Jeff Lukens
January 29, 2007
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 people.

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 aid.

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 pride.

© Jeff Lukens

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