Two extraordinary things emerge. The first is that a U.S. president would visit what is, in most ways, still a minor player on the international stage. The second is that 25 years after the fall of the Saigon government, the war is still a scar across the American political psyche — one that cuts across the heart both of the generation now in power and its foreign policy.
Southeast Asia is vastly different from the great geopolitical battleground that it once was. Vietnam and much of the region is largely important only to the region and foreign economic interests operating there. The contrast is sharp: Three decades ago, Southeast Asia was the proving ground of American credibility, both for enemies and allies alike.
Today, post-war Vietnam offers as little as it threatens. Hanoi's influence does not extend far. The government is one of the world's last true communist regimes. Its limited economic reforms have been largely ineffective in opening the economy in any grand way to foreign business. The region once known as Indochina is bounded by a comparatively stable Thailand, a suspicious China and an ocean dominated by the United States.
Nevertheless, the Vietnam experience is still central — certainly in a generational sense but also in the way that America conducts itself abroad. Without a doubt, the specter of defeat is still painful. Veterans of the war rightly claim that they won every battle, but their leaders frequently picked the wrong battles and the North Vietnamese flag was still raised over Saigon.
In Washington's foreign policy, the war created a lingering fear of defeat — that rankles not only civilians but military leaders. The reaction has been the polar opposite, insistence on wiping out that fear, the Vietnam syndrome, as if it is a disease. In one manifestation, there is fear and revulsion at the use of military power. In the other, there is a deep-seated suspicion that the real threat in the world is American power.
Both views come directly from Vietnam and linger today. The current debate over Colombia, for instance, is riddled with accusations that Washington is creating another Vietnam. Whether the Clinton administration's aid package to Colombia will do anything constructive may be up for debate, but the charge is really meant to imply another round of victimization at the hands of American imperialism and militarism.
One of these issues has been dealt with to some degree. From Grenada to Panama to the 1991 Gulf War to the present day, U.S. military operations have been partly designed to forcefully dispel the notions of an ineffective military.
But the political results are less clear, and the questions over motivations have been complex. Was the Grenada invasion necessary? Did the United States go to war to reject an invading force from Kuwait — or to safeguard oil? In recent years different kinds of operations have emerged: those in which the United States stood to benefit — at least directly — not at all. Interventions in Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo have been used to show that power can be wielded selflessly.
The results have been so unimpressive that U.S. foreign policy, to foreigners, seems tortured. And that is because Americans are still tortured by the memory of Vietnam, even if it seems all behind them. America has waged war throughout its history, often fueled by the conceit that its wars, unlike Europe's, were fueled by moral righteousness. And yet in Vietnam, Americans were accused of atrocities — and still defeated by a military largely composed of light infantry. Vietnam is America's Moby Dick.
The irony of the president's trip is clear, given that he like others in his generation avoided the draft and condemned the war. What is not clear is that he will find anything there. If the idea of closure is at the core of the president's mission, there will be little of it in Vietnam. As Gen. Giap understood, Americans did not fight the war in the jungles and highlands but in the United States, for the hearts and minds not of Vietnamese but for those of their own people.
Today, the demons of foreign policy are not to be found in Vietnam. They are right here, at home.