Los Angeles — What famed writer Dorothy Parker knew about GIs in Indochina could fit on a bookmark, but she did divine, ''You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.'' And so it is, the Vietnam war refuses to roll over and play dead.
A decade after US troops pulled out of Indochina, America is still haunted by the nation's longest war. The memories affect nearly 3 million veterans who came home physically and emotionally battered, and linger with the 600,000 Vietnamese refugees who crowd into ''little Saigons'' from Galveston to San Jose. Even today's unemployed - many who witnessed the war between commercials on the nightly news and others who were barely out of diapers when President Lyndon Johnson sent in the first ground troops in 1965 - they too, are sad souvenirs of an era when America tried to have guns and butter at the same time.
''Vietnam is the ghost that sits down in Congress every time they debate the budget,'' said Harrison Salisbury, a former editor and correspondent for the New York Times, who headed a recent Vietnam conference at the University of Southern California. ''That ghost,'' he added, ''is with us every time we talk about aid to cities and war in El Salvador.''
USC's sunny campus, where you can almost hear the ivy grow, hosted ''Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons From a War,'' a tumultuous four-day reunion of some of the most celebrated and iconoclastic personalities of the Vietnam era. In the neo-Tudor decor of Bovard Auditorium members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the ''Chicago Seven'' sat elbow to elbow, beard to brushcut, with retired generals and former CIA agents. Bitter vets competed for floor time with South Vietnamese boat people, who, like Cuban exiles in Miami, dreamed of returning home and overthrowing the communists.
The conference program, heavily peppered with Vietnam war correspondents and photographers, looked like a social register of the Fourth Estate. Morley Safer, Garrick Utley, and David Halberstam flew in from New York. Jack Lawrence and William Touhy arrived from London. David Douglas Duncan from the south of France. Toss a pebble into this crowd and you stood a decent chance of hitting a Pulitzer-prize winner with jet lag.
The participants had assembled to reexamine the roots and lessons of Vietnam before the war slipped into what Salisbury called the ''black hole'' of history. ''Vietnam has been buried in the national consciousness,'' said Frances FitzGerald, author of the best-selling ''Fire in the Lake,'' at the opening press conference. ''Buried because there still remain great divisions about the war.''
As she spoke, chants of ''Down with the communists'' came from outside the hall. Nearly 160 South VietnamHse ''boat people'' had gathered with bullhorns and placards to picket what they said was a ''pro-Hanoi'' gathering. In a bizarre flip-flop of campus protests in the '60s, mounted police in riot gear patrolled the Bovard perimeter protecting Vietnam war critics from the anti-communists.
Political jousting over the conference had gone on for weeks. Nguyen Ngoc Dung, ambassador of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to the United Nations was invited to speak but the State Department denied her a visa to travel to Los Angeles. She addressed the final day of the conference in a live broadcast from New York via satellite and was barraged with questions from refugees about the re-education camps and troops in Cambodia. Nguyen Cao Ky, former prime minister of South Vietnam, pressured for a place on the program, then backed out at the last minute.
Right-wing Vietnamese threatened violence against two of the speakers who had to be provided with secret hotel rooms and full-time bodyguards; one of the threatened participants was Ngo Ninh Long, a longtime antiwar activist in the US , who last spring narrowly escaped a Molotov cocktail hurled at him after his speech at Harvard University. The Los Angeles Police Department feared the auditorium itself might be bombed and brought in dog teams daily to sniff the hall for concealed explosives.
The commotion in front of Bovard seemed to puzzle all those coeds in pastel cableknits, who bicycled past on their way to class. And perhaps it should. The Vietnam war was not only America's longest war but its most misunderstood. It was a ''limited war'' that dragged on through six administrations.
It was a war that had no easily identifiable enemy, no front lines, and no simple logic. ''It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,'' said the major who directed fire into Ben Tre on Feb. 7, 1968. It was the first American war that generated sit-ins and drove large numbers of young Americans to Canada, Sweden, France, and Denmark. It was the first in which American war correspondents refused to ''get on the team.''
It is not difficult to understand why a college sophomore, in pressed jeans and nail polish, would find Vietnam remote and academic. She was only eight years old when the Paris peace accords were signed in 1973. Hippies and Led Zeppelin were her most vivid images of the era. All the raised voices and raw anger ten years after the fact were a bit befuddling. ''It's all over,'' she said, ''so what's everybody shouting about.''
''No one wants to hear about Vietnam anymore. Too painful,'' said Don Rice, a former Army helicopter mechanic from Winfield, Kan. ''The Vietnam war is unfinished business. The vets are the nation's collective memory, and we won't let it go away.''
Rice is a short, fleshy fellow with a blue knit watchcap and a permanent scowl.
''I got back to the States in June 1968 and freaked out. Didn't talk to anybody for four months. Too bitter, crazy, angry. Kept going into gunshops. Didn't want anyone messing with me,'' said Rice. He spoke in stacatto bursts and constantly peered over his right shoulder. Rice kept hearing footsteps. ''I couldn't accept America,'' he added. ''I'm still more at home with that.'' Rice gestured to an Ektachrome image of Vietnam's lush Central Highlands, projected on a wall in Annenberg Lobby. It was the veterans ''scrapbook'' slide show of everything from gunships to Saigon bar girls. Rice had sat through it three times.
''It didn't take more than 30 days in Vietnam to figure out something was wrong. Officers fudged the body counts all the time. We knew we weren't winning the war like the newspapers said. Arnold Toynbee said, 'The Tet offensive, the defeat of the US military in Vietnam was as important as the defeat of the Spanish Armada.' The right-wing historians are trying to eliminate from history the importance of the US military defeat in Vietnam. They want to say that El Salvador has no relevance to Vietnam.''
From the long view of history, Vietnam was only the most recent event in a long American involvement in Asia. It began in 1784 when the first American trading vessel sailed into Canton. To Manifest Destiny was added the missionary itch to change China. But after Pearl Harbor the US government picked up in the Pacific where commerce and clergy left off.
Americans commonly date the origins of the Vietnam war somewhere between 1961 , when President John F. Kennedy sent 400 Green Berets to train the South Vietnamese in guerilla warfare, and 1965, when Johnson ordered in the first American combat troops. Historians now agree, however, the turning point was closer to 1950. By 1949 China had fallen to Mao Tse-tung's Communists, and the Russians were testing their first atomic device. To the White House the cold-war world looked like 1941 all over again, with Russia and China taking Germany and Japan's places.
In 1950 both the Soviet Union and Red China recognized Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which he formed in the North after the collapse of Japanese occupation forces at the end World War II. That same year President Harry Truman recognized the French-backed regime of Emperor Bao Dai. US aid to the French escalated quickly from $10 million in 1950 to $1 billion in 1954, then to 80 percent of the cost of France's war in Indochina.
In 1945 Archimedes Patti was an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) officer assigned as liaison between Ho and American forces fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Long before turning to the Soviets, said Patti, Ho ''who considered himself a free agent,'' appealed to Harry Truman's administration for aid, but ''the State Department turned a deaf ear. It had no evidence of any direct link between Ho and Moscow but assumed one must exist.''
In 1964, after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (Congress's response to alleged attacks on US destroyers by North Vietnam) Johnson boosted American troop strength to a half million. At the time the White House thought Vietnam was caught in a communist ''nutcracker'' between China and Indonesia, said John Mueller, a political science professor at the University of Rochester in New York. ''To the north,'' he said, ''China was then perceived as zany and crazy and ready to invade. To the south, Sukarno in Indonesia was seen as very closely aligned with the Chinese.
''Soon after Tonkin, however,'' said Professor Mueller, ''both arms of the nutcracker fell of. The Communist Party in Indonesia was decimated by the murder of 200,000. And almost simultaneously China became preoccupied with its own cultural revolution and then became worried about an attack from the Soviet Union.'' By 1968 the domino theory no longer held water, though it seemed to chug ahead under its old steam, said Mueller, thus predicating America's Vietnam policy ''on an anachronism.''
Might Vietnam have been avoided? Historian Ronald Steel thinks not. America's global sense of mission and containment of communism in the 1950s and '60s had ''to be tested somewhere . . . had to meet an immovable object sometime.'' he said. ''Vietnam was a battlefield of symbolic importance.''
On his 19th birthday, Sept. 14, 1966, George Ewalt was drafted into the US Army. He was assigned to an M-60 machine gun squad of B Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, operating in a ''free fire zone'' in Tay Ninh Province. Ewalt suffers serious health problems today, he claims, from, exposure to Agent Orange , one of the deadly herbicides dropped by the US on Vietnam to destroy enemy food supplies and the protective cover of vegetation. American forces applied an estimated 17 million gallons of herbicides in South Vietnam, defoliating 5.2 million acres of land.
''We turned Vietnam into an ash tray,'' said Ewalt. ''I believe that the Army knew that the herbicides would not only punish the Vietnamese but also us - the survivors.'' Ewalt is one of the Vietnam veterans who filed suit against the herbicide manufacturers in what is said to be the biggest class-action lawsuit in US history. ''We were nothing but guinea pigs, the surplus of our generation.''
On Thanh Doan's small shoulders his Army field jacket looked like a bathrobe. Doan was 13 when the North Vietnamese overran Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. He was among the 120,000 South Vietnamese who fled during the two weeks following the takeover. He escaped one night from the port of Bach Dang, and was picked up by the Seventh Fleet.
Doan's father had come to Saigon from the North in 1954, the year the French suffered their devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the Geneva Agreements partitioned Vietnam into northern and southern halves, separated by a demilitarized zone. Both Doan's father and brother were career officers in the South Vietnamese Army, and according to letters from home his brother is still under arrest in a communist ''re-education camp.''
''My family lives day by day in fear of the communists,'' said Doan, now a USC political science major. ''Americans thought when their government pulled out the war would be over and Vietnam would have peace.''
There are military men who still believe the United States should have applied more strength and won the war. Among those is retired Gen. William Peers , who served in Vietnam's Central Highlands with Gen. William Westmoreland and later directed the Army's investigation into the My Lai massacre.
''We fought a war of gradualism, a piecemeal approach,'' said Peers. ''Left to their own devices the Pentagon would have developed a winning strategy. Westmoreland had at least one hand tied behind his back. . . . His daily bombing list of targets in North Vietnam had to be submitted for approval. Too much authority was put in civilian hands. Hopefully in future wars, the commanders in the field will be given those responsibilities.''
Exactly how effective was the antiwar movement and the American press in bringing an end to Vietnam? Did television lose the war? For all their pyrotechnics, verbal and otherwise, neither were terribly significant, concluded John Mueller. ''Polls show that the President's policy was supported by the young and college-educated and not the reverse. The anti-war movement may have been counterproductive in its association with bomb-throwing and burning the American flag. Korea was equally unpopular. American opposition (to the Vietnam war) grew as a logarithm of the casualties. Realistic portrayals of war on television did not change public attitude.''
Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-prize winner who reported the My Lai massacre, soberly observed, ''I don't think that the press was very relevant to the Vietnam war. For all that good reporting ithe government still gets away with lying. Nothing we've done in Watergate or Vietnam has changed any of that.''
Daniel Ellsberg, who stood trial for leaking the Pentagon papers added: ''Only the American people could have stopped our government from continuing the destruction. We will not prevent the reoccurence of future Vietnams, or present ones like El Salvador, until we realize we do have that power and we can use it again.''
On April 29, 1975, American helicopters evacuated from Saigon 1,373 Americans and nearly 5,600 South Vietnamese. The next day the South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Viet Cong. America's longest war was over, leaving 57,605 US dead, 519,000 veterans disabled, 5,011 reported missing. Vietnam's 10,000-day war had also ended: 3 million had been wounded, 1.3 million killed, 587,000 of those were civilians.
And what of Vietnam today? William Shawcross, the London Sunday Times writer who unveiled Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, raised the nagging questions. Why, he asked, was the poverty-stricken Socialist Republic of Vietnam (with a population equivalent to Britain's but where the average person earns $160 a year) devoting 47 percent of its gross national product to the military and now has the third largest army in the world, larger even than that of the United States?
Who would have expected, Shawcross queried, to see China and Vietnam at war today and find 40,000 Vietnamese troops in Laos and another 200,000 in Cambodia?
Washington shares ''at least as much'' of the blame as Hanoi for the condition of Vietnam today, said John McAuliff, a former antiwar activist who has served for the last 10 years as director of the Indochina Program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Had the United States honored the Paris peace agreement and provided reconstruction aid, as postwar polls showed two-thirds of the American people favored, Vietnam would be a different place today, he said.
The proceedings of the ''Vietnam Reconsidered'' conference are to be published in the coming year as a textbook by Harper & Row. The book advances and royalties have been donated by USC through AFSC to a health clinic in Ho Chi Minh City.