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Sunday, April 24, 2005

COUNTERPOINT

Thirty years on, have no lessons been learned from Vietnam?


Special to The Japan Times

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, a war that in Vietnam is known as the "American War."

On April 30, 1975, the government of South Vietnam surrendered to the North. The United States and its coalition of willing allies, after intervening in what was a post-colonial civil war and ravaging Vietnam on a massive scale, was finally defeated. Despite the war having produced some 2 million Vietnamese casualties during the time of U.S. involvement -- and with babies being born there to this day with birth defects caused by American chemical warfare (it isn't hard to find the WMD here) -- Americans, Australians and other allies have "put that war behind them."

"We've moved on from that," they say. "It's history."

This selective amnesia is not happenstance. The facts of the war in Vietnam and the record of monumental cruelty inflicted on the Vietnamese people by the American coalition have been deliberately filed away. Sure, there is talk of "mistakes." But the United States won't go back to that war: It could crimp America's style of proactive intervention in our new century, the century of the "never-ending" war on terror.

What should this very important anniversary mean to the U.S. and its allies in that unjustifiable war?

It should tell the American people that they were duped by their leaders. It should tell the soldiers' families that their relatives were sent to fight (and in the case of around 70,000 Americans, to die) not in defense of American values -- as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon claimed -- but to impose American ideology on another nation.

The final defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago should have taught Americans to study history before recklessly invading other countries. The Vietnamese people had been colonized by the French as early as the 1880s, occupied by the Japanese during World War II, then recolonized by the French until 1954. The wish of the Vietnamese people of virtually all political persuasions at that time was for genuine independence and social reform. But Americans, taking up the anti-independence cause, were unable to judge the aspirations of another nation outside of the most narrow conception of American values. Take over Vietnam, give their young men lettermen's sweaters and their young women gardenia corsages for the senior prom and, gee whiz, democracy is yours for the asking.

The defeat in Vietnam should have taught Americans that each country has to find its own path to social equality -- and that American values of liberty are not universal. Some of them, as we are now seeing in Bush's America, are barely surviving in the "homeland."

If other nations wish to incorporate some fine American element of governing, they can do so in their own good time. In that very way, the people who founded the American republic borrowed grand ideas from Europe, assimilating them into an ever-changing American experience. Why don't Americans trust others to do the same? Why is it that some Americans insist on imposing American institutions, so specific to American custom and mores, in every corner of the globe?

This, above all, is what America should be thinking about at the end of this month. A country's take on democracy comes from the peculiar circumstances that led to its establishment. The American social model is not the only one. Japanese, Koreans, Swedes, South Africans, Indians, Venezuelans . . . they have their own traditions of dealing with social and economic inequities. Sometimes they do this better than the U.S. does; sometimes not. They don't need U.S. intervention to appreciate the difference.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. strove to impose its model on Vietnam through the offices of corrupt local officials. It failed. It wasn't a mistake. It was a crime!

I was born in 1944 and the Vietnam War was the war of my generation. It is also representatives of my generation who have repeated, on a potentially more lethal scale, the very same crime in Iraq. Will they ever apologize for the needless killing and awful destruction that they and their allies have perpetrated on the Iraqi people?

Judging from the past it doesn't look promising. An American withdrawal will have to happen first. After that, Americans may come to know what it is like to be told by the rest of the world that they must apologize again and again. Perhaps then Americans will finally take a good hard look at their past and be mindful of it in the future.



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