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What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?

What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam In February 1987, Bill McCloud, a junior-high-school teacher in Pryor, Oklahoma, decided that the time had come to teach students about Vietnam. McCloud, a veteran of the war, found few teaching aids, so he wrote to a variety of people connected with the conflict--cabinet officers, generals, pilots, and protestors--asking what they thought was most important to teach about the war. More than 120 people wrote back, including George Bush, Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, and even the notoriously uncommunicative Robert McNamara. Now, with this slim volume, we, like Oklahoma's students, have the benefit of their collective wisdom.

Alas, What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? contains few revelations. Vietnam was so complex that even 800-page tomes have not been able to do it justice. Most of the letters in this volume come to no more than a few paragraphs and some only a few sentences. The book consequently reads like a collection of soundbites, or the history of Vietnam according to USA Today. Cliches abound. "Many precious American lives were lost," declares Jimmy Carter. "War is a terrible thing," announces Shelby Stanton, a Vietnam vet and military historian. Harry McPherson, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, rues our "lack of a clear objective."

The collection is useful in one respect: It points to an emerging consensus about the war's key lessons. Cited most frequently is the notion that the United States should never again enter a war unless it's fully backed by Congress and the American people. This is endorsed by such hardliners as Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Ziegler, and John McCain. George Bush admits that the United States "misjudged" China's intentions, wrongly assuming that it was seeking to use the war to expand its influence throughout Southeast Asia. This amounts to a repudiation of the domino theory. Melvin Laird, Nixon's first secretary of defense, remarks that, had the nation heeded President Eisenhower's advice in 1955 not to become involved in a land conflict in Southeast Asia, "there would have been no Vietnam." Allen Ginsberg notes that the government was unable to understand what was going on in Vietnam because Joseph McCarthy had "knocked anyone who could speak Chinese out of the State department."

What is most exasperating about these letters is that both hawks and doves fail to take on the really challending arguments confronting them. Liberals, while dwelling on the disastrous effects of our involvement in Indochina, pay little attention to the evil that ensued. The reeducation camps, the boat people, the extermination policies of the Khmer Rouge--all of this should trouble those who profess a concern for peace and human rights. It's quite plausible, of course, to argue that America could have done little about these horrors, but most of the doves represented in this book seem not een to care.

Similarly, conservatives, while moaning incessantly about our failure to take the war to Hanoi, never bother to examine the full implications of that position. "The only reason for entering a war is to overthrow a government that is doing something we cannot accept," writes Thomas H. Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Consequently, the primary objective should have been to overthrow Ho Chi Minh." Yeah, and then what? What puppet regime would we have installed to replace him? How long would we have had to occupy the country? What would we have done about the millions of heavily armed North vietnamese roaming the countryside? The hawks never bother to pose such questions. No doubt because they have no answers.

What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam? William McCloud. University of Oklahoma Press, $17.95.
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Author:Massing, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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