There’s little doubt that each of our nation’s 2.7 million Vietnam veterans will remember where he or she was on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese troops rolled into Saigon.
We were the children of the Greatest Generation. We had left the lights on for self-determination in South Vietnam more than two years earlier in January 1973 when our combat troops were pulled out in compliance with the Paris Peace Accords.
Although our country had won the war against communist aggression and promised aid to the South, we stood by when the North invaded. The freedom for which we sacrificed more than 58,000 lives and countless treasure was lost. The Vietnamese who had supported us were executed or hauled off to re-education camps.
I could only imagine the grief felt by the families and friends of the fallen, including several friends and my sister’s fiancé, who was killed at Da Nang in 1972.
Had we done the same in South Korea, that entire nation would be under the rule of a dictator who routinely starves his citizens to support his Stalinist regime while exporting nuclear technology to nations hostile to us.
Although the most visible conflict of the time, Vietnam was only one player on the stage of the worldwide competition between totalitarianism and democracy.
The former Soviet Union and China, though not always allies, held themselves up as the future of mankind. Communism was supposed to raise man to his highest level of cooperation and production, with the state as his god. In 1991, the USSR, unable to compete economically, politically and militarily with the West, collapsed.
Reduced to its simplest polar opposites, the conflict over the Vietnam War could be characterized in chants of “Give peace a chance,” and the Domino Theory.
The first noted that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their independence since before World War II against a number of colonial powers, including the Japanese and the French. We were only the latest and should quit the field.
The Domino Theory posited that communism’s stated goal was to pull one nation after another into the socialist orbit. The USSR controlled large portions of Europe in satellite states it occupied during World War II and had tried to extend its nuclear presence into Cuba in 1962.
Communist forces were moving throughout Southeast Asia in wars of “liberation.” Of course, the revolution’s goal was always to install a one-party system that permitted no competition.
Cambodia fell to the communist Khmer Rouge in April 1975, as the Vietnamese communists completed their chokehold on Saigon. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot methodically exterminated two million of his countrymen, a full 20 percent of the population, to weed out intellectuals and professionals who might pose a threat to absolute rule. People were forced from cities and towns into the countryside to remake society. Men, women and children who weren’t shot outright died of forced labor and starvation.
A decade earlier, China’s Mao Tse-Tung had unleashed a Cultural Revolution on his people that targeted intellectuals and others who challenged his grip on power. Millions died to preserve one man’s power and ego.
The history of that era is still being written by political scientists. It was a time of intense competition between political systems based on dictatorship and individual freedom.
While people may disagree about the implications of Vietnam, those who answered the nation’s call to serve during that tumultuous era did so admirably and are increasingly recognized for their role in a conflict we entered a half-century ago. It’s said there are nearly 10 times as many people who claim to be Vietnam veterans as who actually served.
Vietnam veterans know the price of freedom. We applaud our current veterans and their families who are fighting for the same principles against today’s political and religious dictators.
EDITOR’S NOTE: David Skocik, of Dover, is public affairs officer of the Delaware Council of Vietnam Veterans of America.