Vann, John Paul

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VANN, John Paul

(b. 2 July 1924 in Norfolk, Virginia; d. 9 June 1972 in the Republic of Vietnam), career U.S. Army officer and, later, ranking civilian adviser in South Vietnam who, during the Vietnam War, advocated counterinsurgency, pacification, and social revolution while criticizing U.S. dependence on armed forces and massive firepower.

Vann was born out of wedlock to John Spry, a trolley-car operator, and Myrtle Tripp, a prostitute who later married Aaron Frank Vann, a bus driver, factory worker, and carpenter. His mother and stepfather had three more children. Vann grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Norfolk. Early humiliations and deprivation shaped Vann's combativeness and determination. After attending Ferrum Training School and Junior College, south of Roanoke, Virginia, for four years on a scholarship, Vann joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943 but completed training as a navigator for the B-29 bomber just after the end of World War II. He married Mary Jane Allen on 6 October 1945; they had five children.

When the air corps split away from the army in 1947 to form the U.S. Air Force, Vann opted to return to the army, and despite standing only five feet, six-and-a-half inches and weighing 125 pounds (five feet, eight inches and 150 pounds in later years) he joined the paratroopers. In the Korean conflict he showed courage when he initiated a risky aerial supply mission to U.S. soldiers who were surrounded by Communist forces. He taught Reserve Officers Training Corps at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and completed a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1955. He served at various posts as a logistical officer, graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1958; earned a master's degree in business administration from Syracuse University in New York in 1959; and received the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1961.

In 1962 Vann volunteered to serve in South Vietnam as the senior adviser to the Seventh Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). There he witnessed the endemic corruption of the Saigon regime and its debilitating effects on the South Vietnamese armed forces. In January 1963 his ARVN unit fought the Vietcong at the battle of Ap Bac, where the ARVN showed incompetence and reluctance to engage the enemy, allowing the Vietcong to slip away while costing the lives of U.S. advisers and many ARVN soldiers. The U.S. command in Saigon claimed a victory, although Vann and news reporters at the scene knew the truth. After the U.S. Army brushed aside Vann's reports calling for a new strategy to win the war, he leaked information to journalists in Vietnam and developed close relationships with the the U.S. reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. This was the beginning of Vann's criticism of the manner in which America conducted the war in Vietnam. Upon the completion of his tour of duty in March 1963, Vann returned to the Pentagon for a debriefing that was denied. Frustrated, he retired from the army on 31 July 1963 and began to speak out publicly on the war.

In March 1965 Vann returned to Vietnam as a pacification representative of the Agency for International Development and was assigned to a province near Saigon that had been written off as controlled by the Vietcong. Capable of getting by on one or two hours of sleep at a time, Vann threw himself into his work, driving highways that no one else would use for fear of ambush to visit provincial and village leaders, organizing the distribution of food and supplies to Vietnamese peasants, and training community-defense teams.

In September 1965 Vann issued "Harnessing the Revolution in South Vietnam," a ten-page proposal that argued the South Vietnamese could prevail against the Communist insurgency through the assistance of U.S. military and civilian advisers. These advisers would win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese peasants by capturing the social revolution from the Communists and incorporating it as part of America's anti-Communist crusade. The immediate goal was to utilize peasant support to destroy the Vietcong. The long-term goal was to foster a national government responsive to a social revolution and stable enough to survive after U.S. troops left South Vietnam. As the United States rapidly began to increase its number of combat troops in Vietnam starting in 1965, however, Vann feared that the ARVN would lose any incentive to pursue an aggressive campaign against the Communists, while U.S. troops would alienate the peasants by the indiscriminate use of firepower that would kill and wound civilians and destroy their homes. U.S. military leaders in South Vietnam viewed Vann as a renegade and dismissed his ideas as impractical.

Daniel Ellsberg, an influential intelligence analyst, a protégé of Vann's in Vietnam, and the person who leaked the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, persuaded Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1966 to appoint Vann as the director of the entire civilian pacification program for the III Corps region. The massive Tet offensive launched by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese armies in January 1968 caught U.S. and South Vietnamese forces off guard and undermined the credibility of U.S. leaders who claimed that the enemy was in retreat. While many U.S. civilian and military leaders wrung their hands in dismay, Vann seized the moment to push his plan, calling for sustained military action against what he saw as a weakened enemy and phased military withdrawal to mollify demands at home for an end to the war. The combination of U.S. firepower and increased numbers of South Vietnamese troops could win the war, he argued. This position represented a reversal of his earlier belief in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese peasants.

Vann's ideas caught the attention of the Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who seized upon the strategy, calling it "Vietnamization." On 15 May 1971 Vann received command of the U.S. military operations in the II Corps region, becoming the first civilian in U.S. history to assume a position equivalent to a two-star general and to command military forces in a combat zone. Even as more U.S. forces withdrew and the North Vietnamese put pressure on a crumbling South Vietnamese army, Vann, blinded by personal ambition and commitment to a war that had become his life, remained optimistic that the United States would prevail. On 9 June 1972 Vann, who had shown reckless disregard for his life on many occasions, died when his helicopter crashed while flying at night in bad weather. Many U.S. military and civilian leaders attended his funeral and interment at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on 16 June 1972. Afterward, Vann's family went to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon.

Vann spent nearly the entire decade of the 1960s in South Vietnam. In the early 1960s he called for a social revolution to overthrow the corrupt government of South Vietnam, a pacification program to win the support of the peasant majority, and counterinsurgency to defeat the Communists. He opposed the buildup of U.S. military forces until the Communist Tet offensive in 1968 and then supported U.S. military efforts to defeat the Communists. Vann was both a critic and architect of U.S. policy in South Vietnam, but he, like many Americans, never wavered in the belief that the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a necessary part of cold war strategy.

Vann's papers (1964–1972) are held by the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988), provides the most comprehensive examination of Vann and his involvement in the Vietnam War. Bruce Wetterau, The Presidential Medal of Freedom: Winners and Their Achievements (1996), provides the citation and an overview of Vann's career. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 June 1972).

Paul A. Frisch