The war we lost

Touching "The Wall" (source: Wikipedia)
Touching “The Wall” (source: Wikipedia)

You can find his name on the Wall in Washington D.C. at row West 47 – Micky Ray Highlander.

He was one of my students back when I taught high school English in Dayton, Kentucky. That was in the 1960s. Micky played one of the Gilbreth children in the senior play I directed, “Cheaper by the Dozen.” His antics stole the show.

Tuesday’s late evening special, “The Last Days of Vietnam,” brought Micky to mind. For me, it was an extraordinary examination of a time most Americans probably prefer to forget.

In one scene we see thousands of Vietnamese streaming down a main thoroughfare in Saigon, ahead of advancing North Vietnamese troops. In another scene we watch thousands more beg to get entry to the fenced-in yard at the American embassy.

Back in the United States, we watch President Nixon on television explaining the peace treaty with North Vietnam. Yes, the Paris talks produced just such an agreement. Yes, the North soon violated the treaty.

The narrator called the evacuation makeshift. That’s putting it mildly. It looked utterly chaotic in the film footage. Apparently, U.S. intelligence officers weren’t able to persuade Ambassador Graham Martin of the imminent collapse of South Vietnam.

Martin was one of those hard-liner, anti-Communist foreign service officers. From him, we learn, his refusal to accept U.S. defeat was personal. He had lost his son to combat in Vietnam.

North Vietnamese troops showed no mercy to their countrymen who had worked for the Americans in the South. Taken prisoner or shot, some of the uncounted victims of this war.

But then, there was My Lai, the massacre of men, women and children civilians. That was directed by U.S. Lt. William Calley, whose eventual punishment was a period of house arrest, as I recall.

Amid the unfolding fall of South Vietnam, President Nixon was impeached and Gerald Ford became president. It fell to President Ford to “save as many Vietnamese as possible.” This would have been April, 1975.

What a scene that became as people scrambled aboard Chinook helicopters that had landed on the roof of the U.S. embassy, then climbed rope ladders to board waiting American ships.

The PBS account had special meaning to me. No, I didn’t serve in the military. By the time Saigon fell I was writing editorials for The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. For years, I had spoken out against the war. When the end came, you might say I wrote the obituary of Vietnam.

Then, years later, my wife Toni and I joined a tour group visiting Southeast Asia. That meant stops in Vietnam. We visited a museum that portrayed scenes from the war. One wall showed the scores of bodies in the ditch where Lt. Calley’s men had killed so many innocents.

Our Hanoi hotel wasn’t far from a park where the grass surrounded a small lake. Early in the day you’d see elderly Vietnamese practicing their exercises. Nearby, swans floated peacefully in the water.

Later in the day, traffic picked up, mostly motor scooters. One I noted carried a fat goose on the back. No American bombs. No busy recruiting stations. No lines of people waiting for rationed food at the marketplace.

The PBS account estimated that about 130,000 South Vietnamese escaped and were resettled in the United States. No visas or passports required. It was the least we could do.

Then 55,000 American servicemen never made it home alive. You can read their names on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington. As I said, my student Micky’s name is there, W47, in case you want to see.

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