A War of Contradictions: The Vietnam Conflict 1945-1975

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

This quote, attributed to a U.S. Army officer in February 1968, illustrates the contradictions inherent in the Vietnam Conflict. Seen by some as a noble fight to stop Communism and help a developing country establish democracy, and others as interference in a war of national liberation and a destructive waste of money and human life, Vietnam remains one of the more polarizing topics of the twentieth century. This was evident in the words, actions and writings of politicians, journalists, authors, clergy, and others. The conflict, which spanned 30 years, from September 1945 to May 1975, was responsible for 1.5 million to 3.5 million civilian and military deaths. One of the major flashpoints of the Cold War, Vietnam was, and still is, a subject about which many have differing opinions.

SCRC’s current exhibit, A War of Contradictions: The Vietnam Conflict 1945-1975, explores the differing opinions regarding the Vietnam Conflict through books and manuscripts in its holdings. The following text and photographs are a sampling of the much larger exhibition.

Communism was on the march after World War II.  Takeovers in Eastern Europe and in China sparked concern in the tone of American politics, film, literature, and journalism. By the end of the 1940s it was a widely-held fear in the United States that communists threatened to enslave the world. Anticommunist authors encouraged Americans to become knowledgeable about Communism and be vigilant against its possible spread to other nations and the United States. By 1947 publications characterized Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh as a tool of the Soviet Union, and that Vietnam’s fight for independence from France was shaping up as a war between Communism and the Free World.

Left to right: You Can Trust the Communists… to be Communists by Dr. Fred Schwartz. 1962, Rare Books HX 56 .S39; Pattern for World Revolution by Ypsilon, 1947, Rare Books HX 40 .Y6 and Vietnam Crisis by Stephen Pan and Daniel Lyons, S.J. 1966, Rare Books DS 557 .A6 P3.

Over the years a number of authors have written works critical of western involvement in the Vietnam Conflict. Some have argued that the war was immoral because of the number of individuals killed or the sheer cruelty with which the belligerents sometimes conducted themselves. Others maintain that it was nothing short of interference in Vietnamese affairs. Still others have characterized it as an unnecessary waste of human life and resources. While some of these writers felt very strongly about their convictions from the beginning, others came to these beliefs only after having initially served as a soldier or public servant in support of the war.

Left to Right: Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience by Robert M. Brown, Abraham J. Heschel and Michael Novak, 1967, Rare Books DS 557 .A68 B76; MacBird by Barbara Garson, 1966, Rare Books PS 3557 .A78 M3 1966 and Casualties of War by Daniel Lang, 1969, Rare Books DS 557 .A67 L3.

A number of noteworthy Vietnam War-themed works of popular fiction and non-fiction were published during the period. One common theme was that there was a degree of western moral decay or indifference in the French and South Vietnamese regimes. Another was that Americans who were sent to Vietnam to help the fledgling nation develop were often clumsy, naive or arrogant when it came to learning the country’s customs and dealing with its people. Paperbacks often glorified the war and the rugged image of the soldier, particularly the U.S. Army’s famous Green Berets. Some of these novels were were made into motion pictures – The Quiet American begat the film of the same title, while The Short-Timers served as the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Left to right: The Quiet American by Graham Greene, 1955, Rare Books 1955 PR 6013 .R44 Q5 1955; The Short -Timers by Gustav Hasford, 1979, Rare Books PS3553 .O645 D4 1979 and The Glory of the Green Berets, 1967, PS3554 .E734 G56 1967.

During the thirty-year Vietnam Conflict there were numerous leaders, both political and military, who defined the era. Two of the most notable ones were Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh and United States president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. These images are from volumes in the Rare Books Collection and the Oliver F. Atkins photograph collection within the Special Collections Research Center. 

Ho Chi Minh, 1946, from Ho Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker. Rare Books, Booknotes 2000-11-12.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1966, Oliver F. Atkins photograph collection #C0036, Box 5, Folder 8.

While George Mason College was not known as a hotbed of anti-war sentiment in 1969, students, faculty and staff participated in the movement in small but symbolic ways. One of these was the signing of a petition to Chancellor Lorin A. Thompson to excuse students, faculty, staff and administration from classes and college business on October 15 of that year, so that they might have the opportunity to take part in local events pertaining to the Vietnam War Moratorium.  The Moratorium was a day-long series of events held in municipalities and on college campuses across the United States and the world to call attention to, and protest the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam Conflict. Of about 1,800 students, faculty, and staff at Mason at the time, more than 600 individuals signed the petition. A separate post about this document can be accessed here.

Vietnam War Moratorium Petition, 1969, George Mason University Office of the President records, 1949-2004, #R0019.

On February 11, 1974 peace activists Jane Fonda, her husband, founder of Students for a Democratic Society, Tom Hayden, and folk singer Holly Near visited George Mason University as part of the Indochina Peace Initiative tour. The group traveled to universities across the United States speaking with students about the Vietnam War from 1972-1974.  This event, which took place in the Lecture Hall, was attended by about one hundred students, faculty, and staff. Outside, about ten protesters held signs and passed out leaflets in support of South Vietnam and denouncing Fonda and Hayden.  These photos are from a collection of images taken by photographers for the George Mason student newspaper, Broadside. A separate post about this collection can be accessed here.

Jane Fonda at the Indochina Peace Initiative Event, 1974, Broadside photograph collection #R0135, Box 8, Page 19.
Students and faculty listen at the Indochina Peace Initiative Event, 1974, Broadside photograph collection #R0135, Box 8, Page 19.
Protesters against the Indochina Peace Initiative Event, 1974, Broadside photograph collection #R0135, Box 29, Page 17.

The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was an organization of military personnel, sent to train and assist South Vietnamese armed forces. Originally, the advisors were sent to support the French military in the First Indochina War and were named MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) Indochina. With the withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam, MAAG shifted its focus to the training of South Vietnamese forces in an effort to prevent the fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnamese forces. In 1962 MAAG was replaced by U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam and grew from a few hundred advisors to over 3,000 by 1964. As American involvement in the war grew, MACV continued to serve as the headquarters for all American forces and shifted in focus from advising to combat operations. At the time the photographs in this collection were taken (1964-1965), Team 58 was stationed in Vi Thanh in the former Chuong Thien province. Images in the collection show the day-to-day life in the camp with some scenes of combat operations. This photograph is from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Team 58 photograph collection. A separate post on this collection can be accessed here.

Major Thomas J. LeVasseur with a Vietnamese interpreter presenting gifts to the Mother Superior at the Catholic orphanage, late 1964 or early 1965, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Team 58 photograph collection #C0196 Box 1, Folder 46.

Francis John McNamara served as an Army intelligence officer during World War II and held a number positions at internal-security-related firms after the war. He later went on to work as a staffer on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Subversive Activities Control Board. During his later years he served on the boards of a number of foundations dealing with national security and intelligence. The Francis J. McNamara Papers represent his lifelong career and study in the field of anticommunism and national security. Materials which comprise this collection track both his employment and interests during the period 1947-1997.

Edwin Williams Lynch was a prominent Northern Virginia real estate businessman and served as Fairfax County delegate to the Virginia General Assembly from 1945 to 1947 and again from 1949 to 1954. He was an original founder of George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and an active member of local antiwar groups. The collection consists of a variety of materials relating to the Vietnam War including pamphlets, booklets, correspondence, posters, reprint articles, newspaper clippings, various antiwar publications, and the minutes of meetings of several antiwar groups. It covers the period ranging from 1965 to 1975.

Left to right: American Friends of Vietnam: “A Symposium on America’s Stake in Vietnam”, 1956, Francis J. McNamara collection #C0024 Box 52, Folder 1 and “DEMONSTRATE to Show Our Opposition to the Vietnam War”, 1968, Edwin W. Lynch Vietnam War protest collection #C0080 Box 5, Folder 15.

A War of Contradictions: The Vietnam Conflict 1945-1975 is currently running through December 2019 in the exhibitions area of Special Collections Research Center. Please consult SCRC for more information.

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