Our Intentions Were Noble in Vietnam
By Jeff Lukens
Thirty years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, we
remember the Vietnam War as a black hole from which we could not extract
ourselves. It has become associated with such terms as "unwinnable,"
"futile" and "quagmire."
We owe a better remembrance for the blood-sacrifice our veterans made
in this misunderstood war. In the Cold War, the belief was that if South
Vietnam fell to the communists, then like dominoes all the countries of
Southeast Asia would follow. While we may still debate the merits of our
involvement there, everyone should agree our intentions there were noble.
In the 1950s, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's government was
harsh and unfair to its people. Ho Chi Minh was the communist leader in
the North, and was a popular hero for his resistance to the Japanese in
World War II. Because Diem opposed communism, the United States chose
to support him, but this put us in a tenuous position with the South Vietnamese
President Kennedy's inaugural address best expressed the American outlook. "We
shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend,
oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." While
these are eloquent words, we unfortunately were not prepared to follow
through on them.
We had to confront communism, but do it within defined limits, and not
attack into the North. Our fear was that China might intervene as they
did in Korea in 1950. We confined our involvement in Vietnam in those
years to military advisors.
By 1963, however, the insurgency had Kennedy reconsidering his support
for Diem. Our first major blunder in Vietnam was Kennedy's knowing involvement
in the coup in which Diem was assassinated. At that point, the U.S. had
become committed to South Vietnam's defense. Johnson surely couldn't abandon
the country when Kennedy himself was assassinated just three weeks later.
Things only got worse, and military advisors alone would not be enough
to stave off collapse in South Vietnam. Our second major blunder was Johnson's
decision for a major expansion of ground troops in 1965. In hindsight,
this is where we should have possibly gotten out, but national pride and
Kennedy's words still rang true, so we pressed on.
Soon, liberals began to say America was immoral for being involved in
Vietnam in the first place. And Johnson, a liberal himself, became the
object of their scorn.
Johnson wanted the appearance that all was under control. A "credibility
gap" emerged between what he was saying and what was happening on
the battlefield. By its nature, war is unpredictable and is never totally "under
control." When the Tet offensive happened, Johnson's credibility,
and the reasons why we were fighting, were irreversibly damaged.
The Vietcong were virtually annihilated in Tet. Tet also solidified the
South's opposition to the North. Yet, journalists surreally portrayed
the battle as a major defeat to folks back home.
Though the protests grew louder, most Americans continued to support
the cause of freedom for which we were fighting. As we have discovered
again in Iraq, once we are committed to major military action, our utmost
priority is to win.
With Nixon's election, liberals were unleashed in their opposition to
the war. Showing true fortitude in the face of great hysteria, Nixon maintained
an orderly U.S. withdrawal. By 1973, he had successfully extracted our
troops from the war only to become mired in Watergate. Yet, with the help
of his "Vietnamization" program, the South Vietnamese were fighting
the war almost entirely on their own.
Then we threw it all away just two years later. A few months after Nixon's
resignation, antiwar Democrats in the "Watergate Congress," made
the biggest blunder of all by voting down appropriation for South Vietnamese
The cutoff in aid lead directly to the North Vietnamese invasion that
resulted in the collapse of South Vietnam. It was America's greatest foreign
policy disaster. The execution, imprisonment, starvation, and so-called
reeducation of millions of people were failures of American trustworthiness
and honor on a grand scale.
No one wants what happened in Vietnam to happen again. By our experience
there, we have learned that when we use force, the goal must be clear,
militarily attainable, and supported by Congress and the American people.
Some will say that we should have never gotten involved in Vietnam, but
because we did, the dominos did not fall. Vietnam was lost, but the holding
action there enabled Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia to all remain
free from communism.
For that, those who sacrificed so much in that war can deservedly take