Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit: Afterthoughts

I wrote several posts for this blog earlier this year coincident with the publication of Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War (Doubleday, 2019). I was profoundly moved by the book which praised those of us in Vietnam as the country fell to the communists in April 1975. We did everything we could to rescue the South Vietnamese who would be killed by the conquering North Vietnamese. More than 130,000 were saved. And I was grateful that Thurston included some of my work in his telling. For once, we were not blamed for our work. We were honored.

The book has lingered in my thoughts. Repeatedly, when I returned from Vietnam during the thirteen years I was there on and off (between 1962 and 1975, I spent at least four months every year there), crowds in the airports spit on me and the returning soldiers, calling us “butchers” and “baby killers.” After the war ended, Americans considered it a shameful war. We who participated were shamed. For decades, I never spoke of my time in Vietnam.

But the American attitude has changed in the last few years. Americans now thank us for our time in Vietnam. These days I can take pride in having risked my life to serve my country.

And yet, the history of the war, the errors we made, and our final defeat are still shrouded in ignorance. Even whether we lost the war is still debated. Many times, I have had people ask me whose side were on during the war. The spate of books on Vietnam in the last few years has helped. I was particularly taken with Christopher Goscha’s Vietnam: A New History (Basic Books, 2016) and Brian VanDeMark’s Road to Disaster (HarperCollins, 2018).

But despite a continuing retelling of the Vietnam war history, the American people as a whole know little about what happened and why. All of us should urge our school systems to teach the story of the war to our young people.

For all that, I’m in Thurston Clarke’s debt for leveling the playing field. Thank you, Thurston.

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