There are two good ways America’s post-Vietnam War generations can learn the lessons we must never forget about how the world’s greatest superpower could send 58,000 of its own to die in a war that was not going to be won.

The best way is to watch all of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s compelling, comprehensive 10-part documentary series now running nightly on PBS.

The second-best (but certainly faster) way is to discover the lessons revealed in two concise, frustrating and ultimately infuriating happenings that aren’t really detailed in that excellent and massive PBS documentary. And we’re sharing them both today.

The two events occurred when there were no U.S. combat troops in Vietnam – one before they arrived, the other after they were gone. Together, the two tales spotlight the inescapable futility of policies that sent hundreds of thousands of young Americans to fight for a cause policymakers always understood but never made clear to the trusting youths they sent to war.

Our noble cause in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s was that we were fighting for democracy. Fighting to preserve it in South Vietnam. Fighting to prevent the Communist regime of North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, from wiping it away.

Ho Chi Minh’s troops had defeated France’s colonial occupying forces in the mid-1950s. The United States had supported the French. And our first tale starts with President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration trying to figure out what to do about South Vietnam after the defeated French colonials went home.

In Geneva, an international conference brokered a peace that divided Vietnam in two: a communist North and a non-communist South. But the Geneva pact also called for a democratic election in Vietnam in 1956 to determine who would rule a re-unified nation.

And here is where the Pentagon Papers (the U.S. government’s secret history of Vietnam decision-making, leaked to the American public in 1971) revealed what I have always considered the least understood truth about America’s true intentions. The Eisenhower administration was opposed to allowing South Vietnam to democratically decide its fate.

July 7, 1954: In a secret cable, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote (in the cablese of that era) that it was “undoubtedly true that elections might eventually mean unification Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.” Dulles urged delaying a democratic election as long as possible.

Indeed, it never happened. As Eisenhower wrote in his memoir, “Mandate for Change”: “It was generally conceded that had an election been held, Ho Chi Minh would have been elected Premier.”

Fast-forward to December 1974: I am Newsday’s Washington Bureau chief but I am nowhere near Washington. I’m in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, reporting on whether South Vietnam can indeed survive militarily – and whether the sacrifice of all those American troops and their loved ones back home had been worthwhile. The CIA’s man at the U.S. embassy had warned me that Route 4 was “Condition Red” as newly fortified Viet Cong forces were swarming in the delta, mining the roads, blowing up concrete utility poles.

At a government irrigation project, I interview ditch-diggers. Nguyen Van Bay, 42, father of nine, tells me he knows all about “The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s handiwork that was signed in Paris two years ago.

But that was just paper and Bay says what is real is that the Viet Cong soldiers have been warning workers to stop digging. He says they are in the jungle, watching us now, and they come out at night and threaten them with harm.

“We are afraid,” Bay says. But he cannot stop working because the government won’t pay them until each man digs 500 square meters – and each man can only dig seven square meters a day.

“I really do not care who wins the war,” Bay tells me. “It does not matter for me who wins. I will still be here doing the same thing. My life will not change. I just want peace.”

Today, families like Bay’s have peace. They live in a unified Vietnam, a communist Vietnam. Precisely the outcome Eisenhower and Dulles feared when they prevented the election. Just before America sent hundreds of thousands of young, trusting patriots to fight for democracy in South Vietnam.

— Tribune News Service