Five decades later, the United States is still trying to reconcile and understand its role in the Vietnam War.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from the Southeast Asia nation, we honor and celebrate those who served their country in a war that remains a contentious event in American history. While the purpose and the effectiveness of U.S. involvement in Vietnam remain debatable, the vast majority of military personnel served admirably in defending what our leaders believed were the nation’s best interests.
Locally, the Community Military Appreciation Committee is hosting an event today at Clark College, commemorating the anniversary of the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Beginning at 11 a.m. in the Penguin Union Building, a panel of speakers will discuss issues related to the conflict. That will be followed by the dedication of a witness tree dedicated to veterans.
Washington is home to an estimated 184,000 Vietnam-era veterans — a reminder of the vast impact of the war and of this nation’s moral obligation to care for its veterans.
But the lingering lessons of Vietnam extend well beyond that living memory. Even today, those lessons call for sober analysis of the United States’ role in the global community, the dangers of demagoguery and political leaders who willfully lie to the public, and a stubborn belief that American might has the power to shape world events.
American involvement in support of the South Vietnamese government was fueled by a specious fear of communism, a fear that had driven foreign policy since shortly after World War II. Following years of providing advisory and economic support, the United States first sent combat troops to Vietnam in March 1965. By 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. military personnel were in a nation roughly the size of Missouri.
By the time troops were withdrawn some eight years after their arrival, more than 58,000 Americans had been killed. That included 36 Clark County residents, ranging chronologically from Roy F. Harbison of Vancouver on March 5, 1966 to Harley Hubert Hall of Vancouver, whose date of death is listed as Jan. 27, 1973. Like 41 other Washington casualties, Hall’s remains never were recovered.
It is a hefty price to pay for a war that resulted in a defeat for the United States. And it will be for naught only if we fail to learn lessons from a seminal period in our nation’s history. Vietnam exposed and exacerbated fissures in our society that remain today while providing lessons about modern warfare.
In reflection, it is inconceivable that five American presidencies, ranging from Truman to Nixon, could be diminished by this nation’s involvement in Southeast Asia. It is equally inconceivable that the Cabinet assembled by President John F. Kennedy and inherited by President Lyndon Johnson — a Cabinet sardonically dubbed “The Best and the Brightest” in the title of a book by David Halberstam — could perpetually escalate a war they knew was not winnable.
That gradual escalation echoed strategic errors in the Korean War and presaged similar mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In each instance, American leaders should have learned that soldiers from thousands of miles away are no match for people defending their homeland. Yet those leaders have consistently ignored history.
Indeed, the Vietnam War is a part of our nation’s history. And it is a part that requires continued examination and analysis some 50 years later.