'America lost the Vietnam War because we never cared to understand the Vietnamese people or our own motives for fighting the war. Our national myth convinced us we were morally superior. Our technology made us feel invincible. Our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedure. It was not a winning combination."--Loren Baltz, author of "Backfire: The Myths That Made Us Fight, The Illusions That Helped Us Lose... " (1985, Ballentine Books)
It found it off-putting one day about a decade ago when the business I was working at received boxes of salable goods marked "Made in Vietnam". This was hardly noticed by anyone or worth commenting about.
It was for me a realization that a great deal of time had passed and, like many of America's wars, what seemed a desperate and intractable struggle of earlier days was now old news.
The picture to the right here is of myself (the little brat in the green Army uniform) posing with my older brother Robert--in blue--in 1967 or 68 at my aunt's house in South San Francisco.
Bob was home from Vietnam, "in country" after a tour with the Air Force as a helicopter air/sea rescue gunner. He brought home some gifts for the family, including the uniform I'm wearing--long lost--and a black-cloth map of Southeast Asia I wish I still had which showed all the places that the USA had bases in South Vietnam as well as the flags of the other nations (Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, et al.) in the longest war in American history.
Until the one in Afghanistan.
He would go back to Asia, specifically Clark Field in the Philippines for a couple more year-end tours before returning stateside with a Filipino wife and a new baby. I have never talked to Robert much about the war. I'm sure I asked him, but he would change the subject. How could a kid raised in a suburb in California know what it was like to fire a "50 Cal" machine gun at enemy soldiers from the door of a Huey helicopter?
I remember my father, an ex-Marine, adamant against the war, angry at how Lyndon Johnson--a man he voted for in 1964 for President---couldn't or wouldn't start bringing home troops from a war he regarded as a civil war we had no business being directly involved in for his stepson--or any other American--to be involved in risking his life over.
When a neighbor--an older World War II vet who had liberated many a wine cellar in Normandy and might have taken a shot or two at the odd German-- once asked my father how we could possibly get troops out of South Vietnam, to turn our backs, I heard my father reply "Same way they got in, Joe. Get some ships and planes, and get them out!"
Joe--a next-door neighbor whose kids I played with--- voted for Richard Nixon in 1968. My dad and mom supported the first anti-war Democratic candidate, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota--he had the guts to challenge Lyndon Johnson for his re-election and his good results in a early primary in New Hampshire drove Johnson from the race. Later Robert Kennedy, smelling blood as only a Kennedy could, entered the race.
McCarthy was no Bobby Kennedy. Nobody was.
RFK had changed his mind about the sense of fighting a land war in southeast Asia, or at least stopped supporting a war he didn't believe in. This was about the same time--1966--that Secretary of Defense Bob MacNamara decided the war was un-winnable. The difference was that the Secretary of Defense under John Kennedy and Johnson didn't make his change of mind known until he wrote a book in 1993. Too late, Secretary McNamara, too bad you didn't tell the American people your doubts back then.
RFK's assassination--the night he won the California Primary in June 1968, after my parents had a house party for those who supported the winner and after I went to bed thinking Kennedy was going to win the nomination and woke up to hear he was near death--ended that dream.
This brought my parents and millions of other anti-war voters and activists back to supporting McCarthy. But it was too late --LBJ's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, had the delegates and the Democratic big shots behind him. The Chicago convention was a terrible event--a flat-out "police riot" and the beatings and cracking of heads of demonstrators made it clear this was like no war in 20th century American history, maybe ever.
Humphrey, The "Happy Warrior" who stood up for Civil Rights for blacks in the 40's before it was popular in his party but was still hostage to the Cold War hysteria of the 1950's , couldn't or wouldn't separate himself from President Johnson's policies in the campaign.
Enough anti-war voters stayed home that November and Richard Nixon was elected. This began the "Vietmanization Program" of Nixon and Kissinger and the long, slow "peace with honor" with-drawl of American troops. This was punctuated by stepped-up bombing campaigns over civilian targets in North Vietnam, an invasion of Cambodia and more bombing, all part of the American strategy of a "peace process" that moved like a snail in Paris.
What did a kid my age think about all this? Mostly I thought like my parents did, this was th wrong war i nthe wrong place at the wrong time, but I also wondered if the war would still be going on after I turned eighteen? Would the kids in my class be scambling around a jungle playing an endless game of death on another people's turf? It would give pause to any partriotic young rascal to at least wonder "why?"
In the meantime much of what I learned about the war came from magazines, the local newspaper, stray remarks at school like a teacher of mine who broke down in anger unexpectedly when she was trying to explain top a combined fifth grade class at a school assembly why the Paris Peace Talks were taking so long.
"How can so many people die while these old men fight over what shape the negotiating table should be?" I remember Mrs. Carrington, a stork-like woman with a pile of reddish-brown hair on her head, suddenly said. It was a bold thing to say for a public school teacher at an assembly with lots of little "Nixon kids" to go home to their parents and tell about it. So far as I know though nothing came of it. It was 1971-72 by then and a lot of parents, like my friends' dad, old Joe O'Leary, --were coming, too late-- to their senses.
"This ain't World War Two, George," my dad said Joe told him at some restaurant the O'Learys and the Noakes' parents went to after the political and personal rift between the male heads of household were healed by the wives and by current events. We were all Americans after all, and this was a a long, long war and how many more kids were going to be fled into the maw of mechanized war? How many more scenes of Vietnamese mothers crying over kids killed in bombing raids were people supposed to see on television? How many protesters needed to be arrested? How many times would Congress refuse to support Nixon's war anymore, even though some of these same Congressmen and Senators had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964?
It's estimated that 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War from 1959--1973, mostly after 1965. Another 9,000 ex-soldiers committed suicide within five years after the war.
Casualties for Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians on both sides of the DMZ, killed by all combatants, are estimated by a French news agency at 4 million.
We are doing business with Vietnam now the same way we did business with Germany and Japan and ,a bit later on , our national nemesis, "Red" China. When I held that box of clothes I knew then the war conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Nixon said we couldn't lose was just a dead letter. American business was doing business again.
PS: There are two brief video clips in the first two comments boxes here, showing in part how the war in Vietnam was presented to Americans at home. I think anyone interested in that sort of thing--propaganda and journalism in war-- should take a look at the stark contrasts between these two presentations.