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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 Vietnam War was a failure. Not just because the United States did not come away with a victory but because all wars are failures. When a nation goes to war, it means that leaders on both sides failed to resolve their differences by peaceful and civilized means.
- 2. War is not glamorous. Junior high school students are of an age when young boys (girls seem to have much more sense) are inclined to see glory in war. They play war. They watch war movies on television. They spend hours drawing pictures of tanks and airplanes and bloody battles. Try this instead: First draw a picture of your father lying dead on the ground; then draw a picture of your mother burying your baby brother or sister. Does war still look glamorous?
- 3. There were no “good guys” or “bad guys” in Vietnam. There were good people and evil people on both sides. You know the story of the American Revolution. To most of the Vietcong, we Americans were the British. They were the Americans.
- 4. There was, and is, no Rambo.
Those Americans who went to Vietnam fought for freedom, a truly noble cause. It is a cause that continues. You and your comrades-in-arms who faced danger and death in Vietnam fought as well as any Americans have fought in our nation’s history. Vietnam was not so much a war as it was one long battle in an ongoing war—the war in defense of freedom, which is still under assault. This battle was lost not by those brave American and South Vietnamese troops who were waging it but by political misjudgments and strategic failure at the highest levels of government.
The tragedy—indeed, the immorality—of those years was that for the first time in our history our country and its government failed to match the heroic sacrifice of our men in the field. This must never happen again.
First, today’s junior high students should understand that the United States should never undertake a military action that cannot, whether for military or political reasons, be successfully carried out. Second, because there are many situations like Vietnam and Nicaragua where decisive U.S. military action is not appropriate or feasible, the United States needs to exert effective leadership in pursuing alternative means of protecting its security interests.
The most important question I connected with the Vietnam War is how we are to organize a durable peace in a nuclear world. We cannot achieve peace just by hoping for it but must make an organized effort to take appropriate action when the armed battalions begin to move. Collective security is more than a slogan; it is the pillar of peace in the world today.
We can take real satisfaction over the fact that we have put behind us forty-two years since a nuclear weapon has been fired in anger despite the many crises we have had since 1945. I reject the doomsday talk with which we are battering young people these days. We are accustomed to being very critical of political leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that these leaders are not idiots when it comes to nuclear war. The record is to the contrary.
Our participation in Vietnam drastically changed the attitude of Americans about participating in overseas wars.
It was the first war in the history of the United States in which the veterans who returned home were not considered heroes, and it was the first war in the history of the United States that did not have vast public support. The consequence of that war has alerted the American public to press for the nonparticipation of the United States in overseas conflicts.
It is a great mistake for the United States to get involved in any war beyond its zone of direct and vital interests. We are not world saviors—either in Vietnam in the 1960s or in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s.
I think I would tell any young person that the Vietnam War, like many wars, was basically undertaken for economic reasons. President Elsenhower himself said, “The United States must have access to tungsten, which can only be got from China and Vietnam.” There are many dictatorial governments in the world, many much worse than the government of Vietnam. But we don’t see the U.S. government planning to invade them and set up a puppet government. Of course, we do interfere often in various covert ways.