Friday, November 17, 2006
Thirty-one years after the US army left Saigon, President Bush flies in for a visit dogged by the unlearned lessons of history
Friday November 17, 2006
"On the morning of April 30 1975 a young corporal in the army of North Vietnam drove a tank through the streets of an unfamiliar city wreathed in smoke and resounding with gunfire, and stopped at a set of wrought-iron gates. Corpses lay on the pavement, and in the distance a lone helicopter rose above the US embassy and turned towards the river.T he soldier, Nguyen Van Tap, paused: could the gate be electrified? Then he gunned the engine and crashed into Saigon's Independence Palace. Moments later, Mr Nguyen's lieutenant, Vu Dang Toan, took the surrender of the South Vietnamese regime barricaded inside.
The Vietnam war was over, and the two villagers from north of Hanoi had witnessed what would have once been unthinkable: the humbling of a superpower by a peasant army. In the paint factory on the outskirts of Hanoi where the two men work now, Mr Vu says the significance of the victory was apparent even then. "When a small country like Vietnam is invaded by a big country like America and wins, then all the other countries can learn a lesson - that they can win a war against America," he says.
"They ran like cowards," says Mr Nguyen.
"They simply didn't have the power to fight us," adds Mr Vu. He smiles.
America has never really got over that morning in Saigon. Today, 31 years later, George Bush arrives in Hanoi for a visit steeped in the legacy of an old defeat - and haunted by the prospect of another.
In reality, the most compelling parallel has little to do with either Iraq or Vietnam. It is about the nature of power: America's view of itself in the world, and its execution of foreign policy.
In Vietnam, it was the August 1964 attack on US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, which we now know never happened. In Iraq, it was the imminent danger that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And that is why this war has proven so painful - because the lessons of Vietnam were not absorbed."