Hearts and Minds: Vietnam and Memory

Imagine yourself a Vietnamese veteran of the National Liberation Front or the North Vietnamese Army. Imbued with hopes of independence and the anti-imperialist ideal, you lost a leg in the war. But your side did win. You look around you now, and you see Coca-Cola and Exxon all over your country, and you see a U.S. defense secretary on a naval ship steaming into Cam Ranh Bay. You might be forgiven if you think to yourself, I lost my leg, and they cut that deal anyway. What was this about?

Meanwhile, have a look at your former enemy.

If the first casualty of war is truth, the last is memory. More than a generation after our helicopters retreated from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975, over half of our population cannot remember the American loss in Vietnam, because they weren’t even born until the war was over. For many of the rest of us, memory is contaminated; our attitudes and anger hardened long ago like fists, and we have never unclenched them. In the imperial dream and anti-Communist nightmare that simultaneously gripped America after World War II, what we did in Vietnam was lose 58,000 dead, while the Vietnamese, North and South, were losing thirty times that number. A rampage, by any measurement. But what did our deeds in turn do to us?

No one doubts that our first lost war changed attitudes toward our own country and its leadership. Even before the war had quite ended, we turtled into ourselves and unprecedentedly drove out the last president, in midterm, who had led us to defeat. The book No More Vietnams was written, tellingly, not by Marcus Raskin or Noam Chomsky but by Richard Nixon.

The Vietnam War exploded the myth that because we elect a government it will tell us the truth. The myth of American invulnerability and perseverance was likewise a war casualty. We could and did lose; we could and did quit. We saw the limits of power, the failure of intervention, the strategic uselessness—not to mention cruelty—of bombing a country that didn’t want us there, hitting it with more tonnage than had been dropped in all previous wars combined, not because the country threatened us but simply because we did not agree with its government. We learned the contradiction in a policy that was willing to destroy a country in order to “save” it, as an American officer casually claimed he was doing when he leveled a village one day. We could and did destroy an economy and much of a countryside and still had to slink out of town, our choppers bringing up the rear.

Even now, haunted by Vietnam, we have not decided on the meaning of the war. For boomers, whether they were actually there or not, it was the Big Event, as World War II was for children of the Depression. What the war meant changes with your perspective. Was the war a crime (radicals), a mistake (liberals), a mistake not to win (conservatives), a crime not to win (hard right)?

As a result of losing, we had little choice but to see ourselves in the bright light of imperialists whose imperialism had failed. “The worst thing that could happen to our country,” Mary McCarthy wrote in 1967, “would be to win this war.” In the decade before Vietnam, the United States had mounted successful, relatively secret, low-cost operations to overthrow governments in Iran, Guatemala, and the newly independent Congo. In the following decades, the Vietnam War was a tempering influence. If there had been no Vietnam, who can doubt we’d have tried to conquer and garrison Nicaragua in the eighties instead of “only” illegally funding an incompetent insurgency; or completed the conquest of Iraq during the Gulf War of the nineties instead of stopping as soon as we restored the territorial integrity of Kuwait? If there had been no Vietnam, American youth might never have learned the power of a peace crusade. The civil rights movement was well under way before the war, but it was Martin Luther King Jr. himself who united the two causes of peace and racial reconciliation, each drawing strength from the other. Feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and other sequel movements were able to coalesce around the antiwar campaign. The young also learned they had the power to say no, as well as to say NOW. The famous desertion of LBJ by the so-called Wise Men of the foreign policy elite may have done more than any single act by the peace movement to convince the establishment it wouldn’t win the war, but the Wise Men had children and grandchildren in the streets, and the noise reached the upper floors.

Defeat had its uses, as well, in provoking a reexamination of war as an instrument of policy, a reexamination that could not have occurred after victory in World War II, which was far more devastating to far more people over a far greater area. World War II led to the United Nations and a resolve for peace, but its good-versus-evil climate did not lead to what today is frequently concluded by the young. They may not know the specifics of a particular conflict, but they have a seemingly innate skepticism about war. On some campuses, it is taken as a given that war is caused by a ruling clique acting in what they take to be their own interests, institutional violence promulgated by a hierarchy for personal gain. Our upper classes generally had an easy time avoiding service in Vietnam, yet a blue-collar war led to blue-collar conclusions, diffusing eventually through all classes, about the purpose of war.

Historically, we are not a people given easily to shame. Not only our winner’s sensibility but also our sunny view of inevitable progress have fenced us off from feelings of regret or remorse. Germany, darker and less optimistic about history in general, has been able to express far more shame—backed with cash reparations—over the Holocaust, which for all its horror lasted only a few years, than the United States has done in the century and a half since the end of slavery, which endured for more than two centuries. While we may look sheepishly now and then at Native Americans, a nation of immigrants has never sliced its victory over the original inhabitants into even one part guilt to ten parts pride. But Vietnam at last shamed us. And it’s easy to feel shame associated with any of the following: Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, drones, black-op sites, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding. Vietnam opened the door to shame.

As an individual, I found the uses of defeat somewhat surprising. I had always figured that Communism as it developed in other countries was harsh and repressive mostly because of the history of those countries and because of our own implacable and menacing opposition to it. I should have known earlier, of course, but it was only after our loss in Vietnam—in other words, after the triumph of its revolution—and subsequent political developments there, that I understood the right was right about one big thing: the institutionalized absence of personal freedom in a Communist state. Calling freedom bourgeois is like calling ice cream fattening; you’re going to want it anyway. Regardless of Marxist economic aims, Communism has never been about individual freedom. This was hardly fresh news, but for the old as well as the new left, the conclusion was as inescapable as it was paradoxical that Communism killed socialism for a generation. I also realized after Vietnam, and after the clear evidence that our defeat did not lead to the sky falling (never mind dominoes), that there never was a threat to American democracy or capitalism, much less power, from either domestic or international Communism. I had once thought that there was, but there was not, and Vietnam proved that.

But nothing else Vietnam did or did not do was as crucial as the mirror it held up to all of us. Surely it changed the way we saw our national selves. Innocence is a strange word to use about Goliath prior to his encounter with David; it may, however, fit American attitudes toward the world before Vietnam. We were so sure our way was better than anyone else’s, that our civilization was the template for humanity, that our might was always right, so sure we couldn’t lose, that our very naïveté constituted a form of innocence. Vietnam repealed World War II assumptions of inherent virtue. Even our triumphalist boasting during the market boom of the nineties was principally economic rather than moral or political. In the mirror Vietnam provided us, we stopped being so sure about ourselves and our formerly wondrous ways.

Vietnam, specifically our loss there, kept us out of foreign interventions for most of a generation. We learned our lesson: don’t fight a country that doesn’t threaten us. Expensive lesson; nonetheless, lesson learned. But September 11, 2001, was like a hammer blow to our national head. Like many blows to the head, it caused a concussion, followed by amnesia. The result was we went to war against two countries that not only had not attacked us but had no designs on us or our resources. At the time I began making Hearts and Minds, the war in Vietnam had just surpassed the American Revolution as our longest war. But the war in Afghanistan surpassed the Vietnam War as our longest. As for Iraq, we flew into war there, as we had in Vietnam, on the wings of lies.

The lies worked. Polls showed that most Americans actually believed at the time that Saddam Hussein not only had weapons of mass destruction but also had been part of the planning for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Iraqis had their own way of responding to the American invasion. In the enormous Shiite section of Baghdad called Sadr City, the main thoroughfare was renamed as American soldiers began what was supposed to be a “cakewalk” in Iraq. The new name for the boulevard was Vietnam Street.

When I covered the war in Iraq for The Nation in 2003, one could almost hear a sigh across the Mesopotamian desert from the ghost of the philosopher George Santayana: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But we are learning new lessons from the inconclusive, costly (in blood and treasure), brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have again hit the national pause button on intervention. What will happen that may cause the next amnesia?

Let us return to the Vietnamese veteran who lost his leg in the war. Imagine he has changed nationalities and is now a Vietnam veteran, one of ours. He looks down to where his leg once was, glances up at his television set, showing him the rain, and reign, of American products in Vietnam as well as the joint efforts of the U.S. and Vietnamese air forces to look for a vanished Malaysian Airlines plane. Peace makes strange bedfellows. The Vietnamese had to throw us out, had to decolonize, before they could be recolonized; had to find their independence before they could bring back the Western economies and aspire to become Vietnam Inc. Vietnamese Communists are business partners with American corporations. I lost my leg, our vet may be thinking, and they cut that deal anyway. Can we blame him if he wonders, What was this about?

An earlier version of this piece was published in the May 15, 2000, issue of The Nation. It has been updated by the author for this release.

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