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What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?
That was the question an Oklahoma high school teacher sent out in a handwritten note to men and women who had been prominent movers or observers during the Vietnam War. Politicians and journalists and generals and combat veterans answered him. Secretaries of Defense answered him. Presidents answered him. Taken together, the answers form a powerful and moving record of the national conscience.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
- 1. The United States was drawn into it slowly, almost a decade after the French lost their former colony of Vietnam and the country was divided between North and South Vietnam.
- 2. In 1950-1953, we had helped South Korea preserve its independence from North Korea, which was, like North Vietnam, a Communist state seeking to unify and dominate the entire country. That was a costly war, as Vietnam was, made especially so because of China’s intervention on North Korea’s side.
- 3. We sought to learn from the Korean experience not to draw China into fighting against us in Vietnam. We were also concerned that Russia might feel forced to take action against us, somewhere in the world, if we tried to conquer its junior partner and ally North Vietnam. So we didn’t try to conquer the North. We simply tried to keep the North from conquering the South. We fought a “limited” war. That made it more difficult to do the things a nation at war typically does, both on the fighting front and on the home front.
- 4. We overestimated the closeness of the Russians and Chinese. We underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese.
- 5. In the end the lack of a clear objective that Americans could agree upon, and were prepared to sacrifice more lives and resources to obtain, doomed the effort. That did not make the effort immoral. On the contrary, we launched it in order to defend the liberties of others—certainly a noble cause.
- 6. It is pretty widely believed today that the effort was unwise. Conceivably we might have prevailed by invading a portion of North Vietnam and simply blocking the path of North Vietnam’s army and weapons as it tried to move south. That was not done, out of concern that Russia would respond on behalf of its ally North Vietnam; that world opinion would chastise us for invading a little country such as North Vietnam; and that public opinion here at home would not tolerate it.
Students should be told that they must never permit politicians to enter a war they do not intend to win.
Many brave young men died or were wounded in Vietnam. The failure of our policy did not mirror any failure of courage on their part.
There are lessons to be learned from Vietnam. It may be that one of the most important of them is that powerful nations may stumble, though their intentions are good, that tragedy and failure are often the lot of man, even of the citizens of a great and favored nation such as ours.
It is terribly dangerous for a democracy to try to wage an overseas war without formally declaring it and involving the entire population in it. We tried this gambit in Korea and got away with it. We tried again in Vietnam and found ourselves in a terrible tragedy.
The Vietnam War was a political war that imposed restraints on the military that prevented use of the power that we had readily available.
President Johnson made three points: (1) We will not overthrow Ho Chi Minh; (2) we will not invade North Vietnam; (3) we seek no wider war. With respect to No. 1, the only reason to enter a war is to overthrow a government that is doing something that we cannot accept. Consequently, the primary objective should have been to overthrow Ho Chi Minh.
With respect to No. 2, I believe North Vietnam is the only country that involved itself in a war and was able to employ all divisions since it finally concluded that we would never invade its home grounds. Furthermore, it forced our ground troops to fight in South Vietnam, where it was very difficult to tell friend from foe, hence the Calley affair.
With respect to No. 3, the politicians were so afraid that China and Russia would enter the war that they imposed limitations and restraints on our military people that placed them in jeopardy. For instance, the fear that we might damage or even kill a citizen of China or Russia meant that we were never allowed to bomb the airfield at Hanoi, so the North Vietnamese had a sanctuary on which to base their best fighter aircraft.
Tell your junior high students that when they grow up, they must never permit politicians to enter a war they do not intend to win.
I think the most important thing for your students to know about the Vietnam War is that the United States lost. For countries, just like individuals, I think that learning the true meaning of the maxim “You can’t win them all” is an inevitable part of the maturation process. Another point is that of all the tactical mistakes we made, perhaps the most serious was to take on too much of the fighting of the North Vietnamese main force units ourselves, leaving the South Vietnamese to defend the villages. In other words, we started the Vietnamization process far too late. But most important of all, I think we picked a difficult fight in a very faraway place. I am sure the results will help ensure that we pick our fights more carefully in the future.