Memo to Mr. Clinton: Strength is a virtue

November 30, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- As the Iraqi potential for major catastrophe grows and the most anti-military administration in American history wonders what, if anything, to do about it, a new book arrives and evokes memories of other bad times not so long ago. Some of these may be relevant today.

First, a little background. In the fall of 1970, a year after Bill Clinton managed to evade the draft and the same year he was working in Washington for Project Pursestrings, a lobbying effort to cut off funds for the war in Vietnam, I was a young reporter newly arrived in Saigon.

Although I didn't yet know much from first-hand experience, I had absorbed from my reading and from most of my journalism colleagues several assumptions. These were: First, that the 1968 Tet offensive had demonstrated the invincibility of the North Vietnamese; second, that anyone who said that security in South Vietnam was improving was either deluded or lying; and third, that American withdrawal and a South Vietnamese defeat were inevitable.

The first assumption dealt with the past, before I had arrived in Asia, and the third involved the future. I was in no position to challenge either. And until I met Terry McNamara I had no reason to challenge the prevailing assessment of the security situation, which was that the North Vietnamese could still attack virtually any place at any time.

Mr. McNamara, a career foreign service officer, was the American consul in Da Nang. I met him in Saigon. He struck me as a common-sense person of independent judgment, and when he said he thought security in most of South Vietnam much improved, I was interested. When he said he was about to test it by driving to Da Nang, almost 500 miles away, I asked to go with him.

Since Tet, Americans simply hadn't driven to Da Nang. It was considered too dangerous, though the North Vietnamese had fTC taken enormous casualties in 1968, and there were still more than 400,000 American troops on the ground in South Vietnam.

As it happened, we made the trip, which took us several days in Mr. McNamara's Ford Bronco, without incident. We saw a lot of South Vietnam, talked to a lot of optimistic Vietnamese who thought maybe the worst was over, and picked up a lot of local knowledge. (Most of the military people we spoke to told us that while their own area of operations was perfectly safe, the adjacent areas, which they usually hadn't visited, were very bad.) The trip gave me the confidence to travel more, and over the next year or so I would visit almost all of the 43 provinces of South Vietnam.

A news splash

The story I wrote about the trip made a brief splash. Those with a vested interest in improved security cited it as evidence of progress. Those with a different view said I was naive, and very lucky to have survived. In any event, it was all soon forgotten as troop withdrawal continued and security again began to fail.

Terry McNamara, after a posting to Africa, came back to South Vietnam, where he was the chief American official in the Mekong Delta region when the country fell to the North in April 1975.

He directed a resourceful escape by water, 70 miles down the river and out into the ocean, rescuing not only every American for whom he was responsible, but also several hundred Vietnamese. His gripping little memoir of that adventure, ''Escape With Honor,'' was published last month.

Is there a lesson here for the former Project Pursestrings lobbyist who is now the Commander in Chief? Probably not. Back then, he and those around him considered the collapse of South Vietnam, a humiliating American failure they had done their very best to bring about, to be a moral victory and a vindication of their politics.

It's possible to look back now and see that while strength and persistence can create security, weakness leads to catastrophe. Those principles still apply in 1997, but there's not much reason to think that people who didn't understand them a generation back are any wiser today.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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