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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 second important thing to remember about Vietnam is that modern science has put the entire human race on the brink of disaster. Perhaps all life on earth could be wiped out if the wrong buttons get pressed. I don’t think anybody in our country should shrug his or her shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” We can vote; we can write letters; we can learn; we can argue. We are fortunate in this country to have some very wonderful laws, among them the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
As support from the U.S. public declined, limited U.S. military intervention could not successfully maintain in power a South Vietnamese government whose undemocratic methods lost the support of its own population; and unlimited (i.e., nuclear) intervention would have achieved nothing, while destroying all Vietnam, America’s honor and reputation, and possibly the world.
We lost the Vietnam War. We could have won it. We could have won it easily if from the start we had fought the real enemy, North Vietnam. Instead, we assumed that the enemy was the South Vietnam insurgents, the Vietcong, and we wasted all our energy on them. They were merely cannon fodder, doing whatever the North Vietnamese told them to do to wear us down.
The real enemy, North Vietnam, could easily have been made to surrender if we had attacked the North Vietnamese capital city, Hanoi, with bombs from the start. I know this to be true because I spent most of the war as a prisoner in Hanoi. I watched the North Vietnamese people’s reaction to the bombs. I knew from talking to the prison commissar that they were laughing up their sleeves at our halfhearted efforts in the North and misdirected loss of men in the South. When America finally brought the B-52s into the Hanoi area and conducted concentrated bombings in late 1972, they agreed to negotiate. They would have done so in just the same way if we had brought B-52s in and bombed them the same way the day the war started, eight years before. With our precision delivery methods the casualties to North Vietnamese would have been very light (as they were in 1972), and fifty-eight thousand American lives would have been spared.
The Founding Fathers were correct in writing that only the Congress, only the people, can declare war.
The reason our government chose to settle for halfhearted, self-defeating moves in the Vietnam War was its lack of trust in the American people’s judgment. This lack of confidence brought about an undeclared war, fought on the sly.
Junior high students should realize that the Founding Fathers were correct in writing into the Constitution the provision that only the Congress, only the people, can declare war. If the people don’t understand a war, if they don’t support it, our armed conflicts will degenerate into halfhearted deceptive measures. These usually spell defeat.
And your students should know that soldiers don’t decide on wars. They just follow orders and fight them. In Vietnam our soldiers fought bravely and well.
Thanks for being a schoolteacher. My four sons do the same.
The most important thing for today’s students to understand about the Vietnam War is that while their country entered into the war for moral reasons, it also got out for moral reasons.
The most important thing for your students to understand about the Vietnam War is the limitation on the use of American power abroad. From this follows the corollary that the United States should not commit itself to using force, as in Vietnam, unless that military power can be used successfully.
I leave it to the historians to determine whether the U.S. involvement was moral or not, but I think it is now clear that we were not able to deploy our type of military might successfully against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, who used military forces with much less firepower but with more effectiveness.
One of the most important things to learn in school is that movies lie about deaths from gunshot if they show them to be instantaneous and free of gore, if they make them seem almost fun.
To me the most important thing to understand about the Vietnam War is that it was not a military defeat. We could have continued indefinitely a military occupation of South Vietnam that would have prevented the North Vietnamese from taking over the entire country. To do so, however, would have meant continued immense human, social, and financial expenditure with no conclusive victory in sight.