Fifty years ago this week the United States ended its involvement in the war in Vietnam. For the uninitiated, before World War II the nations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were colonies of France and called “French Indochina.” After the war Vietnam declared itself independent but France attempted to regain control. But in 1954 at the battle of Diem Bien Phu fell to Vietnamese troops under the command of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969). Ho and his Communist allies controlled North Vietnam but not South Vietnam even though they wanted to. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the United States supported South Vietnam in the hopes to prevent the spread of Communism. By the mid 1960s we were sending combat troops into Vietnam even though there was never a declaration of war. By the late 1960s our government realized that we could not defeat North Vietnam and began negotiating a peace treaty.
On January 27, 1973 we signed a cease fire and pulled out. At the time President Nixon proclaimed victory and made it sound like this would cease hostilities between North and South Vietnam. It didn’t. When our troops pulled out so did our cameras and it came as a surprise to many but the war continued and North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam when their capital, Saigon, fell.
And while the Nixon administration tried hard to claim we didn’t lose the war it was clear that we did. Through a series of lies, missteps and miscalculations our government convinced large parts of our country that our cause was just and the result was honorable. In that time somewhere around 2.5 million troops served in Vietnam and 60,000 died. Countless came back with wounds, both visible and invisible. We learned about napalm, Agent Orange and PTSD.
Did they all suffer and die in vain? I hope not. I hope it brings us to the realization that we should never go to war without a clear understanding of what victory will look like. We had a vague idea that we would “stop the Communist advance” but never recognized that some residents of South Vietnam supported the North. We didn’t recognize that we couldn’t always tell who the enemy was or what a random person would do. We dropped troops in the middle of the jungle and told them to hold our position. We didn’t mark success by territory taken but by the daily death count (remember that from the TV news? Each week we were told how many North Vietnamese were killed, how many South Vietnamese and how many Americans).
Since then we’ve sent troops into different places, oftentimes with the same result. Let us honor our Vietnam vets but promising we will do better by today’s veterans