We continue our series on veterans’ memorials in Suwannee County.
After Korea, the next major conflict was Vietnam, America’s longest war until the current War on Terror.
Somewhat like Korea, Vietnam’s background is long and tumultuous. Ruled by a succession of local kings interspersed with the rulers of neighboring countries (such as China), Vietnam was eventually taken over by France as part of French Indochina in the Nineteenth Century. When much of France was captured by Germany in 1940 during the Second World War, French Indochina fell under the oversight of the Vichy French government, which had been set up by the Germans to oversee parts of France and its colonial empire.
During World War II, Japan gradually took over French Indochina. Various groups of Vietnamese forces loosely united together and called themselves the Viet Minh; they were supported by the United States during the war since they fought the Japanese. However, the end of the war in September 1945 saw a power vacuum as Japan lost and withdrew its occupying forces, and the Viet Minh declared their independence. A liberated France was determined to regain its colonial possession. The two groups fought the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954, when the French were defeated and left. The loose coalition of Vietnamese groups fell apart over politics, and Vietnam, like Korea, was divided in two, with a communist North Vietnam and democratic (but corrupt and unstable) South Vietnam.
American participation began gradually, first by supporting the French with military equipment and advisors during the First Indochina War (and funding 80 percent of France’s cost for the war), and later doing the same with the South Vietnamese government after the defeat of the French. President John F. Kennedy and the controversial Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, in which American ships were attacked by North Vietnamese naval units, escalated American involvement in the region. The Congressional resolution that followed allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson broad powers to increase American military presence and deploy ground troops to assist not only South Vietnam (who were dealing with an insurrection by the local communist organization called the Viet Cong or National Liberation Front), but also neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The main reasoning behind the escalation of American forces and equipment was to stop the so-called “Domino Effect” of democratic countries falling one after another to communism. However, American forces were restricted due to a desire to keep the Soviet Union and China from a full-fledged war. These “rules of engagement,” as they are called, nullified much of the material superiority the United States had over North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.
Fought during a time of major social and civil changes in the United States, the Vietnam conflict became very controversial. The large-scale implementation of the draft to provide sufficient numbers of men for the war only exasperated the problem, especially with the perception that the poor, uneducated and minorities were unfairly targeted due to various exemptions. The belief by many that the war was unjust led to protests, riots and dodging of the draft. Public deceptions by the government only increased the anti-war movement.
In 1969, due to rising public dissent against the Vietnam conflict, President Richard Nixon began instituting a program called Vietnamization, in which American troops were gradually withdrawn from most of the fighting and replaced by South Vietnamese forces. Peace overtures were extended, without much success. By 1972, the last major U.S. offenses took place, with massive bombing of North Vietnamese targets and mining of major harbors. North Vietnam returned to the peace table, and in January 1973, direct United States involvement ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. The United States would withdraw all forces within two months and a ceasefire was created between North and South Vietnam. Prisoners-of-war would also be exchanged. The Vietnamese ceasefire barely lasted after the March 1973 withdrawal of the last of the American military forces, and by 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to North Vietnamese attacks. The entire area was united as the communist-controlled country of Vietnam.
By and large, the United States military was not greeted with the same acceptance and pride that had been shown in previous conflicts. The early-war support for the military had been replaced by many civilians looking down upon the veterans who in most cases had simply been doing their jobs. Long-lasting repercussions were felt throughout the United States as it related to attitudes, post-traumatic stress disorders, drugs and government faith. Even books and movies shifted to a negative portrayal of the conflict. I long ago noticed the differences in the pro-war John Wayne movie Green Berets (1968) and the later anti-war film Apocalypse Now (1979), among others.
The determination of fates for Americans listed as Missing-In-Action (MIA) in the Vietnam Conflict would take much longer; even today, there are groups who work battle and crash sites to sift through decades of soil and foliage to find the remains of those who perished. One such MIA was Suwannee County native Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Thomas T. Hart III, whose AC-130A gunship was shot down over Laos in 1972. Hart’s wife Anne, their six children, and Suwannee County residents wrote to congressmen, the president and foreign officials trying to determine what happened to him. Bracelets with Hart’s name were passed out to the locals, seeking to hear of his fate. In 1985, Hart’s remains were finally discovered and identified along with 12 other airmen who had not survived the crash of their aircraft. Hart was one of several Suwannee County citizens who did not return alive from Vietnam.
Like the Korean Conflict, I know of no memorials for Vietnam other than generic veterans’ memorials at Veterans’ Park, the American Legion and gravesites. The Suwannee County Historical Museum also has a display dedicated to Charley Ford, Suwannee County’s first African-American to become a military pilot and recipient of two Silver Stars for his service in Vietnam. He died during combat training exercises at Fort Benning.
Next week we’ll finish up veterans’ history.
Eric Musgrove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 386-362-0564.