Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part four

In 1972, Nixon traveled to China and to the Soviet Union, meeting with the leaders of both countries. His popularity grew at home. Meanwhile, a bruising primary campaign resulted in the Democratic nomination of George McGovern for President, probably the weakest candidate the Democrats could have named. Part of North Vietnam’s strategy for victory depended upon American distaste for the war. Anti-war demonstrations in American cities made it appear that the United States government might bow to pressure from the people and withdraw from the conflict. With Nixon’s reelection increasingly probable, North Vietnam dropped that strategy and entered serious negotiations with Kissinger in Paris. As the election neared, Kissinger hinted that peace was at hand. But after the election, the negotiators from North Vietnam backpedaled on some of the concessions they had promised. Nixon renewed bombing attacks and mining on North Vietnam—which he had reduced while the negotiations seemed successful. North Vietnam returned to the bargaining table, and in January 1973 papers were signed that officially ended the war, released American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam, brought all the American troops home, and guaranteed the survival of South Vietnam.

The agreements contained numerous restrictions upon action by North Vietnam against South Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. Reprisals by American military force against any violation of these restrictions was guaranteed. However, despite Nixon’s overwhelming reelection in November 1972, the American Congress had grown more Democratic, with many newly-elected Democrats in Congress outspoken opponents of the war. Congress passed legislation to limit the ability of a President to wage war. It also voted to allow no funding for additional military action in Indochina. North Vietnam tested the treaty, violating some of its minor terms, and saw no American response. Weakened by the Watergate scandal, Nixon was unable to keep the American promises made in the treaty. After Nixon resigned, Ford was equally unable to enforce the treaty. North Vietnam patiently strengthened its military forces and waited for an opportunity to strike. In the spring of 1975 they struck. Ford again begged Congress for funds to defend South Vietnam, and again Congress denied his request. North Vietnamese troops and equipment poured across the border and seized all of South Vietnam. Many refugees escaped South Vietnam and were resettled in the United States. Many more (600,000) died trying to escape. Still more were imprisoned, tortured, and “reeducated” or killed by the Communists. With help from North Vietnam, communists overthrew the governments of Cambodia and Laos. In Cambodia alone more than two million citizens were killed by their new leaders.

The United States won the Vietnam War. The conditions established in the treaties signed in January 1973 were consistent with the goals that brought our troops into South Vietnam. Refusal to enforce the treaty changed victory into defeat. As Nixon would later say, “We won the war, but we lost the peace.”

More than fifty thousand Americans (58,220) lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. Many more returned home with significant health problems caused by the war. More than $50 billion was spent to contain communism in southeast Asia. The 93rd United States Congress wasted all that loss when they denied funds to enforce the treaty. The Vietnam War is widely seen today as a blot on the pages of American history—a war fought at the wrong time in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Careful analysis of the facts—particularly Communist treatment of conquered people in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—shows that we were fighting what was evil and seeking to preserve what was good. We owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers who fell in Vietnam. We should remember them this week as heroes, not as failures. J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part three

President Johnson chose not to run for reelection in 1968. Several candidates entered the race, including former Vice-President Richard Nixon, the eventual winner of the election. Some of the Democratic candidates emphasized that they would pull American troops out of Vietnam as quickly as possible. When a reporter asked Nixon about his plans involving the war, he assured the reporter that he also wanted to bring Americans home from Vietnam. Somehow this statement turned into a rumor that candidate Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. He never said he had a “secret plan,” only that he wanted to end the war. What he wanted, though, was “peace with honor”—not a surrender to the Communists, but an assurance that South Vietnam would survive as a free country.

There are rumors, believed by some historians, that the Nixon campaign interfered with President Johnson’s attempts to end the Vietnam War in 1968. This rumors center around Anna Chenault, a supporter of Nixon who also knew General Nguyen Van Thieu, who had replaced Diem in the government of South Vietnam. Chenault had some minor contact with members of Nixon’s campaign. She also communicated with Thieu, apparently assuring him that he would get a better deal from President Nixon than from Johnson; that he should refuse any deal to end the war before the end of 1968. The latter may have been the opinion of Chenault, and she may have expressed that opinion to Thieu, but this was by no means a message from the candidate or from any official in his campaign.

At any rate President Johnson did try to influence the American election by manipulating the war. Five days before the election, he declared a halt to American bombing of North Vietnam. Johnson did this unilaterally, without any corresponding concessions from North Vietnam. His tactic may have shifted some votes to Humphrey, but it did not win the election for Humphrey. Nor did it contribute to ending the war.

President Nixon acted on three fronts to try to end the war. First, he established secret negotiations in Paris between American officials—primarily National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger—and North Vietnamese negotiators. For three years the talks remained stalled, as North Vietnam insisted that the United States withdraw all its troops from South Vietnam and also assist in the overthrow of Thieu’s government. Only in the second half of 1972, when it became apparent to the North Vietnamese that Nixon would be reelected, did they offer serious negotiations to end the war.

Second, Nixon embarked on a program he called “Vietnamization.” He announced that American forces would train the army of South Vietnam to defend its own land, adding that the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam would be steadily reduced. Over the next four years, Nixon kept his promise, bringing home soldiers by the thousands without replacing them with new American troops. By January 1, 1972, the number of Americans fighting in South Vietnam had been reduced by 400,000. Yet the remaining American fighters, assisting the strengthened South Vietnamese army, were able to withstand a strong invasion out of North Vietnam.

Nixon’s third strategy to end the war was to attack the enemy where the enemy was strongest rather than waiting for the enemy to enter South Vietnam. He resumed bombing military targets in North Vietnam. He ordered attacks on North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia and Laos. Political critics of Nixon have claimed that he expanded the war by involving neutral countries, but the North Vietnamese were already present in force in those countries. By attacking those positions, Nixon was able to prevent attacks upon South Vietnam, saving lives and moving toward victory against the enemy. Nixon also authorized planting mines in the waters near Hanoi, North Vietnam’s capital. These mines deterred shipments of military supplies into North Vietnam.

To be continued… J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part two

Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, and French forces returned to take control of Indochina. Unlike the British Empire, the French at first had no inclination to grant independence to their colonies. As a result, the forces Ho Chi Minh commanded against the Japanese remained together to fight the French. Many other groups in Indochina also resisted the French—most of these groups were not, like Ho’s group, Communists. For about a decade the French struggled to maintain control over Indochina, but they eventually relented. Not wanting to grant independence, they had done no work to prepare the native people for self-government and leadership. With American guidance, Indochina was divided into three countries according to culture: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnam was further divided into two countries. As the Yalta agreement had resulted in two Germanies—East Germany, which was communist, and West Germany, which was not—and also two Koreas—North Korea, which was communist, and South Korea, which was not—a similar divide was suggested for Vietnam. North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho and the Communists; South Vietnam would be governed by a group that was not Communist.

Vietnamese people were given sixty days to relocate. Ninety thousand left South Vietnam to join Ho and the Communists in the north. One million (out of a total population of thirteen million) left the north for the south. Others tried to move south before the deadline but were deterred by Communist forces. Ho followed the example of Joseph Stalin in dealing with political opposition—anyone who disagreed with him was arrested and imprisoned. Many of his opponents were killed; the rest were “re-educated” into Communism, often through torture.

South Vietnam therefore began its existence with a refugee resettlement crisis. Ngo Dinh Diem was the first leader of the South Vietnamese government. He aimed to provide a stable democracy, but under current conditions it was not possible to grant all the freedoms that Americans take for granted. Diem’s leadership managed to quell disturbances from several non-Communist groups that opposed his government, but he did not succeed in maintaining a government free from corruption and brutality. Meanwhile, by the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam had quietly entered southern Laos and established a series of travel routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using these roads, North Vietnam was able to smuggle four thousand fighters and copious supplies to continue undermining the stability of South Vietnam.

By the summer of 1963, the military leaders in South Vietnam had decided to establish a coup to take power away from Diem. President Kennedy reluctantly agreed that Diem had to go, although he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Diem and his brother were killed during the military takeover. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated, leaving American involvement in South Vietnam in the hands of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson and his advisors (many of them continuing from the Kennedy White House) recognized the need to support South Vietnam militarily to ensure its survival. Congress at first enthusiastically gave Johnson full permission to send troops to help quell disturbances in South Vietnam. Regrettably, the American plan was to wage a limited war, only engaging the enemy within South Vietnam, trying to distinguish loyal citizens from rebels and insurgents. Trained troops and military supplies continued to enter South Vietnam from the north by way of Laos and Cambodia. Over the next four years, Johnson sent more and more Americans to fight in South Vietnam, until half a million Americans were there by the end of 1968.

Meanwhile, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. President Johnson was not able to explain to the country why our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. The purpose of the Cold war was to contain communism. Experts in the United States government feared that if all of Vietnam became Communist, Laos and Cambodia would do the same, followed by Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, perhaps even India. (This was called the “domino theory.”) Some historians say that if South Vietnam lost to the communists in the 1960s, that scenario might have occurred in the 1970s. As it is, diplomacy and foreign aid helped keep most of those countries out of the communist sphere, with the loss of only Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

To be continued… J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part one

During Memorial Day weekend, Americans take time to remember the men and women of our armed forces who lost their lives on battlefields defending our security and our freedom. Originally established to remember the casualties of the Civil War—both Union and Confederate—the holiday has expanded to remember our losses in all wars, including the World Wars, the Cold War battles in Korea, Vietnam, and other places, and the battles of the ongoing War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I teach history, and I have noticed that accounts of the Vietnam War in college textbooks and other sources are often incomplete, faulty, and biased. Media coverage of the war while it was being fought had the same faults, with the result that those who write history today often rely on unreliable material for their information. Whenever we reach the Vietnam War in my college history classes, I give a brief lecture on the war, its causes and its results. My lecture differs significantly from what students read in their textbooks; I encourage them to do more research on their own before they make up their minds what to believe about Vietnam.

When European nations were colonizing the rest of the world, the French government decided to claim territory in southeast Asia. The land was called Indochina because it is roughly halfway between India and China when traveling by boat. Like other colonial powers, the French claimed the land so they could harvest its raw materials (including the labor of its inhabitants) and control harbors for trading posts and military bases. Earlier, parts of Indochina had belonged to the Chinese Empire, and Chinese culture had a large influence on the people of Indochina, although they were not Chinese.

The French continued to hold Indochina during the First World War. They continued to draw on the land for supplies, and they also conscripted the people of Indochina as support personnel for French troops. When the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson stated fourteen goals of our government for the world following the end of the war. The goals included self-determination—the right of people everywhere to choose their own government—and independence for Europe’s colonies. But no such freedom was given to colonies in Asia and Africa after the war.

During the Second World War Japan claimed the French colony of Indochina after France had been invaded by Germany. The people of Indochina resisted the Japanese Empire. One of the leaders of their resistance was Ho Chi Minh. He had been trained in the Soviet Union as a revolutionary, and he used his training to resist the Japanese. Meanwhile, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta to discuss how the world would be governed after the defeat of Germany and Japan. One of the agreements these three leaders made was that European colonies would be granted independence some time after the war ended.

To be continued… J.

Memorial Day

Rethink recently published a post called “7 Sins the Church Doesn’t Acknowledge.” (You can read the entire post here.) One of the seven sins mentioned is Nationalism. Rethink says, “It’s a sin to put anything before God. That includes America. Our ultimate allegiance is to God not this country. Too many in the church place their American freedoms above God’s kingdom. This means that sometimes what is best for this country is not always what is Biblically correct.”

During this Memorial Day weekend, it is fitting to stop and consider the point at which nationalism becomes a sin. All patriotism is not sinful. The Pledge of Allegiance places the loyalty of the pledger to “one nation, under God.” Atheists and polytheists are free to skip those words if they choose, but believers can only pledge loyalty to the nation when they acknowledge that the nation is under God.

The line between godly patriotism and sinful nationalism can be discovered with one question: Who is serving whom? Are we demanding that God govern the world for the good of the United States of America, or are we calling the USA to be faithful to God? In the fall of 2001, as many Americans were repeating the phrase, “God bless America,” some Christians responded with the phrase, “America, bless God!” Certainly if “God bless America” is meant as a command, the words are flagrantly disrespectful to the Lord. If those words are meant as a humble prayer, they are not sinful.

National holidays and national symbols can be troubling within the church. European visitors are astonished to see American flags in houses of worship, sometimes near or behind the altar. Some preachers are careful to observe every American holiday—Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day—in place of the normal Sunday observances established by tradition. I am not sure how many preachers are able to ignore these days entirely. If they do, I suspect they hear complaints.

The best approach is to use the national holiday as a bridge to God’s message. A preacher can mention mothers in the prayers and in the sermon without setting aside God’s Word to honor mothers. In fact, a creative preacher might even turn Mothers’ Day into a salute to the Bride of Christ, our Mother, the Holy Christian Church. (This is especially fitting when Mothers’ Day lands on Pentecost Sunday.) On Fathers’ Day, a preacher might acknowledge earthly fathers and then talk about the eternal relationship of God the Father and God the Son.

What of Memorial Day? We do not worship soldiers as saints and heroes who gave their life for their country, but we can remember those who died in battle without worshiping them. Moreover, we can use their example to point to the perfect Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who gave his life in battle against sin and evil and death so we can be free from those enemies. We are at peace with God and are promised a truly prosperous Kingdom because of the sacrifice of Jesus. This message is as fitting on Memorial Day as it is any other day of the year. J.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, the fourth Monday of May, has become for Americans the social start to summer. Memorial Day weekend inspires thoughts of cook-outs, concerts, and other outings. Along the way, many Americans seem to have forgotten what it is we want to remember when we observe Memorial Day.

Memorial Day began to be observed shortly after the end of the Civil War, when battle survivors and families and friends of soldiers wanted to recall and honor those who had lost their lives on the battlefield during the four years of conflict between the states. Gradually, May 30 became the date when time was set aside to honor the memory of these soldiers. Ceremonies were held on battlefields and in cemeteries, and many people referred to the day as Decoration Day because of the custom of decorating the graves of soldiers who had died during the war.

After the United States fought a brief war with Spain and then became involved in two World Wars, the meaning of Memorial Day was expanded to cover all the wars and military actions in which American soldiers lost their lives. When I was in high school, May 30 was a holiday (the last weekday off before final exams and graduation), but the high school band did not get a vacation. We marched in a parade to the cemetery, where music was played and speeches were given and guns were fired to honor the soldiers buried there. Later, the government of the United States moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the fourth Monday in May, providing a three-day weekend which has, in some ways, become a distraction from the real meaning of the day.

War is a controversial subject, and many Americans are reluctant to observe all the wars in which American soldiers have fought. In general, though, our soldiers deserve our thanks. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 stand out in our national memory because the United States has been attacked so rarely by its enemies. This is due, in part, to the diligence of the men and women who have served in our armed forces, often risking their lives, and sometimes losing their lives, so we can be kept safe.

Other countries have also been defended by their soldiers who also risked their lives and lost their lives for the safety of their citizens. Those countries have their own ways of honoring their soldiers. For Americans, this weekend is a time to take a break from work or school and to enjoy outdoors activities, but it is also a time to fly the American flag, to remember the soldiers who have served our country, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. May we never forget!

J.