What was it about?

In early 1963, most Americans could not find Viet Nam on a map of the world.  I’m pretty certain Donald J. Trump couldn’t do it on his first try even today.

southeast asia

The first time the words “Viet Nam” penetrated the consciousness of the average person here was in May, 1963 when Life Magazine published this picture of a Buddhist Monk named Quang Duc burning himself to death:


The government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, had been brutally repressing the country’s Buddhist majority, despite protests and pleas from the U.S. to liberalize their policy.  Quang Duc burned himself to protest the bad treatment, and other monks did the same shortly thereafter. Madame Nhu, the president’s sister-in-law, referred to the burnings as “barbecues” and offered to supply matches.

Diem and his brother were assassinated in a military coup in November, 1963. But these events are really secondary to U.S. involvement in the region.

Viet Nam had been part of  colonial “French Indochina” before World War II, after which increased nationalist feelings and a desire to escape colonialist rule led to the First Indochina War.  seen from the Vietnamese point of view as a war of independence

This ultimately resulted in the partition of the country in 1954, with the North being supported by China, which only five years earlier had its own revolution, which had resulted in communist rule of mainland China. It was the Chinese influence that got the interest of the U.S., which at that moment was beginning to base virtually all foreign policy on the need to resist the communist “aggression” worldwide. This policy led us into supporting every nutty military dictator we could find around the globe, as long as he was “anti-communist”, while ignoring the legitimate aspirations and rights of local populations. We are still feeling the blow-back from that policy today.  That, among other things, is why Iran hates us, for example.

President Kennedy was firmly committed to the Cold War policy of pushing back communists, but at first thought the Vietnamese army had to do it. He said,

“to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.”

But after the failure at the Bay of Pigs, the development and success of the Russian space program, and the construction of the Berlin Wall, he figured the credibility of our military might was at stake.  Into the quagmire we went.

Our involvement is sometimes known as the Second Indochina War, or, to the Vietnamese, the Resistance War Against America. There had been only 900 American advisers in Vietnam when Kennedy took office, none serving in a combat role. But by November 1963, when he was assassinated, there were 16,000.

That’s how it began. From our point of view, we were fighting communism and from their point of view, they were fighting for independence from colonial powers. Lyndon Johnson didn’t know how to extricate us and, through steady escalation recommended by the generals, ultimately deployed 536,100 Americans on the ground in Southeast Asia.

By the time we finally understood the folly, and got out once and for all in 1975, the price we had paid was awful.  The war destroyed one presidency and contributed enormously to the destruction of another, and damaged our prestige worldwide. But that was the least of it. Over 58,000 American kids were killed fighting in Viet Nam, and over 304,000 wounded, many of whom are still being cared for in VHA hospitals today.

There were 1.3 million Viet Namese military and civilian deaths all told.

The “culture war” that took root at home during that period could be viewed as the greatest tragedy of all. The Red-Blue divide that poisons our society today is directly descended from the Viet Nam era divisions.

What was it all for? The “communists” won. We lost. So what? Do they threaten us more now? Did they threaten us at all then? Did our involvement there achieve anything positive? Are we better off for it in any way?

It is completely understandable that many families of those who lost their lives want to believe the cause was “just”, and that their loved ones served honorably and even heroically. You often hear it said, even now, that we “could have won” if we had only bombed the north, or deployed more troops, or whatever. But it should be clear now that there was nothing to “win”.  And the the honor and heroism of those who answered the call and paid with their lives or limbs is not diminished by the fact that the “cause” was illusory.


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