Fallen Angels | Study Guide

Walter Dean Myers

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Fallen Angels | Context


Vietnam War

The active involvement of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War lasted from 1954 until 1973. The United States entered into a conflict that had been ongoing for decades. Vietnam was under French colonial rule—as French Indochina—from the 19th century until World War II (1939–45), when Japanese forces occupied the region until their defeat in 1945. France then supported the emperor Bao Dai in establishing the state of Vietnam with a capital in Saigon, in the south. Meanwhile, the pro-communist Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), with its base in the northern city of Hanoi. After years of fighting to unite the country under the leadership of one government, a 1954 peace conference in Geneva—referred to as the Geneva Accords—established two distinct governments, one in the North and one in the South. Reunification elections were planned for 1956, but anti-communist sentiment grew in the South with the rise of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955.

The United States began to provide aid directly to South Vietnam in 1954 as a part of the Cold War (1947–91), which was a geopolitical rivalry between the pro-democratic United States and the pro-communist Soviet Union. In these years, the United States aided the South Vietnamese government in their fight against the Viet Cong, communist sympathizers living in South Vietnam who launched insurgent attacks. Hostilities between the pro-democratic South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong steadily increased, and by 1961, the United States significantly built up its troops in the region to counter the Viet Cong insurgency. President John F. Kennedy (1961–63) and his advisors understood the fight in Vietnam to be a fight against communism throughout Southeast Asia, because the "Domino Theory" suggested that, if one country in a region were to fall to communism, the rest would follow. Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) committed troops to combat in Vietnam in 1965 and increased overall numbers of troops, including both men who volunteered for service and those who were drafted. The high number of casualties and the lack of meaningful progress toward a victory turned American sentiment against the war, especially as its brutality was broadcast on home televisions for the first time.

The United States concluded a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese government—the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—in January 1973. South Vietnam continued to fight for its independence until April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese government captured the southern capital of Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City and uniting Vietnam under a communist government.

Paris Peace Talks

From 1965 forward, a wide variety of peace proposals were presented, and at least five significant proposals for peace were created in the years 1964–72. Soldiers fighting in the war, like the characters in the novel, were kept hopeful by the possibility that peace was near and by the U.S. government's assurances that the North was in retreat. In reality, peace discussions were fraught with problems, and the United States, along with their South Vietnamese allies, struggled to find a successful strategy for dealing with the Viet Cong.

The United States sought a graceful exit from the war as well as one that would not appear to the world to be a defeat. The United States was thus a dedicated participant in the Paris Peace talks and also sought to propose peace through alternative means, including by publishing a multipoint proposal in international newspapers. In each of these actions, the United States sought to protect South Vietnam's government and civilians from revenge and occupation by the North. North Vietnam, by contrast, sought the complete surrender of the South in order to reunify the country under communist leadership. A peace that established two independent nations in the South and the North was finally secured via a private negotiation between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (1923–77) and North Vietnam's negotiator Le Duc Tho (1911–90). The South Vietnamese, who felt excluded from the process, agreed only with the promise of American intervention if the North Vietnamese broke the terms of the 1973 agreement. Nevertheless, this treaty did not protect South Vietnam, which the North finally conquered in 1975 to end the war.

Project 100,000

In 1966, the U.S. military faced a shortage of men deemed eligible by the current standards of physical and mental ability to serve and to wage the ongoing war in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Charles McNamara instituted Project 100,000 to address this shortage by lowering the acceptable score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test to 10 percent from 31 percent. McNamara and President Lyndon B. Johnson reasoned that the extensive training offered by the Armed Forces would offset the lower scores and even make the men more "productive" members of society.

Project 100,000 was touted as a way to raise men out of the "appalling and tragic poverty" in some regions of the United States. To that end, recruitment efforts swept through poor rural and urban neighborhoods, enlisting record numbers of minority soldiers. A 1970 study of the project found that 41 percent of the so-called New Standards Men were African American, compared with 12 percent throughout the rest of the Armed Forces. Because 40 percent of the newly recruited men were sent to the front lines—compared with 25 percent of men otherwise drafted or enlisted—the New Standards Men suffered disproportionate casualties during the Vietnam War. The program is thus responsible for sending a disproportionate number of poor, African American men into combat, and for many, to their deaths in Vietnam. The significant number of African American men on the front lines is reflected in the main character Richie Perry's experience, where he notes, "There were a lot of black guys. I didn't think there would be so many."

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