The fall of Saigon twenty years ago today was one of the most painful experiences in the nation's history. Pictures of Marines fighting off would-be escapees and helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy still sear the American conscience. Vietnam was the bad war, the lost war, the war that even today triggers wrenching controversy when an anguished Robert McNamara confesses he knew victory was unattainable while still publicly proclaiming otherwise.
In terms of national introspection, the lessons learned two decades ago are remarkably akin to the common wisdom of the present moment. Big, blustering America, not too far distant from its striking triumphs in World War II, underestimated its adversary and overestimated the strategic importance of Southeast Asia and the cohesion of the Communist "monolith."
That was all too clear on April 30, 1975. What was far less clear was what the future held. Having preached the domino theory relentlessly, the leadership generation of the day had to junk it precipitously lest it prove a self-fulfilling prophesy. Having won their point, young opponents of the war had to get on with the business of growing up. Whether individual citizens had been right or wrong about the war (and millions adjusted their memories to put themselves in the former category), the long, long aftermath was sad and bitter. It still is.
While the most prevalent therapy has been to let time heal, despite the movies and the monuments that suggest otherwise, it may be helpful to take a clear-eyed look at what actually has happened since that calamitous Sun headline: "Saigon surrenders unconditionally."
In terms of international developments, the dominoes that supposedly would fall to the Communist juggernaut have, instead, turned into Asian "tigers" -- rich, entrepreneurial, utterly capitalistic, even cynically thankful the U.S. involvement in Vietnam gave them a decade of respite and plenty of American investment. Meanwhile, unified Communist Vietnam remains an Asian "pussycat" -- poor, backward, inefficient, eager for U.S. aid and recognition. What irony!
Farther afield, the last two decades have also been witness to the collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of the Cold War and the spectacle of an America as supreme militarily, though not economically, as it was when Germany and Japan were defeated half a century ago.
Yet perhaps it is to the credit of this country that defeat is engraved more deeply in the emotions and intellect than is triumph. American braggadocio was been notably absent in Washington's treatment of Moscow. U.S. intervention overseas has been carefully limited and accompanied by overwhelming force. No more quagmires. And the torch of leadership has indeed passed to the generation marked forever by the Vietnam war -- the generation that fought the war, opposed the war and ever since has tried to come to terms with the war.