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Vietnam War Leaves Legacy of Anguish : Still Overshadows Lives, U.S. Policies

April 28, 1985|NORMAN KEMPSTER | Times Staff Writer

And along with that change in public attitudes has come help for at least some of the veterans damaged by the war--in continued support for government counseling services, in a $180-million trust fund to help those exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant and in less hostility toward veterans as a whole.

"The public has dramatically changed in its attitude toward the Vietnam veteran," said Vietnam Veterans leader Muller. "There is finally a sense of appreciation."

But there is still not the same respect that was accorded to veterans of previous wars. After World War II, for example, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe, was elected President in his first try for public office, and every President since then except Jimmy Carter (who during the war was an Annapolis midshipman) has been a World War II veteran.

The Vietnam conflict, by contrast, has not provided a political springboard. Only about 30 of the 535 members of the Senate and House are Vietnam veterans, and when David Christian, possibly the most decorated soldier of the war, ran for Congress from a suburban Pennsylvania district last year, his Republican advisers told him to soft-pedal his military experience. He was narrowly defeated.

What Were the Lessons?

Christian, now 36, is bitter about the advice he received, in part because he believes he could have won if he had been allowed to be himself but, more important, because he does not like what the political strategy says about the nation's opinion of its fighting men. "It wasn't good to be a war hero," he said.

Beyond such personal impact, Vietnam continues a decade later to wield a far-reaching--albeit unresolved--influence on U.S. foreign and national security policy.

All sides agree that there must be "no more Vietnams," but the disagreements about how to avoid another such quagmire remain as sharp as when the fighting raged. And, while the "lessons of Vietnam" are endlessly invoked in debates over defense and foreign policy, there is little consensus on what those lessons are.

At one extreme are those who argue that the nation must never again blunder into war in the Third World. As a corollary, they say the United States must avoid the arrogance of the early 1960s, what they see as the widespread belief that all the world's problems could be solved by sufficient application of American power and will.

"The American people and Congress now appreciate that we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and they are not prepared to commit U.S. troops to combat unless there is a clear U.S. national security interest involved," said Rep. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), a former Navy flier who spent six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

"If we do become involved in combat, that involvement must be of relatively short duration and must be readily explained to the man in the street in one or two sentences," he said.

At the other extreme are those who argue that the United States went wrong in Vietnam not because it got involved but because it lost. The nation, in this view, must be prepared to intervene in the Third World whenever its national interests are at stake--and to use enough power to win and to win quickly.

Wartime Footing Necessary

To prevent a resurgence of anti-war sentiment in a future war, this camp argues, the civilian population must be put on a wartime footing before sending troops into combat and curbs must be placed on the kind of unrestricted television coverage that fueled anti-war sentiment by bringing Vietnam into the nation's living rooms.

President Reagan and his colleagues clearly prefer this "no substitute for victory" interpretation of the lessons of Vietnam.

"When it is necessary to commit troops to combat, we must do so in sufficient strength and with sufficient resolve to win," Weinberger said. "A major lesson the U.S. learned in Vietnam was that we should never again send our troops into combat unless we are committed totally. So, while we are no more reluctant to use force when force is necessary, I hope we are a bit wiser about the (amount of) force that is necessary."

Piecemeal Involvement

The emphasis in both camps on making clearly delineated, publicly supported decisions about future use of military force reflects the near-universal consensus that part of the problem with Vietnam was the piecemeal way in which this country got involved.

Indeed, some historians date the beginning of U.S. involvement as far back as 1946, when the United States supported France in its effort to re-establish its Indochinese colony after World War II. Others note that it was in 1960 that the first U.S. military advisers were sent to Vietnam.

It was 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing increased U.S. military activity following a reported attack on two U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. And it was in 1965 that the first U.S. combat troops were sent in.

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