Amer­ica’s faith in govern­ment died in Viet­nam

National Post (Latest Edition) - - LETTERS - robert.ful­ Robert Ful­ford

“Never again would Amer­i­cans fully trust their lead­ers.” Mark Bow­den, the his­to­rian, makes that chill­ing pre­dic­tion in the pre­lude to his re­cent book, Hue 1968: A Turn­ing Point of the Amer­i­can War in Viet­nam. The hor­ren­dous 24- day bat­tle of Hue was part of the Tet Of­fen­sive, in which the North Viet­namese and the Viet Cong mounted sur­prise at­tacks on cities and un­pre­pared U. S. mil­i­tary bases across the south of the coun­try.

The at­tack­ers lost many sol­diers but the Amer­i­cans lost their rep­u­ta­tion. Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son and his ad­min­is­tra­tion had been in­sist­ing, month af­ter month, that the U. S. was head­ing to­ward vic­tory. They claimed to be see­ing “light at the end of the tun­nel.” But that fic­tion couldn’t be sus­tained when TV news showed Amer­i­can bases be­ing dev­as­tated.

In March, a month later, John­son ad­mit­ted per­sonal de­feat by an­nounc­ing he would not run for re-elec­tion the fol­low­ing au­tumn. Gen. Wil­liam West­more­land, the U. S. mil­i­tary com­man­der, was soon re­lieved of his post. It was ob­vi­ous that the Viet­nam War was lost. De­bate about win­ning was si­lenced; ev­ery­one be­gan talk­ing about how soon the U.S. could ex­tri­cate it­self from this dis­as­ter of a war. But the new pres­i­dent, Richard Nixon, hung on so long that it took seven more shame­ful years be­fore it was fin­ished.

When the Amer­i­can troops came home they dis­cov­ered that civil­ians were no longer in­ter­ested in them, even if their brav­ery had been re­warded with medals. The truth about Viet­nam was not some­thing peo­ple wanted to dwell on. Still, towns across the coun­try set up memo­ri­als to lo­cal sol­diers who did not re­turn. Some tried to avoid us­ing the word “war.” One that I saw in New Eng­land had a chis­elled sign, “Ca­su­al­ties in the Viet­nam Ex­pe­ri­ence.” Af­ter Nixon, seven pres­i­dents in a row man­aged to avoid re­fer­ring to this ti­tanic mis­take.

But Viet­nam is a night­mare that Amer­ica can’t ban­ish for­ever. It has re­cently erupted on tele­vi­sion and movie screens, as well as in Bow­den’s no­table book. It’s re­viv­ing in de­tail the pas­sion­ate anger of many Amer­i­cans who found them­selves fight­ing a war they couldn’t win and couldn’t jus­tify.

The re­cent 10-part, 18-hour TV se­ries about Viet­nam on PBS shows the Viet­nam War to have been a vain and hope­less strug­gle from the start, fought with­out com­pe­tence or hon­esty. This doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­tion was not a mar­ginal en­ter­prise. It was di­rected by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick with the sup­port of an ar­ray of Es­tab­lish­ment- level donors, in­clud­ing the Bank of Amer­ica, David H. Koch and the Mel­lon, Ford and Rock­e­feller foun­da­tions.

The Post, the pow­er­ful new movie by Steven Spiel­berg, de­liv­ers an equally pen­e­trat­ing ac­count of govern­ment de­ceit. It deals with The Wash­ing­ton Post’s in­ter­nal strug­gle by its ed­i­tor, Ben Bradlee ( Tom Hanks) and the pa­per’s pres­i­dent, Kay Gra­ham (Meryl Streep), over re­port­ing the se­cret, 14- vol­ume Pen­tagon Pa­pers. One of the au­thors of that in­crim­i­nat­ing study, Daniel Ells­berg (Matthew Rhys), de­liv­ered a cru­cial part of the Pa­pers to The New York Times, which had put it on the front page. The Wash­ing­ton Post then ac­quired much of the rest.

The Post leaves no doubt at all that the govern­ment again and again con­sciously lied to the pub­lic about progress (or lack of it) in Viet­nam. The most se­ri­ously blamed char­ac­ter in the Post is Robert McNa­mara (Bruce Green­wood), a for­mer Ford Mo­tor Com­pany pres­i­dent with a bril­liant rep­u­ta­tion, cho­sen by John Kennedy as his de­fence sec­re­tary in 1961 — a much ad­mired ap­point­ment at the time.

It was McNa­mara who as­signed a mas­sive study of the U. S. in Viet­nam, in­tend­ing it for use by fu­ture his­to­ri­ans. And it was McNa­mara, the study said, who knew many years be­fore the end that the U. S. couldn’t win in Viet­nam yet al­lowed the killing of Amer­i­cans and Viet­namese to go on.

All that be­came known in 1971 through the Times, the Post and many other out­lets. Could it be that these reve­la­tions per­suaded mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to lose faith per­ma­nently in their govern­ment? Most of the young peo­ple who ri­oted in the streets in the 1960s were mid­dle- aged in the elec­tion of 2016. Could it be that they voted for Don­ald Trump, who saw Wash­ing­ton as a nox­ious swamp, be­cause they re­mem­bered be­ing lied to so of­ten in the Viet­nam era?

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