Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Two Memorials, One War

When I was in Washington, DC last month I had the chance to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall for the first time. I had never been to any of the war memorials in DC and was able to pass through on a cool and rainy morning with a friend. I had taken a course on the Vietnam War specifically in addition to other studies in American history, and I distinctly remembered pieces from this book on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Kristin Ann Hass’ book is about the quest to create the Memorial as well as the effects the Memorial has had on how Americans memorialize the dead. The whole book is well worth a read, but as we walked through the trees and the Wall came into view, I kept going back to the first chapter, which details the uphill battle that organizers faced in getting the Memorial actually built.

Today, almost thirty years after the memorial came into being, the monument seems to strike deep chord with most. I have relatively little connection to the casualties in Vietnam, compared to most – and yet I felt an emotional pull when I looked at the names on the granite. The memorial seems to stand as a stark reminder of the tragedy of war, etched into the ground on the National Mall. I can’t speak for others, but I feel like quite a few people experience the same feeling. But it wasn’t always that way.

When Maya Lin’s design was first approved (unanimously) by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund jury, it was seen as some as out of touch. The VVMF had required all submissions to “(1) be reflective and contemplative in character; (2) harmonize with its surroundings; (3) contain the names of those who had died in the conflict or who were still missing; and (4) make no political statement about the war.” Lin’s design fit the bill, but it was definitely abstract compared to other memorials. According to Hass, many thought the design was “too abstract, too intellectual.” In other words, it belonged to the upper class – the class that was immune to drafts and war. Many thought that there was a lack of ownership for veterans and that the somber emotions it invoked paid lip service to the anti-war movement.

While there was also support both from the press, the jury, and all of the major veterans groups, the Memorial faced opposition among many in Washington. In the end, Secretary of the Interior James Watt refused to allow the plans to move forwards unless the VVMF also approved The Three Fightingmen sculpture. The leaders of the push for the memorial had no choice but to acquiesce. The three bronze men now stand a hundred feet away, facing the Wall. Walking across the grounds, I felt like the men and the Wall were worlds apart: one was a traditional sculpture of nameless soldiers cast in bronze, gazing across the grounds; the other was an emotional and imposing wall that drew you in, discreetly bringing you face to face with 58,000 stories. The Vietnam War is definitely a conflict with many faces and many perspectives. I think the memorials on the National Mall are a testament to that. The two monuments stand as a reminder to how divisive the Vietnam War was – even its memory was difficult to create.

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The Battle of the Tables in Vietnam

The Vietnam War’s history is a long one, rife with casualties and misunderstanding. One particular aspect of the war is emblematic of just how poorly leadership – from all countries – treated the war. This is the so-called “battle of the tables” which I first encountered in George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War. This skirmish of desks took place in the waning weeks of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, as he scrambled to end the war.

By 1968, Johnson was pretty beat up about the Vietnam War. While he may have passed huge legislative changes with the Great Society, he’s arguably better known for his role in escalating the Vietnam War and then being virtually destroyed by it. 1968 was a pretty rough year for the guy – after the Tet Offensive crippled public support for the war and George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy did the same to the Democratic Party’s solidarity, Johnson had already announced that he would not seek a second term in order to seek peace in Vietnam when this battle began.

Against this backdrop, Johnson was eager to end the war that he had overseen for five years. To reach peace, though, he would first have to reach out to his allies in the Republic of Vietnam, who were not quite as willing to have the Americans leaving their corner of the world. After being rebuffed by South Vietnam, Johnson unilaterally ordered a bombing halt on October 31 as an olive branch to the North. He delayed the opening of the peace talks by a couple of weeks in order to try one last time to get South Vietnam on board. With the opening of the peace talks in mid-November, the battle of the tables began.

At the outset of the negotiations, the U.S. proposed two long tables with the two sides facing each other. North Vietnam refused to recognize South Vietnam’s legitimacy since the Geneva Accord elections had been indefinitely delayed, therefore the country’s existence was in violation. North Vietnam also demanded that America acknowledge that the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army were separate and proposed a square table to represent the four-sided nature of the Vietnam War.

This is how I imagine Nixon whenever he gets what he wants.

U.S. Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman proposed a round table for everyone. The North acquiesced – but the South did not. South Vietnam did not want to be seen with equal power as the NLF, which it refused to recognize as anything but saboteurs sent from the North. But what is probably more important is the South’s uneasy relationship with Johnson, who had been pressing for peace. Secretly, President-elect Richard Nixon’s staff had reached out to South Vietnam, hinting that a better peace might be possible with Nixon if they could only delay negotiations. After all, Nixon had campaigned on having a secret plan to end the war, and he desperately wanted to be remembered for what would become a list of foreign policy achievements (and secret expansions of war). Nonetheless, with conventional ideas like round tables and square tables being shot down, Herring referred to the debacle thus:

Instead of drafting cables at night, the U.S. delegation sketched table designs, the two sides proposing at various times such inventive geometric creations as a broken parallelogram, four arcs of a circle, a flattened ellipse, and two semi-circles that touched but did not form a circle.

And so, after weeks of duking it out over seating arrangements, the verdict – brokered by the Soviet Union – was a round table for the two Vietnamese governments and nearby square tables for the other actors involved. The negotiations could finally begin. The problem was, they began in the last days of Johnson’s administration, and so they never really began. Nixon’s plan had won out, and the South had been able to cling to war instead of peace in hopes of a better go-around with Nixon. Ultimately, of course, this would not work. Apparently, Nixon’s secret plan for ending the war in Vietnam was to continue it while simultaneously taking it to Cambodia as well. The Vietnam War would hobble forwards for several more years.

The peace talks under Johnson probably would not have made many gains regardless of the game of musical chairs, but it’s worth noting that the war raged on while diplomats played with seating arrangements and South Vietnam played chicken with US Presidents. With this in mind, I decided to look further into how many casualties America suffered while negotiators sketched random shapes in Parisian hotel rooms. I cracked open the search feature at The Wall-USA and used their database to see how many servicemen lost their lives between the ending of the bombing in North Vietnam. While diplomats sketched out tables, 1598 soldiers and marines were lost to the Vietnam War. While the peace talks never had the best shot at ending the war right then, these weeks of potential were lost to the seating chart while 1598 lost their lives.

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