02/26/14 — Wayne County Reads winding down for 2014

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Wayne County Reads winding down for 2014

By Josh Ellerbrock
Published in News on February 26, 2014 2:05 PM

During the last Wayne County Reads event before the big finale next Tuesday, Dr. Alan Lamm, head of the history department at the University of Mount Olive, gave a historical overview of the Vietnam War.

Lamm described the 18-year war as an amalgamation of mistakes and near misses that slowly escalated into being the first "loss" for the United States. And, as he detailed the players and events that defined the conflict, he gave historical context to why the country entered such a quagmire in the first place.

To truly understand the war, Lamm began with the charismatic leader of the Community forces, Ho Chi Minh.

As a young man, Ho Chi Minh was raised by a nationalistic father, frustrated by Vietnam's French handlers. Those same feelings passed onto the young man, who wished to see a free Vietnam. In the early 20th century, he traveled the world, including visiting the United States, and was encouraged by the prevailing mood of Third World nationalism.

He joined the French Communist party with the goal of freeing his country, Lamm said, quoting Minh: "It was patriotism, not communism that inspired me."

After a few other stints in countries around the world (including the United States), Minh ended up back in Vietnam as an advocate of the Hong Kong Communist Party, which he helped organize.

Back in his native country, Minh continued to push for a free Vietnam, campaigning against Japan and fighting against the French. He even wrote a Declaration of Independence of Vietnam based off of American and French ideals.

Lamm explained that the United States even held a favorable view of him -- until he took a sharper turn toward communism.

With the United States having just left the Korean War and having spent several years investigating suspected Communists within its own borders, it could not support the Geneva Accords, signed after France was pushed out of the country, and the elections it feared would carry Ho Chi Minh to power.

"A lot of Vietnamese saw him as a George Washington character," Lamm said.

And so the United States stopped the elections and set up a different dictator in the southern end of Vietnam, which, Lamm explained, helped push the country to civil war.

The United States' involvement began with President John F. Kennedy sending in 500 military advisers. By the time he was assassinated, there were 16,000 military personnel in Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson then continued the escalation, committing 200,000 troops. However, that was only one-fifth of what the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised him was necessary to win a war of attrition.

And while in military and body count terms, the U.S. and its allies won, the political costs in the U.S., with the war's graphic images on television and in print every day, made it a victory for Ho Chi Minh.

Ultimately, because of the war, Johnson refused to run for a second term and Richard Nixon won the presidency.

But public opinion turned even more sharply against the war and by 1973, the last American helicopter had left Saigon.

Shortly thereafter, The North Vietnamese invaded, and by 1975, those who opposed the communists were defeated. The divided country became one under communist rule. The war cost 58,000 American lives.

Fast forward to today, the United States and Vietnam are allies. American tourists now visit the country, and the University of Mount Olive, where the lecture took place, now hosts two Vietnamese students. Their flag hangs in the university's cafeteria.

"How things have changed over the years," Lamm said.

The Wayne County Reads finale will feature the recognition of the writing contest winners and give attendees an opportunity to view the museum's exhibit of related artifacts and "A Thousands Words" photos. It is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday at the Wayne County Museum.

This year's book for Wayne County Reads is "The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien.