Gore visits Vietnam memorial, calls for 'healing' of divisions over Vietnam

November 12, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Vice President-elect Al Gore journeyed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial yesterday -- 10 years after its controversial dedication -- and called on Americans to mend their divisions over a war fought decades ago.

Mr. Gore, the first Vietnam veteran elected to the nation's second-highest office, said, "As someone in politics, I believe it's time to put the divisions of the Vietnam War out of our political process once and for all."

Veterans, "more than anyone else in this country, know that what is most important now is the healing process," he said.

In the past 10 years, the Vietnam memorial has become a magnet in this city of monuments, drawing 2.2 million visitors last year. Veterans, in particular, speak of its stone wall, etched with the names of 58,183 men and women killed or missing in the war, as a balm for their spiritual and physical wounds.

When it was dedicated in 1982, Mr. Gore said, "no one could have anticipated that this wall of polished black granite would also become a salve, easing pain and offering faith and solemnly answering unspoken questions."

The memorial, he said, has "become a link connecting parent with child, husband with wife, friend with friend, soldier with soldier, connecting us with each other, with our past, with today and with our hopes for the future."

Hundreds of visitors at the Veterans Day ceremony wore uniforms and carried flags emblazoned with symbols of the continuing controversy over whether U.S. prisoners of war are still being held in Southeast Asia.

As the crowd chanted "Bring them home," Mr. Gore vowed that President-elect Bill Clinton's administration would "obtain the truth and the whole truth about every single POW/MIA. . . . We're determined to get the truth."

Several hours before Mr. Gore spoke, President Bush paid a surprise midnight visit to the wall, taking part in a public reading of the names carved into the black stone. "I had a chance to thank about 200 veterans there," the president said yesterday morning, shortly before leaving for a five-day vacation in Florida.

"It was a very moving tribute," said Mr. Bush, who made the trip to the memorial unannounced and unaccompanied by his usual retinue of aides and reporters. "I've been there several times before, but it was extraordinarily moving for Barbara and me. I just wanted to thank the veterans for their service to this great country of ours."

The anniversary of the Vietnam memorial comes after an election campaign that opened old wounds in a race between a man from a generation that overwhelmingly served in the military and another whose generation is still deeply split over Vietnam.

Mr. Clinton faced attacks from Mr. Bush over his Vietnam-era draft record, and there seemed to be some lingering anger over that among some veterans and others at the ceremony. Shortly after Mr. Gore began speaking, one member of the crowd yelled out, "Slick Willie is a draft dodger."

Steve Goldberg, a Columbia, Md., resident who fought in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, said he was especially troubled "by the fact that Clinton not only protested in this country but also overseas, which is even worse."

Wendell Wichmann of Timonium, Md., was more forgiving. "It's been 25 years," said Mr. Wichmann, who served in the Army in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and visited the memorial Tuesday. "That's a long time ago, and it has nothing to do with being president."

Echoes of the arguments over Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s could still be heard, as speakers offered sharply contrasting interpretations of the war.

"The bumbling and incompetence defy our senses," said AnniBooth Elias, whose father was killed in Vietnam, "both by subtle miscalculation and overt malice."

Major Gen. Edward Baca, a Vietnam veteran who is now adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard, called the war "part of a decisive victory in the Cold War. Because of your sacrifice and your blood, communism is dead, dead, dead."

Terry Anderson, who served with the Marines in Vietnam before being held captive by terrorists in Lebanon for seven years, tried to bridge the gap still evident yesterday. "Veteran or civilian, supporter or opponent of that terrible war, we all paid. We all have the right to speak our thoughts here, to remember aloud what it cost us individually and as a nation," he said.

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