The Vietnam War. It is what used to be called “America’s longest war” before the conflict in Afghanistan won that dubious distinction.
Today, March 29, America honors those who fought in the Vietnam War, a conflict lasting from 1961 to 1975, spanning the terms of four presidents, and dividing America in a way she had never experienced since the Civil War.
The roots of America’s Vietnam tale began during World War II when American OSS agents were dropped into northern Vietnam to aid guerilla leader Ho Chi Minh in his battle against Japanese occupiers. When the war ended, France returned to claim French Indochina, the colony made up of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Although President Franklin Roosevelt opposed France’s return to Indochina, President Truman, his successor, made the fateful decision to aid the French in regaining their foothold in Southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh, now leader of the anti-French resistance, was transformed from America’s friend and ally into our opponent.
By the time Ho Chi Minh finally defeated the French in 1954, America was knee deep in the mess that eventually led to our war in Vietnam. After France evacuated Indochina, Vietnam was divided into two halves: the north led by Ho Chi Minh and the south led by Ngo Dinh Diem, an American ally. Under President Eisenhower, America sent economic aid and military equipment and, eventually, American advisers to train the South Vietnamese military.
President Kennedy continued aid to South Vietnam, boosting the number of American advisers and becoming more and more tangled in Vietnamese politics. When Kennedy died in 1963, his successor President Lyndon Johnson was gradually sucked into a larger commitment in Vietnam. Eisenhower and Kennedy planned to stop communism’s expansion in Vietnam with American weapons, aid and advisers. Johnson upped the stakes by sending in the first U.S. combat troops in March 1965. By the time he left office in January 1969, there were over 500,000 Americans fighting to establish democracy in South Vietnam and stop communism’s advance.
It was left to President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford to bring down the curtain on America’s war in Vietnam. Nixon simultaneously fought the North Vietnamese, drew in the Russians and Chinese through the policy of détente, and negotiated what he called “peace with honor”: the withdrawal of America’s last combat troops in January. Ford, who became president in August 1974, presided over the final stage of America’s Vietnam involvement. On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam fell to invaders from North Vietnam. Soon after Cambodia and Laos fell to communist rebels. By May 1975, America’s long war, a war that cost 58,000 American lives, was over.
But did the war ever end? Not for the several million Americans who served in Southeast Asia and for the millions of Americans at home who lived through this tumultuous time in our history. The war that ended in Southeast Asia came home to America. In the forty-four years since the war’s end, Americans have been left with many questions to answer about our involvement in this distant war. Did we leave behind American POWs held in Vietnamese jails? How have we treated those veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their wartime experience? How do we regain faith in a political system that lied to the American public about the war’s progress? Should we trust a media that did a poor job in covering a war and its impact at home? And how do we heal a nation whose citizens were strongly and angrily divided over whether the war was just or necessary?
All these questions and many more still need answers. That is why President Barack Obama in 2012 chose March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day, a day to reflect on the war’s legacy and to remember the many Americans who served and suffered as a result of the war. On March 28, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Congressional act establishing March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. While many Americans may have held opposing views about the war, it is time to “honor the warrior, if not the war.”
On March 29, take a few minutes and think about the Vietnam War and its impact. Most Americans know about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and many have visited it. But less visible reminders of the war are all around us: the men and women who dedicated and risked their young lives to answer their nation’s call to serve.
If you know someone who served during the Vietnam War, thank them for their service. Many veterans have never had their service acknowledged. They were not thanked when they came back to a nation in turmoil. Now is the time to recognize their contributions. Thank you from a grateful nation.
Steve Potts is a history and political science teacher at Hibbing Community College. He has taught courses on the war, interviewed dozens of veterans and engaged in projects about the war for over 30 years.