The sin of a rich country

February 17, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- ONE COULD almost hear the "Aahs" and "Amens" quietly reverberating across much of the land as the president calmly lifted the embargo, now fully 19 years old, against Vietnam. It is time, many Americans feel, to put Vietnam behind us and to make friends of unlikely enemies.

Behind President Clinton's move there is also the unmistakable sigh of relief of his "Hell, no, we won't go" generation, which despite protestations is filled with guilt and other related complexes for not going while their less quirky (and in most cases, more courageous) brothers and sisters did go. For that no-go part of the '60s generation, this act is supposed to close the door for everybody on that unfortunate, that terrible time.

The president was right to do this at this time. We can argue, free-marketeers that we are, that Vietnam is now not a war, not a complex, not a moral setback, and not even a country: Vietnam is a market, and it is Saturday market day across the world.

Even so, old memories that had dissipated and worries about how America sees the world return at this salient time. Is the "Vietnam era" really over within us? I wonder, but then, I had a very different interpretation of Vietnam from that of both popular ends of the spectrum.

I went to Vietnam four times as a young correspondent from the Chicago Daily News: one month at the end of 1967, six months in 1968, a couple of months in 1969, and several months in 1970. I traveled all over that confused country, and I never liked the place very much: Vietnam is such an incongruous cultural melange of Khmer, Indian and other Southeast Asian cultures and histories that I couldn't really grasp it with any certainty. Besides, I hated the war.

But I hated the war for reasons that were far different from the popular and the usual. Basically, there were two, impassioned and bitterly dug-in ideological sides among the diplomats and the press in Vietnam. One side, loosely called the right, believed that we were stopping communism in Vietnam before it could overrun all of Southeast and west Asia. The other attributed our vast and often destructive presence there to our evil, imperialistic intentions.

I do not believe in the slightest that either of these interpretations -- or even some mix of them -- explains the tragedy of Vietnam. Rather, the American commitment there should be seen in terms of our innocence as a land long protected by the arms of two great oceans; in terms of a rich country's willingness to expend great wealth on questionable purposes; and in terms of America's historic and congenital inability to choose carefully according to its resources and abilities.

4 In short, Vietnam was the sin of a rich country.

Other countries, less blessed than America, would have had to count and add up and calculate -- and then would have come out of such a Vietnam debacle totally destroyed (as was Russia in 1917). The United States, on the other hand, could wantonly waste its blood and its wealth in a fruitless conflict where it had no serious interests -- and then come out feeling guilty, immoral and disquieted in defeat.

But if this interpretation is correct, can it really be true that the Vietnam era is behind us?

Here I am less pleased than I am over the president's decision to lift the embargo. For we can still see all around us the unlearned lesson of Vietnam, which, whether nation or individual, is to judge your capacity against your interest against your desire in such a strict manner that you never get involved in "innocent," hopeless causes in which you have no business.

In fact, I see the fruit of the old Vietnam thinking -- slightly altered, to be sure, yet still philosophically and metaphysically amazingly the same -- in our hapless involvement in Somalia (where we have no national interest), in our non-involvement in Bosnia and Haiti (where we do have strong national interests), and even in our in-out, yes-no inability to deal with North Korea's nuclear threats.

You see, we were a country that could afford innocence. We had our great frontiers historically protecting us, and we could use those frontiers to rid ourselves of our problems and of our problem people. Unlike the crowded, in-your-face history of Europe and most other parts of the world, America could afford not to make decisions.

That is no longer our situation in the world. Indeed, today, our frontiers are moving in upon us rather than offering us the eternal escape valve for social dissolution. Even more than during the Vietnam years, we need to make reasoned and careful choices in order to remain where we are.

And so, even as I mourn all that we lost in Vietnam, I welcome the president's decision. I only hope that the logic behind it will extend to other, more critical areas of American life.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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