The U.S. officially withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1973, marking the end of the country’s involvement in what had been a long and bloody conflict. More than 58,000 Americans had lost their lives fighting, while one estimate gives the number of Vietnamese civilian casualties as 1.4 million dead or wounded. And in the decades since North Vietnam claimed its unlikely victory, there have been several stories about the war that have practically become popular legend. But not all of them are true. Take these 20 myths, for example – all of which have since been widely disproved.
20. The Tet Offensive was well-planned, and the Viet Cong occupied the U.S. Embassy
To American soldiers on the ground and their commanders, the Tet Offensive in January 1968 must have seemed ruthlessly competent. In that month, North Vietnamese forces attacked cities all over South Vietnam, inflicting grievous losses as a result in many places. Early press reports even claimed that the Viet Cong had actually occupied the American Embassy building in Saigon itself.
A careful study of what actually happened during the attack shows, however, that it was far from a well-oiled military assault. Indeed, various things went wrong for the North Vietnamese. Some units attacked a day early, while others only reached their targets later than planned after forced marches. And although North Vietnamese soldiers did reach the grounds of the American Embassy, none of them entered the building itself.
19. The Viet Cong were poorly equipped
The Viet Cong were the guerrilla fighters who fought for the communist cause in South Vietnam. Legend has it, too, that they were a rag-tag band of peasants with sub-standard equipment – much of it obsolete. Naturally, then, these soldiers were considered no match for the well-armed and lavishly funded efficiency of the U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
Yet the Viet Cong actually had a generous selection of modern armaments that had been supplied by their deep-pocketed allies in China and the Soviet Union – including rocket launchers, AK-47 automatic rifles and effective grenades. By contrast, until quite late in the conflict, soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army had to make do with surplus U.S. weaponry – much of it dating back to the Second World War.
18. Vietnamese refugees were from the country’s upper classes
There was a widely held belief that the 130,000 South Vietnamese who arrived in the U.S. after fleeing from the communists were among the best educated and wealthiest people from their country. According to a 2017 article in The Washington Post, one American sociologist, Carl L. Bankston III, even described the immigrants as “the elite of South Vietnam.”
But the truth was that although many in the first 1975 influx of refugees to the U.S. were well-educated and could be described as middle class, later arrivals were from a much more mixed background. Among their numbers were low-ranking South Vietnamese military personnel and those who had worked in service and clerical jobs at the American Embassy in Saigon. Others, meanwhile, were former political detainees or the children of American servicemen.
17. Most U.S. soldiers were draftees, and a disproportionate number of African Americans were killed
Many believe that the majority of those Americans who fought in Vietnam were conscripted into the military – with only a fraction having volunteered themselves. It’s also thought that a disproportionate number of African Americans were among the casualties of the conflict.
Well, the assertion that the majority of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were draftees is pretty wide of the mark. From 1964 to 1973, four out of five Americans serving in Vietnam – so, the overwhelming majority – were actually volunteers. The total of African Americans who died in action was not out of proportion with the number who served, either.
16. South Vietnamese soldiers suffered from low morale and were unwilling to fight
Some have asserted that the South Vietnamese defense forces, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), consistently suffered from low morale – and this duly resulted in poor performance on the battlefield. In 2017 The Washington Post quoted one academic as saying, for example, that the ARVN “were [unwilling] to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning.”
However, it seems that those who actually had experience of working with the South Vietnamese soldiers in the field had a radically different view. In fact, U.S. General Creighton Abrams described the ARVN’s response to the Tet Offensive in considerably more proactive terms. “The ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined…[and] suffered more [killed in action] – both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action,” Abrams attested.
15. American Vietnam War veterans are more prone to suicide than those who fought in other conflicts
Some media reports have claimed that as many as 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives, although others put the figure much lower at 50,000. In any case, it’s been said that those who fought in Vietnam are anywhere from six to 11 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the wider population.
The actual statistics paint a different picture, however. The best estimate for the number of Vietnam vets who have taken their own lives is some 9,000. That’s still a tragedy, but it’s a long way from the vastly over-inflated claims that have been made. And, sadly, veterans of the conflict have a suicide rate that is 1.7 times higher than has been witnessed in the U.S. public at large.
14. Mostly underprivileged Americans fought in the Vietnam War
Legend has it that most of the American soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War were from low-income backgrounds and had only basic levels of education. Middle-class Americans, by contrast, are said to have found ways to avoid service in Vietnam – either through college deferments or via the diagnosis of various medical issues.
As it happens, though, the assertion that less privileged Americans were more likely to end up serving in Vietnam than their wealthier and better-educated peers is simply untrue. Indeed, figures show that 79 percent of the American soldiers in Vietnam had a high school education or better. That total is substantially higher, moreover, than the equivalents for men serving in both the Second World War and the Korean War.
13. It was mostly young people who fought
One idea that has apparently gripped the public imagination is that the American force in Vietnam was a teenage army. According to this myth, soldiers were on average just 19 years old when they arrived for service. And, of course, if this is correct, there must have been even younger men than that fighting in the war.
However, statistics actually show that the average age of soldiers in the Vietnam War was 22. That said, it is true that G.I.s fighting in Vietnam were generally younger than those who had served in WWII – as on average these men had been 26.
12. The U.S. Army was defeated in Vietnam
It would be difficult to argue against the idea that the U.S. government lost the Vietnam War. After all, it ordered American troops to abandon their defense of South Vietnam, leading the communist forces from the North to soon overrun their neighbors. But does this mean the U.S. Army was defeated in the field?
Well, actually, American soldiers were not beaten in combat at all – save for small local battles. Even the Tet Offensive – which is credited with turning the war in North Vietnam’s favor – was actually a disastrous military defeat for the communists. But, eventually, America as a nation turned on the idea of the conflict, and that meant the U.S. government had to change tack, too.
11. Fighting in Vietnam was much less intense than WWII combat
When people think of the Second World War, they tend to envisage the brutal carnage of the D-Day landings in Normandy or the protracted combat on the islands of the Pacific. Certainly the invasion of France was a bloody affair, as was the ensuing push across Europe into Germany. And the fighting against the fanatical Japanese was definitely ferocious.
However, the idea that what Vietnam soldiers went through was somehow less intense is a fallacy. In the Pacific, for example, the average WWII American soldier saw about 40 days of combat during the course of four years. Owing to the ability to rapidly transport troops by helicopter, however, an infantryman in Vietnam could experience as many as 240 days of fighting in a 12-month period.
10. North Vietnamese people fully supported the war and the Communist Party
Amidst the Vietnam War and during its aftermath, a commonly held belief was that the leadership in North Vietnam enjoyed almost total support from the country’s people. The idea of a unified Vietnam under the rule of the Communist Party was also said to be universally popular.
However, the idea that the North Vietnamese people were as one in their support of the communists does not bear close scrutiny. In fact, some historians believe that the North’s decision to go to war was motivated by a desire to paper over political problems on the domestic front. Land reforms had gone badly wrong, for instance, while the economy was also weak. There was opposition to communist rule in that part of the country, too. In other words, the conflict served as a convenient distraction from the mounting issues at home.
9. Hồ Chí Minh was an absolute dictator with complete control over North Vietnam
From the outside, Vietnam certainly looked like a country entirely in the grip of Hồ Chí Minh. It seemed, then, that he followed in the vein of other communist dictators who had enjoyed absolute power, such as Mao in China and Stalin in the Soviet Union. And much like those leaders, Hồ Chí Minh appeared to be an unchallenged strongman at the head of his nation.
However, this was very far from the truth – although it was an image that the North Korean communists were happy to project. In fact, Hồ Chí Minh was little more than a figurehead, with the country’s real political power lying in the hands of Communist Party official Lê Duẩn. Yes, Lê Duẩn was the ruthless figure in the background and the main force behind North Vietnam’s efforts during the war.
8. An American once said, “We had to destroy the village to save it”
The words “We had to destroy the village to save it,” or something very like them, were attributed to an American commander in the field during the Vietnam War. The idea was that the only way communism could be rooted out of a particular village – thus saving the inhabitants – was to physically destroy the place. And this phrase came to represent the perceived futility of the conflict.
However, subsequent investigation seems to cast doubt on the source of this famous quotation. For one, the U.S. Army officer who is supposed to have delivered those words to a journalist later claimed that he’d actually said, “It was a shame the town was destroyed.” And the Vietnamese place in question, Bến Tre, was actually a medium-sized city rather than a village.
7. U.S. soldiers used massive amounts of narcotics
It’s an all-too-common stereotype that the average American G.I. in Vietnam was stoned out of his mind. And according to this myth, amphetamines, marijuana and even heroin were being regularly used by huge numbers of U.S. servicemen. But how true was this lurid image of drug-addled military personnel?
Well, like most Americans of their day, soldiers in Vietnam were far more likely to turn to alcohol than to illicit drugs when they wanted to relax. And while there’s no doubt that marijuana use was prevalent – as much as 51 percent of U.S. troops may have sampled it – the idea that hard drugs were commonplace is untrue. Even those soldiers who smoked weed did so well away from the front lines, as pot and combat simply don’t mix.
6. Anti-war protestors spat on returning soldiers
According to this tale, the animosity between anti-war protestors and returning Vietnam soldiers was so great that spitting on the vets became commonplace. And, certainly, there was much angry and deep-felt opposition to the war, but did this actually manifest itself in such personal abuse?
Well, although the Vietnam War may have divided the nation, Americans did not typically stoop to the level of spitting on G.I.s. Indeed, you could say the opposite was true. A Harris poll conducted in 1971 found that 94 percent of U.S. troops said they had received a warm welcome from their peers when they’d returned to their home country.
5. Working-class Americans all supported the Vietnam War
Apparently, the American working classes were fervent supporters of the Vietnam War across the board. Most of the opposition to the war, meanwhile, is said to have come from the generally more educated middle classes. And all in all, this suggests that a strange kind of snobbery was at work.
But the facts don’t support the myth. In her 2014 book Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, Penny Lewis addresses this perceived relationship between support of the Vietnam War and social class. And her conclusion? “Working-class people were never more likely than their middle-class counterparts to support the war, and in many instances they were more likely to oppose it.”
4. The American M-16 was superior to the Communist AK-47
We’ve already seen the theory suggesting that the North Vietnamese military were poorly trained and ill-equipped. And an offshoot of this myth involves the main personal infantry weapons that were used by the two sides. While the G.I.s had M-16 rifles, the Viet Cong fought with AK-47s. Obviously, then, the American guns must have been superior, right?
Well, actually, the communist-produced AK-47 turned out to be superior to the M-16 in the field. And the beauty of the gun – which was first used by Soviet soldiers in 1948 – was in its simplicity. The more sophisticated M-16, on the other hand, was prone to jamming – a potentially fatal flaw in combat. Indeed, it’s been said that the Viet Cong would loot everything from a dead enemy apart from their M-16.
3. Opposition to the Vietnam War only came from hippies
According to this particular theory, the opposition from within American society to the Vietnam War came mostly from hippies. The underground counterculture was spawned in the 1960s in an explosion of free love, psychedelic drugs and rock music. And, supposedly, the peace-loving young people who emerged during this period were responsible for most of the opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
But if you actually examine the make-up of Americans who protested against the Vietnam War, hippies never constituted anything like a majority. And two of the most prominent opponents of the conflict were WWII veteran, Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Commandant David M. Shoup and human rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Neither man, of course, could be accused of being a flower child.
2. The North Vietnamese held U.S. POWs after the war ended
The Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords that year. Part of the treaty that had been drawn up following the accords included the return of U.S. POWS, and 591 men were indeed freed as a result. Around 1,200 American servicemen were reported as missing in action, however, and ever since the end of the war, activists have insisted that the North Vietnamese continued to hold some of those soldiers prisoner.
Hollywood played its part in perpetuating this myth with the 1985 blockbuster Rambo: First Blood Part II. In the movie, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo rescues forgotten POWs from Vietnam. Back in the real world, though, a Congressional committee completed an exhaustive investigation in 1993, and this concluded that there was “no compelling evidence [proving] any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”
1. The Vietnamese monk who burned himself to death was protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam
In 1963 Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself alight at a crossroads in downtown Saigon. He subsequently died in a ball of flame, and the resulting dramatic news pictures were splashed on front pages around the world. Many assumed, then, that the monk must have been making a protest against U.S. involvement in his country and the Vietnam War.
However, it seems that Đức was mainly concerned by the South Vietnamese government’s discrimination. The regime, which was headed by Catholic president Ngô Đình Diệm, was allegedly acting against the interests of Buddhists. And although the U.S. backed Diệm – meaning the protest could be seen as indirectly aimed at the nation – that was not the monk’s main motivation for self-immolation.