Lessons of Vietnam linger for US
Thirty years ago, Paul Galanti and Fred Branfman held opposite views of the Vietnam War. They still do.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Galanti, a former Navy pilot shot down and held in North Vietnamese prisons for nearly seven years, can barely bring himself to utter the names "Jane Fonda" and "John Kerry." "Actresses and naval officers [who] aided and abetted the enemy with impunity," he calls them.
Mr. Branfman, the investigative writer who detailed the bombing of civilians in Southeast Asia, still thinks there ought to be Nuremberg-type trials of US leaders.
Three decades after the last US troops left what was then South Vietnam, the 10-year conflict that included Laos and Cambodia remains at once a lesson, a caution, and for some, a specter.
The war - the way it was conducted and its aftermath - shaped a generation of military officers. It influenced public attitudes toward military service and the use of force to achieve foreign policy goals. And, as the most recent presidential election showed, it continues to singe US politics.
Anybody younger than about 45 today had no direct connection to the Vietnam War - either as combatants, potential draftees, or protesters. Forty percent of Americans weren't even born yet when the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the US embassy in what was then Saigon.
Still, many Americans in their 30s or 40s (or even younger) still feel the war's effects as children of one of the more than 58,000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam or of the thousands more vets diagnosed with ailments related to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange or with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"There's little question that the average American considers the Vietnam War to have been a mistake," writes Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "In fact, a majority of the public began to think the war was a mistake in the summer of 1968 as the war was still raging, and have continued to think so across 12 separate polls conducted since that point. Most recently, in November 2000, 68 percent said that it was a mistake, while 24 percent said that it was not."
The war also brought a new sense of caution to American military planners - an awareness that in difficult terrain US forces could be stymied by a militarily inferior but determined foe. To some extent, those lessons color American attitudes toward the use of military force to this day.
While the war in Iraq has not seen nearly the level of protests that Vietnam did, public support remains tenuous. Asked if "it was worth going to war in Iraq," the latest Gallup poll finds 45 percent saying "yes" and 53 percent answering "no." Put another way, 46 percent of those polled say sending US troops to Iraq was "a mistake."
What does this bode for President Bush? He's now running at his lowest approval rate (45 percent) yet, according to Gallup. But that's still higher than the low points of most postwar presidents, and significantly higher than Harry Truman's low point during the Korean War (23 percent) or Lyndon Johnson's low point during Vietnam (35 percent).
Still, this public uneasiness about Iraq - where insurgents have stepped up attacks in recent days - is not reflected in any official disinclination to make use of the US military abroad. "The US has become increasingly uninhibited about the use of force," says John Pike, a national security analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "Ever since we stopped worrying about the Fulda Gap [the point along the East-West German border where thousands of Warsaw Pact tanks supposedly would race through when World War III started], we have become quite creative in finding problems that have military solutions."
"Our legions have been on the march almost continuously since 1989, with no end in sight," says Mr. Pike, referring to such places as Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Projecting such post-cold-war US military actions into the future - particularly on the scale of Vietnam or Iraq - is another matter. Absent North Korea invading South Korea, or a terrorist attack in the US on the scale of Sept. 11, "US public opinion will not accept an Indochina-size war under any circumstances I can think of," says Fred Branfman. "This is the enduring legacy of Vietnam in the 21st century as I see it," he says.
As the lone military superpower, the US today does appear freer to do what it wants to. When the US pulled out of Vietnam it faced other major military threats - mainly Warsaw Pact conventional forces in central Europe and a huge arsenal of nuclear-tipped Soviet missiles. Today, old Warsaw Pact members are joining NATO and the EU, and Russian missiles are off their hair trigger.