antiwar movement in causing war weariness and even outright opposition among the general public. Increased casualties, indications that more troops would be required, and Johnson’s late-1967 request for additional taxes combined to produce a sharp decline in public support for the war—and, especially, for the president’s handling of it.
Seeking to break the stalemate in Vietnam and to exploit the growing divisions in the United States, North Vietnam launched, in early 1968, what has become known as the Tet Offensive, a major turning point in the war. Taking advantage of the relaxed mood of the lunar New Year celebration, the most festive of Vietnamese holidays, the NLF struck suddenly in cities and towns across the length and breadth of South Vietnam. In a strictly military sense, the United States and South Vietnam prevailed, repelling a series of massive NLF assaults and inflicting huge casualties. At the same time, Tet had a tremendous psychological impact in the United States, raising serious questions about whether anything could be achieved that would be worth the cost. Responding to growing signs of public frustration and impatience, Johnson rejected General Westmoreland’s request for an additional 200,000 troops and for expansion of the war. He cut back (and eventually ended) the bombing of North Vietnam, and launched a diplomatic initiative that led to the opening of peace negotiations in Paris. To the shock of the nation, on March 31, 1968, he withdrew from the upcoming presidential race.
Johnson’s decisions all but ensured America’s eventual failure, but they did not bring an end to the war. Committed to what he called “peace with honor” and recognizing that public frustration required him at least to scale down U.S. involvement, new president Richard M. Nixon pursued an approach that he called Vietnamization, initiating a series of phased withdrawals of American troops while expanding aid to the South Vietnamese Army to prepare it to take over the brunt of the fighting. To help make Vietnamization work, Nixon also escalated the war by authorizing “incursions” into North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971, bringing limited military gains and stirring up intense opposition at home. When the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive against South Vietnam in the spring of 1972, Nixon struck back hard, resuming and expanding the bombing of North Vietnam and even mining Haiphong’s harbor. He was able to save South Vietnam, but opposition to the war at home continued to grow and, with an election approaching, he had to make major concessions to end U.S. involvement. When negotiations stalled in late 1972, he launched a last spasm of violence, the so-called Christmas bombing, the fiercest and most intensive bombing attacks yet against Hanoi. Finally, in January 1973, without resolving the fundamental issue of the war—the political future of South Vietnam—he was forced to accept a settlement permitting extrication of U.S. forces and the return of America’s POWs but leaving more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. The 1973 agreements brought neither the peace nor the honor that Nixon had promised and incurred a heavy cost. During the Vietnamization phase of the war, the morale of U.S. forces crumbled, drug abuse and racial tensions among GIs proliferated, and incidents of “fragging,” the assassination of officers (sometimes by fragmentation grenades rolled under their tents), increased to significant proportions. From 1969 to 1973, an additional 20,553 Americans were killed, bringing the total to more than 57,000 (it would eventually exceed 58,000).
The war finally ended in the spring of 1975, when North Vietnam launched a massive conventional invasion of the South. By that time, Nixon had resigned the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal, and the United States stood by helplessly while an ally of twenty years went down in defeat.
Although the United States itself emerged physically unscathed, the Vietnam War was among the most debilitating in the nation’s history, triggering inflation that helped undermine its dominant position in the world economy. The war also had a high political cost. To maintain support for the conflict, U.S. leaders had repeatedly deceived the public about what they were doing and the prospects of success. Thus, a war fought for credibility abroad destroyed America at home, with the Watergate scandal increasing popular suspicion of government, leaders, and institutions. The war crippled the military, at least for a period, and temporarily estranged the United States from much of the rest of the world.
The greatest impact was in the realm of the spirit. Like few other events in the nation’s history, the war challenged Americans’ traditional belief that, in their dealings with other people, they had generally assumed a benevolent role. Accustomed to success, Americans placed a high value on winning and indeed took it for granted. Failure in Vietnam was thus a shattering blow to the American psyche. It was a fundamental part of a much larger crisis of the spirit that began in the 1960s, raising profound questions about America’s history, its values, and its future. The war’s wounds continued to fester long after it ended for many of the 2.7 million veterans who had served in Vietnam and who, upon their return home, in many cases had been greeted with indifference or even hostility.
For the Vietnamese, the consequences were more immediate and serious. Millions of them died in the war, and there were an estimated 300,000 missing in action. The landscape was devastated from thirty years of fighting, and the economic consequences were huge.
The war has been over now for almost forty years, but its legacies endure for both nations. The Vietnamese are still struggling to modernize their economy and to repair the damages of war. For the United States, especially among the so-called Vietnam generation, the divisions wrought by the war—divisions so brilliantly captured in Hearts and Minds—still endure. At least until the Vietnam generation passes from the scene, the war it fought, opposed, and avoided will continue to be a defining event.
George C. Herring is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of the widely read and taught book America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (fifth edition, 2013). This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Hearts and Minds. It has been updated slightly by the author for this release.