The name of the freed POW in a Pulitzer prize-winning photo was spelled incorrectly in Sunday's paper. The picture shows the joyful reunion of Robert L. Stirm with his family.
It was dark in Saigon 10 years ago, and the weather was poor, as the helicopter carrying the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam lifted off from the American Embassy. The gloomy setting matched the occasion. This was no orderly evacuation carried out with crisp military precision. It was a ragged retreat, humiliating and embittering, and it took place amid scenes of chaos and panic.
At the embassy, U.S. Marines used rifle butts and pistols to smash the fingers of Vietnamese desperately trying to claw their way over a 10-foot wall. Other Vietnamese were beaten back and hurled to the ground when they tried to escape by clinging to the choppers rising from the American compound. The war was over. The Saigon government had surrendered. The North Vietnamese had won. The United States had experienced something unique in its history -- defeat.
The nation was faced with the question posed in the mid-1960s by journalist and novelist Ward Just: "To what end?"
A decade has passed, and the search for that answer continues. Ten years is nothing on history's clock. More decades will pass before historians and veterans and the vast "Vietnam Generation" put the war behind them and find, perhaps, a perspective stripped of passion, personal memory and hurt.
In the meantime, they are getting on with their lives. Most of the young men who fought the war, according to a special poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, have successfully reentered civilian society and are raising their own families. Many have emerged as political and business leaders, winning governorships, seats in the House and Senate and positions of authority in government. Four major newspapers now have Vietnam veterans as their publishers; others serve as the chief executive officers of various corporations. Their generational peers are doing the same things; many of them are the prototypes of the upward-moving "Yuppie" class. As for the larger society, another Post-ABC poll concludes, the war is a fading memory, although distrustful attitudes toward government, spawned in large part by the war, persist.
Still, on this 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, there is a new outpouring of analyses, reminiscences and catechisms of the "lessons" of the longest and, save the Civil War, most divisive conflict in American history. It includes a flood of books by such as former president Richard M. Nixon ("No More Vietnams"), symposiums by intellectuals, retrospective editions of magazines and newspapers, and specially commissioned opinion polls and sociological musings.
It is as though we are driven compulsively, as a people, yet again to chew the old bone for psychic sustenance, to make sense out of a searing national experience that at the time seemed to many insensible. That, in part, is the genesis of the articles that will appear in The Washington Post during the next two weeks. They will deal with various aspects of the Vietnam war and its impact a decade later on American lives and attitudes, on Southeast Asia and on the course of history.
One measure of that impact centers on the notion of omnipotence. Before Vietnam, British historian Denis Brogan aptly wrote: "Probably the only people who have the historical sense of inevitable victory are the Americans." In all of their history, Americans had believed in their special destiny. The American Continent, the American Dream, the American Melting Pot, the idea that this was the American Century -- all were expressions of a vague but strongly held feeling about the uniqueness of this country and its mission in the world. Americans were history's winners. The experience of their earlier wars reaffirmed that judgment.
Consistent with those beliefs was the conviction that Americans did not fight "immoral" or "unjust" wars. Our war purposes were always framed in idealistic terms -- to secure independence and freedom, to preserve the union, to liberate Cubans and Filipinos from Spanish tyranny, to make the world safe for democracy, to defeat totalitarian forces that threatened to engulf the globe. The Vietnam war, at the beginning, was framed in similar terms. 'What About Withdrawal?'
Journalist David Halberstam wrote the conventional wisdom after his Vietnam assignment in the early 1960s: "What about withdrawal? Few Americans who have served in Vietnam can stomach this idea. It means that those Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government . . . . It means a drab, lifeless and controlled society for a people who deserve better.
"Withdrawal also means that the United States' prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam . . . . An anti-Communist victory in Vietnam would serve to discourage so-called wars of liberation."
This idealism, American historian Loren Baritz argues, is a product of our cultural history:
"In countless ways Americans know in their gut -- the only place myths can live -- that we have been Chosen to lead the world in public morality and instruct it in political virtue. We believe that our own domestic goodness results in strength adequate to destroy our opponents who, by definition, are enemies of virtue, freedom and God.
"Over and over, the founding Puritans described their new settlement as a beacon in the darkness, a light whose radiance could keep Christian voyagers from crashing on the rocks, a light that could brighten the world. In his inaugural address, John Kennedy said, 'The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor defending freedom will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.' "
The American intervention in Vietnam arose as much out of this sense of earthly mission -- "a noble cause," as President Reagan has put it -- as it arose out of the fear of a communist onslaught that would overrun Southeast Asia. It arose also out of the imperatives of history. With victory in World War II and full emergence as the world's mightiest economic and military power, the United States immediately began to fill the vacuum created by the receding fortunes of its wartime allies.
Picking up the lance left by the French when their colony of Indochina (now Vietnam) was overwhelmed, was seen then as both natural and right. In large measure, that is why Americans, in the beginning, gave overwhelming support to the intervention. Even today, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, millions of Americans (41 percent) believe that the war was a "worthwhile cause," although two-thirds of the people now believe that the United States should not have gotten involved.
The historic belief in the American mission in the world -- the conviction that "God is on our side" -- made the Vietnam defeat difficult to comprehend. And the ambiguities of the outcome compounded the emotional confusion. It was not the defeat that the American South had known a century before, or that Germany and Japan knew in this century. There had been no lost battles, no Appomattox, no surrender of armies, no occupation of American soil by alien troops. Even the geopolitical disasters that had been freely predicted did not occur. A war begun in part to halt the "Chinese Communist advance through Asia" produced, in time, an American alliance with China -- and Chinese alienation from its former ally, the Soviet Union. Southeast Asia did not fall, and today the position of the United States in that region is more secure than it was a generation ago. So in the end, what America suffered was a severe psychic defeat.
One response, especially among Vietnam veterans today, is to insist that American soldiers did not lose the war; rather, that it was the politicians who lacked the will for ultimate victory. This theme recurs repeatedly in veterans' responses to interviewers who conducted the Post-ABC poll described in an accompanying article. It is a theme in Nixon's new book and in the writings of military historians.
Yet another response has been a new surge of exultant patriotism. The desire to be seen again as "No. 1" was strongly displayed at last summer's Olympic Games in Los Angeles and in the popular reaction to the Grenada invasion. It is evident in the great defense buildup currently under way. It is manifest in the political rhetoric of Reagan and other public figures. It was manifest, also, in the rhetoric and belief of President Jimmy Carter that the missionary role of the United States is unchanged, that it is the nation's obligation to set "human rights" standards for the rest of the world consistent with American wisdom and ideals.
That is by no means the whole of the Vietnam legacy, however. The war spawned years of violent dissent and division and produced political and psychological dislocations that are not erased by flag-waving. At home, citizens opposed to the war came to feel that it "betrayed" traditional American principles. And they felt it just as passionately as did those veterans who felt "betrayed" by Washington politicians who imposed limits on the fighting of the war. The result has been destruction of the notion of American omnipotence, the notion that foreign-policy decisions are not appropriate subjects for political debate, and the emergence of a notion alien to historic American beliefs: that this nation invariably was on the right side. Vietnam cast great doubt on that assumption and generated cynicism about American motives and purposes. Now, a Mood of Restraint
The whole policy-making process has been transformed with Congress and special-interest lobbies, including the churches, playing an ever-increasing role. The new watchwords are "restraint" and "caution," not only for the foreign-policy establishment but also within the Pentagon.
At a recent symposium on Vietnam, sponsored by Harper's magazine, Peter Marin, a novelist and essayist, described this new situation:
"One of the major constraints on American policy is the lingering fear -- conscious or unconscious -- on the part of those in authority that a similar crisis could erupt if certain kinds of policies are implemented. We now have in the United States a military and political policy constrained, at least in part, by the feelings of its citizens, feelings based on remembered experience rather than on propaganda."
Another participant in the symposium, Edward Luttwak, a writer and consultant on military affairs, acknowledged with disgust the attitudes of restraint now prevalent in military circles:
" Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has essentially declared to the world: 'We will apply military force only if we know we're going to win quickly and easily, and only if we are guaranteed total support from the public.' I think his statement accurately reflects the views of our professional military. I believe this is a wholly praiseworthy doctrine -- wonderfully suited to a country such as Switzerland, which promises to come to the aid of no other nation, guarantees no order to the world, and, in short, is content to live in a world in which events are dominated by others. But for a country such as the United States, the Weinberger doctrine is completely and absurdly unsuitable."
Whether the "Weinberger doctrine" is or is not appropriate for a superpower is almost beside the point. Political constraints on use of military force are a reality. Americans agree by 48 percent to 14 percent in the Post-ABC poll that the Vietnam experience has made it less likely that the nation will again go to war; 36 percent say Vietnam is irrelevant to the question.
This contemporary caution about issues of war and peace is often labeled the "Vietnam syndrome." But it is at least arguable that the syndrome is nothing new in American history. Isolationism and a desire to stay uninvolved in foreign adventures have a long tradition in the United States. On the eve of entry into World War II, a great majority of Americans opposed any military involvement, and a military-conscription bill passed the House of Representatives by a single vote.
There are other ambiguities about the Vietnam era. Was American society more fractured by the war itself or by other events that loomed large in the 1960s and early '70s? -- the various upheavals in manners and mores that went under the names of "sexual revolution," "generation gap," "black revolution," "the drug culture," "antiestablishmentarianism," "the greening of America." Or were they and the war all part of the same traumatic experience?
All of these eruptions and evolutions, coupled with assassinations and attempted assassinations of national leaders, enhanced the shock waves of that period and social divisions of the people. Whether Vietnam was the cause or the effect, or a combination of both, only begs the question and the reality: In time, the long years of conflict in Southeast Asia flared into the central trauma of a generation. Vietnam divided Americans against Americans, separated people along class lines into the ranks of those who served and those who did not, stood at the center of presidential actions for administration after administration, poisoned political discourse and debate and ended in humiliating defeat.
The days of rage and great antiwar demonstrations grew more intense with each year. Now, according to the Post-ABC poll conducted last month, substantial evidence exists that those angry divisions have been largely put aside.
In any consideration of "healing" after a war, the first concern involves the young men who fought it. The poll is very positive on that score. The combatants, during their tours in Vietnam, used the term "The World" in referring to what they had left behind. They have reentered "The World," for the most part, very successfully. They have married, raised families, bought homes, gotten jobs and, surprisingly, by a 2-to-1 margin believe that their lives were bettered as a result of their Vietnam experiences. Their physical and mental health is good. Their educational achievements are not unlike those of their peers who, for one reason or another, escaped the war. Their political attitudes and affiliations are comparable to those of the larger society; 70 percent of the Vietnam veterans said they voted for Ronald Reagan.
In the population at large, there is an even division on the question of whether draft evasion during the war was justified but also great tolerance for those who demonstrated against the conflict.
One clear legacy of the war was an erosion of faith and trust in government and its leaders. Those feelings, according to the poll, are still widespread, although less pronounced than a decade ago.
The costs of the war are embedded in the collective memory: 58,000 American dead, 300,000 wounded, the expenditure of $250 billion, 1 million Vietnamese dead and, in the war's aftermath, 2 million Cambodian dead, victims of their own government -- the communist Khmer Rouge. 'To What End?'
What do Americans think about all of that today? Their opinions, collected in the poll, are interesting and wholly inconclusive: 26 percent say they believe that the Vietnamese are better off today than 10 years ago when Saigon fell and the war was concluded, 27 percent say that the Vietnamese are worse off, and 38 percent say the war has made no difference in the lives of the Vietnamese people.
So, as the war recedes on the historical screen, the tantalizing question "To what end?" remains unresolved.
Nothing better illustrates the inconclusive nature of that war, and the emotions still stirred by it, than the black granite memorial to the American dead of Vietnam cut into the earth of the Mall in Washington. Alone among all other great national memorials to Americans who fell in battle in other wars, this monument fails to convey an undiluted message.
Heroic words about honored dead not dying in vain are missing from its spot among national shrines nearby. It merely lists the names of those who died. Why they fought, who sent them and for what purpose are questions unanswered, as they are unraised.
Yet at virtually any hour of the day, on any day of the week, in any season of the year, one can find Americans quietly moving to that wall and reaching out to touch those names. In so doing, they are paying mute tribute to a painful period that, a decade later, remains unlike any other in the American experience.