The National Catholic Review

Last January marked the 40th anniversary of the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” commonly known as the Paris Peace Accords. The principal signatories, U.S. National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger and the North Vietnamese emissary Mr. Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their diplomacy, though Le Duc Tho refused to accept it. The cease-fire did not hold. Within months, fighting had resumed between the forces of North and South Vietnam; it continued until the spring of 1975, when the north completed its rout and proceeded to unify the country under Communist rule. The war had raged for more than 20 years and had claimed the lives of perhaps millions of Southeast Asians and 58,000 American soldiers.

The 1973 Paris Peace Accords, however, formally ended U.S. ground involvement in the longest war in American history. The agreement also marked the start of a long, agonizing process of national self-reflection. The Vietnam War had destroyed a presidency, divided the country and wrecked havoc on the American psyche. As the returning troops disembarked, they met a people in the midst of an existential crisis. In the view of much of the world, the United States had gone within a single generation from being savior of the free world to being the globe’s greatest villain, mainly because of its conduct in Vietnam. Throughout the country in 1973, Americans were wrestling with their complicity in what many now conceded was an objectively immoral conflict.

This magazine was no exception. America’s commentary on U.S. policy in Vietnam had gone on as long as the war itself. As the historical narrative in the present issue shows, America was loath to see the true character of the conflict. A year and a half prior to the Paris Peace Accords, though, we had dramatically shifted our editorial stance: “What we must do is ask ourselves about our complicity,” the editors wrote in April 1971; the loss of innocent human life had “mounted beyond the point of any possible proportionate gain in the name of justice.” The conclusion of that editorial was correct, but we were painfully slow to reach it; slower than most of our peers in the Catholic press, certainly slower than the antiwar activists we had casually dismissed as irrelevant.

America had generally good and reasonable motives for our reluctance to abandon the U.S. cause in Vietnam. There was, first of all, our concern for the oppressive and immoral nature of Communism itself. We were rightly horrified, moreover, by the genocidal and corrupt policies of Hanoi’s Communist regime. But like most Westerners, we wrongly conceived of international Communism as a monolith and unquestioningly subscribed to its corollary: the dubious “domino theory,” the notion that if one country fell to international Communism, its neighbors would soon follow.

There were other reasons, however, more peculiar to us: Most of America’s editors at the time had come of age in the embattled Catholic ghettoes of the country’s major cities; they were uncritically sympathetic toward almost any Catholic minority, including the corrupt Catholic minority that governed South Vietnam. The editors were also hesitant to criticize the policy of a country that had only recently come to entertain the possibility that Roman Catholics could be loyal Americans.

All of those factors help to explain why this magazine failed to grasp fully the futile and unethical nature of the U.S. intervention. None of them, however, excuse that failure. The editors acted in good faith and in good conscience; unlike others, however, America was unable to appreciate well enough and early enough what was truly at stake. Ours was not a moral failure, but it was a prudential failure with important moral implications, and it presents an abiding lesson.

America chose Easter 1971 to announce the change in the editorial line on Vietnam: “For the Christian, Easter is the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, the affirmation of His victory over death and sin, the prelude to His entrance into judgment over all men. Lent, the six weeks preceding this most sacred of Christian holy days, is for the individual Christian a period of scrutiny, pruning and a purifying awareness of having fallen short of his calling and commitment. The end of Lent and the dawn of Easter, this year, provide American Christians with a unique occasion for profound examination of conscience.”

In the spirit of the Lenten season and in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the end of formal U.S. involvement in Vietnam, America asks for forgiveness for what we have done and for what we have failed to do, and we join our prayer with that of our predecessors on the masthead: that the people of the United States will be imbued with “a burning sense of contrition and a renewed purpose to do better as a people.”


Kevin Clarke | 3/17/2013 - 10:07pm

<The much maligned Domino Theory does explain Cambodia (and the Killing Fields) and Laos, but I guess these are coincidences, just as Egypt and Syria (et al) are falling into militant Islam’s snare today (so much for the Arab Spring) – coincidences seem to abound.>



Does the DT still pertain if the author turns out to be the primary force which set the dominoes in motion? Cambodia and Laos, who can say now?, may have continued on their own path if the U.S. had not, in seeking to control the history of Vietnam, meddled so catastrophically with those sovereign states.


Bob Baker | 3/18/2013 - 3:13am

If you are saying that the authors of this theory, in this instance, are China and the Soviet Union, acting through a surrogate, North Vietnam, then one could make a case that they were the primary force. After all, the Soviet Union, China and a few of their client states provided all the arms and training to the North Vietnamese who, in turn, exerted their influence into Laos and Cambodia and made extensive use of the Ho Chi Min Trail through both countries to infiltrate into the South.
Cambodia nor Laos supported the United States and its allies in preventing North Vietnam’s use of the Trail through their territory, in basing or any other kind of support, so it is difficult to imagine how the United States meddled in these countries.
I must admit to never having been a fan of the Domino Theory because it is often used simplistically, but one has to admit that it sometimes helps frame ideas such as rampant militant Islam across northern and central Africa, the Mid-East and Asia.

Pietro Tomassi | 3/17/2013 - 4:13pm

As a Vietnam era veteran (USAF 67-71) and a Catholic I volunteered for
Vietnam. By 1979 I knew that there was nothing Cristian about
our war against the North but just fulfilling the needs of the
"Industrial-Military" political and economic interests that President
Eisenhower warned us

Bob Baker | 3/17/2013 - 2:24pm

The words “immoral” and “illegal” have been used to justify positions on the war, but consider: Should the United States (and its allies, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea, Philippines and Taiwan) have merely stood by and let North Vietnam militarily take over the South? Wouldn’t this have not been immoral? Did they not, as a separate country, foment rebellion through the killing and physical intimidation of innocent civilians? Did not South Vietnam ask for our assistance?

What many seem to be saying is that the United States and its allies were always wrong and let’s not talk about the other side because it doesn’t matter. Moral blinders seem to work for many today and it’s all so easy in retrospect as revisionist history comes to the fore. The United States didn’t become “the globe’s greatest villain” to anyone but those who waited for returnees at San Francisco International to spew their distain, university professors who (like today) know oh so much in their ivory towers and those who, in hindsight, justify and applaud their pacifism over the blood of the many.

My suggestion is to ask the many chaplains who stood side-by-side with the troops and ask them if we were wrong. Most of the soldiers in Vietnam were not the stereotyped youth seen in the movies or talked about by media commentators, but were raised with a knowledge of their responsibility to the country (something much maligned today) and of God (if you believe recent polls, this is a rarity today). Conscience formation for many, by the way, did not occur because of Vatican II, because Catholicism was already well practiced and internal to the makeup of each soldier. The maxim, “There is no atheists in foxholes” is certainly correct too, if nothing else.

The much maligned Domino Theory does explain Cambodia (and the Killing Fields) and Laos, but I guess these are coincidences, just as Egypt and Syria (et al) are falling into militant Islam’s snare today (so much for the Arab Spring) – coincidences seem to abound.

Futile is another word used to express the war. It was only futile because the government of the United States became camera shy and would not allow the military to take care of business and the moral imperative was hijacked by the radical left and the press. It is never futile to help those in need, we did so with England and South Korea at different times and they remain countries today. The manner in which we sometime conducted ourselves in Vietnam can be disputed, but not the desire to help. This was not colonialism, this is what every nation should do in the community of nations.

If Jacques Maritain was correct that “Moralists are unhappy people,” then there are some very sad ones today.

John Cunningham | 3/16/2013 - 8:06am

Fellow U.S. citizens like Mr. Baker deserve our sincere thanks for their service. However, a Roman Catholic with good formation of conscience should also recognize that the Vietnam war was an immoral and illegal war. America Magazine deserves to be congratulated for this insightful editorial, and for their apology for coming to the right conclusion (albeit late) about the moral wrongness of our U.S. participation in this conflict. Mr. Baker's comment reminds me of the little boy who says "But you should have seen what the other guy did, Dad" in defense of bad behavior. Don't we teach our children that "two wrongs don't make a right". Even mentioning what the Vietcong did (the other guy) displays a lingering close-mindedness to come clean, and to admit the truth of our atrocious U.S. foreign policy mistake in Vietnam. America Magazine is taking "THEIR/OUR OWN INVENTORY", not even mentioning the Vietcong, and rightly so. America Magazine has the courage to admit it was wrong. I wish our U.S. government and The Pentagon would do the same some day. As the editorial said in so many words: It is very difficult at times to be a loyal Roman Catholic and a loyal American. The Kingdom of Heaven trumps Washington DC every time. All our soldiers who served in Vietnam deserve respect and U.S. gratitude, but woe to the elected politicians in Washington DC who sent them to kill and die there in the first place. It is no wonder President Johnson had such depression and such an early death after leaving office . May Lord have mercy on all of us, and may our leaders in The White House and The Pentagon gain wisdom not to repeat these arrogant prideful foreign policy fiascos in the future. Iraq War #2 under President Bush #2 makes me wonder when we will ever gain that Christ-inspired wisdom.

john andrechak | 3/16/2013 - 9:55am

Mr. Cunningham-good post, well said

James Richard | 3/15/2013 - 5:55pm

I served in the Marine Corps, 1970-72. Thank God, I never had to serve in Vietnam, and after boot camp, having my orders changed from the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam to the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa, I was disappointed that I wasn't going to see combat and it took years before I got over feeling like I didn't do my part to serve my Corps and my Nation.

It wasn't until the 80's during a hunting trip with some co-workers, one was a Marine, the other served with the 101st Airborne Division, and both served in Vietnam and saw combat, that I came to be thankful that I didn't see combat. At night listening sitting around a camp fire while listening to their honest stories of what they saw and how the experience effected them, made me realize what an unjust war Vietnam was and made me really take a look at how immoral most wars are, Afghanistan and Iraq included.

Timothy Martin | 3/15/2013 - 5:31pm

The Viet Nam conflict is burned into the American psyche because our involvement was so tragic. It was tragic because all of our best intentions were defeated by our inability to view the war through any prism but our own. We did not see ourselves the way the Vietnamese did, just another colonial power trying to shape the country to it's own will. We thought we were doing good, we were not. This is not to say that North Vietnam was a force for good. They were trying to enforce their will as well. We would have been far better off if we had listened to Pres. Eisenhower and understood that a military victory was never possible. South Vietnam was never viable. It took us 58,000 American lives to come to that conclusion.

john andrechak | 3/15/2013 - 4:45pm

why I am not surprised that a letter would go to "the VC did worse" or the "media did it" From Agent Orange to CS powder broadcast over vast tracts, to the Tiger Battalion atrocities uncovered by the Toledo Blade, to My Lai, on and on... Americans inflicted untoward murder and mayhem on these people for what? Against all this we have pictures of GIs passing out gum to kids? Before or after they raped their sisters?
In forty years the stories of a marine squad raping a 15 year old in Iraq, forcing her family to watch, them killing them all, of the videos released by PFC Manning of chopper crew gunning down civilians while listening to rock music while be revealed by the thousands.
The only Americans who knew why we attacked Vietnam and Iraq, and all the peoples in between are those that opposed these crimes

Bob Baker | 3/15/2013 - 7:07pm

“The only Americans who knew why we attacked Vietnam and Iraq, and all the peoples in between are those that opposed these crimes.”
I am also not surprised by those who run away from national service or are busy chanting the tired old slogans from the sidelines, leaving it to the other guy to fight. For all their pontificating, they know nothing and can afford to be sanctimonious.
Nothing was said about the criminal behavior of the few, there is and can be no excuse – the point was that one never read or heard about the other side and how gruesome and savage they could be. Further, the tyranny of the Vietnamese government is, in part, the result of their refusal to negotiate honorably and keep their agreement – the result was, initially, reeducation camps (much like the Chinese still do today) and an installation of a government no one voted for.
It might also interest some that Catholics suffer today in Vietnam and Iraq, the first from an atheistic, communist government and the other from continued Islamic extremism.

john andrechak | 3/16/2013 - 9:53am

another surprise "those who run away.." Again,why did we invade Vietnam? Why Iraq? THe good German thinking "if our Leader says so.." A majority of Americans "believed" Iraq attacked the towers. Americans "believed" we were "stopping da commies" Naively Ho Chi Mimh appealed to the US to help his people throw off the yoke of French Oppression-no voting for that government! But what he did not understand was that the US was going to set up a replacement for European Colonialism with another form of Imperialism
Catholics in Vietnam, like the rest of their countrymen suffer from Agent Orange birth defects and unexploded ordinance- women in Iraq have less rights now then they did under Hussein
US atrocities are just coming out from the Korean War. Those peoples "down wind" from us can smell the stench of blood of this nation and its "boys in uniform"
BTW-enlisted in the US Navy Reserve at 35-the only service that would take someone my age- at the start of the first Gulf War. THis when many were trying to get out of the Reserves. Served as a Volunteer Fire Fighter for ten years-not that any of that matters
"when I understood the role of my nation in the world, I did not know how to handle it... I still don't" Mark Rudd,

Bob Baker | 3/15/2013 - 1:45pm

As I was present in I Corps when the North Vietnamese invaded the South a year later during the Easter Offensive of 1972, I have a different perspective, as you may imagine.
The United States is always vilified for taking part in this war - the politicians may deserve the scorn for many reasons, especially for "playing general" in conducting military operations. The troops did not and do not deserve the lack of support that the media heaped on it. The atrocities that the Vietcong committed never seemed to be talked about in "good company" and often were dismissed as prompted by the actions of American troops.
These many years later and just a quick survey of the Vietnam's political life and you see not much has changed.
There was a reason why so many people (mostly Catholic) left the North in 1954-55, they understood what communism meant. Now they too suffer under a corrupt government that is still communist.
Vietnam was a moral lesson, indeed, and it seems there are many who still have it to learn.

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