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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story.  Often the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked. They too made great contributions, joining with military personnel to deliver supplies to locals, promoting development in dangerous areas, and working with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians. Some USAID workers even lost their lives. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war. His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967 and arrived in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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The U.S. Incursion into Cambodia

When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger vowed to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam quickly and honorably without appearing to cave in to communist pressure. The U.S. launched a secret air campaign, thirteen major military operations, against North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Cambodia’s neutrality and military weakness had made its territory a safe zone where North Vietnamese troops established bases for operations over the border.

President Richard Nixon gave formal authorization to commit U.S. ground  troops, fighting alongside South Vietnamese units, against North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 28,1970. The incursion was possible because of a change in the Cambodian government in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk was replaced by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. News of the military action in Cambodia ignited massive antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., in part because the determination to invade was made secretly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which had closed in 1964, was in the process of reopening. The fact that only a small circle of people in Washington knew what the Nixon administration was planning to do in Cambodia, including the April 1970 incursion, complicated the work of U.S. diplomats there. Read more

Soft Power in a Cold War: Challenges of Reaching out to the Soviets

The “Iron Curtain” was a term used to denote the efforts of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to block its citizens from contact with the West. It persisted from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. Throughout those decades, the U.S. endeavored to breach the Curtain and reach out to Soviet society through radio, exchanges, exhibits and other forms of public diplomacy.

The U.S. Voice of America (VOA), launched during the Second World War as a radio program to explain America’s policies and raise the morale of U.S. allies, continued after the Allied Victory to make information available to listeners throughout the world. VOA began its first Russian-language radio broadcasts into the Soviet Union on February 17, 1947 with the words: “Hello! This is New York calling,” The programs contained news, entertainment, educational features and music. A Harvard University study estimated that 28 million people in the Soviet Union tuned in at least once a week. Read more

Bombing North Vietnam into Accepting Our Concessions: Christmas Bombings, 1972

President Richard Nixon ordered plans for retaliatory bombings of North Vietnam after talks to end the war in Vietnam broke down December 13, 1972. Operation Linebacker II, otherwise known as the “Christmas Bombings,” began December 18 and lasted for two weeks. A total of 741 B-52 sorties were dispatched, dropping 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong, damaging 80 percent of the electricity supply grid and killing, by Hanoi count, over 1,600 civilians. The United States lost 15 of its B-52s and 11 other aircraft during the attacks.

By December 29, the North Vietnamese agreed to resume the talks and signed the final Paris Peace Treaty soon afterward, ending the Vietnam War. There are differing opinions about whether the “Christmas Bombings” forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was reported to have said “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concessions.” Read more

Agent Orange and the Vietnam War

In 1961, United States forces in Vietnam began to use chemical herbicides and defoliants on South Vietnamese crops, bushes, and trees in order to deprive the Vietcong of both food and cover for ambushes. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the campaign used a variety of herbicides but the most commonly used, and most effective, was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several “Rainbow Herbicides” used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue.

Ultimately spraying more than 20 million gallons of herbicide on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the campaign destroyed five millions acres of forest and untold millions of acres of crops. Many of those exposed to Agent Orange, Vietnamese and Americans alike, suffered health complications as a result, and scores of children were born with severe birth defects which were believed to be linked to the herbicides. Read more

Politics, Pinatubo and the Pentagon: The Closure of Subic Bay

The closure of Naval Base Subic Bay, the U.S. Navy’s massive ship-repair, supply, and rest and recreation facility in the Philippines, was prompted by both political and geological unrest. Once the second largest U.S. overseas military installation in the world, it was acquired by the U.S. in the 1898 Treaty Of Paris and because of its strategic location, played a key role in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and Operation Desert Storm. But with the departure of President Ferdinand Marcos and the rise of the People Power Revolution, the operation of the bases by U.S. forces was increasingly seen as incompatible with Filipino nationalism.

The political turmoil was complicated by the June 15, 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, it produced high-speed avalanches of hot ash and gas, giant mud flows, and a cloud of volcanic ash. The U.S. Air Force evacuated and closed down Clark Air Base. Naval Base Subic Bay was also evacuated but less badly damaged and operations resumed. On September 13, 1991, the Filipino Senate voted to reject a lease extension on the bases, ending almost a century of American military presence.  The closing required the relocation of 5,800 military personnel, 600 civilians and 6,000 military dependents, and resulted in a major economic loss for the Southeast Asian island nation.  Read more

Brother, Can you Spare me some Stew?: Hot, Hungry, and Abandoned in Vietnam

Speaking a foreign language is critical in the Foreign Service and can sometimes rescue you from the diciest situations. Case in point:  Political officer Ken Landon, who had been sent to Hanoi in the immediate aftermath of World War II and found himself abandoned by the French group with which he was traveling. Stuck some 30 miles from his destination with no food, Landon was forced to get creative. Luckily, he had spent the 1930s working as a missionary in Asia and had picked up — as gifted polyglots often do — Swatow Chinese, a dialect spoken by many of the Chinese soldiers stationed in Vietnam following the surrender of Japan. Read more

A Peace That Couldn’t Last – Negotiating the Paris Accords on Vietnam

Signed on January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were intended to finally end the Vietnam War, which had cost the lives of thousands of American soldiers, not to mention the millions of Vietnamese civilians who were killed, injured, or displaced. Initially, the Accords were negotiated in secret by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the lead North Vietnamese negotiator. These secret negotiations took place over the course of five years in Paris, from 1968 to 1973, but it was only in the early 70’s that any real progress was made.

The secrecy of the negotiations, along with slow technology and the time differences between Washington, D.C., Paris, Hanoi, and Saigon, ensured that the negotiating process was time-consuming and tedious. In spite of these challenges, the two sides were, after many deadlocks and near agreements, able to come to a compromise in January 1973. For their efforts, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1973, although Le Duc Tho refused to accept the award since he believed the U.S. and South Vietnamese were in violation of the Accords. Read more

Pierre Trudeau: One Long Curve, Full of Turning Points

With the October 2015 election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister of Canada, we take a look back at his father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, one of the most influential and memorable Prime Ministers in Canada’s history. He served as Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and then again from 1980 to 1984. Throughout his time in power in Canada, he struck people as a brilliant mind and a passionate politician.   He dominated Canadian politics from the 1960s until the 1980s, retiring in 1984.

Trudeau’s key accomplishments include preserving national unity against the Quebec sovereignty movement, suppressing a violent revolt in the October Crisis, fostering a pan-Canadian identity and achieving sweeping institutional reform.  This included the implementation of official bilingualism and the establishment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau kept Canada in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but differed from U.S. policy by establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China before the United States did and befriending Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Read more

Rolling Thunder: Behind the Fog of War

The call by South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Khánh on July 19, 1964 to expand the Vietnam conflict led to an operation of gradual and sustained U.S. aerial bombardment of North Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder. The mission was meant to boost the morale of the Saigon regime; force North Vietnam to cease support for the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam; destroy North Vietnam’s transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses; and interdict the flow of fighters and materiel into South Vietnam. Read more