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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
Second, America’s motives in Vietnam were entirely honorable: to help defend a society under attack. We were not there as imperialists or colonialists. We simply wanted to prevent an admittedly imperfect system and society from being changed by force into a totalitarian one.
Third, good intentions and efforts don’t always succeed (in world affairs or in life). We had much more military might than the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, but we were fighting in their land and largely on their terms. And they had more patience and stamina than we did. Basically, the “good guys” don’t always win.
Fourth, the war was very destructive not only in Vietnam but also in America. It divided American society, undermined faith in our political system, damaged our economy, and—a lasting effect—makes it very difficult, even today, to maintain public support for United States commitments to other small and vulnerable nations. People remember, and are suspicious.
Fifth, if there was serious doubt about who would create a better society for the Vietnamese people—our Vietnamese allies or the Communists—there should be no such doubt today. The unhappy history of Vietnam over the past decade—with its constant political and religious suppression, its “reeducation” camps, the tens of thousands of boat people risking their lives to flee the country, the poverty and human misery—offers convincing evidence that Vietnam would have been much better off had we been able to prevent the Communist takeover.
The most important thing is that they know it’s the same as it ever was. It hurts. Agony is agony tho’ from a bullet or a broadsword. It ever hurts.
I believe the most important lesson learned from the Vietnam conflict was that the advice of President Dwight Elsenhower in 1955 should have been heeded when he stated the United States should not be involved in land warfare and land conflicts in Southeast Asia. If Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had followed this advice, there would have been no Vietnam.
It was a disastrous, insane, imperial invasion of a weirdo Third World country. It will leave a deep scar in the American soul for one generation. Trust the CIA, not the military, for estimates about military events.
Following the end of U.S. involvement in Indochina, Gen. Maxwell Taylor stated the conditions under which he thought it was appropriate to commit U.S. troops overseas. I subscribe to General Taylor’s criteria and believe these maxims must be adhered to in the wake of our misfortunes in Vietnam. First, the objectives of the commitment must be explainable to the man in the street in one or two sentences. Second, there must be clear support of the President by Congress. Third, there must be reasonable expectation of success. Finally, there must be a clear American interest at stake.
The United States must be careful not to interpret events occurring in a different land in terms of its own history, politics, culture, and morals.
I’d suggest the following things about the Vietnam War: