1968 Vietnam War Statistics

Quote of the Day

Captain's log. Using the lightspeed breakaway factor, the Enterprise has moved back through time to the twentieth century. We are now in extended orbit around Earth, using our ship's deflector shields to remain unobserved. Our mission, historical research. We are monitoring Earth communications to find out how our planet survived desperate problems in the year 1968.

Captain Kirk, Opening for the episode "Assignment: Earth" from Star Trek TOS. People were very aware at the time that 1968 was an unusual year.

Figure 1: US Military Deaths in Vietnam.

Figure 1: US Military Deaths in Vietnam By Year. All data from the Combat Area Casualties Current File (CACCF) hosted by Duke University.

It has been 50 years since 1968, and I have been seeing quite a few retrospectives on television about that tumultuous year. I was in 6th-grade in 1968 and the chaos of that year is still very clear in my memory – I remember spending quite a bit of class time on the Paris peace talks. One lesson was about how the Paris Peace negotiators argued about the shape of the table at which they would sit. Arguing about the shape of a table while people were dying seemed ridiculous to a 12-year boy. After hearing all these recent discussions about 1968, I decided to look at the US Vietnam casualty data (Figure 1) to see what insights I could gain on that year. All my work is done in Excel and my workbook is here.

The war was a regular topic at my family's dinner table. My father was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat, which meant that they did not agree on the war at all. To show you how strange the situation was, my father supported Nixon because Nixon was going to turn up the war's intensity. My mother thought Nixon might work out because he was Quaker and they are opposed to war. Dad's view of Nixon turned out to be closer to fact.

My family used to watch Walter Cronkite on the news every weeknight, and the rise in the weekly casualty reports was very worrisome. You could feel a change in people's attitudes when Walter gave a devastating war critique that created real doubt about the future of the war (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Walter Cronkite Vietnam War commentary on 27-Feb-1968. I remember this news broadcast. It left people stunned.

In Figure 3, you can see how the war's intensity ramped up by looking at how the monthly casualty rates varied. I have highlighted in red the two months (February and May) with the highest casualty rates of the war; these months correspond to two major Vietnamese pushes during the Tet Offensive.

Figure 2: US Vietnam War Dead By Month.

Figure 3: US Vietnam War Dead By Month. All data from the Combat Area Casualties Current File (CACCF) hosted by Duke University.

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4 Responses to 1968 Vietnam War Statistics

  1. Timothy Manuge says:

    Great timing on the topic of the Vietnam war casualties. I just finished watching the Ken Burns & Lynn Novick documentary on The Vietnam War. You can find it on Netflix. The documentary certainly sheds light on why the casualties that you show in your work were as high as they were. I have four (4) neighbours who were all Vietnam vets. So glad they returned alive, though permanently scared from the war. Thank you for your work.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Thank you for the comment. I had a friend who was a Vietnam veteran – a US Marine. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam: 1965, 1968, and 1972. He said that each tour was a different war.

      • 1965: He landed at Danang. They were protecting the world from communism.
      • 1968: He served at Khe Sahn during the siege. He said you could feel the energy come out of the war effort.
      • 1972: Everyone just wanted to get out alive.

      My home town had many WW2 veterans. I don't think they really understood the Vietnam situation.


  2. Malcolm Frame says:

    I can imagine that the discussion around your family's dinner table must have been quite involved. Wasn't you mother opposition to the war in conflict with her support for the Democrats when it was Kennedy and Johnson who initiated and then escalated the war? Conversely, after the Kissinger - inspired attempts to further escalate the war was your father then disappointed that Nixon recognised that the war couldn't be won and acted to pull out US troops?
    It's probably a bit unfair to pose questions like this because it infers that the Democrat/Republican division is an absolute, such that a supporter of one party either accepts or rejects the views of the other. For example, Johnson's "Great Society" programmes and his support for civil rights would attract the support of liberals who would be appalled by his support for the war. To a non-US citizen it is something of a mystery as to how the 19th. century slaver's party became the liberal advocate of civil rights, whilst Lincoln's old party ended up as the party of big business. Maybe this poses a bigger question - how did a society made up of such diverse cultural backgrounds, history and languages end up in the political Democrat/Republican straitjacket?
    It is revealing how your the casualty figure illustrate the course of the war and it reminds me of the newsreels of the time, which are far more graphic than those that we see nowadays. I understand journalists covering the Vietnam war could quote a constitutional right to accompany the troops and report actions independently, whilst nowadays selected journalists are "embedded" and what they can witness and report is quite closely controlled.
    Finally, it's impossible not to look at these numbers and not be aware that each represents a life that could have enriched us all. Wilfred Owen was able to put it better:
    For by my glee might many men have laughed,
    And of my weeping something had been left,
    Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
    The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

    • mathscinotes says:

      I really enjoyed the discussions between my mother and father. My mother didn't care for Nixon or Johnson because each supported the war. She liked Humphrey and supported him – he was from Minnesota and no one in our region believed he supported the war. Dad died in 1971, so I do not know what he would have thought of Nixon administrations conduct of the peace talks.

      Our two-party system worked as long as there was little difference between the two parties. When my mother and father discussed politics, their differences were only ones of degree. Dad wanted a few percent lower taxation, mom wanted to see a bit more help for the poor. The two-party system is in danger of collapsing because the two parties have diverged and now have radically different points of view. Both parties view compromise as evil – our system does not work without compromise

      We are seeing all government communication being viewed as marketing communication. This is very dangerous. Everyone is trying to control the message, including the military. I miss the days of journalism standards. Thank goodness some of our major newspapers (WAPO, NYT) have maintained standards.

      Journalism and the military have always been a problem. The military simply declares everything classified and makes life difficult for the journalists. However, things are improving. For example, we are hearing some military folks expressing concern about our switch to a volunteer (i.e., professional) military. Since our adoption of the volunteer military, we have been in almost constant conflict. I still remember my first engineering supervisor, a Vietnam veteran, telling me that the country will end up regretting having a professional military because we will end up in perpetual conflict. He ended up being correct.

      I took a tour of Ireland a few years ago. I was stunned at the number of WW1 dead in the Irish cemeteries. I left that trip with a feeling of senseless loss that we must all work to avoid in the future. I recently had a dinner with two Chinese engineers, one young and one old. The young Chinese engineer told me how proud he was that China was investing in a military that would stand up to the US – he seemed to look forward to China asserting sovereignty over the South China Sea. I mentioned that the US spends an enormous amount on defense and it is never enough. I then quoted Eisenhower:

      Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

      I also mentioned that the US has spent six trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and is still not secure. The old Chinese engineer nodded and agreed that another arms race will make everyone less secure. The two old-timers have seen arms races before and know that they end up spending an enormous amount of money and making everyone less secure.



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