Like two bookends on a war, America's most famous ex-POW, John McCain, stood next to a bust of North Vietnam's former leader, Ho Chi Minh, on a visit to Hanoi this week. It was a "what if" moment.
What if these two heroes (respectively, that is) could have really met during this 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War (April 30).
The two of them might have been able to clear up a basic confusion over what the US was doing in Vietnam for over 15 years.
Many Americans, especially those who fought and those who protested, are still divided about a conflict that took over 58,000 US lives. The nation has yet to collectively resolve whether the US was fighting communists or nationalists.
Was it just a small civil war, with North Vietnam trying to reunite with South Vietnam? Or was it rather a proxy war against Communist China and the Soviet empire?
A Monitor series (on page 1, today and yesterday) looks at the war's lingering myths and legacies. America's hesitancy in foreign interventions today is still sometimes shaped by the unsettled question of its purpose in Vietnam. The answers lies largely in the US. But it can also be found in the character of Ho Chi Minh, an enigmatic man who died in 1969, six years before the war's end. Was Ho a nationalist or communist? Or both?
He had directed his Communist Party since 1930, and was an agent of Moscow. But he had long admired Americans. He had once worked in Boston and New York, tried to talk to President Woodrow Wilson to end French colonialism, and befriended US soldiers fighting the Japanese. He even modeled his nation's declaration of independence after America's.
His friends say Ho used communism only to end foreign influence in Vietnam. His critics say he sought world revolution. His anticapitalist rule was harsh. But he has this motto on his tomb: "Nothing is more important than freedom and independence."
Ho often reinvented himself. He used at least 70 aliases, with his final one meaning "he who enlightens." He was a poet who saw deception as a necessity, words as tools for freedom.
The war was as much his as ours. His people still live under Communist policies. And Americans still question his motives and their own. As McCain and others try to bridge the two nations, there remains much to learn about Ho and the war.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society