President Obama on Monday officially kicked off a years-long commemoration of the Vietnam War, saying the country should use the 50th anniversary of the conflict’s start as a chance to apologize for poor treatment of returning veterans, which he called “one of the most painful chapters” in U.S. history.
“It was a national shame. A disgrace. It should have never happened. That’s why here today we resolve it will never happen again,” Mr. Obama said at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall.
He said the Vietnam War remains so contentious that historians can’t even agree on when it started — U.S. military advisers were in the country in the 1950s, while full-scale American combat engagement began in the mid-1960s, but he said 1962 marked a critical turning point when American pilots began to fly South Vietnamese troops into battle.
In an Op-Ed published in several military newspapers Monday, the president vowed to continue searching for the 1,666 troops who are still missing in action from Vietnam, and announced an effort by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to lead a national effort to support military families.
At one point he asked the Vietnam veterans in his audience to stand up — if they could — and he told them they deserved to hear a proper greeting many of them never got.
“Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home,” the president said.
In two Memorial Day speeches at the Vietnam memorial and earlier at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Obama said honoring veterans means supporting them with the benefits they’ve earned, and with the moral support they deserve.
As for active-duty troops, he said government leaders must commit to greater care in using them in combat.
“Let us resolve that when America sends our sons and daughters into harm’s way, we will always give them a clear mission. We will give them a sound strategy. We will give them the equipment to get the job done. We will have their backs,” he said.
Earlier in the day Mr. Obama attended ceremonies at Arlington, laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and then delivering a speech in which he noted it was the first Memorial Day since the end of the Iraq war.
“For the first time in nine years, Americans are not fighting and dying in Iraq. We are winding down the war in Afghanistan and our troops will continue to come home,” he said. “After a decade under the dark cloud of war, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon.”
Across the country in San Diego, speaking at the same time that Mr. Obama was delivering his remarks at the Vietnam memorial, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also said the country owes debts to the troops.
The former Massachusetts governor criticized looming defense-budget cuts at a time when he said the country is facing new threats such as a nuclear-armed Pakistan and emerging Chinese military strength.
“We dedicate ourselves to strength,” Mr. Romney said.