Vietnam: 25 Years Later

By Will Baker

It seems to me that the Vietnam War fundamentally changed the manner in which America--the citizenry and it’s elected representatives, views war. It also clearly touched the lives of those men and women (and their families) who fought in the conflict, on both sides. Not to mention those that were killed and displaced. Fifty-eight thousand U.S. serviceman died during the war, and nearly three million Vietnamese combatants and civilians perished as a result of the conflict.

When I was in my mid-teens I watched the news images of the fall of Saigon, the former South Vietnamese capital. I can still see our helicopters plucking folks up off of the roof of the U.S. Embassy, as a contingent of marines tried desperately to hold the perimeter during the final stages of the evacuation. I remember that the refugees were shuttled by these helicopters to aircraft carriers, which were on station off of the coast. And since there were so many refugees on the decks of these ships, some of the helicopters actually had to be pushed off into the ocean, so that more room could be made. And then the North Vietnamese Army rolled into the city, and their celebration began. But while they were celebrating, America was licking her wounds. For little Vietnam had humbled us…and we, and the rest of the world knew it. And over this affair, our country would carry a chip on its shoulder to this very day. But why did we become involved in this war, and what lessons from the experience have we carried with us during the past twenty-five years?

Up until 1975, the year that we lost the war, the Vietnamese had been fighting for their independence for close to one hundred years. First against the French colonialists, then against us, and then briefly against the Chinese. And this brings up an interesting point. For one of the main reasons that was cited by our government as a compelling interest for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was to curb communist expansion in the region, by either China or the USSR. Yet after the war ended, one of the first instances of military aggression in that area of the world was a border war between China and Vietnam. And of course, as we watched this spectacle unfold, we were hoping that China (our mutual enemy) would loose. To further add to the irony, I can cite Vietnam’s involvement in helping to shut down the inhumane practices of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia, when the U.S., once again found itself silently applauding Vietnam’s efforts. Politics really does sometimes make strange bedfellows. Yes, In hindsight we now know that all Vietnam really wanted was to govern itself without fear of foreign meddling, regardless of the negative consequences associated with the political system best able to enable this to occur. And the Vietnamese communists were evidently the best, as regards their ability to take advantage of this reality.

It seems to me that we became involved in Vietnam as a result of our fear of communist expansion. And to be fair, under the circumstances, I can understand why. We had, after all, just finished prosecuting the Korean Conflict. Which was, in my opinion, a classic example of the type of communist expansion and aggression in question. And since this experience was relatively fresh in our collective consciousness, we were concerned that it could happen again. But given the benefit of twenty-five years of perspective, I believe that, except for some unfortunate presidential meddling regarding tactical military decision making, the situation in Vietnam was dissimilar to what occurred in Korea. The Vietnamese, clearly, were fighting for their independence. First against the French, and then against us. Sure, for a time we were able to prop up a puppet government in South Vietnam. However given the rampant corruption, and ensuing social injustice associated with that regime, the arrangement was doomed to failure, whereas, in my opinion, the Korean War was clearly the result of an orchestrated communist power-grab. And as this understanding of what was actually occurring in Vietnam gradually began to develop, many Americans, especially student activists began to actively work to derail America’s war effort. This caused disunity of purpose among the international community, and of course, their actions demoralized our troops and placed the politicians in the unenviable position of having to micromanage the war to prevent themselves from being harmed by negative political fallout.

So we came away from the experience with some lessons learned: First, do not begin a war that does not have the strong, broad support of the citizenry, with good prospects for continued support. And second, if we choose to fight a war, we must fight to win it. By the way, this second lesson led, ultimately, to the doctrine of using overwhelming military force, which was clearly on display during the Gulf War. But Senator John McCain hinted at more, when he said something interesting during his trip to Vietnam, that he took to commemorate his experiences there during the war. As you may recall, he is a decorated fighter pilot who spent several years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Hanoi after his plane was shot down. Anyway, he said that he holds no ill will towards the Vietnamese people. And, based on the warm reception that he received, he said that he feels that the Vietnamese hold no ill will towards him. This note of reconciliation, rendered from arguably one of our hotter political heads, seemed very appropriate, and very necessary and perhaps that is the final lesson.

It seems to me that it would be highly productive for our two nations to bury the hatchet. Why shouldn’t we? After all, a large percentage of our collective populations were yet to be born when the war was raging. And now, many of our former war protesters have gone "corporate," and the Vietnamese, well it seems to me that it is asking a lot for them to be forgiving us. After all, we killed nearly three million of them. But reconciliation could help them to get on with their lives. And engaging in trade and exchanging ideas couldn’t hurt either of our countries, and might do some good. So we have learned some practical lessons from this war, and we now have the opportunity to forgive, be forgiven and move forward. That is not quite the same as forgive and forget, but under the circumstances, it is probably better than we could have hoped for twenty-five years ago.

 

 (Essay Collection)