Lt. William Broyles Jr. went back to Vietnam. A former editor of both Newsweek and The Texas Monthly, he returned for yet another magazine -- the Atlantic. He's written an article in the April issue about his month-long stay among his former enemies. I can summarize it quickly: We won the war after all.
Of course, you can't take me literally. We most certainly did not win the war. We lost the war and 58,022 lives and -- not that it matters after that -- trillions of dollars. We also lost an ally and prestige and lots of people who were our friends and, in the end, our self-respect. We fought an awful war for no good reason. It left a stain on our history and made American politics crazy and mean for more than a decade.
But at 6 one morning, former Marine lieutenant Broyles went for a run in Hanoi. The place was the park around the Lake of the Returned Sword, and because he is tall and lanky as a Texan should be, a Vietnamese man asked his nationality. "I bent down in the stooped posture that came to seem natural in a world where almost no one was taller than my shoulder, and told him I was an American. His face relaxed and he smiled broadly. 'Number one,' he said."
Broyles writes that that sort of scene got repeated time and time again. The Russians, the Mother Domino whom we thought we were really fighting in Vietnam, are loathed. Americans, though, are a different story. From the old South Vietnam that was once a huge American base, American culture has percolated up to the north -- a kind of Ho Chi Minh trail in reverse. A student asked Broyles about a singer named Michael Jackson; American gospel music from the Voice of America was played at breakfast, much to the annoyance of visiting Russians. Everywhere he went Broyles was given the same smiling message: "America, Number One."
Of course, rock music, jeans, T-shirts and movies are not the whole story. It hardly matters if the United States wins in this way if the people have no freedom, and that, make no mistake about it, is the case in Vietnam. But American consumer goods, as tawdry and fleeting as they can be, are emblematic of something else -- a way of life that's energetic, youthful, innovative and, of course, free. For that reason, it remains attractive and explains why in Vietnam to this day many hope that someday they can come to America.
There is a lot more in Broyles' article, and you can take from it what you want. I took this -- that even in a country where we killed, where we made war, where we rained bombs and Agent Orange, where the jungle burned with napalm, America remains attractive. Our most formidable weapon is who we are as a peo- ple -- what we represent to the rest of the world. Yet in Vietnam, we fought with other weapons, and we continue, sometimes through surrogates, to do the same elsewhere in the world.
Do you think, for instance, that Nicaragua is any different from Vietnam in this regard? Do you think that we can keep up the pressure indefinitely -- so long that that country cries "uncle" and retreats from its own version of Manifest Destiny? Do you think our way of life is any less attractive there, so close to our shores, than it is in Southeast Asia? Is it possible that it is better to hire an army to deal with the Sandinistas than to fight with the most formidable weapon we have -- what it means to be an American. At the very least Vietnam proved that other weapons, whatever their immediate impact, have limited value in the long run. Nothing, though, endures like an idea.
Still, for some reason, the goodness of America gets translated abroad into funding for contras and support for ugly regimes It gets translated into alliances with goons and the feeling that time is our enemy when, in fact, it is our ally. If we had the patience of the Vietnamese we would know that. What's 10 years? What's even 20? It's possible even Fidel Castro is inching toward us, and someday, for sure, his island will come the rest of the way. William Broyles went back to Vietnam, and it was instructive to go back with him. Our former enemy taught us many hard lessons during the war and, through Broyles, has taught us yet another: America number one. It's time we believed it too.