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The War That Changed Everything

Fifty years ago, the first combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Ten years later, Saigon fell. For those who were there, the memories of those bitterly divisive years live on.

Vietnam illustration

— From left: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis; Corbis; Courtesy Everett Collection via Newscom; Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos; Eddie Adams/AP Photo; Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images


“I tried to stay calm. I was told that if I cooperated,
I would be treated well."

Fred Vann Cherry Vietnam War POW

— National Archives and Records Administration

"I didn’t cooperate, of course, and things got rougher at the Hanoi Hilton. They’d have torture sessions where they’d tie you up in ropes and pull your legs and put your arms in the middle of your back, and wrap your ankles and wrists up around your head. I went through serious beatings. Some got it worse; some had it less. I was in solitary confinement for 702 days total. The longest stretch was 53 weeks. I don’t have any animosity at all toward the Vietnamese people. It takes too much energy for me to hate somebody I’ve been at war with. I have made my peace with this.”

U.S Air Force Major Fred Vann Cherry was among the 591 prisoners of war returned to the U.S. after the Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973.


President Gerald R. Ford listens to a briefing by Secretary of State Henry A Kissinger on the situation in South Vietnam.

— Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

“I do not want to delay another day in resolving the dilemmas of the past, so that we may all get going on the pressing problems of the present.”

President Gerald Ford in his remarks on clemency for draft evaders, September 16, 1974.



"There's this mistaken notion that wars end,
but they don't end."

Tim O'brien the things they carried

"What about the women that married the veterans and had to sit through silent dinner after silent dinner? Somewhere in this country there’s a 95-year-old woman who will wake up at night and say, ‘Where’s my baby?’ The answer is, her baby has been dead for 45 years. But the war’s not over for that Gold Star mother. It’ll never be over, and you can’t expect it to be over.”

Tim O’Brien served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. His novels include the semi-autobiographical The Things They Carried. He appears in the documentary American Masters: The Boomer List.


"He stayed because it was his duty."

Qang Pham and his father

— Courtesy Quang Pham

“The airplane finally came, and we all ran toward it. I could feel the heat of the exhaust from the back of the C-130. We got on, and Dad was there in his uniform and flight suit. I assumed he’d be on that plane with us.

When the plane took off, we all fell asleep in darkness. That was the last time I would see my dad for over 17 years. He stayed because it was his duty.”

A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America book


Quang Pham, above left, was 10 years old when he and his family escaped from Saigon. His father, South Vietnamese Air Force pilot Hoa Van Pham, spent 12 years in a prison camp after the war. He is the author of the memoir A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America.

Hear More: Quang Pham remembers his father and his own defining moment.

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"Get on the plane. Just go."

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half-mile from the U.S. Embassy.

— Courtesy of © Bettman/Corbis

“One Vietnamese colonel was putting his family on the plane. He wanted to stay, to defend the country. He was in tears. His family was in tears. And I said to him, ‘Get on the plane. Just go. Go.’ ”

— Stuart Herrington was one of the last U.S. officials to flee the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He appears in the Academy Award–nominated documentary Last Days in Vietnam.

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