Clinton's Missed Opportunity in Vietnam

"THE HISTORY WE leave behind is painful and hard," President Clinton said in Vietnam last week. "We must not forget it, but we must not be controlled by it." Americans were too obsessed with the counting of votes in Florida to take much note of Clinton's visit to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, an event which in another context, might have struck deep chords in our national psyche.

Unlike Senator John McCain, during his own trip to the same country not long ago, who justified what he and this nation had done during the war, Clinton made no case for the failed American intervention. While not apologizing, Clinton toured the country with the air of a man making amends. This was so despite the fact that it was actually he who had finally ended the war when he ordered the lifting of the punitive and unjust American embargo of Vietnam in 1994.

There is a certain poignancy in Vietnam as the initiating site of Clinton's valediction. His wish not to be controlled by this painful and hard history springs, of course, from the way it has controlled him exactly. I believe that the Clinton presidency has been chilled more by the shadow of the Vietnam War than by any other single factor - even including his sexual risk-taking. One can argue that what turned his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky into a shattering humiliation was the ferocity with which those who hate Clinton pounced on it, and that hatred began with Vietnam.

That Clinton could be dismissed as a draft dodger was all it took for a large proportion of the nation to feel a visceral contempt for him. That military people in particular were prone to such a reaction undermined an essential aspect of his authority from the day of his first inauguration. From the flap over ''gays in the military,'' which saw a Joint Chiefs chairman rejecting a presidential order, to the young sailor who felt free not to salute the commander-in-chief boarding a ship, to congressmen who passed laws to impede the administration's exercise of military authority, to Clinton's own advisers who declined ever to challenge Pentagon budgets or nuclear theology - this presidency was fatally controlled by the unfinished moral and emotional business of Vietnam.

And the Clinton haters are not the only ones to have had their attitudes shaped in this way. For that large proportion of this nation for whom the Vietnam War occasioned a break with parents, a rejection of authority, and a permanent skepticism toward traditional assumptions of American virtue, Clinton's arrival on the scene in 1992 promised a kind of generational redemption.

The denigration of ''the '60s'' as a time of narcissistic hedonism would finally stop with a presidential administration that would embody that era's true vision and accomplish its noblest goals. But when Clinton seemed shamed by his record as a resister of the Vietnam War, allowing it to be lumped together with his having not inhaled, many of us who had detested the war as he did felt shamed, too.

Because Clinton missed his opportunity to openly affirm his youthful dissent as what it was - an act of courage and of patriotism - this nation has yet to properly understand, much less honor, the generation that said, ''Hell, no.''

Clinton's own history, his rare insight, and his exceptional ability to articulate experience across boundaries made him the perfect leader to enable America finally to see our loss to Vietnam for what it was - a moral victory in the cloak of a military defeat. When the broad population - civilians and GIs alike - rose up against a government dead set on destroying Vietnam to save it, America chose to lose a war because winning it had become wrong. There is no shame in that.

When President Clinton said in Vietnam last week that we must not forget - it is this unprecedented history he should have been referring to, but he wasn't. Americans have yet to hear articulated a vision of the war that includes a proper appreciation of the antiwar impulse and a definition of that impulse as the epitome of bravery, loyalty, and love of country.

This could be a unifying and reconciling vision of the past, but Clinton either fails to see it, or, if seeing it, fails to say so. That failure suggests why, now, the closest thing we can get to authentic peace with the Vietnamese is the exploitative peace of the Nike factory. And it suggests, too, why we Americans remain - as Florida so clearly shows - a tragically divided people.

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