A Son of Farmville, Richmond, and Reflections on Vietnam

I’ve been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novak’s new Vietnam War documentary and have found it a riveting telling of the story. This afternoon I streamed the last episode (having missed it when it originally aired), and am still processing what I saw.

I’ve also picked up two items of interest to our Civil War readers.

First, some may recall this post I did a few years ago on the fall of cities, where I compared the fall of Saigon to Richmond’s evacuation 110 years before. The accounts of desperation in Richmond on the night of 2-3 April 1865 are congruent with the agonizing pictures and accounts from 29-30 April 1975. I’m also struck that Vietnam has a deep fissure with in the country about the memory of South Vietnam and her dead/soldiers.

The second item may not be as apparent to viewers, but it is found in the person of Sam Wilson, who died in June 2017 after filming had completed. Wilson was a Merrill’s Marauder veteran who went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Army and in the U.S. government. After retirement he returned to his hometown of Farmville, Virginia, where “General Sam” served many years as president of Hampden-Sydney College. Wilson’s obituary, with an excellent recounting of his career, is here.

That background is important to note, as Wilson gets in one of the last words in the entire series. He refers to Vietnam as “the most divisive conflict in our country’s history,” then he stops himself and leans forward. His body language shows the intensity of his feeling.”The second most divisive conflict in our history,” he says.  This son of Virginia, a distinguished veteran of two significant American wars, at that moment felt the Civil War in his bones.

Image: Evacuees rush to board a Marine helicopter at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on 29 April 1975. 

5 Responses to A Son of Farmville, Richmond, and Reflections on Vietnam

  1. Which American war between North and South Vietnam most like? I at one time considered the Civil War, but I submit the Revolutionary War, with the North Vietnamese playing the role of the Founding Fathers (Ho Chi Minh quoted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independance in announcing colonial Vietnam’s independence from France) South Vietnam the Tories (or United Empire Loyalists) and the Americans being the British in colonial America. So that’s what the names on the wall died for!

  2. Interesting observation about Sam Wilson. Another veteran of WWII who was in Vietnam in the 60s, combat photographer David Douglas Duncan, saw the ghost of Civil War divisiveness in post-Vietnam War America, and an observation he made in the introduction to his photojournalism masterpiece about Vietnam, “War Without Heroes,” nails the connection:

    “[The Vietnam War] is a war that has fractured the substructure of our society to a depth which will require the efforts of yet unborn generations to heal. And even then nothing will be the same. For one conclusion already seems clear: our involvement in Viet-Nam has emerged as the greatest American tragedy since the Civil War.”

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