President Johnson: Things are going reasonably well in the South [Vietnam], aren’t they?
McNamara: Yes, I think so.
President Johnson: What are these 6,000 men doing? They’re trying to locate the enemy, I see, and they’ve run them into caves.
President Johnson: Do you know anything about that?
McNamara: Yeah, and they’ve–but it’s a small–it’s just so typical, Mr. President. It’s a relatively small enemy force. We think we’re taking a heavy toll of them, but it just scares me to see what we’re doing there with taking 6,000 U.S. soldiers with God knows how many airplanes and helicopters and firepower and going after a bunch of half-starved beggars … And the great danger – and it’s not a certainty, but it’s a danger we need to look at, is that they can keep that up almost indefinitely.
The audio of this cringe-worthy exchange is used in CNN’s “The 60s: The War in Vietnam,” and found here, LBJ Tapes Transcript. Just this snippet demonstrates how little our leaders had bothered to learn about Vietnam. McNamara keeps up the bluster and calls the Vietnamese “beggars,” but it seems to be dawning on him – too late – what we were up against. He doesn’t understand it, though. It doesn’t make sense to him that we might lose.
There was a world of difference between American and Vietnamese thought processes. We thought in ideology and firepower. I can’t speak for Vietnamese but here are some examples of their thinking.
With unforeseen tactics the weak can defeat the strong;
By using soldiers to ambush, the few can defeat the many.
14th century poet-strategist Nguyen Trai
One hapless step: Two chariots ravaged.
The right opportunity: A victorious pawn.
Ho Chi Minh
The battlefield is here–The Front is here,
We fight the enemy for every inch of this road,
We shovel, shovel rock that smells of the mountain,
Our blood and sweat blending with the mountain’s basalt.
the woman-poet Tran Thi My Hanh (1945- ), from “The Road Repair Team at Jade Beauty Mountain”
Both sides understood military thinking but we spoke the language of helicopters. They, on the other hand, spoke the language of poetry.
Quotes from The Defiant Muse: Vietnamese Feminist Poets from Antiquity to the Present, 2007.