Vietnam: Past Flaws, Present Relevance

A Look at the American Withdrawal from the Vietnam War

A SENSE OF MYSTERY 

As a double major in history and Christian studies at Bluefield College, Sam Kimzey has spent much of his college career uncovering the United States’ past. During his junior year, Sam took a course entitled “History of the 20th-Century United States” and found himself drawn again and again to a topic in U.S. history often fraught with controversy: the Vietnam War. 

“I was attracted to the topic of the Vietnam War, because there seemed to be this sense of mystery or confusion around it,” Sam explains. “Unlike other major American wars like World War I or World War II, there is comparatively little attention given to the Vietnam War. It seems almost like a war that many people would like to forget.” 

Sam also took a personal interest in understanding the confusion around the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as his own grandfather fought in the war in the 1970s. The summer following the course in 20th-century U.S. history, Sam continued his own study of the Vietnam War through reading Larry Berman’s book, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. The conclusions that Berman makes in his book about the removal of U.S. troops from the war and the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement formed the foundation for Sam’s own scholarly work. 

Going into his last year at Bluefield College and faced with the decision of what topic to pursue for his history senior seminar course, Sam decided to pursue further research on the Vietnam War and Paris Peace Agreement.

A FATAL FLAW

Sam started his research by diving deeply into both primary and secondary sources on the Paris Peace Agreement signed in 1973. 

“Primary sources were pretty easy to find, given that this was less than 50 years ago,” Sam explains. “Most of these primary sources were written within my parents’ lifetime.” 

He even examined scholarly articles on the Vietnam War that were published as contemporary sources with the events of the Paris Peace Agreement, as well as memoirs written by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and their surrounding administration. 

And as he continued to read and research, Sam became increasingly convinced that while many scholars focus on the involvement of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, it is equally important to question our nation’s withdrawal from the war. 

“The war began when the communist nation of North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam, which was not communist. The final peace agreement the United States orchestrated allowed the North Vietnamese troops to basically remain in place in South Vietnam,” Sam says. “It kind of shocked me to learn that in a mutual peace treaty, the United States unilaterally withdrew, but the North Vietnamese weren’t even required to withdraw their forces from South Vietnam.” 

After the U.S. withdrew troops, North Vietnam eventually invaded and conquered South Vietnam, unifying the nation under the communist government. As Sam began to study the treaty more closely, he became more and more sure of the disservice this treaty presented to both North and South Vietnamese soldiers and the lives lost from U.S. troops.

“Even if they didn’t intend for it to happen, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger essentially allowed a peace treaty to be orchestrated that put into place all the problems in Vietnam that would come,” Sam says. He noted the overlaps of Richard Nixon’s Watergate Scandal to the withdrawal from the Vietnam War, along with mounting popular pressure for the U.S. to remove their troops from Vietnam. 

Sam acknowledges the complexities of the Vietnam War and their effect on the U.S. withdrawal. He also points out that the negative opinions on the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War are born from confusion or lack of support regarding the motive for the war.

“World War II was a sort of penultimate for wars in which America was involved,” he says. “Most people understand why we fought in World War II and most people are proud that America was involved. Even if they criticize things like the internment of Japanese Americans or the use of the atomic bomb, they don’t really criticize the motivation for the war overall.” 

Sam notes that with the Vietnam War the common opinion is totally different. The scholarship on the topic is varied, and conflicting opinions raise questions such as:  Who was responsible for what happened? Was it ultimately a winnable war? Was the United States justified in being there in the first place?

“I think we’ve sort of perhaps misinterpreted the Vietnam War,” he says. “Perhaps the flaw of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not that we became involved in the first place, but rather the way we exited. I think America’s guilt was that in beginning a war to protect a free people from communism, it handed over a free government into communism to save face.” 

“I argue that maybe the peace treaty didn’t fall apart, but that the peace treaty itself was flawed,” Sam says. He notes that the “peace and honor” that was spoken of around the U.S. departure from the Vietnam War was neither peaceable or honorable, as it gave way to many more lives lost in its wake. “I don’t think the treaty honored the sacrifices of all the American soldiers who had lost their lives or of all the Vietnamese people that died during the war.”

HISTORY IS HUMAN

Despite his conclusions that America’s departure from the Vietnam War was mishandled, Sam’s goal in his research was not to cast a light of condemnation on our historical predecessors, but rather to learn from the mistakes they’ve made and consider the implications of the past on our present.

“The past is our story. It’s who we have become. Who we are today is a result of who has gone before us,” Sam says. “These kinds of things tend to repeat themselves. The Vietnam War was a showcase of how difficult it can be when we become involved in a war in another country. The questions around that sort of war are ongoing. They’re not going away. If anything, they’re becoming more relevant because of the increasing interconnectedness of the world we live in today.” 

Sam also notes that when we take into account that people from the past were humans, just like us, it gives us a lens of compassion with which to view their failures and a sense of clarity to see how we can avoid similar mistakes in our current day and time.

“I’m not defending in any way, shape, or form the flaws of the past,” Sam adds. “But I am suggesting that history is human, so we have far more in common with those who went before us than we realized. Future generations will look at us with some praise and some criticism because history is a mixed bag. It’s not usually ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’ It’s the story of humans, who are flawed, who can be capable of great things and also very capable of evil things.”

After reflecting on the Vietnam War and the missteps made by leaders then, Sam acknowledges that the complexity of any decision on a global scale presents a host of opinions, challenges, and controversies in knowing how to best handle it. He hopes that his project provides the takeaways for readers to reexamine their own interpretation of the Vietnam War, as well as their own actions in today’s society.

 “As humans, we’re doing our best to learn from history, so that we can hopefully grow towards making good decisions,” Sam says. “The understanding that history is more complicated than we tend to make it gives us a sense of compassion for those who went before us, and it gives us the wisdom to learn from their actions rather than just moralize them from our own perspective.”

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Having earned his Bachelor’s degree from Bluefield College in history and Christian studies, with a minor in music, Sam will be starting as a teacher in the fall, teaching fifth and eighth grade humanities in his hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia.