The Shadow of Vietnam 20 Years Later, A New Book And Old Debates


The date, April 30, 1975, means everything and nothing.

Twenty years ago today, the only war America ever lost was ending officially and ignominiously. The image of U.S. helicopters taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnamese clinging to the landing gear, became an image of defeat.

Recalling that event, the nation's current leaders, its elder statesmen, its Vietnam veterans and their families may choose today to remember what the war meant to the nation and to them personally, as if they could ever for a moment forget.

It is merely a date, though, and for many the least important.

David DeChant is drawn to an earlier time, to the summer of 1966. "Brought up to be a Marine," he was ready to fulfill his destiny. He enlisted out of Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, served not one but two tours -- and still came back feeling guilty. He had survived.

He helped build memorials, one in Washington, one in Maryland, to the more than 58,000 American servicemen and women who were killed, 1,046 of them from Maryland.

One of these, August G. "Todd" Mannion Jr., died Dec. 20, 1966. Todd's mother, Catherine, began to sob as soon as she opened the front door that morning to find a team of uniformed men.

In that same Christmas season of 1966, Philip Berrigan and other priests from St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore knelt to pray in the snow outside the home of then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Earlier that same afternoon, they had visited the home of Dean Rusk, the secretary of state.

"Both of them called later to talk to us at the parish. They wanted to convince us of the legitimacy of the war," Mr. Berrigan said in an interview at his Reservoir Hill home last week. He spent two hours in Mr. Rusk's State Department office.

The protester and the defense secretary missed each other's phone calls. They would became symbols of opposing sides in a debate that led to the pullout observed today.

Other important dates were recorded: On May 28, 1968, Mr. Berrigan and eight others built a fire of draft records in Catonsville. They were a tiny cell of protesters, but famous: the Catonsville Nine. Over the next seven years, after thousands more were killed and wounded, much of the nation joined them.

And now the wall between Mr. Berrigan and Mr. McNamara has fallen away. Mr. Berrigan continues his campaign against war and violence. He was arrested in the lobby of the World Bank this Easter season after pouring blood on the picture of a starving child. Robert McNamara recently published a controversial book apologizing for grave errors in Vietnam.

"He had real moral qualms about the war then," Mr. Berrigan said. "It was common knowledge. He shared his misgivings with the administration and the president [John F. Kennedy]."

The meticulously groomed and bespectacled McNamara, a former head of Ford Motor Co., embodied for critics the impersonality of the war-making machine. Given that, the significance of his silence cannot be overstated, Mr. Berrigan said.

"He should have quit. He might have broken the back of the war effort," he says. Some would argue Vietnam made the U.S. government more accountable, more open and more committed to informing the public; Mr. Berrigan differs.

"Government is determined to go ahead with nuclear weapons development and its war-making."

Mr. McNamara must answer also to Catherine Mannion, whose stoic refusal to criticize the government's Vietnam policy does not extend to forgiving him.

"I think he ought to keep his mouth shut now," she says. "Why didn't he come out when it might have saved a lot of lives? He's opening up the wounds of these 58,000 mothers. Doesn't he have any respect? It's only coming out now to sell his book. Or maybe his conscience caught up with him."

For the 29 years since Todd was killed, Catherine Mannion has been a leader in the American Gold Star Mothers, serving as national president in 1980 and 1981. She still works at Veterans Administration hospitals, something she started doing when Todd was a child. "Little did I dream at that time. . . ."

Again today she will mourn the 20-year-old who set aside his dreams to fight and die in a place called Pleiku, half a world away from his neighborhood in Belair-Edison. He had gone to school at the Shrine of the Little Flower and to Calvert Hall College, where he was a talented baseball player. A catcher and first baseman, he had tryouts with several major-league teams.

"I'm not an overly patriotic boy," he had said, according to his mother, "but I love this country, and if this is what is required of me, I will do it to the best of my ability."

After the initial shock and turmoil of his death, she said, "You have to do something or else. I did the 'something' and the 'else.' "

She does not weary of the interviews or phone calls from reporters and veterans. A business meeting of Gold Star Mothers from Maryland-Delaware chapter was scheduled to be held at her Elmley Avenue house yesterday.

Through her Gold Star work she met David DeChant, working then to establish the memorial to Vietnam veterans in Maryland. He needed the support of her organization.

"I helped to break the ground for both memorials [the one in Washington and the one in Baltimore]. I have the shovel to prove it."

As for Mr. DeChant, she says, "He's my other son."

Now an international marketing official for the state of Maryland, Mr. DeChant has had empty spots of his own to fill. His father, a Marine colonel, chose not to discuss the war with his son, who came back in 1967.

"Prior to my going, he was gung ho: Keep your ass down. You can do it. But when I came back, he wouldn't talk about it at all." A gulf opened between father and son.

"I didn't give it much thought except that he wouldn't talk to me about it. By that time he was very ill."

The Marine Corps would have been the young man's life, except for Vietnam. What he learned there turned him away.

"We were expendable," he says. Mr. DeChant worked it out alone at first and then with his friends, getting the names of his buddies engraved on marble, demanding government services for post-traumatic stress syndrome and for poisoning by Agent Orange, the defoliant used to uncover the enemy and its hiding places, perhaps giving cancer to the "expendables" on the U.S. side.

In search of a useful way to express his feelings, he invented a character: Stitch the Rainbow Clown of Peace. Stitch visited children's hospitals and the like. Behind the mask, David DeChant found a way to shed the tears that would not flow for so long.

In deference to their other objectives, many veterans avoided debating the war.

"I was pro-U.S. policy until the kids at Kent State were killed," he says, referring to the death of four students, killed by National Guardsmen during a demonstration, in 1970. That event, according to the New York Times, "brought home to most of the president's advisers that the national security was endangered by much, much more than the Viet Cong or Communists."

On this point, men such as Philip Berrigan, the pacifist, and David DeChant, the one-time warrior, find common ground in 1995.

"The real and present danger," Mr. DeChant says, "is within." Once again with the bombing in Oklahoma City, he says, the nation must find a way to deal with divisions in ways that do not threaten lives or individual freedoms.

If the American society is to survive, Mr. Berrigan says, it must do a better job of confronting and understanding personal responsibility for the violence that arises from time to time.

Mr. DeChant said: "We have to be careful about making a linkage between those who are using their constitutional right to form a militia with those who crossed the line to do violence outside the democratic system. It's what [President Richard M.] Nixon did in his paranoia when he said those who opposed the war are pro-Communist so let's send the FBI in to look at them."

The answers have always eluded us, says Joe Morton, who supervises a program in peace studies at Goucher College. Hundreds of similar programs, born of the Vietnam turmoil, may now be found on campuses across the nation. While he !c condemns the violence, Mr. Morton believes leaders must have the courage to examine perceived grievances.

"If you look at the range of people who've engaged in that kind of protest, it includes people from every dimension of American life, not just peaceniks. It's farmers, veterans and on and on. They're saying, 'My situation is such that I'm entitled to take this action because the government isn't making me happy.' I see in this history an enormous national schizophrenia between very thoughtful, noble and kind persons and streaks of intense violence."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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