As its circulation nears 250,000 after only three issues, Vietnam magazine is receiving poems from Boat People and letters from kids wanting to know more about the war Dad at last is beginning to talk about.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we started hearing from old Viet Cong cadre telling how they got ready for Tet,” says Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran who edits the magazine.
“We never know where our readers are, there’s such renewed interest in Vietnam everywhere. We’ve had letters from Korea and Australia. Nippon TV just did a feature on us.”
Gregg Oehler, the 31-year publisher of Vietnam, was in the sixth grade when the evening TV news showed the Tet battle for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Vietnam has fascinated him ever since, but he had no idea that the quarterly he launched in March almost on a whim would attract such a readership. By January it will become a bimonthly and expand from 68 to 84 pages, 32 in full color.
“The beer and tobacco advertisers are knocking on the door,” Oehler says. “They don’t usually bother with anything under a half-million circulation. It’s incredible. The first issue drew 3,000 letters. We touched a sensitive public nerve that had been long suppressed and it exploded. In my wildest dreams I never thought we’d reach sales of 100,000 in two years.”
Coincided With Movies, TV Shows
The magazine hit the newsstands at a time when movies such as “Platoon” and “Good Morning, Vietnam” and TV series such as “China Beach” and “Tour of Duty” were finding an eager audience.
“All of a sudden there is almost a nostalgia for Vietnam. The vets are breaking out their faded jungle fatigues and boonie hats to march in Veterans Day parades. We get letters recalling how beautiful the beaches were and asking about tours back to ‘Nam,” says Summers. “Our mail and reader surveys show that their wives, widows and kids want to learn more about our least-understood war.”
Summers served as an infantry officer in War Zone D and then returned to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. He was evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy when Saigon fell.
No ‘Rambo,’ ‘Soldier of Fortune’
“Our aim is to tell what happened, not why, as accurately and dispassionately as possible, without glory or gore. This is not ‘Rambo’ or ‘Soldier of Fortune,’ ” adds Summers, who has taught at the Army War College, authored several textbooks on military tactics and writes a syndicated column on military affairs.
The average age of Vietnam veterans is now 41, and this baby boom generation is beginning to examine its youth.
Executive Editor C. Brian Kelly credits the Vietnam Memorial with “encouraging the 2,594,000 veterans who did a tour in Vietnam to come out of hiding, rejoin the mainstream and claim the pride that is their due. The memorial has become both their Wailing Wall and the place to meet up with old buddies.”
Since its dedication on Veterans Day, 1982, the memorial has become second only to the White House as a magnet for visitors to Washington.
800,000 Vietnam Vets in Legion
The gradual but growing visibility of Vietnam veterans 15 years after the last American units “stood down” in Southeast Asia is reflected in the ranks of the American Legion, which now counts 800,000 of them in its 2.3 million membership.
Last August, for the first time, several hundred Vietnam veterans turned up in Washington for the annual convention of the Society of the First Infantry Division. There are 77 Vietnam veterans in Congress.
Empire Press, which publishes Vietnam magazine, specializes in historical publications. It publishes seven other magazines--including World War II, American Civil War, Age of Napoleon and Great Battles--from a quaint Colonial building in the historic district of Leesburg, Va.
Kelly points out that “a 12- to 15-year lag in books and articles also occurred after the Civil War, which tore apart the country even more than Vietnam did.” Gen. William T. Sherman published his memoirs in 1875, but it was 1881 before Jefferson Davis wrote his “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” and Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs didn’t appear until 1884.
In telling the what, rather than the why, of the war, early issues of Vietnam gave graphic accounts of MIG versus Phantom dogfights over North Vietnam, the battle for Song Be in the Mekong Delta and B-52 raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Other articles looked back at “The Pentagon East,” the command complex at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut air base, the huge American-built port at Cam Ranh Bay now crowded with Soviet warships, and French historian Bernard Fall, who was killed in a mine explosion along Route 1, his La Rue Sans Joie --street without joy.
“This war was fought on so many different levels, from lonely jungle outposts and huge bomber bases to tunnel rats and gunboat crews on the Mekong, that there is real hunger among our readers to find out what the other guys were doing there and how it all fitted together,” Oehler says. “Also we know from the mail there is a lot of interest in the 7,500 women who served in Vietnam and their effect on the expanding role of the female in modern warfare.”
Advertisements at the back of the magazine show a growing market for Vietnam videotapes, insignia, authentic fatigues, infrared goggles and military watches, and a lively competition among collectors of battlefield souvenirs such as Viet Cong bamboo canteens and helmets, authentic calico noir --or black pajamas--even pungi stakes, clay grenades and other guerrilla weaponry.
Upcoming issues include a look at how Australian forces operated on jungle patrols, an interview with Neil Sheehan about his biography of Vietnam guru John Paul Vann, and a step-by-step recounting of how Army surgeons operating behind a wall of sandbags removed a live grenade from a GI’s back.
“We have no shortage of manuscripts,” Summers says. “And almost every week somebody offers us 1,000 or so pictures he took out there. We’re always willing to have a look, but we stay away from the grisly stuff.”
Despite the continuing avalanche of both, Vietnam does not print poems or letters to the editor. “But we may review our policy there,” the editor says. “A lot of poignant poetry comes from Vietnamese refugees.”
Political Mine Field
Try as it might to avoid controversy, the magazine wandered into a politcal mine field while Congress was considering a bill to move the starting date of the undeclared Vietnam War back to Feb. 28, 1961, so more veterans could receive education and pension benefits. Eligibility now dates from Aug. 5, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson told Congress that U.S. destroyers had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The Vietnam Memorial’s long, gray granite line of the dead starts in 1959. Vietnam magazine, in its second issue, moved the date of “America’s first Vietnam casualty” all the way back to Sept. 26, 1945, with an account of the assassination “by Communist bullets” of OSS Maj. A. Peter Dewey, who was on a mission “to locate 214 Americans at two Japanese POW camps in the Saigon area.”
Controversies of this sort, Oehler says, “show how much mystery and confusion still shroud the Vietnam War. If we can shed any valid historic light on any area of this enigma that still baffles the national conscience, the magazine will be worthy of the interest it has generated among a generation that has been so sadly ignored.”