- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2000

Twenty-five years ago this Sunday, millions of Americans watched with disbelief and disenchantment as Huey helicopters hovered over the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in the final attempt to airlift the last remaining Americans out of Vietnam. A few days before, fanatical Cambodian communists know as Khmer Rouge marched into the capital of Phnom Penh. These events marked the end of more than 15 years of American military involvement in southeast Asia.

The images of this war in our national psyche are so different from the other American wars a generation before: a naked young Vietnamese girl running away from her napalmed village and the grief on the face of a young woman at Kent State University, leaning over the dead body of a fellow protester.

The American dead number more than 58,000, and Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City, stands as a testament to the nearly two million Vietnamese who perished in their civil war.

The debate over this war which seemed to pull America apart by the political seams continues, but now with a different subtext. The justice and freedom so many in the media and in our universities had predicted would follow for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people with the fall of their corrupt American-backed governments never materialized. Now the world knows that as many people in Southeast Asia were killed after the fall of Saigon as before.

The arithmetic of these deaths is not complex: it is the sum of millions of Cambodians destroyed in a genocidal wrath; a quarter million Vietnamese boat people drowned in an attempt to escape the "re-education camps" the bamboo gulag that were little more than slave labor farms; and the bodies of thousands of Hmong tribesmen who were murdered during the Laotian ethnic pogroms.

This was the tragic legacy bequeathed to the people of Indochina when America failed to defend the region from communist terror.

With the anniversary of this defeat the old questions return to haunt us once again: Was the two-decade struggle worth it? Was it all a mistake?

But there is another question about this war that is seldom asked, perhaps because we can't face up to the answer: Did the anti-war movement so weaken our nation's resolve in fighting distant communism that the death of these two million Asians may in some way be our own fault?

The 1960s saw the rise of a movement that challenged our involvement in Vietnam, and in some sense the efforts to contain communism globally. Centered in our prestigious universities and colleges, a new breed of dissident arose, different from the civil rights protester of the early 1960s: the "movement radical."

Like many of my friends and fellow students at the time, I embraced the hard-core radicalism of the anti-war movement. There were millions of us from Ann Arbor to Austin to Berkeley, mostly middle-class kids full of "rage" over an imperialist America that supported an evil economic system designed to subjugate the Vietnamese. For us, Hanoi had it right; Washington had it wrong.

We disrupted classes, marched in the streets and closed down our universities. We burned our draft cards and screamed at the police who protected the public property we attempted to deface. In short, we trashed the principles and traditions of American life and law.

In the meantime, American soldiers were fighting and dying in the rice paddies of Asia for no other reason than they had felt compelled to serve. Volunteers in this war accounted for 77 percent of combat deaths. Yet upon their return, we treated them with touts and glares as the perpetrators of this despicable war.

In the end, it was not the soldiers who buckled under from our protests, but our nation's politicians. When the peace treaty ending American involvement was signed in Paris in 1973, America pledged to the South Vietnamese to take "swift and severe retaliatory action" if the North Vietnamese broke the terms of the accord. Yet, in early 1975, in an omen of the approaching bloodbath, President Gerald Ford publicly stated that he could foresee no circumstances in which the United States might actively re-enter the war. That was all the North needed to hear. Three months later Saigon fell to the communists. Twenty-five years since then, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws thousands of visitors every day. I have been at least a dozen times since it was erected more than to any other site in Washington. During each visit I am confronted with the solemn faces of the friends and relatives of our dead soldiers who are there to etch the names of their loved ones from the black granite.

The last two American soldiers killed in Vietnam were Marines Charles McMahon Jr., 21, and Darwin Judge, 19. Both died 25 years ago in the last few hours of this war as they helped the remaining Americans off the embassy rooftop. They had been in Vietnam for less than a week.

We live in an age when our national and religious leaders feel duty-bound to apologize for deeds committed years and even centuries prior. For those of us who blindly mistook the intentions of communists and gaze at the terrible consequences of a Stalinist Indochina, should we not have some remorse also? Is an apology not in order for the destructive deeds directed at our veterans and the parody we made of American values? Will we ever find the courage to say we were wrong?

Edward Blum is the chairman of a legal defense foundation based in Houston.

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