As many as two million people in over two hundred cities and towns participated in Moratorium activities. Participants ranged from at least 15 combat soldiers in Vietnam wearing black armbands, to 100,000 listening on the Boston Common to South Dakota senator George McGovern and setting a record for the largest political crowd in the city’s history, to 250,000 in New York who attended rallies in Bryant Park and on Wall Street. Many Broadway shows canceled their matinees that afternoon and Republican Mayor John Lindsay ordered flags to be flown at half-mast on municipal buildings. As many as 90 percent of high school students in New York failed to show up for class that Wednesday. Turnouts were impressive as well in Chicago, Washington, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh, where the city council endorsed the demonstration. Even more impressive were the dignified silent vigils and prayer meetings held in several hundred small towns where antiwar demonstrations had not been very popular.
The nature of the American mistakes in Vietnam range from ineffective military strategies (including, from the hawkish side, failure to invade North Vietnam), to inadequate attention to winning Vietnamese hearts and minds, to the identification of Vietnam as a vital strategic interest, to the basic attempt to impose U.S. designs on Vietnam. See David L. Anderson, “No More Vietnams: Historians Debate the Policy Lessons of the Vietnam War,” in David L. Anderson and John Ernst, eds., The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007); and John Marciano, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
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Official U.S. denial of responsibility for the death and destruction wrought in Vietnam was reinforced by various cultural expressions. Accounts of the war in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978), First Blood (1982), Uncommon Valor (1983), Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Rambo III (1988) present American soldiers as righteous warriors who were prevented from winning by inept Washington politicians, the “liberal” media, and the peace movement. These films were part of a larger reactionary movement designed to restore America’s noble self-image, assuage guilt, and drown out the outrage felt by other Americans convinced that the administration had lied its way into an unnecessary war. Stories were spread that antiwar activists had spit on returning vets and that American POWs were being held in Vietnam, making America appear the victim rather than the aggressor in the war. The “lesson” for the hawkish crowd was that the U.S. should have, and could have, won the war.
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Donald Kennedy, chairman of the department of biological sciences at Stanford University, introduced a 1971 study on the effects of the American chemical war in Vietnam with these words:
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The hardest hit area was the province of Quang Tri, just south of the Demilitarized Zone, where an estimated 3,489 villages were repeatedly bombed. In April 1972, the province was hit with the heaviest B-52 bombing of the entire war. Forty B-52s flattened a “box” two miles long and one-half mile wide. The capital city and the southeastern quadrant of Quang Tri were obliterated. Arthur Westing, an ecologist who had worked for the U.S. Forest Service, experienced combat in Korea, and made three previous trips to Indochina to study the war zones in Cambodia, reported after a 1973 visit to the Quang Tri province that he was “unprepared for the utter devastation that confronted us wherever we turned.… Never were we out of sight of an endless panorama of crater fields. As far as we could determine not a single permanent building, urban or rural, remained intact; no private dwellings, no schools, no libraries, no churches or pagodas and no hospitals. Moreover, every last bridge and even culvert had been bombed to bits. The one rail line through the province was also obliterated.”
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Fred Wilcox, author of two in-depth studies on Agent Orange, Waiting for an Army to Die (1983) and Scorched Earth (2011), estimates that some three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, suffered from the effects of toxic chemicals in the aftermath of the war. Cam Nghia, in Quang Tri province, was transformed into a literal village of the damned. Film-maker Masako Sakata and her late husband, Vietnam veteran Greg Davis, found dioxin residues from Agent Orange to have caused terrible disabilities and deformities afflicting 158 children out of a population of 5,673 when they visited in 2003.