A Boston Globe Editorial

April 30, 2000

Still With Us

We were the children of the 1950s and John F. Kennedy’s young stalwarts of the early 1960s. He told the world that Americans would ”pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in the defense of freedom. We were the down payment on that costly contract, but the man who signed it was not there when we fulfilled his promise. John F. Kennedy waited for us on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, and in time we came by the thousands to fill those slopes with our white marble markers and to ask on the murmur of the wind if that was truly the future he had envisioned for us.

— Lt. General Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway
“We Were Soldiers Once … And Young”

For those of us who lived through it, it seems scarcely credible that the Vietnam War ended 25 years ago today, when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the Presidential Palace gates in Saigon. The memories of those tumultuous times seem as vivid as if they happened yesterday. For those of us too young to remember, however – more than a third of all Americans – Vietnam may seem as long ago as the Spanish-American War.

Yet Vietnam seems not ever really to go away. In the 1980s Henry Kissinger said that Vietnam had ”created doubts about American judgment, about American credibility, about American power – not only at home, but throughout the world. It has poisoned our domestic debate. So we paid an exorbitant price for the decisions that were made in good faith and for good purpose.”

George Bush thought he had banished the ”Vietnam syndrome” after his remarkable Gulf War victory. But Vietnam crept back and remains deep in the American psyche. More than 700 novels about Vietnam have been published, and the Library of Congress lists 12,000 nonfiction titles, many of them by authors trying to rid themselves of ghosts.

Vietnam was the most divisive American war of this century, setting sons against fathers and the governed against those who governed. It scarred the American military, which vowed never again to get into a war for ambiguous political ends, that could cost casualties without American support, and that could not be won quickly with overwhelming superior force.

Vietnam stayed the hand of a generation of American politicians who might otherwise have committed American troops to battle more quickly. For better or worse, Vietnam probably kept American soldiers out of Central America in the ’80s and kept American soldiers out of Bosnia long after our European allies had committed theirs.

Vietnam radicalized many who, for the first time, saw their country not as a benevolent power, but as a country doing harm in the world. For others the sight of fellow Americans burning the flag in the street or waving Viet Cong flags in protest against the war was a sickening and unpatriotic event.

And Vietnam gave birth to an unprecedented determination of families whose missing sons and husbands have never been accounted for to achieve an accounting. It was the administration of Governor Michael Dukakis that caused the black flag of the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action movement to fly over every Massachusetts municipality.

Vietnam was also our longest war. The United States made the decision soon after World War II to back the French against Ho Chi Minh and the nationalist/communist cause. Ho had hoped America might oppose the return of the French, but the United States needed France as the Cold War developed in Europe, and Mao Tse Tung’s victory in China’s civil war brought communism to Indochina’s borders in 1949.

The next year the Korean War was on, and America’s leaders perceived that international communism was on the march everywhere. In the end America ended up spending more money supporting the French military effort in Indochina than it spent on Marshall Plan aid to France itself.

The irony is that, given China’s 1,000-year occupation of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s army might well have been a bulwark against the spread of China’s influence in Southeast Asia. In 1979, 30 years after Mao’s victory in China and scant weeks after Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam and China were at war with each other on their frontier.

Ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, it is hard to remember now what a threat the Cold War posed. But it was very real from the late ’40s to the early ’60s, when President Kennedy made his ringing commitment to freedom and liberty
worldwide. Americans saw themselves as leaders of the free world, even if some of our anticommunist allies were not entirely free.

America’s involvement in Vietnam also had to do with what Harvard’s Daniel Bell once called ”American exceptionalism”: the long-held belief that Americans were a special people – exempt from the ills of Europe – with a higher destiny, with a mission to proselytize and to spread enlightenment and democracy in a darkening world. We were, in a sense, inheritors of a Western expansionist tradition that drove crusaders to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels, mariners into the dark oceans never before sailed, and colonists into continents not our own. That tradition was not all based on greed, power, and gold. It was accompanied by a belief in a missionary purpose, at first religious and then secular, and it was not all hypocrisy. The French in Indochina called it their ”mission civilisatrice.” Americans called it nation-building and spreading democracy.

Twenty years after the Vietnam War was over, Robert McNamara, one of the chief architects of American involvement, wrote: ”We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decision on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

McNamara blamed it on American ignorance about Vietnam, but it was more hubris than ignorance. Many people who read his book thought: ”Now he tells us!”

Yet, 25 years on, it becomes clearer that the United States sought no commercial advantage in defending Vietnam. The motives of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford – all of whom were involved in the Indochina tragedy – were not greed. They believed that American values were being challenged and that they had a duty to protect them around the world.

And despite Vietnam, that belief still lives; more temperate, less ambitious than before, at times a little arrogant, perhaps, but less likely to do harm as it did in Vietnam and with the potential of doing great good. It is American ”soft power,” a term coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, that is in the forefront of American exceptionalism today: Its educational system, its entrepreneurial drive, and its democratic values are making an impression on the world, in the place of brute force.

To that end, therefore, let us remember those who lie under their marble markers in Arlington Cemetery as men who did not shirk their duty and did all they could for their country. They whose names are inscribed on that black wall across the river from Arlington, could they but speak, would direct us, the living, to fulfill another presidential promise written on the Lincoln Memorial just a short distance away:

”… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.’

This story ran on page M18 of the Boston Globe on 4/30/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.