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50 years later: Impact of Vietnam War still felt today

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Unlike World War II, there were no huge victory parades in major cities to welcome Vietnam War veterans.

It was 50 years ago that sustained U.S. bombing raids of North Vietnam began and the first American combat troops arrived in South Vietnam.

But the impacts of the Vietnam War are still being felt today, according to history professors Ross Kennedy of Illinois State University and Tom Lutze of Illinois Wesleyan University.

Kennedy was guest curator of a Vietnam War exhibit at the McLean County Museum of History in 2008 and Lutze teaches a course titled, “The Vietnam Wars.”

“In general, Bloomington-Normal strongly supported America's involvement in the war up until the Tet Offensive in 1968,” said Kennedy. “It closely mirrored American public opinion.”

Twenty-five servicemen from McLean County died in the Vietnam War. But others, on the battlefield and elsewhere, quietly returned home to resume their lives.

The stories of some of them will appear in The Pantagraph over the next 50 days.

Many are like John Dennison, who enlisted in the Army after graduating from McLean-Waynesville High School in 1967.

“I was proud to go and proud to serve,” Dennison said.

The war had a lasting impact on the country's foreign policy and use of military force, according to Kennedy.

Belatedly, it may have had an impact on how the country views all of its veterans.

On May 23, 1987, an estimated 50,000 people lined a three-mile route through Bloomington-Normal for a Debt of Honor/Welcome Home Veterans parade that drew 8,000 veterans of various wars, including Vietnam.

While some people traveled from far away to participate, others closer to home let the parade go on without them.

“I skipped that,” said Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in the Thua Thien sector during 1970-1971. "It was too late for me."

Ken Satterfeal of LeRoy, a military policeman in Saigon from 1966-1967, said, “My welcome home parade was my mom and my dad and my brother who picked me up at O'Hare.”

The most important lasting impact of the war, according to Kennedy, is “Vietnam really eroded people's confidence in major institutions, especially government. … It's never really recovered from it.”

Other events, most notably the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, contributed to that erosion, Kennedy said.

“But a good portion of that skepticism comes from Vietnam,” he said.

Lutze said it's unlikely that policymakers realized how destructive the war would be, killing not only more than 58,000 Americans but millions of Indochinese as portions of the war crossed into neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

France, which had initially colonized Vietnam, had 90,000 casualties — wounded and killed — in nine years of fighting before it pulled out and the United States got involved in a bid to contain communism.

“What the United States could have learned” from France's experience “was this is not going to be easy and it's not going to be bloodless,” Lutze said.

He bring veterans with a variety of views into his classroom. Many were the same age as his students — or younger — when they served in combat.

“I try to expose my students to the different perspectives, then provide the deeper historical documentation,” Lutze said.

Frank Thompson, who served in the Army in Vietnam in the early 1960s before the influx of combat troops, said, “It's part of our history, whether we like it or not.”

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota


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