“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
— President George Washington
There are many places that are dangerous to look, like your spam folder. Who knew so many people would be so interested in me, my pleasure and my anatomy? Dangerous also are boxes of old handwritten letters you’ve received and stashed (relics of some distant past that this generation will seldom know the joy of) because you are someone who doesn’t throw such things away, like some sentimental fool or a hoarder.
It just occurred to me that perhaps hoarding is – in effect – some manifestation of sentimental foolery. That topic is a dangerous place I shall not look soon.
Occasionally we are sufficiently motivated to look in dark places anyhow; perhaps from idle curiosity (Danger! Danger Will Robinson), or perhaps we feel the need to know something … and carefully looking in a dangerous place offers a chance we could learn something useful.
I have a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, which I’ve read thoroughly once; I’ve scanned over my notes and highlighter marks at other times. It is an exhaustive account of what happened both inside and outside our government. What happened outside could happen largely because of the missteps inside our government.
If you trust our government, it is indeed a dangerous place to look. Fear of government is as justified as respect for it, and probably much more. And that’s regardless of who is president, who runs the Houses of Congress, and who dons the robes and hears arguments at #1 First Street Northeast, in Washington, DC.
Learning from dark places: The 9/11 Report reminded me to beware of the consequences of what appear to be actions taken with good intentions. For example, it was government direction that put up a “firewall” between the CIA and FBI regarding sharing information gathered overseas pertaining to individuals currently on US soil – including those ID’d as likely terrorists. The 9/11 Commission that authored the report, airbrushed away that one of its own members, as Assistant Secretary of State, had authored the latest version of that directive. The CIA had identified many individuals involved in the 9/11 attacks, and their global movements, including into the US, but were not permitted to communicate the information to the FBI.
As a slight aside, I once started research into the 2008 economic meltdown for a multi-part essay. I got so discouraged – looking into dark, dangerous places – that I abandoned the project for the sake of mental health.
At some point, I suppose, that at least perusing the Mueller Report will have to be done. You know, curiosity and a desire to understand just what’s in there – not what someone (with a bias) tells me.
Casting an eye further into the past, we come to United States foreign policy. Many rightly consider that to be a dark and dangerous place as well. But we’re curious, and often want to know how we got to where we’re at.
The Viet Nam War for example. Few issues have so violently and viciously divided American public opinion since the Civil War. Looking back, it’s easy to find more reasons to not trust our government: from the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, to supporting a dictator, then organizing his overthrow (and hence abetting in his assassination), and further support of leaders chosen in completely rigged elections.
But we shall have to go even further back, to 1946 to get slightly better perspective of that bit of foreign adventure.
President Harry S Truman was the president: the last US president to not have a college degree, whose middle name was literally “S”, and who, as Vice-President, assumed the duties of President when FDR died in April 1945. Immediately post-WW2 Truman was concerned and alarmed at the world’s prospects for freedom and economic growth. The Soviets clearly intended to violate any promise regarding their limited “sphere of influence” and to export Marxist-Leninist Communism wherever possible.
That’s when Truman invited Winston Churchill to come give a talk at tiny Fulton College, in central Missouri. And that’s when the world came to know of the “Iron Curtain” that the Soviets had draped across Europe.
Moving forward to 1949. The Soviet Union was exporting Marxist Communism around the world. Thanks in part to their espionage on both the German and the US/UK Manhattan nuclear bomb projects, they were successfully building and exploding atomic weapons. The Soviets blockaded West Berlin from all supplies – hoping to starve out freedom – for one year. Of course, they failed, thanks to the Berlin Airlift (Die Berliner Luftbrücke).
1949: China, recently a WW2 ally under Chiang Kai-sheck, had fallen to the Mao’s Reds, and they seemed intent to seize gentle and defenseless Tibet as well. They soon did.
The Cold War was real. Truman and most of the west believed that any losses in that war meant that many millions would lose their chance at individual freedom and economic prosperity.
In late June 1950, the North Korean Army stormed across the 38th Parallel in an unannounced and unprovoked war against their peaceful neighbors – South Korea – who were promisingly well on their way to a true liberal democracy (except for that nasty bit about suppressing communists).
Truman sent the order for MacArthur and US army divisions in Japan to support Korea. The UN stepped in to support, too (thanks largely to the Soviets boycotting the UN at the time). The Cold War had turned Hot, and – by early 1953 – South Korea’s independence was preserved. Thanks largely to (mostly) US troops stationed there, it remains that way. It is a remarkably successfully country, with the world’s 11th largest economy, one of the largest GDP per capita, trade around the globe and extensive individual rights.
The Korean War, and our continued military support for South Korea, can be viewed as a resounding success. Veterans of that war, like those of WW2, were and always have been respected and highly regarded.
When Truman issued the orders to support South Korea, he also issued another military executive order. The first US military “advisors” were sent to Viet Nam (then French Indochina) to help the French in their struggle against mostly communist guerillas, led by Ho Chi Minh, in restoring their pre-war colonial base there.
And thus, in this context, we can begin to understand The Truman Doctrine. Essentially to fight communism wherever and whenever it tried to expand.
By mid-1954 Viet Nam was split in half at the 17th parallel. The French, after Dien Bien Phu, had departed – and the US had not done any more to support them, despite serious consideration by then-president Eisenhower to do just that – including the use of atomic bombs. There was a communist North and a separate non-communist South with some potential (it was hoped and believed, anyway) to become a liberal democracy.
The next president, Kennedy, felt especially pressured to continue the Truman Doctrine. Partly because that was how he campaigned against Nixon, and because of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (April, 1961) following the communist revolution in Cuba. This was quickly followed by Kennedy being berated and “savaged” (his own description) by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna summit meeting, in June. Two months later came the sudden erection of the Berlin Wall, an attempt starve out freedom.
And then the October surprises. Previously, Krushchev had threatened the West with his claim of “we will bury you”, and he showed they could, too; in October 1961 the Soviets detonated of the largest nuclear bomb in history: the yield was an astounding 58 Megatons … over 4,000 Hiroshima bombs! We cannot forget the Missiles of October (1962) when the Soviets deployed nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba.
It was as if Krushchev intended to win the Cold War by virtue of his superior belligerence.
The Soviets and China were supporting the North Viet Nam communists. Kennedy had the comparatively “measured response” of expanding the number of “advisors” in Viet Nam to 16,000 by the time of his assassination. President Johnson eventually expanded the troop tally to well over 500,000; mostly after the 1964 “Tonkin incident.”
With hindsight the judgmental and self-righteous have regarded this engagement negatively. That may be fair, but that was a different time. With different fears, and with different circumstances than we live with today.
The Viet Nam War in many ways was not that different than the Korean War. Fight Communism. Support a fledgling “free” country that could be expected to be nurtured to liberal democracy. Win the Cold War. We Americans come to liberate and protect, not to conquer.
And yet it turned out so much different. Especially for the veterans. Sadly, they were generally disrespected for many years. In fact, they were suspect. They were damaged goods. We spat on them. We called them Baby Killers. Otherwise, we didn’t talk to them. Vets were not properly honored, even disrespected.
This was particularly true in Hollywood and entertainment, where for several years both the Viet Nam War and Viet Nam vets are almost always shown in a negative light. Contrarily, we never saw then, or see today, anything like that about veterans of the Korean War or WW2. ‘Nam Vets were often shown as addicts, alcoholics and/or the prime criminal suspect – or even the actual villain. They fought in Viet Nam, so they were naturally just mentally unstable and untrustworthy.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is a deeply disturbing, fanciful take on what happens to people when they go to Viet Nam (if not a rather creative re-make of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Oliver Stone gave us “Platoon” and “Born on the 4th of July.”
None of these gave a positive or encouraging image of Viet Nam soldiers or vets. Also include: Outside In; Welcome Home Soldier Boys; There is a No 13; The Boys in Company C; and Rolling Thunder. In The Deer Hunter all of the movie’s vet characters ended up wounded and disturbed.
Message: The Viet Nam veteran is mentally deranged, unstable and not to be trusted. Even Coming Home has a mixed dark message about Nam vets.
Yes they could have been trying to lecture us about how bad war is. I get that. And the Viet Nam War especially so. Still …
Today, decades past the 1973 “Treaty” that supposedly ended the war, and the 1975 fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), it’s now generally acceptable – and to a large extent expected – to openly show gratitude to Viet Nam War vets. And they are now more willing to wear caps and jackets identifying them as Vets. This is fitting. Regardless of the war’s intents and outcomes, those men gave “the best years of their lives” in doing what they thought was right and fulfilling a duty: putting muscle behind their country’s attempts to stop communism’s infringement on individual rights around the globe.
Things started to change for the better in the ‘80s and I want to finish up by giving credit where it’s due.
1987 – The movie “Good Morning Viet Nam.” Robin Williams portrayal of a DJ for AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and TV Service) was a touching and sensitive telling of life in Saigon … albeit before the major escalations.
1980 – 88 – The TV series “Magnum PI.” Insanely cool and good looking
Tom Selleck as Tom Magnum, and his merry bunch of fellow Viet Nam vet friends, including “TC” (Roger Mosley) and Rick Wright (Larry Manetti) are in Hawai’i and have successfully moved on with their lives. Yes, the past is there, but that doesn’t stop them from solving crimes and enjoying life – such as somehow being able to drive a red Ferari 308 whenever you want and live in an Oahu mansion. They are never suspected of any crime or being mentally unstable.
Congrats to those who wrote, produced, directed and acted, including Robin Williams, in these productions. It was finally becoming somewhat respectable to be a Viet Nam vet again. And I don’t think Rambo had anything to do with that.
Now, I have to include some “real life” special people.
When President Clinton decided it was time to put an embassy in Viet Nam again, he needed someone special. He chose Doug “Pete” Peterson. Peterson had spent nearly seven years as a POW in Viet Nam. Talk about losing the best years of your life! His attitude was healthy: Although he could never forget the “bad old days” and his years in captivity, those dark memories should not stand in the way of the future. Despite still bearing the mental and physical scars from his torture there, he helped build a formal international relationship with Viet Nam. It’s now a partner in trade and security in the dynamic and dangerous western rim of the Pacific. They have also cooperated in returning bodies of many MIA.
Of course, there were many thousands of American POWs, but I shall only go on to include John McCain. His grandfather and father were both navy admirals, thus he was a prize catch for Viet Nam. He did not escape significant torture either during his 5-½ year stay in the “Hanoi Hilton.” Despite his enduring memories of that time McCain put them aside, and, together with fellow Senator and Viet Nam vet John Kerry, was one of the earliest strong proponents of normalizing relations with Viet Nam – including re-opening the Embassy, easing trade restrictions and the nomination of Peterson as ambassador.
Even in the dark places we can find some light.
Joe Girard © 2019
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