SACRAMENTO — The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, sits by a grassy hill where, amid a constant stream of lighthearted students, one can reflect on the past.
The library itself is a virtually windowless brown stone building that reminds me of a vast tomb. Just past the entrance, one finds the foreign-affairs exhibit, where the visitor first learns that the Johnson years, 1963-69, were "crowded with events--dramatic, tragic, hopeful--which related to foreign affairs." Presented for display are three of those events, "each of which for a while commanded the world's attention"--Glassboro, the Six-Day War and Vietnam. A forgotten summit, an Israeli-Arab war and--Vietnam. Not "Vietnam War," not "Vietnam Tragedy," not "Vietnam Nightmare," just Vietnam--"which for a while commanded the world's attention."
The Vietnam exhibit tells us, first, that President Lyndon B. Johnson was continuing policies of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy to preserve the independence of South Vietnam. North Vietnamese "triggered a conflict" by attacking us in in the Tonkin Gulf, 22 years ago. Johnson "chose the middle course" between a pullout and all-out war. He bombed only "military targets" and busied himself "improving the lives of people." When Johnson retired, the exhibit succinctly notes, 35,541 Americans "had given their lives."
Touring the exhibit on a recent visit, I felt the ghosts of 1968 returning and said to myself: But none of these official statements are true.
The Tonkin Gulf incident was more a pretext than a cause of our bombing. Johnson hardly followed a "middle course," he unleashed more firepower than we did in World War II. He not only bombed military targets, he dropped napalm, phosphorous and anti-personnel bombs everywhere, creating millions of civilian victims and defoliating a countryside with chemicals.
Far more than the protection of a President's image is involved here. The library perpetuates a politics of denial all too prevalent in America today. Many in our nation are too easily comforted by myth and nostalgia instead of hard truth. We are far too capable of confusing Rambo and Ronald Reagan. We cover our failures with platitudes about "staying the course" and sometimes still act as if real men have no regrets.
But tragedies and failures can lead to knowledge, as the Greek playwrights tell us, and knowledge to a different sort of strength. Despite efforts to rewrite history, many Americans know Vietnam was not a proud moment but a modern Greek tragedy.
Most of the men and women of my generation want to overcome our painful past divisions. After all, we have in common, first, the fact that we all were manipulated and deceived by the authorities; and second, a growing sense that those who fought and those who resisted were both motivated by a sense of obligation, and that we have paid our dues. Many paid the ultimate price themselves; others tried to stop the killing. Some were stigmatized as baby-killers, others as traitors. Some were forced not to talk about it because no one wanted to hear and some were disavowed by their parents for years.
Very few of us could go through all that with no regrets or second thoughts. No one can feel utterly righteous about his Vietnam experience, whether he bombed a village or used a draft deferment to escape those killing fields. The strength and, one hopes, the wisdom, that only comes from second thoughts can be the lasting basis of reconciliation here in America and the protection against other Vietnams happening again.
I certainly have regrets of my own that I will always live with. I regret that Hanoi has an imperial design on Cambodia and has largely done away with pluralism in the south. I regret that I was not more critical of the cynical motives of the Soviet Union. I regret that I was infected with a hostility that alienated me from this country for years. I regret most of all that I compounded the pain of many Americans who lost sons and loved ones in Vietnam. I am sorry for the hurt I did while thinking I was trying to save those lives. There is a saying that we live two lives, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. I will always believe the Vietnam War was wrong; I will never again believe that I was always right.
Nor should any of us become prisoners of that experience, as if it somehow contains clear lessons that are permanent guideposts in either life or politics. In fact, the supposed lessons of the past are often the pitfalls of the future.
It remains true, for example, that we cannot be the policeman of the world, but it is also true that we cannot simply withdraw from the world and believe that all conflicts can be peacefully negotiated.
It is true that a Vietnam-type war in Central America would be dishonorable and tragic, but it is also true that Third World revolutions bring their own forms of dogma and repression.