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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 best thing I could tell your students is that when you decide to go to war, you must at the same instant decide to win it. It’s just like having a fight with another fellow: If you go into it halfheartedly, you’re going to get the daylights beat out of you. That’s about what happened in Vietnam. We had some brilliant victories over there, but we also had some dreadful decisions made in Washington, relative to our efforts.
Somewhere in Vietnam there may be a man about my age who nineteen years ago, with a single action, killed all of my squad but me and put me in the hospital for five months. If I could meet him today, I hope I would be enough of a man to shake his hand and buy him a drink. He was a soldier just as we were, and that day he was a better soldier.
Somewhere in Maryland there might be a very old woman who deep-sixed my request, as a conscientious objector, to serve my country for six years in the Peace Corps rather than two in the Army. If I met her today, I hope I would be man enough not to spit in her face.
I guess that’s what I want our children to know.
What should kids learn about Vietnam? I guess they should learn that we went into the war believing a lot of myths, and, I hope, are wiser now. We went into Vietnam, for one thing, believing that world politics could be understood simply as a struggle between ourselves and the Communist bloc. We assumed that the Vietnamese revolution was simply a part of Moscow’s global game and that if we were tough, they would back down as the Soviets did in the Cuban missile crisis. What we didn’t understand was that our opponents in Vietnam—whatever one might think of their political views—were nobody’s pawn. They were fighting for their own country and weren’t going to back down for anything.
I’m glad that your students are studying the Vietnam War. A lot of people from Oklahoma fought and died there.
I don’t want to preach about the losses of Vietnam. Each generation somehow discovers its own lessons. I only hope that your students demand to know the full truth about a conflict before they make a personal decision on whether to risk their lives. The government unfortunately did not tell us the truth about Vietnam, and they are not telling the truth about Central America today.
I wish you a more peaceful world than that of my generation.
My own generation was fed John Wayne movies that painted a romanticized picture of war, so I fear such things as Rambo.
Young people are optimistic by nature, and that is all to the good; but I think that it is important for them to recognize that there are distinct limits to the power of any nation, the United States included. The thing that misled policy makers at each stage of the Vietnam escalation was the underlying assumption that the United States would succeed no matter how difficult or seemingly intractable the problem was. In making decisions on such matters, we must take into account the possibility of failure and try to weigh its possible consequences. I would also stress, obvious though it is, the grimness of war. My own generation was fed a stream of John Wayne movies that painted a very romanticized, bloodless picture of war, and I fear that today’s junior high students may be similarly beguiled by such things as Rambo. It is important to make clear to them in the most effective way possible that war is indeed hell and not at all the way it is often treated in the popular media.
It seems to me that the lessons of Vietnam spread far beyond the borders of that country: