February 07, 2015

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

On February 7, 1968, American bombs, rockets and napalm obliterated much of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre — killing hundreds of civilians who lived there.

Later that day, an unidentified American officer gave Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett a memorable explanation for the destruction.

Arnett used it in the opening of the story he wrote:

   “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a U.S. major said Wednesday.
   He was talking about the grim decision that allied commanders made when Viet Cong attackers overran most of this Mekong Delta city 45 miles southwest of Saigon. They decided that regardless of civilian casualties they must bomb and shell the once placid river city of 35,000 to rout the Viet Cong forces.

After Arnett’s story was published in newspapers the next morning, February 8, 1968, the unnamed major’s remark became one of the most infamous war-related quotes in modern history.

To this day, it is still used as a quotation that epitomizes the brutal absurdities of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular.

The veracity of the quote has also been a subject of controversy. Since Arnett did not identify the officer who supposedly used the line, some people have questioned whether anyone actually said it.

In 2006, a Vietnam veteran named Michael D. Miller created a website titled “Saving Ben Tre.” On that site, Miller claims to have been present when a “Major Booris” said something very close to what Arnett reported.

Miller gives the quote as: “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.”

However, like Arnett’s report, Miller’s version has been disputed.

More significant to the people of Vietnam is the issue of whether Ben Tre actually had to be destroyed.

The U.S. military’s official explanation of why “it became necessary to destroy the town” is that it had been infiltrated by thousands of Viet Cong.

Thus, their rationale went, trying to oust the VC in ground-level fighting, from street to street, would have caused a high number of American casualties and even more civilian casualties.

Perhaps they were right. But the outcome described in Arnett’s news story doesn’t quite smell like victory:

U.S. advisers said the heavy allied firepower hurled on the city to drive out the Viet Cong probably contributed largely to the deaths of at least 500 civilians and possibly 1,000. South Vietnamese officials say the enemy dead totaled 451. About 50 Vietnamese soldiers died, along with more than 20 Americans...Lt. Col James Dare of Chicago, commander of U.S. Advisory Team 93, said “we will never know for sure” the number of civilians who died…Maj. Chester L. Brown of Erie, Pa., spent hours over the city as an Air Force forward air controller directing helicopter and fighter-bomber attacks. “It is always a pity about the civilians,” he said.

The story went on to say:

U.S. officials reported it was impossible to determine the attitude of the city’s residents to the bombing and artillery fire. “Most of those we see around appear mighty relieved that they survived,” one official said, “But I know that there are lots of refugees, maybe 10,000 to 15,000, outside of town in a camp and they may not be so happy.”

I suspect that last quote was a bit of an understatement.

Related post: Variations on “It became necessary to destroy the town…” – from Vietnam to Afghanistan

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February 02, 2015

An update on the origin of the term “a self-made man”…

If you start looking into claims about the origins of common phrases, you find that many of those claims are myths that have simply been repeated so long that they came to be cited as true.

Some of these bogus phrase “origins” are based on the earliest example recorded in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary or some other authoritative source.

Now, by searching resources like Google Books it is much easier to verify — or disprove — claims about the “first use” of phrases.

And, it’s not uncommon for modern researchers to find out that what has long been called the origin or earliest recorded use of a phrase is neither.

For example, many books and websites say the term “a self-made man” was coined by the American politician Henry Clay (1777-1852).

While serving as the U.S. Senator for Kentucky, Clay made a speech on the floor of the Senate on February 2, 1832 in which he said:

“In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the first recorded use of the term “self-made men.”

Thus, writers of a number of books and Internet posts have assumed that this was the origin of both “self-made men” and the singular version “self-made man.” 

But, in fact, it wasn’t.

I discovered this by using another great online research tool, Newspaper Archive.com, has searchable PDF copies of American newspapers going back to the early 1700s.

I did a search in NewspaperArchive.com and quickly found an earlier use of “self-made man.”

It’s in a letter signed by a “Prof. Newman” that was published in the October 9, 1828 issue of the Delaware Advertiser and Farmer's Journal.

The heading above the letter is “A SELF MADE MAN” (with no hyphen).

Newman’s letter is about Roger Sherman (1721–1793), the Connecticut statesman and politician who served on the “Committee of Five” that drafted the Declaration of Independence and later served as Connecticut’s Senator in the new U.S. Congress.

Professor Newman’s letter notes that Sherman rose from humble beginnings to “the Halls of our Congress” and “was a self made man.”

So, while the term “a self-made man” is associated with the date February 2nd, the reason for the association is that it has long been believed that Henry Clay’s speech on February 2, 1932 was the origin of the term.

I have now disproved that belief.

Stop the presses on the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary! I have an edit…

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