For millions of Americans, Vietnam was more than just a terrible war that seemed to go on and on and on without resolution. It was also a turning point in the United States, politically, socially, economically.
Politically, the nation's elected leaders were forced to discover that America's awesome global military might could be constrained and even stymied in a protracted, guerrilla-style war. Socially, the war exacerbated domestic racial tensions, alienated many young people from traditional institutions, and nurtured public frustrations that were clearly linked to the growth of the drug-culture of the 1960s and early '70s. Economically, the failure of President Johnson or Congress to raise taxes was one of the underlying reasons for the inflation of the past decade.
Given the wrenching turmoil of that period, it is surely helpful to all Americans that fresh analysis about Vietnam and its consequences has been under way in recent weeks.
Not that Vietnam has not been in the thoughts of Americans during the past decade, since US troops were finally brought home. Opinion polls show that concern about US involvement in Central America and Lebanon often stems from the US Vietnam experience.
But now, there are two new multipart television retrospectives about Vietnam, one an independent venture screened at different times in many cities, the other running on public television. They offer scholarly and careful explanations as to how the US became involved in that faraway conflict in Southeast Asia.
At the same time, Congress is once again taking up Vietnam in a more direct way. The House, this past week, passed two important measures relating to Vietnam-era veterans:
* It voted $57.4 million for a study of the effects of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans.
* It also approved up to $150 million for an emergency veterans jobs training program.
Both provisions make sense and should be speeded through Congress as quickly as possible. The Vietnam veteran, unlike veterans of earlier American wars, faces unique challenges. The most obvious: having been a combatant in an unpopular war.
The young men and women of the Vietnam-era US military establishment served their nation under extraordinary circumstances. They deserve not only the appreciation of their countrymen but also appropriate aid, such as the two new measures just enacted by the House.