The third presentation of the Arter-Rowland National Security Forum was conducted March 29, 2021 in an online conference platform. The program was focused on the Vietnam War.
Dr. Jim Willbanks, nationally-recognized scholar of the Vietnam War and Professor Emeritus of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, led the presentation and follow-on discussion with his presentation entitled “Remembering the Vietnam War, 1950-1975.”
Bob Ulin, the founding CEO of the CGSC Foundation, who is currently serving as the chief development officer for the current President/CEO Rod Cox, kicked off the program and Scott Weaver, the president of the Kansas City Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, the Foundation’s partner in the forum, introduced Willbanks.
“We are here to observe National Vietnam Veterans Day,” Willbanks said, “and it’s appropriate that we meet at this time on this day because it was this day, 46 years ago, that the last troops departed South Vietnam in the wake of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.”
“Vietnam was a complex conflict that nearly tore this country apart,” Willbanks began. “There are a lot of myths and more than a few misconceptions when it comes to the Vietnam War.”
Willbanks said the official dates of the war according to DoD were 1955-1975, but U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia began some years before that toward the end of WWII. He said a small team from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a U.S. intelligence agency in WWII, conducted a mission in May 1945 to locate and recover downed U.S. pilots and escaped prisoners who had been held captive by the Japanese occupying forces. The program came to an end with the surrender of the Japanese and the end of the war, but with the French re-imposition of colonial rule in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, but Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, another OSS officer, arrived in Vietnam in August 1945, to assist in the effort to evacuate U.S. POWs, but he was shot and killed Sept. 26, 1945, supposedly by the Viet Minh because they thought he was French.
“Although exactly what happened may never be known,” Willbanks said, “Dewey became the first American killed in Vietnam…the first of many Americans who would lose their lives in Vietnam over the next 30 years.”
Continuing the march through the history of the war, Willbanks continued his presentation discussing the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and the U.S. underwriting of the cost of the French fight with the Viet Minh in an effort to thwart the spread of communism. Willbanks said the French loss in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (March 13 – May 8, 1954) and the subsequent Geneva Accords that divided Vietnam between north and south in July 1954, set the stage for increased U.S. involvement.
Despite the establishment of the U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group – Vietnam in the 1950’s and President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts with major combat forces through the 1960’s, the 1968 Tet Offensive signaled the end of American public support of the war. President Johnson announced his withdrawal from re-election in March 1968, leaving President Richard Nixon to promise the American public “peace with honor” as a means to end the war in Vietnam and withdraw U.S. troops.
Willbanks said the answer to Nixon’s “peace with honor” translated into an effort to transfer responsibility to the South Vietnamese or “Vietnamization” as it became known. U.S. combat troop withdrawals began in January 1969. In accordance with the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) furled its colors on March 29, 1973 and the last combat and combat support troops departed Vietnam. March 29 is now the date the U.S. recognizes National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
After his recounting of the major movements of the prosecution of the war, Willbanks spoke about the troops who fought the war.
During the period 1965-1973, 2.6 million U.S. troops served within borders of South Vietnam Willbanks said, with 40-60% of this number directly involved in the fighting or being exposed to enemy attack. These numbers included nearly 10,000 women of which 83% were nurses. 303,700 troops were wounded, more than 153,000 required hospitalization, and more than 58,000 died, including eight nurses. More than 1,500 personnel are still listed as missing in action.
Willbanks added that the early perception of U.S. troops was positive, but public attitudes began to shift to sympathy and then to animosity as the years wore on. As the troops came home from war they were rebuked by some as “drugged out baby killers” or “losers who had failed to win the war.” But by the late 1970’s there had been a slow shift in American attitudes about Vietnam veterans, the most visible signal being the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in November 1982, led by President Reagan.
Most troops who left active service after the war became productive members of their communities, Willbanks said. Those who stayed on active duty played a part in the revitalization of the American military. In a survey conducted in the late 1990’s, the preponderance of Vietnam veterans stated they were proud of their service and would do it again even knowing the eventual outcome. They answered the call of their nation and found themselves fighting an unpopular war 12,000 miles away from home.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Willbanks offered a question and answer period.
CGSC Professor Emeritus Dr. James H. Willbanks, the former director of the CGSC Department of Military History and General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History, retired from his position at CGSC in 2018. He joined the CGSC faculty in 1992, after retiring from the Army. He is a nationally-recognized scholar on the Vietnam War with his work highlighted in the New York Times, PBS, and many others. He also served as a consultant to Ken Burns and appeared on camera in the 10-part, 18-hour documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS which began airing in fall 2017.
Willbanks graduated from Texas A&M University in 1969 and was commissioned as an infantry officer. In 1972, he served as an advisor with a South Vietnamese infantry unit in An Loc during the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. After a twenty-three year Army career, including assignments in Germany, Japan, Panama, and the continental United States, Dr. Willbanks joined the faculty of CGSC where he taught national security
policy in the Department of Joint and Multinational Operations before becoming the director of the CGSC Department of Military History for twelve years. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of Kansas and is the author of Danger 79er, The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth. He is also the author or editor of 20 other books, including A Raid Too Far (Texas A&M Press, 2014) and Abandoning Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2004).
Willbanks’ military awards and decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with “V” and Oak Leaf Cluster, two Purple Hearts, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with two Silver Stars.
The Arter-Rowland National Security Forum is an exclusive professional information sharing and networking event exclusively for select invitees of the CGSC Foundation and the Kansas City Chapter of the Association of the United States Army (KCAUSA), the co-hosts of the Forum. For more information contact the CGSC Foundation.