Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It’s not a date most people remember, anymore; but for we who were part of that era, it is a significant day in our history. It meant the Vietnam War was finally, and completely over. Some 19 years of hell had come to an end.
The one day which impacted me even more than the fall of Saigon was January 27, 1973. It marked a significant day, personally, and for the history of America. On that day, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, formally ending United States fighting in Vietnam.
It would be two more months before the last U.S. troops were withdrawn, and two more years before the fall of Saigon. But, January 27th was a pivotal day, and one I’ve liked to observe. Alone. With my memories.
Each of us has our stories from those days. We all know where we were, and what we were doing during the war. And we had a somber ritual, reading the papers each day, searching the lists of names for our friends we had known all our lives, who would not be coming home.
I do not know anyone from my generation who was untouched or unaffected by the war. Some served; some who stayed behind were more outspoken than others, protesting and demonstrating whenever and wherever the opportunity arose, determined their collective voice would be heard; some prayed day and night, fervently desiring their loved one would come back home, alive; and everyone wanted the war to be over, just finally over.
As I have reflected on how long it took Peace Negotiators to complete their task, I remember the issue of the table. That’s right. Table. I wondered if anyone else recalled the delay in the Paris Peace Talks at the outset, because the negotiators would not agree on the shape of the table around which they would sit. The representatives of North Vietnam, including the Viet Cong from South Vietnam, wanted a round table which would indicate all were equal in their importance. The South Vietnamese wanted a rectangular table which would demonstrate there were opposing sides in the conflict. After much time and maneuvering, a compromise was reached; the North and South representatives would sit at a circular table, and all other parties sat at square tables surrounding them. There you have it. It was 1968; the peace negotiations would take five more grueling years to resolve and agree to the following:
Beginning on 27 January 1973 at midnight, Greenwich Mean Time—in Saigon time, 08:00 on 28 January—there would be an in-place ceasefire. North and South Vietnamese forces were to hold their locations. They were permitted to resupply military materials to the extent necessary to replace items consumed in the course of the truce.
Once the ceasefire was in effect, U.S. troops (along with other non-Vietnamese soldiers) would begin to withdraw, with withdrawal to be complete within sixty days. Simultaneously, U.S. prisoners of war would be released and allowed to return home. The parties to the agreement agreed to assist in repatriating the remains of the dead.
There would be negotiations between the two South Vietnamese parties—Saigon and the Vietcong—towards a political settlement that would allow the South Vietnamese people to “decide themselves the political future of South Viet-Nam through genuinely free and democratic general elections under international supervision.”
Reunification of Vietnam was to be “carried out step by step through peaceful means”.
I am not a diplomat, nor do I pretend to understand all a diplomat’s job entails, but I do believe, with sincerity and purpose of mind, I could have hammered that out in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, if we stopped for a quick box lunch. And just for a little perspective, during the five years between 1968 and 1973, while deliberations plodded forward at a snail’s pace, approximately 26,292 members of the US military died.
The war finally ended, and our men and women came home. None was ever the same, but they were back. Some adjusted readily, moving forward with their lives, loves, families; expressing gratitude and vigor, seizing every opportunity they could from those set before them. And some did not adjust. The toll was too costly, the demands exceeding what reserves they initially carried, until they were done, gone, forever lost to the hope and potential that once was theirs.
In time, the Vietnam War Memorial was built, and visiting it is an experience unlike any other ever encountered. Actually, it seems to me one of the most respectful tributes conceived and constructed in our country. I wish everyone would visit it, and have the opportunity to sense the spirit of the place, the honest, from the gut expression of appreciation and love for those whose names reside on the wall from those whose names do not. And as a personal side note, I would hope those who visit would perhaps remember the ones whose names are not written there, but who also did not survive the war. It just took them a little longer, and in a different place for it to end; the final, unrecognized casualties of a long ago war, in a far away place.