- Historic Sites
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
Last year my principal and friend, Rick Elliott, told me that he wanted the Vietnam War to be covered more thoroughly than it had been in the social studies classes at our junior high school in Pryor, Oklahoma. Although Vietnam was our nation’s most recent war, America’s combat role in it had ended before most of our students were born. When you consider that the war was the most divisive event in the past hundred years of our history, it becomes obvious that it is something that desperately needs to be taught in our schools.
I was especially interested in the subject because of my own personal history. I had dropped out of my first year of college in 1967 and enlisted in the U.S. Army, knowing I would almost certainly go to Vietnam. While I knew we were fighting to keep Communists from taking over the government of South Vietnam, I had no sophisticated understanding of the real causes of the war or how things had gotten to the point they were at in late 1967.
I served in Vietnam from March of 1968 through March of 1969 as the flight operations coordinator (specialist fifth class) for an Army helicopter company based near the coastal city of Vung Tau. Although I never had a dull moment there, I was more amazed by and interested in the war that seemed to be going on back in America. While I was in Vietnam, both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and there was rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
After leaving the service in 1970, I pushed the memories of my Vietnam experience into the back of my mind, and I do not remember thinking much about the war until the spring of 1985, when I met Thomas Boettcher. He was a veteran from my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma, and his book Vietnam, the Valor and the Sorrow had just been published. I had never before bought a book about the Vietnam War, and as I read it, I found myself thinking for the first time of the conflict as history.
To prepare myself for teaching my eighth-graders about the Vietnam War, I started by surveying more than seven hundred junior high students in three Oklahoma cities to find out what they already knew and what questions they were most interested in having answered.
I got back statements like “The war was fought to save U.S. prisoners from Vietnam,” “It was really us against ourselves,” “We dropped a bomb on Hiroshima,” “I know that it was as bad as I can only dream,” and “It took place in the Philippines.” The most common responses were:
- 1. Many Americans were killed.
- 2. It took place in Vietnam.
- 3. The United States lost.
- 4. American POWs are still being held.
- 5. It took place in the 1960s and 1970s.
The questions I got back were often discouraging, too. Among them were: “Did they have automobiles back then?,” “How many heroes were there?,” “Did everyone die in it?,” “How many people tried to prevent that war?,” and “What were all of the names of the people who served in the Vietnam War, if you know?”
The five questions asked most often were:
- 1. What was the cause?
- 2. When was the war?
- 3. How many Americans were killed?
- 4. What countries fought in the war?
- 5. Who won?
I then sent surveys to the principals of sixty junior high schools in Oklahoma in an attempt to find out at what grade level the war is usually taught, how much time is usually spent covering it, and the number of veterans involved in teaching the war.
Thirty-five percent of the principals who responded reported that the war is not taught at all in their schools. When it is taught, it is usually part of an eighth-grade American history class, and one to two weeks are devoted to it. Twelve percent of those teaching about the war are Vietnam veterans.
Now that I had a pretty good idea of what students knew and wanted to know about the war, I realized I would need help deciding what they should be taught about the war.
I began writing letters to decision makers who had been in the government during the war, major journalists, authors of books on the subject, leading voices in opposition to the war, and public figures in America today. I asked each person this question: What do you think are the most important things for today’s junior high students to understand about the Vietnam War?
The replies started coming in at once. By now I have received about a hundred, some of which are published here. Virtually everyone took great care in answering my question, and I am very grateful to all who were willing to help me gain a better understanding of the war so that I could do a better job of teaching about it.
The first thing that young people should know is that the United States never fielded better armies.
My years in Congress saw the Vietnam War from its very inception to its very end. I was in the Oval Office with President Johnson in August 1964 right after the Tonkin Gulf incident happened. The President and I were in his office alone. I was Majority Leader of the House of Representatives at the time. The phone rang, and he answered it.
I heard the President say that he wanted immediate retaliation, that he wanted the retaliation to be extensive, that he wanted the Air Force to do more than simply sink the patrol boats that were involved in the affair. He wanted all of the facilities used by the North Vietnamese for the purpose of launching the attack destroyed and rendered unfit for further such operations. The next day the President sent to the Congress a resolution that was known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, asking for authority to wage the attack that he had talked about on the telephone. There was no opposition to the resolution in the House of Representatives. In fact, the vote was unanimous. Only two United States senators voted against it when the resolution reached that body. One was Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon; the other was Sen. Ernest Gruening of Alaska. Incidentally, both of these senators were defeated in the next election by the people of their states.
The first thing that young people of the present generation should know is that the United States never fielded better armies than those that participated in Vietnam. The trouble was political in a sense and in another sense came from the upsurge of radicalism that swept the country and caused a lot of people to try to disrupt our war effort. We were in Vietnam for the same reason we had been in Korea: to stop the spread of communism, particularly in areas of vital interest to the United States. This was in line with what was known as the doctrine of containment, which had been introduced by President Harry Truman with the Greek-Turk loan after World War II. To say that failure to stop the Communists in Vietnam was of no consequence to the United States would be obviously wrong because of the important geographical location of that southeastern Asian country. It is one of the outposts for the defense of southeast and southern Asia, including both the Pacific and the Indian oceans. Also very important were the vital materials and resources that exist in that part of the world. The mistake we made was not to allow the military people unlimited authority to win the war. It could have been done in relatively short order.
The result of our failure to win it means that instead of the United States having the important ports, harbors, and land bases in that part of Southeast Asia, Russia has them. The war was more of a victory for Russia actually than for North Vietnam because North Vietnam does not have the capacity to make full use of the area in case of a widespread international confrontation.
First of all, I hope that your students will learn about history, the expanse of history—not all of it right away!—but more than many of their peers and predecessors seem to have learned. And not just American history! And not try to understand it all at once, because to understand often means to define, often to define too tightly, and if the passage of history teaches us anything, I suspect it teaches that history —that is, our perception of past events—is continually changing and evolving.
What I have told my own children is that there are two purposes to education. One is to be able to share in a cultural pool—to be aware of the reference points (at least the most significant ones) that our society has marched by in its long journey out of the mud. The other is to be able to think independently—that is, to be able to tell the difference between first-rate and second- or third-rate information, because information of itself has no intrinsic value, and not being able to tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate information can be dangerous.
For example, it’s interesting to consider that the Vietnam War—contrary to what many people think—was a war that was entered into with probably more discussion and debate at the top levels of government than any other war we have engaged in. That doesn’t make it good or right or worth having entered. But it might make one a bit more modest in the stance one takes from hindsight—modesty in the face of history being a not ignoble demeanor in my opinion. If good and serious and generally decent people could make such mistakes, what are we doing (what seriousness, for instance, are we bringing to our monitoring of officials?) to prevent such mistakes being made in the future?
For example, people often remark that television affected the outcome of the war by making the home audience so conscious of the horrors of war that large segments of the populace marched in the streets to protest it. It’s true that many people protested the war on the home front, for many diverse reasons, some based on a concern for war or for Vietnam, others for more personal or self-serving reasons. But television almost never, not until the final days of the war, showed anyone the horrors of war. Television news, in fact, refused to show American troops dying until the final days, and certainly there was none of that bloody stuff that is now so much admired for its reality in movies such as Platoon.
To some extent the safe banality of the television coverage made the Vietnam War seem okay, manageable.
My own opinion about television and Vietnam is that its effects were contradictory. To some extent television showed us war (though not its horrors) and turned the audience against it. To some extent, in the safe banality of its coverage (especially in the early years), television banalized war and made it seem okay, manageable, winnable.
In the end what I urge on your students is to live their lives in such a way that they not be burdened by what strikes me as democracy’s most notable drawback—namely, the seeming tendency of democratic peoples to be surprised by life. For if there is one false note in much of the distress and pain that have been expressed about Vietnam, it is this element of surprise, this “Why me?” Why me? is not a tragic cry, alas. Death or injury is awful, terrible. Death or injury in a needless event is even worse. But Why me? or How did I get here? doesn’t help anything. Why me? simply means one hasn’t been watching the road, as people for the most part are not watching the road now. In the great tragedies of bygone times there is no Why me? There are men (and sometimes women) in terrible situations, sometimes railing at the gods, or at God. These are men and women caught up in self-awareness (which is what makes Greek tragedy the powerful thing it is). But to be without self-awareness, to be without history, is to be a child in ignorance, which may be charming or at least tolerable in a very young person but is dangerous and wasteful in a man or woman.
In my view there are three main points to understand about our involvement in the Vietnam War:
First, the U.S. government was unwilling or, perhaps, unable to articulate effectively goals and objectives for our involvement in Vietnam, thus failing to mobilize public support for this sacrifice. Second, the government failed to realize that Dau Tranh (Vietnamese for “struggle”) had both military and political applications and that the Vietnamese Communists gave equal weight to both sides of this equation. Third, once committed to sacrifice, we did not fight to win because of political constraints. We entered negotiations with the Communists without understanding that in their view negotiation means “What is mine is mine and what is yours we will talk about.” To us, compromise is an honorable and reasonable process. To Communists, compromise is weakness. The Communists realize that one cannot win at the bargaining table that which was lost in the war, but one could lose at the table that which has been achieved.
However, the three foregoing points do not suggest that the blood and treasure sacrificed by the United States and, more particularly, U.S. servicemen and women in Vietnam was for naught. Arguably, the non-communist nations of Asia have thrived, and this has been so because of the time bought for them by the sacrifice of our nation and our people. One of the great ironies of the Indochina conflict is that the nations that won the war have lost the peace.
I believe that young Americans have to realize that foreign policy involves difficult choices, and crisp, clean answers to difficult questions are almost impossible to obtain. Hence a steady, consistent approach to world problems, based on sound moral judgments, serves us best. But once set upon a policy course, our system demands that we develop sufficient understanding among our populace to support our actions. Patience is not a well-known attribute of democracy; thus a consistent and credible rationale for our actions must be presented to enable the government to continue its course.
I suggest that there are five things that a junior high school student should understand about the Vietnam War:
- 1. The war was fought in a “noble cause”—defending South Vietnam from a Communist takeover. Events confirmed that a Communist takeover brought great harm to the Vietnamese people; more than a million fled.
- 2. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tried to fight the war “on the cheap.” They did not ask for a congressional declaration of war; they did not mobilize the country behind the war; they did not work out a long-term strategy for winning the war; Lyndon Johnson did not face the issue of whether or not the defense of South Vietnam, and all it entailed, was vital to America’s security.
- 3. American troops, at least until President Nixon began troop withdrawals in 1969, fought as well as (or better than) their elders in World War II or Korea. They were neither victims nor psychopaths (as portrayed in the movie Platoon). They were probably better disciplined than their elders; less damage and fewer civilian casualties were inflicted on the South Vietnamese than on the Koreans during the Korean War.
- 4. The South Vietnamese ally was caught up in a civil war—abetted by outsiders from North Vietnam. The South was historically less united than the North; the South Vietnamese officer corps was the only relatively coherent national organization; hence its members were embroiled in politics. There was no southern counterpart to the extraordinarily well-organized, battle-tested Communist party organization run from Hanoi. Even so, no South Vietnamese army unit ever deserted to the foe. South Vietnamese died in battle in far larger numbers than did the Americans. Some South Vietnamese units—for example, the Marines and the Airborne—were superb; others were badly led, badly trained. South Vietnam suffered from mediocre political leadership. Yet, in peacetime, South Vietnam would have been as prosperous as Taiwan or Singapore. It was outmatched by the North in a war for survival.
- 5. Geography and political constraints made an allied victory impossible under the ground rules that were in effect between 1965 and 1973. Hanoi was able to use Laos and Cambodia freely to reinforce the southern battlefield, always protected by U.S. self-constraints. It was an Indochina war, as seen from Hanoi, if not from Washington. United States forces were not allowed to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. As long as the trail was open, the war could not be won, and peace could not come to the South. Being able to use the trail gave Hanoi the strategic initiative. The North Vietnamese could choose to fight or fall back to the “sanctuaries.” As the United States set it up, they simply could outlast us in a contest of wills.
If you really want to win a war, you’re best off fighting it on your own, with as little help from outside as possible.
Your question is about as tough as a question can be, and I certainly don’t pretend to know the answer. Put another way, how could you explain to an English or Russian kid living in 1860 what the Crimean War had been all about? A century from now will anyone remember Vietnam at all, or was it just a footnote to the twentieth century?
Maybe there are a couple of ways to look at it.
One is to suppose that there were two sets of good guys, one led by John F. Kennedy and the other by Ho Chi Minh, who were equally convinced that the other side was the bad guy. Ten years later, after the loss of nearly two million lives and economic damage on both sides, we decided to call it a draw.
We can also look at it as a local test between Soviet expansionism and American resistance to the Soviets. For now, with Hanoi as a loyal Moscow ally and with Soviet warships based at Cam Ranh Bay, it certainly looks like a Soviet victory. But time has a way of changing such things. In 1939 the Fascists gained a clear-cut victory in Spain over the combined forces of the Communists and democrats. Opposition to the Falange was wiped out, and as long as Franco lived, Spain remained a Fascist dictatorship. Who could have guessed that four decades after Franco’s smashing victory, a peaceful and almost uneventful transition would bring to Spain a liberal political democracy in which dissent and freedom of choice are vigorously encouraged?
Maybe the lesson of Vietnam was this: If you really want to win a war, you’re best off fighting it on your own, with as little help from outside as possible. I watched South Vietnamese fighting spirit evaporate in direct proportion to increases in the level of U.S. aid, combat assistance, and advice that was poured in. It’s just possible that Saigon would have waged a better war if we had simply stayed out. In the early 1960s it cost one of the Trung Lap rangers about thirteen cents to kill a Communist guerrilla. When we began using Guam-based B-52s for that job, the cost rose to about $137,000 for every guerrilla killed. The Saigon troops stood back and laughed at us, until they realized they were laughing at their own doom, and then it was too late. Fed up, the United States pulled out, and the roof caved in.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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:
- 1. The United States was drawn into it slowly, almost a decade after the French lost their former colony of Vietnam and the country was divided between North and South Vietnam.
- 2. In 1950-1953, we had helped South Korea preserve its independence from North Korea, which was, like North Vietnam, a Communist state seeking to unify and dominate the entire country. That was a costly war, as Vietnam was, made especially so because of China’s intervention on North Korea’s side.
- 3. We sought to learn from the Korean experience not to draw China into fighting against us in Vietnam. We were also concerned that Russia might feel forced to take action against us, somewhere in the world, if we tried to conquer its junior partner and ally North Vietnam. So we didn’t try to conquer the North. We simply tried to keep the North from conquering the South. We fought a “limited” war. That made it more difficult to do the things a nation at war typically does, both on the fighting front and on the home front.
- 4. We overestimated the closeness of the Russians and Chinese. We underestimated the determination of the North Vietnamese.
- 5. In the end the lack of a clear objective that Americans could agree upon, and were prepared to sacrifice more lives and resources to obtain, doomed the effort. That did not make the effort immoral. On the contrary, we launched it in order to defend the liberties of others—certainly a noble cause.
- 6. It is pretty widely believed today that the effort was unwise. Conceivably we might have prevailed by invading a portion of North Vietnam and simply blocking the path of North Vietnam’s army and weapons as it tried to move south. That was not done, out of concern that Russia would respond on behalf of its ally North Vietnam; that world opinion would chastise us for invading a little country such as North Vietnam; and that public opinion here at home would not tolerate it.
Students should be told that they must never permit politicians to enter a war they do not intend to win.
Many brave young men died or were wounded in Vietnam. The failure of our policy did not mirror any failure of courage on their part.
There are lessons to be learned from Vietnam. It may be that one of the most important of them is that powerful nations may stumble, though their intentions are good, that tragedy and failure are often the lot of man, even of the citizens of a great and favored nation such as ours.
It is terribly dangerous for a democracy to try to wage an overseas war without formally declaring it and involving the entire population in it. We tried this gambit in Korea and got away with it. We tried again in Vietnam and found ourselves in a terrible tragedy.
The Vietnam War was a political war that imposed restraints on the military that prevented use of the power that we had readily available.
President Johnson made three points: (1) We will not overthrow Ho Chi Minh; (2) we will not invade North Vietnam; (3) we seek no wider war. With respect to No. 1, the only reason to enter a war is to overthrow a government that is doing something that we cannot accept. Consequently, the primary objective should have been to overthrow Ho Chi Minh.
With respect to No. 2, I believe North Vietnam is the only country that involved itself in a war and was able to employ all divisions since it finally concluded that we would never invade its home grounds. Furthermore, it forced our ground troops to fight in South Vietnam, where it was very difficult to tell friend from foe, hence the Calley affair.
With respect to No. 3, the politicians were so afraid that China and Russia would enter the war that they imposed limitations and restraints on our military people that placed them in jeopardy. For instance, the fear that we might damage or even kill a citizen of China or Russia meant that we were never allowed to bomb the airfield at Hanoi, so the North Vietnamese had a sanctuary on which to base their best fighter aircraft.
Tell your junior high students that when they grow up, they must never permit politicians to enter a war they do not intend to win.
I think the most important thing for your students to know about the Vietnam War is that the United States lost. For countries, just like individuals, I think that learning the true meaning of the maxim “You can’t win them all” is an inevitable part of the maturation process. Another point is that of all the tactical mistakes we made, perhaps the most serious was to take on too much of the fighting of the North Vietnamese main force units ourselves, leaving the South Vietnamese to defend the villages. In other words, we started the Vietnamization process far too late. But most important of all, I think we picked a difficult fight in a very faraway place. I am sure the results will help ensure that we pick our fights more carefully in the future.
The United States, which emerged from World War II by far the strongest power in the world, was under the mis-impression until Vietnam that its power was unlimited—that it could accomplish anything anywhere in the world if it seriously undertook to do so. Vietnam proved this to be not the case. Whether because the task was impossible from the start, or because it was poorly executed, or because in the end the American people lost confidence and terminated support—and I think there was an element of all three—the Vietnam War was a monumental failure of a giant-scale national project. America has (thank goodness) had few such failures in modern times. (The Depression was another, in a different area.) Therefore it has left powerful emotions and angry scars.
Don’t depend on TV. Read everything. Find out for yourself. Work on being a member of a free society.
The most important point your students must understand, is that because of our defeat in so-called limited warfare by an eighth-rate power (if that high), our enemies have discovered an Achilles’ heel and are putting it to us in Central America today. We have demonstrated a weakness in this type of conflict, and they are capitalizing on that weakness. Because of that, some blood may be spilled in that area in the future, if we have to invade. Cuba is the problem— not Nicaragua.
I would attempt to teach junior high students that the Vietnam War was the first American war fought without broad popular support, that indeed, opposition was so widespread that some dissidents were so misguided as to belabor veterans like yourself—a definite first in U.S. wars. It was an unwinnable war because the Vietcong had broad popular support and there was an all-pervasive corruption on the part of the South Vietnamese government. One can detest communism (as I do) and still say that since the overwhelming majority of the Viets either wanted it or didn’t care there was no hope of forestalling it. I’m glad you made it home.
The war didn’t just “happen”—as did American participation in World War I, World War II, and Korea. We became involved gradually, starting in 1953 and escalating in 1960-64—but all the time secretly, as two administrations kept the public in the dark about what was really going on and the Oliver Norths of those days were allowed to do their own things. By the time the American people found out about the war, we were already so deeply involved that there was no turning back.
The other side of this problem, however, is the fact that the American public could have known, if people had cared enough to read and think. But they didn’t, preferring not to believe that by 1963, for instance, we had sixteen thousand troops in Vietnam even though we said we didn’t.
Moral: Don’t depend on televised hearings to let you know what’s going on. Read everything. Find out for yourself. Don’t believe the visual media. Work at being a member of a free society. If you don’t, someone else may well cause you to lose your freedom.
Okay? The parallels to Central America should be obvious. I’m definitely against covert wars, believing as I do that if it’s good enough to fight for, it’s worth telling the truth about.
The most important things for today’s young people to understand about the Vietnam War are:
- 1. The Vietnam War was a failure. Not just because the United States did not come away with a victory but because all wars are failures. When a nation goes to war, it means that leaders on both sides failed to resolve their differences by peaceful and civilized means.
- 2. War is not glamorous. Junior high school students are of an age when young boys (girls seem to have much more sense) are inclined to see glory in war. They play war. They watch war movies on television. They spend hours drawing pictures of tanks and airplanes and bloody battles. Try this instead: First draw a picture of your father lying dead on the ground; then draw a picture of your mother burying your baby brother or sister. Does war still look glamorous?
- 3. There were no “good guys” or “bad guys” in Vietnam. There were good people and evil people on both sides. You know the story of the American Revolution. To most of the Vietcong, we Americans were the British. They were the Americans.
- 4. There was, and is, no Rambo.
Those Americans who went to Vietnam fought for freedom, a truly noble cause. It is a cause that continues. You and your comrades-in-arms who faced danger and death in Vietnam fought as well as any Americans have fought in our nation’s history. Vietnam was not so much a war as it was one long battle in an ongoing war—the war in defense of freedom, which is still under assault. This battle was lost not by those brave American and South Vietnamese troops who were waging it but by political misjudgments and strategic failure at the highest levels of government.
The tragedy—indeed, the immorality—of those years was that for the first time in our history our country and its government failed to match the heroic sacrifice of our men in the field. This must never happen again.
First, today’s junior high students should understand that the United States should never undertake a military action that cannot, whether for military or political reasons, be successfully carried out. Second, because there are many situations like Vietnam and Nicaragua where decisive U.S. military action is not appropriate or feasible, the United States needs to exert effective leadership in pursuing alternative means of protecting its security interests.
The most important question I connected with the Vietnam War is how we are to organize a durable peace in a nuclear world. We cannot achieve peace just by hoping for it but must make an organized effort to take appropriate action when the armed battalions begin to move. Collective security is more than a slogan; it is the pillar of peace in the world today.
We can take real satisfaction over the fact that we have put behind us forty-two years since a nuclear weapon has been fired in anger despite the many crises we have had since 1945. I reject the doomsday talk with which we are battering young people these days. We are accustomed to being very critical of political leaders in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that these leaders are not idiots when it comes to nuclear war. The record is to the contrary.
Our participation in Vietnam drastically changed the attitude of Americans about participating in overseas wars.
It was the first war in the history of the United States in which the veterans who returned home were not considered heroes, and it was the first war in the history of the United States that did not have vast public support. The consequence of that war has alerted the American public to press for the nonparticipation of the United States in overseas conflicts.
It is a great mistake for the United States to get involved in any war beyond its zone of direct and vital interests. We are not world saviors—either in Vietnam in the 1960s or in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s.
I think I would tell any young person that the Vietnam War, like many wars, was basically undertaken for economic reasons. President Elsenhower himself said, “The United States must have access to tungsten, which can only be got from China and Vietnam.” There are many dictatorial governments in the world, many much worse than the government of Vietnam. But we don’t see the U.S. government planning to invade them and set up a puppet government. Of course, we do interfere often in various covert ways.
The second important thing to remember about Vietnam is that modern science has put the entire human race on the brink of disaster. Perhaps all life on earth could be wiped out if the wrong buttons get pressed. I don’t think anybody in our country should shrug his or her shoulders and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” We can vote; we can write letters; we can learn; we can argue. We are fortunate in this country to have some very wonderful laws, among them the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
As support from the U.S. public declined, limited U.S. military intervention could not successfully maintain in power a South Vietnamese government whose undemocratic methods lost the support of its own population; and unlimited (i.e., nuclear) intervention would have achieved nothing, while destroying all Vietnam, America’s honor and reputation, and possibly the world.
We lost the Vietnam War. We could have won it. We could have won it easily if from the start we had fought the real enemy, North Vietnam. Instead, we assumed that the enemy was the South Vietnam insurgents, the Vietcong, and we wasted all our energy on them. They were merely cannon fodder, doing whatever the North Vietnamese told them to do to wear us down.
The real enemy, North Vietnam, could easily have been made to surrender if we had attacked the North Vietnamese capital city, Hanoi, with bombs from the start. I know this to be true because I spent most of the war as a prisoner in Hanoi. I watched the North Vietnamese people’s reaction to the bombs. I knew from talking to the prison commissar that they were laughing up their sleeves at our halfhearted efforts in the North and misdirected loss of men in the South. When America finally brought the B-52s into the Hanoi area and conducted concentrated bombings in late 1972, they agreed to negotiate. They would have done so in just the same way if we had brought B-52s in and bombed them the same way the day the war started, eight years before. With our precision delivery methods the casualties to North Vietnamese would have been very light (as they were in 1972), and fifty-eight thousand American lives would have been spared.
The Founding Fathers were correct in writing that only the Congress, only the people, can declare war.
The reason our government chose to settle for halfhearted, self-defeating moves in the Vietnam War was its lack of trust in the American people’s judgment. This lack of confidence brought about an undeclared war, fought on the sly.
Junior high students should realize that the Founding Fathers were correct in writing into the Constitution the provision that only the Congress, only the people, can declare war. If the people don’t understand a war, if they don’t support it, our armed conflicts will degenerate into halfhearted deceptive measures. These usually spell defeat.
And your students should know that soldiers don’t decide on wars. They just follow orders and fight them. In Vietnam our soldiers fought bravely and well.
Thanks for being a schoolteacher. My four sons do the same.
The most important thing for today’s students to understand about the Vietnam War is that while their country entered into the war for moral reasons, it also got out for moral reasons.
The most important thing for your students to understand about the Vietnam War is the limitation on the use of American power abroad. From this follows the corollary that the United States should not commit itself to using force, as in Vietnam, unless that military power can be used successfully.
I leave it to the historians to determine whether the U.S. involvement was moral or not, but I think it is now clear that we were not able to deploy our type of military might successfully against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, who used military forces with much less firepower but with more effectiveness.
One of the most important things to learn in school is that movies lie about deaths from gunshot if they show them to be instantaneous and free of gore, if they make them seem almost fun.
To me the most important thing to understand about the Vietnam War is that it was not a military defeat. We could have continued indefinitely a military occupation of South Vietnam that would have prevented the North Vietnamese from taking over the entire country. To do so, however, would have meant continued immense human, social, and financial expenditure with no conclusive victory in sight.
The fact is that the government of Vietnam in Saigon was an artificial contrivance that enjoyed no significant popular support. The nationalist drive was centered in Hanoi and the Vietcong. We became involved because we viewed the Indochinese conflict as part of our global struggle with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. It was, instead, an indigenous revolution in which we had no legitimate role.
It is, of course, much easier to reach these conclusions now than it was in the early 1960s, when we regarded Russia and China as a Communist monolith and feared Chinese domination of the entire Far East.
The Vietnam War was a limited war, with limited objectives, prosecuted by limited means, with limited public support. Therefore, it was destined to be (and was) a long war, a war so long that public support waned and political decisions by the Congress terminated our involvement, resulting in a victory by the North Vietnamese Communists.
The military did not lose a battle of consequence and did not lose the war. The war was lost by congressional actions withdrawing support to the South Vietnamese government despite commitments by President Nixon.
The most important thing for young people to recognize is the immense challenge to our democratic way of life as this globe struggles to adapt to burgeoning populations, polluting environments, and dwindling resources. And all in a world in which there is no overall rule of law.