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When will the American conscience demand justice for Vietnam?


I remember with pain and sadness the fall of Saigon 25 years ago on April 30, 1975. The whole world watched as Americans and Vietnamese scrambled to get on the helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. embassy.

A quarter of a century ago the United States ended this tragedy rooted in miscalculation, hubris and arrogance. The doleful consequences are far from over. Demands for reparations will be made by the millions we hurt and by the collective conscience of the American people.

I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in May 1969 as a member of a nine-person human rights group sent by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We arrived on the morning of Buddha’s birthday. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, dressed in white, were praying in the squares of the city.

During 11 days in Vietnam I heard and saw the dreadful things the United States was doing in that country. The bombing, the use of poisonous defoliants and the thousands of political prisons are still vivid in my mind and in the extensive notes I took.

My human rights group came back to the United States after a visit with the extensive Vietnamese community in Paris. Hearing of the long history of France’s conquest and eventual loss of Vietnam made America’s involvement seem even more incredible and tragic.

Filled with anger and sorrow, I wrote a book about America’s folly. Sheed & Ward published it in 1971. My anxiety over America’s role in Vietnam was one of the major reasons why in early 1970 I accepted the invitation of a citizens’ caucus to run for Congress.

The war in Vietnam completely altered my life as it did the lives of millions of Americans. I argued against and voted against the war in the Congress. It was finally defunded. Saigon fell shortly thereafter.

My anger at what the United States did in Vietnam surfaced when William Colby, now deceased, was named by President Nixon to head the CIA. I protested publicly and wrote to Sen. Stuart Symington, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Senator asked me to testify. My testimony on July 30, 1973, related how Colby openly sought to deceive my human rights group in Saigon. My testimony was blunt and searing. The five senators present were courteous but anxious to avoid the controversy.

My 24 pages of testimony summed up my indignation that the United States could have inflicted such horrible brutalities on the gentle people of Vietnam.

I recall clearly Inauguration Day in January 1973, when Nixon was sworn in. Even the 20,550 American soldiers that died in Vietnam in Nixon’s first term did not impede his re-election in a landslide. Many in Congress felt they could not attend the inauguration. We gathered on the Mall in well-organized and orderly demonstrations against the war. I will never forget an elderly lady shivering in the cold who told me that she simply had to come to Washington because otherwise she could not face her grandchildren.

All of us are geniuses at forgetting the war. It is simply too painful to recall. But I am haunted by it. I reviewed Robert McNamara’s book on the war and urged him and others to begin making amends. The United States killed 2 million Vietnamese in the war. America also poisoned Vietnam with 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange. It is established that Agent Orange killed or injured some 400,000 people and contributed to birth defects in up to 500,000 children. American soldiers hurt by Agent Orange received indemnifications; Vietnam received nothing. The deadly toxin was so lethal that in December 1970, Nixon ordered a halt to the use of Agent Orange.

One could easily draw up a list of other outrages inflicted on the people of Vietnam. Massive war crimes were committed by U.S. troops; only one was prosecuted, the case of Lt. William Calley.

I have walked on several occasions around the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington where the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam are recorded. I sometimes touch the names of those I knew. The questions and the anguish reach a new intensity on every visit. Who ordered this madness? Who will be held accountable? Will an Asian or a world tribunal some day punish America like the United States tried German and Japanese leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo?

Will America’s conscience some day compel Congress to give reparations and restitution to the Vietnamese whom we hurt? They have rights that were violated. Basic justice demands that every wrong have a remedy.

A great nation like a great person makes whole all persons whom they have hurt.

The memory of the fall of Saigon should remain in our souls. It should be a reminder, indeed a grace of God that the United States has an unavoidable moral duty to rectify as far as it is possible the indescribable and indefensible damages it inflicted on the people of Vietnam.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000