War in Vietnam
Some say it must be 50 years gone before accurate history can be written. Well, it’s been 50 years from when I left the Vietnam War behind so allow me to tell you an abbreviated history of our most flawed and fabled war. It was a war that President Nixon declared in 1971, “the end is in sight.” It just didn’t end how he envisioned it would.
The war in Vietnam began to take shape from a letter President Dwight Eisenhower sent to Winston Churchill after Korea. In that letter he expressed his concern that Indochina, as well as those islands on the periphery, could not be allowed to fall into Communist hands. He suggested a coalition of nations to stop that from happening and thus in 1954, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was formed. It was to act as a common front against Communist aggression in the region.
When, also in 1954, the French were defeated at Diem Bien Phu and cast out of Vietnam, the country was subsequently divided at the 17th Parallel in a negotiated Geneva settlement. Responding to aid requests from the South Vietnamese government, President Eisenhower–using the now-discredited Domino Theory to justify our involvement–sent U.S. advisors to train the South Vietnamese army in conventional and counter-insurgency operations. After five years of “relative” quiet, in 1959 the Communists began to step-up their encroachment into the South. In response, in 1961, now President John F. Kennedy began to add more advisors and Special Forces personnel. That number eventually rose to approximately 15,000.
(Author’s Note. My father flew a special reconnaissance aircraft from 1961-1963 in Vietnam. When he returned, he said I’d never have to go because the war was so messed up. When I arrived in Saigon in 1971, I thought my dad would not have made a very good fortune teller. But he was right about the war.)
“I was back from a mission over Laos in 1972 as a 1st Lt. Our flight suits were sanitized of name, unit, etc. The hat says ‘Commando Forge’ which indicates we were the only unit (12 crews) authorized to fly EC-47s in Laos. We flew 4 sorties a day.”
America’s forces continued to aid the Vietnamese
America’s forces continued to aid the Vietnamese in the foregoing manner until 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, began an American buildup which would increase to almost 500,000. During LBJ’s presidency when he and his Cabinet were more interested in domestic policies than in fighting a war, they successfully stopped the military from fighting one. Military recommendations were disregarded and all decisions—down to target sets and even the munitions required on aircraft—were made in Washington.
Thus, the war continued unabated until Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968. He began a U.S. drawdown in 1969. By 1972, President Nixon, taking the advice of the military that LBJ discarded, brought the Communists to the peace table. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, and the war essentially was over. But not so fast.
A Congress, hostile to Nixon and subsequently his successor Gerald Ford, reneged on the Paris agreement by not only passing an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill to prohibit further military involvement in Vietnam but also ignored any further Vietnamese requests for aid. So, in 1975 the Communists, seeing South Vietnam standing alone, crossed the 17th Parallel and a Viet Cong flag was raised over Saigon on April 30, 1975. The war and the extraction of the remaining U.S. personnel from the American Embassy had truly come to an end that day. Not with a bang but with a whimper.
Let me close by saying Vietnam was a war we won in 1973. However, two years later it was lost in the halls of Congress. But the sacrifices these men and women made, not only those of the regular armed forces but also by those whose number simply came up in the lottery of the draft, never failed their country.
Author’s Note: I did not receive the scorn you have perhaps heard about directed at other returnees. That may be because we were advised to wear civilian attire and to not go outside the San Francisco airport’s terminal building while waiting for our next flight unless absolutely necessary. However, many vets were vilified and treated as the “face of an unpopular war.” To this day I know that many Vietnam vets still carry the emotional scars they faced over 50 years ago. A war in which they were sent to fight by those who never did.
Americas citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity
“Dropped into the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, Americas citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that never may be understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompletely on a tactical level should consider Hanoi’s recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield compared to 58,000 total U.S dead. Those who believe that it was a dirty little war where bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought—five times as many dead as WWI, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all WWII…To this day it stuns me that so many of their own countrymen have so completely missed the story of their service, lost in the bitter confusion of the war itself.” Senator James Webb (D-VA)
If you’d like to read more about veterans coping with physical and mental issues caused by the nature of war, I’d refer you to a wonderful website,, www.brothersandsisterslikethese.com.
May we always have men and women such as these who served.
Art Cole (Colonel USAF, Retired) served 25 years from 1970-1995. He is a Command Pilot who held Squadron, Base, and Wing command positions. Operationally, he flew the EC-47, T-39, KC-135, and B-52. From 1971-72 he flew the EC-47 aircraft (known fondly to its crews as the “Electric Goon”) from Danang AB, Vietnam, and Nakom Phanom RTAB, Thailand. He volunteers at the “Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas” on Main Street here in Brevard.