Monday, June 12, 1972

Epitaph for Vann: He Saw the Truth and Spoke It

Associated Press Writer

He was regarded as a dove early in the Vietnam war when he was an adviser and his military career was destroyed.

Then he returned as a civilian and was called a hawk and was a trusted adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was one of the earliest proponents of Vietnamization and one of the few Americans whose judgments about Vietnam repeatedly withstood the test of time and events.

And now John Paul Vann is dead at 47, one of the most important voices stilled at a crucial juncture in America's most painful war. He was a man who dared the enemy, American generals and U.S. senators with equal courage and dedication to what he saw to be the truth in Vietnam and a war he believed to be winnable and worthwhile.

Ironically, perhaps, the man who had spent 10 years and one-fifth of his life puzzling over and attacking the problems of the Vietnam war died in a helicopter crash Friday night doing his thing. He was flying from Pleiku to embattled Kontum in the central highlands to spend the night with officials and defenders of the imperiled provincial capital.

Ever candid, Vann spelled out the ugly truths of the Vietnamese army early in the war and was accused of being a dove, before the term even was current. It was a time in the early 1960s when oblivion was the fate of any who did not agree with the U.S. Command's view that the South Vietnamese not only were fine soldiers but were winning the war against the Viet Cong. Vann, who believed in truth over bureaucratic politics, collided with Gen. Paul D. Harkins, then the U.S. commander in Vietnam. Vann said the Vietnamese military was failing. It was a time when brother officers were faking reports to prove otherwise. The alternative was to be labeled a "can't win" adviser and be removed.

The bureaucracy attacked Vann for his views. It was made clear officially that his career was at an end.

Vann quit the Army as a lieutenant colonel and adviser. Many men caught in the same bind between conscience and the heavy pressure to bolster the official line on the government forces' prowess dropped forever from view. It was not a time when official dissent to Washington's line was permitted.

As one of his closest friends, AP special correspondent Pete Arnett, said, "What no one realized about Vann was that he wasn't a dove, he was a hawk. He wasn't putting down the war, he was just saying it couldn't be won as long as the South Vietnamese performed in the field as badly as they did."

Time proved Vann correct, and his star rose in the official councils of Washington. He returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser not only with huge clout in Vietnam but also in Washington where he on occasion was recalled to personally brief President Johnson.

But this, too, angered the American establishment in Vietnam and Vann's life was never easy. He was senior adviser in the military corps surrounding Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive, which he claimed he predicted accurately while U.S. intelligence vastly underrated the foe. When he died he was senior adviser in the central highlands.

Vann had backed nonpolitical Vietnamese generals, urging their promotion on their merits as military leaders rather than their family or political ties to the presidential palace in Saigon. Even those who said Vann was right in his judgment on Vietnamese generals said he was cutting his own throat by pushing the views. Vann believed only facts should be considered in making policy.

The Tet offensive of 1968 was a case in point. Officials now concede that it was this massive offensive by the enemy that forced the Johnson administration to seek an end to the war in Paris. Hanoi gained huge propaganda capital with the offensive which included a siege of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Hanoi called the offensive a massive victory. The U.S. Command called it a failure.

Vann called it both.

Battling flu at his command post just northeast of Saigon, Vann told a reporter friend of the offensive: "The North Vietnamese had a stunning victory. It was probably the greatest single enemy success of the war. Then they blew it. If they had withdrawn quickly they would have saved their best units for later fighting. Instead the orders were to stand and fight. So they died by the thousands, the North Vietnamese.

"It was really stupid. Some of the best units in anybody's army anytime in history. It was stupid."

John Paul Vann could not abide stupidity from anyone. A friend wonders what he thought, if he had time, of his own death in a meaningless crash on a low priority mission to a noncrisis spot.

"Epitaph for Vann: He Saw the Truth and Spoke It", by JOHN T. WHEELER Associated Press Writer, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Monday, June 12, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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