Until Americans elected another president who came of age in the Vietnam War era, it seemed the country had finally run out the clock on the quadrennial political controversies over who did what, and why, during the war.
But as President Trump, 71, visits Vietnam over the weekend, the debate back home over the economic and social inequities behind who served, who got drafted and who got deferments has been rekindled by a confluence of events, including Trump’s own provocations.
The September release of Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary “The Vietnam War,” widely watched, reminded Americans of the deep cultural wounds that the long and costly war inflicted on the citizenry along with the tens of thousands of deaths and injuries half the world away.
Before that, Trump brought attention during his campaign to his own history of draft deferments, joking about them. He mocked the heroism of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot in Vietnam who was shot down, captured and tortured during 5½ years of captivity. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said, adding, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
That conflict with McCain has not receded; McCain hit back just recently. In an interview timed to the release of the Burns series, McCain spoke acidly of affluent Americans who “found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur” to avoid service — a clear swipe at Trump’s five deferments, four for college attendance and a fifth for a bone spur.
Beyond the questions of military service, many hear an echo of other issues from the Vietnam era in Trump’s politics. He has renewed divisive debates over the meaning of patriotism, saluting the flag and respect for Gold Star families. Trump’s criticism of some NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and social injustice recalls criticism of war protesters.
“I don’t sense that we’ve advanced the ball very much on this,” said John Weaver, a longtime political aide to McCain and a Trump critic.
However, the Vietnamese have, it seems. Vietnam experts and former government officials expect Trump to receive one the most enthusiastic receptions of his five-nation Asia tour in Vietnam. That’s been the experience of other visiting presidents ever since Bill Clinton opened relations with the country 22 years ago and found the streets lined with cheering crowds after he landed in the middle of the night.
President George W. Bush also was roundly celebrated. President Obama’s reception in 2016 was said to be rivaled in enthusiasm only by the one he got in Kenya, his father’s country.
Clinton’s normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations was an unlikely accomplishment, given his political history. His bid for the Democratic nomination in 1992 was nearly foiled early on by questions over his involvement in the antiwar movement and his efforts to avoid service in Vietnam.
Clinton was the first baby boomer to be elected president; later candidates of his generation also were dogged by questions about their Vietnam-era records, even those who served.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush faced inquiries about his stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard: whether he got into the unit thanks to his family’s political connections and whether he fulfilled his commitments. In 2004, Bush’s supporters attacked his Democratic rival, John F. Kerry, a Navy veteran who had been decorated for combat in Vietnam, assailing both his service record and his later antiwar protests.
McCain, Republicans’ 2008 nominee, won many veterans’ support for his service, yet a vocal few called him a traitor while some on the left accused him of war crimes; both attacks have been refuted. Obama, who was a child during the Vietnam era, not only escaped scrutiny but also seemed to herald the start of a new, post-Vietnam generation of leaders, making the war a moot question for presidential vetting.
Then came Trump’s unexpected rise. The attention to his deferments included a recording in which Trump joked on Howard Stern’s radio show that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases had been his own “personal Vietnam.” And there was his derision of McCain’s heroism. The wonder, for many, was that Trump survived controversies that would have sunk past candidates.
Two decades ago, those who took part in normalizing relations with Vietnam believed they were closing the chapter, not only on hostility toward the former foe abroad, but also on the divisiveness at home.
“People thought that that would be — and it was in a lot of ways — a seminal moment,” said David Wade, who traveled to Vietnam at the time as an aide to Kerry, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a leader in the reconciliation effort with two other Vietnam veterans, McCain and then-Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
“But,” Wade added, “I still think, ‘Look, this was America’s most divisive war, and to this day we still have not done what the Vietnamese have done, which is end the war over the war.’”
Like others, Wade said that Americans should see Vietnam as a country now, not as a domestic political issue.
Experts on the region do not expect much reflection during Trump’s visit to Da Nang, the port city where U.S. soldiers first landed in 1965, and Hanoi, the capital. Vietnam will be eager to show off its economy and modernity as it hosts the annual conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, comprising 21 Pacific Rim countries.
Vietnam is far more concerned with building its future relationship with the United States, as a counterbalance to China, said Thomas Vallely, director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“President Trump is following in the same footsteps as all recent presidents have as far as seeing Vietnam on a chessboard and having a relationship,” said Vallely, who was an advisor to the U.S. side during normalization and later a consultant on the Burns documentary.
Despite the rekindled controversies, Vallely sees consensus on the larger questions of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Almost everyone now concedes the war was a mistake, he said, adding, “The contours of what happened are somewhat settled, more settled than they have been.”