Vietnam’s Quiet Anniversary

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tags: Vietnam War



Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, is the author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court” and is a partner at West Wing Writers.

In 1971, Lieutenant John Kerry, speaking on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, posed his now famous question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do we ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Decades later, we might offer a corollary: How do we commemorate a mistake?

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on February 7, 1965, three hundred Vietcong guerrillas launched a raid on a U.S. Army installation and helicopter base near Pleiku, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam—killing eight Americans, injuring a hundred and twenty-six more, and damaging or destroying twenty-five aircraft. It was that assault—even more than the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August, 1964—that drew the U.S. into active, intensifying combat in Vietnam, making Pleiku “one of the most momentous events of the Sixties,” according to the historian James T. Patterson.

Pleiku’s half-century mark, however, will pass without much note. So, too, will the anniversaries that will follow in short succession, each one a step in the rapid escalation of the war in 1965: March 2nd, the start of the sweeping air campaign, Rolling Thunder, that would last more than three years and drop more tons of bombs on North Vietnam than the U.S. had dropped across the entire Pacific theatre during the Second World War; March 8th, the landing of thirty-five hundred Marines—the first U.S. ground forces in Vietnam—on the shores of Danang; in late July, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dispatch of fifty thousand more troops, and his open-ended, if not openly acknowledged, commitment to send many more in the years to come.

In May, 2012, President Obama kicked off what he described as “a thirteen-year program”—ending in 2025, fifty years after the U.S. exit from Vietnam—“to honor and give thanks” to the American “heroes” who served in that war. “That,” he said in an address at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, “is what this fiftieth anniversary is all about. It’s another opportunity to say to our Vietnam veterans what we should have been saying from the beginning: You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud.” Last fall, Lieutenant General Claude M. Kicklighter, who is directing the Vietnam 50th Anniversary Commemoration, the Pentagon program behind this effort, said that “we will begin to recruit the nation to get behind this effort in a very big way” on Memorial Day of 2015. If so, the Commemoration is keeping its plans classified. Its Twitter account has issued just one tweet since November. And though its Web site has tabs for air shows, sporting events, dances, and wreath layings, there is nothing on its calendar but scattered local events—certainly nothing to suggest a national campaign....




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