The Real Lessons from Vietnam

A response to the March 7 column “Lessons from Ancient History”

By John Faust

Concerning “Lessons from Ancient History” by Dave Skinner in the March 7 edition of this paper, I feel that someone must respond.

Skinner states that “we won” the Tet Offensive in 1968, “then threw away that victory.” He also wrote that America’s fight in Vietnam was a “just cause,” and basically blamed Walter Cronkite for causing the American failure in Vietnam by truthfully terming the war a “stalemate.” Skinner wrote that he, himself, was a child living in a safe home in the U.S. at the time.

For the record, I was a young Marine, on the ground, near DaNang, South Vietnam prior to, during the Tet Offensive and throughout the following 10 and a half months of aftermath. I remember Tet quite well. In fact, very few days pass that I don’t recall incoming mortar shells and the shriek of incoming rockets, the loss of friends to combat, and those lost to suicide or other mental problems. Like many others, I enlisted to fight the “good fight.” We would save the world from the Red Menace, bring light, freedom and democracy to the oppressed, and prevent the “domino effect” from occurring. I didn’t see that effort being very effective during my tour in country. I know that my perceptions are not shared by all Vietnam veterans, but there are certain truths that we cannot escape nor should we ignore.

Let’s see? “A just cause?” Is Mr. Skinner aware that Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh sought help from the U.S. in 1945 in convincing our WWII ally, France, to relinquish their oppressive, colonial claim to French Indo-China after the Japanese were defeated and withdrew from what is today Vietnam? Although an affirmed communist, Uncle Ho professed to establish a Democratic Vietnamese government patterned on the principles of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The U.S. chose to support France instead. Ho Chi Minh then turned to communist China for help. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the U.S. helped broker the division of Vietnam into north and south countries at the 17th parallel. The U.S. government then supported the corrupt South Vietnamese government regime of Emperor Bao Dai, and in 1956 actively blocked a proposed free, popular ballot, set by the 1954 Geneva Accords, on whether the people of South Vietnam wished to unite the two countries. Check it out.

Yes, the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong committed atrocities during the conflict. Remember the My Lai massacre? It wasn’t North Vietnam or Viet Cong that committed that one. The U.S. and its allies killed between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese during the war; men, women and children. 58,217 U.S. servicemen and women died in the country, 1,500 are still missing. For what? Several American companies made money hand over fist from our and the Vietnamese sufferings. A just cause?

“We threw away the victory of Tet?” I remember well our frustration, as freedom fighters, when U.S. bombings were temporary halted, occasionally. I remember that a common refrain among the troops was that “if they would just let us fight we could defeat the damn VC and NVA.” Perhaps we could have. So what? We didn’t belong there in the first place.

Cronkite’s statement on “stalemate” caused our defeat? Hardly. Every night, for months on end, U.S. families ate dinner while watching news coverage of various bombings, firefights and village torching in Vietnam. They were reassured that their “boys” were winning by the weekly casualty count. The U.S. KIAs were always less than the enemy’s. Similar to a basketball scoreboard, as long as our numbers were lower, we must be winning, right?

Rather than Cronkite, let’s give credit to the thousands of anti-war protesters that saw through our government’s smokescreen and fought to halt the carnage. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers certainly helped change public opinion.

What good ever emerged from that conflict? This year I will again visit the graves of my friends that died over there and wonder who they might have become had their lives not been taken from them. Fifty years have passed. My enduring hope for these 50 years has consistently been that they did not die in vain. I fear that they did. However, through the persistent efforts and loud voices of returned Vietnam veterans and homebound U.S. civilians, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution lowered the legal voting age in the U.S. to 18. Because of Vietnam our young people have the opportunity to determine this country’s future by ballot. Something we, as a nation, denied the Vietnamese the right to do. I beseech all citizens who are now at least 18 or will be 18 by Election Day to become informed, registered to vote, and then actually vote. Then, maybe my brothers in arms will not have died in vain.

Oh yes, Mr. Skinner, there is no such thing as a just war.

John Faust is a retired teacher living in Essex.