HOUSTON — Twenty-five years ago this Sunday, Americans watched with disbelief and disenchantment as Huey helicopters hovered over the US Embassy in Saigon in an attempt to airlift the last remaining Americans out of Vietnam. A few days before, fanatical Cambodian Communists known as Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Penh. These events marked the end of more than 15 years of American military involvement in Southeast Asia.
The images of this war in our national psyche are so different from the other American wars a generation before: A naked Vietnamese girl running from her napalmed village; and the grief on the face of a young woman at Kent State University, leaning over the body of a fellow protester.
US dead numbered more than 58,000. And Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City, stands as a testament to the 2 million Vietnamese who perished in their civil war.
The debate over this war - which pulled America apart at the political seams - continues, but with a different subtext. The justice and freedom so many had predicted would follow for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people with the fall of their corrupt American-backed governments never materialized. Now the world knows that as many people in Indochina were killed after the fall of Saigon as before.
The arithmetic of these deaths is not complex: It is the sum of at least a million Cambodians destroyed in a genocidal wrath; a quarter million Vietnamese boat people drowned in an attempt to escape the "re-education" camps; and the thousands of Hmong murdered during the Laotian ethnic pogroms.
This was the tragic legacy bequeathed to the people of Indochina when America failed to defend the region from communist terror.
There are nearly a million Indochinese refugees in the US today - their stories are similar to Tam Nguyen's. He was three when his father, a respected lawyer and judge, was banished to re-education camps after South Vietnam fell. The family, unsure if they would ever see their father again, lived with relatives until his release three years later. Shortly thereafter, the family fled in one of the countless boats that miraculously landed in Malaysia. For three more years they lingered there in a refugee camp until granted US visas. Unable to practice law because of his difficulty with English, the father is now an accountant with a seafood company in San Francisco. Tam - now called Kevin - graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.
With the anniversary of the Vietnam defeat, the old questions return: Was the two-decade struggle worth it? Was it all a mistake?
But another question is seldom asked, perhaps because we can't face the answer: Did the antiwar movement so weaken our nation's resolve in fighting distant communism that the postwar deaths of these Indochinese may in some way be our own fault?
The '60s saw the rise of a movement that challenged our involvement in Vietnam, and in some sense the efforts to contain communism globally. Centered in our prestigious universities and colleges, a new breed of dissident arose, different from the civil rights protester of the early 1960s: the "movement radical."
Like many of my friends and fellow students at the time, I embraced the antiwar radicalism. There were millions of us from Ann Arbor to Berkeley - mostly middle-class kids full of "rage" over an imperialist America that supported an evil economic system designed to subjugate the Vietnamese. For us, Hanoi had it right; Washington had it wrong. We disrupted classes, marched in the streets, burned our draft cards, and screamed at the police who protected the public property we tried to deface. We trashed the principles and traditions of American life and law.
In the meantime, American soldiers were fighting and dying in the rice paddies of Asia for no other reason than they had felt compelled to serve. Volunteers accounted for 77 percent of combat deaths. Upon their return, we treated them as perpetrators of this war.
In the end, it wasn't the soldiers who'd buckled under from our protests, but our nation's politicians. When the treaty ending US involvement was signed in Paris in 1973, America pledged to the South Vietnamese to take "swift and severe retaliatory action" if the North Vietnamese broke the terms of the accord. Yet, in early 1975, President Ford publicly stated he could foresee no circumstances in which the US might re-enter the war. That was all the North needed to hear. Three months later Saigon fell to the communists.
Now, 25 years later, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws thousands of visitors a day. I've been at least a dozen times since it was erected. During each visit I'm confronted with the solemn faces of friends and relatives of our dead soldiers who are there to trace the names of their loved ones from the granite.
We live in an age when our national and religious leaders feel duty bound to apologize for deeds committed years, even centuries, prior. For those of us who blindly accepted the intentions of Communists and gaze at the terrible consequences in Indochina, should we not have some remorse also? Is an apology not in order for the destructive deeds directed at our veterans and the parody we made of American values? Will we ever find the courage to say we were wrong?
*Edward Blum, an investment banker, is the chairman of the Campaign for a Color-Blind America, a Houston legal defense foundation.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society