Lessons of Vietnam

My Personal and Policy Lessons of Vietnam: A Country, an Era, a National Debate.

February 12, 2014
Vietnam—the country, the era, the national debate– dominated my college years. Like the civil rights movement, Vietnam was just not a debated public policy issue, it was an era that became very personal to me—not because I was directly involved but because it somehow reflected what I believed about America, good government, and personal responsibility. I always expected to visit Vietnam and forty-five years later I made the opportunity to visit the country, re-visit the issue, and re-discover how the era shaped my views about America and its government.

The Vietnam War is not, of course, called the Vietnam War in Vietnam—it is called the American War. Vietnamese I met were very welcoming to me. The Vietnam government has preached for decades that their enemy was the U.S. government not the American people. Several Vietnamese told me that their parents’ villages had been bombed by U.S. pilots. I heard several times that the Vietnam War was mostly a rural war. The historic churches, opera halls, and government buildings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City went untouched by American bombers and are still standing today. In addition to the 58, 195 names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, it is estimated that 2 million Vietnamese were killed, mostly by bombs dropped from American B-52s.

This essay is my attempt to reflect on the Vietnam War, era, and debate 45 years after I entered college and began to think independently about our country’s role in Vietnam. I earned a Ph.D. and became a political science professor in 1982 teaching about American Public Policy, a field that does not usually include defense and foreign policy. I have followed general public discussions about Vietnam but I am not an expert.

This essay is presented in six parts. First, I review my personal background, then I present my recollection of my college days during the Vietnam Era, followed by a brief overview of how we got into Vietnam and some key events of the War. Fourth, I discuss lessons about the American political system I now recognize, followed by a review of my visit to Vietnam in February 2014, and finally I offer some lessons of Vietnam for other’s consideration.

I. My Personal Background that Shapes My Perspective

I was born in 1951 to an Irish Catholic lower middle class family of eight children. I was raised in Butler, PA, a steel town 35 north of Pittsburgh.  Both of my parents and all of my uncles and one aunt served in World War II. I was an Eagle Scout, as were my father and my sons. Civic duty, but with independent thinking, was an important value that I picked up somewhere.

I learned very early that Vietnam was not just another high school debate topic. Even today, 39 years after the termination of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, there is an uneasiness when the topic is brought up. Vietnam is co-mingled with the 1960s, President Nixon and Watergate, feelings of national disappointment, the treatment of Vietnam veterans, and a general establishment vs. anti-establishment sentiment.

Vietnam first touched close to home when a friend of the family registered as a CO, a conscientious objector, in 1964. His story was written up in our Catholic school’s weekly messenger and I sensed from my 8th grade teacher’s comment that he had done something wrong. This was much different than the impression I received from my family. I went out of my way twenty years later to briefly talk with him in 1984 and learned of his community service in the intervening years.

While in high school I worked at a car dealership washing cars. Another boy, Kenny Jr, the son of Kenny Sr a mechanic, worked there too changing oil and rotating tires when he was home from college. A few years later when I was in college I learned that he had gone to Canada to avoid the draft and ceased all communications with his family so that his whereabouts were not detected. His father was devastated. In the early 1980s I was back in my hometown and visited the car dealership to ask about him. He had not been heard from even after the President Carter issued an amnesty on his first day in office in 1977.

My first recollection of personally speaking and thinking about Vietnam was my high school junior year history class when the teacher, a Mr. Tiet who doubled as the assistant football coach, discussed the Tet Offensive of 1968 in class. Leaving the classroom, he commented to me that he appreciated my asking questions and was impressed that I knew new about Vietnam. I said my family talked about it and it quickly became clear that he was supportive of the U.S. involvement and was quite certain that the Paris Peace talks would never amount to much.

That fall, my senior year, my cross country team was divided about the 1968 presidential election and the U.S. role in Vietnam. I remember complaining the best runner on the team thought other teammates should go along with him about Vietnam. I recall arguing with him “what does running have to do with foreign policy?”

A few months later, on March 6, 1969, PFC Dennis Coyle, our teammate the previous two years, was killed in action in Quang Nam, Vietnam. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=66001850 It was the first time I saw a Marine I knew in dress blues. My teammates went to the funeral in our small Pennsylvania town. They gave an American flag to his mother and read a statement from President Nixon. A couple years later I asked about his parents and heard “they had not recovered yet.” I know where is name is on the Vietnam Wall.

A few months later I registered for the Selective Service, receiving a student deferment. A few, maybe a dozen, of guys I knew in high school went to the military and most were reported to have been sent to “Nam.” At least three were killed and I don’t know about the rest. Even today, few college students personally know anyone in the military. There seem to be two tracks in America: those who who considers the military as a possible career and those headed towards college and immune from military experience. In my college classes, I have had a few guys who were on both tracks but not that many. Almost all the military-oriented students I had contributed a great deal to the class by challenging conventional thinking.

II. My College Years during the Vietnam Era

I began my freshmen year at the University of Dayton (in Ohio)  in August 1969—a few days after the Woodstock Music Festival. This was one of the peak years for anti-Vietnam demonstrations on college campuses. I enrolled in ROTC, to “keep my options open” in the event I would be drafted. As luck would have it, my draft lottery number was #22—meaning that if the draft continued I would likely be drafted. An almost daily topic for discussion was “would I go to Canada rather than to Vietnam?” Just like many had fibbed about attending Woodstock, many guys pretended they were considering Canada.

In part because of the war, I fulfilled my humanities requirement by enrolling in History of the Far East instead of the more common freshmen course, History of Western Civilization. In short, the course was a drag, over my head, and the most forgettable course I had in college. It certainly did not diminish my interest in Asia, however.
I only completed one semester of ROTC. I probably told myself I didn’t like the time that it took but I was never particularly interested in the military aspect of war. I remember hearing about M-16s and Huey helicopters but I have always been more interested in the reasons and consequences of going to war rather than ware itself. I was not the first to see the movies of the Vietnam Era and do not remember them well. For that matter, I memorized the Gettysburg Address but really didn’t need to see the diagrams and model of the Gettysburg Battlefields.

The first National Moratorium against the War was October 15, 1969, the day of my first individual appointment with my ROTC commander, Captain Hovey. An anti-war demonstrator stuck his head in the open window and hollered “don’t let him brain wash you.” Captain Hovey reacted as if on cue “that is why we are in Vietnam—so clowns like him can have freedom of speech.” After my appointment, I went back to the dorm, changed out of my ROTC uniforms to blue jeans and a buttoned-down shirt, and headed to the plaza to listen to anti-war speakers regale against the generals in Vietnam—General Motors, General Electric, and General Dynamics. I watched the demonstrations from the fringe—I was there, but not really involved. While I did not agree with the war, I resented the anti-US rhetoric that was often thrown around. A chant from 1968, the previous year, was “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?”

Not all protestors knew much about Vietnam and Asia. The 1960s included lots of social change in America not only concern about Vietnam. College students generally are prone to fads and there were certainly some protestors who were looking for an alternative to boredom, work, and study. On college campuses there tended to be a “straight” (meaning “establishment”, nothing to do with sexuality) versus “freak” (anti-establishment”) divide. “Hippies” was a common term back then, too.

During that same semester freshmen year, I attended a campus “teach in” about/against the war. The moderator was a young political science professor named Lawrence Korb, who tried to preserve order in a one-sided debate with an audience not interested in a true discussion. After several warnings, he announced he would end the debate if courtesy was not maintained. The audience cheered. A few minutes later Professor Korb announced the debate was over and walked out, motivating more cheers. I felt sick in my stomach. I had truly thought college would consist of thoughtful discussion and debate. About two decades later, Korb was a highly placed official in the Reagan and Bush Defense Department and recently was president of the Council on Foreign Relations. I followed his career and pay special attention to him when he is a TV interview. In about 2000, I emailed him and asked if he was the same “Larry Korb.” He responded “Yes, I am he.”

Two college friends invited me to travel with them from Dayton, Ohio to Washington, D.C for the second national moratorium planned for the weekend of November 15, 1969. Because of snow and car trouble we never made it that far. We ended up about 75 miles from my home so I told them I was going to hitchhike home to Butler, Pennsylvania and would meet them for the return drive on Sunday. While home to see my family for the first time since going off to college, I briefly attended a moratorium demonstration of about five people on my hometown town square. I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper arguing that citizens needed to start paying attention to the war and get involved.

My freshmen year ended in late April 1970 in a national wave of student demonstrations against spreading the Vietnam War into Cambodia. I was hired on May 4, 1970, the day of the Kent State shootings, at a steel fabrication plant in my hometown, Butler, Pa. The summer of 1970 continued the dominance of Vietnam in my life. Each day I would argue with steelworkers, several of whom were veterans, about our military in Vietnam, and almost every evening I would sit on the cool porch and talk with my parents about politics and life—but mostly about Vietnam. Just a year ago, one of my brothers told me he was disappointed that our dad had never told him his views on Vietnam and I responded “I am glad he didn’t—I always thought he wanted us to make up our own minds.”

That summer of 1970 I was asked to give a speech in my hometown, because of the letter I had written in the local paper the previous winter. I choose to spoke on “why the anti-war movement needed to get its history straight.” The issue I focused on was the anti-war movement’s routine call for a “national referendum on the war.” For reasons I do not recall, I was aware that there is no provision in the U.S. constitution for a national referendum so I proposed that people write their Congressional representatives instead. The reaction whenever I argued this seemed to be: “gee, I didn’t know that.” Looking back, this may have been a way for me “to get involved without being committed.” It may have been the first hint that maybe I should study public policy.

Throughout my college years, Vietnam was everywhere. We talked about it almost every day. There was a draft counselor every day at a table in the student union, it was the defining social issue on campus, and there were regular speakers and demonstrations that made the issue real. Big anti-war names came to campus, too. I heard Jerry Rubin, Angela David, and William Kunstler—little known now but newsworthy back then.

The 1972 presidential campaign and election was the peak of the national debate on the war. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee had made getting out of Vietnam the central issue of his campaign that was routinely described as being about the three A’s—acid, abortion, and amnesty. McGovern’s campaign was widely seen as either incompetent or embarrassing. Even my mother, an FDR Democrat, who was increasingly anti-war with age, said “I will vote for McGovern only because my kids want me too.” McGovern lost in a landslide.

In late December, 1972 President Nixon ended the military draft. I had been assigned a low draft number (#22) by a lottery several years early so I was now free to think about things other than what I would do upon graduation. It was the beginning of my last semester and I only needed three hours to graduate but had registered full time in order to maintain my draft deferment. I promptly dropped all but one course and found a part time job and explored graduate school that last semester.

The draft was a daily topic during my college days. If drafted there were four alternatives: seek some kind of medical deferment, register as a conscience objector, go to Canada, or accepted being drafted. Like most guys I knew, I pretended I would make up some medical aliment that would suddenly be debilitating. I was more prone to think I could get a CO exception but had not really put the necessary work into it. I never thought I would go to Canada to avoid the draft—I could not be a “defector.” It is most likely that I would have served in the military if Nixon had not ended the draft just in time for my college graduation.

III. How the US Got into Vietnam

Like most military commitments, the U.S. role expanded from advisors, to suppliers, to military participants. Vietnam had been occupied by China, Japan, and France over the course of a thousand years. Part of their culture is fighting for independence. When the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in August of 1964, granting the president authority to send troops to Vietnam, Vietnam had a long tradition of driving out so called invaders. On one level, U.S. leaders were aware of this history, on another, they apparently failed to grasp that independence from foreign domination was a deep, unifying value of the Vietnamese. Protecting one’s homeland makes persistent warriors.

In the 1950s and 60s Ho Chi Minh was a national leader and patriot for his leadership in the drive for independence. To America, Ho Chi Minh was a “communist;” to most Vietnamese, he is a patriot. Vietnam was divided in 1954 along the 17th parallel by a United Nations agreement calling for democratic elections in 1956. When Ho Chi Minh won the elections, the south refused to accept the results and claimed their independence.

Ho died in 1969 but is still a figure of national unity today. There are many museums named after him and his portrait hangs in post offices, stores, and restaurants. The major supply route from the North to the South during the war was called the Ho Chi Munch trail.
A prominent rationale for U.S. involvement was “the domino theory”—the idea that if one Southeast Asia country fell to the communist, the neighboring countries will fall “like dominos” and we would potentially eventually be fighting communists in Canada or Mexico. While this argument sounded only a little farfetched in the 1960s, a major change in the world in 1972 was President Richard Nixon opening the door to China. While Nixon is now given credit for establishing relations with China, little attention is given to the role that opening China had on ending the Vietnam War. In fact, I now see that one reason the U.S. reduced its desire to continue the war in Vietnam is because China, Vietnam’s northern neighbor, was no longer viewed as a threat. This was not a factor during the 1970 student demonstrations.

Vietnam was not the major factor in the 1964 presidential election when Lyndon Baines Johnson was re-elected with over 60 percent of the vote. Within four years, Johnson was personally defeated by the drain of the war and chose not to seek re-election. The military build-up increased rapidly in 1965, suggesting that the Johnson Administration had not communicate their intentions to the American people during the recent campaign. Consequently, Americans were not well informed about recent Vietnam events nor familiar with the long history of Vietnamese fight for independence.

The Paris Peace Accords signed in late January 1973, my last semester of college, began the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam but did not end peacefully end the conflict between North and South Vietnam. It took two years before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975 when the Presidential Palace was overrun and the South Vietnamese president was helicoptered out by the U.S. Left behind were hundreds of South Vietnamese citizens and officials who had expected to be supported by the U.S.

It is often observed that Vietnam was the first “television war” with nightly news showing daily military action. Over the years, I have realized that in addition to being instant communication, television places a premium on action, not long historical explanations. Regardless of its legitimacy, the domino theory describes a complex chain of events that would be hard to explain in a lively, pithy way for television. Likewise, the devastation of war on families and communities is difficult to show on TV so it is easy to under-appreciate the disruption that going off to war brings to families, communities, and nations.

IV. My Lessons and Disappointments in the American Political System

The Vietnam War revealed major weaknesses of the American political system, including the role of the Congress in defense policy, governmental secrecy, the role of the CIA, and the ability of the American public to stay informed. The single biggest failure of the era was the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was quickly passed by Congress at the request of President Johnson in 1964. Almost immediately, it was recognized that the reports of Vietnamese attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin were faulty and that Congress acted too hastily, probably because of the upcoming 1964 presidential election. Even so, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution remained the official justification for presidential decisions in Vietnam throughout the War.

A second failure was the inability of Congress to control the military through the annual budget process. Of course, some amount of Congressional secrecy is necessary but a decade long military action needs and deserves public discussion. The Constitution is vague about the sharing of policy-making responsibility between the Congress and the president. While Congress has the power to declare war, the president in the commander-in-chief. The War Powers Act passed in 1973 requiring presidential notification of military action within 48 hours and Congressional approval within 60 days.

Presidential campaigns and elections have not been policy discussions that educated voters and provided signals to elected officials about policy choices. The two largest vote landslides in American history—1964 and 1972—ended in personal tragedies for the presidential winners.

Additionally, Vietnam is the beginning of American’s 40 year trend (except for three Clinton years) of federal budget deficit. The debate at the beginning of the 1960s was whether we should have “guns OR butter” by the end of the 60s because of indecision the political system decided we would have “guns AND butter.” Federal deficits have been the result.
Public opinion about U.S. involvement in Vietnam was never overwhelming. By the time I started college in 1969, only about one-third of Americans said that “the U.S. getting involved in Vietnam was not a mistake.” The lack of public support could not have improved the morale of our troops.

A continuing tragedy of the Vietnam War is the polarization felt by our military veterans. Support for military service needs to be more than parades and slogans. An unpopular war is unlikely to generate a welcoming environment of social support for returning veterans. Political leaders should have done better.

Finally, the tragedy of Watergate has prevented citizens, academics, and elected officials from learning clear lessons about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ardent Nixon opponents and supporters alike seem unable to think about the evolution of our policies in Vietnam, the importance of the break through with China in 1972, and the social and economic consequences of the Vietnam Era.

V. My Visit to Vietnam February 2014

Since college I have intended to visit Vietnam to better understand Vietnamese culture and to re-think the political beliefs I remember from college. In addition to the War, I had been interested in Asia ever since I can remember. Buddhism and yoga were part of the reason and Asia always seemed exotic. I visited Thailand in 1991 and taught in South Korea several summers. While being a visiting professor in Korea in 2013-2014 I made the opportunity to visit Vietnam in February. I prepared myself by re-reading certain chapters of Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Things_They_Carried

by reviewing parts of Stanley Karnow’s VIETNAM
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Karnow and the PBS series based on it, revisiting Robert McNamara’s IN RETROSPECT: The TRAGEDY AND LESSONS OF VIETNAM that I first read when it was published in 1995. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara

I was particularly mindful of McNamara’s change of mind and of heart because he was the Secretary of Defense and architect of U.S. military involvement. In May of 1995 I saw McNamara on the streets of Washington, D.C., approached him, and said “I have followed your career and decision for years and just read your book. Thank you for writing it.” He was friendly and said something like “I appreciate it” and moved on down the street.
(I only watched parts of it but “The Fog of War” is well-regarded http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwXF6UdkeI4 )

Because of my preparation I had a list of three sites I planned to visit:
1. The Hanoi Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) http://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/40-years-after-release-pows-at-hanoi-hilton-reflect-on-experience-1.207382
that housed captured American pilots, including Senator John McCain. The prison was built by the French in the late 1800s to jail Vietnam freedom fighters so it was well known to Vietnamese before the Vietnam War. There were two separate themes to the prison museum’s exhibits: (1) the Vietnamese held by the French and (2) photos of American policy makers and POWS.
2. Reunification Palace—previously the Presidential Palace that was the last building to fall on April 30, 1975. http://ditich.dinhdoclap.gov.vn/en-us/trang-chu.aspx
The building was built in the early 1960s by Americans with security in mind with both private and public space similar our White House. The Palace is quite grand and luxurious and in each of the public rooms there are photos of American leaders meeting with South Vietnamese leaders before their defeat. On the grounds of the Reunification Palace are two tanks that attacked the palace the day Saigon fell and markings where a North Vietnamese helicopter had dropped two bombs a few weeks before.

3. Cu Chi Tunnels—located about 50 miles from Saigon, this maze of tunnels was started in the 1940s in the war against the French and consisted of bunkers, connecting tunnels, and well-camouflaged trap doors that confused American GIs by the randomness of their attacks. http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/cu-chi-tunnels
The area was a hot spot of search and destroy missions conducted by Americans on the local villages and farms. The area was one of the most heavily bombed areas in Vietnam and was repeatedly defoliated with Agent Orange in the mid-1960s. Since 1994 the tunnels are a frequent tourist sites for American veterans who wanted to see the jungles where they spent a year and lost buddies.

At all three sites images of U.S. policy makers and U.S. military were the central focus. Most surprising perhaps were the photos of demonstrations around the world on display in the Hanoi prison and several walls of pictures of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Reunification Palace (the old presidential palace.) The message projected was clear: the American government was on the wrong side and citizens in the U.S. and around the world were on the communist (North Vietnamese) side.

After some indecision I decided not to visit the American War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, a collection of U.S. weapons, photographs of destruction of Vietnamese communities, and exhibits portraying torture of American prisoners. I had intended to not visit the museum before my arrival in Vietnam and two chance conversations preserved my inclination. The first night in Ho Chi Minh City I struck up a conversation with a 71-year old American doctor who served as a Marine medic in Vietnam in 1970. He told me that he was glad he visited the museum but he found it “truthful but gut wrenching. Of course, he said, “it is from their perspective—it is their country. ” A few days later a native Vietnamese international traveler told me that “it would not show me anything new just how strong government propaganda can be.”

Today Vietnam is a prospering nation with a stable government. They have diplomatic relations with over 170 nations and a free trade agreement with the U.S. since 2001. American classic literature, and some anti-American war books, are in bookstores. As a suspected American I was stopped repeatedly on the streets by tour guides and vendors and asked “where are you from?” Usually this was a ploy to sell me a tour, a leather good, or a massage service, but it often ended with them telling me that their sister, or father, or uncle lived in Philadelphia, San Jose, or Detroit.

I do not feel sad, guilty, or ashamed viewing Vietnamese artifacts of what they call the American War. Rather I felt disappointed that “the best and the brightest,” to use David Halberstam’s title, did not do better. The primary architect of the war was Robert McNamara who spent the last 20 years of his life retracting his earlier arguments and justifications for the war he directed. McNamara was considered brilliant, a hard-driven manager of whiz kids, the smartest guy President Kennedy had ever met. In the end, McNamara said the single best lesson of Vietnam is that you must know your enemy that you must put yourself in his place, and think like him. Don’t most coaches and poker players know that? The photos on the wall of Reunification Palace made me sad that “group think,” bureaucratic thinking, CYA routines, and political caution prevented a full policy debate in the American political system.

VI. Lessons of the Vietnam Era

1. Policy discussions mostly involve general personal beliefs. Even today, many Americans are like the “straights” and “freaks” back in the 1960s protests days—they have a predisposing one way or another.

2. American policy-makers did not understand Vietnamese history and culture and the Vietnamese drive for independence from China, France, U.S. and all “invaders.” From an Asian history perspective, the domino theory is not credible. Most Asian countries have endured long wars with one another. There are historical reasons why they are separate, independent nations.

3. I wonder if it was “the greatest generation” hubris of high ranking U.S. officials, including President Kennedy, a president I liked, that caused them to under-appreciate the difficulties of fighting a far-off war. After all, we won World War two just a decade or so earlier. But we should have learned from the Korean War.

4. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1995 pontificated in 1995 that “knowing your enemy” is his most important lesson the Vietnam War. How did he become Secretary of Defense without knowing this?

5. President Nixon’s opening the door to China was the pivotal decision of the Vietnam Era. Unfortunately, its significance seems hard for Americans to recognized because it is lost on the Watergate Tragedy.

6. Similar to my argument in academic research about Earth Day 1970, I suspect that the anti-establishment, anti-America tone of much of anti-war protest was an obstacle for many American citizens to think clearly about the War. I know these previous sentence is the most controversial sentence I have written here. I know some anti-Vietnam oriented professors who think they played a part in ending the war; I know others who want to ignore the Vietnam War because it brings along too many side issues. I am rather certain this has not changed in 45 years.

7. It is easy to get into conflict, hard to get out. While deciding to send military to a foreign conflict is full of uncertainty, it is much more certain that reversing course has political costs. The easiest path in politics is to keep on doing what we are doing.

8. We should not have abolished the military draft. A national decision to go to war requires national participation. My father, and several of my students over the years, proposed two year national mandatory service of both men and women with alternative community service being a viable option.

A popular slogan hollered at anti-war protestors during the Vietnam Era was “My county right or wrong.” My parents never said that. In about 2009, I learned that the full quote, attributed to post-Civil War Missouri U.S. Senator Carl Schurz, for whom a dormitory is named on the University of Missouri campus, is “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be made right.” That is what I thought we were supposed to be doing.

Hanoi Prison from STARS AND STRIPES

Reunification Palace
Official website http://ditich.dinhdoclap.gov.vn/en-us/trang-chu.aspx

Cu Cui Tunnels