After World War II, the United States moved swiftly to turn enemies into friends. Rebuilding Germany and Japan was of vital importance in the post-war world.
For those who fought in the horrific battles against both countries, and for the families and friends of the thousands lost, there wasn’t much time to accept that yesterday’s enemy was to be tomorrow’s friend.
The Vietnam experience was different. It has taken more than 40 years for the United States to move to near normalcy in relations with Vietnam, the Southeast Asian country in which more than 58,000 Americans died in the 1960s and early ‘70s in an effort to halt communist expansion.
This past week, President Barack Obama became just the third sitting president to visit Vietnam since the war’s end. In moving to further improve relations with the one-time enemy, Obama took the step of lifting the U.S. embargo on providing weapons to the Vietnamese.
As America observes Memorial Day, we asked Vietnam veterans how they feel about the former enemy becoming a friend. The Times and Democrat sampled opinion from five local veterans profiled in the 2015 series “Vietnam: They Served With Honor.” (Revisit the series at THE SPOT at TheTandD.com)
They are not bitter about the change in policy, seeing it as logical and overdue.
“I think it is a good thing. It has been a lot of years. It is way overdue,” said David Franklin of Orangeburg, who was a squad leader on the ground in 1969 in Vietnam.
“There is no need in remaining hostile to them,” said Tillman Abell of Orangeburg, who was wounded by a grenade in Vietnam in 1968. “I am not bitter toward Vietnam. I don’t really hate the Vietnamese. I never did.”
Samuel Williams of Cope, who was wounded by mortar fire while serving as a combat engineer operating five-ton dump trucks, said, “I have good confidence in President Obama. If he thinks it is a good idea, I am with it.”
Wayne Carter of Bamberg, wounded by a grenade during fighting in Vietnam, has “no problem with normalizing relations.”
Sidney Livingston of Woodford, an airman whose experiences included transporting the bodies of dead soldiers during his time in Vietnam, put it simply: “We need to be friends.”
The veterans do not blame Vietnam for the war.
Vietnam was fighting what amounted to a proxy war for the Chinese and Russians, Abell said. History shows the United States interfered with what the people of Vietnam wanted. “A lot of what happened in Vietnam was our own blunders.”
Franklin said the lesson of Vietnam has not been adequately learned to this day.
“We always got a tendency of sticking our nose in other people’s wars,” he said. “We should not have stuck our nose in that (Vietnam).”
As to the friendship including U.S. weaponry for Vietnam, Abell said assisting the Vietnamese makes sense strategically.
The Vietnamese and Chinese do not get along, he said. China is a threat to the United States, using economics as a weapon rather than its military.
But the Chinese are unafraid to use their military against other Asian countries, Abell said. “I don’t think we can leave them (Vietnam) at a disadvantage with the Chinese.”
The veterans are right. Common sense, economics and geopolitical reality make the case for closer ties with Vietnam.
And there is no better indicator of just how much attitudes toward Vietnam have changed than veterans’ opinions of the country today and their desire to see it again.
“I wanted to go with the president,” Franklin said. “I have been trying to keep up on how the country is today. I wish I could have gone over with them.”
“I wish he had asked me to go with him,” Livingston said. “I would like to see the country again.”
Livingston and Carter cited reports from those having gone back to Vietnam.
“It is a wonderful country,” Livingston said. “They treat Americans like royalty.”
Veterans say Vietnam is “a very impressive country,” Carter said. “The people of that country have long since gotten over the war.”
So have the veterans in the broader sense. But even in wanting to see the country again, they do not forget what happened there.
Carter has considered returning himself, still remembering the shrapnel wounds that impact his life to this day: “I would love to go right back to the spot.”