[This segment covers the period between 1968, when I left the Army for grad school in History, and 1988, when the Vietnam War finally ended for me, sort of. For a list of sources, see Part IV]
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The peace talks got off to a rocky start in Paris. During 1968, while the negotiators squabbled over the shape of the table and the U.S. elected a new President, Richard M. Nixon, who claimed he had a “secret plan” to end the war, 14,589 Americans were killed in Vietnam, more than half again as many as in 1967, and the highest total for any year of our involvement there. President Nixon’s “secret plan” turned out to be “Vietnamization,” the gradual transfer of the war effort to the South Vietnamese Army as American forces were withdrawn.
I left the Army in July 1968 for graduate school at Emory University, where I would spend the next five years. Nevertheless, studying the past brought small consolation to my life in the present, as the war in Vietnam ground bloodily on. In 1969, a shocked American public learned of the so-called “My Lai Massacre,” the systematic murder of more than 100 Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, by a U.S. Army unit, an event the Army had covered up since March 1968. The spring of 1970 brought the joint American-South Vietnamese “incursion” into neutral Cambodia in pursuit of North Vietnamese troops. This decision by the Nixon Administration revived the dormant anti-war movement in the U.S., even on the normally placid Emory campus; led to the killings of protesting college students at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State University in Mississippi; and pushed Cambodia down the slippery slope to the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge.
The New York Times began to publish in January 1971 a hitherto secret history of American involvement in Vietnam, the “Pentagon Papers,” that revealed a trail of lies and deceptions by a series of presidential administrations over nearly two decades. Five months later (June, 1971), an angry Congress reasserted its control over the war by repealing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. To pressure the recalcitrant North Vietnamese to the conference table, President Nixon renewed the bombing of the North in the spring of 1972 and ordered the mining of North Vietnam’s major port, Haiphong. These steps, plus a devastating series of bombing raids in December (the so-called “Christmas Blitz,” or “Merry Christmas to you, from a B-52”), got peace talks moving again, and in January 1973 the delegates announced a cease-fire, trumpeted as “Peace with Honor” by President Nixon.
“Peace with Honor” had taken hold, and most Americans had left Vietnam by the fall of 1973, when I began teaching at this school. The cease-fire had allowed the U.S. to extricate itself from Vietnam with some semblance of national honor but at a staggering cost. During the Nixon presidency nearly 21,000 Americans were killed and about 53,000 wounded, more than one-third of the total U.S. casualties for the war. With the American withdrawal, only the North and South Vietnamese were dying, an estimated 50,000 of them in the twelve months after the cease-fire.
Less than a year after the Watergate scandal drove Richard Nixon from office and brought Gerald Ford to the Presidency, the North Vietnamese invaded the South and the truth of “Vietnamization” became clear to all. South Vietnamese resistance collapsed like a house of cards. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in May, 1975, I was a 31 year-old History teacher finishing my second year here.
During my first few years at this school, I literally could not teach about Vietnam in my American History classes. I told myself each spring that, from the historian’s point of view, the conflict was still just “current events.” The nation needed distance, perspective, before it could make sense of the war, and so did I. By the early 1980s, I was finally able to sit down and explain at least the chronology of Vietnam and to teach it that way, but something was still missing.
The Vietnam War finally ended for me in the summer of 1988, when my family and I went to Washington, D.C. Even though I had not actually been to the Nam, I, like countless men and women who did serve there, needed to visit the Vietnam Memorial to experience, finally, a sense of closure, of peace. I found and photographed two of the names on the Wall: those of Larry, my former soccer teammate, who had been killed in 1967; and of the Major I had helped to bury in Arlington in 1968. The experience was a moving one for me. The place was like an outdoor cathedral. At the base of the bronze statue of the three soldiers, some pilgrims had placed personal mementoes: a hat emblazoned with the insignia of a Vietnam-era military unit; a few campaign ribbons and medals; and flowers, always flowers. Visitors arranged themselves in two parallel lines along the sidewalk. The line farthest from the Wall moved steadily and quietly, drinking in the scene in front of one of the Capital’s more popular tourist attractions. The line closer in moved haltingly, with a more solemn purpose: each person was looking for a name, to touch, to trace, to photograph. These people were quiet too, until they found what they were looking for. When they did, their almost reverent silence gave way to halting conversations, reminiscences mixed with regrets, and, finally, to tears.
Perhaps even more striking was the sharp contrast between the Vietnam Memorial and the nearby Lincoln Memorial. In one, a marble Lincoln sits enthroned high above the visitor, staring down the Mall toward the Washington Monument and the Capitol, flanked by inspiring words from his speeches. At the other, three bronze soldiers stare directly into the eyes of the visitor and past him towards the Wall beyond, where the only words are the names of the dead, unembellished even by indication of rank. The huge marble shrine commemorates the leadership of a great President during a fraternal war that was a watershed in our national development. The quiet, almost bucolic setting of the more recent memorial remembers those who died in Vietnam but makes no explicit statement about the war that killed them.
[End of Part III]
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: