Wednesday, April 13, 2016

History of the Cold War #9 Vietnam

I remember Vietnam well. The POW bracelet I wore with pride. The film clip of the daughter who ran to her father as he de-planed.

Barely a teenager, I had to return to the hospital and the pediatric ward was full. I was placed in a room with a woman dying of cancer. She told me the stories of American bombings in Cambodia and how she had pulled babies out of the rubble.

I remember Vietnam well.

Not like a soldier, a Vietnamese, nor a draft dodger.

Previous to WWII, Vietnam and the rest of what was then IndoChina, belonged to France. When France was invaded in 1940, the Japanese moved in. When they were defeated, the Vietnamese had had enough of foreign hegemony. The French came back and tried to claim their colonial possession, but the Vietnamese dug in and after eight years of struggle, sent the French home. They were proud of their conquest. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of this fight; the drawback to his tenacity was that he fought for communism. South Vietnam resisted communism ideology and asked the United States to intervene.

At the time, serious manipulation of the two opposing superpowers was going down. Small countries knew USSR's desire to perpetuate communism and knew of the US's desire to stop the spread of communism.  A phrase was used at the time to bring the struggle into one's mind: "The tail wags the dog." South Vietnam cried out for help lest they be swallowed up by the Reds.  North Vietnam demanded help from the USSR lest they were overcome by the capitalists. USSR sent arms and military advisement. The US answered the call on a limited basis. Eisenhower dabbled and resisted. Kennedy too, but Johnson sent in the full force.

From the scholars with hindsight, it was a war we could have never won. It escalated; more troops were sent to Vietnam.

Since the televising of the Nuremberg Trials, the nation had changed. The United States saw the atrocities of war. Their conscious was pricked. Crimes against humanity was a newly coined phrase. It was immoral to stand by and not stop evil.

Nixon's campaign promises were to end the Vietnam war. His first two years in office, things stayed the same. Then he made a devastating, possibly crucial decision. Neighboring Cambodia, a country without an army, was the route of the Viet Cong. Nixon sent in B52s loaded with bombs. America watched with live television coverage and they said NO MORE! Protests erupted around the nation. Campuses were filled with angry students. One university protest ended in bloodshed. Kent State. Four students killed, nine injured. After burning an ROTC building, the National Guard were called in to establish order. More chaos. The guards felt threatened enough to shoot. An idea went horribly wrong.

In Vietnam a cease fire, after much deliberation and resistance, was reached. The country stayed divided and the North Vietnamese promised to stay in the north.

President Nixon was feared by the North Vietnamese. Much more so than the citizens in the United States. Watergate. When the Russians heard the president had resigned over a minor burglary, they were dumbfounded. When the North Vietnamese learned, it was an open invitation to invade South Vietnam. Two short years and they had taken over Saigon.

I showed my students a remarkable documentary: Last Days in Vietnam. Director Rory Kennedy created a masterpiece collection of the tragic stories of American and South Vietnamese people trying to escape a fast-falling country.  I listened to an interview with the director. While searching for stories for the documentary, she visited an American soldier. He told her of an incident while serving aboard a ship. He remembered filming, and went upstairs and found the undeveloped super 8.

The story, now documented on film, was of a South Vietnamese pilot. He heard of the American evacuation and knew he would be tortured and killed by the enemy. He took a monster helicopter, a chinook, and notified his family to listen for the chopper. He landed in a field and pulled his family  on board-- a family that included a six month old baby. He flew the chopper out to an American ship, where he hovered as close as he dared. The mother jumped from the helicopter but not before dropping her two young children to the deck below and into the waiting hands of servicemen. The father, the pilot, flew the chinook a short distance from the ship and tipped it on its side. He jumps. The helicopter is swallowed by the sea--and the father emerges!**

When the Viet Cong arrived in Saigon, the traitors of the south were rounded up, murdered, sent to re-education camp and suffered in the years to come. What had seemed so desperate of an effort to leave the country, was the move that saved lives.

**When the helicopter pilot and desperate father jumped into the water, he lost two gold bars he'd placed in his shirt pocket. The loss probably meant very little to what he'd gained.