During 13 years as a Journalism Professor and Dean at the University of Illinois, I was often asked by students in the class I taught on International Reporting when the war in Vietnam began.
It was a question that I frequently contemplated during my career as the Chicago Tribune’s Far Eastern Correspondent before entering academia.
The problem, as I discovered during my time as a correspondent in Vietnam, is that there are many different answers.
One could argue that it officially began May 30, 1962 when the first Vietnam Service Ribbon was issued.
Or you might argue that it was November 1, 1955 when the Pentagon created the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) Vietnam to reflect its new direct combat advisory role with the South Vietnamese Army. The U.S. essentially took over the advisory role from the French, who were leaving Vietnam after their defeat at Diem Bien Phu in 1954. Indeed, the Department of Defense views this date as the earliest qualifying date for inclusion on the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.
Or you might say that it began on March 1959 when North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh declared a People’s War to unite all of Vietnam under his leadership. As far as the communists are concerned this is when “Vietnam War” against the U.S. officially began.
Then again, some might argue that the war began on August 7, 1964, when, in response to the incidents involving U.S. naval vessels U.S.S. Maddox and the U.S.S. Turner Joy, Congress overwhelmingly passed the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,”allowing the President “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to prevent further attacks against U.S. forces. While there was never a declaration of war some view this as the “official” start of the war.
Finally, we have March 8, 1965, when 3,500 Marines land unopposed at China Beach to defend the American air base at Da Nang. They are the first U.S. combat troops to arrive in Vietnam. This event is considered by many to be the beginning of the war even though the Marines join 23,000 American military advisers already in Vietnam and American military advisers have been in Vietnam since 1955.
It appears that the White House and Pentagon have decided that May 30, 1962–the date of the first Vietnam Service Ribbon–is the “official” date the war began.
“This month, we’ll begin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, a time when, to our shame, our veterans did not always receive the respect and the thanks they deserved — a mistake that must never be repeated,” President Obama said last week.
Following five years of planning, things will kick off with a Memorial Day gathering of the President and others at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. involvement in the 10-year-long Vietnam war. This curtain raiser is supposed to launch a series of national events co-sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the National Park Service and the Department of Defense.
However, many Vietnam veterans and their advocates worry that plans are sputtering.
They say few events are planned and crucial corporate sponsorship is nonexistent. Most veterans have not even heard about the effort.
Indeed, to many Vietnam veterans it’s a replay of what happened when they returned home from Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. Few received the kind of welcome and recognition that troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq receive today. Instead many were treated with indifference and even scorn.
There is little direction and no real champions in the Pentagon or White House.
However, the Pentagon insists it will partner with State and local governments, private organizations, and communities across America to launch the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War—a 13-year-long program, it says, “to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced and pay tribute to the more than 3 million men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor.”
There seems to be a genuine desire to “get it right” this time–given the fact that the nation didn’t do that four and five decades ago.
But getting it right means raising money, and some Pentagon officials say that has been a major stumbling block. The commemoration office has received limited funds to organize, and officials have not designed a mechanism for corporations to contribute.
Nevertheless, the events and activities scheduled for this 13-year-long commemoration will:
· Thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War, including personnel who were held as prisoners of war or listed as missing in action, for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans.
· Highlight the service of the armed forces during the Vietnam War and the contributions of federal agencies and governmental and non-governmental organizations that served with, or in support of, the armed forces.
· Pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front by the people of the United States during the Vietnam War.
· Highlight the advances in technology, science, and medicine related to the military research conducted during the Vietnam War.
· Recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by the allies of the United States during the Vietnam War.
It all sounds great. But just as decades ago when people eager for an end of the war in Vietnam talked about seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, one hopes that through these planned events and activities those who served with little or no recognition will finally see that elusive light and find their way home.