Page last updated at 18:19 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Winning hearts and minds in Vietnam

By Martin Bell

Bill Ellis, rifleman, A Company, 1st Battalion, First Cavalry Division, plays for grunts on a fire support base, 1969 (Photo: courtesy of Bill Ellis)
The songs were meant to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese

In my 46 years of experience in journalism, I have often found that the most remarkable material surfaces by accident.

So it is with the Saigon Songs, recordings made in the Vietnam War, which have never been broadcast before.

They are among the most moving mementoes of war I have ever heard.

Their edge is sharpened, it seems to me, by a special relevance to the wars of today.

The Saigon Songs date from the Americans' hearts and minds campaign, between 1965 and 1967, as they poured their ground troops into Vietnam in support of the South Vietnamese government.

Hearts and minds

The campaign was run by Maj Gen Ed Lansdale of the US Army, who by all accounts was a most remarkable man.

His weapons were not guns but words and music, through which he hoped to persuade the people in the villages to resist the North Vietnamese communists and the home-grown insurgents, the Viet Cong.

Maj Gen Edward Lansdale and 1st Lt Hershel Gober, Saigon, 1965 (Photo: courtesy of Joseph Baker)

Maj Gen Lansdale gathered round him a group of singers and performers including Pham Duy, the most noted Vietnamese folk singer of the time, and Hershel Gober, a young lieutenant from Arkansas who was as handy with a guitar as he was with a rifle, and was serving with Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta.

Lt Gober was devoted to the cause and to the soldiers alongside him. He believed the war was winnable.

He saw himself as a Vietnamese who happened to look like an American.

One of his songs, Look over my Shoulder, was addressed to his Arkansas Senator William Fulbright whom he said that he later came to love.

He certainly did not back in 1966. Lt Gober was a hawk on the war, Senator Fulbright was not.

'Heart songs'

Maj Gen Lansdale's singers even included the country's prime minister, Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, who by the sound of the tapes was probably a better airman than a vocalist.

The concerts took place not only at Maj Gen Lansdale's villa, but in villages and army camps around the country.

Pham Duy specialised in what were called "heart songs", to motivate and inspire the people.

The most extraordinary of these was Rain on the Leaves, a romantic anthem of the war which he sang with American Steve Addis, who was dressed in the black pyjamas of a Vietnamese villager.

Saigon Songs - The Lansdale Tapes is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 1 November 2008 at 2000 GMT
Or catch it on the BBC iPlayer after the broadcast

A hard song to listen to dry-eyed, it is perfectly suited to this season of remembrance.

But of course the hearts and minds campaign failed.

Fearing that this might happen, Maj Gen Lansdale assembled the tapes and sent them to his country's leaders - Henry Kissinger, the Chiefs of Staff and President Lyndon Johnson - to try and give them a better idea of what this other war was like, and the need to resource it properly.

Military means

They regarded it as an add-on, while they tried to defeat their enemy by military means.

I was there at the time, in the Central Highlands in early 1967, while their artillery was pounding away at supposed Viet Cong and North Vietnamese concentrations over the horizon.

The American gunners were well supplied. They had waffles and maple syrup for breakfast. I remember thinking, even then, that this was not going to work.

Jim Bullington singing at a show where he performed Rain on the Leaves with Pham Duy at an artillery battalion HQ in La Vang, Quang Tri Province, 15 Dec 1967 (Photo: courtesy of Jim Bullington)

Maj Gen Lansdale was of the same opinion. Two years before he died in 1987, he set out his views on the difference between conventional wars and people's wars, which he presciently insisted had to be fought by other means than firepower alone.

His conclusions have a place of honour in the Saigon Songs.

The singer and soldier Hershel Gober returned to Vietnam in 1969 as a company commander, and knew even then that the war was lost.

He told his men that he did not want any John Waynes in his outfit. He was wounded and sent home.

Many years later, he became acting secretary for veterans' affairs in the Clinton administration. He changed his mind about this war and others; he opposed the war in Iraq.

He believes that in Vietnam the Americans lost not only the war but the opportunity to learn from it.

"Sometimes I think we didn't learn a damn thing from Vietnam," he says, "We didn't learn enough".

Martin Bell is a former foreign affairs correspondent for BBC News. You can hear Saigon Songs on Radio 4's Archive Hour at 8pm on Saturday 1 November 2008.

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