- Historic Sites
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
My years in Congress saw the Vietnam War from its very inception to its very end. I was in the Oval Office with President Johnson in August 1964 right after the Tonkin Gulf incident happened. The President and I were in his office alone. I was Majority Leader of the House of Representatives at the time. The phone rang, and he answered it.
I heard the President say that he wanted immediate retaliation, that he wanted the retaliation to be extensive, that he wanted the Air Force to do more than simply sink the patrol boats that were involved in the affair. He wanted all of the facilities used by the North Vietnamese for the purpose of launching the attack destroyed and rendered unfit for further such operations. The next day the President sent to the Congress a resolution that was known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, asking for authority to wage the attack that he had talked about on the telephone. There was no opposition to the resolution in the House of Representatives. In fact, the vote was unanimous. Only two United States senators voted against it when the resolution reached that body. One was Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon; the other was Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska. Incidentally, both of these senators were defeated in the next election by the people of their states.
The first thing that young people of the present generation should know is that the United States never fielded better armies than those that participated in Vietnam. The trouble was political in a sense and in another sense came from the upsurge of radicalism that swept the country and caused a lot of people to try to disrupt our war effort. We were in Vietnam for the same reason we had been in Korea: to stop the spread of communism, particularly in areas of vital interest to the United States. This was in line with what was known as the doctrine of containment, which had been introduced by President Harry Truman with the Greek-Turk loan after World War II. To say that failure to stop the Communists in Vietnam was of no consequence to the United States would be obviously wrong because of the important geographical location of that southeastern Asian country. It is one of the outposts for the defense of southeast and southern Asia, including both the Pacific and the Indian oceans. Also very important were the vital materials and resources that exist in that part of the world. The mistake we made was not to allow the military people unlimited authority to win the war. It could have been done in relatively short order.
The result of our failure to win it means that instead of the United States having the important ports, harbors, and land bases in that part of Southeast Asia, Russia has them. The war was more of a victory for Russia actually than for North Vietnam because North Vietnam does not have the capacity to make full use of the area in case of a widespread international confrontation.
First of all, I hope that your students will learn about history, the expanse of history—not all of it right away!—but more than many of their peers and predecessors seem to have learned. And not just American history! And not try to understand it all at once, because to understand often means to define, often to define too tightly, and if the passage of history teaches us anything, I suspect it teaches that history —that is, our perception of past events—is continually changing and evolving.
What I have told my own children is that there are two purposes to education. One is to be able to share in a cultural pool—to be aware of the reference points (at least the most significant ones) that our society has marched by in its long journey out of the mud. The other is to be able to think independently—that is, to be able to tell the difference between first-rate and second- or third-rate information, because information of itself has no intrinsic value, and not being able to tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate information can be dangerous.
For example, it’s interesting to consider that the Vietnam War—contrary to what many people think—was a war that was entered into with probably more discussion and debate at the top levels of government than any other war we have engaged in. That doesn’t make it good or right or worth having entered. But it might make one a bit more modest in the stance one takes from hindsight—modesty in the face of history being a not ignoble demeanor in my opinion. If good and serious and generally decent people could make such mistakes, what are we doing (what seriousness, for instance, are we bringing to our monitoring of officials?) to prevent such mistakes being made in the future?
For example, people often remark that television affected the outcome of the war by making the home audience so conscious of the horrors of war that large segments of the populace marched in the streets to protest it. It’s true that many people protested the war on the home front, for many diverse reasons, some based on a concern for war or for Vietnam, others for more personal or self-serving reasons. But television almost never, not until the final days of the war, showed anyone the horrors of war. Television news, in fact, refused to show American troops dying until the final days, and certainly there was none of that bloody stuff that is now so much admired for its reality in movies such as Platoon.