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US veterans
look back on the Vietnam War
 real 28k

Friday, 28 April, 2000, 05:39 GMT 06:39 UK
America reflects on Vietnam

Vietnam vets still feel a chill when they hear helicopters
By BBC Washington correspondent Tom Carver

Perhaps it is Americans' well known streak of optimism that makes it so hard for them to accept failure.

War is difficult enough to endure at any time, but the pain is easier to bear if the sacrifice is thought to have been worthwhile.

Visitors stand in front of the Vietnam Memorial
Veterans will wash the memorial to commemorate the war
The sad legacy of the Vietnam War a quarter of a century later is that millions of Americans still think it was a colossal waste of life and effort.

It was the biggest war in most Americans' memory, and yet this weekend there will be no official national commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of its end.

Come Sunday, the White House says President Clinton does not plan to mention the war.

In a symbolic gesture, a few veterans will wash the Vietnam Memorial, but they will do it at 6 am, almost under cover of darkness.

Even the press articles marking the anniversary have focused more on present day relations with Vietnam than looking back to the past.

The pain remains

In Britain, we tend to be less surprised by our failures. We find refuge from our setbacks in humour.

Children flee a napalm attack
The images of the war are still fresh for many Americans
But even after quarter of a century, you don't joke about Vietnam with an American.

The pain and the scars are still too raw. It's hard to imagine a series like MASH ever being commissioned around Vietnam.

Tom Corey has been confined to a wheelchair ever since he was shot in the neck during an attack on North Vietnamese positions on 31 January 1968.

He campaigns for Vietnam veterans everywhere. His entire life has been defined by the war, and yet even he regards it as a futile escapade.

"We as soldiers could see that early on. Many of us felt that the way we were doing it was wrong if we were planning on winning," Mr Corey said.

'A problem with no solution'

The military debate over how the war was conducted goes on to this day.

Helicopters and troops in Vietnam
The war shook the US military
The idea that it was never going to work embedded itself in the American consciousness at an early stage.

The secretary of defence at the time, Robert McNamara, says he came to realise as early as 1967 that Vietnam was "a problem with no solution".

But it is hard to remember now just how much of a threat communism seemed in the 60s.

Those running the war saw it as a fight for America's very survival.

In September 1967, President Lyndon Johnson wrote: "I am not prepared to risk the security - indeed the survival - of this American nation on mere hope and wishful thinking. I am convinced that by seeing this struggle through now, we are greatly reducing the chances of a much larger war - perhaps a nuclear war."

Turning tide of opinion

Now 25 years on, historians are beginning to agree.

WW Rostow, who served in the White House at the time, says what America did was far from futile.

For 16 years, she delayed the spread of communism in the Far East, allowing countries in the region to develop robust economies and sending a firm signal to the communist superpowers of the Soviet Union and China.

And slowly, ordinary Americans are beginning to give greater recognition to those who fought.

A man stands in front of the Vietnam Memorial
Vietnam veterans are finally being honoured
John McCain's incredible popularity during his presidential campaign owed a lot to his heroic story of imprisonment in Vietnam. Fifteen years ago he would have been shunned rather than celebrated.

Schools and universities are inviting veterans to speak about their experiences to a new generation, often sharing platforms with former anti-war protesters.

Tom Corey says he noticed attitudes begin to change after the Gulf War.

"A lot of those who served in the Gulf War were Vietnam vets. They remembered their friends never got a welcome home or a thank you for what they did for their country. Since that time veterans have been recognised more," Mr Corey said.

America went into the Vietnam War full of confidence and belief in her manifest destiny.

She emerged 15 years later a much more troubled nation, divided, uncertain, riddled by doubt and a sense of moral ambiguity and scarred by the greatest military defeat in its history.

It was a testing time. But America is beginning to move on.

Perhaps the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon will be commemorated more widely.

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See also:

20 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Murder in the name of war - My Lai
13 Mar 98 | Asia-Pacific
Vietnam 1945 to 1975: timeline
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