Olivier Todd's article "When Hypnotics Won a War" (Op-Ed Page, April 30) stirred me to recall my own experiences. I could not remember passing a Russian freighter in the Gulf of Tonkin, where I was serving aboard one of the aircraft carriers mentioned. Missiles did arrive in North Vietnam, however, and with other firepower proved quite effective against our planes. On station our ship launched 100 sorties or more each day, aircraft carrying a variety of ordinance, including 2,000-pound bombs, and anti-personnel weapons. It is hard to imagine that our fighting forces could have done more.
It is true that the North Vietnam Army was badly defeated during the Tet offensive of 1968, and that in spite of this U.S. policy changed in 1970, restraining ground forces from search-and-destroy missions. Quite simply the cost was too great. Divisiveness among our armed forces no doubt contributed to our failure, but I believe that the behavior of heroes such as Lt. Col. Oliver North, with a record of hopscotching all over Vietnam in search of the enemy, did more to damage morale than the charisma of Ho Chi Minh.
The policy was sound. The South Vietnamese government, though well armed, could not hold back the North. The mistake in U.S. policy was in entering the political battle, fought essentially against French colonial rule. Our inherent lack of continuity in foreign policy, further acerbated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy at a crucial juncture in the conflict, presented us to the world as the heirs to the French regime.
Limited wars can be won, of course, as the British proved in the Falkland Islands. The point of such wars remains the question. How far should we go to preserve the colonial pride of now second-rate powers? Why America, never a colonial power, but a colony herself, should support these ridiculous wars boggles the mind. The Vietnam War was a mistake, and a conflict not meant for a superpower trying to lead the rest of the world through the atomic age.
DAVID C. REUTTER