America’s disengagement from a brutal, unpopular, and ultimately failed war in Vietnam began in 1969 with Richard Nixon’s announcement of his policy of “Vietnamization.” The 1973 Paris Peace Accords marked the end of America’s formal commitment to fighting in Vietnam; the war finally ended on 30 April 1975 with the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Yet while the fighting ended with the fall of the Thieu regime and the evacuation from the roof of the American embassy of American personnel and South Vietnamese nationals who had worked with the Americans, America’s struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War, a process that still plays a distinct role in American political culture, was only beginning. In this last post about how Garry Trudeau wrote about the Vietnam War, I’m going to look at how he began to address the lingering questions the war left for Americans to struggle with in the years and decades that followed the fall of Saigon.
The after-effects of war – “residual violence, food shortages, a lack of basic services, and spillover of violence into neighbouring countries” – can affect countries where wars have been fought for years, if not generations, after peace comes. Perhaps less obvious are the long-term social, political, and cultural changes in countries that have fought overseas conflicts. Post-traumatic stress disorder; the long-term effects of exposure to Agent Orange; homelessness: Vietnam vets are still paying the social costs of America’s war in Vietnam. Moreover, the war shaped American politics, domestic and foreign, for decades, bringing about a lowering of the voting age, the all-volunteer armed services, a general distrust of government, and a reticence to commit to the use of military force known as the “Vietnam syndrome.” As the war ended, the cast of Doonesbury began to ask critical questions about the effects of that war for the United States.
Three weeks after Saigon’s fall, Mike joined Mark on his radio show to begin the process of addressing the “agonizing questions of a nation groping to understand” the meaning of Vietnam. They ask a pressing question: “who was really to blame” for America getting involved in a “fratricidal” war where nobody seemed to “care about the victims” when a “gentle people [were] bloodied and crushed by a pitiful, unfeeling giant?” Remarkably, instead of blaming the people he had spent years attacking for their role in the tragedy – politicians and generals – Mark, fully embracing his role as the voice of radical America, issues a blanket condemnation of American society: “All of us” are guilty. Yet while these questions must be asked, the truth they reveal, that America as a whole was complicit in the murder of at least a million innocent civilians, keep many from wanting to hear the answers. A listener calls in to tell Mark that they are “sick” of hearing about the war: “Stop dwelling on the past,” the caller urges.“It’s over.” Mark disagrees vehemently, as “the Vietnam debacle rightly occasions a reassessment of our national purposes.”
Mike, representing a more middle-of-the-road, liberal American political tradition, is open to some of Mark’s criticisms of America’s actions, but he, like the caller, also hopes to move on. He has a certain amount of sympathy for the caller’s desire to stop dwelling on the past and eventually grows weary of Mark’s ranting about America’s crimes in south-east Asia. Moreover, unlike Mark, America’s crimes in southeast Asia don’t cause him to lose his fundamental faith in his country. Later on, in conversation with B.D., he argues that after having having “led the Vietnamese on for ten years,” America has a debt to pay; letting in Vietnamese refugees looking for “one real shot at making new lives for themselves” is a way to move forward.
For his part, B.D. has no interest in moving forward if it means letting people who “let themselves get beat” into the country. As Mike and Mark give their Vietnam postmortem, Phred, B.D.’s Vietnamese buddy, recalls the last days of the war, wondering what his American friend thought and felt at the sight of America’s former allies desperately struggling to get out of Saigon. On the other side of the planet, B.D. sits on Walden’s front porch, hiding his head and crying, a magazine story about the end of the war beside him.
Trudeau’s portrayal of B.D.’s reaction to the end of the Vietnam war is one of his most powerful single-panel drawings. It draws its power in part from its ambiguity: what is B.D. crying for? Given the lighthearted manner in which GBT portrayed B.D.’s war experience, it would be incongruous for him to be mourning a fallen comrade or recalling a personal trauma (…after all, he was awarded a Purple Heart for cutting himself on a beer can). Instead of thinking about this as a moment of personal grief, we need to see B.D. in his role as a stand-in for American conservatism. With the defeat in Vietnam, conservatives like B.D. could no longer hide from the fact that the country they knew and loved had forever changed in ways that they were only beginning to understand.
B.D. fears that the Vietnam war was “all a waste,” and that he, and by extension, the rest of the nation bled “for nothing.” His questions to Mike speak to a deep sense of betrayal felt by a nation that supported a war that, from the lies that justified the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to the “secret bombings” of Cambodia was justified by, and conducted under a shroud of, deception. B.D.’s cry – “Explain my wound to me!” – is that of a substantial part of America that is coming to understand that the country they loved had experienced significant trauma, trauma that would forever change its fundamental character, both in terms of its relationship with the rest of the world and its internal dynamics.
It’s impossible to separate the Vietnam war from the revolutionary domestic changes that America experienced in the 1960s and early 1970s, especially those concerning race. Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam because, as a Black man in America, he had no quarrel with those fighting imperialism; the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program noted that African-Americans would not “fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America”; confronted with American actions in Vietnam, Martin Luther King realized that he “could never again raise [his] voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: [his] own government.” B.D., as Doonesbury’s voice of conservative America, is not simply reacting to a military defeat, he is coming to grips with how that military defeat signalled the end of the America he grew up in: John Wayne’s America, a country that won every war it fought, and where white guys like B.D. were always on top. If we have to understand Vietnam in the context of the racial upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, then we have to understand America’s defeat to an anti-imperialist movement in south-east Asia in terms of the gains made by African-Americans against the racism that defined American social relationships. Read alongside his first encounter with Calvin, where he spoke longingly of the days of uncontested white supremacy, B.D.’s reaction to the fall of Saigon begins to look like he, and the part of America he represents, is mourning the end of the old social order as much as he’s morning a military defeat.
Mark was focused on Vietnam as a historical question to be unpacked; Mike was focused on healing the wounds caused by that history by giving Vietnamese refugees a chance at peace and prosperity; B.D. was mourning the end of uncontested American supremacy abroad and white supremacy at home. In the immediate aftermath of the war’s end, GBT understood that Vietnam left a complex legacy for Americans to wrestle with, and that the social and political divides that were exacerbated by the war and resistance to it were not going away just because the fighting had ended.
The plan to evacuate the last Americans and their South Vietnamese allies from Vietnam was codenamed “Operation Frequent Wind.” A few weeks after the end of Operation Frequent Wind, the United States would – in the funny pages at least – recycle that name in an attempt to begin the process of restoring the American public’s faith in the country’s military power. On 17 June, 1975, President Ford gave the command to launch “Operation Frequent Manhood,” a military campaign to bring the rogue governor of American Samoa, a former Rolling Stone journalist and a total moral reprobate, back in line.
Next time on Reading Doonesbury: Uncle Duke goes to Pago-Pago, and Garry Trudeau’s engagement with empire and anti-colonialism in the 1970s.