I was amazed during my recent trip to Vietnam to see how the Vietnamese people have moved beyond the war and are committed to seeking reconciliation with Americans. Despite the horrific pain and hardship their country suffered at our hands, the people we met — government officials, military veterans, teachers, students — expressed no ill feelings toward Americans and were eager to build a relationship of friendship and cooperation.
This spirit of peace was especially evident during the ceremonies at My Lai marking the 50th anniversary of the massacre. Officials at the commemoration event offered condolences to the victims and their families, but they focused on the goal of achieving reconciliation and peace. We remember the pain of the past, they said, but we strive to heal the wounds of war and build peace with the United States and the entire world.
A few days later our Veterans For Peace group cosponsored a dialogue session with Vietnamese military veterans at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Our Vietnamese counterparts gave heart-rending accounts of the wounds and tortures they suffered in the war and the loss of brothers, fathers and entire families. Yet they also spoke passionately of their desire for peace and reconciliation between our two peoples. The combat veterans among our group spoke of the pain and killing they witnessed and sometimes caused, and also of their opposition to the war. Several expressed sorrow for what our country did and asked for forgiveness.
Diplomatic and economic relations between Vietnam and the United States have improved in recent decades. American businesses are popping up everywhere in Vietnam, and diplomatic relations are starting to normalize. Each side benefits from increased trade and investment, and both share an interest in balancing the rising power of China.
This growing amity between former enemies was on display in mid-March when the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson made a port call at Da Nang and sailors from the ship came ashore to make goodwill visits in centers for disabled children, including one run by the Da Nang Association of Victims of Agent Orange.
The improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations is welcome, but genuine reconciliation is much more than a relationship of commercial or political convenience. Reconciliation is the building of new relationships based on apology, forgiveness and trust. It requires an honest recognition of painful truths, a willingness to take responsibility and make amends for the damage done. It also means adjusting behavior to avoid repetition in the future.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the challenges of reconciliation in his famous sermon, “Loving Our Enemies.” At the core of the biblical command to love all, he said, is the obligation to forgive those who have harmed us. We forgive because it is necessary to overcome hatred. But forgiving does not mean forgetting. We remember the pain and suffering that has been done, but we do not let that recognition stand in the way of forging a new relationship. We face the truth of the past in order to build a better future.
The United States has taken initial steps to heal some of the wounds of the past. We have assisted the Vietnamese in locating unexploded ordnance and are working to clean up Agent Orange toxic hot spots. Much more is necessary, however, especially to take responsibility for the Vietnamese victims of our chemical poisoning. Over the years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has started to recognize and provide compensation to growing numbers of affected American military veterans and their families. Some form of acknowledgment and restitution is also due for the much larger number of military and civilian victims in Vietnam. This would be difficult for American political leaders to accept, but it would go a long way toward healing and deeper reconciliation.
Even more difficult for Americans leaders to accept is the fundamental injustice of the war. Robert McNamara admitted in his book, In Retrospective, that he and other war planners “were wrong, terribly wrong,” but he did not apologize or admit the immorality of assaulting an impoverished peasant nation that did nothing to harm the United States, whose only crime was to seek liberation from foreign domination. More than 58,000 Americans died in that futile struggle, and the death toll among Vietnamese was more than 2 million, according to McNamara’s estimates.
The United States has shown no sign of acknowledging the enormity of the disaster we caused in Vietnam, or of abandoning the policies of military interventionism that led us to that grim fate. Our government still claims the right to conduct military operations and drop bombs in other nations solely on our own authority, without regard for the United Nations or international law.
Until we as a nation turn away from our continuing addiction to war, the search for reconciliation will remain unfulfilled.
David Cortright teaches peace studies and nonviolent social change at the University of Notre Dame and is the director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.