Chamblee54

Destroy The Village To Save It

Posted in History, Library of Congress, Quotes, War by chamblee54 on May 20, 2020


“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” This is one of the most familiar lines about the Vietnam War. It is often cited today, when discussing the response to COVID-19. Who said this?

It was “originally reported by Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, who quoted an unidentified American officer on why the village of Ben Tre was leveled during the Tet Offensive in early 1968. … A two-paragraph version of the AP dispatch was buried on page 14 of The New York Times, with no byline,” on Feb. 8, 1968. … “BENTRE, Feb. 7 (AP)― It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.”

“Almost instantly, however, the line was being misquoted everywhere. On Feb. 10, an Oregon newspaper rendered it “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Two weeks later the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on a group of protesters carrying a banner that read, “It Was Necessary to Destroy the Village in Order to Save It.” In whatever form, the words had become a mantra of the anti-war movement, a … summary of what was wrong with the entire Vietnam adventure.”

“The day before Arnett’s story ran, the Times’s James Reston had asked in his column, “How do we win by military force without destroying what we are trying to save?” … Associated Press itself had used a similar phrase almost exactly a year before Arnett’s dispatch. In late Jan. 1967, the AP distributed a wire photo of a different village with a caption that read in part: “The Americans meantime had started to destroy the village to deny it to the Viet Cong.” The photograph was published across the country. One wonders whether the officer Arnett was quoting had come across the caption the previous year.”

“But the actual father of the metaphor — the man who put it into roughly the form we know today — seems to have been Justice Edward White of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 1908 decision known as the Employers’ Liability Cases, the justices were asked to give a narrow reading to a congressional enactment concerning common carriers in the District of Columbia. The court refused. The requested reading, according to White’s opinion for the majority, would in effect add a new clause to the statute. He then explained why doing so would be wrong: “To write into the act the qualifying words therefore would be but adding to its provisions in order to save it in one aspect, and thereby to destroy it in another — that is, to destroy in order to save, and to save in order to destroy.””

The fighting in Ben Tre took place during the Tet Offensive. This is widely seen as a turning point in America’s involvement in that conflict. “On January 30 1968 … the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong launched a massive military offensive that proved the battle raging in Southeast Asia was far from over, and that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration had grossly oversold American progress to the public. Although U.S. troops ultimately ended the offensive successfully, and the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong suffered brutal loses, these bloody weeks triggered a series of events that continue to undermine Americans’ confidence in their government.”

(CBS news anchor Walter) “Cronkite was so shocked at the devastation of the communists’ Tet offensive that he went over to see for himself what was really going on.” On February 27, 1968, “he concluded the war was a stalemate, probably unwinnable. … Lyndon Johnson was said to have watched the broadcast and exclaimed to his press secretary, George Christian, “If I have lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Pictures today are from The Library of Congress.

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