A recent Harris poll reveals a great deal about both the public's attitude toward Vietnam veterans and the complex impact of that war on the national psyche.
According to the pollsters, less than 25 percent of Americanms agree that the government was right in military involvement there. More than 63 percent agree that Vietnam veterans were made suckers -- up 15 percent from 1971. Yet over 90 percent of all groups, regardless of their views on the war, feel that Vietnam veterans deserve more respect for having served during that difficult period.
I saw the war firsthand in 1970 with a casualty-ridden infantry company. The way that war was waged was indeed unique, but the treatment that we received upon coming home was even more unprecedented.
It is illustrated by the true story of an amputee's being told that it served him right for going to Vietnam.
It is illustrated another way: In 1976, I testified before Congress on the war's serious psychological impact on many veterans. My recommendation was the same as that of others who had testified in previous years -- the establishment of a psychological readjustment program. It is a national disgrace that only now is that program beginning to get under way.
Last year some other Vietnam vets and I banded together to provide a memorial displaying the names of the 57,616 Americans killed in the Vietnam War. We thought it would be a powerful reminder of that war and those who died, and that it would aid in reconciliation after that divisive period in our history.
There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts by Congress to erect a Vietnam veterans memorial. Even Texas financier H. Ross Perot failed when he tried personally to sponsor a national memorial in Washington. Currently, however, 88 senators are cosponsoring a bill that would authorize our organization to build this overdue tribute on the Mall near the Lincoln Memorial.
Last summer, after a story on our organization was reported by the wire services, Americans from across the country began sending contributions. A number of prominent Americans with widely differing views on the war, ranging from Bob Hope to George McGovern to Father Theodore Hesburgh, serve on our national sponsoring committee.
We have received really no opposition to our goal, but there have been two letters from persons still bitter about Vietnam. One person refused to support any project sponsored in part by persons who opposed the war; he considered them unpatriotic. The other letter writer refused to support the memorial unless it also displayed the names of all those who were jailed for refusing to go to Vietnam.
Both letters are a reflection of the bitterness felt by nearly everyone whose life was affected by a war that our country has yet to come to grips with. Many who write lost a family member in Vietnam. These people are the most bitter of all and look forward to someday seeing their loved one's name in a place of honor. In the haste to be done with the war, our nation has conveniently forgotten these victims.
Unfortunately, this memorial will not raise the dead. It will not heal the wounded. Neither can it magically bring back the national unity still profoundly affected by that decade of unrest that divided generations, severed friendships and altered the public's faith in society's institutions.
Perhaps the former secretary of the Navy, Sen. John Warner, best described a major reason for this memorial. At a recent Senate hearing, he said that "it will list the names of those Americans who died there so that they will not be forgotten now or when that war is in a better perspective in all our minds . . . now or when we are better able to grasp the significance of what happened to our nation in its involvement in and conduct of the war."
What we have here is a very important memorial.