Out of the past

THE near conjunction of two anniversaries of wars -- the United States withdrawal from Vietnam 10 years ago tomorrow and the defeat of the German Army 40 years ago next week -- has been churning the reflections of millions of the world's citizens. Given the diversity of perceptions of those wars -- some views fixed by unforgettable personal tragedy or political values, some changing under the erosion of time and new impressions and relationships; other views of the young or uninvolved, secondhand or detached -- one must hesitate to suggest there is one set of conclusions about these events that can be etched in marble and memorialized. The heavy emotional charge of such commemorations, amplified in incessant print and broadcast documentaries, can itself overweight judgment. But with a regard for the diversity of views -- something that war, by the way, does not afford -- some things can be said.

The experiences of Vietnam and World War II have not played themselves out as factors in American policy. They are not fixed, concluded experiences. The evolving positive Western relationships with Japan and West Germany, as evident by the economic summit in a few days in Bonn, has turned the former archenemy relationship on its head. Neither the US trade dispute with Japan nor the deeply regrettable embarrassment over President Reagan's war memorial plans in West Germany should upstage the new economic, security, and cultural relationships forged.

In Asia, where a communist domino chain was feared should America quit Vietnam, few could have predicted the quickening of capitalism, self-reliance, and political progress among the Pacific basin nations. US trade with the region now exceeds its trade with Europe. China, only recently an adversary in war with the US, has become something of a strategic ally, helping to constrain North Korea as well as holding the Soviet Union's attention along one-third of its border. The present basically healthy American involvement in the Pacific hardly reads like ``defeat.''

Only a Pangloss would argue the virtues of war. Whether one recalls the millions of people slain or brutalized beyond imagining or a child's or soldier's or family's private agony, war's only justification can be to preclude a worse war.

Americans are particularly challenged to encompass, in a single moment, their World War II and Vietnam experiences. A hero's welcome as V-E Day liberators May 8, 1945; a humbling if not humiliating escape by helicopter from the United States Embassy compound in Saigon, April 30, 1975. We do not as readily recall Washington's reluctant entry into World War II. We do not like to remember the fully anticipated subjection of South Vietnam and the collapse of Cambodia.

America's experience in Vietnam affects its attitudes toward Europe. As America struggled to enforce by might in Vietnam what many Americans saw as an idealistic purpose, it felt estranged, even mocked, by its allies. That lingering feeling of estrangement may at times surface in the form of Washington impatience toward allies.

Vietnam certainly colors Washington policy on Central America. In frustrating the President's contra aid plan last week, Congress was responding to the concerns of three-fourths of the American public, who specifically fear that further US intervention in Nicaragua could turn into ``another Vietnam'' of ever-deepening involvement, surveys show. In answer, Secretary of State George Shultz warns that if Washington abandons the anti-Sandinista guerrillas, ``ruthless'' communist repression by Managua, akin to that by Hanoi, will follow.

As noted, not all views change over time. Some convictions are like granite. Many Americans, even those who came to oppose the Vietnam war, still think America's intentions were right. True, the war gave other Asian nations time to regroup and launch modern societies. It was the first televised war. And so forth. Over the past two decades, however, from April 1965 through the Tet offensive and the Cambodian invasion, the needle gauging public support for the war turned steadily toward empty. Another generation may further confirm or revise this conclusion.

But the world is moving on. Commemorations are not to be slighted. They are, however, artificial attempts to render, in snapshots, moments in time that are gone in an instant. We do not do justice even to what we want to remember if we fail to acknowledge how events and further human effort lead unstoppably to something new.

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