Being on the debate team at Virginia Military Institute during the 1970-71 school year was not easy. It was during this period of time that the collegiate protests against the Vietnam War were at their height. I will never forget the angry stares and outbursts when we participated, in our VMI uniforms, in debate tournaments on various college campuses on the East Coast. I never responded to any of these verbal assaults because by that time — my junior year at VMI — I myself had turned against the war.
The Vietnam War tore this nation apart like few wars in American history. Those who supported the war claimed that it was being fought to prevent communist aggression. Those who resisted the war contended that it constituted an illegitimate interference with the affairs of foreign nations.
Those who supported the war were accused of being warmongers. Those who resisted the war were accused of being unpatriotic.
Twenty-five years later, the wounds still have not healed.
Who were the patriots and who were the traitors? After many years of reflection, I have finally concluded that the American people who supported the war, and the American people who resisted the war, were the patriots. So who were the traitors? The traitors were the American politicians and bureaucrats who waged the war.
It is important to dispel one myth at the outset: that American soldiers died in Vietnam for freedom.
We should remember that the person who involved us so deeply in this war was Lyndon B. Johnson, a close protege of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, as Robert Caro documents so well in his recent book, Ascent to Power, just another politician who lied and cheated his way to public office.
Of course, it was FDR who, through the New Deal, had violated all of the principles of economic freedom on which America was founded. Following in this tradition thirty years later, LBJ destroyed any semblance of economic liberty left in the United States. With Medicare, Medicaid, public housing, model cities, food stamps, subsidies, and all of the other programs of the “Great Society,” Johnson did everything he could to entangle the American people permanently in FDR’s welfare-state version of socialism.
Now, was the way of life in South Vietnam going to be any different in the event of an American victory? Would Johnson and his fellow politicians and bureaucrats have permitted the South Vietnamese to have the freedom which our American ancestors enjoyed — a way of life with no graduated income tax, no coercive redistribution of wealth, and no regulation of economic activity? Of course not. If the American politicians and bureaucrats would not permit freedom for the American people, how can we expect that they would have allowed it for the South Vietnamese?
Now, it is true that if one is to be enslaved, it is perhaps preferable that the master be an American rather than a Soviet, and democratically elected rather than self-anointed. But is this an ideal worth dying for, especially in a foreign war?
Advocates of freedom and limited government believe that one of the purposes of government is to protect the citizenry from aggression, both foreign and domestic. But we also believe that political interference in the affairs of other nations is illegitimate. .
In what category does the Vietnam War fail? I personally believe in the latter category. I view the conflict as an internal one arising out of the artificial division of Vietnam in 1954. I consider American armed intervention in that conflict as wrongful foreign interference, especially since North Vietnam, by any stretch of the imagination, had no capacity to attack the U.S.
But I can certainly sympathize with those who believe that the war fell in the category of legitimate self-defense. After an, the communists had openly declared their intention of world take-over. They had publicly proclaimed that each victory brought them closer to ultimate conquest of the U.S. Must a nation wait until a self-avowed enemy has crossed its borders? I don’t believe so. Sometimes a preemptive strike against an enemy which is preparing to attack is the best military strategy.
Where is the line drawn then between legitimate self-defense and wrongful foreign interference? I don’t know (although I am personally convinced that it should not have been drawn thousands of miles away in Vietnam). And I am not sure that such a line can be drawn. It seems that ultimately people must place their trust in their commander-in-chief to make this determination. But he has the solemn duty never to violate the trust placed in him when making this determination.
The American Constitution provides a safeguard: the requirement of a Congressional declaration of war. The Founding Fathers had good reason for this restriction on the war-making power of the Executive. History had shown the propensity of rulers to engage in war for its own sake.
With Vietnam, the American politicians and bureaucrats chose to disregard this Constitutional limitation on their power and sent 50,000 men to their deaths without a Congressional declaration of war. No matter how honorable their intentions, no matter how well-motivated, the politicians and bureaucrats had no right to break the Constitutional restriction which controlled their conduct regarding war. Johnson had learned valuable lessons from his mentor FDR not only with respect to domestic policies but in foreign affairs as well. He had learned that in order to arouse public opinion in favor of fighting a foreign war, it is sometimes necessary to manipulate events to ensure that the nation is attacked by the foreign enemy. Unlike FDR, however, Johnson simply fabricated an attack on the U.S., persuaded Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and fraudulently used this resolution to justify expansion of the war without a formal declaration. How can such conduct be anything but treasonous?
And let us assume that the war was a legitimate preemptive strike against communist aggression. Then, having committed the American people to war, the politicians and bureaucrats had a solemn duty to bring it to a successful conclusion as soon as possible. In war, there is no substitute for victory at the earliest possible time. One does not play politics with the lives of the citizenry. But that is exactly what the American politicians and bureaucrats did. Embarking on a political policy of gradual escalation of war, the ultimate result was total defeat, the meaningless loss of 50,000 American men, and the maiming of thousands more. How can such conduct be anything but treasonous?
What about American protestors? How can they be considered patriotic? In a free society, it is always the right and duty of the citizen to protest what he honestly considers to be the wrongful conduct of his government. Now, it is true that in war, there is a fine line between legitimate protest and treason. I personally consider as traitors those Americans who protested in North Vietnam; but I believe that those who protested here were exercising their rights and duties as American citizens. I again do not know where this line is drawn.
In a democratic system, one of the safeguards against government tyranny is the right of the people to speak out. And it is the solemn and sworn duty of government officials to protect the exercise of this right even when it creates discomfort for the politicians and bureaucrats. Yet, the politicians and bureaucrats during the Vietnam era chose to violate the oath they had taken to defend the Constitution and instead engaged in surreptitious and illegal campaigns to destroy the lives of those who were protesting. While they were preaching that American men were dying in Vietnam for freedom, the politicians and bureaucrats were doing everything they could to destroy the lives of those who were exercising freedom. How can such conduct be anything but treasonous?
Oddly enough, after the American troop withdrawal, not one American politician or bureaucrat resigned his position with the U.S. government to travel to Vietnam and donate his services to the South Vietnamese army. Were not American security and freedom still at stake? These aims were sufficiently important for the politicians and bureaucrats to send 50,000 American citizens to their deaths. But after the American troop withdrawal, when American security and freedom ostensibly needed them most, the politicians and bureaucrats did not consider these aims sufficiently important for which to sacrifice their own lives. How can such conduct be anything but treasonous?
The final chapter of the Vietnam War is still being written and is one of the most tragic of all. Each year thousands of Vietnamese “boat” people escape the tyranny of communist control. Yet, the American government will not permit them to set foot onto American shores. Why were these people important enough to justify the deaths of 50,000 American men but not sufficiently important to permit them to reside in the United States?
Those American citizens who fought the war … who trusted their political rulers . . . who conscientiously supported the war in order to stop communist aggression … were, in my opinion, patriots. Those who conscientiously opposed the war … including those of us who spent “the best years of our lives” at military academies preparing ourselves to defend our fellow Americans in war … who believed that the American government had no business in a war three thousand miles away … were also, in my opinion, patriots.
But the politicians and the bureaucrats who waged the war. . . who breached the trust placed in them by the American people … who sent 50,000 men to their deaths with no hope of victory … who violated the law, and broke their solemn oaths, whenever they found it convenient to do so … who refused to give their own lives for the aims that had justified the deaths of 50,000 of their fellow Americans … all for a welfare-state version of socialism which is totally contrary to the original principles of American freedom … these are the people who will, and should, ultimately go down as among the greatest traitors in history.