Enough is enough. I am speaking here of the avalanche of anniversary remembrances of Vietnam and V-E Day. No, I'm not saying we shouldn't stop, look, listen and learn what we can from World War II and Vietnam. But you can overdose on revisionist remembrance, aimless remorse and political game-playing with imagery and symbolism. Better simple commemoration, which claims no corner on morality, than pious rendering of categorical judgment or exploitation of an anniversary to further current policy.
Consider the overwhelming votes by the House and Senate registering disapproval of President Reagan's visit to a German cemetery containing, among 2,000 dead soldiers, 49 members of the SS. Congress made no effort to state just how we should commemorate the end of World War II in Europe. It simply bowed to a public outcry against the way the president was going to do it. Ironically, West Germany's chancellor, Helmut Kohl, who had a lot to do with getting Reagan into this bind, has talked more sense about the meaning of V-E Day and the way it ought to be commemorated than either the president or Congress.
Kohl wants a celebration of reconciliation between West Germany and its World War II enemies. But he has also spoken of the need for "reconciliation with the survivors and descendants of the victims" of the Holocaust. This "is only possible if we accept our history as it really was (and) if we Germans acknowledge our shame and our historical responsibility," he said. The occasion was a memorial service conducted by the Central Council of Jews in Germany at the site of the same former concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, that Reagan belatedly put on his schedule.
The Nazi regime was not "an accident of history," Kohl declared. The decisive question is "why so many people remained apathetic (and) closed their eyes to the realities when the despots-to-be solicited support for their inhuman program."
When the leader of West Germany is prepared to address the matter in that fashion, the choice of Bitburg can be seen as an accident that shouldn't have happened -- the more so since it raised an issue that didn't need to be raised.
For another example of rememberance turned rancid, consider the Reagan administration's idea of how to commemorate the 10th anniversary, April 30, of the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam. The recent impassioned speech by Secretary of State George Shultz on "The Meaning of Vietnam" was apparently no accident; its tone and content were known to the president in advance. But it, too, raised issues that need not have been raised.
"Whatever mistakes in how the war was fought, whatever one's view of the strategic rationale for our intervention," Shultz said, "the morality of our effort must now be clear." Morality being very much in the eye of the beholder, that's a Vietnam issue that will probably never be resolved.
Still less is any useful purpose served by calling into question not only the intelligence of the war's critics but their patriotism. He speaks of the people making "apologies" for communism, arguing that "a communist victory would not have harmful consequences." The opponents I remember were arguing that a continuing, ineffectual American effort carried with it unacceptable costs of another sort.
"And finally, of course, the critics turned their attack on America," Shultz said. The serious criticism I remember was pinpointed against political leaders and their policies.
Then came the analogy that up until now we had been told in no way fits -- the one between Central America and Vietnam. It fits now, Shultz argued, in the way the Central American struggle will turn out -- bloodily, just as Vietnam did -- if the administration isn't given a free hand.
Well, he may be right. But when even prominent Republicans in Congress are questioning the means we are employing in Central America and crying out for a clearer definition of the ends, the administration would be well advised not to open up an analogy to Vietnam. As with the commemoration of V-E Day, so it is with the commemoration of the fall of Saigon -- and so it will be when we get around later this year to V-J Day, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and The Bomb.
Remembrance of searing events is strong medicine. It ought to be handled with care.