Thirteen years ago, after the last American helicopter had left Saigon, President Gerald Ford said that the lessons in the Vietnam War had been learned and absorbed, so it was time to put the war behind us.
Across the nation people on the left, the right and in the middle gave a sigh of relief. But like Lady Macbeth's spot, Vietnam will not out. As the furor over Sen. Dan Quayle's nomination for the vice presidency demonstrates, we cannot ignore it. Every candidate for national office, for the next 20 or 30 years, will have to face the question: What did you do during the Vietnam War? It's a question that all males born between 1945 and 1955 have had to grapple with since the American involvement began.
Except for those who went and fought, it is an agonizing question, reflecting the agonizing nature of that war. Born to parents who could not imagine dodging the draft, parents to whom patriotism was unquestioned, the Vietnam generation of young men were caught in a terrible dilemma. The politicians told them that Ho Chi Minh was the equivalent of Hitler, a comparison so absurd that it made them laugh. World War II matched good vs. evil in about as pure a form as has ever happened; Vietnam was ambiguous, uncertain, undeclared.
Never has there been so great a generation gap as that between the patriotic parents of the '60s and their doubting sons. Not since a century earlier, when young men from border states had to choose between North or South, have things been so difficult as they were in the 1960s. That Quayle chose to avoid serving in Vietnam by using his wealthy family's influence to escape by way of the National Guard does not disgrace him, nor make him unique. Thousands of others did the same. Other thousands fled to Canada. Other thousands took education majors in college and became grade-school teachers, temporarily.
As a college teacher in those years, first in a public university and then in one of the most elite of the private schools (Johns Hopkins University), I witnessed the use of every possible method to escape service in Vietnam. One of the best was getting into the guard; another was to become a teacher. Meanwhile, to maintain a student deferment, males had to maintain their grades. I've never had, in 30 years of teaching, harder working students.
No matter what is said about the honor of serving in the guard (much of it true), in the late '60s every young man in America knew that the guard was a way out of the killing fields in Vietnam. That this was the chief motivating factor for joining the guard cannot be denied.
Nevertheless, it was not shameful to join the guard. Indeed among the college students I knew in those days, young men were congratulated for escaping the draft, whatever way they did it. The common view was that only suckers went to Vietnam.
Today, that attitude has been reversed. Those who served in Vietnam are the proud ones.
My country, right or wrong. It is an ancient principle, and like most principles that have withstood the test of time, it matters little whether it is fair, just or correct--it just is.
Which brings us back to Quayle and the problem that his nomination raises. He did not say "my country is right, and I'm off for Vietnam." He did not say "my country is wrong, and I'm not going." He said "maybe." He said, "I'm ambiguous about this whole thing."
That was not an inappropriate attitude, nor was what he did in avoiding combat right or wrong. It must be said however, that he has to accept the consequences of his ambiguities. He is not in a position to give any of us lectures on patriotism. He forfeited the right to wave the flag in our faces.
There is a much more important point. As a candidate for vice president, Quayle is asking us to put him a heartbeat away from the presidency. The President has many jobs and functions, but No. 1 is that the Constitution makes him the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. In that capacity, the President often has to order men into combat, to put their lives on the line, no questions asked. Yet Dan Quayle, who someday might have to issue those orders, asked himself questions back in 1969, and his answer was "I'd rather go to law school than fight in Vietnam."
Vietnam will not out. We will be living with it for the rest of our lives. Quayle represents but the first of what will be uncountable incidents revolving around the age old question, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?