The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago – on 30 April 1975, tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rumbled onto the streets of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon and the country was unified after decades of conflict. Since then, thousands of books, articles and films have tried to explain every aspect of the war.
The 40th anniversary also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send troops to Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1965. As part of the commemoration the Pentagon has created a website. Its stated aim is “to provide the American public with historically accurate materials to help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam War veterans and the history of the Vietnam War”.
But the Pentagon has taken a decidedly partial, heavily sanitised, and almost wholly American perspective on the war, one that fails to acknowledge the disastrous mistakes that Johnson and others made.
The site gives details of commemorations taking place around the United States, as well as “Fact Sheets” listing troop numbers, and brief narratives about the contributions of the branches of the US military. An “Interactive Timeline” follows the history of the conflict from the end of World War II to just beyond Vietnam’s reunification, while there are photographs, videos and transcripts of speeches. Aside from a few references to its allies, the Pentagon focuses almost entirely on the American perspective of the war, praising US veterans for what it calls their “service, valor, and sacrifice.”
Historian Stanley Kutler has even gone so far as to suggest that it has “hijacked” the war with this effort – and looking at the bland lists of dates and statistics that it has made available it is hard to disagree.
The war should be remembered for its terrible losses on all sides. Estimates suggest that a million Vietnamese people perished, but it could easily be twice that number. About 58,000 Americans died, while tens of thousands more were injured – and the consequences continue to be felt.
Soldiers and civilians still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Vietnamese children still suffer terrible problems from birth because of the use by US-led forces of the defoliant Agent Orange. Over the border, Cambodians still seek justice for those who were tortured and killed in their millions by the Khmer Rouge, a regime whose bloody rise was a direct result of the US’s expansion of the war.
Ultimately, for many in the US, the war has become a metaphor for its government’s folly and hubris. And yet, it still serves other political purposes too.
Some on the right still stick to the view that the war should be celebrated. This doesn’t just mean that they focus on the sacrifice of the young soldiers who served, many of whom were drafted and wanted no part in the conflict; they also praise Washington’s decision to intervene to prevent the spread of communism, regardless of the consequences.
Ronald Reagan was one of the first to take this line when he characterised the war as a “noble cause” in the early 1980s. Many at the time were shocked. The wounds were still too raw to discuss the war in this way – but it worked. The idea became incredibly popular, and Reagan cemented his reputation among Republicans as a patriot and veterans’ advocate. And so the public narrative of the war began to be rewritten.
The Obama line
US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama have both continued to try to shape people’s ideas both about Vietnam and its broader meaning. Understandably they have lauded the troops who have fought in all America’s wars, including Vietnam. Yet they have also attempted to link the war in South-East Asia to the similarly controversial conflicts of the “war on terror”.
While President Bush, for obvious reasons, initially resisted analogies between his war in Iraq and the Vietnam quagmire, he eventually acknowledged the war’s lessons. Although he acknowledged that the war was a “complex and painful subject for many Americans” he claimed what he called an “unmistakable legacy of Vietnam” was “that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens.”
Bush’s view was clear: don’t question how we get into foreign wars, just understand that when we do intervene we have to stay there until the job is done, or catastrophe will follow our departure.
Strikingly, President Obama has followed a similar course.
While he has emphasised the heroism of those who served in Vietnam, he has also shied away from discussing the reasons why the US became involved. When the president announced a major increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan in 2009, he had to defend himself against charges that that war was becoming like the one in Vietnam – charges he derided as “a false reading of history”.
Yet in the same breath, Obama admonished his audience to remember that Vietnam had seen the US “cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing” and that to “abandon” Afghanistan – presumably in a similar fashion – would be to hand a victory to America’s enemies. He has even riffed on the theme that the US as good as won the war in Vietnam because it was successful in so many individual battles. Sometimes, he almost sounds like Reagan.
Governments often claim that they are learning lessons from past mistakes, and Vietnam is no exception. Yes, the war was extremely complex, and its legacies remain contested. But by selecting the elements they want the public to remember instead of stimulating a debate about its causes and consequences, the American government has largely chosen to promote a version of Vietnam that has little to do with the war.
As the Pentagon seems to be suggesting in its narrowly focused website, Americans should not question the reasons behind the war – they should simply learn some sketchy “facts”, honour the troops, and move on.
This dishonours the memory of all who served and all who suffered – and turns a blind eye to the enormous suffering that’s still going on.