This article originally appeared at mystatesman.com
Posted: 5:27 p.m. Thursday, April 28, 2016
Funny how time can put new perspective on old jokes. I heard one of those a few times this week on a video loop played between sessions at the Vietnam War Summit that wrapped up Thursday at the LBJ Presidential Library:
“Don’t worry about those riots you hear about in the states,” Bob Hope told GIs in Vietnam. “You’ll be sent to survival school before they send you back there.”
Some of those long-ago warriors still are struggling to survive. All these years later, the nation they served still struggles with what former Lyndon B. Johnson aide Larry Temple, speaking at the summit, called “the tragedy of the Vietnam War.”
On Tuesday, former Richard Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield, expanding on a familiar reference, said the war was the product of “the best and the brightest (who) were doing their darnedest. … But no one could really get a handle on it.”
We still really can’t, at least not in a way we on which we all agree.
“I tried to do the best I could,” Henry Kissinger said Tuesday.
So did Liz Allen of Huntington, W.Va., a retired Army nurse who recalled trying to do too much with too little in Vietnam.
“How do you come to grips with 150 body bags in one day?” Allen said on a Thursday panel.
Other evocative words came in readings of long-ago letters to LBJ from U.S. servicemen. Marine Cpl. Lee Vernon Bonnette included a photo of himself with a young smiling Vietnamese girl whose mother was killed by the Viet Cong,
“Because of us,” Bonnette told LBJ, “she is able to smile. … But there are many more who do not have the freedom smile which she has. … This is worth fighting for. This is worth dying for.”
The counterpoint came in the next letter.
“In short sir,” Marine Pvt. Charles E. Nichols told LBJ, “we’re fighting this war for the Vietnamese people and I’d like to know why. Why should my buddies and other people’s sons have to die fighting for what he doesn’t understand or believe in?”
Another view of the war — one that says it remains an unfinished task — came from state Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, a South Vietnam native.
“Today, what can we say was achieved with these great losses?” Vo asked. “While many communist states around the world have already fallen, Vietnam still remains a communist state. … Vietnam today still has neither freedom nor democracy.”
Vo expressed appreciation for the U.S. sacrifices, but he said “to properly honor these heroes we must examine what their sacrifice means to us today and how much of the cause for which they died still remains to be achieved.”
On the same stage, a day later, Secretary of State John Kerry, who famously (infamously to some) opposed the war after returning from serving in it, trumpeted current relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. He spoke glowingly of a “remarkable transformation” in trade and tourism and cooperative efforts in education and security that’s made Vietnam “a completely different nation.”
Different in many ways, the same in others.
“Now as I say all of this, is it everything where we want it to be? No,” he said, noting that Vietnam now practices “raging capitalism” but remains under “authoritarian” rule.” Kerry will join President Barack Obama on a May trip to Vietnam.
Kerry’s appearance at the Austin summit was a major moment. So was Country Joe McDonald’s Thursday performance of “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” his oddly upbeat ditty that became an anti-war anthem, with lyrics like “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.”
As he sang, LBJ’s daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb sat stoically on the front row. Both applauded politely when McDonald finished.
Not long later, the sisters seemed genuinely moved as they stood and joined hands as singer Peter Yarrow led the audience in “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”
“When will we ever learn?” Yarrow, the Johnson daughters and all in the hall sang. “When will we ever learn?
If that was the summit’s emotional high point, it’s most riveting might have been the evening featuring Kissinger. LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove diplomatically confronted Kissinger with the notion that he’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner who’s considered a war criminal by many for his support of bombing in Cambodia.
“I’m now in my 90s, so I’ve heard this,” Kissinger said. “I think the word ‘war criminal’ should not be thrown around in the domestic debate. It’s shameful, it’s a reflection on the people who use it.”
He said the bombing in Cambodia was limited and necessary to wipe out North Vietnamese bases inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. forces.
During a panel the next day, New York University history professor Marilyn Young, rebutting Kissinger’s assertion that the Cambodian bombing was limited, recited stats showing U.S. planes dropped 2.76 million tons of ordnance on 113,716 Cambodian sites during 230,516 sorties.
Kissinger expressed no regrets about Vietnam.
“You always make tactical mistakes,” he said, but decisions were made on “the best judgment at the time.”
“In retrospect was the war worth all these casualties?” he said. “Well, of course, if you lose a war you cannot say. But what is achieved in any event was that Southeast Asia was not overrun, and it probably made a contributing factor to the opening to China.”
“But it was a bitter ending,” Kissinger said.
The summit reminded us how we’re still dealing with the ending.
In a statement posted on his website, summit participant and famed Vietnam War protester Tom Hayden said, “I personally regret my own part in many decisions the peace movement made and await an acknowledgement and apology from Dr. Kissinger as well. This conference offers a great opportunity for inner reconciliation. In the absence of that opportunity, I must decline (summit organizers’) invitation to the dinner with Dr. Kissinger on April 26.”
For the final words I’ll leave you with two spoken by NYU’s Young during the “War At Home” panel. Her worth-remembering quip came after panel moderator and playwright Robert Schenkkan said, “Democracy is a messy business.”
“One hopes,” Young said