Regretting Vietnam

THE Vietnam War keeps resurfacing in the American consciousness.

Several events are bringing it back into the national spotlight right now. The 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon later this month will resurrect video of US helicopters rescuing Americans atop the US Embassy. It will be a bitter reminder of American failure and misjudgment in Vietnam.

Gratefully, the last two decades have witnessed much healing, too. This week San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City (once Saigon) announced that they would become ''sister cities.'' And Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, has called for the United States to establish full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, suggesting it be done this year to avoid becoming entangled in 1996 election-year politics.

This week, too, Robert S. McNamara, who served as secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, published his autobiography, ''In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.''

In it, he admits to grave mistakes of judgment in the Johnson administration's conduct of the war. The ''domino theory'' that Vietnam was an essential line in the sand against world communism -- a theory believed by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, and taught to the American public -- was wrong.

Military analysis showing that the US was not winning the war was disregarded and the public was told a quite different story. CIA analysis that the US could disengage from Vietnam without ''permanent damage to US or Western security'' was ignored. So, too, were early offers from Hanoi for a negotiated settlement.

We must question why Mr. McNamara did not step forward long before now with his views, even as early as 1968 when he left the Pentagon to become head of the World Bank. Could some of the 58,000 Americans and 1 million to 3 million Vietnamese who died have been spared? Could the debate over the war that convulsed America have been mollified? Might Americans be less cynical about their government today?

The judgment of history awaits McNamara, whose Vietnam decisions should be placed into a context of a long and generally distinguished record of public service.

It is good for Mr. McNamara that he has bared his breast, even at this late date.

And it is good for America, too, as it continues to sort through its feelings about that devilish war.

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