Many reading this probably don’t know it, but at 1:00 PM this afternoon [Memorial Day, May 28, 2012] the Pentagon will host a “Welcome Home” ceremony for Vietnam War veterans at the Vietnam Memorial on the Washington DC Mall. If it actually comes off, it will be a good thing. A lot of very brave men fought nobly in that conflict, only to return home to be treated with scorn and disrespect.
I still remember my own reception while out-processing at Oakland Army Base following my second Vietnam tour, when we were warned “Don’t wear your uniforms into town.”
A small number of Vietnam veterans (like now U.S. Senator John Kerry, who on April 22, 1971, declared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that between 60 and 80 percent of U.S. forces in Vietnam were “stoned 24 hours a day” and that we were behaving “in [a] fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan”), along with some “veteran” imposters, horribly maligned our forces and misled large numbers of Americans back at home. Yet even Senator Kerry ultimately acknowledged (almost exactly three decades
later) on Meet the Press that “I think our soldiers [in Vietnam] served as nobly, on the whole, as in any war . . . .”
And yet, overwhelmingly, despite such unfounded attacks, those veterans have kept their faith with America and recognize that their cause was just. Polls show that three out of every four Vietnam veterans enjoyed their service, and more than 90 percent say they are glad they served. Indeed, more than two-thirds responded in one poll that they would have willingly gone back again even if they knew the final outcome.
As we honor those fine men (and some outstanding women who served bravely in Vietnam as well) on this Memorial Day, it may be time to reassess the conventional wisdom that led Congress in 1973 to betray their sacrifice and caused generations since to believe it was a “senseless” and “unwinnable” war. Put simply, we need to revisit the debates that so divided and traumatized this country four decades ago.
The Protesters Got It Wrong
I was more than a little amused earlier this month when the Boston Globe ran one of the few stories I’ve seen about today’s event, and in the process quoted anti-Vietnam activist Tom Hayden (perhaps best known as the former Mr. Jane Fonda). While not necessarily opposed to the commemoration, Hayden quipped: “I hope it can be done without recycling the old debates.”
This is in reality a common theme among prominent anti-Vietnam activists. In 2000 we sought to “recycle” the old constitutional and international law debates about the war in connection with a conference at the University of Virginia Law School on the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and we were turned down by at least a dozen of the top scholars who had once vehemently opposed the war.
Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, responded to our invitation with a brief, hand-written note on the margin of our invitation: “I never said the war was illegal. I said it was stupid!” (Of course he did, repeatedly, say the war was unconstitutional.) Like so many of the anti-Vietnam leaders of decades ago, he had no stomach to revisit the debate.
For anyone who has kept up with events in—and modern scholarship about—the war, the reticence of the Schlesingers and Haydens is more than understandable. After the war ended in 1975, through both its public statements and its actions, Hanoi has repeatedly undermined the mythology upon which the protests were founded.
For example, in the May 1984 issue of Vietnam Courier, Hanoi bragged about the once“absolute secret” decision taken twenty-five years earlier to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start pouring countless tons of supplies, weapons, and troops secretly into South
Vietnam for the purpose of overthrowing its government by armed force. That was more than five years before the U.S. responded seriously with U.S. forces. Two of the biggest differences between our actions in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam fifteen years later was the Communist armed aggression was covert and Hanoi ran a truly brilliant political warfare campaign to convince the American people our cause was dishonorable.
American war protesters gleefully waved the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags (which were almost identical, by the way) and championed Ho Chi Minh as the “George Washington” of Vietnam. But official Communist Party histories have acknowledged
that Ho spent two decades as a paid agent of the Communist International, traveling around the globe doing Moscow’s bidding. Nationalist Vietnamese patriots who resisted Ho’s demands were often either murdered or—prior to the French withdrawal in 1954—
betrayed to French colonial authorities for French francs.
If the protesters had two central themes, they were the need to “stop the killing” and to end abuses of “human rights.” Tragically, when they finally got their way and the Communists seized power throughout the former French Indochina, more people were killed in the first three years following “liberation” than died in combat during the previous fourteen years throughout Indochina. As the Yale Cambodian Genocide Program has documented, more than twenty-percent of the people of that peaceful country were killed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge henchmen, or roughly 1.7 million human beings. In a January 2003 story on the Cambodian “killing fields,” National Geographic Today noted that—to save bullets—small children were simply picked up and smashed against trees until they stopped quivering. During the same time period in the former South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of others died from executions or in “reeducation camps” and “new economic zones”—or as “boat people” trying desperately to flee the tyranny the American Congress imposed upon their country. That’s part of the legacy of the American “peace” movement.
As for improving “human rights” by abandoning America’s historic commitment to defend these fine people from Communist aggression, in the decades following“liberation” the respected human rights organization Freedom House consistently ranked the Hanoi regime among the “dirty dozen” of the world’s worst human rights violators, declaring it to be among “the worst of the worst.”
Was Vietnam “Winnable”?
Perhaps the greatest myth of the entire war was that it was “unwinnable.” To the contrary, as many scholars and experts have long recognized, by 1971 or 1972 the war was essentially won in South Vietnam, and by December 1972 Hanoi’s will was broken
in the North. The 1968 Tet Offensive—portrayed by most of the media as a great
Communist victory—in reality was a disastrous blunder that even North Vietnamese Defense Minister General Vo Nguyen Giap admitted was a Communist “defeat.” It cost
them virtually the entire Viet Cong Infrastructure and most of their guerrilla forces; and in later years almost all of the major fighting had to be done by North Vietnamese regulars.
When Congress in August 1964—by a combined vote of 504-2 (a 99.6% margin)— enacted a law authorizing the President to use military force to oppose Communist aggression in Southeast Asia, it did not even mention “South Vietnam” but rather authorized the use of armed force to defend any member or “protocol state” of the 1955 SEATO Treaty requesting assistance. Those protocol states were [South] Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Thus, when U.S. forces were ordered into Cambodia in 1970 to attack North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sanctuaries, that action was fully consistent with the congressional authorization.
Like the Tet Offensive, the Cambodian incursion was in military terms a tremendous U.S. and South Vietnamese success. It ended serious Communist military activity in most of the Mekong Delta. (I was there, off and on, between 1968 and 1975, and the
improvement in security was extraordinary.)
Put simply, American forces were not defeated on the battlefields of Vietnam. Indeed, we won every major battle. But in May 1973, congressional Liberals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by making it unlawful for the President to expend any treasury
funds on combat operations “in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.” (For the record, I have serious doubts about the constitutionality of that amendment.)
When North Vietnam’s Premier Pham Van Dong learned of the congressional action he remarked: “The Americans won’t come back now even if we offered them candy”; and Hanoi sent virtually its entire Army behind columns of Soviet-made tanks to conquer its
neighbors in acts of blatant international aggression. By then, U.S. combat forces had been withdrawn, and our military veterans deserve none of the blame for the ultimate defeat. That was the work of Congress.
It Was a Necessary War
But there is still the issue of why we went to Vietnam in the first place. Was it really necessary? And as we pause to (finally) give thanks to those who served—two-thirds of whom were volunteers—I submit the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes!’
After the Korean War, President Eisenhower cut back military manpower and served notice on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that future Communist aggression would result in massive retaliation—threatening to use our nuclear arsenal to keep the peace in the event of another Korea. It worked with Moscow—at least until they developed their own deliverable nuclear force, and the question became whether America would risk nuclear attacks on New York and Washington, DC, in order to preserve Saigon.
But “Comrade Mao” in China was not so easily deterred, and he argued that, while in appearance the “imperialists” were indeed very fierce, in reality it was the “people” who were powerful. By using “people’s warfare” (aka “wars of national liberation”), the
Communists could send in trainers with money and weapons and promote internal revolutions around the Third World in which the guerrillas would live, eat and work among the people. Nuclear bombs would be useless in countering this unconventional
and asymmetric warfare, and “armed struggle” in the cause of world revolution could continue despite American nuclear power.
Vietnam became the “test case” of whether America’s counter-insurgency tactics could defeat Mao’s strategy of people’s warfare. As Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Vice Chair Lin Biao observed in his 1965 pamphlet Long Live the Victory of
People’s Wars, Vietnam was a “testing ground,” and once America was defeated there,“The people in other parts of the world will see still more clearly that U.S. imperialism can be defeated, and that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.”
Cuba’s Ché Guevara echoed this sentiment, declaring as early as November 20, 1963, that the Vietnam battlefield “is most important for the future of all America,” and “the victorious end of this battle will also spell the end of North American imperialism.”
Keep in mind that in 1965, China was providing advisers, funds, and weapons for guerrilla movements in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and as far away as Mozambique in Africa. Thailand and Indonesia were vulnerable
political and economic “basket cases” then, and might easily have fallen to Communist forces had the United States simply walked away from its solemn promise to defend the non-Communist countries of former French Indochina. By staying the course, we bought
time for Thailand and Indonesia (two very important countries) to become stronger—and during the war, China went through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and turned inward. By the time Congress actually threw in the towel in 1973, China was no longer actively exporting revolution.
No one can be certain about what might have happened had we abandoned our promises (and betrayed our national honor) earlier. But it is not difficult to envision a rather alarming scenario in which an American withdrawal would have been followed by Communist military victories in neighboring countries, and by even non-Communist groups throughout the Third World turning to China, Cuba, and other Communist states for assistance in gaining political power. Non-Communist Third World leaders might well have concluded that America was an unreliable ally and sought to cut the best deal possible with their Communist opponents. The Free World might soon have found itself facing a dozen or more “Vietnams” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—left with the
choice of watching them fall one by one or responding with nuclear weapons. The story would not likely have had a happy ending for America or the cause of human freedom around the globe.
So if you encounter any Vietnam veterans today (or any day), take a few moments and tell them “welcome home” and “thanks for your service.” It is an expression of gratitude that is long overdue.
And let us in the future try to avoid taking out our (often misguided) anger about national policy in times of hostilities on the brave young men and women who voluntarily go into harm’s way and risk their lives for our freedom and that of oppressed peoples elsewhere.
They deserve better.
Professor Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the
University of Virginia School of Law, where in 1981 he co-founded the Center for
National Security Law. He served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant and captain and for
more than two decades has taught seminars on the war at Virginia. He is author or editor of several books and monographs about the war, including the first major English language history of Vietnamese communism. The views expressed are personal.
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This essay may be reprinted or otherwise distributed at will without limitation or need for permission.
Professor Turner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (434) 924-4083.
For further information, see http://www.law.virginia.edu/lawweb/Faculty.nsf/PrFHPbW/rft3m.
If any former anti-Vietnam protest leaders believe Dr. Turner has been unfair to them or to their cause, he will be delighted to engage them in public debate at a mutually convenient time and place. They may bring up to three associates to help argue their case so long as he gets equal time and adequate time for rebuttal. Please feel free to share this invitation with your favorite anti-Vietnam protester.