Revisiting the Tragedies of Vietnam

America’s ‘unwinnable’ war should teach the world a lesson

by Peter Bjel

Forty years ago, America’s war in Vietnam ended ignobly and humiliatingly for one of the world’s great superpowers—in complete contrast to how it began. In the face of America’s contemporary legacy in Iraq, the lessons that should be learned from America’s sense of international entitlement and military over-confidence in the Vietnam War remain as relevant as ever. The enduring traumas of the conflict continue to weigh heavily on both nations.

One of the most representative images of America’s defeat took place in Saigon, then capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, in the final days of April 1975. Journalists—often the only impartial and objective chronicles of this Cold War-era proxy conflict—were on hand to observe events. As an act of political goodwill, the North Vietnamese leadership, whose troops were encircling Saigon, allowed several days for the remaining American officials and their allies to evacuate before taking it over.

In the countryside, the roads were clogged with South Vietnamese refugees seeking evacuation in the capital. Most attempted to reach the U.S. embassy, where officials had promised assistance for Americans, allied Vietnamese officials, and other third parties. In all, about 70,000 people were evacuated. Those who escaped found themselves on U.S. warships waiting in the South China Sea. Some were so crammed with people that helicopters were pushed into the sea to make more room.

Thousands, however, were left behind. U.S. Marines guarding the embassy grounds held them back while the last helicopters were filled. Among them was Bob Tamarkin of the Chicago Daily News:

“The marines brought the butts of their rifles down on the fingers of those trying to climb the walls. Elderly women and children who were being pushed up by the sheer force of bodies beneath them became enmeshed in the barbed wire, their skin punctured with bloody wounds.”

U.S. President Gerald Ford—already dodging the stigma of having pardoned President Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate affair—was left to explain America’s defeat: “We […] are saddened indeed by the events in Indochina. But these events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership in the world.” Perhaps unwittingly, Ford articulated a lesson that might have saved the lives of millions had it been heeded a generation earlier and that remains relevant today in Iraq and elsewhere: “We can and we should help others to help themselves. But the fate of responsible men and women everywhere, in the final decision, rests in their own hands, not in ours.”

The Unwinnable War

Even before the end of the Vietnam War, personal, scholarly and journalistic analyses of the conflict were …

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