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U.S. must make reparations for actions in Vietnam


Every reference to the United States’ war in Vietnam rivets my attention. The most recent, a reference to the lasting devastating effects of countless tons of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam, received little attention compared to the inner agony of former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., over revelations of his participation in a massacre of innocent civilians in Vietnam.

Less dramatic but equally moving was the ceremony on Mother’s Day in Washington at the stunning monument to the 58,000 American military personnel who died in Vietnam.

I first spoke out against the war in Vietnam in an address in 1968 at the stately New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. Referring to the four Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war adopted by the United States in 1948, I asserted that the United States could not win the war in Vietnam without massive violations of those Geneva accords. I learned years later that the FBI had an agent at that event and opened a file on me!

A trip to Vietnam in 1969 as a member of an 11-person delegation sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation persuaded me that the United States had made a dreadful blunder in entering the Vietnam struggle after the French had left in defeat. I wrote a book, Vietnam, An Armageddon, published in 1970 by Sheed and Ward.

That book led to my acceptance of an invitation to run for Congress from a citizens’ caucus. For the first four years of my 10 years in Congress the struggles to end the war permeated every other issue. The House finally got the 218 votes necessary to de-fund the war. But the damage by that time done in Hanoi and Cambodia, along with the hand-to-hand warfare in the South, had inflicted damage and suffering that are incalculable.

As a member of Congress, I visited Hanoi in 1979. The devastation was unbelievable. The scene somehow reminded me of Paul (not his real name) who joined my first campaign in 1970 four days after he returned from fighting in Vietnam. Paul had nightmares then and has been deeply troubled for years, like countless former soldiers such as Bob Kerrey.

Vietnam can never be forgotten. It will rise up in our souls at unexpected times and in unpredictable ways.

In the recent past I was in a restaurant in Washington with two law students. I saw Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense, eating alone. I wondered then and now whether he, like Bob Kerrey, is haunted every day by what he authorized and carried out as the architect of America’s jungle war against communism.

I told the two law students about Robert NcNamara and his war in Vietnam. Neither of them was even born when the war finally ended. They did not seem prepared to heed or even listen to my suggestion that the United States should try to undo some of the damage it did to the people of Vietnam. They did not realize that the United States killed some 3 million Vietnamese and sprayed hundreds of tons of Agent Orange and defoliants that will cause genetic injuries to countless Vietnamese yet to be born.

I related to them the story of my meeting in 1969 with a Vietnamese lawyer in Saigon. He quietly pointed to hundreds of files on his shelves noting that each dossier contained the details of atrocities carried out by American servicemen. The attorney concluded our conversation by promising that Vietnam and Asia would have their own Nuremberg trials after the war and would convict America of atrocities and violations of the rules of war. I have never heard of those files in the last 32 years.

There are now in the United States well over 1 million American citizens of Vietnamese descent. There are 33 American Jesuits whose parents came to the United States from Vietnam. Is it possible that the children and grandchildren of these enterprising citizens will urge the American people to try to rectify the damage done to their motherland? The children and the grandchildren of 120,000 Japanese detained during World War II prompted the United States to finally recognize the wrong that was done and grant to each surviving Japanese internee the sum of $20,000.

The United States assisted Japan and Germany after World War II. Would the United States ever consider that for Vietnam? Bob Kerrey and the Vietnam veterans in Congress might urge that. But the nation seems affirmatively disinterested in the aftermath of a war in which the United States engaged in conduct for which an apology and indemnification are morally required. n

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001