Haunted by the Nightmare of the Vietnam War

By Miller, Alan | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Haunted by the Nightmare of the Vietnam War


Miller, Alan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Upon succeeding Richard Nixon in 1974, President Gerald Ford proclaimed, "Our long national nightmare is over." Mr. Ford was referring to the Watergate scandal that had preoccupied the nation for months. But the nightmare of Vietnam that began in 1955, when we first dispatched military advisers to Southeast Asia and then ignominiously pulled out of that foreign policy disaster on April 30, 1975, continues to haunt our nation.

The 40th anniversary of that pullout is something most Americans would prefer to forget. But the somber black marble monument wall in the nation's capital bearing the names of 58,272 of those who died in Vietnam must never be forgotten.

Those deaths should remind us of George Santayana's warning: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The Spanish philosopher's admonition is relevant today as U.S. forces find themselves bogged down in the Middle East.

A dozen years after invading Iraq, most Americans realize that the chronically violent region is a riddle far beyond our comprehension. A similar dilemma confronted us in Vietnam where we tried to fight a conventional war against an unconventional foe that was neither a pawn of the Soviet Union nor China, notwithstanding the so-called "domino theory" that communism had to be contained in Vietnam lest it spread exponentially.

Former Virginia Sen. James Webb was exactly right when he said there will always be a wall between those who served in Vietnam and those who did not. During his tour as a Marine platoon commander, he was awarded the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts before receiving a medical discharge.

I first met Webb several decades ago in San Diego when he was a relatively anonymous assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs in the Reagan administration. When next we met Webb was secretary of the Navy and accompanied by a phalanx of admirals and aides. He was the same plain-spoken advocate of military service whose writings about Vietnam should be required reading.

To wit: "An irony of the Greatest Generation is at work here. Lest we forget, the World War II generation now being lionized also brought us the Vietnam War, a conflict which today's most conspicuous voices by and large opposed, and in which few of them served. The 'best and the brightest' of the Vietnam age group once made headlines by castigating their parents for bringing about the war in which they would not fight, which has become the war they refused to remember. …

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