The war that was not won

Vietnam: A quarter-century on, wounds are not healed, lessons are not agreed.

April 29, 2000

EVEN 25 years after the fall of Saigon, little is agreed about the Vietnam war except that it was lost.

Relations between the United States and Vietnam have been restored with diplomacy, commerce and tourism. This took longer than with Japan and Germany after World War II. It is easier to resume relations with a vanquished enemy than one surviving unrepentant.

But animosities among Vietnamese kin from one of the world's most atrocious civil wars have not abated. The fall of Saigon precipitated flight of a million refugees, and humiliation and persecution of more who could not get away.

And the scars to the U.S. body politic have not wholly healed. Recriminations from a generation ago swirl about the careers of Bill Clinton, others.

U.S. policy then was arrogant and failed. The more the United States tried to remake South Vietnam in order to save it, the more the war escalated. Remaking other societies is not something a democracy that renounced colonialism does well.

But what is plainly seen now was not visible when decisions were made in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations. Communism, many people thought, only grew and never receded, and had to be opposed everywhere.

Triumphalism was not in order then, and is not now. The "lessons" of Vietnam, if any, are more elusive than many would admit.

U.S. foreign policy proceeded then under a doctrine that was understood in a world that was simply divided. Now the United States is more powerful, while the world is more complicated and smaller.

No doctrine exists today. Policy is made case by case. Vietnam provides no star to steer by, except that "the world's only superpower" is neither all-wise nor all-powerful. But we knew that.

The majestically plain Vietnam War Memorial on the Mall in Washington helped to bring this nation together. It is a place of solemnity and remembrance, for those who fought the war and those who fought against war. Its work is not done.

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