Forty years ago today – March 29, 1973 – the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam. American prisoners of war remaining in North Vietnam were freed.
The Vietnam War did not end on a happy note. It endures, in historical narratives and the minds of those old enough to remember, a difficult period in American history. Marred by misunderstandings, political troubles, generational upheaval and changes in American life and lifestyles, the era permanently changed the nation.
So come with me, where dreams are born,
and time is never planned.
Just think of happy things,
and your heart will fly on wings, forever,
in Never Never Land.
The Never Never Land of the 1950s ended. The 1960s ushered in a new, young and dynamic President. Life seemed good, at least to a generation born after the upheaval of World War II and growing up under improving economic circumstances.
But turmoil was brewing underneath the façade of daily life. Too abruptly the country was catapulted into a chaotic world no one understood.
Just about every American old enough to remember knows where they were and what they were doing when initially hearing the news President Kennedy was shot. On Friday, November 22, 1963, America changed forever.
The number of events affecting our lives mushroomed and intensified, although we did not necessarily realize it at the time. The same year Kennedy was killed Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published and Martin Luther King declared “I Have a Dream.” A year later the Beatles were an international phenomenon, Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali) became the world heavyweight champion, and the Civil Rights Act passed.
1965 experienced race riots, miniskirts, and U.S. troops in Vietnam. These were not the first troops sent to the small Southeast Asian country most Americans had never heard of, but were officially the first combat troops.
The war escalated year after year. News from across the Pacific was unreliable and unpredictable. Day after day war splashed across our TV screens, war as portrayed in a few minutes on the evening news.
The years spun by faster and faster. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The My Lai massacre and Tet offensive made headlines. The decade ended with several interesting and bizarre events including the first man on the moon, the Manson murders, Woodstock, and the first Sesame Street shows.
The 1970s began and the news from overseas continued. It appeared the conflict was an ongoing, persistent, menacing presence circling our lives. Anti-war sentiment swelled, the political winds changed, Presidents came and went, and on March 29, 1973, the last military troops finally came home.
Sensational footage of helicopters evacuating remaining Americans from Saigon was shown on the news as the city fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.
America lost a lot more than a war in a far-flung Southeast Asian country. America lost innocence, economic stability, and thousands of young soldiers.
After all the turmoil we would hope our leaders learned from the past.
But they have not. After over a decade of war in other far-off Asian lands, Americans are finally beginning to come home again.
We can debate whether one or two wars were won or lost. We can debate what would have occurred had we not invaded Iraq, or maintained troops in Afghanistan.
What is indisputable is what America lost. If innocence was already gone, we again lost economic stability and prosperity, world respect, and too many young men and women.
As a postscript to the past, we remember the ending of one of the less glorious wars in American history today.
The last day combat troops leave foreign soil in current twenty-first century wars is unknown. Hopefully that day comes very soon.