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My Side

On the eve of another war we are being told that it is the duty of the United States (with a token or two of help from a few other nations) to save the world from a madman and assorted terrorists. Haven’t we been here before? Isn’t there something we can learn from history?

I believe it was in 1964 that we first began to hear that communism could only be stopped by war. Remember? Do you also remember something called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing presidential action in Vietnam? How about your memory in regard to other events?

In February 1965, President Johnson ordered continuous bombing of North Vietnam below the 20th parallel. By May 1, 1966, U.S. forces began firing into Cambodia. The Tet offensive of 1968 was a severe blow to the communist forces, but due to incorrect or untruthful reporting, we were led to believe otherwise. Peace talks began in Paris in 1968 and expanded in 1969 (a year when hundreds of civilians were massacred at Mylai, South Vietnam – by U.S. forces).

Antiwar demonstrations peaked in the United States in 1969, when 250,000 marched in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15. In spite of the peace talks and the demonstrations, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces crossed into Cambodia on April 30, 1970. The day after Christmas in 1971, U.S. bombers began a 5-day massive bombing of North Vietnam. As sort of a pre-Christmas “present” in 1972, there was another “full-scale” bombing of the North. After more war and more negotiations, peace pacts were signed Jan. 27, 1973, and the North Vietnamese released some 590 U.S. prisoners. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam March 29, 1973.

In 1974 we were busy with the impeachment hearings for President Nixon – and with his resignation on Aug. 9. The evacuation of the Americans and some South Vietnamese was launched on April 29, 1975, and the communist forces completed the takeover of South Vietnam. The South Vietnam government officially surrendered April 30, 1975.

The war lasted nearly ten years, and we lost. There is no nice way to say that. We were totally defeated, and communist rulers took over the entire nation. To save some face, our Congress voted on May 16, 1975, to spend $405 million to fly 140,000 South Vietnamese refugees to the United States.

The official records show that were 8,752,000 U.S. military members involved in the war, and there were 211,556 casualties – of which there were 47,393 killed in battle and 10,800 others died in war-related activities. 153,363 were wounded. All in vain?

If you believe otherwise, please tell the world what the United States achieved. We did not halt the spread of communism. It turned out that we were not told some of the basic truths about the people of Vietnam. We were not told that they wanted their independence more than anything else. They did not want the French in their country, and they did not want us. We were told that all the Vietnamese wanted freedom and democracy so much that they would welcome us as “liberators.”

Americans seemed to have a serious ego problem. And we seem to be back with that problem again. Somehow our president and military leaders are confident that all the Arabs in Middle East are just waiting for us to push forward with another Vietnam-type of war designed to “save them” at any cost to their pride, their religion, their tribe or nationalist loyalties, their antiquities or their natural resources. If we are not to repeat the history of Vietnam, we need to trim our egos considerably and stop acting like the Super Bully of the world!

Face it. Lots of people in the world don’t think many of our values are worth having! We do have some serious problems in our country, in case you haven’t looked around lately – including one of the world’s worst records in terms of violence between members of our society. And why are our prisons so full?!

It is a terrible thing to realize that our propensity toward violent solutions seems to be a prime reason why thousands of our own troops have died – and why we have left millions of people dead or maimed under the guise of “saving” them. Sure, it’s hard to tell a veteran, or the parents and relatives of one, that all the military efforts in Vietnam were misguided and wrong, but if we can’t talk about it now, when is the time appropriate – after we spend ten more years of war to find out we did the same stupid things all over again?!

In closing this essay, let me note a couple of things that sparked its creation. One reason for my reflections about the mistakes we made in Vietnam was the fact that I visited the country a couple of years ago, and I saw a nation functioning quite well under their communist rule. In Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals obviously still like to call Saigon, as a subtle insult to the present central government perhaps, and to show their enduring pride), my wife and I saw all kinds of evidence of capitalism, including shopping malls. Throughout the city and the countryside we met a new generation, forgiving and ready to do their best. They are obviously proud to be Vietnamese, not imitation Americans. At all times we were treated well.

The second thing that inspired this essay was a label on four pieces of furniture I just bought: “Made in Vietnam.” It has taken more than 25 years for Vietnam to recover as well as it has, but it has gotten its products into the world market and it is beginning to realize that communism has to get a bit capitalistic at times. Without war – and without us to tell them how to live and what to value – they are moving forward into a responsible position in the world. Amazing changes in that country! I don’t think we are as important, or as necessary, as we think we are.

Even I have changed. At age 71, I can finally state that I was wrong during the Vietnam era. Based on the evidence that one country after another was adopting communism, I truly thought that there was a “domino” theory at work. If we didn’t stop them by war, the whole world – including the United States – would fall to enslavement. But it didn’t happen. Even the Berlin wall came down. Communism failed because it is a dumb set of ideas which go against human nature and against the slow, but hopeful, march to a more civilized world.

Contain and isolate Saddam Hussein, but we should not kill all kinds of Iraqi people and other Arabs in haste to make them just like us. We need humility and patience. When it comes to Saddam, remember: “Time wounds all heels!”

If you want to check the numbers and other information about the Vietnam war, see p. 209 and pp. 491-453 of The World Almanac, 2001.

Stirling M. Cooper

Glenwood Springs

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