Friday, November 1, 2013

Vietnam 50 Years Ago

It’s hard to believe that I was a young man who had just turned 23. One of the most historic and impactful events in our nation’s long narrative took place fifty years ago today.
by Charlie Leck

On 1 November 1963, a military coup overthrew the government of South Vietnam. The next day Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered. These were events that were supposed to lead to a new democracy and a glorious new era of freedom for the people of that nation. Instead South Vietnam was swallowed up by the war that followed.

I barely noticed. I had just moved to Minneapolis and I was studying disciplines far removed from American international policy. I hadn’t a clue, and hardly anyone did, that the murder had been arranged and was supported by a small, but powerful, faction within the administration of President John F. Kennedy.

At our school, I remember the voice of one meek but thoughtful professor was raised in warning.

“Uh oh,” he said. A year later he would be organizing street marches in protest against the war.

The collapse of the Diem regime led to one of the most horrible and controversial wars in the history of the modern world. U.S. military troops were eventually sent to the extremely unknown and mysterious nation. “Boots on the ground” is the current lingo for what happened. In addition to the ground forces, hundreds and hundreds of bombing sorties were carried out against the armies of North Vietnam. Thousands of young American men came home injured and changed forever!

Three weeks after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas. President Lyndon Baines Johnson would then make the decisions that increased dramatically the number of American forces within Vietnam.

Division erupted in America – a division like it had not experienced since the Civil War. It was a terrible time. I have written often here about the chaos of the sixties. There were loud call to put “boots on the streets” in protest against this war without purpose, mission or meaning. Thousands of good Americans refused to go to war. Some of the names would surprise you. Why bring them up again? There is no reason.

What would have happened if Diem had not been overthrown? Who knows? Perhaps there would have been a peaceful settlement of South Vietnam’s political problems. And perhaps it would have been led by the Vietnam people themselves.

The divisions in America led to such suspicion, distrust and paranoia that, as a result, President Richard M. Nixon was virtually paralyzed in office. The right and the left so distrusted each other that Nixon was led into decisions of awesome stupidity by his fears of national deterioration. Spying on citizens, unlawful break-ins, bribes, hush money and voter tampering became incredibly common. Watergate is a word etched deeply in the modern history of America.

And South Vietnam would disappear. No resolve great enough could be mustered within the severely divided political atmosphere in America to win the war. It is a political divide between the right and the left that has not fully healed even to this day. Both sides still want to claim they were on the correct side in the years between 1963 and 1975. And, the divide was still clearly evident in George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and throughout that war. The results in both wars were so similar. Destruction and despair were left behind the broad wake of our military action. Brave and patriotic heroes came home as physical and mental casualties of wars whose missions were never clearly defined.

Politicians had made thoughtless decisions and they had erred disastrously.

It all led to the awful and morose resignation of a sitting U.S. President – one of the most haunting days of my entire life.

Fifty years ago! How amazing!


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