The University Record, April 17, 2000

Vietnam experience continues to shape public’s views of military conflicts

Editor’s Note: Additional coverage of “After the Fall: Vietnam Plus Twenty-Five” is available by clicking here.


By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

During the panel discussion on ‘Politics and the Media,’ journalist Bernard Kalb (far left) asked former President Gerald R. Ford (second from left) to assess the objectivity of the media coverage of the Vietnam War. Other panelists were former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (to Ford’s left), White House correspondent and author Lou Cannon, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Photo by Bob Kalmbach
The legacy of the Vietnam War “is as profound as that of World War II,” former President Gerald R. Ford told an audience of more than 300 who had gathered to hear politicians, policy-makers, journalists and historians talk about the war and the sway it has held on the American psyche. The conference coincided with the release of more than 35,000 pages of newly declassified documentation relating to the war.

“We can only understand ourselves by understanding the Vietnam War,” said President Lee C. Bollinger, as he welcomed participants to the April 7 conference, “After the Fall: Vietnam Plus Twenty-Five.” The day-long event was sponsored by the Gerald R. Ford Foundation in conjunction with the Ford Library and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Bollinger and other speakers paid tribute to Ford, citing his courage, decency, political skills and role in healing the nation following the resignation of former President Richard M. Nixon. Ford, who earned a B.A. from the U-M in 1935, was president when U.S. troops evacuated Vietnam on April 29, 1975. He also established the Vietnam Clemency Board.

The newly released records, housed at the Ford Library on North Campus, “contain a rich vein of information for future scholars of the United States. History is best served by the widest and earliest access to official documentation,” the nation’s 38th president said.

He invited the audience to visit the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids to see the original 18-step stairway that led to the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, the only way out of the city for South Vietnamese and U.S. personnel who were rescued by helicopter in the final days before the capital was captured by the Communists.

“I pray no American president is ever again faced with this grave option,” said Ford, who added, “I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue. I still mourn the 2,500 American soldiers and seamen who remain unaccounted for.” But he said that he was thankful the United States was able to relocate 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, and that “to do less would have added moral shame to humiliation.”

Among the panelists participating in the conference was former U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whom Ford described as a “true hero.” The cordial relationship between McCarthy, a Democrat and vocal critic of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and Ford symbolizes bipartisan friendships that once were more common in the United States, noted Douglas Brinkley, director of the Eisenhower Center, who moderated two morning panel discussions.

Lessons from Vietnam

In one of those sessions, “America and the World,” former presidential advisers cited lessons to be learned from Vietnam.

“We learned it is important to know precisely the objective,” explained Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council adviser to Ford and former President George Bush, “so when the objective is achieved, we can withdraw.” The United States “slid into Vietnam” incrementally, Scowcroft said, without assessing the costs.

Richard Haass, an assistant to Bush for national security affairs and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some lessons from Vietnam were used in the Gulf War. For example, instead of gradually escalating the conflict, the U.S. military delivered its strongest punch the first day of the war. Civilians also took a back seat, Haass added, allowing the military to plan and execute the battle while political leaders worked to build domestic and international support for the war against Iraq.

John Marsh, presidential adviser and secretary of the Army in the Reagan administration, agreed with Haass that a lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that “you had better take the American people to war with you,” referring to the need to maintain public and congressional support for military action.

Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state in the Bush administration, said Vietnam raised a more fundamental question: How and when should the United States become involved militarily? In Vietnam, Eagleburger said, “We didn’t have the vaguest understanding of the region in which we were sliding. We got ourselves in a terrible mess because we hadn’t thought about why we should be there. We made the same mistake in Somalia.” He cited the former Yugoslavia as another example of the United States becoming involved without an adequate understanding of the situation.

The United States must decide on what basis it will intervene in international conflicts—values or national interest, Scowcroft said.

The Presidency

In the second morning discussion, “The Presidency,” panelists talked about Ford’s role in healing the nation following Nixon’s 1974 resignation.

“President Ford brought an openness, a willingness to engage the American people, a desire to heal that was not present before,” recalled Roger Porter, former economic adviser to Ford, Reagan and Bush, and professor of business and government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Both Porter and Lou Cannon, Reagan biographer and prize-winning reporter for the Washington Post, talked about the tone of decency and civility that Ford set in the White House. Ford was “extraordinarily professional,” Cannon recalled, and treated reporters the same whether they wrote an article that was complimentary or critical.

Panelists also talked about the role of bipartisanship and trust in government. Robert Dallek, biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, said Ford and his Congressional colleagues could work across party lines because they trusted one another.

Passing the baton of leadership

In the conference’s closing remarks, David Gergen, an adviser to Nixon, Ford, Reagan and President Bill Clinton, noted that three times in the past century the baton of leadership passed from one generation to the next.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was inaugurated in 1933, was one of an illustrious group of leaders born between 1880 and 1890, including Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gergen said. For these men, who were part of what he dubbed the “missionary generation,” words such as duty, honor and country had meaning. They held common values and were considered the finest generation of leaders since Abraham Lincoln, Gergen said.

In 1961, the torch was passed to a new generation of Americans with the inauguration of Kennedy. The next seven presidents, from Kennedy to Bush, were born between 1908 and 1924. Gergen called this group the “civic generation,” and said its representatives, who grew up with a similar set of experiences, shared enormous pride and optimism.

In 1993, when Clinton was inaugurated, the baton was passed to yet another generation, born between 1940 and 1950 and raised in the shadow of the Cold War. The nation’s top elected officials, including more than 40 percent of all of the House and Senate members, were born during that decade, Gergen said. These leaders grew up in the suburbs, came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and have a more positive view of Blacks, women and the environment. They also grew up when the nation was undergoing a revolution in values and splitting asunder over Vietnam. They rarely struggled when they were young and never fought a common enemy, he said.

Better educated than their predecessors, they work hard and care about their country and family. However, Gergen said, they do not share core values and do not believe the United States is destined to be a beacon of hope. They also have trouble trusting one another, he added.

Gergen hopes the current generation of leaders will grow in wisdom and that some new leaders may yet appear on the national stage. In the meantime, he said, our nation needs to redouble efforts to help the next generation prepare for positive leadership by telling it stories about leaders who grew up during World Wars I and II.