Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part I of an eight-part series.

The canal at My Lai, into which the victims were thrown – March 1968.

In most ways I was too young for Vietnam. I got my draft number, at age 19, several months after January 1973, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger—to use a Nixonian phrase—“bugged out” of the South. In theory, American advisors and air power were to remain in place and keep the South in the independent, non-Communist game. That was the wishful thinking of a tough-talking, if by then delusional president.

Soon enough, the president himself was the “pitiful, helpless giant,” mired in Watergate and off to San Clemente (despite his mother having been a saint). When the end came for South Vietnam in April 1975, all the United States could do was fly its dependents and a few collaborators off the rooftops of Saigon, ending a war that for the Americans dated to 1965, if not the mid-1950s.

By then, I was a junior in college, and for me Vietnam was a montage of fleeting images formed over a childhood of flipping through Life magazine and watching the evening news on television. In high school and college I took courses on American foreign policy and went to “teach-ins” about the wars in Indochina, but at best…

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