Spring 2013 International Lecture Series – Lecture #3

When: May 18, 2013

From: 03:00 PM - 05:00 PM

Lecture Title:  The Vietnam War and Its Impact on Subsequent U.S. International Relations

Speaker: Bill Stewart, SF New Mexican writer, former U.S. Foreign Service Officer & correspondent for Time magazine

Location: Santa Fe Women’s Club, 1616 Old Pecos Trail

Cost: $10 CIR Members; $12 Nonmembers & Guests – FREE admission with the purchase of a new CIR membership

The U.S. reckons the war lasted 10 years, from 1963 to 1973. That was when the ceasefire came into effect, and American troops, most of them conscripts, began to come home. The war lasted, of course, until 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon and the war was finally over. But by that time, the vast majority of Americans, who at one time numbered more than 500,000, had come home. But many did not.

Between 1963 and 1973, some 58,000 Americans lost their lives, and now lie buried in Arlington and military cemeteries across the nation. Disturbingly, the U.S. military was a discredited force in the eyes of many Americans.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam really began in 1946, when France began to reestablish itself in Indochina, its old colonial possession. The U.S. favored Vietnamese independence, and indeed independence for Cambodia and Laos as well, but France was not in favor, and in those post-World War II days, France was our top priority, not Indochina.

The French fought a bitter guerrilla war against the Vietminh, led by the legendary Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. But there was no way they could win, and in 1954 the catastrophic French defeat at Dienbienphu brought an end to French rule in Indochina. The Vietnamese refer to this period as “the French war.” The American war was about to begin. The war became such a divisive issue in the U.S. that at times it seemed the country was having a national nervous breakdown.

When it ended, the U.S. was emotionally devastated, and wanted little to do with further military adventures abroad. Moreover, the U.S. armed forces needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Such is the nature of great power, however, that further military adventures ensued, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars, too, have been disappointing for the U.S., if only because the old battlefields no longer existed, and instead we face guerrilla warfare on a large scale. Mark Twain once noted that war was always a bad thing but not necessarily the worst thing. In an increasingly complex world, how do we know when it is not the worst thing?

Bill Stewart writes a weekly column on politics and foreign affairs for the Santa Fe New Mexican.  In the 1960s, he was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, serving in India, Washington and Vietnam.  He joined Time magazine in 1971 as a correspondent and writer.  For the next 20 years, he was Bureau Chief or correspondent in India, Japan, the Middle East (based in Beirut) and Southeast Asia (based in Hong Kong).

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