(HOST) Vermont Humanities Council executive director and commentator Peter Gilbert has been thinking about the first Americans to die during the conflict we refer to as the Vietnam War. And it began a half-centry-ago tomorrow.
(GILBERT) Earlier, there had been Lt. Col. Peter Dewey of the OSS, killed in 1945 in an ambush near Saigon. And daredevil pilot Captain James McGovern, killed with copilot Wallace Buford in 1954, flying supplies to the French at Dienbienphu. That year, with the Korean armistice agreement less than a year old, President Eisenhower had decided not to intervene militarily to help the French in Indochina. He did, however, provide aid and advisors to the Diem government in order to help contain communism – setting the stage for the first Americans to die in the undeclared war we call "the Vietnam Wa" in 1959, fifty years ago tomorrow.
The names of Major Dale Buis – I believe that’s how it’s pronounced – and Sergeant Chester Ovnand are the first two names enscribled on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. They were military advisors stationed in the sleepy town of Bienhoa, near Saigon. Historian Stanley Karnow tells us that they and six others were watching a movie in the residential compound’s mess hall. When Ovnand turned the lights on to change the reel, Viet Minh guerrillas opened fire.
American involvement in Vietnam remained comparatively limited until August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked an American destroyer. After a dubious, second incident was reported, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Sustained bombing of North Vietnam began in February 1965. And on March 8, two marine battalions landed to defend Danang airfield – the first American combat troops in Vietnam.
By the end of the year, there were 200,000 American troops in Vietnam, and by Christmas 1968, 540,000.
President Nixon took office in January 1969 promising "peace with honor." He began the secret bombing of Cambodia in March. In 1970, he began secret peace talks, he invaded Cambodia to attack Communist sanctuaries there, and he began withdrawing American troops; South Vietnamese troops had to take on greater responsibility; it was called "Vietnamization."
Finally, in early 1973 a cease-fire was signed in Paris. While some military personnel remained, our last combat troops left Vietnam in late March. Saigon fell two years later, on April 30, 1975. Recently released audio tapes from Nixon’s White House show that both the President and Henry Kissinger had long known that the fall of Saigon was inevitable. Their real goal was merely to hold the collapse of South Vietnam off for what they called "a decent interval."
And so roughly sixteen years after those first two American soldiers died, the last Americans were evacuated from Saigon by helicopter from the roof of our embassy – after 58,000 American fatalities,153,000 Americans seriously wounded, and four million Vietnamese fatalities.