It is a season of foreign policy retrospectives, first the 20th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and now the dedication of a memorial to the Vietnam War dead. In the consequences and echoes of the two events, and in the tension between them, lies the struggle of a whole American generation to find its place in the world.
The day the missile crisis was resolved, somebody came through the line at my wedding reception and said there wasn't going to be a nuclear war after all. The news seemed of a piece with the day and with the expectations of presidential leadership and American fortune that were then taken as the norm.
There followed a celebration across most of the political spectrum of the administration's crisis management skills, accompanied by a self-conscious attempt not to "gloat" over Khrushchev's humiliation. The government's leading Soviet expert assured me that Nikita had come out of the crisis politically whole; certainly I knew no better. Two years later, Khrushchev was out on his ear, and 20 years later we are still having to deal with the military buildup and with the craving to get even that were generated by the October crisis.
No less sharply etched is what was for many Americans the beginning of the serious part of the Vietnam War. It was August 1964, and a couple of American destroyers had been attacked in the Tonkin Gulf by the North Vietnamese, our government was saying. Even as the Senate pondered the question, I was lunching with Bernard Fall, the Vietnam expert who later died, who said that the American government's explanation of the incident looked fishy. But it made adequate sense to me, and to the Senate.
Having teethed politically on the Korean war, a "just" war in which the government's credibility was not at stake, I, along with millions of other Americans, needed more time in which to arrive at the view that the United States had no good reason to stay that particular course, and good reason not to. One result of that collective decision against the war was the deeper extended disaster that befell Indochina after the United States stopped trying to affect the outcome.
Of all the nations, only the United States has the richness and luck to absorb the misfortunes and misjudgments of the last 20 years. We even have the luxury of asking ourselves whether the missile crisis or the Vietnam War hurt us more.
The Cuban crisis tends to absorb older people whose perennial focus is the Soviet-American equation and the need, as liberals and conservatives variously see it, to tend to the risks of tension and war on the one hand and American weakness and Soviet expansion on the other. They view the Vietnam War, when they view it at all, for the manner in which it plays into the larger debate on global policy.
In turn, many younger people, including many who served in Vietnam, are caught up by a sense of generational specialness and by a determination to right certain wrongs, or settle certain scores, in an internal American debate. One of them spoke movingly in that latter context in The Wall Street Journal this week, complaining that "the notion of reconciliation has taken on the dimensions of a farce, where the 'guiltless,' the America which sat out the war, has seen fit to welcome the 'guilty' vets back into the fold, without, of course, the admission of any wrongdoing or miscalculation on the part of the anti-war movement."
It is foolish and wrong, I think, not to make the effort to accommodate groups of Americans who have a strong grievance and a claim on the common respect. The Vietnam veterans are in that category, and the new memorial is part payment on the debt owed to them and their lost comrades in arms. But there are many such subgroups in the population, and the veterans have already learned they must compete for the country's limited resources of feeling and understanding, as for more conventional sorts of resources, against other worthy claimants.
In any event, as a foreign policy problem Vietnam is in the past. I cannot see how we will soon let ourselves be drawn into another dirty, divisive war -- even in circumstances where you or I might think it a necessary risk.
But I can see in respect to the Soviet Union a danger not so much of a war as of a continuing confrontation -- one part of it essential to sustain, a second part very hard to avoid, a third part perhaps possible to ease, if we have the wit and will -- but with no consensus among us that this is the case. In that realm the hardest questions will come.