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The War That Changed Everything

Fifty years ago, the first combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Ten years later, Saigon fell. For those who were there, the memories of those bitterly divisive years live on.

Vietnam illustration

— From left: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis; Corbis; Courtesy Everett Collection via Newscom; Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos; Eddie Adams/AP Photo; Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

En español | On March 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson called Georgia Senator Richard Russell, fellow Southern Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Johnson was looking for advice on what to do about Vietnam. Days earlier, he had launched Operation Rolling Thunder, the aerial bombing campaign that marked a critical turning point: It was America’s first major offensive in the conflict. In two days a contingent of Marines—the first U.S. combat troops—would land on the beaches near the U.S. air base at Da Nang. America’s war in Vietnam was in its infancy, and already the president despaired of success. “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere,” Johnson told Russell. “But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”

The echoes of Johnson’s decision to escalate the war continue to haunt many of the 2.6 million U.S. men and women who served in Vietnam, and the millions more whose lives were upended by it. For a generation, “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods,” as Michael Herr wrote in his 1977 book, Dispatches. Fifty years after the first bombs of Rolling Thunder, America’s most controversial war remains stubbornly unresolved, defined by the questions it raised, the lessons it promised to teach and the memories that those who were there can never forget.


President Lyndon Johnson

— AFP/Getty Images

"We have made
a national pledge
to help South Vietnam defend its independence.
And I intend to
keep that promise."

President Lyndon Johnson, speaking at
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, April 7, 1965

"I never questioned the righteousness of America"

Paul Coates and friend in Vietnam war

— Courtesy of Paul Coates

“Have you seen the movie Born on the Fourth of July? That was my life — I was born on the Fourth of July, and most of the scenes in that movie describe how I got to Vietnam. Just like John Wayne showed me in the movies, I was ready to kill the Japanese, only it was the Vietnamese we were going after at that time. It didn’t matter. I was 17.

“The whole time I was in Vietnam, I supported the war effort. In our minds back then, there was this notion of America the bold and the brave to defend. I never questioned the righteousness of America being in Vietnam, even though I didn’t fully understand it. I thought it had to be done.”

— U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class W. Paul Coates served from 1965 to 1967; he later founded Black Classic Press in Baltimore.

"We weren't buying it."

30th November 1965:  A few of the 20,000 protest marchers picketing the White House in Washington to demonstrate against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Their placards announce them to be representatives of Youth Against War & Fascism.

— Keystone/Getty Images

“Let me tell you why we civil rights workers were so against the war: The federal government was not providing any protection of democracy in Mississippi, yet it told us we had to go 10,000 miles away to protect democracy in Southeast Asia. We weren’t buying it.”

— Miriam Cohen Glickman was arrested at a Washington, D.C., protest in August 1965.


"For years, I was haunted."

Joe Galloway

— U.S. Navy/Courtesy Joe Galloway

“A U.S. Air Force plane dropped two cans of napalm on us. I felt the fire on my face immediately. I looked and there were two guys dancing in the fire, screaming. I don’t know what got into me, but I ran into the fire. I grabbed the feet of this kid, and as I pulled him up his boots crumbled and the skin over his ankle bones sloughed off. I could feel those bones in the palms of my hands. [The soldier, Jim Nakayama, died two days later.] For years I was haunted. How can I explain it to somebody who hasn’t been there? You live with it. You carry so many ghosts. I thought for a while they’d drive me crazy.”

— UPI war reporter Joe Galloway witnessed the four-day Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. Galloway was awarded a Bronze Star for valor as a civilian. He’s also the coauthor of We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.


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