We are about to start talking about the Vietnam War again. Not because of events in Korea, another divided Asian country, but because filmmaker Ken Burns has produced a major series of programs on that historically divisive conflict.
Many Americans are unfamiliar with this war, though its effects continue to be felt in our public affairs. It teaches lessons for a society now even more divided than during the Vietnam era.
The North Vietnamese Communist government sought to take over the southern half of the country. Even though its leaders had adopted the Declaration of Independence as their own credo, the U.S. worried about this regime’s expansion and its possible “domino effect” across southeast Asia.
Finally, in the Gulf of Tonkin, North Vietnam was reported to have attacked two U.S. destroyers. Those claims brought public and congressional support for America’s military involvement at the eventual cost of more than 58,000 lives of U.S. service personnel. The reports were dubious in one case and fictitious in the other.
The side the U.S. inevitably backed was hardly a democratic model compared with the North. It faced internal rebellion. Corrupt and authoritarian, it was replaced with U.S. support by a military regime. The former president was killed.
Within South Vietnam, there were democratic elements, opposed by both the North and the corrupt regime. In 1971, I accompanied Sen. George McGovern to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) where we met with some of their leaders.
The South Vietnamese opposition complained they were treated almost as if they were the enemy. As we met them in a church building, we came under armed attack by pro-government forces.
Eventually, the North prevailed, and American forces withdrew. In the aftermath, relations between the U.S. and a unified Vietnam have improved, and commerce flourishes. The much dreaded takeover produced a reasonably benign outcome. It hardly had been worth the direct cost, both human and material.
The cost to the U.S. was far greater that the direct losses. The Vietnam War marked a turning point in America’s standing in the world.
Before Vietnam, the U.S. had been seen not only as the most powerful nation but also as a special country progressing toward the best human ideals. It had come to the aid of Europe in two World Wars. It had generously helped rebuild countries that had been its allies and enemies.
While there were serious flaws in this image, the prevailing view was of the U.S. as actively pursuing high political and social ideals. It was not only great, but good.
Involvement in Vietnam aroused controversy in the U.S. and opposition in many countries that had looked to the U.S. for both protection and moral leadership. America strayed from what was seen as its essential character and lost influence. Now, it was respected more for its power than its ideals.
Americans had felt superior to European cynicism. Vietnam turned the U.S. into a country that would now be viewed in a similar light. America would never be the same.
One major legacy of Vietnam, as Burns suggests, was the creation of a deep divide among the people.
Supporters of the war wanted to defeat what they saw as a Communist threat and believed the U.S. would prevail if it made an all-out commitment to the war effort. Once the U.S. became involved, national pride was engaged. Needless killing and uncertain victory were necessary risks.
Opponents focused on the futility of the war and the cruel loss of life by Americans and Vietnamese. Sometimes, they would romanticize the North and its Viet Cong army. They organized frequent demonstration in hopes of convincing the government to halt the increasingly unpopular war.
The division between the two sides was bitter and deep. There was no common ground, leading to a sense of mistrust previously seen only in the conflict over slavery. Opponents on either side were regarded as unpatriotic or hostile to traditional values.
Once this split developed, it made domestic ideological warfare a part of American politics. It remains today.
One casualty of the war was President Lyndon Johnson. More than any other president, he had led the country toward ending Jim Crow, the discriminatory legacy of slavery. For that alone, he deserves an honored place in history. But his standing is undercut by his support for increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
Vietnam was an American tragedy, affecting ordinary people in the U.S. and Vietnam. It had a profound impact on this country. Burns’ series is a timely opportunity to relearn its lessons.