America’s failure in Vietnam resonates in chaotic world

U.S. Marines of the 7th Fleet's special landing team, the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, crouch on a dirt trail with a 3.5 inch rocket launcher about one mile (2000 meters) south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) as they respond to sniper fire during Operation Prairie against the North Vietnamese 324B Division, September 1966. (AP Photo/Horst Faas)

There were nights on the river, away from the villages and towns, when the stars seemed close enough to touch. In a Swift Boat or a PBR, engines idling, drifting with the current, it was easy to forget the war and the enemy who might be waiting for you at the next bend of the river.

Sometimes your reverie was broken by the rumble and flash of distant artillery — or was it simply thunder and lightning? Sometimes a helicopter gunship appeared from out of nowhere to lash a village or the environs of a village with twin tongues of fire. At other times it was the sudden chatter of automatic weapons or the whoosh of a rocket that ended the dreaming.

And then you wondered: What the hell were you doing there? What the hell was the Navy doing there?

It’s been 40 years and 10 days since a North Vietnamese Army tank broke through an ornamental iron gate in central Saigon and led celebrating NVA troops to the very doorsteps of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace.

This marked the formal end of what was then America’s longest war, a war that took the lives of some 58,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Critics of the war, and I have been one of them, say that Vietnam was a war we should never have gotten into.

Where I differ with many, though, is my firm belief that once we were in there was only one honorable way to get out, and that was by achieving victory, a victory that could have been ours at a price far less than what we paid by suffering a humiliating defeat.

The ramifications of that defeat are with us still, in the bloody chaos we see in the Middle East and elsewhere in a world painfully lacking the leadership and calming presence America once provided.

In 1969, fresh from graduate school, I was given a unique opportunity to study and document the U.S. Navy’s history in Vietnam. I reported directly to then Vice Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., Commander, Naval Forces Vietnam (ComNavForV). I had blanket orders to travel anywhere in South Vietnam, by air, water, or by land. In pursuance of my orders I spent time on virtually every type of ship and boat in NavForV and in the fledgling Vietnamese Navy. I visited nearly all our bases, big and small. After each field trip (I took two to four a month) I made both verbal and written reports to the admiral.

Some of these, particularly the ones dealing with “Vietnamization,” he found shocking. I did not make many friends with senior members of his staff who, I suspected, were mostly telling the admiral what they thought he wanted to hear.

Over his signature, I wrote to senior officers who previously had served in Vietnam, asking that they provide personal assessments concerning what went right and what went wrong during their watch. I collected scattered end of tour reports that all naval officers serving in Vietnam once were required to write before leaving the country. (These, perhaps because they were so overwhelmingly pessimistic, were discontinued prior to my arrival.)

Until Tet 1968 changed everything, the U.S. Navy’s mission was to stop, so far as possible, infiltration by water of men and material into South Vietnam from the communist North. It was to reclaim, in concert with ground forces, territory and population lost to the Viet Cong. It was to win “hearts and minds.”

After Tet 1968, it was to turn over all our bases, all our boats, all our weapons and equipment, and get the hell out as fast as possible.

The Navy part of this Adm. Zumwalt called ACTOV — Accelerated Turnover to the Vietnamese. The diligence with which he pursued this earned him promotion to full admiral and assignment as Chief of Naval Operations when he left Vietnam, a few months before I did.

At a reception following his change of command ceremony in Saigon, he shook my hand and leaned over to whisper: “Well, Dick, it looks like I’m not going to be here to see how this all turns out, am I?”

“No sir,” I said. “It looks like you won’t.”

For the millions of Americans who served in Vietnam, scenes and written accounts of the last days of the war, the rooftop evacuations by helicopter, the swarms of small boats filled with terrified escapees in coastal waters near the mouth of the Saigon River — these things are seared in memory.

In early 1989 I made the first of my four return trips to Vietnam. I revisited many of the places I was familiar with from the war. The land was greener than the land I had left many years before. The people were surprisingly welcoming to Americans. I was in Saigon on the eve of Tet 1989. All over the city there were signs, in English, wishing people “Happy New Year.” Christmas trees were still up in hotels and restaurants. Firecrackers were being set off in the streets of the city. When I first heard them, I thought: My God, haven’t these people heard enough of that? The firecrackers sounded exactly like the rattle of small-arms fire.

At midnight all hell broke loose. Ships in the river began sounding their sirens, red and green pop flares arched across the sky. The longest and loudest explosion of firecrackers I had ever heard tore through the city. It went on and on, for a half hour or so, and then, as if on signal, it ended.

The next morning, Miss Quan, the assistant guide for the little group of tourists I had joined (all American visitors had to be part of a tour then), was in the hotel lobby. Her eyes were shining. “Last night,” she exclaimed, “we set a new record. We set off more firecrackers than ever before. Vietnam a very rich country now!”

I walked out to the street for a final look around before leaving for the airport. A pretty Amerasian teenager walked by. She was wearing a T-shirt on which was emblazoned, “Made in America.”

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. A retired naval officer, he is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. He is the author of “From the Rivers to the Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam” published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 1992.