As we approach the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War on April 30 and the reunification of Vietnam under socialist rule, memories of that conflict are still alive and a vital part of American political discourse.
During a recent visit to Vietnam, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen pointedly refused to apologize for the U.S. military action there, explaining, as he put it, ``Both nations were scarred by this. They [the Vietnamese] have their own scars from the war. We certainly have ours.''
Cohen's words echo those of President Carter, who in 1977 refused to normalize relations with Vietnam because, in his words, ``the destruction was mutual.''
Vietnam has also been a major part of this year's presidential politics. With the rival major candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, explaining his service in the National Guard or touting his time in Southeast Asia. Even more than Bush and Gore, Sen. John McCain put Vietnam into a central place during his run for the presidency. As the son and grandson of admirals and a prisoner of war in Vietnam for nearly six years, McCain's opinions on the war gained significant attention and carried great weight.
There is no basis even to suggest that the fallout from the war affected the United States and Vietnam similarly.
In particular, McCain believed that American troops in Vietnam, as a common complaint holds, fought with one hand tied behind their backs, that it was ``senseless'' and ``illogical,'' in McCain's words, to not carry the ground war over the 17th parallel into North Vietnam or to not wage a totally unrestrained air war, especially with B-52 bombers.
Cohen and McCain tap into rich myths about the war, views that still resonate after 25 years but also, and unfortunately, are misguided and wrong and keep us still from coming to terms with Vietnam.
There is no basis even to suggest that the fallout from the war affected the United States and Vietnam similarly. While the United States suffered serious losses -- more than 58,000 of its military killed and
billions of dollars spent -- Vietnam's losses were staggering. More than 3 million Vietnamese died during the American war, with at least that many wounded. More than 15 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians became refugees. American weapons -- especially the 6.5 million tons of bombs dropped on Indochina -- destroyed more than 10,000 hamlets and 25 million acres of forest in South Vietnam (the land of the U.S. ally in the war); additionally the United States dropped more than 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange and 400,000 tons of napalm on South Vietnam, a nation roughly the size of New Mexico or Arizona.
Since the end of the war, thousands of Vietnamese continued to be killed every year from contact with unexploded bombs from the war, and their environment continues to feel the effects of dioxin and other herbicides. There is nothing ``mutual'' about such destruction; ``their scars'' run much deeper than ``ours.''
McCain's point is equally troubling, for it offers a ``stabbed in the back'' explanation in place of a reasoned examination of a war that was morally, politically and strategically wrong. Indeed, many of America's ranking military officers, the comrades of McCain's father and grandfather, had warned against a war in Vietnam from the 1950s forward.
In 1954, amid the Dien Bien Phu crisis, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recognized that the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, held the military initiative and were successfully identified with ``freedom from the colonial yoke and with the improvement of the general welfare'' of the Vietnamese people.
By 1963, as the Kennedy administration was escalating the U.S. commitment to Vietnam, the incoming Marine Commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene, lamented to fellow officers that ``we're up to our knees in the quagmire'' in Vietnam and warned ``you see what happened to the French,'' which had lost its colonial hold over Indochina in 1954, ``well, maybe the same thing is going to happen to us.''
Officers held similar fears regarding the way the war was fought, but not because they had ``one hand tied behind their back.''
``If anything came out of Vietnam,'' Gen. Harold K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, observed, ``it was that air power couldn't do the job.''
Even the American commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, believed that a totally unrestrained air war would not have been decisive, writing after the war: ``I still doubt that the North Vietnamese would have relented.''
Westmoreland was attacked by the Marines, who believed his strategy of attrition, as Gen. Victor Kulak put it, was ``wasteful of American lives (and) promising a protracted, strength-sapping battle with small likelihood of a successful outcome.''
And on it went; throughout the entire U.S. experience in Vietnam, from the end of World War II until the 1970s, American officers were never enthusiastic about fighting in Vietnam, were always aware of the perils of war there, remained deeply divided internally over intervention and strategy and were not optimistic that they would succeed.
Far from fighting with their hands behind their back, they were able to unleash the technological might of the United States on a small country without forcing the enemy there to yield to their power, an outcome they expected long before the war ended.
Why then, amid the historical evidence to the contrary, do the Cohen and McCain myths persist?
A deep examination into the historical record on Vietnam shows that the destruction was far from ``mutual,'' and that military leaders complained about intervening in the war itself, not that they were fighting short-handed.
Perhaps politicians and many media members feel more comfortable with these explanations than with the truth, than with the recognition that the United States intervened into a war of liberation and revolution against the Vietnamese.
While claiming to be the champion of freedom and self-determination, the United States waged a brutal and bloody war on the people of a small country, both ally and enemy alike, to warn them of the perils of self-determination, be it nationalist or socialist. Rather than allow the Vietnamese to choose their own political system, government and social organization, the United States tried to violently force its preferred system on a people who were not receptive to it.
So 25 years later, the ``destruction'' is to the historical legacy of Vietnam, and unless we are able to see the full picture of the war, we all are studying Vietnam with our metaphorical arms behind our backs.
Bob Buzzanco is an associate professor of history at the University of Houston.
©2000 The Baltimore Sun