Forty years ago today, RN spoke to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Louisiana, delivering a fiery and passionate defense of his administration’s foreign policy in – and exit strategy from – the jungles of Vietnam, and the importance of rebuilding America’s foreign policy credentials around the world.
Not only did the President’s comments shed light on the widely-misunderstood and misinterpreted military actions exercised under his command, but they improved understanding of the proper context behind his decisions which news reports so often lack. Of most pressing interest to the President were misconceptions about the U.S. actions in Cambodian territories.
The President thoughtfully explained that the North Vietnamese communists had forced Cambodians out of a 10 to 15 mile stretch of their own homeland, infiltrated and occupied the land, then set up supply lines and bases that became home to 40,000 enemy fighters.
“By January of 1969,” the President told the assembled thousands, “these enemy-occupied sanctuaries were no more neutral territory than was northern France or Belgium in the late spring of 1944 when those territories were occupied by the Germans.”
And so, he gave the order in March 1969 to eradicate those North Vietnamese sanctuaries. Not only did the Cambodian government support the bombings, Cambodian Prince Sihanouk even invited RN on a state visit to the country.
As to the secrecy of the bombings, the President noted that the operation would have been jeopardized if made completely public, as it would have sparked international protests, likely prompting the Cambodian government to reverse its support and the success of the operation would have been curtailed. But all appropriate congressional officials were clued in to what was going on, he said, so the claim that the White House was acting unilaterally was simply not accurate.
The fact that the President was really up against so much – beginning with having inherited a disillusioned and divided country in 1968; the marches, protests and terrorist bombings of 1969, 1970 and 1971; and the entrenched opposition in the press and national bureaucracy – it is remarkable that he was able to end American involvement in Vietnam honorably at all. And, obviously, the veterans agreed, as they were there to present him with the highly-regarded Peace Award.
“I am going to continue to work to build a lasting peace so that our children will not have the legacy that we have, a war every generation in this century–World War I, World War II, Korea, and then Vietnam. That is enough.”
RN’s connection with the VFW organization, one of the oldest and well-established veterans groups, dated to his years in Congress. Even he noted as much:
“I was thinking a moment ago,” he said, “of the public figures in America today, I have probably spoken before more meetings of this type of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, your national conventions, than anybody in public life, and I am proud to have done so.”
But even more importantly: “I am proud that this is the first time I have spoken to you when the United States is at peace with every nation in the world. It is a good time – a good time.”
Vice President Nixon was awarded the prestigious Bernard Baruch Medal at a VFW meeting in 1954. His association with the organization stretched for over 20 years.