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Document: The Times on Vietnam

The Times leader 24/04/2000
"The Shadow of Vietnam"
The wrong side won, but America paid the price

 

"Tomorrow marks 25 years since the final helicopter took off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, only moments before the victorious Vietcong troops battered down the gates to the fortified compound. One of the century's most famous images of defeat, the moment has been seared into America's textbooks and memory, where it has, for almost a generation, dominated US foreign policy, paralysed military action and shattered the reputation of the liberal establishment.

Vietnam's long shadow so darkened American horizons that it took both the Democratic Party and a disillusioned generation some 15 years to recover. Only with the election of Ronald Reagan, with his optimistic, can-do charisma, did the country start to regain its historic self-confidence. America's longest conflict cost 58,000 lives, the presidency of one - and arguably two - political leaders, and the respect of dozens of Third World countries that once thought America invincible. Like the Civil War, Vietnam polarised and demoralised the US, and launched a debate on the rights and wrongs of engagement that is still underway.

For years judgment was that Vietnam was a ghastly mistake - a confusion of political aims, a mismatch of military means, a failure to understand the nature of guerilla warfare and the corrosion of military discipline by drugs and national will by live television coverage. Recent assessments are different. It is now evident that while the communist triumph on April 30,1975, seemed to bear out the worst fears of the domino theorists, the balance of advantage was even then changing: Communisrn was already beginning to rot in its heartlands, and even Marxism's conquest of new lands could not disguise its failure to satisfy aspirations in both developed and developing societies.

John McCain, both victim and hero of the war, recently observed that the wrong side won. The renaming of South Vietnam's capital after Ho Chi Minh still rubs in the defeat; but he would now recognise neither the Communist Party that he dominated nor the country that it theoretically still controls. As the former prisoner of the "Hanoi Hilton" has seen on his visits to the land where he fought, Vietnam has now been forced to accept the market, embrace Western know-how, tolerate the consumer fads of its former enemy and guide American tourists round the tunnels and booby traps once used to destroy so many young lives. Vietnam may still be nominally communist but in every aspect of life, it is capitalism that has won.

There is a danger, however, that reassessment can go too far. The Vietnam syndrome is still there - powerfully reinforced by calamitous events in Somalia, Beirut and Tehran. Never again, American strategists concede, can Washington contemplate a distant war fought by hundreds of thousands of conscripts; never again will American society accept body-bags as the inevitable concomitant of engagement. Future wars must either be so clinical and overwhelming, as in the Gulf, or so limited in scope, as in Kosovo, that casualties are avoided. For today's cadets, lectures on Vietnam might as well be on the Peloponnesian Wars, so distant is the concept of what was attempted. But if ever hubris tempts the sole remaining super-power to over-commitment, America has only to look back a quarter century to remember the result."

 

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