Vietnam: An unpopular war, but an important legacy

  • Published
  • By Kenneth Dodd
  • 81st Training Wing historian

Forty-three years ago today, the governments of the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords. This peace agreement between the three governments ended America’s participation in the Vietnam War and facilitated the release of American prisoners of war held captive by North Vietnam.[1]


The Vietnam War took place during a time in America’s history where the nation was engaged in a “Cold War” with the Communist U.S.S.R and was grappling with numerous social ills. Civil rights, voting rights, a drug culture and poverty were key issues being tackled by the federal government during the 1960s. Reportedly, the Vietnam War cost $120 billion and that spending led to widespread inflation in America after the war.[2]


The Vietnam War was also very unpopular at home. Nightly television broadcasts of the war’s brutality turned many Americans against the war they had supported earlier. Five-thousand demonstrators marched against the war in October 1967 outside the White House. Anti-war protests continued as U.S. casualties continued to mount amid a growing U.S. military troop presence in Vietnam (543,482 personnel peak strength in 1968) and carnage like the My Lai Massacre, where U.S soldiers killed more than 400 unarmed civilians in March 1968, became household news. The war was also unpopular with America’s youth. Anti-war protests occurred on many college campuses. At Kent State University, National Guardsmen killed four students while attempting to end a campus protest.[3]


The Vietnam War was also a conscription war. Most of the men who participated in the war were drafted to serve. As there were exemptions to conscription, conscription became a mantra for protesters. states that about 500,000 American men – “draft dodgers” – evaded war service by fleeing the country, most crossing the border into Canada. Even troop withdrawals from Vietnam beginning in 1968 caused anxiety, especially among the troops that had to stay behind. In addition, “Tens of thousands of soldiers received dishonorable discharges for desertion.”[4] Infantry soldiers in Vietnam, on average, saw 240 days of combat in one year. In comparison, an infantry soldier in the Pacific during World War II saw only 40 days of combat in four years.[5]


The war, America’s longest at that time, cost the country greatly. America lost 58,253 service personnel between November 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975 in Indochina; 2,586 of these casualties were from the U.S. Air Force. As of 2014, 1,638 of the 58,253 casualties still remain unaccounted for.[6] According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, another 32,000 personnel lost their lives serving elsewhere around the globe during the time of the conflict. And 153,303 personnel were non-mortally wounded; 931 were Air Force personnel.[7] Fourteen Air Force members were awarded the Medal of Honor for their sacrifices during the war; five of the medals were awarded posthumously.[8] Between 1964 and 1975, a total of 8,744,000 Americans served their country in its military services; 3,403,000 of them deployed to Southeast Asia.[9]


Aircraft losses were also high during the war. During Operation Rolling Thunder, 1965-1968, the Air Force lost 531 aircraft.[10] Many more aircraft were lost during Operation Linebacker I, May - October 1972, Operation Linebacker II, December 1972, and the various other close air support, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and supply missions the Air Force conducted between 1964 and 1972. In total, the Air Force lost 2,257 aircraft.[11]


Perhaps the greatest outcome of the war’s cease fire was the prisoner swaps between the three governments. The plan to bring American prisoners of war home was called Operation Homecoming. Between February and March of 1973, 591 POWs returned home to America. Their return home started with a trip to Clark Air Base in the Philippines where they received medical exams and treatment, meals, and new uniforms. After Clark Air Base, POWs returned stateside for more extensive treatment if needed, debriefs, and reunions with family. According to the U.S. Air Force, “about 80 percent of the former POWs who survived the war continued their military careers.[12] Keesler Air Force Base was one of 31 bases to receive former POWs. Twelve former POWs were repatriated at Keesler during the period February 15 to April 6, 1973. At Keesler, the 12 men underwent thorough medical and dental evaluations, intelligence debriefs, and received assistance in finance, personnel, legal affairs and other programs they requested. Reunion with family was also an important part of Operation Homecoming.[13]


As of May 2015, the Veterans Administration estimated there were 7,391,000 living Vietnam War veterans. Every Vietnam War veteran I know or have met is proud of his or her service to our country. Unfortunately, because the war was unpopular at home, many service members returning home from Vietnam never received the “homecoming” that our current returning warfighters receive today (see accompanying commentary by 2nd Lt. William Harris, 333rd Training Squadron).


I encourage you, as Harris does in his commentary, “the next time you are walking through the commissary or just down the street and you see the big yellow letters, ‘Vietnam Veteran,’ on the cap of an older gentlemen, stop and tell them more than just thank you; tell them how much you appreciate what they have done and the road their generation paved for today’s U.S. military. Their service is a great contribution to the ongoing legacy of professionalism, duty, and valor that makes our Air Force the greatest in the world.”

[1] “Milestones: 1969-1976, Ending the Vietnam War, 1969-1973,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, 31 Oct 2013, pp.1-2.

[2] “Vietnam War History,” (, 2009, pp. 3-4 and 8.

[3] Ibid, pp. 4-7.

[4] Ibid, p. 7.

[5] “Statistics of the Vietnam War,” The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, 2015.

[6] “Statistics of the Vietnam War,” The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, 2015.

[7] “America’s Wars Fact Sheet,” Department of Veterans Affairs, May 2015, p.1. and “Statistics of the Vietnam War,” The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, 2015.

[8] Fact Sheet, “Air Force Medal of Honor Recipients,” AF Historical Studies Office, Maxwell AFB, AL, 13 August 2013.

[9] “America’s Wars Fact Sheet,” Department of Veterans Affairs, May 2015, p.1.

[10] “The U.S. Air Force in Vietnam,” The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, 2015, p. 1.

[11] Tilford, Earl H., Setup, What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why, Air University Press, June 1991, p. xvii.

[12] Fact Sheet, “Operation Homecoming,” National Museum of the Air Force, 1975.

[13] Anderson, Gus, History of Keesler Technical Training Center, 1 July 1972 – 30 June 1973, Keesler History Office, pp. 135-148.