March 29th marks the thirty first anniversary of
America's military withdrawal from Vietnam. In the
midst of a new war, we should examine the ending of
this other war-the Only War America Ever Lost.
But our angst and aversion about Vietnam suggest we've
still never really come to terms with it. Yet it is
precisely in re-examining this other war-in re-opening
the wound-that we can find reconciliation about it.
We may also find some lessons about how to avoid the
same mistakes in Iraq.
More than anything else, we need to look at the role
our government and society played in justifying and
prosecuting the War. And the standard we should hold
in judging the Vietnam War is the same one we hold for
any conduct, official or personal, public or private.
It is this: if it has to be lied about, it's wrong.
This is a brutally simple standard. Its appeal-and
its power-derives not just from its simplicity but
from its immediate grasp by every moral person. Every
child understands this standard and every loving
parent recalls it for his children when they stray
If you have to lie about something, it is wrong.
By this standard, the Vietnam War was wrong, terribly
wrong. The singular hallmark of official conduct
throughout the War was the amount of lying that went
on to justify it. Not just periodic lying. Not just
localized lying. Not just lying about nits. And not
just lying by one political side or the other.
Multiple presidents lied to us for years about Vietnam
because they didn't want to be "the first American
president to lose a war."
Our "intelligence" agencies lied to us repeatedly
about the threat from a nation of pre-Industrial Age
farmers on the other side of the world who, after more
than a century of domination, simply wanted to be left
alone by western imperial powers.
The State Department lied, not just to the American
people but to the entire world, about our prolonged,
illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia.
The Pentagon Papers showed us that the military was
saturated with lies, from field-level body counts to
strategic reviews of progress to fundamental
assessments of the War's ultimate winnability.
Congress lied for years about how the War could be
financed without raising taxes and without cutting
Great Society programs. The result was the economic
debacle of the 1970s.
And the American people lied to themselves about the
War. As long as the boys fighting it were blacks and
Latinos and members of the underclass, everything was
fine. The Defense contracts were fat and everybody
was eating high on the hog.
As in the fable, it was the children, the college
students, who first told us that the Emperor had no
clothes. And for a while, our first impulse was to
shoot the messenger--literally. Finally, however, the
gap between what we wanted to believe and what we
could no longer deny simply grew too large.
By the late 1960s, the fabric of lies that had
sustained the War started to unravel. The Tet
offensive in early 1968 demolished the upbeat fiction
that we were winning the War. Stories of massacres
like My Lai began to leak out. Idiocies like, "We had
to destroy the village in order to save it," crept
into the public lexicon.
Live news footage showed the horrors of saturation
bombing, defoliation, and napalm. Supposedly serious
voices spoke supposedly seriously about, "bombing them
back into the stone age." News anchors began intoning
a nightly body count of American lives lost. And with
the student deferment abolished, middle class suburban
white boys began coming home in body bags.
If there was a salvation, a last redemption of
morality for a nation that had badly lost its way, it
was that our repugnance at what we realized we had
become made it impossible to continue the War any
longer. At least we still had shame.
Compare, for example, our collective appraisal of
World War II with how we feel about Vietnam. World
War II was an honorable war, a necessary war,
unquestionably confronting a global Evil. It did not
have to be lied about to justify its prosecution, to
sustain the commitment of the people and the country
to fight it and win.
Not incidentally, there is an unmistakable, peaceful
finality about World War II that Vietnam, now some
thirty years on, still does not begin to possess.
In fact, it is precisely our lying about the Vietnam
War, both then and now, and our knowledge of those
lies, without ever having repudiated them, that
continues to make the War seem dishonorable.
The dishonor, of course, belongs not to the millions
of soldiers who served there but rather to the War
itself. It belongs to the institutions that lied to
justify it and to the people whose silence and
acquiescence made them complicit in the lies.
And it belongs to those who put our soldiers-our
children-in the perverse situation not of doing
honorable things honorably, but of having to try to do
dishonorable things honorably. For, despite the
loftiest motives we might conflate for its beginnings,
that is unquestionably what the War ultimately became.
The collective American confusion and angst that still
attaches to the Vietnam War comes from the deep
understanding that we had betrayed our own essential
values, our own essential identity, in fighting it.
For there was a time, only two hundred years before,
when we were the small farming outpost on the fringe
of civilization, simply wanting to be left alone to
craft our own destiny. It was we-the Americans-who
started the modern revolution of self-determination by resisting colonial domination, by fighting against all odds the greatest military power the world had ever known.
But somehow, on the road to becoming ourselves that
very mightiest of imperial powers, we forgot those
roots. We lost those values. Instead, we became the
army of foreign mercenaries imposing our form of
government on a weaker people. We became the brutal
military occupier in a War that, before it was over,
claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and three
The stinging, mocking irony of that role reversal is
epitomized in the opening words of the Vietnamese
Declaration of Independence, written in 1946 and
borrowed, in admiration, from one of the sacramental
documents of America's founding: "We hold these
truths to be self evident: all men are created
Finally, the dishonor of the Vietnam War belongs to
those who continue to try to rehabilitate it, to
justify and rationalize that which simply cannot be
made good. For, remember: if we had to lie about it,
it was wrong. That is as true today as it was then,
is it not? And wrong does not get made right by the
louder or repeated repetition of original lies. Or,
by the continued contrivance of newer, slicker ones.
There should be no illusions about how hard it will
be, but the soldiers who fought and died there will
never be truly atoned for and we as a nation will
never learn the true lessons of the War until we
somehow acknowledge Vietnam as the horrible national
mistake it actually was.
Robert Freeman writes on economics and education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.