IT is now almost ten years since the fall of Saigon, and inevitably that is an anniversary for poignant reflection. Was the Vietnam war a shameful cause for the United States?
Today there are still critics aplenty. Certainly, it was a military defeat, and we must let the experts argue about how the US could have fought the war more effectively. Some argue that the US was hopelessly unversed in the subtleties of counterinsurgency warfare, particularly its political ramifications. They are probably right. Others say the United States was ill-advised ever to go to Vietnam at all.
But in terms of motivation, Vietnam has left no stain on the American escutcheon. There was nothing villainous or ulterior about the response of several US presidents to South Vietnam's plea for help. Inept and ill-advised the US may have been, but the American intent in Vietnam was honorable.
True, as individuals, most Americans who went there found it an unpleasant experience. I made some 30 visits to Vietnam myself and never liked the unnatural wartime atmosphere, particularly when guns were going off in close proximity, and especially when they were pointed in my general direction. Yet there was something touching about the desire of the small, slender, and culturally rich South Vietnamese to defend their way of life from the Marxist north.
Was North Vietnam the aggressor? No doubt about it. One has only to look at the speed and ruthlessness with which Hanoi has subsumed both the military and political wings of the Viet Cong under North Vietnamese control and imposed northern rule over the south.
Was Hanoi a threat to neighboring countries? Once, when I was back on home leave from Southeast Asia, I got a call from some White House official asking if I could possibly come over and see President Johnson. Of course, I could. But President Johnson didn't want to plumb my battlefield expertise. He wanted to talk about his domino theory -- the threat to neighboring countries if South Vietnam should go communist. A lot of people pooh-poohed it. But the fate of South Vietnam, and Laos, and Cambodia bears out his fears. The Thais are hardly sanguine about Vietnamese intentions on their northeast border. Leaders in Singapore and Indonesia will tell you that the defense of Vietnam bought them time to shore up their own dominoes. Nobody in Southeast Asia has any illusions today about North Vietnam's aggressive character.
Are the South Vietnamese worse off today than they were under the previous Saigon regime? Those who have undergone ``re-education'' -- North Vietnamese-style -- are clearly those who have suffered most. As for the ordinary people depicted in the fleeting glimpses allowed the Western press, their life appears hard and unpromising.
What have we learned from all this?
We should by now have learned what was obvious at the time, namely that Hanoi's goal was always political and that military action was merely a lever to achieve that goal. Much of the time, military action was designed to achieve a psychological impact on American public opinion. The Tet offensive of l968 is a classic illustration. Militarily it was a setback for the communists. But the film of guerrillas attacking the United States Embassy in Saigon perhaps did more than anything to shatter American confidence in Washington's prosecution of the war.
If we have learned to be less evangelical, less naive, more sophisticated in our foreign policy, that is probably all to the good.
But the United States cannot abdicate responsibilities that, as a superpower, it has around the world.
If one of the lessons of Vietnam is that American power should be used more judiciously and clinically, the realities of a dangerous world require that the United States must continue to be ready to unsheathe that power in defense of freedom.
John Hughes was editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979 and assistant US secretary of state for public affairs from 1982 through 1984.