Lessons for the Peace

March 14, 1991|By JOHN G. SOMMER

BRATTLEBORO, VERMONT — Brattleboro, Vermont. Popular wisdom credits allied victory in the Persian Gulf War, in part, with the U.S. having learned from the lessons of a failed war in Vietnam. But have we learned the lessons of Vietnam's ''peace,'' as well?

Notwithstanding the stunning military victory over Iraq, and the apparent increase in U.S. political and perhaps economic stature at governmental levels, we hear numerous accounts of a simultaneous increase in the deep historical resentments against the Western powers, particularly the United States, among the populace of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Massive recent anti-American demonstrations in a number of countries, as well as the example of post-shah Iran, lend force to this concern.

Astonishingly, such negative feelings were not evident in Vietnam after the U.S. war there, in spite of the incredibly massive destruction and loss of Vietnamese lives (approximately 1 million, by some estimates). American visitors to Vietnam today, including myself on two recent trips, are astonished by the friendliness of the people and their eagerness for relations at TC all levels, not only with our government with a view to receiving aid for their battered economy, but for social, cultural and human exchanges, as well.

The Vietnamese cannot understand why the U.S. government continues to treat them as ''the enemy,'' why American companies are forbidden to trade with them, why we press our allies not to trade with them, and even more incredibly, why sending our students to learn about their history and culture requires a license from the U.S. Treasury Department under the ''Trading with the Enemy Act.''

Most Americans cannot understand it either. Our business corporations, disadvantaged by the Japanese and European competition, have been urging our government to lift the embargo. Key members of Congress have been supporting their efforts, but to no avail.

Why are the Vietnamese willing to put the war behind them, and we are not? When asked this question by a Foreign Ministry official, I speculated that it was partly because it was the first time the U.S. had been defeated militarily, and many Americans, particularly those who lost loved ones in battle, were still angry. ''Vietnam didn't defeat the United States,'' he replied; ''we only defeated your policy for Vietnam.''

A visit to almost any neighborhood soup stall or sidewalk restaurant in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) elicits friendly curiosity from owners and fellow diners alike -- although they too wonder why we insist on remaining enemies.

In Hanoi, the owners of one soup stall wanted me to meet their nephew, a part-time waiter there who studies in the local conservatory of music; his favorite composers are Mozart and Beethoven. They made a point of inviting me to a neighboring stall for tea and expressed their desire for warm personal relations with American people.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a young man sipping morning coffee was clearly curious about a Westerner doing the same at an adjoining table. In the ensuing conversation, it turned out the Vietnamese had recently completed his studies in Cuba and now publishes a children's magazine.

He was quite incredulous to find himself talking with an American, but clearly enjoyed the unexpected and unprecedented interaction so much that he insisted on putting me on the back of his motorbike and weaving through the traffic to show me his office.

Naive vignettes of an American seeking his own peace after a wartime incarnation in Vietnam? Perhaps. But the purpose of my trip was to initiate college semester-abroad programs there, whereby U.S. students will learn about that country's language, life and culture -- to come to understand the Vietnamese people on their own terms, so that we may hopefully lessen the chances of falling into similarly unwinnable and painful situations in the future.

There are many young Americans who want to come to terms with understanding this recent period of U.S. history, just as one hopes there are many who will want to find ways to understand the Middle East, too, as and when a broader peace is fully restored there.

History has shown that winning at peace is often harder than winning at war. Perhaps the adrenaline is harder to mobilize for the former than for the latter. In the Middle East, the time to start is now.

In Vietnam, the time to start was some years ago. But it is not too late. We can and should start now -- by trading goods and exchanging personal visits -- and not calling them enemies any more.

Only then can President Bush say we've truly ''kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.''

John G. Sommer is author of ''Viet-Nam: The Unheard Voices.''

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