Fifty years after the Vietnam War, the United States, Vietnam and much of the rest of the world continue to wrestle with its legacy and consequences.
In addition to the human toll—more than 58,000 American military personnel were killed along with estimates of nearly 1.5 million North and South Vietnamese troops and at least 2 million Vietnamese civilians—the era has helped shape nearly every corner of American life, from politics and the military to culture and race relations. After the war, Americans questioned their leaders and grappled with seismic shifts in society—while the Vietnamese were left picking up the pieces of a war-torn nation.
Vietnam “changed almost everything about how we live, what we believe, how we select governance, how we think about the military,” said Daniel Weiss, B.A. ’79, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a moderator for “Vietnam: A 50 Year Retrospective,” a daylong conference at Jack Morton Auditorium on April 29 supported by George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), the Wallace Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The author of the 2019 book “In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam,” Weiss joined other luminaries at the event—from diplomats, military leaders and politicians to historians, journalists and poets—who reflected on the lessons of the war.
Among the conference panelists, former Nebraska senators and Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and Bob Kerrey addressed how the conflict forever altered military strategies while igniting a crisis of confidence in American leadership.
Pioneering journalists including Pulitzer Prize-winners Frances FitzGerald and David Maraniss recounted both reporting from Vietnamese war zones and returning decades later to trace the war’s repercussions today.
And dignitaries such as former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt and Columbia University historian Lien-Hang Nguyen discussed the conflict’s international ramifications and, as Nguyen described it, Vietnam’s “meteoric rise” on the global stage.
“It was a great national drama that we went through,” Burghardt said. “It still fascinates us and still frustrates us trying to understand it today.”
In opening remarks, GW President Mark S. Wrighton said the conference embodied the university’s commitment to “the creation of new knowledge that is not only relevant in looking toward the future but is also relevant as we examine and re-examine important historical events in the past.”
Likewise, CCAS Dean Paul Wahlbeck lauded the conference’s “mission to explore the deeper meaning and lasting impact of this transformative era in American history.” Wahlbeck credited Weiss, a former CCAS psychology and art history major, with inspiring the event. He praised Weiss’ book, which follows the life of a young American helicopter pilot shot down in Cambodia in 1970. Weiss said he was drawn to O’Donnell’s story after reading a poem the young soldier wrote weeks before he was killed. Like the book, Weiss hoped the conference would commemorate the service of veterans like O’Donnell. “Remembrance matters,” he said.
In the first panel, moderator Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs Books and a Vietnam War correspondent for The Washington Post, spoke with Hagel, Kerrey and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton about how the war shaped future military strategy and America’s global standing as a superpower. Hagel, a former secretary of defense during the Obama administration, said Vietnam has informed all subsequent military actions. “Every decision I made in some way had some reflection on my time in Vietnam,” he said. Eaton, whose Air Force colonel father was killed in Vietnam, agreed that the war prepared the U.S. armed forces for future conflicts. “They listened to our Vietnam veterans,” he said.
Kerrey, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, stressed the importance of mending the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship. “We need to be sympathetic and try to understand and become friends with the people of Vietnam,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged that the secretive war strategies of the era’s presidential administrations fostered a mistrust among Americans toward their elected officials that endures today. “There were many examples where our leaders were just lying to us,” he said. “That began a process with which we are deeply immersed today...a lack of confidence and a belief that they’re telling us things that are not true.”
Aftermath and remembrance
A post-war panel highlighted the extraordinary turnaround for Vietnam over the past few decades as it built “a vital economy,” Burghardt said, and forged commercial and political collaborations with the United States. Former Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg, now director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, noted the influx of American tourism to Vietnam, from veterans revisiting the site of their service to back packers hiking the countryside. “I’m amazed when I’m in Vietnam and…young people say, ‘Wait, you mean we fought a war here?’”
Nguyen predicted that generational shifts toward leaders “who don’t have the same kind of baggage about that war” will spur an even greater “sea change” in cultural and political progress. “Young Vietnamese are asking… ‘When is it our time?’” she said.
Moderator Thom Shanker, director of the Project for Media & National Security at the CCAS School of Media and Public Affairs, asked a panel of journalists about the personal impact of working in a war zone. A former New York Times correspondent who reported on the war in Afghanistan, Shanker noted that wars leave scares on reporters as well as soldiers. “If you go off to cover a war, the war covers you,” he said. “And you can never really scrub it off.”
Indeed, author FitzGerald, who won the won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for her seminal 1972 book, “The Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam,” described disturbing scenes from covering the war, including visiting an understaffed hospital where patients were “horribly disfigured and blown up to twice their size” from Napalm explosions. She recalled seeing dogs roaming the streets with human bones in their mouths. “The whole spectacle was so terrible that I really had no idea how to deal with it,” she said.
The panelists also compared the era’s antiwar protests to modern social campaigns like the Black Lives Matter movement and environmental activism. Journalist and author Elizabeth Becker encouraged today’s student leaders to be inspired by the antiwar movement’s cultural impact. “There were victories before,” she said. “There can be victories again.”
In the event’s final panel, experts discussed the poetry, photography and music that defined the mood of the era. Corcoran Director Onkey, a former vice president at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, described how music helped people express their conflicting feelings about the war—from the ultra-patriotism of “The Ballad of the Green Berets” to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s protest anthem “Ohio” to Marvin Gaye’s R&B classic “What’s Going On,” which lamented Black soldiers returning from service in Vietnam only to face racial discrimination at home.
“Art is a dialogue,” Onkey said. “It’s reflecting what we are experiencing.”
In closing remarks, the moderators emphasized the value of continually seeking new lessons from the war. Weiss said the era reminds “an educated citizenry” to demand moral responsibility and ethical leadership from elected officials while Osnos said the war still serves as a roadmap for global events and America’s political and cultural future.
“Reflections on the war 50 years after the fact are immensely important,” he said, “in helping us understand what we did, where we were and where we may be headed.”
A video of the daylong conference is available on YouTube.