In early May 1975, The New York Review asked some of its contributors to write on the meaning of the Vietnam war and its ending. They were asked to consider the questions of the responsibility for the war; its effect on American life, politics, and culture, and the US position in the world; and the prospects of recovery from it—or any other questions they felt to be important. > —The Editors
The only beneficiaries I can see of the event of April 30 are the Vietnamese. As the end approached, it was hoped, by many Americans and their sympathizers abroad, that some domestic benefit would be noticed. A weight, it was argued, ought to be lifted, of taxation, guilt, and shame, and new priorities could be set for the republic. With Vietnam out of the way, liberty and equality, a package, would no longer have to be viewed as articles for export and promotional salesmanship. The “lesson of Vietnam” would have been learned, both by our leaders and by the citizenry, which had been viewing the instructive spectacle on television.
It is too soon, of course, to be sure that nothing of the kind is happening. Perhaps a subliminal effect has been registered. Yet since so few “lessons” are ever learned in private life, one wonders why the process should be expected to take place in public life, so much less subject to the control of individual conscience and so poorly endowed, comparatively, with the means of reform. In any case, as it seems to me, the time had long passed when an opportunity for “correction of errors” was present and visible to everyone. That time was 1968, when the light had been seen, as Johnson’s “abdication” in the spring had made clear. The war ought to have been terminated then with North Vietnamese cooperation in an American exit. Between April 1968, when the Paris peace talks were agreed upon in principle (though not, in practice, until the fall), and April 1975, when the last American was withdrawn, nothing basically changed except the color of the corpses.
Had the US gone home then seriously, for good, the result would have been the same as what we are seeing now, with the single difference that third-force elements in the South might have been in a stronger position. At home, the time seemed right for reform or renovation; it looked as if a new leaf might really be turned. The Bobby Kennedy candidacy, the Gene McCarthy “children’s crusade,” the youth rebellion on the campuses, all touched off by revulsion from the war in Vietnam, were signs of a change of heart. The first and last signs. The nomination of Humphrey by the Democratic convention that summer demonstrated that inertia had resumed control of US political behavior. The reaction to Vietnam lost its impact, frittered away in fringe manifestations, such as the various mobilization marches—fun and games dampened by tear gas. Despite all the bloody and sensational events in between—Martin Luther King’s murder, Bobby Kennedy’s murder, Kent State, the attempt on Wallace, Watergate, Nixon’s fall—you could almost say that time had stood still during those seven years.
Nothing is worse for a private person than to have seen in a moment of clarity the error of his ways and then failed to alter them; the last state of the man is worse than the first. That is where our country is now, and to blame our leaders, with their professional deformations, for not rising to the occasion offered them by the war’s end, in other words for not being different from what they evidently are, is a stupid exercise, itself the product of fatigue. That Ford and Kissinger, anxious about US “credibility” abroad, inflated the Mayagüez incident in their own minds and action as though it were a missiles confrontation, that Defense Secretary Schlesinger “warns” the North Koreans that the US has “learned the lesson of Vietnam” (does he mean that the next time we will use nukes?) only shows that the bruised leopard cannot change its spots. The acclaim of Congress for the Mayagüez performance is nothing new either—the Tonkin Gulf reflex all over again. And when we now hear that our air force tear-gassed and nearly killed the crew it was bent on retrieving, we remember Têt and the officer explaining, “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”