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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
- 1. War is no way to solve problems between nations.
- 2. Sophisticated weapons don’t win wars; the spirit and determination of the people who fight are what determine the outcome.
- 3. It is a mistake to think of communism as being one and the same thing in every country where it appears. Chinese communism is very different from Soviet communism; the system in each country where it appears is colored by the culture and history of that country.
- 4. We need to have more concern for poverty and hardship and sickness and backwardness of education in underdeveloped countries. We should be giving a helping hand rather than trying to act as world policemen.
- 5. So long as we preserve here at home the remarkable freedoms bequeathed to us by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we have nothing to fear from communism. Nicaragua is not about to invade the United States. Vietnam was not a real threat to us. Cuba is not a real threat to us. We are indeed world rivals of the Soviet Union, but I believe we must contend with Russia by setting an example of democracy, rather than by threatening the use of arms wherever our rival seems to be making some headway.
Congress, the press, and the interested public sat back and let LBJ and Nixon go their own way in Vietnam without scrutiny. Ford and Kissinger wanted to make Angola an American war. Reagan for six years now has wanted to make El Salvador/Nicaragua an American war, but the Congress, press, and attentive publics have so far prevented it.
To paraphrase an old quote, wars are too important to be left to either generals or Presidents.
Vietnam was a great tragedy for our country—the most divisive event in American history since the Civil War. To be sure, our original motives were good: to help the South Vietnamese preserve their independence and freedom from Communist aggression. But our strategy was flawed, our Saigon ally corrupt and incompetent. We were fighting on unfamiliar terrain at the farthest distance from our homeland, against an enemy that, although poorly equipped, was operational in its own backyard.
It has become a cliché to say that we lost the Vietnam War at home. This is not true. The war was lost on the ground in Vietnam. Many of the dissenters and opponents of the war raised legitimate questions. The cost of the war—in lives and our national treasure and in the effect it had on our souls—was enormous. Even if we had been able to achieve our objective, it would not have been worth it.
The Americans who fought in Vietnam were just like you and me and your students. They represented our country in both its strengths and its weaknesses. They deserve our respect for their service and their sacrifice. But the leaders who planned and executed the war did not understand what they were getting into. They attempted to accomplish something that was beyond their reach in the honest belief that Americans could do anything anywhere. In this they were tragically wrong.
It is important that in learning the lessons of Vietnam, we not lose faith in ourselves. We continue as a nation to stand for something special in the world, and we must not lose our optimism and confidence. The values and ideals that we stood for were correct, but it was the wrong war in the wrong place—a place we did not know.
Many of the current crop of Vietnam movies make the war seem exciting and glamorous. Well, sometimes it was exciting, but it was never glamorous. Tell your students that in the movies it’s just acting, but in Vietnam, as you know personally, it was the real thing.
First, the political and military leaders of the United States cannot and must not lie to the American people about their major security concerns.
Second, no controversial policy can ever succeed without the support of the American people.
Third, no American must ever be called upon to sacrifice his life for a cause that is poorly understood, blurred, or deceptively explained by the administration.
I think there are several basic points students should understand.
First, how we came to be involved in the war. It happened incrementally over many years. That’s true of many events in history (and in our own lives). There is no single, big decision. Just many small decisions that lead us down a road that eventually offers fewer and fewer turnoffs. And, finally, in the case of Vietnam, deadends in a war we couldn’t win.