It is an anniversary that passes almost unnoticed every year. Given the tumultuous years that preceded it, I suppose that is understandable. Still, I think it is an anniversary worth remembering. On March 29, 1973, the last American combat troops left Vietnam. After more than 58,000 Americans paid the ultimate sacrifice, our military involvement in Southeast Asia was at an end.
For such a remarkable fact as that, the headlines that day were amazingly muted. The biggest story on the front page of the New York Times that Friday dealt not with the end of a war that had gone on for more than a decade, but with the Nixon Administration's imposition of controls on the price of meat.
Like most Americans, I rarely think about this anniversary. The only reason I remember it this year is because my Vietnam veteran brother pointed it out on his Facebook page. March 29 bears little similarity to the main end-of-war anniversaries of the 20th century. Most people remember the almost poetic moment that World War I came to an end, when the armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. After four horrific years, the guns finally fell silent along the trenches of the Western Front. The day would be forever memorialized first as Armistice Day, then later as Veterans Day.
Surprisingly, few Americans today remember when World War II ended. That war ended on August 14, 1945, when Japan announced its surrender to American forces. Instead of remembering August 14, however, we are more likely to remember that other anniversary from that month, August 6, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Americans were of course jubilant when World War II ended, but as time passed that jubilation was replaced by trepidation as the potential horrors of this new nuclear age became apparent.
As for Vietnam, I suspect one reason we don't remember the day our troops left that country is because the end of that war was not what Americans had grown accustommed to. Indeed, to say that the war "ended" on March 29, 1973 is to engage in historical gaming. The war continued another two years, culminating in the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975, and the ascendance of the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia at roughly the same time. The Vietnam War did not end so much as it simply faded away, at least as far as America's involvement in it is concerned.
Some Americans remember this anniversary, though. I am certain the individuals pictured here remember it well.
I was a 15 year old high school freshman on March 29, 1973. I was young, but I remember watching joyful reunions on TV like the one pictured above. I remember thinking that the Vietnam War had been a reality during my entire conscious life. I remember thinking how strange it was going to be now that the war was over and it would no longer dominate the nightly news. I remember thinking how glad I was that I would not have to worry about serving in Vietnam like my older brother did after he drew the number "26" in the 1970 draft lottery.
Whether we remember it or not, March 29 is an important anniversary. To those who came home on this date 37 years ago, I rejoice that your names are not included among the 58,000 on Maya Lin's black wall.