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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 fact is that the government of Vietnam in Saigon was an artificial contrivance that enjoyed no significant popular support. The nationalist drive was centered in Hanoi and the Vietcong. We became involved because we viewed the Indochinese conflict as part of our global struggle with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. It was, instead, an indigenous revolution in which we had no legitimate role.
It is, of course, much easier to reach these conclusions now than it was in the early 1960s, when we regarded Russia and China as a Communist monolith and feared Chinese domination of the entire Far East.
The Vietnam War was a limited war, with limited objectives, prosecuted by limited means, with limited public support. Therefore, it was destined to be (and was) a long war, a war so long that public support waned and political decisions by the Congress terminated our involvement, resulting in a victory by the North Vietnamese Communists.
The military did not lose a battle of consequence and did not lose the war. The war was lost by congressional actions withdrawing support to the South Vietnamese government despite commitments by President Nixon.
The most important thing for young people to recognize is the immense challenge to our democratic way of life as this globe struggles to adapt to burgeoning populations, polluting environments, and dwindling resources. And all in a world in which there is no overall rule of law.