There are no flags on today’s calendar entry … no fireworks, no jubilation, no explosions of patriotic joy in multi-colored pencil.
Just raindrops, temperature readings, and a single factual declaration as blunt and unemotional as a “DEAD END” sign.
My grandfather wasn’t the only one taking the news of a cease-fire with a sort of weary acceptance. The next day’s New York Times featured a front-page article headlined “Nation Celebrates Peace In Prayer and Muted Joy,” which described many Americans’ celebrations as “modest and somber” at the end of “a tragic war.”
(One hundred fifty-seven soldiers from my grandpa’s home county of Fairfield County, Connecticut, were killed or went missing in action while fighting the Vietnam War. The last two — Air Force Majors Francis Walsh Jr. of Westport and Irwin Lerner of Stratford — were declared MIA scarcely a month before the signing of the Paris peace accords; their names are five rows apart on the same panel of the Vietnam Memorial.)
Of course, there were any number of valid reasons why Americans didn’t stream into the streets to celebrate the cease-fire.
We didn’t win. Notice I didn’t say “We lost.” The agreement signed in Paris included a pledge that the people of South Vietnam would have the chance to choose their own future through free, democratic elections. So an American who trusted what he read in the newspaper in 1973 might have believed that the cause America championed still had a future.
Even so, it was apparent that American military might had not produced a definitive victory, but at best a costly and traumatic stalemate. Not much to celebrate, in other words.
Fatigue. An American of my grandfather’s age would have lived through four wars by 1973 — World Wars I and II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam. It’s tough to celebrate the end of one war when another one always seems to come around in a decade or so.
Disgust. I believe most American soldiers in Vietnam fought in an honorable fashion, no less so than Americans in other wars. (I once interviewed a World War II vet who told me with no small relish how his unit used to shoot SS soldiers as they tried to surrender.)
But Vietnam, at its lowest points, did bring out the worst and most questionable in American wartime conduct. Once Americans had learned about the My Lai massacre and the “Christmas bombings” of 1972, they might just have wanted to wash their hands of the whole rotten business.
Weather. The most minor of reasons, but maybe a valid one. Unlike V-E Day (May) and V-J Day (August), the Vietnam cease-fire took place in midwinter. Forty degrees and rain is weather to make people heat up a can of soup and fall asleep in front of the ABC Movie of the Week, not to throng Times Square and kiss the nearest nurse.
(There’s the germ of a great novel and/or screenplay in that scene — young soldier heads into cold, grungy 1973 Times Square in search of something resembling a celebration. But I’ve not got the talent to write it, so it will play exclusively at the marquee in my head, perhaps with John Cazale portraying the soldier.)
What did my grandfather think of the war? My dad suggests he might not have been as firmly in favor as others of his generation:
People didn’t chatter about “closure” in 1973 the way they do today. And it doesn’t seem to me that Americans expected the cease-fire to bring them a sense of finality, or a feeling that accounts had been settled.
As it turned out, Americans didn’t have time to ponder the meanings of Vietnam, even if they had wanted to.
By the summer of ’73, the nation was gripped by the blossoming Watergate scandal. In the autumn, an unprecedented energy crisis joined it. With the U.S. government teetering and gas stations running dry, problems from the past — even the recent past — would inevitably have been pushed aside by problems present and future.
In retrospect, knowing where the nation was headed, Americans might have done more to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War simply because that was the closest thing to good news they were going to get for a while.