The last American combat troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973—45 years ago today. On that last day of American military withdrawal, pursuant to the Paris Peace Accords, there were two commercial planes left on the runway that were to take those of us left out. Most Americans had left as had most of the press, officers, and doctors. Lining the path to the two planes were the enemy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. Those of us left walked the gauntlet of Vietnamese soldiers to the last two planes. A Vietnamese soldier took a picture of us getting on the plane, which later hung in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The two planes took off from Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon as the last prisoners of war were leaving Hanoi. That was the end of the long American nightmare in Vietnam. Two years later the American Embassy fell.
On March 29, 2018, America will observe National Vietnam War Veterans Day, which was added to our national holidays last year pursuant to the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017. It is good and right that America now recognizes the courage and sacrifices of the approximately 2.7 million American soldiers who served in Vietnam in a war that history now recognizes as a colossal mistake. PBS recently aired a 10-part, 18-hour look at the conflict by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick titled The Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson aptly described this quicksand war when he said, “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out.”
It is important that we not only remember those who served in Vietnam, but also the lessons from the war. In fact, of all the mistakes made in Vietnam, the gravest would be our failure to learn from these mistakes. Vietnam taught us that we should be ever vigilant not to send American soldiers halfway around the world to a foreign land—into a civil war—for a questionable cause and without an exit strategy. Regrettably, our policymakers did not learn the lessons of Vietnam when U.S. forces were sent to Iraq without clear understanding of the consequences.
It is important for policymakers and the public, especially the young, to understand that war is not a video game and wars have consequences. For example, over 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam and countless others were wounded, many severely. Of the 2.7 million who served, many came back with addictions or post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. It is estimated that 8 to 11 percent of the homeless are veterans and of those, almost half are Vietnam veterans.
The families of these soldiers also grieve and suffer. Earlier this month, I made a presentation before the Rotary Club of Dallas, and afterward, a doctor shared with me that his brother was a Vietnam veteran who came back with severe PTSD. He would have nightmares at night, choke his wife, and load a gun when he got angry. To this day he suffers from these symptoms and only now is he beginning to speak about his experiences. He cannot forget. Nor should America forget.
Many Vietnam veterans say “thank you” for finally recognizing their service. Some others, myself included, want America to understand that we went to Vietnam because we felt we were, in some strange way, sacrificing for America. The America we sacrificed for begins with the Constitution and the First Amendment freedoms of speech, of the press, of the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Over 58,000 died as a result of the Vietnam War for these freedoms.
We have fought external enemies and we must fight against those within our country who would tear down our institutions and subvert our democracy.
Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Texas Observer, said it best: “[F]or God’s sake, don’t get into stupid wars.”
Richard Pena left on the last day of American military involvement in Vietnam. He is an Austin attorney and the co-author of Last Plane Out of Saigon.
Update: Through the editing process, the number of American soldiers that died as a result of the Vietnam War was changed from “over 58,000” to “over 47,000.” The correct number is “over 58,000.” This article has been updated with the correct information.