Lessons Learned at the Vietnam Summit: Day 3

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By the close of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit on Thursday, more than 1,000 veterans, scholars, and guests had sifted through the war’s long and traumatic history. The three-day event welcomed political figures like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saw a couple of peaceful protests, and attendees even sang together during performances by iconic ’60s folk artists. It was a week full of lessons learned, reconciliation, and hope for moving forward.

Vietnam is not a syndrome,” former Nebraska Governor and veteran Bob Kerrey said during the closing panel. “It’s a fact. It happened and it’s unpleasant to look at what happened because often times it tends to conflict with the mythology of ourselves we’ve developed. But good, brave, cowardly—it’s a story we need to face.”

Below are some highlights from the third day. (Highlights from day two are here.)

26093211864_917bf11f29_kThere was no regulation on daily life for the troops. “It depended on what happened on the field,” Liz Allen, a retired U.S. Army nurse, said. “How many body bags did you get? How many helicopters came in? And living was hell.” Allen was one of four veterans who spoke about the gruesome and traumatic conditions they experienced in Vietnam. They said that some days, troops would run out of ammunition, blood transfusions, and water, and had no idea when to expect more. Each of them can remember trying to drag injured soldiers to safety, the feeling of a friend dying in their arms, and doing whatever they could to stay alive each night.

“There were no front lines,” veteran John Sibley Butler, a UT management professor, said. “I thought everything was a front line.”

Many veterans feel resentment toward the anti-war movement. While troops were fighting overseas, anti-war activists were waging their own battle back home. The era was full of sit-ins, marches, and protests that often criticized not only the U.S. government but the nation’s troops.  And when President Carter offered amnesty to draft dodgers in 1977 in an effort to move past the war, the decision was not lost on those who served.

“When you’ve got 30 guys with bellies open, guts broken, eyes blinded, I didn’t want to hear about that mess,” Allen said.” I really did have something to do besides walk around and talk about what y’all weren’t going to do.”

26098780293_833ee99dc4_kAmerican pop and folk music became agents for social and political statements. During 1969’s Woodstock, folk singer and Navy veteran Country Joe McDonald stood on stage and sang “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” which became a national Vietnam War anthem. The song, which McDonald sang to the summit’s audience, is a sarcastic remark, criticizing America for sending off its young men and women into battle. McDonald’s song was one of many that those abroad and at home found solidarity in, including “Leaving On a Jet Plane” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Peter, Paul and Mary.

“Our country is not always right,” Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary said. “We honored the troops, prayed for the troops, loved the troops. But we opposed the war. You have to understand how deeply these songs permeated the culture. That was the real heart and soul of our conscience being expressed.”26094246083_a479bc0297_k

U.S. relations with Vietnam have come a long way. But they’re still not perfect. President Bill Clinton established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, lifting America’s trade embargo against the country. Now, a little more than 20 years later, President Obama will visit Vietnam this month to discuss the nation’s policies on human rights. Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh spoke at the summit about furthering the two nations’ political relations in the future—though a protest outside the LBJ Library by Texas residents from South Vietnam who think Vinh doesn’t accurately represent their perspective took place simultaneously.

“Twenty years ago, few people could imagine how Vietnam and the U.S. could overcome the pain of the war,” Vinh said. “But now when you hear the word ‘Vietnam’ it is no longer a conflict but a country.”

26637092091_cb4c0d9a2e_kThe U.S. is still learning from the Vietnam War, especially its military. Retired admiral and UT Chancellor William McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, began his military career two years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He said the war has left a profound mark on the U.S. military’s strategies and decisions.

All of my instructors were Vietnam veterans,” he said. “The Vietnam generation continued to train and mentor those of us who were new. From a military standpoint, tactically, operationally, and strategically, everything that kind of shaped the way I grew up for the next 20 years was the result of Vietnam.”

Photos from top:

The audience at the LBJ Presidential Library stands and sings along as folk singer Peter Yarrow performs “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

Liz Allen, a former Army nurse, discusses the daily reality of serving on the front lines in Vietnam.

Singer/songwriter Country Joe McDonald, a Navy veteran, performs “Superbird” and “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.”

Members of the Vietnamese Community of Houston and Vicinities gather outside the LBJ Presidential Library.

William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System and former Commander of United States Special Operations Command, speaks at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit.

Photos by LBJ Library.

 

 

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