Upon succeeding Richard Nixon in 1974, President Gerald Ford proclaimed, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Ford was referring to the Watergate scandal that had preoccupied the nation for months. But the nightmare of Vietnam that began in 1955, when we first dispatched military advisers to Southeast Asia and then ignominiously pulled out of that foreign policy disaster on April 30, 1975, continues to haunt our nation.
The 40th anniversary of that pullout is something most Americans would prefer to forget. But the somber black marble monument wall in the nation’s capital bearing the names of 58,272 of those who died in Vietnam must never be forgotten.
Those deaths should remind us of George Santayana’s warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Spanish philosopher’s admonition is relevant today as U.S. forces find themselves bogged down in the Middle East.
A dozen years after invading Iraq, most Americans realize that the chronically violent region is a riddle far beyond our comprehension. A similar dilemma confronted us in Vietnam where we tried to fight a conventional war against an unconventional foe that was neither a pawn of the Soviet Union nor China, notwithstanding the so-called “domino theory” that communism had to be contained in Vietnam lest it spread exponentially.
Former Virginia Sen. James Webb was exactly right when he said there will always be a wall between those who served in Vietnam and those who did not. During his tour as a Marine platoon commander, he was awarded the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts before receiving a medical discharge.
I first met Webb several decades ago in San Diego when he was a relatively anonymous assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs in the Reagan administration. When next we met Webb was secretary of the Navy and accompanied by a phalanx of admirals and aides. He was the same plain-spoken advocate of military service whose writings about Vietnam should be required reading.
To wit: “An irony of the Greatest Generation is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today’s most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The ‘best and the brightest’ of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refused to remember.”
Webb graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and volunteered for the Marines – 73 percent of those who died in Vietnam were volunteers. I share his abiding contempt for those chicken hawks who championed the war so long as someone else was sent to do the fighting and dying. Chief among them was Dick Cheney who used no fewer than five deferments to dodge the draft and still defiantly defends his role in promoting our Middle East military nightmare.
The Vietnam nightmare could have been avoided. In 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara advised President John F. Kennedy to start withdrawing military advisers, and we began doing so until a U.S.-inspired coup prompted the killing of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Soon after Kennedy was assassinated, President Lyndon B. Johnson poured more than 500,000 troops into Vietnam. McNamara knew the war was unwinnable by late 1965, but remained its dogged defender until 1968 when he left office a broken man and the U.S. death toll was 25,000.
In 1971 a deeply divided country, roiled by demonstrations, discovered the depths of the government’s deceit with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. These classified documents, leaked to the press by a disillusioned Marine officer, detailed that the military and civilian leadership knew the war was basically a lost cause by the mid-1960s. Yet they continued to send American forces to fight and die.
On April 22, 1971, John Kerry, a decorated Navy veteran turned anti-war activist, challenged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by asking, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Nearly four years and many deaths later, President Gerald Ford conceded as much and ordered the frantic U.S. pullout from Saigon.
Rudyard Kipling prophesied America’s fate 123 years ago with these ominous lines from “The Naulahka”:
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white
with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: A Fool lies here
who tried to hustle the East
As a newly minted Air Force second lieutenant in 1961, I volunteered for the Strategic Air Command and overseas duty. I served as a security operations officer stateside during the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Discharged in 1964 before the body count in Vietnam intensified, I nonetheless feel vaguely guilty about missing that senseless war that claimed the lives of some of my former students. And I continue to resent those chicken hawks who persist in promoting the sacrifice of the few for our military mistakes.
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College, and has read and lectured extensively on Vietnam. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.