Clinton has always been keen on apologizing, for himself and on behalf of the
nation. He has apologized not only for a sex scandal, but for U.S. support of
repression in Guatemala and for slavery.
might contest the motivation for, or the phrasing of, the apologies — Were they
offered for the right reason? Did they go far enough? — but at least they were
is one act of contrition, however, that Clinton — or any American leader– has
not been able to make.
his way to Hanoi last week, when asked if he thought the United States owed the
people of Vietnam an apology, 25 years after the end of the war, Clinton said,
simply, "No, I don’t."
have offered a personalized explanation: As a man who avoided the draft during
that war, Clinton has to stand tough today. But another possibility deserves
consideration: To apologize for crimes against the people of Vietnam would be to
admit that the stories we tell ourselves about our conduct in the world — then
and now — are a lie.
apologize would be to acknowledge that while we claimed to be defending
democracy, we were derailing democracy. While we claimed to be defending South
Vietnam, we were attacking the people of South Vietnam.
apologize now would be to admit that the rationalizations for post-World War II
U.S. foreign policy have been, and are still today, rhetorical cover for the
power politics of an empire.
standard story in the United States about that war is that in our quest to
guarantee peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics
and culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should
have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought harder.
But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that our motives were noble.
we never fought in Vietnam for democracy. After World War II, the United States
supported and financed France’s attempt to retake its former colony. After the
Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference called for free
elections in 1956, which the United States and its South Vietnamese client
regime blocked. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower explained why: In free
elections, the communists would have won by an overwhelming margin. The United
States is all for elections, so long as they turn out the way we want.
central goal of U.S. policy-makers in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for
the Vietnamese people, but instead was to make sure that an independent
socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders invoked Cold War
rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith but really feared that a
"virus" of independent development might infect the rest of Asia,
perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World.
prevent the spread of the virus, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and
400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of
civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine
killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops
and ground cover — all were part of the U.S. terror war in Vietnam, as well as
Laos and Cambodia.
interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is virtually
unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country, which says much
about the moral quality of polite and respectable people here.
is the truth about our attack on Vietnam so difficult to acknowledge? I think it
is not just about Vietnam, but about a larger truth concerning our role in the
world. We are the empire. Especially in the past half-century, we have supported
repressive regimes around the world so long as they served elite interests. We
have violated international law in countless invasions and interventions. While
talking about the inviolate nature of human rights, we have trampled those
rights and the legitimate aspirations of liberation movements.
many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United States as empire,
an aggression that was condemned around the world and at home, but pursued
nonetheless, as the body count went into the millions. It is the linchpin of our
mythology about ourselves.
his last years on Earth, Martin Luther King Jr. understood this, as he began to
speak out forcefully against the war: "If America’s soul becomes totally
poisoned, part of the autopsy must read `Vietnam,’ " King said in 1967.
he were alive today, I don’t know whether King would give up on the soul of
America and write a final autopsy report. But I am confident he would argue
forcefully that the future is lost so long as we let stand the poisonous
distortions of history.
teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at