Vietnam War Thirty Years in Retrospect

Thirty years ago Friday, April 29, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the walls of Saigon’s Presidential Palace to raise a Viet Cong flag over Ho Chi Minh City ending the twenty-year Republic of Vietnam and America’s longest war. This anniversary passed largely unnoticed.

I teach a course on the Vietnam War at a Christian liberal arts college in Western Pennsylvania. Friday’s lecture, “From Saigon to Baghdad,” discussed how the American military recovered from Vietnam to build the kind of forces for the Persian Gulf War retired General Norman Schwarzkopf characterized as “just damn good.” For today’s students, the Vietnam War is as remote as the Spanish Civil War was for undergraduates of the 1960s. So what might today’s students hear about the Vietnam War?

In too many college and university courses on Vietnam students will be taught America’s involvement resulted from neo-imperialism driven by a corrupt capitalist system. Many (not all) professors will maintain that a cruel technology was unleashed on a peaceful and peace-loving people and that millions of Vietnamese, Khmers, and Lao died due to craven policies compelled by US industrialists and a warmongering Pentagon. They will be taught that Agent Orange defoliants ruined the ecology of southern Vietnam, devastating forests and poisoning the earth; that a generation of American soldiers and millions of innocent Vietnamese died (or soon will) as a result. Students may hear that draftees bore the burden of the war and African Americans died in disproportionate numbers. Their professors may contend that, at best, President John F. Kennedy’s noble aspiration “to bear any burden” was subverted after his assassination by a military industrial complex that expanded the war to suit their own ends. These are among the myths propounded by lefty professors intent on pushing their “America as behemoth” weltanschauung. False assumptions result in false conclusions.

Communism, not the United States, caused the deaths of an estimated one hundred million innocents from collectivization and the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and post-World War II period to the communist takeover of China in 1949 to the Khmer killing fields of post-Vietnam war Cambodia to the death camps in North Korea today. If one considers the Indochina conflict as a theater in the 45-yearlong Cold War, fighting there bought time for other Southeast Asian nations to bolster their economies and democratic political systems. The defeat of U.S. policies in Indochina in 1975 was, at worst, a battle lost in the Cold War the West eventually won resulting in freedom for Eastern Europe and an end to the Soviet Union. The global spread of freedom since the Cold War makes the deaths of 58,000 Americans much more meaningful than depicting them as victims of neo-imperialist polices.

Other myths, like those associated with the use of Agent Orange, need to be exposed. During Operation Ranch Hand from February 1962 until mid-1971, the US Air Force conducted defoliation missions over South Vietnam and parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. While defoliants devastated mangroves in the swamps of the Mekong Delta, their effect on hardwoods in the Central Highlands was minimal.  Agent Orange did no long term damage to the ecology of southern Vietnam or southeastern Laos. Furthermore, the Air Force closely monitors the health of aging Ranch Hand crews. These airmen, who were literally drenched in Agent Orange while flying their missions, have not encountered physical problems significantly different from men their age never exposed to chemical defoliants. Compare the numbers of French soldiers killed during the French Indochina War in ambushes along roadways and waterways with the smaller number of Americans who perished in roadside or waterway ambushes. Even if defoliants had deleterious long-term health effects, dying in late middle age beats dying at 19.

More myths concern who fought and who died. Soldiers and Marines comprised 88 percent of combat deaths with 90 percent of those deaths occurring among enlisted men, mostly in the grades of E3 and E4. Of the 31,000 Army combat deaths, less than 15,000 were draftees. Virtually all the 13,000 Marine, 1,400 Navy, and 1,000 Air Force personnel killed in Vietnam were volunteers. Certainly the draft drove many to volunteer, but the fact is volunteers—not draftees—died in far greater numbers. Perhaps the most pernicious part of this myth is that African-Americans died in disproportionate numbers. Truth is, blacks accounted for 12 percent of combat deaths while draft-eligible black males comprised 13.5 percent of the available manpower cohort.

Claims that our soldiers engaged in “atrocities reminiscent of Genghis Khan” do the greatest disservice to men and women who served nobly in a just cause. We were neither victims nor victimizers. Rather, we fought for the Enlightenment ideal that people everywhere deserve to live in freedom and dignity.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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