By Steven Casey
Just over forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon ran a successful reelection campaign based partly on a simple insight. Americans, he believed, were not opposed to the Vietnam War as such; they were simply opposed to their boys dying in Vietnam.
In 1969 when Nixon came to office, US weekly death tolls had hovered around 300, sometimes even topping 450. Nixon’s response had been to turn the bulk of the ground fighting over to the South Vietnamese. The ultimate result, in terms of US losses, had been stunning. On 21 September 1972, just weeks before Americans voted in the presidential election, Nixon’s government could happily announce that the past week had seen no combat deaths—the first time this had happened in seven years.
For Nixon, this dramatic reduction in the weekly death toll proved a major short-term political success, helping him to an electoral landslide against George McGovern, the Vietnam era’s only out-and-out antiwar candidate.
For American society as a whole, however, the prospect of an end to current casualties could scarcely erase the massive trauma that the war had engendered. Yes, Americans were thankful that very few of their boys would now die in Vietnam. But they could not easily forget that so many of them had already paid the ultimate sacrifice in a war whose aims were murky and whose outcome became America’s first defeat, with South Vietnam’s dismal collapse two-and-a-half years after Nixon’s reelection.
In the aftermath of defeat, Vietnam remained a deep, festering wound in the American national psyche. Cold War hawks were particularly concerned. They worried that the memory of war was paralyzing the nation, precluding public support for the use of force in future battlegrounds with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was their cheerleader. “For too long,” Reagan declared during his successful presidential campaign in 1980, “we have lived with the ‘Vietnam syndrome.’ . . . We dishonor the memory of fifty thousand young Americans who died in that cause,” he added, “when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful.”
As Reagan spoke, the Vietnam Memorial was being built in the capital’s Mall. In a war so plagued by controversy, it was bound to become yet another battleground. Hawks preferred something grand, something that summed up their view that the war had been a “noble crusade,” not a shameful indiscretion. Many did not take kindly to the understated simplicity of the actual design. The Memorial’s purpose, jeered one, was merely to impress on visitors “the sheer human waste, the utter meaningless of it all.”
In the thirty years since it was unveiled, a sense of waste and meaningless has certainly remained at the heart of America’s continued memory of the war, dominating popular culture and casting a profound shadow over debates about war and peace. But this has not been the fault of the Memorial. Nor was it the Memorial’s purpose.
Indeed, although the Vietnam Memorial has become important in the continued political debate about the war, it has also transcended the narrowly conceived way that politicians have dealt with both Vietnam’s memory and the human sacrifices that are the most tragic consequence of this, and other, conflicts.
Too often, political debates about war revolve around current casualty totals. This was Nixon’s insight, and it obscured a much more fundamental truth. Casualties are never merely nameless numbers: behind each one lays a tragic story. Nor do casualties simply exert a short-term impact over the public debate: these losses linger, and not just in shaping political views. Rather, they create a painful void, as well as a need to grieve and remember the person.
The great strength of the Vietnam War Memorial is that it provides a place to mourn these individual deaths. The design is simple: the black stone, the leafy surroundings, and above all the long list of names, which rise and fall in an echo of the escalating and declining rhythm of America’s war.
In the thirty years since it opened, the Vietnam Memorial has become a important marker with families, veterans, and tourists alike, and one of Washington DC’s most visited sites. In a war in which so much was, and remains, contested, the Memorial is a fitting and moving tribute to those who never returned.
Steven Casey is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. His books include Cautious Crusade and Selling the Korean War, which won the Harry S. Truman Book Award. His new book, When Soldiers Fall: How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan will be published January 2014.