Vietnam Veterans and the Vietnam War

On July 10, 1969, Seattle held a parade for the first U.S. Army brigade to be withdrawn from Vietnam. The city’s residents waved American flags and girls threw red roses while a band piped “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The scene was indistinguishable from the receptions for American troops returning from World War II and the Korean War, with one crucial exception. A small group of protesters, about 50 in total, were on hand to jeer the troops and the war they had been fighting. Despite their modest numbers, the demonstrators received so much press coverage that Pentagon officials held no more homecoming events for returning troops.

Families and local communities still honored veterans as they came home from Vietnam. Beyond those enclaves, however, veterans often encountered derision and discrimination, above all from Baby Boomers who had not served in the military. Ideological passion obscured the reality that the authority to wage war belonged to elected officials, not soldiers.

Decades passed before significant numbers of Boomers acknowledged they had been wrong to blame the troops. When war brought Americans to Iraq and Afghanistan, middle-aged politicians and pundits could be heard saying that they supported the troops, just not the war. For the intelligentsia, this shift rectified the injustices they had done to Vietnam veterans.

Certainly the shift was a welcome improvement. Yet a large fraction of the human population does not find its longing for meaning satiated by tepid applause for the act of following the government’s orders. They want to know that they contributed to a worthy cause. The Boomer elites ought to have understood this truth as well as anyone, given how frequently and fervently they have claimed to be on “the right side of history.”

Prominent Boomers like Ken Burns and Mark Bowden are thus gravely mistaken in thinking they are supporting Vietnam veterans while continuing to insist that the war unnecessary and immoral. If in fact the nation had engaged in so reprehensible a war, then reminding Americans of that disheartening fact would have some utility, though the task could be carried out in a more subdued and respectful manner. But now, more than ever, there is good reason to believe that the war was neither unnecessary nor immoral.

In the first decades after the fall of Saigon, the war’s history was written overwhelmingly by opponents of the war, in conformity with the tenets of the antiwar movement. Few Vietnam veterans ever accepted those tenets, which ensured that an increasingly politicized professoriate would exclude veterans from their ranks. A study in the 1990s would find that Vietnam-era veterans accounted for less than one percent of all university faculty.

When serious challenges to the antiwar orthodoxy arose near the end of the century, they came mainly from historians outside academia, such as H.R. McMaster, Lewis Sorley, and B.G. Burkett. The same has been true of more recent revisionists, who have mined wellsprings of new information from American and international sources. Ho Chi Minh, it turns out, really was a diehard Marxist-Leninist, not an avuncular nationalist. Southeast Asia really was in peril when the United States intervened in South Vietnam in 1965, and American intervention actually eliminated the peril before American forces withdrew. President Lyndon Johnson could have spared the United States and its South Vietnamese allies from great suffering had he granted the requests of his generals for sterner military measures in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Most of the historians of the academic and media establishments have ignored these findings. The big political and military questions of the war, they say, have already been answered by eminences of the 1980s like George Herring and Stanley Karnow. Hence the time has come to focus on new, cutting-edge topics. These include “War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines” and “Sex and Diplomacy during the Vietnam War.”

Young Americans, particularly those attending expensive colleges and universities, are ill-served by professors who dodge the errors of the past by shifting to the trivial and the obscure. Vietnam veterans, though, know from experience not to trust the academics. The internet and media diversification have given them access to web platforms like the Vietnam Veterans for Factual History and documentaries like The Unauthorized History of the Vietnam War that challenge orthodoxies and corroborate their own experiences. They can find solace in histories showing that the Vietnam War was, as Ronald Reagan put it, “a noble cause.”

Mark Moyar’s most recent book is Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965-1968.

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About Mark Moyar

Mark Moyar is director of the Project on Military and Diplomatic History at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The author of six books and dozens of articles, he has worked in and out of government on national security affairs, international development, foreign aid, and capacity building. His latest book is "Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America's Special Operations Forces" (Basic Books, 2017).

Photo: NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 11: Vietnam veterans greet each other before the annual Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2021 in Madison Square Park, New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)