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Liberation from the Vietnam tragedy

It would be comforting to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War secure in the knowledge we have understood its lessons.

Though we are less willing now to send our young into battle, we are more willing to fight “clean” wars. The post-Vietnam battlefield is sterile, characterized by military planners in air-conditioned rooms half a world distant, choosing who lives and who dies.

NCR readers who remember the Vietnam War will also remember one of its most prominent critics, the late Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. It was Fulbright who coined the phrase “the arrogance of power.” He warned of the dire consequences of using military power recklessly. He spoke of the responsibilities of a superpower before the phrase was popular. He warned against the use of military might, arguing that it seldom produces its intended objective. He said U.S. policy must grow out of our nation’s ideals and must involve an understanding of local culture and history. Against such an examination, he said, we would never have entered Vietnam.

His ideas were relevant then and are more so today at a time when our nation stands as the remaining superpower.

Had we only understood Vietnamese history, society or culture we would have seen things much differently. We might have learned that in the 1940s Ho Chi Minh so admired U.S. law and life that he patterned Vietnam’s founding documents on the U.S. Constitution. Surely there was room for negotiation.

Today, the CIA says it knew all along the folly of U.S. policy in Vietnam -- and so advised U.S. policymakers. If true, where were the resignations making the objections public? How many lives might have been spared?

Times have changed. Without embarrassment, Washington tells us it must act to protect “U.S. interests” abroad and willingly uses military might to do so. The interests at stake are rarely today so idealistic as the preservation of freedom or democracy or seeking justice. They are defined instead as assuring access to economic markets and to local resources. The wars of today rarely stand up to even the most relaxed moral measure. While Americans have felt much uneasiness over our nation’s role in the Vietnam War, it is increasingly clear that we have learned few of its lessons.

Curiously, the Vietnamese people seem willing to forgive and accept us. Perhaps it is because as a small and poor nation, Vietnam recognizes its dependence on other countries. Even in the midst of nationalistic fervor, the Vietnamese know they cannot go forward alone. They want reconciliation and they want U.S. friendship.

If only we understood our dependence on others, we might finally find the courage to express regrets. Were we, as a nation, to offer words of regret to the Vietnamese people, we would finally gain our own liberation from the Vietnam tragedy. New doors would open. Communication would grow; collaboration would follow. Reparation would no longer be out of the question. It would be a true cleansing of the national soul. Short of these steps we remain mired, even without fully knowing why.

The infection diagnosed by Fulbright needs to be cleansed and healed. Answering Vietnam’s call to accountability provides a step in the critical challenge to reclaim a foreign policy compatible with our nation’s ideals.

From both a moral and practical perspective, our national “self interests” must be viewed in the context of the broader interests of the human family. Anything less constitutes betrayal of our ideals and a concession to the murderous lessons of the 20th century.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000