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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
The United States, which emerged from World War II by far the strongest power in the world, was under the mis-impression until Vietnam that its power was unlimited—that it could accomplish anything anywhere in the world if it seriously undertook to do so. Vietnam proved this to be not the case. Whether because the task was impossible from the start, or because it was poorly executed, or because in the end the American people lost confidence and terminated support—and I think there was an element of all three—the Vietnam War was a monumental failure of a giant-scale national project. America has (thank goodness) had few such failures in modern times. (The Depression was another, in a different area.) Therefore it has left powerful emotions and angry scars.
Don’t depend on TV. Read everything. Find out for yourself. Work on being a member of a free society.
The most important point your students must understand, is that because of our defeat in so-called limited warfare by an eighth-rate power (if that high), our enemies have discovered an Achilles’ heel and are putting it to us in Central America today. We have demonstrated a weakness in this type of conflict, and they are capitalizing on that weakness. Because of that, some blood may be spilled in that area in the future, if we have to invade. Cuba is the problem— not Nicaragua.
I would attempt to teach junior high students that the Vietnam War was the first American war fought without broad popular support, that indeed, opposition was so widespread that some dissidents were so misguided as to belabor veterans like yourself—a definite first in U.S. wars. It was an unwinnable war because the Vietcong had broad popular support and there was an all-pervasive corruption on the part of the South Vietnamese government. One can detest communism (as I do) and still say that since the overwhelming majority of the Viets either wanted it or didn’t care there was no hope of forestalling it. I’m glad you made it home.
The war didn’t just “happen”—as did American participation in World War I, World War II, and Korea. We became involved gradually, starting in 1953 and escalating in 1960-64—but all the time secretly, as two administrations kept the public in the dark about what was really going on and the Oliver Norths of those days were allowed to do their own things. By the time the American people found out about the war, we were already so deeply involved that there was no turning back.
The other side of this problem, however, is the fact that the American public could have known, if people had cared enough to read and think. But they didn’t, preferring not to believe that by 1963, for instance, we had sixteen thousand troops in Vietnam even though we said we didn’t.
Moral: Don’t depend on televised hearings to let you know what’s going on. Read everything. Find out for yourself. Don’t believe the visual media. Work at being a member of a free society. If you don’t, someone else may well cause you to lose your freedom.
Okay? The parallels to Central America should be obvious. I’m definitely against covert wars, believing as I do that if it’s good enough to fight for, it’s worth telling the truth about.
The most important things for today’s young people to understand about the Vietnam War are: