Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"The passage of time has not dulled the ache"


   
     Armed Services Radio played "White Christmas," the signal for the last Americans to leave Saigon.
     Or maybe not. Like so much about the Vietnam War, which ended 40 years ago Thursday, there is controversy. Some claim they never heard the song, ergo it never played.
     But others insist they heard it, though not the Bing Crosby version, but Tennessee Ernie Ford's.
     In the end it doesn't matter.
     It was the morning of April 29, 1975. The North Vietnamese Army encircled the city. Explosions sounded in the distance. Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, friends and family had been leaving for weeks. One plane from Operation Babylift, the evacuation of 2,000 war orphans, crashed, killing 151 aboard. "We have plenty more," a South Vietnamese lieutenant quipped bitterly.
     The streets were chaos. Once the communists arrived, anyone with connection to the Americans could expect to be killed. Crowds massed around the gates of the American embassy. Some brought their luggage, heartbreaking, hope to make flights they were promised. A mother hurled her baby over the high fence, guarded by 52 U.S Marines.
     The Vietnam War probably has to be explained for some readers. After World War II, Communists fought to control the country, but were kept at bay by their former colonial overlords, the French, who bugged out in the mid-1950s. America stupidly replaced them, beginning with advisors during the Kennedy administration. We thought, mistakenly, that a communist victory would spread to neighboring nations.
     The war exploded under Lyndon Johnson, who could neither quit nor win. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States was torn by protests, led by young people who were being drafted to serve and die in a cause where even its supporters, Martin Luther King said in a 1967 sermon, were "half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden."
     Faith in government was shaken when the lies that the Johnson administration told trying to cover up military failures came to light. Johnson became so unpopular that he didn't bother running for re-election in 1968, making him one of the rare presidents in American history not to seek a second term.
     He was followed by Richard Nixon, whose Republican Party, in echoes of today with Iran, tried to undermine LBJ's frantic efforts toward peace. Nixon would spread the war into Cambodia and Laos, secretly. He had been hounded from office in the Watergate scandal, resigning in August, 1974, and while Watergate and our defeat in Vietnam aren't generally connected in the public mind, they should be. Watergate crippled the presidency so it could no longer prosecute the deeply-unpopular war, and emboldened Congress refused to do so.
     The morning of April 29, advancing Vietcong sent rockets into the Saigon airport, killing two Marines, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, the last of the 56,559 American servicemen to die in Vietnam. They were 21 and 19 years old. Their bodies were left behind. A defecting South Vietnamese pilot dropped his bombs on the last operating runway. After that only helicopters could come and go, ferrying to American warships in the harbor, in what is still the largest helicopter evacuation in history—1,300 Americans and 5,600 Vietnamese in 19 hours.
     At 3 a.m., April 30, local time, as the crowds around the U.S. Embassy began to climb the fences, the last 11 American Marines pulled back to the rooftop of the six-story building, locking the doors, floor by floor, as they went up.
     "Then everything came to a standstill and we just sat," Master Sergeant John Valdez later wrote. "All the Marines were up there. No birds in sight."
     The choppers had been coming every 10 minutes. Now the Marines crouched, listening to gunshots, to the mob in the embassy courtyard. "I never thought for one minute that the choppers would leave us behind," Valdez wrote in Leatherneck magazine in 1975.
     A whirr was heard overhead. The Marines fired a smoke grenade to mark their position. One last CH-46 Sea Knight hovered, and landed on the embassy roof. The 10 Marines clambered aboard, followed by Valdez, holding the folded embassy flag, the last U.S. soldier to depart what historian Paul Johnson calls "the most shameful defeat in the whole of American history."
     Gerald Ford, not known for eloquence, echoed T.S. Eliot.
     "April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month," he wrote, in 2000. "The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days."

60 comments:

  1. Marines is a proper noun. Please treat it as such.

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    1. The Marines is a proper noun. Marines on a rooftop aren't. The style is lower case. Don't blame me.

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    2. Except when beginning a sentence, that is. It can be confusion. Don't look for disrespect where there is none.

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    3. oh, Mr. Thomas, get real and don't hair split

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  2. See when he's not bitching and moaning about gays he's my favorite writer. Two pats on the head and a Milkbone for you Steinberg. Wonderful writing. Great article.

    Andy

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    1. you do have a point, Andy

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    2. I'm all for gay rights but yes, the gay articles here or in paper are too numerous in number.

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    3. So are articles about Taylor Swift. Look, oral arguments concerning gay marriage began in front of the Supreme Court yesterday. The fact that the subject makes you uncomfortable is a cause for reflection, not comment.

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    4. But you don't write about Taylor Swift. Yes, I know it's timely on the SC thought yesterday but still too much is too much. I like Michelle Obama but wouldn't want to hear about her constantly either. Not about my discomfort, which isn't the issue.

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  3. Spot on description of the hot mess that was Vietnam. Have you seen documentary centering around Dick Cavett interviews? Great historical footage from back in the day, along with prescient interviews with David Halberstam, Wayne Morse, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty, among others. All articulating why our aggression was the issue here and why this clusterfuck of a war was so wrong on every level. It was certainly the last time we ever heard about the "domino theory".

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    1. Not really. There's still a school, a tiny one perhaps, but not completely moronic, that insists that our intervention in Vietnam actually prevented a much greater conflict. I don't agree, but my stake in the matter rests on the other side.

      John

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  4. What a waste that conflict was-all tied in with the domino theory obsession.

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  5. ARVN or the army of SV didn't carry their load. ANd how awful our pow's were treated when Ho Chi Minh was alive. Soldiers were crit. for killing people in villages but many of them did harm to soldiers with the Viet Cong hiding there. At least that conflict brought about laws to limit how long a Pres. can leave soldiers in an area without having war declared.

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    1. I don't pretend to speak with any kind of authority as I was in Vietnam for only 6 months or so in 1966/67, but what I saw of American/ARVN interaction showed a complete disdain for Vietnamese soldiers -- they were treated as 4th class citizens in their own country in a war that was admittedly fought for our benefit not theirs in their country to prevent it being fought in ours. Some years ago, at an event at Ft. Sheridan, I heard an Admiral explicitly state that strategy: it was far better, he said, to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan than to do so on our own shores. No doubt true, but nobody was asking Iraqis or Afghanis (or Vietnamese) what they thought about the matter.

      John

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    2. Somehow I don't buy that warhawk mindset(not saying it's yours) that we have to go fight whether in Nam or Mideast or they'll come here. The terrorists are already in our midst and it's immigration from the mid east or Afr. or Malaysia that must be watched, etc. The No. Vietnamese would never have come here to be a threat, same with China or Russia. The latter 2 might send missiles however. At any rate was it about saving the rubber plantation investments? or again containment policy?

      Back to today's threat, even ones born in the U.S. of certain extractions and religions can't always be trusted.

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  6. An excellent article, which closely matches my understanding of the Vietnam War. Though I would alter one sentence as follows: We thought, mistakenly, that a United States victory would halt the spread of communism to neighboring nations.

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  7. Then later the Viet. Commies actually were a helpful improvement over the eveils next door in the killing fields of Cambodia/ Kampuchea with Khmer rouge / pol pot

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  8. Advocate of the Anti-ChristApril 29, 2015 at 7:00 AM

    Here is the chapter "The impossible victory" on the end of the Vietnam war from Howard Zinn's a People's History of the U.S. I was active in support of the Vietnamese people during that era. Long Live the Victory of People's War! One, Two, Many Vietnams! http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/zinnimvivi18.html

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  9. Hey Commie boy, your title stinks-AAC.

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    1. Advocate of the Anti-ChristApril 29, 2015 at 11:02 AM

      Thank you for at least calling me Commie rather than "liberal," which I am not now and never will be. Defeat Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

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  10. An excellent article, although one minor quibble- there are a bunch of American Presidents who never sought a second term by choice. They just were mostly in te 19th century. Buchanan, that most unhappy President, sprigs to mind, although most of the pack between Jackson and Lincoln could fall into that category.

    Closer to Johnson, would be Silent Cal, but he at least had a bit of Harding's term. (As Johnson had a bit of Kennedy's.)

    In modern times, of course, it would be shocking if a Presidet didn't seek a second term.

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    1. Coolidge sprang to my mind, but he apparently thought that he need not do anything to secure the nomination and was sorely disappointed when he wasn't elected by acclamation.

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    2. Yeah, you really have to go back to the 19th century to find an example of a President not really trying.

      Looking back, I'm thinking the most recent example, before Johnson, was Rutherfraud B. Hayes, who kept his pledge to not run for a second term.

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  11. Not sure how I did that. I'll fix. Thanks.

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    1. Sure thing. I rarely get to use my slightly obsessive knowledge of 19th century Presidents, so I was happy to get to add something.

      I think the full list, of one term Presidents not trying to run again are: John Tyler, James Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, and Silent Cal. (I think, on balance, Coolidge withdrawing in 1928 would put him on this list, too.)

      If you ever want to read about a sad Presidency, read about poor President Pierce, who, while President elect, had a train derail with his family on it, with his last surviving son crushed to death in front of him.

      His Presidency did not get any happier from there. He tried for the Dem. nomination in 1856, but was defeated by a man who had one of the greatest Pre-Presidential resumes (and worst Presidencies) in history- James Buchanan.)

      This is all a side note, as I really liked the article. We have, at least so far, avoided this kind of ending in Iraq or Afghanistan. Well, so far.

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    2. Gulf of Tonkin should have been our first clue, or at least immed. exit after the Tet Offensive. And that ho chi minh trail.... fuggedabout it.

      Our embassy there in the early days had no Viet. speakers, the servants and office workers were double agents.

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    3. It amazes me how the general public or some students even in college, still don't know that 19th century is the 1800's, not the 1900's, as one example. Same with geography, it should be taught more.

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  12. When I read about modern-day Vietnam, what astonishes me is the lack of animosity toward Americans. Apparently most Vietnamese are perfectly friendly toward us, despite what we did to their country. I'm amazed that they're not consumed with bitterness.

    Of course they won, so there's that.

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    1. I'm thinking our friends there might hate us more than our enemies.

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    2. This is what always amazes me about Japan and Germany. The fact that they went from being maniacal enemies to crucial allies in relatively short order seems unlikely. Of course, the U.S. did pour a lot of money and effort into both to facilitate their recoveries. But, unlike the Vietnamese, they didn't win, so there's not that...

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    3. We learned, or the French did, after WWI and the treaty of Versailles not to kick one's enemy too much when they are down or else....beware if they get up again. Thus, all the help with Truman Doct. and Marshall plan to West. Germ. after W2.

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    4. A joke Germans tell each other is that Hitler correctly predicted that American roads would someday be crowded with Volkswagons. Just didn't happen the way he had in mind.

      Tom Evans

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    5. and it wasn't that crowded with VW's

      now Honda's yes

      I still buy American only, whatever that is...who knows where parts are made.

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  13. A beautiful summary Neil, although it perhaps missed the early sense of optimism that we would prevail. (Not universal. Eisenhower warned against getting involved.) In the early 1960's I attended a course at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute designed for military officers bound for attaché duty and mid-level diplomats. One of the speakers was Bernard Fall, author of 'The Street Without Joy" and other books and articles that, generally, portrayed Vietnam as a lost cause for the west. He said we would eventually withdraw because the North Vietnamese were engaged in a patriotic cause and were prepared to tolerate enormous losses, while we were siding with a dubious post colonial government for geopolitical reasons that our publics might eventually find not worth the cost. (The South Vietnamese government was made up largely of Christian refugees from the north and had a questionable hold on the largely Buddhist population.) He was received politely, but in the class discussion held after every lecture, his message was largely discounted. A Foreign Service Officer noted that France was a hated colonial power, and we would succeed where they didn't because we were not burdened with that past. An Army Colonel said the French lost militarily because they didn't have enough helicopters, a defect the U.S. Army's new 'vertical envelopment' tactics would correct. As Robert M. McNamara ruefully observed in retrospective comments, "Everybody was for it until everybody was against it."

    Tom Evans

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    1. Yes, we need more Repubs like Ike these days, not the right wing nuts we see now.

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    2. And we learned after Dien Bien PHu, not to pick up French messes anymore. And they have been a poor ally to us, as compared to the UK.

      A friend of mine was doing a thesis in France and said if one looked at their school texts, you'd think they won W2 by themselves.

      DeGaulle was a prick.

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    3. Yes, Pres. Thieu in the South wasn't much of a Pres. I recall watching all this in 3rd or 4th grade in 68 on Cronkite with parents. Learned a lot more later as History major and teacher and grad school.

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  14. I agree with all the others above. This piece is a tour de force of concision and clarity.

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  15. here is a good link

    https://scontent-ord.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xpf1/v/t1.0-9/s552x414/11070991_10152855828738181_1139631935983202742_n.jpg?oh=58443c7b97baa36124a03ad582c975c7&oe=55D9D9DF

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  16. The war to retrieve lost plantations for their former French owners.

    Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1978-1979 and repelled a (Red) China invasion in 1979. So much for the Domino theory. Knowing the regional nationalistic antagonisms would have been like knowing the difference between Shia and Sunni before invading Iraq.

    What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don't know and I don't care.

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  17. Viet vets said the WW2 soldiers didn't understand them and said they were whining. Well at least the ones who served in Europe. Those who served in the Pacific in W2 knew about the humidity, pestilence, jungle, etc.

    Neil, I saw a vid of you when you were interviewed for that Hat book. You sound like Jason Alexander, a bit, when you speak.

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    1. and the tunnels.....that Amer. couldn't fit into

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  18. some say for a non documentary, H. wood type movie, Platoon is pretty close to reality

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  19. Follow

    AP StylebookVerified account
    ‏@APStylebook
    AP Style tip: Capitalize Army and Marines when referring to U.S forces: the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marines, the Army, the Marines.
    Reply Retweet Favorite

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    1. Right, but you're looking at the wrong part. I wasn't referring to U.S. forces, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marines, the Army, the Marines. I was referring to 11 marines: soldiers, sailors, marines. It's a fine point, and you're forgiven for missing it. But try.

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    2. Not that you don't have supporters. AP Style changed to capitalize "Marines" -- the Army is pushing it to capitalize "soldiers" too. The Trib has started as well. But our style is to lowercase "marines," and I'm fine with that.

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    3. And we seem to do it too. Doesn't matter to me -- whatever the style is, I'll go with.

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  20. oh let it go already

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    1. if you were in the service I salute you but please...don't be anal

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    2. No, I'm glad he persisted. I finally pulled down my 1977 AP Style Guide. I figured I'd learned it lowercase, and then it changed at some point. But no, it's upper case, even then. I'm just wrong. I was wrong three different ways in this column. Can't win 'em all. I'll run a correction Friday.

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    3. After I fixed it above, I went to fix it online in the paper, and realized an editor had already done so. So at least it's right there.

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    4. Don't beat yourself up over it, Neil. You are a fine writer and don't let the nitpickers get to you or encourage them.

      I'd like to see if they'd be perfect if they wrote publically, day after day.

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    5. I appreciate that, and normally i don't sweat the small mistakes too much -- to write is to err -- but this is more significant, because I checked it, and tried to, and blundered in checking it. It's worth running a correction over.

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  21. Re presidents who didn't seek a 2d term -- I'm surprised no one mentioned T. Roosevelt or Truman, both of whom had one full term after succeeding to their predecessors'terms (following death). Both chose not to run after their full term

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  22. yes, good one about TR, later he prob wished he had sought one after being disappointed with Taft, and then splitting the election with BMoose party, handing it to dem Wilson., NOw TR was a decent repub. or more dem. in style

    It's amazing , from this pol. forum I visit, how many don't know that the south dixiecrats were conserve dems after CWar and didn't turn till after Johnson's and Civ rights time into repubs.

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  23. Ah, is that a sculpture of Caesar? or a bust?

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  24. Does anyone else love that PBS program with Professor Gates doing geneology searches? good stuff

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  25. Being mistreated by police? Don't act aggressive on them or verbally abuse them and try not breaking the law, that should help you city thugs/ gangbangers.

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  26. yeah! Bernie Sanders is joining the Dem. race

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  27. One pol. forum was mentioning how years back, people of mixed religions or mixed races weren't suppose to marry either-thus same with the gay marriage. No, not quite the same, is it? And there's nothing wrong with having that opinion. It doesn't make one some bad person just cause a liberal reporter says so. I'm all for gay civil rights, even civil unions, but the marriage goes too far.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.