In the opening of Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History, before the table of contents, before the preface, and before the story of Vietnam begins, the quote "they made a wasteland and called it peace" by Tacitus appears on a blank page all alone. In the entirety of the book I found nothing more profound and nothing more convincing.
This semester I had the opportunity to take a class at ISU entitled The Vietnam War. With my primary interest being Kennedy and his connection to the Cold War, I jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the class. My high school history teacher had made an adequate attempt to teach us about the war, though, at that point in the year we were pressed for time and rushing to the end of our junior year. So, my background of the war itself was mostly what I had read in Kennedy biographies and come across haphazardly in history texts. I had no idea the depth in which I would become engulfed and I did not expect to so clearly understand the results and downfalls of the war we now call a quagmire.
The most important lessons we should have learned from Vietnam regard the idea of limited war, the importance of articulating foreign policy goals, and the understanding that as a nation it is not enough to be against something, we must know what we are for. These lessons that we should have learned, I am not convinced we have even learned today. I am not convinced that we as the American people, including both our congress and our president, have come to an understanding that even though we have all of the resources in the world, the technology, and the man power, there are wars we cannot win-- including wars that we should not be fighting.
The biggest American misperception regarding the war drove us deeper into a mess we could not escape. We collectively believed it was a military conflict and by assigning it the title of a military conflict, it could be fought, contained, and won through military methods. It was not. Vietnam was a political conflict. It was a fight of the nationalists, both North and South Vietnam wanting independence and recognition as an independent state. Not a state controlled by China as it once was and not a country controlled by France as it was until the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A political conflict cannot be ended or solved by military force, it must be solved by diplomatic means of negotiation. We did not understand that then and I am not sure we understand that completely now.
I say the biggest misperception was the military versus political conflict, but I acknowledge that there were several misperceptions. The United States continued to support the South Vietnamese military, a military that could not function individually nor would ever be capable of defeating the North. The United States allowed for the assassination of a South Vietnamese leader in 1963 (at the same time that our own president was also assassinated) because we honestly thought there was someone better that we could support and put in power. This was not the case, we never found our key to success in a military or political leader in South Vietnam. We believed that if Vietnam fell to communism as China had in 1949, it would take with it the surrounding countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and essentially all of Indochina and South East Asia. This was also not the case. Vietnam fell to communism in 1975 and no dominoes were to follow.
The misperceptions in Vietnam were aided by deceitful and calculating leaders in the United States. One of two main problems I continue to have with the Johnson administration is that he did not choose to cut our losses in Vietnam and focus on the domestic goals. Had Johnson ended Vietnam and focused on The Great Society, he may have been the next FDR and may have looked as ambitious as Kennedy did when he announced his plans for The New Frontier. Johnson was followed by Nixon who in an effort to "plug" leaks in his administration pertaining to Vietnam began deliberate actions such as wiretapping and breakins. Had Vietnam ended before Nixon there never would have been Watergate. Also, had Vietnam not been going on in 1968 I am convinced the United States never would have seen Richard Nixon in the White House.
Because of the Vietnam War we will never again go to war without asking the tough questions. We will never again allow our president to take "whatever steps necessary" without first remembering that Congress is the only political body to hold the war powers. We will never again have the draft and we will never again look at protests without feeling a bit threatened. Because of the Vietnam War men like Bill Clinton will forever take heat for dodging the draft and women like Jane Fonda will always be controversial. The war polarized this country as the war in Iraq is currently. Because of Vietnam both the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese, and Americans understand what a wasteland is. But more than all of the lessons, Vietnam cost us 58,000 American lives who fought for something they nor we may never be capable of understanding.