By David K. Shipler
Contrary to Republicans’ false accusation, President Obama has not been traveling the world apologizing for American misdeeds (although there are plenty to be sorry for). Nor will he do so during his tour in Asia, neither at Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the target of the first atomic bomb ever used, nor in Vietnam, where a misguided war killed 58,000 Americans and up to 2 million Vietnamese, according to Hanoi’s official estimate.
Apologies aside, it would be healthy for Obama at least to name the colossal errors of judgment that led to the Vietnam War: the Cold-War assumption that monolithic communism would spread like a red stain around the globe, that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were mere tools of Beijing and Moscow, that America could remake third parts of the world at will, and that American credibility would be shredded by a loss. In other words, he should call the Vietnam War what it was: a terrible mistake borne of historical ignorance and a disastrous misreading of the anti-colonialism that fueled Vietnamese nationalism.
John Kerry, who is at Obama’s side as Secretary of State, missed his chance to talk about the war in these terms when he ran for president in 2004. Instead, he snapped a salute at his nominating convention and announced that he was reporting for duty. The transparent gesture to exalt his military role as a young Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, rather than embrace his famous conversion into an eloquent opponent of the war, forfeited the opportunity to advance the country’s perspective on the tragedy of its error.
Presidential campaigns are rarely educational exercises, as we are seeing now, but Kerry—as a combat veteran and then a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War—was in a unique position to wage a credible process of reflection and reconsideration. Here is what he reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 from testimony to his organization by more than 150 honorably discharged veterans:
“They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.” Kerry called it “a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever.”
He continued: “We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart . . . and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, or American.”
We didn’t hear this from candidate Kerry 33 years later. Perhaps he was afraid he’d lose if he spoke so harshly about the immoral American enterprise. What he did lose anyway was not only the election, but also a role in leading historical memory in a more honest direction.
Now, 41 years after the war’s end, Obama has nothing to lose by laying out Vietnam’s lessons on the dangers of wading into civil wars, risks that he has seen in Syria, where he has wisely hesitated to step into the quagmire, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he is clearly more eager than able to diminish American involvement.
In 1997, Robert McNamara, who had been a chief architect of the war as Secretary of Defense to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, led a delegation of other retired American officials to a conference in Hanoi to explore whether opportunities had been missed for a diplomatic solution prior to the 1973 Paris Accords. At the outset, the framework of history was in dispute.
McNamara wanted to begin the narrative in the 1960s, with the buildup of American military advisers and then the deployment of ground troops. The Vietnamese delegation, however, insisted on starting the clock in 1945, at the end of World War II, when the United States ignored the appeals of the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, and invited France to re-establish its colonial rule.
The point of the Vietnamese delegation, made repeatedly to the Americans in 1997, was that Hanoi viewed the American war as a continuation of the war against France, against colonialism, and for liberation and independence. For them, American-backed South Vietnam was a vassal state, just as Washington saw North Vietnam as a proxy for Communist China and the Soviet Union. This American assessment ignored more than a thousand years of antipathy and strife between China and Vietnam, friction that continues today. For the leaders in Hanoi, communism was less an ideology than an alliance.
Obama is always inclined to look forward. He does not seem to be a man with much patience for the weight of history. That’s probably good in a president, especially one whose time in office is running out. He is poised to play Vietnam against China now, to tighten trade relations and perhaps even establish some military ties.
Similarly, at Hiroshima, his aides say, he plans to lean ahead, not back, but pressing his case for a nuclear-free world. That is a most worthy and urgent case, especially now that terrorists and off-the-wall dictators strive to get the bomb, and the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, favors nuclear proliferation to Japan and South Korea, as he told The New York Times, remarkably.
But honest history is a sober teacher. Wars, won and lost, tend to be sanitized, polished up, and given a heroic sheen. Obama does not have to enter the debate over whether the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified or necessary. He does not have to declare cruelly that the Americans who fell in Vietnam sacrificed their lives for naught. He just has to tell the truth about the way miscalculations and misunderstandings and misreadings can lead to momentous and tragic decisions. That would be refreshing to hear from a president.