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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
As the war in Vietnam progressed and as we poured more and more men into the morass, it became clear to some of us that the original calculation was erroneous. Our motivations for becoming involved were moral and highly ethical and humane, but the basic reasoning was fallacious. It is clear to me that we should not have sent American troops to fight in this war and that a final decision to withdraw our participation was correct and should not have been delayed so long. It seems clear now that the national security of the United States was not involved in the war in Vietnam and that when this became clear, our decision was right to withdraw.
You ask me what are the most important things for junior high students to know about the Vietnam War. My first answer would be that they should understand what a watershed it was in American history. We had been involved in wars like it before (e.g., the Philippines), but this war marked the apogee of American power—or, if you like, imperial aspirations. My next answer is that this war was not an aberration in the way it was fought (see the Philippines, see the Indian wars, the Revolutionary War, and so on). Morally, strategically, there are parallels. Human nature is what it is.
There is a tendency among vets (see Platoon) to picture themselves as victims. Students should understand that—and how—this is and is not the case.
I think that young Americans ought to be told the unvarnished truth about the American performance in Vietnam—militarily and politically—even though much of it is not pleasant.
There should be mention of how we became involved and why. The why was basically to contain “communism” from spreading south from China into Indochina, much as the United States had done in Europe by our assistance to Greece after World War II. However, the situation in Vietnam was dissimilar. It was more a war between the haves (landowners) and the have-nots (peasant farmers) with some religious differences mixed in—Buddhists versus Catholics. Our ally the Saigon government, regardless of its leadership during any particular time, was neither patriotic nor primarily interested in correcting the ills underlying the struggle.
I don’t want to preach about the losses of Vietnam. Each generation somehow discovers its own lessons.
So much for motivation. The initial decision to become involved was by President Kennedy, but, of course, the buildup of the involvement was primarily that of President Johnson, and the wind-down of our participation was a decision made in desperation by President Nixon, and, while necessary, it was not much more than a not very graceful pullout. The truth is: America lost the war in Vietnam. To those critics who contend that America could have won the conflict by greater commitment, had it not been for home-front protesters and a disloyal press in Vietnam, nonsense. Political restraints on our military efforts were a factor, but to have unleashed our forces against the enemy homeland—North Vietnam—would have escalated the conflict to where it might have become World War III.
We could have stayed in Vietnam in a stalemated situation for a much longer time than we did, but, of course, the growing resentment at home about our presence in Vietnam made that politically impossible.
And so a dedicated enemy, willing to accept many casualties and prepared in their Asian way to wait out the impatient Americans, persevered.
The principal lesson of the Vietnam War is that the United States should not intervene in other countries with military forces unless that country is a serious threat to our own security. We should not use military force to dictate the political system of another country—especially small countries that wish to have a system different from ours.
The most important lessons for students to learn from the disastrous Vietnam War: One, America should never be involved in a war where its vital national interests are not at stake. Two, our country should never engage in a war which is not declared by Congress in a formal declaration, as required by our Constitution.
If we could have stopped communism in Asia, it would have been a gigantic step forward. When Eisenhower first sent advisers down there, with no idea of going to war, I thought it was a good thing. When President Kennedy sent fifteen thousand Marines and told them to shoot back, I was bothered, because there was no real decision made at the presidential level to win the war.