Vietnam War: Forty Years Later

If I still began the day by consulting This Day in History as opposed to This Day in Music, the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon might not have sneaked up on me as it did.

I was not personally a part of the Vietnam War, thanks to a student deferment followed by Draft Lottery Number 265 followed by the abolition of the draft. I did know a fair number of people who served there, and their views on the whole strange U.S. intervention were as you might expect mixed. But by the bitter end of the war, the time had long passed when any Americans imagined “victory” was a realistic prospect; the big debate, to use Richard Nixon’s completely dishonest but unavoidable term, was how to achieve “peace with honor.” In Nixon’s case that meant using such fictions as “protecting the troops as they withdraw,” and then “securing the release of POWs and MIAs” as excuses for extending the war for years, and then (as explained so very thoroughly in the early chapters of Rick Perlstein’s recent book on Reagan) for claiming a moral victory that so many craved.

Indeed, there has long been a sort of semi-secret conviction among conservatives that we lost in Vietnam strictly because of a lack of national will, or perhaps a “stab in the back” by war protesters. The last time I became aware of it was during one of those debates over a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq in 2005 or so when I happened to be watching CSPAN and a bunch of Republican House members were going on and on about being unwilling to repeat the mistake made by cutting-and-running in Vietnam.

How could anyone who remembers how rapidly the South Vietnamese regime collapsed when it was no longer being propped up by the U.S. military make such an argument? I still don’t completely understand, other than to wonder anew how people think destroying a country is an acceptable means of “saving” it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.