A Personal Reinterpretation After Forty Years

Three Soldiers, Washington, D.C.

Three Soldiers, Washington, D.C.

The best way to think about the Vietnam War is to view it as the “stitch in time that saved nine.” More about this proverb later. I call the Vietnam War “the most difficult war of US history.” Why the most difficult? Because the mission given to the Vietnam soldier was elusive: Fight in Vietnam so that a larger war will NOT happen in some place in the world.

Please take a look at how Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson explained the purpose of the Vietnam War in his Annual Message to the US Congress on the State of the Union on March 15, 1965:

In Asia, communism wears a more aggressive face. We see that in Vietnam. Why are we there? We are there, first, because a friendly nation has asked us for help against the Communist aggression. Ten years ago our President [Eisenhower] pledged our help. Three Presidents [Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson] have supported that pledge. We will not break it now.

Second, our own security is tied to the peace of Asia. Twice in one generation we have had to fight against aggression in the Far East. To ignore aggression now would only increase the danger of a much larger war.
— You can read the entire speech here: http://bit.ly/1Oyq7q6.

My Personal Experience with the Vietnam War

Pres. Johnson visit troops in Vietnam.

Pres. Johnson visit troops in Vietnam.

When Pres. Johnson made that statement to the US Congress, I had been in the United States for merely one month. And as a recipient of a Permanent Visa into the US (Green Card), I knew I was subject to the military draft. Upon arriving in the United States (February 1965), I registered with the local “Draft Board” as required by law. I made myself available for military service.

Initially I received a student deferment while attending the University of San Francisco in California. But that changed when I graduated from USF with a Bachelor of Art and started working as a Portuguese language teacher at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey (California). After graduation, the Draft Board changed my status to 1-A, which meant that I was “available for unrestricted military service.”

Paulo Pereira in An Khe, Vietnam

Paulo Pereira in An Khe, Vietnam

A few months after receiving my change of status, the Draft Board sent me a letter with instruction to report for military duty.

I reported to the Oakland Induction Center, where I went through the induction process and received all of my physical exams. The Oakland Induction Center was well-known for anti-war protests during the 1960s, but there were no protests during the week when I went through it.

Altogether I served for three years and two months in the US military. I was discharged on April 24, 1970.

The last year of my military duty I spent in Vietnam, where I served as a Lieutenant in the Signal Corps.

As it turned out, my military service was the best thing that could happen to me. It changed my life completely and prepared me to do all the work that I did after the war and continue to do today. My war experience gave me a heart of compassion for people who suffer the ravages of war. It also showed me how limited the military might really is. I am convinced that war is sometimes necessary, but it should be the last resort, and it always has unintended consequences.

When my time came to do my 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam, I arrived there and, soon after, was interviewed by a Lieutenant Colonel that had been a military attaché in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had lived in Brazil for four years and spoke Portuguese with great fluency. This Colonel told me about a Portuguese-speaking club they had in Vietnam. They met every week for dinner, and they invited me to take part in their club. I was the only native speaker in the club and the only officer of junior grade. The other members were senior officers. Our club had a lot of camaraderie and good fellowship. We talked about Brazil, and we also about the Vietnam War.

That was how I began to learn about Communism and the the purpose of the Vietnam War. Those officers treated me like a little brother, and when I left that location to go for an assignment in Saigon, I had acquired a broad understanding of the purpose of the Vietnam War.

My Time in Saigon

Saigon in 1969

Saigon in 1969

My assignment in Saigon was at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, which was an Air Force facility. Tan Son Nhut was a major base during the Vietnam War. It included units from Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps–and also members of the South Vietnamese military.

In Saigon I got most of my real-life experiences about what the Vietnam War was about. Tan Son Nhut was like the heart of the Vietnam War. The year before my arrival, the North Vietnamese had attempted to destroy Tan Son Nhut, but they failed, and Tan Son Nhut survived.

While I was in Tan Son Nhut (1969), the US military was in the beginning stages of the Vietnamization of the war. “Vietnamization” meant that the US would change of command and control of all military operation to the South-Vietnam Government.

Pres. Richard Nixon had indicated that he was going to initiate a planned withdrawal of US troops. That withdrawal and training of the South-Vietnamese military took four years until 1973. So, when I was in Vietnam, that process was only in its planning stage.

Paulo with friends in the military

Paulo with friends in the military

In Tan Son Nhut, we could meet military personnel from all branches of the US military and also from the South Vietnamese forces. I came to know some Vietnamese officers quite well. Our work schedule was 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week, and we would often walk to the officers’ club for meals, From Vietnamese officers I learned their personal views of the war was. They were very frank with me about what was going on.

A Stitch in Time That Saved Nine

As I mentioned earlier, the best way to understand what the Vietnam War was all about is to think of at as “the stitch in time that saved nine.” I love this proverb because it is encouragement for diligence and preventive work.

stich in timeThe meaning is the following: If you find a small tear in a fabric, do not disregard it. Quickly do ONE stitch to take care of that small tear. One timely stitch will save having to do NINE stitches later, when that tear becomes bigger. Thus, “a stitch in time saves nine.”

For me, that is the best wan to understand the purpose of the Vietnam War. But it is also the reason why, in my opinion, the Vietnam War is the “most difficult war to understand of all of US history.” It is also the reason why it is so difficult to show people what the Vietnam War accomplished. And here I come back to the “stitch in time that saved nine.” If you saw a little tear in a fabric, and you quickly did a stitch that closed that tear, how can you PROVE that you have prevented nine stitches later?

Actually, you cannot PROVE that. You can reason it out, but you cannot prove! Herein lies the core of the Vietnam War controversy. Herein lies the reason why the Vietnam War veterans were not honored when they came home. This is also the reason why, even today, forty years later—after we have seen the dramatic fall of the Communist regime and the dramatic transformation of the world after the iron Curtain was torn down–which started just ten years after the fall of Saigon–it is still not easy to see the relationship of cause and effect between the Vietnam War and the end of Communism. It is because that cause and effect connection cannot be proved. It can be reasoned out, but it cannot be proved!

Still, if we go back to Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s explanation of the double purpose of the Vietnam War, we can reason out that both purposes were accomplished. Summarizing, here are the two purposes of the Vietnam War, as explained by Pres. Johnson: First, to provide help to a friendly nation (South Vietnam) against Communist aggression. The US invested billions of dollars and sent millions of its people to help South Vietnam. Thus, this purpose was accomplished. As it turned out, South Vietnam finally succumbed to the Communist North Vietnam (1975), but having spent time with the Vietnamese people both during the war and after, many of them told me that no amount of help coming from the United States would sustain the South Vietnamese Government, since there was too much corruption. Only a continued US presence in South Vietnam could guarantee that.

But there was another reason why the US and its allies got involved in Vietnam. It was Pres. Johnson’s “second reason” for the Vietnam War, which he explained to Congress as follows:

Our own security is tied to the peace of Asia. Twice in one generation we have had to fight against aggression in the Far East. To ignore aggression now would only increase the danger of a much larger war.

Going back to the proverb, “A stitch in time saves nine,” this “larger war” was those other “nine stitches” that were saved because they never happened. This “larger war” never happened, but it is controversial for two reasons. First, as mentioned before, no one can prove that the Vietnam War made that “larger war” NOT happen. Besides, there are people who believed then, and continue to believe today, that the Communist revolution was a good thing for the world, a hope for humankind.

I disagree with that point of view, but I certainly do not consider the individuals that supported Communism, then or now, “bad people.” Communism is a hodgepodge of half truths, and it is very difficult to see how deceptive it is.

So, for all the people in the world who believed in Communism, the Vietnam War was an evil war. But anyone who looks at the world today, with the benefit of a 40-year hindsight, can join the dots and see the connection between the US involvement in South Vietnam and the end of Communism. About this second goal of the Vietnam War, the US and its allies fulfilled their mission.

The Vietnam War and World War II

I conclude my personal reflection about the Vietnam War, on this 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, by considering the difference between the Vietnam War and World War II. I again use the proverb,” A stitch in time saves nine.”

World War II was a war a heroes. The allied nations that fought World War II are called “the greatest generation,” and rightly so. But that war could have been prevented. And here I acknowledge the authority of Sir Winston Churchill himself, who, in his speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. In somber mood, Churchill states that all the destruction of World War II could have been avoided, as follows:

Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented in my belief without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honored today; but no one would listen and one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely must not let that happen again.
— You can read the entire speech here: http://abt.cm/1Q1u9rP.

In Churchill’s estimation, then, the world did not have the wisdom to do a “stitch in time” that could have “saved nine.” Instead, the free nations waited too long and ended up having to do “nine stitches” instead of one.

Thus, looking at the Vietnam War with the benefit from a 40-year hindsight–and considering the surprising speed with which the Communist regime toppled not long after the Vietnam War, I believe the Vietnam War was that “stitch in time that saved nine.” Because the US and its allies were wiling to fight an unpopular war, they saved humankind the horror and suffering of a much larger and more terrible war. And this I celebrate today, in the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Paulo-Juarez Pereira
Vietnam War veteran
April 30, 2015 — on the 40th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon
Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA

Photo Credits:

Photo: Three soldiers. Photo Author: Ron Cogswell; Source: http://bit.ly/1GIJMzZ; Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0.

Pres. Johnson. Photo Author: manhhai; Source: http://bit.ly/1bGdknc; Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Paulo as Executive Office in An Khe, Vietnam.

Saigon in 1969. Photo Author: manhhai; Source: http://bit.ly/1QOF5KK; Creative Commons License: xx.

Stitch in Time. Photo Author: Stuart Axe; Source: http://bit.ly/1bYq9K8; Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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