Published in the Feb 25, 2016 Santa Maria Times.
When did the Vietnam War begin? When did it end? What was a search-and-destroy mission? How many Americans died in Vietnam? Why was the war fought?
These are some of the questions I ask my students at Allan Hancock College in a special quiz. I often use lessons from history as a component of critical thinking, and this lesson points to the woeful lack of knowledge students frequently have concerning important topics such as this. Of the 17 questions on the quiz, few get more than half correct.
The Paris Peace Accords, which technically ended the Vietnam War, were signed in January 1973. These supposedly ended the American involvement in Vietnam, but the war itself continued until April 1975, when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. Even though Vietnam happened more than a generation ago, its effects are still very much with us today.
The Vietnam War brought about the end of the military draft in 1973. The all-volunteer military we have today is a direct result.
Vietnam destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who had won the 1964 election in a huge landslide, promising, among other things, that he was not about to send American boys 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.
But in 1968, with the country hopelessly divided over the war and his presidency in shambles, he made his famous speech, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president. …”
This opened the way for Richard Nixon, who promised peace with honor, and who ended up being the first and only president to resign from office, due to the Watergate scandal.
That war also brought about a mass migration of Vietnamese refugees into the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Known as Boat People, they were fleeing communist tyranny. Often arriving penniless, they established communities known as Little Saigon, the largest being in Orange County.
Perhaps what surprises students the most about Vietnam is the fact that 58,000 young Americans died there, hundreds of thousands of others were wounded, either physically or psychologically, and even after so many years people disagree as to why the war was fought.
The passions ignited by Vietnam have not gone away. Many still think the war could have been won. Others feel it was doomed from the start. The name Jane Fonda still raises hackles of some Vietnam veterans. People who were passionately opposed to the war still remember Lt. William Calley and the My Lai Massacre with horror.
One topic related to the Vietnam War that always attracts students’ attention is that of the military draft. In discourse every now and then, students become extremely interested and ask questions such as, should women be drafted this time around? Would everyone have to serve, or would some be exempt, as they were during the Vietnam era? These are questions they may have to deal with someday, should the draft ever be reinstated.
Not everyone needs to be an expert in history. But everyone needs to be familiar with the words of Lord Byron, who said, “The past is the best prophet of the future.” If we want to avoid tragedies like Vietnam, we must not forget them.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA.