Veterans of the Vietnam War

United States - Scott #1802 (1979)
United States – Scott #1802 (1979)

On November 11, 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson issued a message to his countrymen on the first Armistice Day, which he began by saying, “A year ago today our enemies laid down their arms in accordance with an armistice which rendered them impotent to renew hostilities, and gave to the world an assured opportunity to reconstruct its shattered order and to work out in peace a new and juster set of inter national relations…” The anniversary of the end of World War I was finally made a legal holiday in 1938 and changed its name to Veterans Day in 1954. Sixty years following President Wilson’s proclamation, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to mark the veterans of the nation’s most recent, and most controversial, war up to that date — the Vietnam War. That release occurred just four years after the Fall of Saigon which marked the end of the war; a few months before, a non-profit organization had been incorporated with the aim of establishing a memorial to Vietnam veterans in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C.

The term “Vietnam veteran” has been used to describe veterans who were in the armed forces of South Vietnam, the United States armed forces, and countries allied to them, whether or not they were stationed in Vietnam during their service. However, the more common usage distinguishes between those who served “in country” and those who did not serve in Vietnam by referring to the “in country” veterans as “Vietnam veterans” and the others as “Vietnam-era veterans”. The U.S. government officially refers to all as “Vietnam-era veterans”. In the English-speaking world, the term “Vietnam veteran” is not usually used in relation to members of the communist People’s Army of Vietnam or the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front).

The Vietnam War (Chiến tranh Việt Nam in Vietnamese), also known as the Second Indochina War, and known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ) or simply the American War, was a war that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. It was the second of the Indochina Wars and was officially fought between North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese army was supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies and the South Vietnamese army was supported by the United States, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies. The war is therefore considered a Cold War-era proxy war.

The Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a South Vietnamese communist common front aided by the North, fought a guerrilla war against anti-communist forces in the region, while the People’s Army of Vietnam, also known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), engaged in more conventional warfare, at times committing large units to battle. As the war continued, the military actions of the Viet Cong decreased as the role and engagement of the NVA grew. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces relied on air superiority and overwhelming firepower to conduct search and destroy operations, involving ground forces, artillery, and airstrikes. In the course of the war, the U.S. conducted a large-scale strategic bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong were fighting to reunify Vietnam. They viewed the conflict as a colonial war and a continuation of the First Indochina War against forces from France and later on the United States. The U.S. government viewed its involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam. This was part of the domino theory of a wider containment policy, with the stated aim of stopping the spread of communism.

Beginning in 1950, American military advisors arrived in what was then French Indochina. Most of the funding for the French war effort was provided by the United States. U.S. involvement escalated in the early 1960s, with troop levels tripling in 1961 and again in 1962. U.S. involvement escalated further following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a U.S. destroyer clashed with North Vietnamese fast attack craft, which was followed by the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the U.S. president authorization to increase U.S. military presence.

Regular U.S. combat units were deployed beginning in 1965. Operations crossed international borders: bordering areas of Laos and Cambodia were heavily bombed by U.S. forces as American involvement in the war peaked in 1968, the same year that the communist side launched the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive failed in its goal of overthrowing the South Vietnamese government, but became the turning point in the war, as it persuaded a large segment of the U.S. population that its government’s claims of progress toward winning the war were illusory despite many years of massive U.S. military aid to South Vietnam.

Gradual withdrawal of U.S. ground forces began as part of “Vietnamization”, which aimed to end American involvement in the war while transferring the task of fighting the communists to the South Vietnamese themselves. Despite the Paris Peace Accord, which was signed by all parties in January 1973, the fighting continued. In the U.S. and the Western world, a large anti-Vietnam War movement developed as part of a larger counterculture. The war changed the dynamics between the Eastern and Western Blocs, and altered North–South relations.

U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation
U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation “Wahiawa”, a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, on May 16, 1966.

Direct U.S. military involvement ended on August 15, 1973. The capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975 marked the end of the war, and North and South Vietnam were reunified the following year. The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities (see Vietnam War casualties). Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000 to 3.8 million. Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–62,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.

During the course of the Vietnam War a large segment of the American population came to be opposed to U.S. involvement in South Vietnam. Public opinion steadily turned against the war following 1967 and by 1970 only a third of Americans believed that the U.S. had not made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam.

Nearly a third of the American population were strongly against the war. It is possible to specify certain groups who led the anti-war movement and the reasons why. Many young people protested because they were the ones being drafted while others were against the war because the anti-war movement grew increasingly popular among the counterculture and drug culture in American society and its music.

Some advocates within the peace movement advocated a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. One reason given for the withdrawal is that it would contribute to a lessening of tensions in the region and thus less human bloodshed. Early opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam drew its inspiration from the Geneva Conference of 1954. American support of Diệm in refusing elections was seen as thwarting the very democracy that America claimed to be supporting. John F. Kennedy, while Senator, opposed involvement in Vietnam.

A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. Photograph taken by PFC David Epstein on January 23, 1967.
A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. Photograph taken by PFC David Epstein on January 23, 1967.

High-profile opposition to the Vietnam War turned to street protests in an effort to turn U.S. political opinion. On October 15, 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium attracted millions of Americans. Riots broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention during protests against the war. After news reports of American military abuses such as the 1968 My Lai Massacre, brought new attention and support to the anti-war movement, some veterans joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The fatal shooting of four students at Kent State University in 1970 led to nationwide university protests. Anti-war protests ended with the final withdrawal of troops after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. South Vietnam was left to defend itself alone when the fighting resumed. Many South Vietnamese subsequently fled to the United States.

In the post-war era, Americans struggled to absorb the lessons of the military intervention. As General Maxwell Taylor, one of the principal architects of the war, noted, “First, we didn’t know ourselves. We thought that we were going into another Korean War, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies… And we knew less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew. So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It’s very dangerous.” President Ronald Reagan coined the term “Vietnam Syndrome” to describe the reluctance of the American public and politicians to support further international interventions after Vietnam.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a secret memo to President Gerald Ford that “in terms of military tactics, we cannot help draw the conclusion that our armed forces are not suited to this kind of war. Even the Special Forces who had been designed for it could not prevail.” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara concluded that “the achievement of a military victory by U.S. forces in Vietnam was indeed a dangerous illusion.”

More than 3 million Americans served in the Vietnam War, some 1.5 million of whom actually saw combat in Vietnam. James E. Westheider wrote that “At the height of American involvement in 1968, for example, there were 543,000 American military personnel in Vietnam, but only 80,000 were considered combat troops.” Conscription in the United States had been controlled by the president since World War II, but ended in 1973.

Anti-war protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1971, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street NW. Photograph taken by Leena A. Krohn.
Anti-war protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. on April 24, 1971, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street NW. Photograph taken by Leena A. Krohn.

By war’s end, 58,220 American soldiers had been killed, more than 150,000 had been wounded, and at least 21,000 had been permanently disabled. The average age of the U.S. troops killed in Vietnam was 23.11 years. According to Dale Kueter, “Of those killed in combat, 86.3 percent were white, 12.5 percent were black and the remainder from other races.” Approximately 830,000 Vietnam veterans suffered some degree of posttraumatic stress disorder. An estimated 125,000 Americans left for Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, and approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted.

In 1977, United States president Jimmy Carter granted a full and unconditional pardon to all Vietnam-era draft dodgers. The Vietnam War POW/MIA issue, concerning the fate of U.S. service personnel listed as missing in action, persisted for many years after the war’s conclusion. The costs of the war loom large in American popular consciousness; a 1990 poll showed that the public incorrectly believed that more Americans lost their lives in Vietnam than in World War II.

As of 2013, the U.S. government is paying Vietnam veterans and their families or survivors more than $22 billion a year in war-related claims.

As the Vietnam War continued inconclusively and became more unpopular with the American public, morale declined and disciplinary problems grew among American enlisted men and junior, non-career officers. Drug use, racial tensions, and the growing incidence of fragging — attempting to kill unpopular officers and non-commissioned officers with grenades or other weapons — created severe problems for the U.S. military and impacted its capability of undertaking combat operations.

Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America marching in an Independence Day parade in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Photograph taken by Dwight Burdette on July 4, 2011.
Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America marching in an Independence Day parade in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Photograph taken by Dwight Burdette on July 4, 2011.

By 1971, a U.S. Army colonel writing in the Armed Forces Journal declared: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous….The morale, discipline, and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” Between 1969 and 1971 the US Army recorded more than 700 attacks by troops on their own officers. Eighty-three officers were killed and almost 650 were injured.

The morale and discipline problems and resistance to conscription (the draft) were important factors leading to the creation of an all-volunteer military force by the United States and the termination of conscription. The last conscript was inducted into the army in 1973. The all-volunteer military moderated some of the coercive methods of discipline previously used to maintain order in military ranks.

According to the US Department of Labor, the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA) states, “A Vietnam era veteran is a person who

  1. served on active duty for a period of more than 180 days, any part of which occurred between August 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975, and was discharged or released with other than a dishonorable discharge.
  2. was discharged or released from active duty for a service connected disability if any part of such active duty was performed between August 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975.
  3. served on active duty for more than 180 days and served in the Republic of Vietnam between February 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975.”

In 2004, the US Census Bureau reported there were 8.2 million Vietnam veterans who were still in the country, 2.59 million of them being reported to have served “in country.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes veterans that served in the country, then known as the Republic of Vietnam, from February 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975, as being eligible for such programs as the department’s Readjustment Counseling Services program, also known as the Vet Centers. The Vietnam War was the last American war with conscription.

In January 1978, a small group of Vietnam veteran activists came to Washington, D.C., searching for allies to support the creation of an advocacy organization devoted exclusively to the needs of Vietnam veterans. By the summer of 1979, this Council of Vietnam Veterans had transformed into Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), a veterans service organization made up of, and devoted to, Vietnam veterans. Bobby Muller and Stuart F. Feldman were among the organization’s co-founders.

On April 27, 1979, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Inc. (VVMF), was incorporated as a non-profit organization to establish a memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War. Much of the impetus behind the formation of the fund came from a wounded Vietnam veteran, Jan Scruggs, who was inspired by the film The Deer Hunter, with support from fellow Vietnam veterans such as retired Navy chaplain Arnold Resnicoff. Eventually, $8.4 million was raised by private donations.

A year later, a site near the Lincoln Memorial was chosen and authorized by Congress on the site of a demolished World War I Munitions Building. Congress announced that the winner of a design competition would design the park. By the end of the year 2,573 registered for the design competition with a prize of $20,000. On March 30, 1981, 1,421 designs were submitted. The designs were displayed at an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base for the selection committee, in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet (3,300 m2) of floor space. Each entry was identified by number only, to preserve the anonymity of their authors. All entries were examined by each juror; the entries were narrowed down to 232, then 39. Finally, the jury selected entry number 1026, designed by Maya Lin.

Membership in the VVA grew steadily, and for the first time, the organization secured significant contributions. The combination of the public’s willingness to talk about the Vietnam War and the basic issues that it raised, as well as the veterans themselves coming forward, was augmented by the nation’s dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in November 1982. The week-long activities rekindled a sense of brotherhood among the veterans and a feeling that they shared an experience that was too significant to ignore.

A visitor touching a name on The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Photographed on January 26, 2005.
A visitor touching a name on The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Photographed on January 26, 2005.

The 2-acre (8,000 m²) Vietnam Veterans Memorial site consists of several major elements. The Memorial Wall is made up of two 246-foot-9-inch (75.21 m) long gabbro walls, etched with the names of the servicemen being honored in panels of horizontal rows with regular typeface and spacing. The walls are sunken into the ground, with the earth behind them. At the highest tip (the apex where they meet), they are 10.1 feet (3.1 m) high, and they taper to a height of 8 inches (200 mm) at their extremities. Symbolically, this is described as a “wound that is closed and healing”.

When a visitor looks upon the wall, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names, which is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together. One wall points toward the Washington Monument, the other in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, meeting at an angle of 125° 12′. Each wall has 72 panels, 70 listing names (numbered 1E through 70E and 70W through 1W) and two very small blank panels at the extremities. There is a pathway along the base of the Wall where visitors may walk.

The wall originally listed 58,191 names when it was completed in 1983; as of May 2017, there are now 58,318 names, including eight women. Approximately 1,200 of these are listed as missing (MIAs, POWs, and others). The names are inscribed in Optima typeface. Information about rank, unit, and decorations is not given. Those who died in action are denoted by a diamond, those who were missing (MIAs, POWs, and others) are denoted with a cross. When the death of one who was previously missing is confirmed, a diamond is superimposed over the cross. If the missing were to return alive, which has never occurred to date, the cross is to be circumscribed by a circle.

The names are listed in chronological order, starting at the apex on panel 1E in 1959 (although it was later discovered that the first casualties were military advisers who were killed by artillery fire in 1957), moving day by day to the end of the eastern wall at panel 70E, which ended on May 25, 1968, starting again at panel 70W at the end of the western wall which completes the list for May 25, 1968, and returning to the apex at panel 1W in 1975.

Names of Vietnam veterans at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photograph taken by Hu Totya on September 18, 2006.
Names of Vietnam veterans at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photograph taken by Hu Totya on September 18, 2006.

According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, “there is no definitive answer to exactly how many, but there could be as many as 38 names of personnel who survived, but through clerical errors, were added to the list of fatalities provided by the Department of Defense.”

Directories containing all of the names are located on nearby podiums at both ends of the monument where visitors may locate specific names.

Visitors to the Wall will take a piece of paper and place it over a name on the wall and rub wax crayon or graphite pencil over it as a memento of their loved ones. This is called “rubbing”.

Visitors to the memorial began leaving sentimental items at the memorial at its opening. One story claims that this practice began during construction, when a Vietnam veteran threw the Purple Heart his brother received posthumously into the concrete of the memorial’s foundation. Several thousand items are left at the memorial each year. The largest item left at the memorial was a sliding glass storm door with a full-size replica “tiger cage”. The door was painted with a scene in Vietnam and the names of U.S. POWs and MIAs from the conflict. Other items left include a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the license plate HERO, a plain brown teddy bear which was dressed by other unconnected visitors, a 6′ abstract sculpture titled “After the Holocaust”, and an experimental W. R. Case “jungle survival knife” of which only 144 were made.

A short distance away from the wall is another Vietnam memorial, a bronze statue named The Three Servicemen (sometimes called The Three Soldiers). The statue depicts three soldiers, purposefully identifiable as European American, African American, and Hispanic American. In their final arrangement, the statue and the Wall appear to interact with each other, with the soldiers looking on in solemn tribute at the names of their fallen comrades. The distance between the two allows them to interact while minimizing the effect of the addition on Lin’s design.

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial is a memorial dedicated to the women of the United States who served in the Vietnam War, most of whom were nurses. It serves as a reminder of the importance of women in the conflict. It depicts three uniformed women with a wounded soldier. It is part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and is located on National Mall in Washington, D.C., a short distance south of The Wall, north of the Reflecting Pool.

A memorial plaque, authorized by Pub.L. 106–214, was dedicated on November 10, 2004, at the northeast corner of the plaza surrounding the Three Soldiers statue to honor veterans who died after the war as a direct result of injuries suffered in Vietnam, but who fall outside Department of Defense guidelines. The plaque is a carved block of black granite, 3 by 2 feet (0.91 by 0.61 m), inscribed “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”

Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, founder of The Vietnam War In Memory Memorial Plaque Project, worked for years and struggled against opposition to have the In Memory Memorial Plaque completed. The organization was disbanded, but their web site is maintained by the Vietnam War Project at Texas Tech University.

Today, Vietnam Veterans of America has a national membership of approximately 75,000, with over 500 chapters throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam. VVA state councils coordinate the activities of local chapters. VVA places great emphasis on coordinating its national activities and programs with the work of its local chapters and state councils and is organized to ensure that victories gained at the national level are implemented locally.

Scott #1802, the 15-cent Vietnam Veterans regular stamp was first placed on sale at Arlington, Virginia, on November 11, 1979. The stamp was designed by Stevan Dohanos, printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the photogravure processm with 172,740,000 copies of the stamp issued in sheets of fifty, perforated 11. 

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