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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
To some extent the safe banality of the television coverage made the Vietnam War seem okay, manageable.
My own opinion about television and Vietnam is that its effects were contradictory. To some extent television showed us war (though not its horrors) and turned the audience against it. To some extent, in the safe banality of its coverage (especially in the early years), television banalized war and made it seem okay, manageable, winnable.
In the end what I urge on your students is to live their lives in such a way that they not be burdened by what strikes me as democracy’s most notable drawback—namely, the seeming tendency of democratic peoples to be surprised by life. For if there is one false note in much of the distress and pain that have been expressed about Vietnam, it is this element of surprise, this “Why me?” Why me? is not a tragic cry, alas. Death or injury is awful, terrible. Death or injury in a needless event is even worse. But Why me? or How did I get here? doesn’t help anything. Why me? simply means one hasn’t been watching the road, as people for the most part are not watching the road now. In the great tragedies of bygone times there is no Why me? There are men (and sometimes women) in terrible situations, sometimes railing at the gods, or at God. These are men and women caught up in self-awareness (which is what makes Greek tragedy the powerful thing it is). But to be without self-awareness, to be without history, is to be a child in ignorance, which may be charming or at least tolerable in a very young person but is dangerous and wasteful in a man or woman.
In my view there are three main points to understand about our involvement in the Vietnam War:
First, the U.S. government was unwilling or, perhaps, unable to articulate effectively goals and objectives for our involvement in Vietnam, thus failing to mobilize public support for this sacrifice. Second, the government failed to realize that Dau Tranh (Vietnamese for “struggle”) had both military and political applications and that the Vietnamese Communists gave equal weight to both sides of this equation. Third, once committed to sacrifice, we did not fight to win because of political constraints. We entered negotiations with the Communists without understanding that in their view negotiation means “What is mine is mine and what is yours we will talk about.” To us, compromise is an honorable and reasonable process. To Communists, compromise is weakness. The Communists realize that one cannot win at the bargaining table that which was lost in the war, but one could lose at the table that which has been achieved.
However, the three foregoing points do not suggest that the blood and treasure sacrificed by the United States and, more particularly, U.S. servicemen and women in Vietnam was for naught. Arguably, the non-communist nations of Asia have thrived, and this has been so because of the time bought for them by the sacrifice of our nation and our people. One of the great ironies of the Indochina conflict is that the nations that won the war have lost the peace.
I believe that young Americans have to realize that foreign policy involves difficult choices, and crisp, clean answers to difficult questions are almost impossible to obtain. Hence a steady, consistent approach to world problems, based on sound moral judgments, serves us best. But once set upon a policy course, our system demands that we develop sufficient understanding among our populace to support our actions. Patience is not a well-known attribute of democracy; thus a consistent and credible rationale for our actions must be presented to enable the government to continue its course.
I suggest that there are five things that a junior high school student should understand about the Vietnam War: