Published May 21, 1997
Vietnam won’t go away. Its ghosts still haunt the American psyche like fragments of a twisted nightmare.
Last March, six U.S. senators who had fought in the Vietnam War met in Washington to observe the 15th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Standing before the wall with its 58,196 names of dead and missing chiseled in black granite, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). who was tortured and held prisoner by Hanoi for seven years, called it “a wonderful place of healing.” His wishful sentiments were echoed by his colleagues.
But the wall has not. and cannot, heal the painful breach in American’s historical memory until we recognize that the tragic Vietnam War was not fought in vain.
“We killed. We died. We died for less than nothing,” cried a protester at the memorial’s dedication in 1982. Six years later at the same shrine, President Reagan offered a different assessment: ”Who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just? It was–however imperfectly pursued–the cause of freedom.”
These two dramatically opposed interpretations of Vietnam are vying for acceptance in America’s consciousness. If our collective memory of pivotal events-like the Civil War or Vietnam – is split on ideological fault lines, it bodes ill for the future. A common understanding of such events allows history’s wounds to heal, creating a cohesive national psyche equipped to grapple with future crises. But when a vocal minority holds views contrary to those Or the less articulate majority, confusion and mischief follow.
The cynical view of our involvement in Vietnam became part of a larger culture of shame, guilt and self-flagellation that erupted in flag burning and other attacks on traditional institutions. It also helped spawn the “Vietnam Syndrome” that all but paralyzed America from using military force abroad. Thus, after the fall of Saigon, Leonid Brezhnev stepped up Soviet subversion in Africa and Central America and in 1979 brazenly invaded Afghanistan, confident that Washington would not act.
The Vietnam Syndrome was partially exorcized by Ronald Reagan’s mini invasion of communist Grenada in 1983 and by George Bush’s leadership in the Gulf War seven years later. But we have yet to recover fully our pre- Vietnam confidence and our willingness to shoulder the heavy burdens of a humane superpower.
And that will not happen until we openly acknowledge the contribution of the Vietnam War to peace and freedom, along with admitting our faults and miscalculations. The most pernicious demon to exorcize is the charge that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon waged a racist, imperialist and thoroughly unjust war against a poor, nonwhite people. In truth, their purpose was noble and just–to prevent communist North Vietnam from conquering the South, just as Harry Truman had stopped communist North Korea from swallowing the South.
Too late, we learned that Vietnam was not as vital strategically as Korea, which is located in the vortex of three great powers–Japan, China and Russia. This strategic confusion was reinforced by zero-sum assumptions of the Cold War, stemming from George Kennan’s containment doctrine (which, incidentally, worked well enough in Europe).
And we were too often arrogant and overconfident in dealing with South Vietnam. Perhaps the worst blunder was John Kennedy’s complicity in the 1963 coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem, the authoritarian but able civilian president. LBJ later admitted that ousting Diem was “the worst mistake we ever made.” The power vacuum created by Diem’s violent death led to protracted instability and hogtied Washington to Vietnam’s future.
But this is not the whole story. For despite political misperceptions and seriously flawed tactics, our involvement made a positive contribution to peace and freedom. Had we prevailed, or even held the line at the 17th parallel, a million or more lives might have been saved and tens of thousands of boat people spared the anguish of being cast adrift.
The fall of Saigon in April 1975 precipitated the Cambodian holocaust–the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated one million of the nation’s seven million people. The horrific bloodbaths there and in Laos, and the purges and concentration camps in South Vietnam, confirmed the much-maligned domino theory. Looking back, Norman Podhoretz said the “moral soundness” of our “imprudent idealism” was “overwhelmingly vindicated by the hideous consequences of our defeat.” But despite defeat, our involvement did strengthen security and freedom in three significant and largely overlooked ways.
First, Johnson and Nixon’s firmness under relentless and often cynical domestic attack reassured our allies around the world. An America that would not cut and run in far-off Vietnam would hardly abandon its key allies in Europe and the Pacific. Given the poisoned intellectual climate of the time, these sentiments were rarely expressed in public, but in retrospect we can see their crucial importance.
Second, our steadfastness In Vietnam strengthened nationalist and anticommunist forces elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific–notably in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, all of which have remained free and independent.
Third, holding the line in Indochina as long as we did eventually led to a balance of power favorable to the states in the region and to us, a point Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew repeatedly emphasizes. Last December in Washington he said that “by fighting and negotiating with the North Vietnamese, the [U.S.] enabled Southeast Asia to get its act together.” Without America’s intervention in Vietnam, Mr. Lee added, today’s “flourishing East Asia” would not have been possible.
Cohesive National Memory
The two diametrically opposed interpretations of Vietnam continue to vie for the American psyche. Until the issue is resolved, we will suffer from a kind of historical schizophrenia. To be healthy and courageous in facing the external world, we need to forge a more cohesive national memory of Vietnam approximating that of our three victorious major wars of this century: World War I restored peace to Europe, World War II stopped Nazi and Japanese conquest, and the Korean War prevented the North from enslaving the South.
If the more positive and nuanced view prevails–that our cause was eminently just, though imperfectly pursued–America will be better prepared to accept its heavy tragic and ironic elements. Vietnam helped us understand our limitations by dispelling what Denis Brogan once called “the illusion of American omnipotence”and, I would add, the illusion of American innocence.