Vietnam War scholars urge ties to former foe

November 22, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- Seventeen years after America ended its military involvement in Vietnam, most of the scholars who are writing the history books future generations will read agree that it was a mistake for the United States to have entered the war.

And if the war was a mistake, war scholars argue, U.S. leaders should renew diplomatic and economic ties with Vietnam, even if it means setting aside lingering questions about the fate of missing U.S. servicemen in Southeast Asia.

That appears to be the unofficial consensus of nearly 100 historians, authors and filmmakers who gathered at Salisbury State University over the past four days to discuss the war in general and, in particular, the pivotal 1968 Tet Offensive that jTC marked a rise in anti-war sentiment in the American public.

While there remain both hard-line conservatives and liberals who believe the war was, respectively, either a noble cause against the spread of communism or an overt act of imperialism, most contemporary thinking follows a moderate line.

"As I listen to people here, it does seem that the 'mistake school' is dominant," said Harry Basehart, a Salisbury State political science professor who organized this week's conference.

Although the conference was designed as a forum for numerous points of view about the war and its aftermath, calls for "normalization" of relations between the United States and Vietnam were strong.

Participants cited the benefits of trade for the U.S. economy and good global citizenship as reasons for re-establishing relations with Vietnam.

Although the MIA issue appears to be the primary obstacle to normalized relations, there is little hope that any American prisoners are alive in Vietnam today, said Henry J. Kenny, the deputy staff director for the POW/MIA Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives and a professor at American University.

"It is now 25 years since the average MIA has been gone, and despite movies to the contrary, there has been no credible evidence since the end of the war that any of them are alive," he said in a prepared statement before his scheduled appearance at the conference.

Dr. Kenny said it is reasonable for the United States to press Vietnamese officials for information, "but to expect an accounting for the majority of our missing men is simply unrealistic."

Of the 2,265 Americans who did not return from the war, about 135 disappeared under circumstances "which indicate Vietnam should be able to account for them," he said.

Even with Vietnam's willingness to help a U.S. congressional delegation track down accounts of American graves and sightings of live servicemen, there are logistical obstacles in the way.

Robert K. Brigham, who recently returned from Hanoi, where he was researching the National Liberation Front, said he was one of the first Americans to be allowed to pore over North Vietnamese war archives.

What he found, he said, were disorganized stacks of documents: "The archives are not cataloged in a Western sense. It boggles my imagination that someone could walk in, go over the archives and walk out with specific information" about missing servicemen.

One conference participant who asked not to be named said he believes the Vietnamese are providing Americans with false leads about missing men because they believe the appearance of cooperation will help break down diplomatic barriers between the two countries.

Peter C. Rollins, an Oklahoma State University professor and a critic of media coverage of the war, said some people believe there are Americans still in Vietnam, but that they are expatriates by choice.

"Some think there are probably no MIAs or POWs in Vietnam now who don't want to be there," he said. Those who may be there, he added, "just want to be left alone. They're happy and want to stay."

Some veterans groups insist that there are between 35 and 4 MIAs alive today in Vietnamese prisons. By insisting that all MIAs be accounted for immediately, Dr. Rollins said, the United States could force Vietnamese captors to kill the Americans and hide the evidence because such prisoners should have been turned over years ago.

The debate over the fate of the missing U.S. servicemen has nothing to do with numbers, said Dr. Rollins, although the 2,265 count is far below the numbers of missing servicemen reported after World War I and the Korean War. The Vietnamese have been unable to account for about 300,000 of their own people, who presumably died during the war against the United States but whose bodies were never recovered.

The reason the MIA-POW issue is so important to many Americans, said Dr. Rollins, is because U.S. servicemen returned to their homes as losers. "When a vet came home, he was forced to hide his identity," he said. "Every Vietnam veteran has an MIA inside of him."

Vietnamese writer Pham Tien Duat, who who came to the United States for the first time last week to read his poetry at the conference, said efforts to search for living American servicemen will prove futile.

American poet and Vietnam veteran Bruce Weigl took the opportunity at a poetry reading to call for U.S. policy-makers to tear down the barriers between the two countries. "The writers have been working toward reconciliation for a lot longer than the government has," he said. He and four other American writers traveled to Hanoi in 1990 to meet with 30 Vietnamese writers.

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