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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
Vietnam was like the Battle of the Somme in 1916, a conflict in which a lot of fine people on both sides were killed in vain. Like the Somme, Vietnam had no appreciable effect on history, except to remind survivors that war is a tragic business never to be undertaken lightly. For a junior high school student (or anyone else), I think the best prescription is to study history, history, and more history. As someone else said, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.
I would put first the very hard problem of deciding when your support to an ally should be held back. We should have let South Vietnam be taken over before we did, but that was a choice each President rejected, for powerful reasons. How do you keep out of that bind without losing more than makes sense?
I believe the final view of our success and/or failure in Vietnam will not be established for some time. However, several lessons from our involvement in Vietnam come to mind. They are:
—We must ensure that any major foreign policy commitment has the full support and understanding of the American people, for it is through their sons and daughters and their tax dollars that our power and influence are projected. Without such support a protracted U.S. involvement cannot succeed.
—The United States must have a clear understanding of the historical processes at work. The United States viewed the Vietnam War as the first step in China’s drive to expand its influence throughout Southeast Asia, forgetting the long history of fighting between China and Vietnam. In fact, Chinese-Vietnamese hostility reemerged soon after our withdrawal.
—The United States entered the Vietnam War viewing it as another Korea. In fact, the causes for the war, the topography, and the methods used by the enemy were very different.
—The United States essentially fought the war for the South Vietnamese. In future conflicts of this type, every effort must be made to encourage the beleaguered people of a country to fight for their own survival, as is being done in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.
Our participation in Vietnam was right, albeit poorly conducted. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the collapse of South Vietnam, we have witnessed the mass exodus of the boat people, and we have seen Vietnam’s economy deteriorate to a point where it is the poorest major nation in the world today. We fought to spare the South Vietnamese the inevitable consequence of economic failure inherent in a Marxist dictatorship as well as to protect their right of independence and right to self-determination. Our loss was their loss.
However, other nations of Southeast Asia, those that formed the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) alliance, benefited. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore said it best when he stated that the U.S. effort in Vietnam gave ASEAN the time to become economically self-sufficient.
The United States learned in Vietnam that there are limits to its power and that to exceed those limits invites tragic consequences.
The American soldiers who fought in the war did so out of a sense of duty to their country, but their country betrayed them by sending them to an unconscionable war.
This war had a devastating impact on the American public, creating a sense of confusion over purpose and a buildup of mistrust in our high government officials. More important, many precious American lives were lost. To honor these brave men and women and all those who willingly answered their nation’s call, we must give our solemn pledge and pursue all honorable means to establish a just and lasting peace in the world, that no future generation need suffer in this way again.
My generation of leaders believed in the 1960s that there was a joint understanding between the Soviet Union and Red China to spread the philosophy of communism throughout Southeast Asia, so that they would have no trouble controlling that area of the world. We were conscious of the grievous default on the part of European nations that permitted Hitler and the Third Reich to gain power and control over most of Europe. We felt that aggression in Southeast Asia had to be stopped at its inception, or it would spread into the Pacific, to the Philippines, and even as far as Australia and New Zealand.