This story originally appeared in the Oct. 26, 2017 edition of the Penn Current Express.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 after 20 years of fighting and more than 55,000 Americans and between 3 and 4 million Vietnamese dead.
North Vietnamese tactics, management, and resilience were able to overcome the super-powerful tools and instruments of war of the United States, which was weakened by ineffectual leaders, poor policy and planning, and social unrest at home. The war split the country along partisan and ideological lines, a divide that still remains.
Americans of a certain age do not like to think about the long, lost war, and the reasons for the country’s defeat. The War in Vietnam remains tucked, generally, in the deepest recesses of the national consciousness, reemerging now and then like a repressed memory, brought back for cultural or historical reasons, like Ken Burns’ recent 10-part, 18-hour documentary “The Vietnam War.”
“I think we Americans are very deeply troubled by it because it exposed defects in our character, and also defects in our competence,” says Arthur Waldron, the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History in the School of Arts & Sciences. “We like to think of ourselves as always being good, and I think that in the abstract, we were on the right side, which was to stop communism. But the way that we did this was so totally incompetent that it led to just a ghastly tragedy.
“It’s quite understandable that we sort of pretend that this never happened, but it was tremendously formative,” Waldron adds. “The country that we live in today is post-Vietnam America.”
An Asia expert who was previously a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, Waldron teaches the seminar “The Vietnam War: Issues and Interpretations” and the lecture course “The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1979.” On account of new knowledge and research from a diverse group of scholars, such as the book “Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam” by Penn alumna Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Waldron says the general understanding of the war in the United States is changing.
“In 1975, everybody in America thought the same thing—and most of them haven’t looked at it since, so they still think the same thing,” he says. “But, in fact, there have been some people studying the war, so now the whole picture has changed. As a result, the whole story is going to change, and it’s being changed by facts, not by opinions.”
Penn Today sat down with Waldron at Perry World House to discuss undergraduate students’ knowledge of the Vietnam War, mistakes made by the U.S. leadership, the failures of President John F. Kennedy, and the effects of the war on the Vietnam generation.