Vietnam remembered: 40 years later

The U.S. left Saigon on April 30, 1975, and President Ford declared an end to the Vietnam Era a week later. What the war was about, and why we can be proud of our mission there

D.R. Howe of Glencoe, Minnesota treats the wounds of Private First Class D.A. Crum of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, “H” Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, during Operation Hue City, 1968. Allied casualties numbered 668 dead and 3,707 wounded. Communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000, but 5,000 civilians were killed — 2,800 of them executed by the PAVN and Viet Cong, according to the South Vietnamese government — and the battle marked a turning point in American political support for the war. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

For Veterans Life

A typical high school history book will, at best, have only two paragraphs on the Vietnam War, though its history and South Vietnam’s loss to a cruel regime took more than 20 years.

Those two paragraphs will focus on the social unrest and nothing really about the war — why 58,000 Americans died and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese drowned at sea; why there was a massive wave of immigration to this country; and how the war resulted, indirectly,  in a safer Europe. Today, there is little known or understood about that conflict. There is also much distortion of what did happen.

In 1954, Vietnam won its freedom from France, under which it had been a colony.  Subsequent peace negotiations allowed the Vietnamese people to choose to live in the Communist-controlled north, governed from Hanoi; or in the democratic state in the south, governed from Saigon.

Millions moved south of the 17th parallel after witnessing the brutality of the communist forces against their own people.

In 1965, American troops were deployed formally to South Vietnam, to support the South Vietnam government’s efforts against a rising communist insurgency, which was trying to take control of a people wishing to remain self determinant. Till that time, it was a guerrilla war. Then, in 1968, all pretenses from the North Vietnamese government were lost. It was no longer a guerrilla uprising or a civil war, as the American press tried to paint it, but a full-blown conflict between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), supported by the Soviet Union and communist China, against the allied forces of the south which included the South Vietnamese, Americans and some help from South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and others, but none from Europe.

In early 1968, a truce was drawn up for the holidays called Tet. While everyone celebrated the equivalent of Christmas and New Year’s, the communists attacked, breaking the truce. The first two days were very confusing. However, despite the overwhelming onslaught, small units held. Then, larger units re-grouped and fought back successfully. Within a short period, the communist forces were severely mauled, all but destroyed. The news media reported the events in such a manner that it appeared it was really a defeat for the allied forces. This further eroded the support of the American public and heightened antagonism toward the veterans who had served there.

Surprise attacks are normal elements of war; to defeat the attacker is victory. To this day, the communist Vietnamese generals ask, “Why did you stop; we were three days from annihilation?” The answer is complicated and has left most American veterans of that war with feelings of betrayal, bitterness and, in some cases, hostility.

There were many forces that came into action during those war years. The 1960s were a time of rebellion, social experimentation and unrest. It was worldwide and in many forms. In the United States, there was the much-delayed civil rights movement; antagonism toward the draft, because it was perceived as an interruption in the lives of young men; and the ever-present Cold War between totalitarian communist states and democratic self-determining countries.

The war was further complicated by a regime in the north — it placed communist ideology above human rights. Thus, this regime had no problem in sending thousands of their young men to die or to order the murder of thousands of innocent people. On the American side were Henry Kissinger and the White House. Kissinger looked very diplomatic while stymied by Le Duc Tho of Hanoi. The Paris Peace Talks got nowhere for years while people on the ground bled and died. With the American government tired and wanting out of the war in any way possible, a treaty was worked out.

The North was to leave the South alone and, in return, the North would receive American aid when the last U.S. troops left. The United States would continue to supply the South as long as the North was supplied by the Soviet Union. Instead, the well-supplied North attacked the South. The South Vietnamese Army fought hard but was not supplied by the U.S. as promised. After the fall of the South Vietnamese capital, the North demanded the aid promised, but was also ignored.

After the fall of Saigon, there was an immediate rush of refugees to leave their homeland. They knew what would happen as they had seen the murders in the North during the 1950s and the brutality inflicted on non-combatants by the communists for years. Hundreds of thousands of people — men, women, and children — fled by sea only to drown. The world stood by and did very little. The American government even ordered the U.S. Navy to stop rescuing the “boat people,” but they didn’t. Eventually, the South Vietnamese people did find homes in various nations where they actively contribute to their new homes with a sense of gratitude.

Why are American veterans of that war so bitter and hostile? The simple answer is that the news media misrepresented them, portraying them as participants in atrocities, as drug abusers, and even as being dangerous to society. It was even chic to brand soldiers and veterans as “baby-killers.” Because of the hostility soldiers faced when they returned, they no longer felt they had a home and now many are uncomfortable with the handshakes from strangers thanking them for their service.

Most of the stereotypes portrayed in the newspapers were more fiction than truth. Yes, there were badly led units that got out of control; that was the exception, not the norm. As one attorney now puts it, “One of the best times in my life was giving medical aid to the villagers in South Vietnam.”

The newspapers wrote that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was an excuse to start a war, that it did not really happen. However, one former sailor, now a mayor in Washington state, put it, “I was on a destroyer that night and those were not friendly blips on the radar screen coming at us.”

American soldiers fought well under conditions no other generation of veterans had ever dealt with. War is war, but coming home was often hell for them — disenfranchised by the country that sent them, often isolated from former friends, and with families that did not want to hear what happened.

The Soviet “Red” Army was paying attention. It observed how American soldiers —  divided by race, ethnicity and social standing — put away these things and fought alongside each other and for each other. The Red Army, as it was called then, had the same problems, but their soldiers were too unreliable to be any threat to Western Europe, as Victor Suvorov wrote in his book, “Inside the Red Army.”

Vietnamese today, now living in this country, are organizing themselves and their children to give thanks and appreciation to those American-born veterans who fought in Vietnam. Many veterans of that war have visited and come back with stories of the friendliness of the common people who welcomed them back.

The present generation has much to learn about that war. When you shake a soldier’s hand and thank them for their service, do them a favor and know what that service is about.

— Thom Stoddert is a combat veteran (Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm) and former VA rating specialist. Stoddert wrote this article based on his own experiences and those of other veterans: Dan Hied, Auburn city attorney; Peter Lewis, former mayor of Auburn; Anthony Ton, former South Vietnamese pilot; and Lan Phan Jones, co-chair of the Joint American-Vietnamese War Memorial Alliance.