Forty-three years ago today the communists overran Saigon and took control of what was then called South Vietnam.
Vietnam was partitioned in 1954 with a communist North and a non-Communist South. About one million refugees came south and about 100 thousand soldiers and guerrillas went north although some stayed in the South. They engaged in shadow warfare against “traitors” including school teachers and medical staff. Arthur Schlesinger described it as “warfare in the shadows, ambush and murder and torture, leaving behind a trail of burned villages, shattered families, and weeping women.”
The Kennedy administration began building up troops in South Vietnam. After JFK’s assassination, President Johnson won congressional approval for “armed force” to stop communist aggression in Indochina (including Cambodia) by a vote of 416-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate.
However, in the next few years Democrat leaders began to abandon the war and even demonize it. By the end of the 1960s the process was nearly complete and by 1970 Democrats no longer defended the war in any election cycle. It is not that the war was discussed as a policy issue but rather that it was criminalized.
- In 1967 Robert Kennedy – according to Arthur Schlesinger – told an audience of students, “Don’t you understand that what we are doing to the Vietnamese is not very different than what Hitler did to the Jews?”
- In 1971 a 27 year-old war veteran named John Kerry testified before Congress that US military personnel in Vietnam were regularly committing “war crimes” and behaving in a “fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.” (Decades later, he called those comments “the words of an angry young man” and said that our soldiers in Vietnam “served as nobly, on the whole, as in any war.”)
- In 1972 George McGovern said that the US had conducted “the most murderous aerial bombardment in the history of the world.”
Another development that had ramifications for the future was the use of the word “lying” about government statements on the Vietnam War. No one said Woodrow Wilson or FDR were lying in 1916 and 1940 over their promises to stay out of war. Since Vietnam it is a common assertion in debates about war.
Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 and many people expected him to withdraw from Vietnam and over a four-year period he did so. He also stopped the military draft which affected young men and converted the war more to an air campaign. Mr. Nixon won re-election in 1972 over Mr. McGovern, winning 49 states to 1. The Secretary of State in the Nixon administration Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiations of the treaty ending the war in early 1973.
Mr. Nixon had won support for the treaty from the leaders in the non-Communist South by a letter to the country’s president which said: “You have my absolute assurance that if Hanoi (the capital of North Vietnam) fails to abide by the terms of this agreement it is my intention to take swift and severe retaliatory action.” Another letter said: “Should you decide, as I trust you will, to go with us, you have my assurance of continued assistance in the post-settlement period and that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
However, Mr. Nixon was driven from office in the Watergate scandal and the Congress voted to cut off funding for all US military action in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina and the South was defeated two years later. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in South Vietnam by execution or in “re-education camps” and “new economic zones” or on the high seas as they attempted escape.
The fall of Saigon forty-three years ago today was a great defeat for the US and a great victory for the USSR which had supported North Vietnam to the hilt. But history didn’t stop in 1975. Within twenty years the USSR fell.
Many lessons are cited by both the left and the right about the American defeat in Vietnam. These posts will proffer one on which we should all agree: Let’s not fight full scale wars like this one again unless they are authorized the process outlined in our Constitution.