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The Vietnam War: The Loss We Can’t Accept or Forgive

My first memory of the Vietnam War was of that iconic image taken on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon.  For days, as the North Vietnamese Army and their South Vietnamese collaborators closed in on the capital, American officials and military personnel invoked the official evacuation protocol.   The American Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin had remained steadfast in his refusal to accept America’s loss and our need to get out ahead of the oncoming North Vietnamese’s invasion.  As a result, the evacuation was scattered and not well equipped.  All Americans got out – barely – and after Secretary of State Kissinger announced to the world that they were all safe.  Thousands of South Vietnamese citizens who had helped the Americans in our efforts to defeat the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were left behind.  Documents, identifying hundreds of South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Americans in our 20 plus years in Southeast Asia were not destroyed as we evacuated the embassy.  Those documents led the invading communists directly to their enemy, our friends, sending many to “re-education camps,’ for decades of indoctrination.  Just one in a long line of broken promises and embarrassing defeats for the world’s economic and military superpower that had just 30 years prior, rescued Europe and Asia from the ravages of totalitarianism.

I do not remember the first time I saw this photograph.  I suspect it was the first American History class I had in grade school which would have been third or fourth grade.  The image is of an American Huey, one of the last helicopter evacs out of Saigon on April 30, 1975.  The still gives the impression of order.  But the reality was so much different.  In grade school, the picture meant little.  Vietnam was a place, a date, and a lost war.  I cannot explain why – but I remember this picture.  My next memory of Vietnam was senior year of high school, American History.  Our teacher, Mr. McCaffrey (I am hopeful that someone reading this post will correct me if I have gotten his name wrong), was really into the 60s and 70s.  I think he had been a hippie, but he never shared any “hippie-like experiences,” with the class.  I mean, I would never have expected him to discuss free love or sex at Woodstock, but man, we spent 9 weeks studying the 60s and 70s.  Nine weeks!  He went on and on about the counter-culture and the importance and impact it had on America.  He made it sound like war protests and the activist movement mirrored the Second Coming of Christ but in 1991, I just did not see it.  I tried.  I really did.

A few days ago, I finished the last episode of The Vietnam War, the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  As I watched that final episode, I had that “A-ha” moment.  Something clicked.  After everything I’ve read and studied in the last 25 years (‘ish), I think I finally get it.  I have understood the significance of the war and the impact of our loss on culture, government, and trust in institutions for quite some time.  That was basic college level American History 101.  But I had never linked Vietnam to 2017 and the political forces that have been at play for the last two decades.  Those political forces have mystified me, despite study and constant questioning.  Now that I feel demystified, I want to share my observations.

Post Structure

I have written this post over the last several days.  When finished, it was close to 8,000 words before editing.  Guess which direction the word count goes as I edit?

In an attempt to make it easier for readers to put it down and pick it back up again, I’ve tried to organize and split up the larger post into shorter sections.  You do need to go in order for it to flow, but hopefully, by following the links, you will have no issues.


  • The Vietnam War.  Introduction and overview of documentary
  • Vietnam Was Different.  Why was Vietnam So Different?
  • Vietnam to Today.   Linking outcomes from Vietnam to behaviors and actions of 2017.
  • Vietnam:  Who is to Blame?  How did we explain the loss to ourselves?
  • Vietnam’s Legacy.  Why it still really matters and will we ever reconcile ourselves to what happened.

Let’s get started.

The Vietnam War

I have watched a few of Ken Burns documentary films.  The list is much longer than I realized.  Jackie Robinson and The Dust Bowl have been on my list for a while but I have not made the time to stream the episodes.  I highly recommend The Roosevelts and The Civil War.  As a side, in an interview ahead of The Vietnam War, Burns mentioned that when The Civil War was broadcast in 1990, it was around the time of the First Gulf War.  War fever was high – people were ready to fight.  He noted that after the broadcast (9 episodes in all, 11 and a half hours), war fever had dissipated.  Those who had watched the documentary were reminded of war’s horrors and decided that we should think again before moving forward.

Prohibition should be interesting, but I found it difficult to get through.  Similarly, I have not yet completed, The War and The West.  I just started The Central Park Five, and will next look into Not for Ourselves Alone, the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  As a feminist, I really should know something about the early women’s movement.  They were the trailblazers.

Difficult to Watch

My response to The Vietnam War was unexpected.  I had been waiting for its release for the better part of a year, so the availability was not the surprise.  The surprise was how much I learned about the time period and the war itself but also how I was affected by the images and the stories they told.  Not all the reviews were glowing; some American Vietnam vets described it as propaganda and South Vietnamese veterans felt that the manner in which they were portrayed was not nearly as patriotic as the northern communists.  I can see that perspective, particularly as an American growing up in the final years of the Cold War and in the first decade after the humiliation of the loss.  It is true, Burns and Novak included veterans and survivors from all sides of the war and representatives of many peer groups.  They introduced military veterans, civilians, journalists South Vietnamese collaborators, former POWs, foot soldiers, and generals each of whom told their stories as the narrator described events in chronological order.  The South Vietnamese government was corrupt and repressive.  Some of that behavior trickled into the ranks of the army.

Wars are difficult to cover objectively.  Americans always want to be seen as the heroes, the saviors keeping the world safe for democracy.  How do you tell the story when the hero makes bad decisions?  How do you explain how a hero can be good and evil at the same time?  In that same vein, the South Vietnamese soldiers, believed they were fighting for their own people’s freedom.  They did not want to be part of a communist state, or at least that was the message sent.  But their government was corrupt and repressive; some of that behavior trickled into the ranks of the army.  How does a documentarian tell their story without accusing those that fought in support of that government of bad behavior?  It is not easy, to tell the truth, let alone hear it.

I found some of the episodes quite disturbing.   I admit, that at best, I am an amateur historian and in my experience, most hobbyists like the technology and military tactician aspect of history.  That is why it is always Nazi Week on the History Channel.  I am different in that I only care about the battlefield to the extent that the battlefield tactics are influenced by political and economic factors in the major capitals of the world.   I want to answer the question, “What possessed Confederate General George Pickett to order his troops to charge into an open field, on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, with no natural cover and in the clear sight of federal troops’ Winchester rifles?”   When you can tie strategic military operations to political or economic pressures or successes, you start to develop a holistic picture of what actually happened.  Without that context, all the student has are names, dates, places, and body count.  None of that matters in the arc of history.

The episodes or scenes that I found so disturbing were those in which American leaders and military personnel made such bad decisions; decisions that at the time they were made, they knew were bad and they knew would lead to bad outcomes.  But they made them anyway out of a sense of ego and narcissism.  We always learned that America fought in Vietnam to defend democracy and to fight against the scourge of Communism.  The ‘domino theory’ was our prevailing foreign policy for almost 40 years and yes, at first, there was a great deal of concern that if we allowed South Vietnam to fall to the communists, that the entire region might also fall.  We have to put those concerns in the context of the 1950s because of the Soviet threat, perceived or real, was much different than what it turned out to be 30 years later.

But watching the film was also disturbing because Vietnam is so hard to explain.  I do not know how you teach it in the public schools because the subject to me, is like a puzzle.  You have to first identify every piece, then understand what each means before you start piecing it together.  From the civil rights movement to the anti-war protests to the Kent State and Mylai Massacres to the Pentagon Papers and Nixon’s paranoia to the total destruction of a country with an economy the size of an average American state, these ingredients all play a vital role in understanding just what the hell happened.

As a teacher, you then have to juxtapose that American experience to the total victory of World War II and the subsequent economic boom of the 1950s.  Each and every puzzle piece has to be understood within the appropriate context for students to understand and appreciate the significant impact that these 20 years had on the American experience.  I have not attempted to identify or explain every puzzle piece.  You will have to read a lot of books to get a full telling.  But I will point out those that led to my “A-ha” moment.

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