Vietnam War: Facts and Opinions

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Arnold Isaacs in his 2023 Salon piece described “perceptions and opinions on both sides of the argument” about the U.S. role in Vietnam offering reference points of “tragic mistake or noble cause.” The writer closed his discussion by highlighting the current political environment in the country.  For me at the center of any debate about Vietnam is the quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan from a Washington Post column on January 18, 1983: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Facts, not opinions, will produce the truth about Vietnam. 

The U.S. Government’s 172 months of war in Vietnam is a fraction of the region’s geo-political history of subjugation.  The French exercised colonial domination with accompanying economic exploitation. We can not omit the Roman Catholic influence, depending on perspective, culturally subversive. China’s imperialistic designs go back centuries. Japan, too, desired control of southeast Asian natural resources. Facts matter in all histories.

Much of the Vietnam War narrative includes first person accounts by those who lived it.  The categories are numerous: active participant, one of 2.7 million who were in-country; the anti-war activist; the unaffected ambivalent citizen; the living victim of jungle warfare or campus violence in Vietnam or America; the Gold Star Mother. Over time primary sources, many with strong opinions, will cease contributing to the narrative while scholarly research continues.  

Motivations for writing are as varied as the authors. Self discovery, reconciliation, legacy, celebrity, money serve to inspire. The estimated thirty thousand books about the wartime era include facts and entitled opinions. The latter can be believable but unsubstantiated by facts.

For my war an opinion in 1965 became a fact by 1975. Lyndon Johnson’s Undersecretary of State George Ball, a solitary naysayer in cabinet meetings said, “Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process.  Our involvement will be so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop short of achieving our complete objectives.  Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives—even after we have paid terrible costs. . . “ (From George W. Ball, “A Compromise Solution in South Vietnam,” in Neil Sheehan et al., comp.,  The Pentagon Papers (Boston Beacon Press, 1971), 2:615-17)

The nation’s story of Vietnam is factually on the record. Political leaders, government bureaucracies and the corporate sector supported the war. Strong beliefs form national values: “Better dead than Red;” profits over people; ribbons, medals and rank; are woven into the fabric of American society.  America is the world’s largest arms exporter. We portray ourselves as peaceful while harboring war-like tendencies which can be bared as quickly as a junkyard dog’s teeth. Our 247 year history includes more than one hundred wars and military involvement in the affairs of other peoples. (Google: List of Wars involving the United States)

We will study the Vietnam War for decades learning new facts, verifying those known, ultimately confirming the truth. The war did not mistakenly go wrong after starting as a noble cause.  It was an ill fated conflict instigated by self-serving national values.  Arriving at agreement based on opinions, never; facts-based history, irrefutable.   

Tom Gery was inducted January 1968 into the US Army with service in Vietnam September 1968 to September 1969

See also previous posts in this conversation:
…After All These Years,” Susan Dixon
Why writing about the Vietnam War is still relevant—and necessary,” AJ Moore

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