WASHINGTON — In American memory, the Vietnam War is both important and diminished - a profound event whose edges have begun to blur with the passage of time.
Twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, elites interested in the US role in the world still argue about the conflict's lessons. In the government and the military, the word "Vietnam" is a kind of shorthand for a whole discussion about priorities, costs, and interests in foreign policy.
But in the population at large, the passions the war evoked may be fading. Its beginning, for today's youths, is almost as distant as World War I was to the Vietnam generation. In their minds it is an entry in an encyclopedia, not a volume of personal experience.
"It is a distant echo from the past," says David Elliott, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches an undergraduate course on the war. "They do not have a sense of how overwhelming a preoccupation it was at the time."
Vietnam War's legacy echoes from classrooms to Congress
That does not mean that post-Vietnam generations are unmoved by their elders' experience. In the lobby of Gerald Ford's presidential library and museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., stands the actual stairway which led to the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. These stairs were the escape route for the last Americans to leave South Vietnam - and as such remain a powerful symbol to library visitors of all ages.
"It's an amazing thing ... to watch people approach that artifact," said Richard Norton Smith, the library's director, in a recent broadcast appearance. "Some of them physically recoil."
The US military involvement in Indochina began in the 1950s, when the Department of Defense first sent advisers to help South Vietnam resist the communist-led North.
The number of advisers grew rapidly through the early 1960s, to 16,000 under President Kennedy.
But the fighting continued to escalate. The first contingent of US ground troops landed near the coastal city of Danang in 1965. By 1968 - the peak year - there were 540,000 US service personnel in Vietnam.
By then, the war, perceived by many as an unwinnable morass, had split the American nation. President Nixon began a gradual troop withdrawal. The Paris Peace Accord of 1973 ended direct US involvement in the fighting.
In 1975, a North Vietnamese thrust - militarily more akin to Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland than to the guerrilla tactics of the Viet Cong - took Saigon and unified Vietnam under Hanoi.
The war's impacts
Vietnam represented the first defeat for the US military on foreign soil, and it led to vast change in the institution of the Department of Defense.
The draft became a symbol of coercion, and it was replaced by all-volunteer forces. Scarred by the lack of public support for the war, the military by the 1980s had drawn up specific rules for the use of force - the so-called "Weinberger doctrine" - which ruled out unpopular interventions.
Military leaders became sensitive to the loss of US troops. When 18 US troops were killed during the US peacekeeping effort in Somalia in 1993, it was, in essence, the end of the mission.
"The casualty issue is a Vietnam issue," says Richard Shultz, author of a recent book on covert operations during the Vietnam era, and a professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The war ended Lyndon Johnson's hopes of remaking US domestic society, and prevented him from running for a second term. It also eroded much of the nation's trust in the veracity of its government. And the cynicism created by the so-called "credibility gap" pervaded more than just attitudes toward the government. The 1960s saw the rise of cultural antiheroes. Movies like "Easy Rider" replaced optimistic fare like "Singin' in the Rain."
By the 1990s, the cultural split caused by the war had created a national desire to avoid polarizing experiences, say some. Thus President Bush worked hard to educate the public, and win over Congress, prior to the Gulf War.
"We have really become a society of consensus. And that began with Vietnam," says Michael Norman, a New York University journalism professor and Vietnam vet.
Yet over the past 25 years, there has been an accelerating pace of events that have cushioned the impact of Vietnam on the US consciousness, say some.
In the mid-1980s, the Senate held a series of hearings exploring the issue of prisoners of war and those left missing in action.
The hearings - led by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts helped lessen the impact of POW/MIAs as a partisan political issue. Senator McCain, himself a former POW, helped provide political cover to President Clinton for the move toward normalization of relations with Vietnam.
America's attitude toward its Vietnam experience is still volatile, says Professor Elliott of Pomona College. But it has become less intense.
Elliott says his students see the war as a historic curiosity. They have a hard time understanding why the US undertook the effort in the first place - though today a revisionist literature of such books as Michael Lind's "The Necessary War" is endeavoring to explain the domino theory to a new generation.
Furthermore, today's college students do not understand the passage the nation made from hope that the war was winnable, to despair after the 1968 Tet offensive, to renewed hope, to final defeat. "A lot of complexities, ups and downs, have been kind of compressed in retrospect," says Elliott.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society