By Karen Parrish
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, July 8, 2015 – As the United States and Vietnam mend and strengthen relations, a congressional ceremony here today commemorated a time 50 years ago when the two nations parted ways.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke during the event at Emancipation Hall, addressing congressional leaders and members from both sides of the House and Senate aisles.
Carter’s remarks credited Vietnam veterans with helping the nation recognize and learn the lessons that divisive war taught.
“We honor our 7.2 million living Vietnam-era veterans, their fallen comrades-in-arms, and the families of all who served,” he said. Some of the surviving veterans bear the wounds of war or the wear of age, he added.
While many of those veterans and many families still carry the memories of brothers, sisters, fathers and others who never came home, Carter said, their service has helped to strengthen the nation and its military.
“One of the reasons the United States has excelled is that, as a nation, we learn and innovate,” the secretary said. “And one reason why we have the finest fighting force the world has ever known is that our military is a learning organization.”
Important Lessons Learned
Carter told those assembled that while some of the lessons the Vietnam War taught America were “difficult to swallow,” all have resulted in a better country and a better military.
Two of those lessons, he said, are particularly important.
“First, we leave no one behind,” Carter said, noting other nations share that ethos.
“But there are few that have such a steadfast and sustained commitment. … Thanks in part to Vietnam-era veterans, the Department of Defense has over 650 people devoted to accounting for the missing and searching for, recovering and identifying their remains, including the more than 1,627 still missing from the Vietnam War,” the secretary added.
The second lesson is that the nation must support its warriors, he said, “regardless of our feelings about the war.”
“Unfortunately,” Carter told the audience, “that was a lesson some learned the hard way in the Vietnam era.”
The secretary noted that Vietnam veterans have shown distinctive honor and comradeship to their fellow service members fighting more recent wars.
“I am pleased by … the support for today’s veterans and service members, including the post-9/11 GI Bill, and how our troops today are welcomed home,” he said. “And I want to take this opportunity to thank you, our Vietnam-era veterans, for that lesson, and to again welcome all of you home.”
Carter also spoke about Chuck Hagel, his predecessor as defense secretary, who followed him in remarks at today’s ceremony.
“Chuck Hagel was a soldier, he’s been a senator and a distinguished secretary of defense, and he remains one of our most thoughtful statesmen,” Carter said. “And I’m proud to have been able to call him a friend for many years.”
As a sergeant in Vietnam, Carter related, Hagel led an infantry squad in fighting that followed the Tet Offensive.
“Stories of his bravery and sacrifice there are well known,” the secretary said. “And throughout the rest of his life in public service, Chuck dedicated himself to those who served, to normalizing and improving relations with Vietnam, to bringing home those still missing, and to ensuring we remember the Vietnam War’s lessons.”
2015: Year of Anniversaries, New Agreements
Carter noted that while today’s ceremony honored the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam Service Ribbon, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Executive Order 11231, this year also marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
Carter visited Vietnam for official meetings on his latest Asia-Pacific tour in May and June. On June 1 in Hanoi, he and Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Phung Quang Thanh signed a joint vision statement for the two nations’ bilateral defense relationship.
Defense officials said at the time that during his visit, Carter “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region, reiterating the United States' support for a regional architecture that allows all countries in the Asia-Pacific to rise and prosper.”
President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong met yesterday at the White House and adopted a national-level joint vision statement.
That document noted “positive and substantive developments in many areas of cooperation over the past 20 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations.”
The statement acknowledges growth in economic and trade efforts; addressing war legacy issues; and cooperation in science and technology, education, health care, environment and response to climate change, defense, security, human rights, “and increasing regional and international cooperation on issues of mutual concern.”
The statement notes “continued rapid growth in bilateral trade and investment; the entry into force of the ‘123’ Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy; Vietnam’s endorsement of the Proliferation Security Initiative’s Statement of Interdiction Principles; the easing of U.S. restriction of arms sales; the signing of the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations; and increased cooperation on regional and multilateral issues.”
U.S. Role in Vietnam: War on Many Fronts
In American history, “Vietnam War” and “Age of Protest” are two enduring phrases about an era of stark social unrest: political, generational, racial and philosophical tides divided along lines etched by changing attitudes toward civil rights, love and marriage, civic duty and economic systems.
America’s involvement in the war peaked from 1965 to 1975. U.S. troops sent to fight in Vietnam in those years often found themselves on the front lines of not only Southeast Asia, but also the ideological struggle back home.
More than 2 million American service members assigned worldwide during that era were conscripted, or enlisted without choice, under the then-active draft system, which applied to men 18 to 26. The draft offered various exemptions for education and other factors, which partially fueled the era’s rising tensions between “haves” and “have-nots.”
Meanwhile, many American citizens who opposed the war turned against service members returning from Vietnam -- who were frequently shunned, openly insulted or even physically attacked.
Long, Drawn-Out Conflict
The conflict in Vietnam, beginning in the 1940s, involved many nations and may be viewed historically as an outgrowth of World War II. U.S. participation in the war is dated variously, but official sources set America’s role as occurring primarily between 1954 and 1975, involving five separate presidential administrations.
More than 58,000 U.S. troops died in the Vietnam War. U.S. troop commitments to the conflict increased sharply after 1964, peaking at more than a half million in 1968.