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Nixon Library adds monument to Vietnam War veterans on 50th anniversary

A new memorial honoring Vietnam veterans was unveiled Wednesday, March 29, at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum on the 50th anniversary of the last American troops withdrawing from the war – a milestone in Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Wednesday was also the national Vietnam War Veterans Day.

The bronze statue depicts a Marine running through the jungles of Vietnam. Though it is meant to represent all veterans of the war, a Marine was chosen as a nod to the presidential library’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and the prevalence of the Marine community in Southern California, said Joe Lopez, spokesperson for the Nixon Foundation.

The monument’s artist, Ron Pekar of Long Beach, also created the “Traveler” horse statue at USC, a statue of Dick Kun at Snow Summit and “The Handoff” sculpture on display at the Rose Bowl.

Using a committee that included veterans of the war, the image portrayed was researched for accuracy to make sure it was something the war’s veterans “will be proud of,” Lopez said. This Marine would reflect the equipment and look of an American on a tour of duty in 1971 or 1972.

RELATED: Vietnam vets reflect on war as 50th anniversary is marked

By that time, American troops had officially been involved in the Vietnam War since 1955, and ground troops had been in the country since 1965. In 1969, the presence of American troops peaked at more than 540,000, but that year, Nixon also ordered the first drawdown of troops.

“From the time he entered office, President Nixon was committed to ending the war without jeopardizing the future of South Vietnam,” said Bob Bostock, a Nixon scholar and consultant to the Nixon Foundation.

That policy became known as the Vietnamization of the war, and it aimed to train and equip the South Vietnamese to successfully defend their country when American troops left.

During Nixon’s first term in office, the United States’ presence in South Vietnam was reduced by 500,000 troops, leaving just 40,000 when his second term started in 1973, Bostock said.

That January, the Paris Peace Accords was signed, paving the way for the last troops to leave within 60 days. The peace agreement was later broken by the North Vietnamese, who Bostock said took advantage of American economic issues such as the oil crisis, inflation and the growing scandal of Watergate because they knew Nixon would have trouble getting congressional support for resuming American involvement. Saigon fell, and with it South Vietnam, in 1975.

“He understood that America could only do so much,” Bostock said of Nixon. “We had to withdraw; we had to withdraw in a sensible way, in an honorable way” that honored the country’s commitment to the South Vietnamese but answered the increasing protests at home over the war.

“The war was so divisive in America, it was tearing the country apart,” Bostock said.

The Nixon Doctrine – that the United States would aid countries threatened by communism but shouldn’t send troops to fight – was something the president wrote about a lot after his time in office – “that there should be no more Vietnams,” that there should be another way to help, Bostock said. “This was a matter that was of concern to him.”

More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, with 58,000 killed and another 150,000 wounded. After the United States left the war, nearly 600 prisoners of war were brought home.

In May, the Nixon Foundation is hosting a reunion and celebration of their homecoming with some 170 POWs and their families expected to attend the three-day event that will include a formal dinner recreating the evening the president and first lady hosted on May 24, 1973, for the POWs. It is still the largest dinner hosted by the White House, Lopez said.

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