Herve Gloaguen via manhhai/Flickr The arrival of North Vietnamese troops in Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Vietnam: The Retrospect: What Are the Lessons of Vietnam?

When the helicopter rose in flight from the roof of the doomed U.S. embassy in Saigon a decade ago, Americans hoped they had finally left Vietnam behind them. For years afterward there was a widespread effort in the United States to put the Indochina experience out of mind. In the late 1970s, Mike Mansfield, the professor of Far Eastern studies who became U.S. Senate majority leader and then ambassador to Japan, told an English radio audience:

It seems to me the American people want to forget Vietnam and not even remember that it happened. But the cost was 55,000 dead, 303,000 wounded, $150 billion. With some of us it will never be forgotten because it was one of the most tragic, if not the most tragic, episodes in American history. It was unnecessary, uncalled for, it wasn’t tied to our security or a vital interest. It was just a misadventure in a part of the world which we should have kept our nose out of.

Today the desire to forget Vietnam seems to have given way to a desire to learn about it—specifically to learn how to avoid getting involved in such disastrous misadventures again. The last decade has witnessed not merely a resurgence of interest in America’s Indochina experience as such but also in the possible parallels that can be drawn to it in Central America, the Middle East and elsewhere. Increasingly one hears appeals to the lessons of Indochina—generally if inaccurately referred to as the lessons of Vietnam—in support of or in opposition to current foreign policy initiatives around the world. Thus, Senator Gary Hart, when he charged in the 1984 presidential primary campaign that former Vice President Mondale misunderstood the crisis in Central America, claimed that "At the heart of the difference is, perhaps, the lesson of Vietnam . . . Mr. Mondale . . . has not learned the lesson of Vietnam." In reply, Mondale said that "Hart has learned the wrong lesson from Vietnam."

There are certain undisputed practical

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