This week marks the 50th anniversary of the journalist Peter Arnett’s Vietnam dispatch for the Associated Press that included the much-misquoted quotation “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The phrase has become among the most iconic in our political discourse. During last month’s brief government shutdown, Tom Hicks Jr., who co-chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, compared Democrats to “the apocryphal commander in the Vietnam War” who was willing to “destroy the village to save it.” Last year a columnist for MarketWatch suggested that President Trump was willing “to destroy America in order to ‘save’ it.”
The metaphor is everywhere. It’s been applied to efforts to revitalize suffering neighborhoods and rebuild great companies. Newspapers, cities, sports teams, universities, private clubs: all have been described as being threatened with destruction in order to be saved. But where did it really come from? Although Arnett’s reporting, which attributed the quotation to an anonymous “United States major,” is usually credited as the origin, the truth is more complex.