I was thrilled to attend two afternoon sessions of the recent Vietnam War Summit. This three-day event was hosted by the LBJ Presidential Library. Panel discussions were held each afternoon in their auditorium, with evening keynotes featuring former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and filmmaker Ken Burns interviewing current Secretary of State John Kerry.
In conjunction with the Summit, The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, was set up on the plaza outside the LBJ Library. Even the smaller version of this memorial was impressive. Vietnam veterans were invited to be recognized at morning and afternoon ceremonies each day.
Summit Day 2 Afternoon (Wednesday April 27 2016)
The War at Home
Panelists: Tom Hayden, David Maraniss, and Marilyn Young
Moderator: Robert Schenkkan
The panelists talked about how the anti-war movement grew out of the civil rights movement. They identified some key protest issues: the draft (noting that eighteen-year-olds could be drafted, but could not vote); deferments for the rich (“the working class fought the war”); and a credibility gap with the government. There had been some complaints that former protester Tom Hayden was invited to this event, but I didn’t observe any issues in or near the auditorium.
The War and the Fourth Estate
Panelists: Peter Arnett and Dan Rather
Moderator: Andrew Sherry
Starting in 1962, Peter Arnett spent 13 years as an AP reporter in Vietnam. He might be better known now for as a CNN reporter in Baghdad during the start of the Gulf War. Dan Rather is, of course, well-known as a former CBS news anchor, but he had also reported from Vietnam in 1965. Both men noted that, although there was some heavy-handed manipulation of the media by three presidents, reporters were welcomed everywhere until close to the end of the war. Getting their film out of the war zone was not easy. The moderator asked: how has war reporting changed since Vietnam? Peter and Dan observed that technology advances make a reporter’s job easier and more timely. However, most news divisions are now owned by big companies who are reluctant to report on politically-charged situations.
The Power of a Picture
Panelists: David Hume Kennerly and Nick Ut
Moderator: Angela Evans
David Hume Kennerly was a UPI photographer in Vietnam in 1971. He later became the White House photographer for President Ford. Nick Ut has been an AP photographer for 50 years. In 1973, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his famous shot of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. Each man selected some of their photographs for the audience to view. The silence in the auditorium testified to the impact of their work.
Summit Day 3 Afternoon (Thursday, April 28 2016)
The Troops: A View from the Front Lines
Panelists: Liz Allen, John Sibley, Butler, Isaac Camacho, and Ken Wallingford
Moderator: William Adams
This panel included an Army psychologist (Liz Allen), a medic (John Sibley), a Special Forces soldier (Isaac Camacho), and a sniper (Ken Wallingford). The last two were captured and held as POWs. Their stories about Vietnam were very interesting, especially those told by the POWs (one escaped and the other was released at the end of the war). All agreed that the North Vietnamese had a hunger to win and fought hard.
One, Two, Three: What Are We Fighting For?
Panelists: Country Joe McDonald and Peter Yarrow
Moderator: Bob Santelli
Country Joe McDonald began this session by singing two of his 22 songs about the Vietnam war: Fixin’ to Die Rag and Superbird. He related how he had performed Fixin’ to Die Rag when he was filling time before Santana at Woodstock. Peter Yarrow agreed with previous panelists that the anti-war movement stemmed from the civil rights movement. He noted that Peter, Paul and Mary had sung If I Had a Hammer and Blowin’ in the Wind at the 1963 Washington DC march. Both musicians agreed that “the music of that era was the real conscience of our soul.” They are both now involved in veterans causes. Peter closed the session by asking the audience to hold hands and join him in singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Remarks by Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh
The current Ambassador from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to the United States noted that over three million Vietnamese died in what they call call the “American War.” He outlined current areas of cooperation between the two countries: political, trade, defense/security, education and technology. He also called on the US to lift all arms restrictions.
Panelists: Bob Kerrey, Willliam McRaven, and Charles S. Robb
Moderator: Mark Lawrence
Former Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey read a prepared statement, noting that “making peace is hard, perhaps harder than making war.” Former William McRaven was too young to serve in Vietnam, but he spoke about mistakes made in Vietnam that were not repeated when he was a commander during the Gulf War. Senator Chuck Robb was a Marine, but was prevented from combat action in Vietnam once he married Lynda Bird Johnson (who was in the audience with her sister, Luci). The men offered suggestions for today’s armed forces, such as compulsory national service and unit rotations instead of individual rotations.
Some excerpts from the sessions are now on YouTube (search for “The Vietnam War Summit” posted by TheLBJLibrary). The entire Summit will be broadcast on C-SPAN3 from May 29 to June 1.
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