Stanley Kutler: Why Is Vietnam Back?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Stanley Kutler, in the Chicago Tribune (Aug. 27, 2004):

The Vietnam War lies like an angry scar across America. Sen. John Kerry's presidential candidacy provides yet another occasion for renewed skirmishes.

The "First Vietnam War" resulted from a futile French attempt to restore their Indochina empire from 1945 until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The United States then provided substantial economic aid and military guarantees to the newly created Republic of South Vietnam. When the North Vietnam government resumed hostilities--following our broken promise to allow free elections--we actively intervened with our longest war, ending in our withdrawal in 1973 and the collapse of the puppet government two years later. Following that, we embarked on the "Third Vietnam War," a new American civil war, in which we furiously debated the propriety of the war, demonize the 1960s, haggle over our posture toward the Vietnamese government, or insist that every aged Frenchman or drug addict spotted in Vietnam was a prisoner of war.

Finally, in 1994, President Bill Clinton, with considerable aid from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), normalized relations, essentially making Vietnam safe for American investment. When John Laurence, a former CBS reporter, returned to Vietnam, an American official ruefully rather than ironically remarked, "You know, it would have been a lot easier if they had just let us win the war." Make no mistake: Twenty years have passed since Vietnam was unified, but our bitterness lingers. When Clinton announced he would send low-level envoys to Vietnam, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the then new Republican chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, denounced him for having "broken trust" with the American people.

We are just over two months away from a presidential election, one that offers a referendum on a sitting president. This time the incumbent has shifted American policy in significant new directions, with a doctrine of pre-emptive war and a revised version of wars of national liberation, yet one that carefully avoids conflict with formidable enemies. Vietnam has considerable usefulness as a practical lesson against such notions, but that is not what the current discussion is all about. Instead, a group of embittered partisans, substantially aided by legal and financial advice from President Bush's supporters, has generated an astounding array of charges questioning the Democratic candidate's war record. The media, apparently deciding that Iraq, the economy, the politicization of scientific research, prescription drug care, the prospect for privatization of social security, energy policy and the fiscal policies of the government are of no moment, have provided abundant space and legitimacy for our newfound fascination with the saga of swift boats. Why are we in the Vietnam quagmire once again?

Memories linger and corrode our politics. The "Bloody Shirt" prevailed in 10 presidential elections after the Civil War. Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression for nearly 30 years. Republicans for the past 30 years have channeled their dissatisfaction with the 1960s transformation of the culture and "values" into monumental struggles over abortion, stem-cell research and capital punishment. Mercifully, long hair is no longer fighting ground.

The war on the 1960s is couched very much in macho terms. The assault on American foreign and military policies, critics charge, resulted in a lingering defeatism and paralysis for the United States. The permissiveness spawned in the 1960s arises, it is said, from both weakness and lack of principle. House Republican leader Tom DeLay has provided a new twist. If George W. Bush had been president in the 1960s, he has said, we would have won the Vietnam War.

John Kerry volunteered for Vietnam. His shipmates have testified to his bravery and his saving some of their lives. By official accounts, he served with distinction, even heroically. His detractors have offered us absolutely no credible evidence to belittle his war record, except to raise doubt if he actually was in Cambodian waters. One prominent Republican veteran remarked that he does not recall any directional signs stating, "Welcome to Cambodia."

Kerry's detractors have diverted their attention to his anti-war record. And now the cat is out of the bag. Kerry's turn against the war struck at their conscious images of their own efforts, however heroic or ordinary. A wrong war? One with unnecessary American brutalities and war crimes? Those who complain about Kerry and others who pointed to atrocities on both sides in the Vietnam conflict have forgotten not only My Lai but Abu Ghraib--not to mention acts of unnecessary cruelty by Americans and their enemies in other wars....

The war becomes ever more murky and ambiguous in American minds as time recedes. The astonishing irony is that the blame cannot all fall on Kerry's detractors. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan insisted that Vietnam was a "noble crusade." The nation never really bought into that dubious proposition, freighted as it was with self-serving political calculations. But nobility apparently is now fashionable.

President Bush has called Kerry's service noble. And as journalist Christopher Hitchens recently observed, Kerry's brandishing of his military record, coupled with the Democrats' loyal backing of him, has unintentionally bestowed on the Vietnam War what even Ronald Reagan couldnot: nobility.

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David a. Cousins - 8/31/2004

So you say. Keep telling yourself that.