‘A Profound Debacle’: 5 Decades After US Defeat in Vietnam, Divisions Opened by War Are, if Anything, Even Wider

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November 7, 2023
Hunter Mora, grandson of Marine Vietnam War veteran Donald Mora, looks for the names of his granddad's fallen comrades from the war at the traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Voinovich Park in Cleveland, June 12, 2012. (Cpl. Chelsea Anderson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

It’s been a half-century since the United States of America, until then undefeated in modern warfare, took its first “L.”

The signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 allowed then-President Richard Nixon to complete the drawdown of U.S. troops from Vietnam, ending the so-called “police action” that transmogrified into a quagmire that cost 58,220 American lives.

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary widely, from 2.1 million to 3.8 million during the American intervention, and in related conflicts before and after.

Those Paris accords served as both an off-ramp for America and a humiliating admission of its defeat at the hands of communist North Vietnam.

Without American military might to shore it up, the South Vietnamese government — the bulwark against communism America had spent $140 billion and two decades propping up — collapsed in two years. That defeat was capped by chaotic images of helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of their Saigon embassy.

But the conflict had been lost years earlier, in the court of public opinion back home. Far from fading into history, the Vietnam War has reverberated down through the decades, bending the frame of the republic, punching holes in the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism.”

It undermined trust in politicians who led the nation into a quicksand war; and in the military brass that cooked the books — deliberately undercounting enemy troops, and otherwise misleading a public that may have soured on the conflict far sooner, had it known the truth.

The Vietnam War was a “profound debacle” that “should never have happened,” declares James Casey, a former Sonoma County prosecutor and decorated Army veteran who spilled much blood in that country.

But men who knew better pulled America in.

“And for that,” he says, “their souls are stained.”

The war “shattered the central tenet of American national identity,” wrote historian Christian G. Appy in his 2015 book “American Reckoning” — “the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.”

Rise of the “New Right”

Embedded in that same national identity, it turned out, was a fear of change — especially when it came to granting civil rights to people of color — and a preference for “law and order” political candidates espousing the belief that a lot of those longhairs and war protesters were commies.

That explains how widespread anti-war sentiment spawned “a massive conservative backlash,” notes Charles Wollenberg, a Berkeley-based historian and academic.

The Free Speech Movement that erupted at UC Berkeley in 1964 and swiftly spread to campuses across the country, “led to a kind of New Right, which continues to have so much influence today.”

That counterreaction gave rise to a reconstituted right-wing movement that found its avatar in a former B-list actor named Ronald Reagan, who vowed during his 1966 campaign to be California’s governor, to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.”

Running for president 14 years later, the Gipper encouraged citizens to cut the country some slack, when it came to the Vietnam War.

“It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause,” he proclaimed to thunderous applause at a 1980 Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.

“Morning in America,” as Reaganites referred to that time, was also the dawn of a decade that brought us such movies as “Uncommon Valor,” “Missing in Action” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” POW films that “offered a partial redemption of the Vietnam War,” according to Appy — “a chance to refight it with a clear objective, a just cause, and a triumphant ending.”

The anti-war protests of the 1960s and ’70s were part of the larger counterculture movement, a many-colored cloak of activism including Black Panthers, Chicanos, Native Americans and women’s liberationists. As historian Ruth Rosen points out in “What’s Going On? California and the Vietnam War Era,” a 2004 collection of essays edited by Wollenberg and Marcia Eymann, that war helped launch the feminist revolution “by igniting protest and prompting women to question all kinds of received authority.”

While those protesters made the evening news, juxtaposed with bleak footage from places like Ia Drang Valley and Khe Sanh, citizens making up Nixon’s “silent majority” watched from home.

They outnumbered the protesters, it turned out. Regardless of how much radical politics dominated the news in 1968, the historian Alan Brinkley has written, “the most important political legacy of that critical year was the rise of the Right”– a counterrevolution highlighted by Nixon’s victory that November over Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey.

“In a broad sense,” says Wollenberg, the Berkeley historian, “the conflict today between progressives and MAGA people goes all the way back to that era, of the ’60s and the Vietnam War.”

“Blood-Soaked Land”

If he squints hard enough, James Casey can see a similar through-line, from America’s decision to commit combat troops to Indochina, to its present state of dysfunction.

“Widespread distrust of government began with the war,” says Casey, 75, who retired in 2011 from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, “and it has only increased over time.”

In the summer of 1968 he was a 20-year-old Army second lieutenant commanding a rifle platoon in the A Shau Valley, a major conduit for North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies along the Laotian border, some 600 miles north of Saigon.

Combat was fierce, frequent and intimate, Casey recalls. “Often we and the enemy were only feet and yards apart. The American people had no idea of the carnage.

“It was a blood-soaked land.”

Some of the blood was his. Casey was critically wounded on June 12, 1968, when an exploding mortar shell sent him flying, mangling his right leg, among other injuries, and severing his femoral artery.

Educated by Jesuits, one of nine children from an Irish Catholic family, he swiftly recited the Hail Mary — in Latin — then looked around for a weapon.

His life was saved by a medic who put a clamp on the artery, despite being wounded himself.

Casey was evacuated, his leg saved. After 14 months in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and eight major surgeries, he went to college, then law school. He and his wife, June, have four adult children.

“I would not wish the burden of my war experience on anyone,” says Casey, who then adds, “Yet, I would not give it up for anything.”

“The Country Has Never Recovered”

The crucible of war, and the reflection in which he immersed himself during his recovery, fostered empathy, compassion and other qualities “deeply rooted in me,” he believes, “in large part due to the war.”

One of those aspects is an unflinching honesty. Casey describes the conflict that nearly claimed his life as a catastrophe — a malign “comet that blazed into our heartland and detonated. The gaping crater still smokes to this day.”

While Casey doesn’t give President John F. Kennedy a pass, he does point out that it was JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, who “opened the door” to war, sending “tremendous numbers of fighting troops” into harm’s way.

America went from LBJ’s initial troop escalation “to pushing helicopters off of Navy ships a decade later,” says Casey — a reference to the chaotic final days of the conflict, when choppers were evacuating people in 10-minute intervals from the roof of the American embassy to waiting warships.

When some of those empty choppers began to clog the ship decks, they were simply pushed overboard — “ignominy at its finest,” Casey says.

“The country has never recovered.”

Kyle Longley, a Chapman University professor of presidential history and author of LBJ’s “1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval,” disputes the notion that Johnson was more hawkish than Kennedy.

It was Kennedy, he notes, who in 1963 further entangled the U.S. by greenlighting a coup d’etat that led to the assassination of then-South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. (Kennedy would be shot dead in Dallas 20 days later.)

“Johnson didn’t want any part of that war,” Longley says. “He wanted to focus on the war on poverty, wanted to focus on civil rights.”

Treasure expended on that faraway conflict left fewer funds for the Great Society reforms that were closer to Johnson’s heart, Longley says. He can recite from memory much of this LBJ quotation lamenting the conundrum he faced:

“If I left the woman I really love — the Great Society — to get involved in that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home.”

And so he did. The Tet Offensive, hundreds of coordinated surprise attacks by North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas in early 1968, exposed as fiction claims by Gen. William Westmoreland, and others, that the end of the war had “come into view.”

Embattled and demoralized, Johnson announced in March of that year he would no longer seek his party’s nomination for president — thus opening the door for Richard Milhous Nixon, who protracted America’s involvement in the war before resigning in disgrace in 1974, as the crimes of Watergate were exposed.

Many of Nixon’s early crimes, Appy reminds us, “were linked to his effort to attack anti-war critics and keep his war policies secret.”

Exodus to America

The fall of Saigon in 1975 launched an exodus that has changed the face of America, which is now home to 2.2 million people of Vietnamese descent, nearly 40% of whom are concentrated in California.

For many of those immigrants, wrote Andrew Lam in “What’s Going On,” “the American Dream has over time chased away the Vietnamese nightmare.”

That’s a fair description of the arc of Queenie Tran, co-owner of the Queen Nail Spa in Windsor.

She was born in 1974 in Rach Gia, a city on the Gulf of Thailand, 230 miles southwest of Saigon. When South Vietnam lost the war a year later, life was harsh for her and her family.

“We don’t have clothes, we don’t have shoes, we don’t have food,” she told the Press Democrat in 2019.

Many of those who’d collaborated with the Americans were sent to prison camps, adds Michael, her husband.

At 21, she moved to California, settling in San Jose. After a bad divorce, she found herself homeless.

That’s when she met Michael, a native of Saigon who’d come to America in 1984. They opened the Queen Nail Spa in 2010.

For years, she and Michael collected food, clothing, toiletries and sleeping bags, distributing them every Friday night — after a full day’s work — at the Goodwill near Sebastopol and Stony Point roads.

They closed the spa for two years, during the pandemic, to live with their sons in San Diego. Every Saturday afternoon, in a parking lot near Petco Park, Tran fed soup to people experiencing homelessness.

Having been homeless herself, Tran has long heard and heeded the call to help others in need. It’s a sad irony that some of the people she’s fed and clothed through the years have been struggling veterans.

An Unrecognizable America

After he retired as a prosecutor, Casey spent nearly a decade providing pro bono legal services for veterans at Sonoma County Vet Connect, an outreach program for former military service members and their families.

He has deep empathy for veterans, especially those who returned from Vietnam only to be met with “hostility” and “desecration.”

Many fell into alcohol and substance abuse, he notes. Some became “professional veterans,” joining clubs and organizations and wearing clothes “all connected to the war.”

Casey counts himself among the cohort of Vietnam vets who “did not see the war as the entirety of our lives. It was part of the fabric, to be sure, but not the entire cloth.”

The Vietnam War changed the nation’s trajectory, and not for the better, he wrote in a recent email.

“I do not recognize my country today. I have never seen it in such disarray — have never seen so many immoral people in positions of authority.

“People once spoke, and listened to each other. That has disappeared.

“We are no longer a Society. We are many Tribes of greedy, narcissistic, uncompassionate people.”

He signed off with a sentence that can be read as both a declaration and plea:

“Life has value only if one sees value in the lives of others.”

(c) 2023 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com.

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