Lessons Learned at the Vietnam War Summit: Day 1

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During the May 22, 1971, opening dedication of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, 2,100 anti-Vietnam War activists were held back by police as they chanted “no more war,” banging trash can lids together. When President Johnson took his turn at the podium, undoubtedly hearing the protesters, he said, “It is all here: the story of our time with the bark off. This library will show the facts, not just the joy and triumphs, but the sorrow and failures, too.”  

As the first-ever Vietnam War Summit takes place on the library’s grounds this week, Johnson’s intent remains true. For three days, the library will host 13 panels, more than 60 speakers, and over 1,000 veterans and guests as they look back at the war. Kicking off the summit on Tuesday was LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove, who said the event aims to take a substantive, unvarnished look at the war.

“Our goal is to shed new light on its lessons and legacy, and it is also our intent to recognize the courage and sacrifice of the men and women who served in Vietnam,” he said.

Below are a few highlights from the first day.

A1889-11Events leading up to the Vietnam War began long before the first battle. UT historian H.W. Brands said there were two post-World War II movements that collided and led to American involvement in Vietnam. The first was anti-colonialism and second was the emerging Cold War. America had a history of supporting anti-colonial nationalist movements and once WWII ended, the Vietnamese nationalists expected to have U.S. support. But as the Cold War presented itself, American presidents felt the need to distance the U.S. from communism as much as possible.

“If either of these movements had been in existence alone, then American involvement would not have occurred—or it would have occurred differently,” Brands said.

Each president inherited growing tensions surrounding the war. Under Truman, the U.S. officially took the position that it would support the anti-communist movement in Vietnam. Then Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, and though he was tempted to get more involved in the war, he was a military man who understood what military forces could and could not accomplish. By the time John F. Kennedy took office, North Vietnamese forces were growing, and he felt pressured by the American military to send in more forces or risk losing Vietnam.

“The premises on which the U.S. initially sided with anti-communist forces in Vietnam were an artifact of the 1940s, when it was not outlandish to believe a victory of communism anywhere was a threat to democracy everywhere,” Brands said. “By the 1960s, that was coming into question. But because Truman, Eisenhower, then Kennedy had laid down this marker, the presidents who followed felt obliged to live up to that promise.”

It was difficult to make a case that Vietnam was intrinsically important to American security. But if the U.S. pulled out of the war or failed to defend South Vietnam, what would that look like to other nations? Brands and Tom Johnson, LBJ’s former executive assistant, agreed that ending the war seemed like a political impossibility for President Johnson.

“That clearly is the way President Johnson saw it and that’s the way that those he trusted the most in Congress felt,” Tom Johnson said. “I should emphasize that as this situation escalated, Johnson wanted peace as much as any of the protesters. He was a person looking to do what was right.”

Ia Drang changed the game. On Nov. 14, 1965, the U.S. engaged in the first major battle with the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang Valley. It was what moderator Joe Galloway, former combat journalist and Bronze Star recipient, called “the first battle, the worst battle, the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War.”

It was Thanksgiving Day back home when most Americans read headlines about the battle. During his introduction for the panel, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund President Jim Knotts said it was a turning point, with single-week casualty numbers exceeding those of the worst weeks of the Korean War. The veterans onstage remembered the endless firing, their many wounds, and having to kill to stay alive.

“We knew what we were doing. I don’t want it to sound like we didn’t,” said panelist Bruce P. Crandall, a medal of honor recipient. “But we also knew that we had to do what we were doing, otherwise the infantry would not have survived. And they were ours to make sure they survived.”

The veterans on the panel were all of the opinion that the military should not bring back the draft. “We should never have a draft again,” Galloway said. “You gain nothing by having one. There is no equity.”

Returning from war was far from easy. For Vietnam veterans, facing their physical and psychological traumas was a seemingly impossible task met by hostile sentiments from many people back home.

Jan Scruggs, founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and Grace Liem Galloway, a former Vietnam medic, discussed their experiences returning from war with moderator and TIME journalist Joe Klein.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 22 veterans commit suicide per day. Not only were soldiers returning with major physical wounds, but many also suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of that, anti-war activists and the general population sometimes shamed soldiers for their actions abroad.

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“You hate the war, not the warrior,” Galloway said. “[The soldiers] didn’t start the damn war.”

Veterans suffering from PTSD should get involved with their communities. Both Scruggs and Galloway said that volunteering can help veterans heal. As for what the American public owes its veterans, Galloway said the best way to honor them is to listen.

“Listen to them,” she said. “Maybe they don’t want to talk. But let them be with you.”

Scruggs, who also founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., said that PTSD affects everyone differently.

“I know people with PTSD who have private jets and run corporations and do just fine in their lives,” he said. “Other people are sort of destroyed by it. Everybody can get PTSD and there’s nothing wrong or abnormal about getting it—it’s a pretty normal response to being subjected to violence … I encourage people that have these sorts of problems to be gregarious and get involved, because we cannot just be little hermits living in the desert.”

Photos from top:

President Johnson visits soldiers at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam in 1966.

From left, Sec. Orville Freeman (partially seen), Sec. Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Sec. Robert McNamara, and Sec. John Gardner at the Honolulu Conference on the Vietnam War on Feb. 2, 1966.

U.S. soldiers take photos of President Johnson during his visit to Cam Ranh Bay on Oct. 26, 1966.

LBJ Library photos by Yoichi Okamoto.

 

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