Questions linger 40 years after last helicopter left Vietnam

The enduring image of the ending of the Vietnam War 40 years ago today was of panicked Vietnamese civilians attempting to board a helicopter on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

Now, Vietnam is our trading partner, and immigrants from Vietnam and their progeny are part of the fabric of the nation. And it still is a matter of debate whether this country has learned the lessons of Vietnam.

What are those lessons? The phrase, a foreign policy cliché, still is worth pondering.

Originally sold as a way to stabilize a theoretically pro-democratic regime in Saigon in the early 1960s, American involvement there brought “quagmire” into common political usage. After our efforts sank in bloody rice paddies – 58,000 American deaths, hundreds of thousands of North and South Vietnamese casualties – one lesson seemed clear: Avoid untenable interventions with unclear outcomes.

But we haven’t entirely learned that lesson.

Prior to the U.S. invasion of Kuwait in 1991, President George H.W. Bush referred dismissively to a fear of the Vietnam Syndrome.

In Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Colin Powell answered with a strategy that was appealing in its simplicity: Overwhelming force up front, with a clear objective and outcome in sight. Powell had seen the cost of our ambiguous goals in Vietnam. And his doctrine made sense, under the old rules.

Another Vietnam lesson seems to be that memories can be selective.

A decade later, after al-Qaida attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, we had the chance to act on a seemingly clear mission: Get Osama bin Laden and kill the terrorists.

Instead, a new Bush administration offered grander plans, bringing Powell back to sell the American people on a dual mission, taking action in Afghanistan while launching a new war, in Iraq. Powell brought all the credibility of a Vietnam veteran and the leader of a quick Kuwait win, and warned that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

The American people bought it, troops died on all sides by the thousands, and Powell has never quite recovered his reputation. Nor has the nation.

That brings up yet another lesson: Even when a government is populated by experienced, knowledgeable people, they can’t necessarily be trusted to let that experience and knowledge guide them.

Vice President Dick Cheney surely knew the toll Vietnam took on the nation. And he might even have learned his Vietnam lessons personally, if he had chosen to serve there. But as defense secretary under the first President Bush, he was a loud proponent of forgetting the Vietnam Syndrome. And, of course, his legacy under the second President Bush speaks for itself.

The Vietnam experience still resonates with many of the politicians running our country. Secretary of State John Kerry earned his political stripes by hurling his medals away toward the U.S. Capitol, where he later served as a senator. Now Kerry faces new quagmires in the Middle East.

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, offers his amplified advice as a former Vietnam POW.

While we can look back at our involvement in Vietnam as a historical relic, millions of lives still are shattered by the experience in the United States and on our former battleground. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, who first made the commitment to involve us in Vietnam, society still has to pay the price and bear the burden of those shattered lives in VA hospitals across the country.

Vietnam was a terrible mistake, and this nation has tried for decades to put it behind us. But mistakes get made. That is a lesson we must live with as we observe the 40th anniversary of the day the last helicopter took off from the embassy in Saigon.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee