The lessons of Vietnam are right out of a Greek tragedy

April 28, 1995|By Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON — PERHAPS THERE is some historic lesson in the fact that, for several weeks now, we have been focusing on Robert McNamara's strange more-or-less "mea culpa" on Vietnam. And in all the things that his book, "In Retrospect," is (and is not), it is surely bursting with the arrogance and hubris of the 1960s' best and brightest.

And now comes an extraordinary public television show titled "The Fall of Saigon," to be aired around the country this weekend. Here you have the inevitable results of hubris, as the ancient Greeks surely could have warned us: destruction, alienation, anomie.

There are the post-McNamara players, the men destiny chose to get us out of Bob's snake pit of ego and foolishness. You feel the North Vietnamese, in the final nightmare, closing in on Saigon.

You see a struggling President Gerald Ford trying desperately to balance a timed evacuation against the exigencies of just getting Americans out. You see supposed hard-liner Henry Kissinger, saying hoarsely that Vietnam had "more ways of breaking your heart than anyone could imagine."

And, finally, there is James Schlesinger, surely one of our most honest public servants, recalling how he told the president, "I said to him, Mr. President, it's all over."

So this week we can ricochet between the '60s can-do "Whiz Kids" of the endlessly optimistic and assertive Kennedy administration and the somber clean-up team left with the mess the kids created.

The Greeks had a name for it -- tragedy -- and, not surprisingly, tragedy almost always has emerged from man's pride and lack of vision.

Is there, then, 20 years later on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon, no more to say? I think there is. We may be approaching a watershed moment when we can glimpse some new lessons.

Look, for instance, at how hesitant Hanoi is to "celebrate" the anniversary. There will be only small celebrations on Sunday to mark the day when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. Officials have gone out of their way to tell visiting American journalists that they have many important anniversaries in 1995 -- and that this one is by far not the most important.

Indeed, if one looks with the stark realist's cool and uncluttered eye, it is clear, as the mists of history lift, that the United States has won the long-term war.

An impoverished communist North Vietnam is now begging the United States to come and save it. It is turning toward U.S. free enterprise with a vengeance. Moreover, virtually all of Southeast Asia, from South Korea to Singapore to Thailand, is going through the roof economically.

The question still out is this one: Could Asia have reached its present "miracle" status without the time and protection that the American involvement in Vietnam bought for it?

Americans also showed in the first dark post-Vietnam days, particularly in the U.S. military, an extraordinary ability to analyze and to reassess. The rebuilding of the spirit of the American military by the humbled officer corps from Vietnam showed how Americans could deal with something they had little experienced in their history: defeat.

This 20th anniversary offers us something more than the sadness, and shame, that has for these two decades overwhelmed us. It offers us the opportunity to sift through realities and unrealities: to see the American fighting men and women in Vietnam as courageous and loyal; to see the "cause" as fatally misjudged and even perverted; and to understand the war as a series of human mistakes.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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