By Richard Botkin
Forty-one years ago this month, the war in Vietnam, for Americans, came to its inglorious, ignominious official conclusion. For many millions of freedom-loving Vietnamese left behind, the end of the “American War” was prelude into a longer, near-endless period of darkness and suffering.
Those of us old enough to recall the date April 30, 1975, will forever remember those final newscasts of Saigon being overwhelmed by invading North Vietnamese infantry and armor. There were mages of multitudes futilely attempting to join the American exodus, shots of U.S. Navy ships steaming offshore crowded with refugees and flight decks awash in helicopters being pitched into the abyss of the South China Sea – the sinking aircraft a metaphor to many for the tremendous waste of American blood and treasure. And since the dark sunset on that day the wounds that were the Vietnam War experience would never quite heal or be recalled in proper perspective.
Assessing the situation years later, it was a long-retired and partially publicly restored Richard Nixon who would give us, arguably, the greatest two-line observation on our experience in Vietnam when he said:
“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War.
“It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.”
We are rapidly losing that generation of men who fought the Vietnam War. With their passing – and in this group are also included the millions of Vietnamese immigrants who came to this country fleeing the communists – goes the first-person historical accounting and ability to tell the truth, to discuss the egregious historical omissions or rebut the myriad myths, half truths and outright lies regarding the prosecution of the war so pervasively spread and largely unchallenged, lies that are currently left to stand as fact. That history has been authored mostly by folks opposed to America’s involvement in the war, many of whom sat it out in graduate school, avoiding service – people now in control of history departments at universities across the nation and who exercise great influence with the mainstream media.
Few will argue that the generation of folks who engineered America’s victory in World War II – the well-described Greatest Generation – did a superb job. What is difficult to fathom is that the “Vietnam Generation” has been defined not by those men who quietly and honorably answered their nation’s call to serve, but much more by those men and women who took an active part in not serving and who, in quite a number of cases, were, without consequence, actually mouthpieces for our enemies.
And what does history recall of our Vietnamese allies? As Americans we are able to travel to Washington, D.C., to read and touch the names of every one of the more than 58,000 men and eight women who died serving in Vietnam. While the numbers are a bit imprecise, our South Vietnamese allies lost at least five times as many soldiers as we did, and this from a nation with then one-tenth our population. Tens of thousands more – former military officers mostly – would succumb in what the communists euphemistically referred to as “re-education camps.” These numbers do not include the many hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who died nor the millions displaced, most of these at the hands of communist aggression. Add in also the estimated 250,000 (some place these numbers at closer to 400,000) who perished at sea escaping the post-’75 communist paradise. And these figures are for the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) only. They do not include the nearly 2 million people brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or the hundreds of thousands of Laotian and Thai hill people. These uncounted masses and their tremendous sacrifices have been mostly written out of history in any favorable way.
It is certainly futile to rehash the historical “What ifs?” – and yet it is crucial that people grasp the real history of the Vietnam War. Unless and until one learns the truth, the lies that have stood for so long do not matter. It did not need to end as it did, and it did not end as it did on the count of RVN corruption or lack of fighting spirit. These myths serve largely to assuage and expiate the guilt of those who needed a reason to feel good about not serving even if they were not actively opposed to the war.
Very few outside the American Vietnamese community fully appreciate just how close our allies were to victory, or at least keeping the northern invaders at bay by the time the American withdrawal was complete and the war had been fully “Vietnamized.”
While South Vietnamese politicians, generals and soldiers were, throughout the war and after, near universally portrayed as corrupt, effete and unwilling to fight, a curious thing happened on the way to Vietnamization. (If anyone challenges the will of our Vietnamese allies, their casualty numbers say all there is to say about “Vietnamizing” the war.) It has been widely documented by American military leadership from Gen. Creighton Abrams (the senior American officer – MACV – in Vietnam from 1968-72) on down to the junior adviser levels that RVN military capabilities improved markedly in the period during the American drawdown. Nowhere was that improvement more apparent or worrisome than for the planners in Hanoi.
The greatest test of Vietnamization would be the communist-launched Easter Offensive of 1972. Mustering at least twice the conventional forces as they did in Tet of 1968, along with massive amounts of the latest Soviet-supplied armor, artillery and air-defense weapons, the three-pronged invasion was meant to deliver the final knockout blow. It did not. RVN forces, after absorbing the initial shock, rallied strongly. In costly battles the hated invaders were beaten back. Except for the northern most portion of the country near the DMZ, RVN forces regained all territory earlier lost.
Between the launch of the Easter Offensive in March 1972 and the end of 1973, a great deal of combat took place between the two opposing countries. The Paris Peace Agreement, which secured for America the release of POWs and an “honorable” exit, was a sham. In spite of communist perfidy and treaty violations from day one, prospects for the struggling Republic of Vietnam were still reasonably good. At the end of 1973 a communist victory was not a fait accompli. Those American advisers among the last to depart were largely of the belief that RVN could hold its own as long as they were amply resupplied.
Sadly, RVN forces would ultimately be compromised not on the field of battle but in the halls of the U.S. Congress. In mid-1973 Congress passed laws that restricted President Nixon’s ability to respond to communist treaty violations and make good on the personal commitments he had made to President Thieu. In addition, direct military and financial aid to our ally was cut by 32 percent from 1973 levels in 1974, and again for fiscal year 1975. In real purchasing power (recall that the Arab oil embargo and resulting inflation caused fuel prices to soar in 1973 and 1974), the cuts were even more draconian. The communist north suffered no such constraints as the Soviets and Chinese actually more than doubled their aid in the same period. By late 1974 and into early 1975, RVN military units went to the field with logistical constraints that guaranteed their defeat. While we cannot say for certain that had they been adequately supplied they would have prevailed, or at least raised the cost of victory beyond Hanoi’s willingness to pay, we do know for certain that by cutting off their aid we assured their demise. In the end, it was the Soviet Union and Chinese who turned out to be the more faithful allies.
Very few people outside the American Vietnamese community care to remember the circumstances that made defeat a certainty. It is perhaps the most important story never fully told about the end of the Vietnam War.
The end of the war … the battle for history
We are losing the fighting members, American and RVN, of the Vietnam Generation at a rapid rate, and the way America and the world will remember the Vietnam War is still up for grabs. As they pass, so go the opportunities to set the record straight about just what their collective efforts achieved. The spread of communism across Asia was stopped. Important dominoes remained upright. That combined American and South Vietnamese resolve purchased critical time – not enough for Vietnam or Cambodia – for the rest of developing Asia to establish freedom and market economies. And these are not American observations only, but came from men like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, hardly a U.S. lackey. The seeds of that effort, appearing dormant in late April of 1975, have produced a bountiful harvest of increasing prosperity across Souteast Asia now 41 years later. They likely are not taught it, but several hundred million citizens across Asia owe their freedom to the sacrifices made in Vietnam by folks long written out of history.
Even in Vietnam today, still a communist country, on a walk around downtown Saigon it is easier to spot images of that Kentucky colonel hawking fried chicken than those of Ho Chi Minh exhorting workers to revolution. Capitalism and free markets are clearly ascendant. The overwhelming evidence has shown our efforts to be on the right side of history.
The battle for hearts and minds remains. For so long the portrayal of our effort to halt the spread of communism has been dismissed as quixotic, simplistic, anachronistic. The American fighting man from the Vietnam War has been marginalized, played off as duped, doped and victim, rather than honorable, magnanimous and victorious. The portrayal of our Vietnamese allies has been and largely remains utterly corrupted, improperly chronicled in countless books and movies – the art and fiction presented as if fact in such fantastical, outrageous films as “Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and even “Rambo.” Clearly the American men who answered the call to arms and our stalwart Vietnamese allies deserve a better place in history.
Author’s note: While this article is dedicated to all veterans, it is especially dedicated to my friend Greg Gillaspy who died on April 9, 2016. Greg was a proud U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran. He and his bride, Betty, were active in a number of veterans’ organizations in Orange County, California. The number of people the two of them together blessed is impossible to count.
See the official trailer for “Ride the Thunder”:
Richard Botkin is the author of “Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph,” which was made into a full-length documentary. The program’s intent is to change the way the world remembers the Vietnam War simply by telling the truth.