In ’68, a young GI’s beliefs are rattled by another country’s Declaration of Independence

President Ho Chi Minh reading Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, Sept. 2, 1945.
President Ho Chi Minh reading Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, Sept. 2, 1945.

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

July 4, 1968: I pondered these words, dispirited. How far my country had drifted from the ideals that six months earlier I believed justified our involvement, and my duty, in Vietnam.

An Army brat, I had celebrated previous Independence Days on military bases where we focused on the value of protecting — universally — freedom and national independence, as expressed by our Declaration of Independence’s second paragraph, first sentence.

Observing the 4th in Ga Dinh province southeast of Saigon with the 519th Military Intelligence Batallion, I thought about how those words had inspired the words at the top of this column which make up the first sentence in Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence — for Vietnam, Sept. 2, 1945 — composed after a century of French colonialism and four years of Japanese occupation.

Ho sincerely admired American ideals, believed we advocated for them universally; his argument for independence from France paralleled ours’ from England. He worried, ironically, that Vietnam was too small and insignificant for the United States to notice.

So, why were we there in 1968?

France colonized Vietnam in the mid-19th century and faced growing resistance in the 20th. In World War II, our Office of Strategic Services (CIA precursor) joined Ho Minh’s forces — rescuing American pilots and fighting the Japanese — while France stayed, sided with and administered Vietnam.

Post-war though, France — contrary to its 1791 Declaration ideals of freedom and equal rights for all, and assisted by the United States — reasserted its dominion over an even more determinedly resistant Vietnam.

To bolster French participation in NATO, the U.S. contributed majority funding to assure a French victory over Vietnamese forces driven by a profound, long-held, battle-tested will for national independence.

Despite our intervention, France was defeated militarily in 1954.

Immediately, international powers, led by the U.S., divided Vietnam north and south, promising elections in 1956. The promised elections were subsequently sabotaged, as it became clear that Ho would win handily, ending U.S. influence over a unified Vietnam. During the Japanese occupation, U.S. intelligence determined that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist, but he also was a Communist.

So, we set out to fabricate (non-representative) governments (one after a tragic other); train and motivate a military to oppose (against the force of their own history) the majority supporting independence.

Failing that, we inserted combat troops in 1965, launching Vietnam into another war for independence — the American War.

By Independence Day ’68, my entire belief system was dissolved by contradicting realities, I freely reflected on the meaning of patriotism and the justness of national independence — for Vietnam.

I reeled considering how our country, born of a declaration against an occupying foreign power, had been embarrassingly ignorant, often violently opposed to other countries’ struggles for liberation.

At home, antiwar activities sparked intense debate over what patriotism means, designating unquestioning loyalty as American and dissent as un-American. Half-a-century later, dishearteningly, notions of patriotism are more ideologically polarized. This is no small problem.

“Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” George Washington

Over time, July 4 transvalued from political ideal to economic holiday — offering independence and freedom for flag-wrapped consumption, sold as patriotism, increasingly indifferent to historic memory and civic responsibility. Whether historical amnesia or ignorance, increasingly, interests and emotions trump principles, while commemorations devolve to ritual and symbol-adoration.

What is patriotism in a democracy?

A common theme among varied, thoughtful definitions involves a sense of responsibility to basic principles, values upon which this country was birthed. Patriotism is not, in the words of Adlai Stevenson, “a short and frenzied outburst of virtuousness,” as in 1968’s pro-Vietnam chants: “My country Right or Wrong!;” “America: Love It or Leave It!” Nor is it today’s jingoistic shouting: “U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!,” “We’re Number One!”

For the sake of our soul, patriotism cannot forsake individual or national empathy for other people or countries, especially for unjust causes. It cannot mean blind obedience toward American foreign policies which unravel the principles we claim to value.

“It is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.” — Voltaire

Today, patriotism is less about principles, more about interests, sentimentality, reinforcing myths and partying well. Condemning future generations to a warped meaning, thereby leaving families, educators and communities responsible for reclaiming our Declaration’s value-based patriotism.

“If ever the time should come, when vain & aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” — Samuel Adams

Let’s begin with clear imperatives for a democratic patriotism, provided by founding fathers, which insists on informed, intelligent and critical questioning of government.

For them, dissent to protect freedom, human rights and rule of law is the basis of democracy and the truest and highest form of patriotism. Let’s teach that.

Peter Berres of Lexington is a retired educator and military veteran who served in Vietnam. This column is part of a year-long series he is writing reflecting on the events of 1968 and their implications for today.