Thursday, April 30, is the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam, with the North Vietnamese capture of the South Vietnam capital, Saigon. It marked the end of the U.S. decade-long war in Vietnam.
By the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, over 58,000 U.S. military service members were dead and more than 300,000 had been wounded. For many U.S. military who lived to return to the United States, it meant surviving the after-effects, what we then called “post-Vietnam syndrome,” and now refer to as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD: flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.
But the effects on U.S. soldiers pale in comparison to the suffering we inflicted on the Vietnamese in their own country. We ruined their lives, their economy, and their country. U.S. service members — and their Australian, New Zealand, Thai, and South Korean allies — killed between 1.5 and 3.6 million Vietnamese people. We napalmed their countryside, and sprayed more than 18 million gallons of Agent Orange dioxin on the countryside, the results of which continue to affect generations today.
For most of us who lived and served during the Vietnam War era, the Fall of Saigon is a date for remembrance of our personal and national losses. It also heralds that which brought us into the anti-Vietnam War movement.
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a 19-year-old in September 1965, just six months after the United States deployed ground troops to fight in Vietnam. I thought it was the right thing to do. A couple of my high school chums were already casualties. My grandfathers were both Army veterans and my parents had served in the navy in World War II. As was true for so many kids my age back then, with two previous world wars and the recent Korean War, it seemed most families had military backgrounds.
I went in as an apolitical Nebraska Republican, who believed that I could make a career in the military. With my squadron I had two deployments to Iceland, literally and figuratively on the opposite side of the planet from my colleagues in Vietnam. With the deployments adding up to 14 months, I came to understand the stress and PTSD faced by active duty personnel and veterans of all wars, but especially unpopular and controversial wars.
Around the fifth month of my deployment, guys who were buddies would get into fights over the slightest irritation. In our deployment in 1969 we were extended. We were continuously tracking a Soviet nuclear sub and had a plane over or near the sub at all times. For those of us on flight crews, it meant 14-hour arduous days, without rest.
Getting extended put those who were already stressed near the edge, developing some psychological and behavioral aberrations. Meanwhile, I was questioning the reasons U.S. soldiers were fighting and dying in Vietnam.
We were told that the Geneva Accords and the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) Treaty — signed in 1954 by most nations in the region, and also the U.S. and Australia — obligated U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. That we had to fight to prevent the Communist takeover of South Vietnam and the spread of communism around the world.
By my 21st birthday, I had my doubts about the altruism of the operation. I had read the accords and the treaty. I had lost close friends to the war. It seemed to me that the real underlying goals of the U.S. war were political and economic hegemony and natural resources, such as oil.
Only halfway into my four-year enlistment, I became an anti-Vietnam War activist. For me it was the anti-war movement that guided me when I got out in November 1969 and ever since.
On Monday, May 25, the United States will celebrate Memorial Day. Since soon after the American Civil War ended in 1865, this has been a day to remember and honor service members who have died. This year — also the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War — U.S. leaders are looking to resurrect patriotic support of that ill-begotten war. The Department of Defense has mounted a heavily funded initiative to convince younger U.S. generations that the Vietnam War was a noble enterprise.
Included in their efforts is a well-funded website, “United States of America – Vietnam War Commemoration," as well as plans for annual celebrations, such as Memorial Day events around the country. They are planning to tell their version of the war for the next 10 years, representing the 10 years of the Vietnam War.
The promotion of such patriotic sentiment for a war that was, by all accounts, a disaster, is dangerous in an era when future wars are being considered in countries such as Iran, Yemen, Somalia, and planned out of public sight. Those of us who are veterans for peace believe that the Vietnam War was a grievous mistake if not an horrific crime. And that is why Veterans For Peace has decided to meet the governments’ campaign with our own — Vietnam War Full Disclosure.
Vietnam Full Disclosure is calling on concerned citizens, who were seared by this war, to each send a letter to The Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. These victims will share their memories of this war and its impact on their loved ones, while expressing their concerns over future wars. On Memorial Day, Vietnam veterans will present these letters to the Vietnam Memorial and read excerpts from some of the letters.
As Veterans, our legacy includes these commemorations and the resistance to wars present and future. It is a legacy of awareness and resistance, of ensuring that the society and system that sends young people to fight their wars understands the absolute duty to care for them when they return. It is a legacy of tolerance, diplomacy, respect and dignity to help us right the wrongs of imperialism and global economic domination for the benefit of the few to the expense of the many; a legacy of teaching and helping younger generations continue the fight for all of us, now and into the future.
The development of a legacy of peace is ongoing and that must be the legacy of the Vietnam War.
USN Jan ’66-Nov ‘69
VP-24 ATN2, Flight Crew 9
VFP Chapter 105, the Phil Berrigan Memorial Chapter
See www.vietnamfulldisclosure.org for details on Vietnam Full Disclosure, including ways to participate between now and Memorial Day.