The Shadow of Vietnam 20 Years Later, A New Book And Old Debates

April 30, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

The date, April 30, 1975, means everything and nothing.

Twenty years ago today, the only war America ever lost was ending officially and ignominiously. The image of U.S. helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear, became an image of defeat.

Recalling that event, the nation's current leaders, its elder statesmen, its Vietnam veterans and their families may choose today to remember what the war meant to the nation and to them personally, as if they could ever for a moment forget.

It is merely a date, though, and for many the least important.

David DeChant is drawn to an earlier time, to the summer of 1966. "Brought up to be a Marine," he was ready to fulfill his destiny. He enlisted out of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, served not one but two tours -- and still came back feeling guilty. He had survived.

He helped build memorials, one in Washington, one in Maryland, to the more than 58,000 American servicemen and women who were killed, 1,046 of them from Maryland.

One of these, August G. "Todd" Mannion Jr., died Dec. 20, 1966. Todd's mother, Catherine, began to sob as soon as she opened the front door that morning to find a team of uniformed men.

In that same Christmas season of 1966, Philip Berrigan and other priests from St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore knelt to pray in the snow outside the home of then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Earlier that same afternoon, they had visited the home of Dean Rusk, the secretary of state.

"Both of them called later to talk to us at the parish. They wanted to convince us of the legitimacy of the war," Mr. Berrigan said in an interview at his Reservoir Hill home last week. He spent two hours in Mr. Rusk's State Department office.

The protester and the defense secretary missed each other's phone calls. They would became symbols of opposing sides in a debate that led to the pullout observed today.

Other important dates were recorded: On May 28, 1968, Mr. Berrigan and eight others built a fire of draft records in Catonsville. They were a tiny cell of protesters, but famous: the Catonsville Nine. Over the next seven years, after thousands more were killed and wounded, much of the nation joined them.

And now the wall between Mr. Berrigan and Mr. McNamara has fallen away. Mr. Berrigan continues his campaign against war and violence. He was arrested in the lobby of the World Bank this Easter season after pouring blood on the picture of a starving child. Robert McNamara recently published a controversial book apologizing for grave errors in Vietnam.

"He had real moral qualms about the war then," Mr. Berrigan said. "It was common knowledge. He shared his misgivings with the administration and the president [John F. Kennedy]."

The meticulously groomed and bespectacled McNamara, a former head of Ford Motor Co., embodied for critics the impersonality of the war-making machine. Given that, the significance of his silence cannot be overstated, Mr. Berrigan said.

"He should have quit. He might have broken the back of the war effort," he says. Some would argue Vietnam made the U.S. government more accountable, more open and more committed to informing the public; Mr. Berrigan differs.

"Government is determined to go ahead with nuclear weapons development and its war-making."

Mr. McNamara must answer also to Catherine Mannion, whose stoic refusal to criticize the government's Vietnam policy does not extend to forgiving him.

"I think he ought to keep his mouth shut now," she says. "Why didn't he come out when it might have saved a lot of lives? He's opening up the wounds of these 58,000 mothers. Doesn't he have any respect? It's only coming out now to sell his book. Or maybe his conscience caught up with him."

For the 29 years since Todd was killed, Catherine Mannion has been a leader in the American Gold Star Mothers, serving as national president in 1980 and 1981. She still works at Veterans Administration hospitals, something she started doing when Todd was a child. "Little did I dream at that time. . . ."

Again today she will mourn the 20-year-old who set aside his dreams to fight and die in a place called Pleiku, half a world away from his neighborhood in Belair-Edison. He had gone to school at the Shrine of the Little Flower and to Calvert Hall College, where he was a talented baseball player. A catcher and first baseman, he had tryouts with several major-league teams.

"I'm not an overly patriotic boy," he had said, according to his mother, "but I love this country, and if this is what is required of me, I will do it to the best of my ability."

After the initial shock and turmoil of his death, she said, "You have to do something or else. I did the 'something' and the 'else.' "

She does not weary of the interviews or phone calls from reporters and veterans. A business meeting of Gold Star Mothers from Maryland-Delaware chapter was scheduled to be held at her Elmley Avenue house yesterday.

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