Monday, January 28, 2013

Remembering Vietnam

Dak To, South Vietnam. An infantry patrol moves up to
assault the last Viet Cong position after an attempted
overrun of the artillery position by the Viet Cong during
Operation Hawthorne. June 7, 1966. National Archives.
Although my passion is WWII and the "Old West," I'm still pretty much all over the map and the timeline of American History. (The "Roving Historian" is not just a physical thing, eh?) I took note of a couple of interesting news items concerning the Vietnam War this morning.  Several "this day in history" type newsletters and websites informed me that the Paris Peace Accords, the cease fire agreement that effectively ended the Vietnam War officially for the United States, was signed forty years ago yesterday, January 27, 1973. The reality was that combat for American soldiers would go on a little while longer. The other piece of news was from the New York Times. They reported that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Stanley Karnow, a chronicler of the Vietnam War, passed away on the same day.

Vietnam: A member of the 5th Infantry Division
(Mechanized) looks out over the fog-shrouded
A Shau Valley, 1969. National Archives.
It is difficult for me to accept an exact date for the beginning of the Vietnam War as it pertains to the United States perspective. We had military advisers in South Vietnam as early as 1950 (one of them was my uncle, a veteran of both Korea and the early years of Vietnam). According to the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readustment Assistance Act of 1974, a Vietnam Veteran is, with a few prerequisites, anyone who served in Vietnam from February 28, 1961 through May 7, 1975.

I know what you're thinking, the dates don't match do they? Well, despite the signing of the Paris Peace Accords by all the parties involved, fighting in Vietnam continued, but formal combat operations were brought to a close by August of that year, 1973. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) captured Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital in April 1975, marking the actual end of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2004 that there are 8.2 million "Vietnam Era Veterans" in the United States, 2.59 million of those served "in country." There were 58,282 Americans known to be killed in the Vietnam War and over 300,000 wounded. As many as 779 spent time as a Prisoner of War (POW), 660 of those were either freed or escaped. As many as 1,655 Americans are still unaccounted for and remain listed as "Missing in Action" or MIA.

Duc Pho, Vietnam: Members of the 25th
Infantry Division drink from their canteens
during a break in their patrol operations.
August 31, 1967. National Archives.
Stanley Karnow was a correspondent in Southeast Asia for thirty years. He wrote for publications like the Time, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Washington Post, and NBC News. After leaving journalism, he wrote history books. I, in my humble opinion, think his 1983 book, "Vietnam: A History," was the definitive work on the conflict. I enjoyed it because there was no subtext or bias, just factual reporting in a readable voice. Others must have agreed, because the book was the basis for the 13-hour PBS documentary series "Vietnam: A Television History" for the American Experience program. The book was a bestseller but the television series was even more popular, winning six Emmy Awards, a Peabody, a Polk, and a DuPont Columbia Award. Karnow went on to publish other works on subjects pertaining to Vietnam and other facets of American Foreign Policy. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1989 book "In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines." Mr. Karnow died Sunday at the age of 87.

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