Thirty years ago Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended. For those of us who grew up watching Peter Jennings et al reporting on film from the battlefield, America's Long Nightmare™ bound the nation in a decades-long pathology of self-recrimination and still stirs emotions a generation after the last Marine left the roof of the Saigon embassy. I suspect that much like the American Civil War, which still sprouts vivid disagreements from surprising sources as we approach its sesquicentennial, The War in Southeast Asia is likely to be argued over for some time, especially when American military power is to be called upon.
What specific wars are ultimately about is not always what the belligerents cite as a casus belli. It is a twist of history that Vietnam to many Americans is Mr. Nixon's war, although it was initiated by a Democratic icon. To this day, Vietnam is either described as a ill-conceived spasm of American Imperialism or a well-intentioned response to the threat of Communism broken by a proto-communist insurgency inside the country.
What disturbs me is that, in retrospect, a lot of people just sort of accept as axiomatic an historical view which reads, "this was an evil racist immoral war fought because America was a bunch of bullies and/or wanted to fuel the military-industrial complex." Honestly, that's the only position I take strong exception to. That and the revisionist history that goes along with it, most of which seems to have been concocted by groups 4 and 5.
Ho Chi Minh was never, ever a "freedom fighter," nor even a home-grown hero. Nor was he ever a sincere revolutionary who wanted help from the Western powers and only turned communist because "we gave him no choice." All of that is pure commie propaganda bulls**t. He was a KGB stooge and Marxist-Leninist-Maoist radical from day one. And when he got into power, exactly what the anti-communists said would happen did happen: the bloodletting was horrendous, and the oppression incalculable. The much-maligned "domino theory" was also vindicated, as neighboring regimes quickly fell (or in some cases very nearly fell) to totalitarianism.
Of course, the suffering of the Vietnamese people was not the only concern of those of us who had turned against the war. There was self-interest involved, also. In part 4B I described the weariness and cynicism people had come to feel, over time, about the conduct of what seemed to be an endless war. One of the main goals of the movement against the war was to ensure that no more Americans would have to fight and die in what was perceived (again, rightly or wrongly, but honestly) as a hopeless cause.
As is my curse, I have evolved (some would say regressed) from a youngster set firmly against what I thought was a bungling yet sinister cabal which had highjacked the country ("Hey, hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!") to an adult with a more, okay, balanced view. What I have come to believe--and I admit just as much prejudice and ignorance as the next person--is that Vietnam was an idealistic disaster waged from Washington by men who were in over their heads. In retrospect the US almost seems to have sleepwalked into the conflict, only to awaken in the midst of a jungle. While the war had public support, a string of administrations failed to make the case for the war an allowed groups like the SDS to seize the spotlight and push its advantage.
Now, three decades later, capitalism has begun to win what America could not. The US is now Vietnam's largest and most important trading partner. Arthur Chrenkoff notes with considerable aplomb the irony of Vietnam today:
[A]s MasterCard would say:
Ejecting American imperialists out of the country: 2 million dead
Building communist utopia: 1 million refugees, hundreds of thousands of "reeducated" political prisoners, basic human rights suppressed, economy ruined while the rest of Asia is thriving
Admitting after three decades that your stupid communist policies have failed and the experiment is just about over: priceless.
We have come to the point where command economies are acquiescing to the reality of the human yearning for self-determination, economic success and freedom from the overarching meddling of the state. Vietnam, though still repressive, is welcoming in the exact forces that will eventually lead to its transformation. In this way the war that the right "lost" is being "won" by free market forces that the left have often decried. Still, it's really not a left-right issue. It is more so the realization of enemy factions that commerce is preferable and successful than conflict.
Vietnam is also illustrative of a larger melding of seemingly opposing viewpoints. The right like to point to growth of trading economies as a victory over the left, which they accuse of romanticizing Socialist doctrine. But the right has become "corrupted" by their enemies, also. In the latest presidential presser, Bush proposed what can be described as a progressive solution to Social Security woes when he said that there must be assurances that lower income accounts grow faster than those of people with other, better means. The Democrats jumped on the idea as instituting means testing and a cynical way around talking about private accounts, but the president did in fact incorporate progressive ideology with his own enlightened "ownership" meme.
Was this just a negotiating tactic or are we witnessing the hybridization of American politics just as we are watching a different sort of cross-pollination taking root in Vietnam and China (which has given up on Communism in all but name?) As command economies recognize the value of open trade and a light touch with regards to regulating markets, America is gradually coming to terms with its vital middle where most of the population lives. It can only do this by demanding that both the right and left give up some of the sacred cows that have sustained the parties for generations.
The transformation is already begun. The Iraq war has opened up flaws in each party's armor as those Republicans who complained during the Kosovo war that the US wasn't to be the "world's policeman" now argue for nation building. Likewise, Democrats are slowly coming to terms with the fact that they will be banished to opposition status if they do not change their rhetoric on the use of American power.
What it comes down to for most voters is that each party dislikes almost any use of the military when out of power. However, the population is both more skeptical than the party in power and less timid than the minority party. In this way, voters are regulating and manipulating party politics to meet their own ends. There may come a time when party affiliations change in a much more fluid and unpredictable manner, forcing both the right and the left to speak to an ad hoc constituency each time an election comes around.
What does this have to do with Vietnam? Not much if looked at from a purely domestic point of view. But when observed from a higher perspective, the changing dynamics of American politics and the transformation of the Vietnamese economy both illustrate a paradigm were pragmatism outweighs dogma.
If a Republican president can internalize Democratic ideals and breed it with his own brand of idealism, American politics may have the opportunity to break out of the well-worn back-and-forth pattern we have seen for years. If a wound the size of Vietnam can begin to finally heal, the potential for nations to confront, engage and solve global problems has just gotten better.
The way that America and Vietnam and the rest of the world would go then would be not to the left or right, but inevitably straight down the middle.