The Vietnam War and the Guilt of Our Political Leaders

It was refreshing to see President Obama use his Memorial Day speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to talk honestly about the “national shame” that was the treatment of the veterans of that tragic war.

“You were often blamed for a war you didn’t start, when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor,” Obama told the crowd at the memorial on the National Mall. “You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again.”

As I work on the upcoming revised edition of my 2001 political history of the Vietnam War, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam, I recall an op-ed I published in the New York Times in April 2001, shortly after former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey acknowledged his involvement in the massacre of Vietnamese women and children in February 1969.

My point then would be the same today: We devoted a disproportionate amount of time in the 1960s and 1970s to discussing the misconduct of individual soldiers in Vietnam. We devoted very little time to examining the guilt of our political leaders who led the country into that deadly misadventure.

The title of my book sums up what I concluded about the war at the end of my research — it was a grand delusion (a title that could easily apply to the Iraq War).

The deceitful actions of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (aided and abetted by a feckless Congress) led to the deaths of not just 58,000 American soldiers, but also millions more civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

As the shameful events at Abu Ghraib demonstrate, our soldiers’ conduct in a war zone can have awful consequences and sometimes do lasting harm to our nation’s military policy. But, alas, it’s usually the soldiers who are punished for those crimes, not the presidents, and senators and generals who often devise or condone the misguided policies that sometimes result in the deaths of thousands — or millions.

Here’s what I wrote then. I stand by these words today.

New York Times

April 30, 2001

The Guilt of Political Leaders
By Robert Mann
Baton Rouge, La. — Former Senator Bob Kerrey’s admission of his involvement in the killing of Vietnamese women and children in February 1969 is a sobering reminder of the horrible carnage of war. That someone like Mr. Kerrey could commit these acts only serves to demonstrate the madness that manifests itself in all wars but that particularly characterized the latter years of the tragic American experience in Vietnam.

Mr. Kerrey’s disclosure is disturbing, and he should be commended for finally acknowledging the truth. Yet I fear this episode might cause us to spend too much time examining the misconduct and crimes of individual soldiers while ignoring the unconstitutional acts committed by our leaders in Washington in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Click here to read the rest of this op-ed on the New York Times website.

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