Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day the last American soldier left Vietnam, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords two months earlier.
58,220 Americans died in that war. More, actually. Those are the military casualties alone, according to the National Archives. Many others died as well in the cause of freedom.
I was born in 1964 and watched footage from the war on the nightly news as I grew up. At the time, the footage was on film and actually developed in Japan and then flown to the United States, but much of it wound up on television.
That made Vietnam the first “television war,” where the carnage was often brought into Americans’ living rooms. As a kid, it was weird, because there wasn’t a time during my childhood when the war wasn’t part of the background of daily life. I was 11 when the war finally ended with the surrender of the Vietnamese government. I remember the helicopter evacuations well.
By the time I understood what was going on the anti-war movement was in full swing. I remember Kent State, vaguely, and my parents gave me a book about it (a picture book, believe it or not) at some point. At the time I bought the propaganda that Nixon and the military were on the wrong side, although I never thought of our soldiers as the bad guys as so many did.
But over the years I saw things very differently. The killing fields of Cambodia, which so many blamed on the U.S., proved to me that communism was evil. The Vietnamese refugees who had been betrayed not once but twice were a constant reminder of communism’s evil.
Even as a teen, I began to understand that there are things more evil than war, and my experiences over the years proved that to be true. I developed an abiding hatred for communism, and a deep suspicion of the anti-military sentiment I saw all around me. I am not a militarist, but I believe in defending the West.
In graduate school, I studied the war and came to the conclusion that Lyndon Johnson both started the real war for Americans (we had dipped our toe in years before, but weren’t deeply engaged until Johnson dove in) and lost it through grotesque mismanagement. Nixon promised to “Vietnamise” the war by handing over the ground fighting to Vietnamese troops and eventually succeeded in fulfilling that promise.
It was an imperfect solution, but Johnson’s fecklessness had ensured victory would be impossible. Americans had turned against the war.
At the time he was going for a Korean-type stalemate, and likely would have achieved that but for Watergate. The fall of Saigon and the fall of Nixon were largely contemporaneous. Ford tried to salvage the South by restarting the bombing of the North as we had promised should the fighting break out again, but Congress forbade it.
Congress drove a stake through the South’s heart, but Johnson’s fecklessness lost the war years before.
I bring up this history (or my version of it) in order to make a point: American soldiers were betrayed by their government. They were betrayed by Johnson and by Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense at the time. They sent soldiers–most of whom were draftees–into a war zone with no strategy to win the war, demanded they do so with bad tactics and bad leadership, and never properly defended the troops against their domestic critics.
Teenagers risked their lives to come home to cries of “baby killer.” They were vilified, abandoned by their leadership, and in the shame of losing the war were forgotten by the country. They never were properly honored.
American citizens could and should have done better, but our leaders should have backed up the troops. They failed to do so.
Fifty years after fleeing Saigon with our tails between our legs (thanks Congress!) the soldiers have begun to get recognized. But hardly enough.
March 29th has been “Vietnam Veterans’ Day” since 2017, marking the day when it all fell apart. What an awful day to say “thank you” to our Vietnam Vets.
Unfortunately, there is no day that people could agree on that would celebrate their courage and sacrifice, and that is the fault of America’s past leaders. There are no great victories to commemorate. There was no triumphant return. There was, in fact, nothing about the war itself to celebrate. We achieved nothing aside from rending our country’s soul, for which we still pay the price.
But there are those soldiers. Their sacrifice and bravery were no less commendable than any others’. The stain of loss is not theirs to bear. They are, in fact, American heroes.
I wish I had the proper words to thank you who fought and commemorate the bravery of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but I have nothing more than this.