The Vietnam War meant different things to the different people whose lives it affected. For the peasants of Vietnam, who for decades lived with the war's full horror, the violent death of family and friends became an everyday experience, the destruction of their native countryside a fact of life, and refugee camps often the only homes that remained after invading forces turned their villages to ashes. For many Vietnamese, the war was also a struggle for liberation, for national independence, for freedom.
For the American government and military leaders who chose to treat Vietnam as a test case in their theory of falling dominoes, the war was a trial of will power. Only by remaining obdurate in the face of overwhelming resistance, they believed, could the United States remain true to its national destiny; and only through continuing, escalating application of force and cruelty could that resistance be contained.
For the American soldiers who carried out these men's orders. Vietnam was a strange land where they killed people with whom they had no reasonable quarrel, and where 55,000 of them were killed in their turn.
For us, and for the millions of other Americans who came to oppose the war, it was an education in the nature of America's leaders and their "will power"--a will power that talked of stopping Communist aggression while American interrogators threw Vietnamese boys from helicopters, and of "peace with honor" while American bombers destroyed hospitals and homes. The war could never offer us a reason for pride, as it could, perhaps, for Vietnamese who played a part in defeating the strongest power in the world. To us, citizens within that strongest power, the war could only be a reason for shame.
The war is over now; but its ending, too, means different things to different people. The Vietnamese can rebuild their country, on a new foundation of equality and independence, with time for the wounds the war has left to heal. For the American government that inflicted these wounds, the end of the war is a defeat, a humiliation, a stigma, to be minimized in the eyes of the world and forgotten as quickly as possible. But for all President Ford's admonitions that we put Vietnam behind us, we cannot forget it. Too many innocent people died there, too much of our knowledge of the United States and the world derives from events there, too much of our own lives--as students growing up in the America that bombed harmless villages--has been bound up with Vietnam's history.
There are many ways of dealing with the end of the war, but Ford's attempt to pretend the war never happened--enthusiastically seconded by politicians of both parties and commentators of many political stripes--is among the most irresponsible. It is politically irresponsible because it refuses to learn from the past--or engages in a sort of education by fiat, in which unspecified lessons are declared learned and the experience that should have taught them is forgotten. If American involvement in Vietnam was an "accident," or an "error," how can similar accidents and errors be avoided in the future? Those who denounce "recriminations" offer no answer.
And pretending the war never happened is morally irresponsible because it ignores all that our country was and did for 20 years. It is like saying that actions have no meaning, that people killed and villages destroyed never existed, that the war existed only in headlines and television broadcasts and not in its victims' bodies. Such an attitude denies the reality not only of the Vietnam war, but of all human activities--for if 20 years of carnage and destruction can be consigned to oblivion with one stroke of a commentator's pen, then no history deserves to be remembered and no suffering can expect commemoration.
This supplement tells how some people, most of them at Harvard or around Cambridge, have dealt with the end of the war. We are publishing it because forgetting the war is irresponsible and because we believe Americans should be thinking about what the war meant. We are also publishing it partly to celebrate the coming of peace to Vietnam--the peace that millions of Vietnamese and Americans have worked and waited for, and that it often seemed would never come.
But the first reason may be more important. The war is over in Vietnam, but we believe that Americans--whether they adopt Vietnamese children, remember their own experience of Vietnam, or think about the moral issues raised by their country's experience there--still have to make their peace.
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