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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.