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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 April, 2005, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Divisive war still haunts America
Matt Frei
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Thirty years later the images are still vivid: a US army helicopter scrambling to evacuate diplomats from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, the mass protests against the war; napalmed children fleeing American bombs, their skin in shreds.

A woman rides past a Motorola mobile phone shop in downtown Ho Chi Minh City
The war's toll was huge, but today Vietnam is embracing US business

The tally of the Vietnam War was devastating. Three million Vietnamese died, 58,000 American soldiers perished.

But as the pictures and the memories are revived once again on American cable television Ngyuen Tam Chien, Vietnam's ambassador to the US sits in his Washington residence, fingering a gold speckled Hermes tie, discussing how to attract investment.

United Airlines now flies directly to Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City three times a week.

And Vietnamese students, once taught to hate Uncle Sam, are flocking to continue their business studies in Wisconsin and Florida.

Mother's forgiveness

The process of normalisation started about 10 years ago and I well remember one of its highlights: the visit by Bill Clinton to Vietnam in 2000.

Mrs Nguyen cradled the medals of her six sons who had fallen in the war against the Americans... she told me she felt no bitterness towards America

The American election was still being disputed in the courts, the president was living out his final days in the Oval Office and as far as we could tell he, Hillary and Chelsea spent as much time shopping for silk pyjamas and Vietnamese crafts as they did smoothing over relations with the former enemy.

There was good will on both sides.

We interviewed a Vietnamese widow who lived in a village near Hue, close to the former dividing line between North and South Vietnam, where the fields were still pitted with craters and the swampy paddies conceal unexploded ordinance.

Sitting in her mud hut the 90-year-old Mrs Nguyen cradled the medals of her six sons who had fallen in the war against the Americans.

Despite her astonishing loss she told me she felt no bitterness towards America and Bill Clinton.

"We need to forgive, but never forget!" she rasped.

Enmity runs deep

The contrast with Michael Smith a 54-year-old veteran from Kansas could not be greater.

US soldiers in during Vietnam War
Thirty years after the end of the war, Vietnam continues to divide and haunt America far more than the country that lost 50 times as many people

He is the man who confronted the actress Jane Fonda at a book signing ceremony in Kansas City last week and spat a mouthful of tobacco juice into her face.

The actress is still reviled by many veterans and conservatives here as "Hanoi Jane", the young starlet and anti-war protester who travelled to North Vietnam at the height of the war and posed with Vietcong anti-aircraft batteries, preparing to shoot down American planes.

She now regrets that episode as foolish but her critics are less prone to forgive Jane Fonda and her soul mates.

One of the most damaging accusations against John Kerry, the senator who failed to unseat George Bush last year was that he returned from the Vietnam War to help lead the campaign against it.

A pressure group close to the Republican Party even doctored a picture to show a tousle-haired Kerry standing close to "Hanoi Jane" at the same demonstration.

Change of heart

Although virtually no one in this country believes that Vietnam was a war worth fighting, there are millions who despise John Kerry for throwing his medals into the Reflector pond near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

John Kerry brandished his record as a swift boat commander on the Mekong as a way of persuading voters in a time of war that a Democrat would not be soft on defence

His change of heart towards the conflict in which he earned three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star helped to brand him as an inconsistent flip flopper, who was prone to disloyalty.

In America after 9/11 this turned out to be a damaging charge.

John Kerry brandished his record as a swift boat commander on the Mekong as a way of persuading voters in a time of war that a Democrat would not be soft on defence.

He also hoped that people would contrast his medals with the fact that George Bush was at best flying circles over Alabama in the Air National Guard or at worst a coward who shirked his responsibility.

But on polling day the president's embarrassed silence over Vietnam prevailed over John Kerry's chest beating.

It merely highlighted the senator's complexities and inconsistencies at a time when most Americans are yearning for clear leadership and simplicity.

Ghosts of past in Iraq

Thirty years after the end of the war, Vietnam continues to divide and haunt America far more than the country that lost 50 times as many people.

US troops in Mosul
The conflict in Iraq is posing similar questions to Vietnam

One reason is the bruised pride of a super power that was defeated in the jungles of South East Asia.

More importantly the war bitterly divided this nation, raising fundamental questions about the benevolence of American democracy and about the right balance between force and freedom, a debate that is as poignant today as it was then.

At the time Vietnam was billed as a pre-emptive war to contain the spread of communism in Asia and protect America.

As the casualties mounted so did the questions about how much a threat the Vietcong could really pose.

Today another pre-emptive war against an enemy far from home has posed similar questions.

It took 20,000 casualties and five years of fruitless fighting to turn the American public against the war in Vietnam.

Iraq is far from becoming another Vietnam. But today the ghosts of the jungle are busy getting resurrected in the sands around Baghdad.





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