Now that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have told the Vietnam story from their viewpoint, I’d like to add my two bits.
I thought the PBS series was very well done, particularly the taped quotes of the Presidents and others in charge of the war. I had been aware of it before, but it was extremely distressing to hear the cynicism pouring from the mouths of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Their war decisions were based on politics, not upon honesty. They were willing to dump South Vietnam like a hot rock without letting that country know what they were up to.
I certainly didn’t disagree with the withdrawal of American troops, but we should have clearly advised the South Vietnamese that we would not provide combat air support to repel a future North Vietnamese attack. Indeed, Nixon told them we would have their back. It is hard to tell how many South Vietnamese soldiers, interpreters, and others who worked with American forces lost their lives or spent years in brutal “re-education camps” because they trusted us and believed Nixon’s words. I believe some of my friends were among them. Had we been honest, many of those people might have chosen to leave the country and we should have offered them safe harbor in America.
When the communist forces were moving on Saigon in April of 1975, U.S. intelligence knew the country was on the verge of falling and urged that we organize an evacuation of those who had helped us and were in danger of retribution. We did not act until it was too late and then we were slow to open our doors to the many thousands of South Vietnamese who risked their lives in flimsy boats, seeking refuge in America. It was a sad chapter in our history.
Now, there are about 50,000 Iraqis who stuck their necks out by helping U.S. forces in the Iraq war and who are awaiting entrance into our country as refugees. They rightfully believed we would provide them protection from retribution for helping us. Many Afghans are in the same boat, although they still have the benefit of a special visa program. We destabilized the Middle East with our unnecessary invasion of Iraq, contributing to the massive refugee crisis, but seem to think we have no responsibility to give comfort to the refugees we helped to create.
The President has now capped refugee admissions to 45,000 for the coming year, the lowest level in decades. This is a massive evasion of responsibility. We were a major cause of the refugee problem but are unwilling to make a meaningful effort to solve it. So much for owning up to our moral responsibility. Both Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, have recently stated that a larger refugee ceiling is in America’s national security interests and they are absolutely right.
These things do not happen in a vacuum. Our unwillingness to shoulder our responsibility plays out in front of the world community. Governmental leaders of many nations, including our close allies, see how the U.S. either meets or shirks its moral duties. If we are not willing to own up to what we are honor-bound to do, which countries are going to be inclined to help America when we may need them? America needs to be a country that owns up to its responsibilities, that honors its commitments, and that acts as a moral beacon to the world. We can’t be great if we are not good.