How the trauma of the Vietnam War led to the age of "alternative facts"

Fifty years later, we still can't agree on what went wrong in Vietnam. Now we can't agree on anything at all

Published June 19, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

1st March 1968: American soldiers and Vietnamese refugees returning to the town of Hue, in Vietnam. (Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)
1st March 1968: American soldiers and Vietnamese refugees returning to the town of Hue, in Vietnam. (Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)

For many of us whose lives were touched by the Vietnam War, it's a bit of a shock to count the years and realize that those events are now a half-century or more in the past. This year, we have been reminded of that war somewhat more frequently than in past decades, as a string of 50th-anniversary dates marks successive milestone moments leading up to the final termination of all American combat operation in August 1973 (although the fighting between opposing Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian forces continued for nearly two more years). 

In recent months, listening online or in person to several discussions on those anniversaries and recalling my own memories of Vietnam 50 years ago have led to a pair of reflections. One of them is a thought I have carried in my mind for many years; the other is new and surprising. 

The familiar thought is that the American debate about the Vietnam War sounds pretty much exactly the same as it did 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. Of course it is not as loud or as prominent on the national agenda, but there has been no noticeable change in the perceptions or opinions on both sides of the argument. In an essay more than three decades ago, I wrote: "Americans have still not agreed on whether Vietnam was a tragic mistake or a noble cause; nor have they agreed on a common version of what really happened there, either to the Vietnamese or to us." Rereading that sentence in 2023, I realized it could have been written yesterday, or at any time in the intervening years, without changing a single syllable. 

The second thought, the new and startling one, was inspired by the next line in that essay, which pointed out that "not just moral or philosophical issues, but basic matters of fact remain in sharp dispute" in that continuing Vietnam argument. Those words also remain true, and reading them again, I found myself wondering whether Vietnam might have been a key factor leading us to of the "alternative facts" era, in which facts do not exist independently, but take different shapes in different minds as accompaniments to differing opinions. 

In that mode, facts carry no weight in an argument, and cannot convince anyone to reexamine their ideas on an issue. Instead, the very concept of objective reality, as something outside ourselves that exists whether we recognize it or not, seems to have been lost, or at least gravely weakened.

False facts were certainly an issue in the 1950s controversy around Sen. Joseph McCarthy's allegations of Communist infiltration. But facts were ultimately the key factor in settling that argument.

Was the Vietnam debate a precursor of that trend? Were facts about that war blotted out in the same way as happens so regularly in current arguments? If so, was that already an existing pattern or something new? I have not done the sort of research that would lead to definite or probable yes-or-no answers for those questions. But searching my own memories of other divisive issues from the Vietnam era or not long before, I do not remember the persistent disregard for factual knowledge that has become standard fare in 21st-century public discourse. 

In the arguments in the 1950s and '60s about civil rights and the struggle against racial segregation, for instance, segregationist politicians certainly made false statements from time to time about provisions in proposed civil rights laws and other such details. No doubt there were numerous other instances of intended or unintended factual inaccuracy. But I don't recall that disputes on basic facts were a consistent pattern in the broader debate. To cite a different example, false facts were certainly an issue in the national controversy in the 1950s around Sen. Joseph McCarthy's allegations of Communist infiltration in the U.S. government. But rather than being permanently blacked out, facts were ultimately a key factor in settling that argument. Objective truth ultimately discredited McCarthy's false claims and prevailed in both the political arena and the public mind. 

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By comparison, facts seem to have made little or no headway against false or misleading assertions regularly promulgated by both sides in the decades-long argument about Vietnam. From many first-hand encounters with that phenomenon, two moments stand out in my memory, one before I went to Vietnam and the other a few years after I came home. I think of them as conversations, though in both cases the people whose voices I heard were clearly conversing with themselves, not with me. Those moments shone a revealing light on two enduring myths, one from each side in the debate. 

I'll recount the second conversation first. It was with John E. Murray, a retired Army major general who was the next-to-last U.S. defense attaché in Vietnam. While holding that post in 1973-74, Murray oversaw the delivery of U.S. weapons and supplies to South Vietnam's military forces, and was thus a directly involved eyewitness as that aid was reduced (though never completely cut off, as is often wrongly asserted) following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. An article of faith among virtually all defenders of the U.S. war is that those cuts in military aid were the reason for the Saigon army's collapse and final defeat in 1975 — typically, in their telling, the only reason, which allows them to put the entire blame on Congress and avoid recognizing any fault at all in U.S. or South Vietnamese policy or leadership.

I had spoken with Murray fairly often in Saigon, and went to see him again in the early 1980s when I was writing my book "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia." Murray was an emotional guy, and in our conversation he fiercely condemned Congress for causing South Vietnam's defeat. But in the middle of an angry tirade, he suddenly paused, fell silent for a moment, and then, in a very different tone of voice, began reciting a series of numbers. Our side had this many maneuver battalions, the other side had that many. We had this many artillery pieces, they had that many. And so on, counting aircraft, armored vehicles and a long list of other military resources. 

For every item, the numbers on the U.S. side were much higher — in some cases, hundreds of times higher — than those on the enemy side.  After a while, Murray paused again, looked up at the ceiling and said, clearly more to himself than to me, "You know, when I think about the stuff we had and the stuff they had, we should have cleaned their clock no matter what mistakes we made, and I don't understand why we didn't."

If America's massive superiority in firepower and logistical capability didn't win the war, it's hard to believe that a few hundred million dollars more, or more tons of bombs, would have prevented South Vietnam's defeat.

I have no way to know whether or how often Murray had other such questioning moments, or if he ever stopped believing that the aid cuts were what lost the war. From what I know of his personality and the intense feelings he carried from his own role in those events, I would not imagine that he ever changed his mind on that basic premise. But from a less emotional viewpoint, the message from Murray's numerical musing is hard to miss. If the huge superiority in firepower and logistical capability represented by his list of numbers didn't win the war, it's hard to believe that sending a few hundred million dollars worth of more "stuff" to our ally in the last year or two of the war, or dropping more tons of bombs on top of the unbelievable tonnage we had already expended (twice as many tons in Indochina as the total dropped by the Allies on both Germany and Japan in World War II), would have prevented South Vietnam's defeat. The more logical conclusion is that American resources and the American style of warmaking simply could not win that war. 

The second memorable moment was a dozen years or so before my conversation with Murray. It took place on a street called Cliff Avenue in Winthrop, Massachusetts, in October 1969. I was in Massachusetts to report on local actions that were part of a nationwide protest that month called the Vietnam Moratorium. For my story on one of those days, I walked along with a woman from a local peace committee who was going door to door on Cliff Avenue collecting signatures on a petition calling on President Nixon to set a date for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. 

It was obvious in October 1969 that opposition to the war was growing across the country. But I did not expect anything like the one-sided response I saw and heard on Cliff Avenue that day. As I later described it in my book "Vietnam Shadows":

In one house after another, to my growing amazement, those who came to the door nodded and signed — including one woman who began by saying suspiciously: "This whole thing [the Moratorium, or maybe the peace movement in general] is Communist-inspired" but hastily added, "Of course, I'm not for the war or any of that business." A man named William Pallin read the petition on the cement walk in front of his home and, without a word, took out a pen and signed his name. "I was in two wars," he said as he handed it back. "I was in World War II, I was in the whaddyacallit, Korean war. We don't need it over here." A few doors away, Elizabeth Fucillo, wife of a local firefighter, signed after only a quick glance, saying firmly: "I can't believe there's anyone who wants this war to go on any more."

It was a weekday and more women were home than men, which no doubt affected the results. Still, the unanimity was startling. Eventually we came to the door of a sixty-ish woman named Alice Baldinell, who was obviously vague about the details of Vietnam and whose first reaction, I guessed, could probably be traced back to the image of satanic Communism that all Boston Catholics of her generation would have absorbed in countless sermons and parochial school lessons of the 1940s and '50s. America couldn't just get up and leave Vietnam and leave millions of innocent people to have their throats slit, Mrs. Baldinell said in the flat, sharp-edged accents of working-class Boston. Kind of like Hitler, she went on, and if we'd got into that war earlier, maybe we could've saved all those people who got killed in that one. Well, here's someone who's not going to sign, I thought. But at her own mention of World War II, an expression of doubt began to form on Mrs. Baldinell's face. "I dunno," she said after a moment. "I remember that war, we had to get in, so we got in and we fought and we won it, and then it was over." Her accent clipped off the final r's, making the words come out "remembah" and "ovah." This one, she went on, this one heah, seems like it's gonna go on forevah. She paused again for a moment, then reached for the clipboard. Maybe you're right, she told the woman from the peace committee, and put down her name. 

That quick 180-degree turn, from wanting to save Vietnamese from demonic Communist throat-cutters to signing a petition for a total U.S. withdrawal, was startling, to put it mildly. But I also sensed a flash of recognition, a feeling that I wasn't just hearing one woman's words — like Gen. Murray's, spoken more to herself than to the petition gatherer or to me — but a larger truth about American public opinion on Vietnam and how it was changing. On that day in 1969 Americans had been waiting four and a half years, a year longer than the whole course of U.S. engagement in World War II, for their government to win in Vietnam. But after fighting that had cost scores of billions of dollars and more than 30,000 young soldiers' lives, the national leadership was still not able to show that the war was getting anywhere, and, as I wrote in my book, "millions of people like Mrs. Baldinell on thousands of streets like Cliff Avenue no longer believed it ever would." 

Like Murray's numbers, the voices I heard that day undercut a tunnel-vision view of the U.S. role in Vietnam, but one from the opposite side of the argument. Half a century later, many former war protesters cling to the conviction that their movement was the single driving force that turned American opinion and U.S. war policy around. Exactly like their opponents' blame-Congress mantra, that scenario identifies a single cause for a historic change, blotting out a long list of other relevant factors. (To cite just one example, by 1969, much of the Cold War establishment, including such prominent figures as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, the nationally known World War II general Matthew Ridgway, and many other household names, had concluded — and advised the White House — that the U.S. was not winning in Vietnam, could not do so at any acceptable cost, and should withdraw.) 

Those most responsible for the change in American public opinion on Vietnam were not protesters on college campuses, but U.S. political and military leaders who never found a way to win the war.

The words I heard in Alice Baldinell's doorway, I realized, reflected the thoughts of millions and millions of Americans who were changing their minds about Vietnam, but not because the peace marchers told them the war was wrong. They didn't think their country was evil or imperialist. They were turning against the war because it wasn't accomplishing anything, and they could no longer believe that fighting on would do anything but waste more time and lives. Antiwar protesters played a significant part in changing the national mood, but they weren't the whole story, even if that's how many of that era's activists told and still tell it. In reality, those who were most responsible for the sea-change in American public opinion were not shaggy-haired protesters on college campuses and city streets, but the U.S. political and military leaders who never found a way to win the war and ended up exhausting their own country's will to fight instead of the enemy's. 

I will close with one more memory, this one not from my own reporting and not connected with Vietnam but from another journalist's work in a later era and on the separate subject of reality versus myth. This one is an obituary for "Facts" written by a Chicago Tribune columnist named Rex W. Huppke, published on that paper's op-ed page 11 years ago and still apt (and delightfully readable) in 2023.  

Perfectly mimicking the language, tone and content of a newspaper obit, Huppke opened with a recital of examples from the deceased's "long and illustrious career" (gravity makes things fall, two plus two is four, the sky is blue), followed by the sad news that "Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet." 

A few paragraphs further down, still in perfect obit-page style, Huppke gave a real quote from a real person, Mary Poovey, a professor at NYU and author of a book called "A History of the Modern Fact": "I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We'll never agree on anything." This, mind you, was several years before the start of the Trump era and the deep decline of truthfulness we began seeing in public discourse in the years after Huppke's column was published. 

After rereading (and once again thoroughly enjoying) Huppke's obit, I tracked down Poovey, now retired from teaching, and asked how she looks back on that comment from 11 years' distance. "Obviously things have gotten a lot worse," she told me, recalling a specific moment early in Trump's term when the phrase "alternative facts," coined by one of his senior aides, entered the language. To Poovey, that term crystallizes a way of thinking in which there is "no agreement on anything, including that facts do exist and should exist." And if facts don't exist, she went on, knowledge also doesn't exist. Without facts, there is no standard for what we should believe or not believe, no trusted authority who can explain what is real and what isn't, no way to correct false beliefs and, consequently, "no basis for common agreement about anything." 

Poovey was speaking about contemporary disagreements, not 50-year-old ones. But when I heard her words I realized that they didn't just apply to today's debates. They also perfectly captured the argument I had been thinking about, the one this country has been having for half a century and has still not finished, about the Vietnam War and its meaning — not just in our past but for our present as well.  

By Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs covered the final years of the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun and later wrote "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia," now available in an updated edition. He is also the author of "Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy," and an online report, "From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America."

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