Even if not as deeply grooved in the national memory, April 30, 1975, the day of the final evacuation of the United States from Vietnam, is surely a date that lives in infamy at least as much as Franklin Roosevelt’s impassioned description of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. December 7 was only the date of an attack, one that was repulsed and repaid many times over during the next four years, ending in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Similarly, September 11, 2001, saw an attack that has resulted in two American wars against Muslim countries, uncountable deaths, and an infernal creation of chaos in the Middle East.
April 30, 1975, was different. That was when the United States learned, for the first time in our two centuries of existence, what defeat tastes like. It is without doubt a regurgitative taste, yet it is a taste that was and is experienced differently depending on who you are. Perspective is all. But it is a taste that, unlike wine, has not only not improved but has become more rancid, even bitter, with age. It is clearer every year that 4/30/75 is foundational in a way that attack dates such as 12/7/41 and 9/11/01 are not. Defeat in Vietnam had very little effect on our international status, yet it changed the way we feel about ourselves.
For liberals, the war in Vietnam was a mistake; for radicals, it was a crime; for conservatives, the war was a mistake not to win; for those on the hard right, it was a crime not to win. These tastes became attitudes, and the attitudes hardened into clenched fists that have never opened.
Defeat had its uses in provoking a re-examination of war as an instrument of policy, a re-examination that could not have occurred following victory in World War II. After 4/30/75, we saw the limits of power, the failure of intervention, the strategic uselessness—not to mention barbaric cruelty—of invading and occupying and bombing a country most of whose people didn’t want us there. Vietnam, specifically our loss there, kept us out of major foreign interventions for a generation.
Nine-eleven was a hammer blow to our national head. Like many blows to the head, it caused a concussion, followed by amnesia. The result was that we went to war against two countries that had neither attacked us nor had designs on us or our resources. The war in Afghanistan has now surpassed the Vietnam War as the longest in our history. As for Iraq, we flew into war there, as we had in Vietnam, on the wings of lies.
You can draw a line from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, when President Johnson lied the country into escalating the Vietnam War, to the Senate’s 2002 warmaking permission to President Bush, inspired by his lie about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. This lie, accompanied by others, led to the war in Iraq, a war currently looking as if it will never end. The war is fed, nourished, extended, renewed annually by ever larger Pentagon budgets. And by lies, deceptions, and hidden ball tricks that involve illegal renditions and bribes to foreign countries.
When I covered the war in Iraq for The Nation in 2003, one could almost hear a sigh across the Mesopotamian desert from the ghost of the philosopher George Santayana: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.