Yes, this is the third part to a series I’ve been considering for some weeks. No, I do not intend to continue this series ad nauseam. However, I do believe it is critical for us to have a basic understanding of how we arrived at this point in our nation’s history.
Last week we finished with President Nixon attempting to withdraw American troops from Vietnam honorably. This may have actually worked had the president not been embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Our combat forces left Nam in January of 1973. We maintained a presence there in hopes that the South Vietnamese might miraculously put a stop to the aggression of the North Vietnamese who now saw the South as being ripe for the taking. In 1975 we saw the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy. In the months that followed countless Vietnamese loyal to the South and who had supported our American forces were rounded up and sent to repatriation camps, a euphemism for concentration camps if ever there was one! We will never know the number of people who vanished, or died at the hands of their countrymen from the North in these camps. During this time there was a rash of communist brutality sweeping across Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The Khmer Rouge, a vicious communist government in Cambodia under their leader Pol Pot, is responsible for killing anywhere from one and a half million to three million people during their reign of terror. The area outside of the capital, Phnom Penh, became known as the “Killing Fields.” One of their mottos was: "To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."
During this same time in the 1970s, millions of Vietnamese were attempting to leave their country in hopes of having some sort of future anywhere else but Vietnam. One Navy chaplain I know was a young priest in Vietnam when Saigon fell to the communists. His brother-in-law offered to help him escape. He was closed up in a wooden crate, placed on a cargo ship bound for the Philippines, and eventually was released from his wooden prison before starving to death. He was one of the first of what became known as the “Boat People.” Once again, the number of people who were lost attempting to escape is unknown. (This was not our first experience with boat people. Before the United States entered World War Two, boatloads of Jews from Germany came to America’s shores only to be turned away. Instead of the new start they had hoped for, they had no choice but to return to Germany where most of them would eventually be taken to the Nazi death camps.) In any event, thousands of Southeast Asian boat people wound up coming to America. Many of them settled in the Central Valley of California. I was pastor of my first church in the early 1980s and witnessed a huge increase in the number of people who settled in Fresno. My superintendent asked me if I would work with these folks. I was honored to do so. Having served in Vietnam as a Marine I felt we owed these folks a debt. After our inglorious exit from Vietnam I was somewhat mystified that they were still willing to come to the United States.
Also in the 1970s there was a “cleansing” of sorts taking place in Communist China, with a focus on anyone who is educated or is a professional (doctor, lawyer, minister, etc) within society. Even if you wore glasses you were regarded as being educated. Their logic went something like this: “Why do you need glasses unless you are reading?” This is, and continues to be, a threat to non-democratic nations. Communists typically deal with non-communist countrymen by killing them. At the very least they are imprisoned for the remainder of their lives, or forced to work in labor camps which is equal to a slow death.
The bottom line is: America should have finished what she started. We had the means, but we lost the will. We’ve heard about the atrocities perpetrated on helpless people groups throughout Indochina after we left. Sadly, this is a dark chapter in our history. People who were counting on us to stand by them during the difficult times were left to face ruthless tyranny. Countless lives were lost in the process, not the least of which was the more than fifty-eight thousand U.S. troops killed during our ten years in Vietnam.
It is my belief that our nation has yet to get past our failures in Vietnam. This is the specter that is raised every time we even think about engaging in warfare. The mantra is quickly and frequently intoned, “We don’t want another Vietnam!”
So with Iraq, are we in another Vietnam? Yes & no. But that will have to wait for next week.