by Kathy Warnes
On April 30. 2012, Vietnam and the United States will mark the 37th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. The fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975, signified the official end of the Vietnam War and the end of the United States campaign against communism in Southeast Asia. About 58,000 Americans and over three million Vietnamese died in the War. In the last decade, foreign investment and trade have escalated Vietnam’s growth and in recent years, the United States has become one Vietnam’s main trading partners.
On July 4, 1968, Philip Tank from the small town of Ecorse, Michigan, began his Vietnam tour of duty as a private first class of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 1st Infantry Division of the Army. His division was involved in the Tet Offensive of 1968, Operation Quyet Thang – Resolve to Win and Operation Toan Thang – Certain Victory in South Vietnam.
South Vietnam. Americans of a certain age remember the vocabulary of the Vietnam War including words like the domino theory, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Agent Orange, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, peace with honor, Vietnamization, and the Tet Offensive. Americans remember soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War against the Communists in North Vietnam.
North Vietnam. Vietnamese of a certain age remember the vocabulary of what they call the American War including words like the National Liberation Front, Unification Day, People’s Council, Revolutionary Soldiers, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Cong, and the Tet Offensive. Vietnamese remember soldiers who fought in the American War.
Legacies of the American War
Decades after the reunification of Vietnam, its citizens are still dealing with the aftermath of the American War that reunited it. The lives of Vietnamese refugees eloquently testify to the tragedy of life in Vietnam under the North Vietnamese and the problems of refugees settling in new countries and new cultures.
In the spring of 1975, the United States government airlifted 125,000 people, the majority of them highly educated and highly skilled, out of Vietnam. Most of them arrived at refugee centers in America to a lukewarm welcome. Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, allowing Vietnamese refugees to enter America under special status.
From 1978 to the mid 1980s, a second wave of South Vietnamese people arrived, including former military officers and government employees who had escaped or were released from Communist “re-education camps.” About two million people escaped Vietnam in small, dangerous, crowded boats. These “boat people” generally ranked socioeconomically lower than the first waves of refugees and they too, were admitted to the United States under the refugee Act of 1980.Between 1981 and 2000, the United States accepted 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees and people seeking asylum. This people movement meant disruption in Vietnam and in the United States as well as individual lives.
People who stayed in Vietnam also faced many obstacles. Environmental problems like unexploded artillery shells are still terrifyingly present in Vietnam. The story of the explosion in a school playing field at the Nguyen Hue junior high school in the central province of Quang Tri is symbolic. No one was injured when the artillery shell exploded in a school playing field, shattering windows and terrifying hundreds of students. Apparently the buried shell detonated when workers burned a tree stump to clear space in the school yard.
Unexploded ordnance and mines have killed more than 42,000 people and wounded approximately 62,000 people since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. The United States military estimated that more than 15 million tons of bombs, mines, artillery shells, and other munitions were used during the Vietnam War.
The effects of chemical warfare are still playing out in Vietnam forty years after the Paris Peace Accords. A Chicago Tribune story spotlighted Dao Thi Kieu who tended rice paddies as a 16 year old teenager during the Vietnam War and watched American planes spraying Agent Orange and other defoliants as she worked. ‘It smelled like ripe guava. No trees could survive. It made my clothes wet,” she said. Spraying mission data show that at least seven sorties sprayed nearly 13,000 gallons of defoliants over Keiu’s fields.
Now 58 years old, Dao Thi Keus’ life has been shaped by heartbreaking figures. She had eight children. Seven of them were born with severe deformities and five of them died before they reached age eight. Her husband served in the United States backed South Vietnamese Army and he died of cancer related to herbicide exposure.
Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese and American scientists are still studying and debating the link between the herbicides and Agent Orange and birth defects in Vietnam.
Legacies of the Vietnam War
American reactions to pulling out of the Vietnam War didn’t transform into massive recriminations and a massive wave of McCarthy style anti-Communism. Instead for years it seemed that a majority of Americans just wanted to forget the country’s longest and most devastating war. Interest in the Vietnam War revived in the 1980s when Hollywood and Vietnam veterans produced numerous films and books about the war. Political scientist, diplomat, and historian George R. Kennan described the Vietnam War as “the most disastrous of all America’s undertakings over the whole two hundred years of its history.”
The economic, political, and personal legacies of the Vietnam War are still being felt in the United States. Many historians believe that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to simultaneously finance the Great Society and a major war without supporting taxation produced the double digit inflation and federal debt that eroded the United States economy and the American standard of living from the late 1960s to the 1990s. The Vietnam War cost the United States an estimated $167 billion.
The political cost that the United States paid for the Vietnam War was just as high. The war eroded the faith of many Americans in their government and leaders and produced generations of cynicism and suspicion toward authority. After the Vietnam War, many Americans did not respect or trust public institutions. For years Americans scorned the American military, which gradually did rebound into a respected organization.
American Foreign Policy Changes
American foreign policy drastically changed because of the Vietnam War. Democrats and Republicans were no longer unified in supporting American foreign policy. In 1973, the Democratic majority in Congress passed the 1973 War Powers Resolution that prohibited the president from sending United States troops into combat for over 90 days before congressional consent.
Congress began to emphasize the limits of American power and became very wary of becoming mired in another decades long foreign war. America and its Congress turned more isolationist than interventionist. In the 25 years after Vietnam, American foreign policy stressed using military force only as a last resort, only where there was strong public support, and only when a quick, inexpensive victory seemed possible.
The Personal Cost of Vietnam
Americans paid a heavy personal price for Vietnam. During and immediately after the war, veterans were not given welcome home parades. Many were spit at and called “baby killers.” Almost nothing was done to help veterans and their families readjust to civilian life. Many of the films and television programs and books portrayed Vietnam War veterans as psychotic killers, executioners, and drug addicts when the majority of them were brave soldiers caught up in a divisive war.
Many Vietnam veterans are still fighting a war of sorts against the Veteran’s Administration and their own bodies as they struggle to cope with diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses related to defoliants like Agent Orange used in the war.
The United States government has been tardy in recognizing the connections between Vietnam veterans and the diseases they contracted during the War. Even when they suffer from the problems directly linked of Agent Orange, veterans often have to wait for years for their disability claims to travel through the Veteran’s Administration system. Help often comes too late for some Vietnam Veterans. According to data from the VA, 58 percent of the 490,135 Vietnam veterans who died from 2000 to 2007 were younger than 60.
Healing and Remembering
Today more people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which was dedicated in 1982, than any other site in Washington D.C. A moving Vietnam War Memorial tours the country and there are virtual memorials on the Internet. Every soldier whose name is on the Vietnam Memorial Wall has a hometown and a story. Vietnam veteran Jerry Brabant of Roscommon, Michigan, remembered his friend Philip Tank from Ecorse, Michigan. He and Phil Tank worked together summers at Great Lakes Steel, a steel plant in Ecorse. One day Jerry went to the Thunder Bowl Recreation Center to play pool and found Phil there also playing pool. Phil told Jerry that he was in the Army and headed to Vietnam. Jerry told Phil to take care. Phil told Jerry that he was going to be killed in Vietnam.
Born on November 27, 1947, Philip Leonard Tank grew up in Ecorse and graduated from St. Francis Xavier High School in June 1965. He attended Northern Michigan University at Marquette before joining the Army in January 1968.
On July 4, 1968, Philip Tank began his Vietnam tour of duty as a private first class of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 1st Infantry Division of the Army. On September 12, 1968, Philip was killed in Binh Long Province South Vietnam, by gun or small arms fire. His body was shipped home and on September 26, 1968, a funeral Mass was sung at St. Francis Xavier Church, and he was buried at Michigan Memorial Park, Flat Rock, with full military honors.
Philip’s friend Jerry said, “I have never forgotten that chance meeting. The following year I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I think of Phil often and on occasion in the past have left flowers, a can of Pabst and a couple of Kools at the memorial in Ecorse.”
Once again Jerry Brabant has returned from Vietnam. This time instead of fighting in a war, he participated in the Habitat for Humanity and the Vietnam Veterans of America building houses in the delta project. The project’s goal is to provide veteran and military families housing solutions and volunteer and employment opportunities. The two week building project included veterans and their families.
Christopher Ptomey, director of federal relations for Habitat for Humanity International said that “Habitat for Humanity International is honored to partner with American veterans to build homes with the residents of Tien Giang, Vietnam… “
Carol Welles participated in the Vietnam Project and kept a journal of her experiences that she called “Good Morning Vietnam!” In her journal she notes that there are distortions in memory and perception from both sides of the war, but the rebuilding project has served to bring people together and heal wounds.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans building houses in Vietnam to mark the 37th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War are reminders that too many people on both sides died. Words like glory, patriotism, and moral certainty are overshadowed by the stark black granite reflecting panels where the names of soldiers with unfinished lives are etched. Words like moral war are overshadowed by countless other lives and contributions to humanity forever lost.