BILL CLINTON had a chance to advance the cause of freedom and democracy in Vietnam 31 years ago. He dodged it. He had another chance last week. He dodged that one, too.
Why did Clinton go to Vietnam? His trip served no important national interest. It resolved no thorny issues. It achieved no diplomatic breakthrough. What did he expect to accomplish?
Perhaps he imagined that the pomp of a presidential visit would wash away the stain of his dishonorable behavior in 1969, when he ducked the draft by falsely promising to join the University of Arkansas ROTC. Perhaps it was a way of getting in the last word on the subject, of mocking his detractors: You always sneered because I didn't serve in Vietnam. Well, look who's in Vietnam now. Over the years, other Vietnam-era draft-evaders had second thoughts and said so, showing an integrity as adults that they had lacked in their youth. P. J. O'Rourke, for example, opened his 1992 book, Give War a Chance, by acknowledging, in a dedication both funny and contrite, that others paid a price when the draft-dodgers stayed home:
"Like many men of my generation, I had an opportunity to give war a chance, and I promptly chickened out. I went to my draft physical in 1970 with a doctor's letter about my history of drug abuse. The letter was 4-1/2 pages long.... I was shunted into the office of an Army psychiatrist who, at the end of a 45-minute interview with me, was pounding his desk and shouting, 'You're f----d up! You don't belong in the Army!' ... Anyway, I didn't have to go. But that, of course, meant someone else had to go in my place. I would like to dedicate this book to him.
"I hope you got back in one piece, fellow. I hope you were more use to your platoon mates than I would have been. I hope you're rich and happy now. And in 1971, when somebody punched me in the face for being a long-haired peace creep, I hope that was you."
Bill Clinton would never express such a sentiment. I'm not even sure he could think it. He stood last week in Tien Chau, a village 17 miles northwest of Hanoi, and watched as workers searched for signs of Lt. Col. Lawrence Evert, a US pilot shot down in 1967 and never seen again. Did it cross Clinton's mind that Evert, or someone like him, might have been the guy sent in his place? Has it ever crossed his mind that a man may have died in Vietnam -- or been wounded or imprisoned there -- because he stayed home?
Clinton could have seized the moment in Tien Chau to speak a few words of self-reproach for acting so selfishly in 1969 -- and for denying it for so long. ("All I've been asked about by the press," he fumed in February 1992, "are a woman I didn't sleep with and a draft I didn't dodge.") That would have been an act of remarkable grace and stature. It would have earned him genuine respect from Americans in uniform. It would have stunned his critics.
He didn't do it, of course. Because he still doesn't believe he was wrong. Even after eight years as commander-in-chief of America's armed forces, he doesn't think there was anything admirable about the US attempt to block a totalitarian conquest of South Vietnam. Or at least he doesn't think it any more admirable than the communists' attempt to carry out that conquest. Listen to the answer he gave when he was asked whether his views had changed since 1969:
"When we look back on it, the most important thing is that a lot of brave people fought and died in the North Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese Army and the United States Army.... And the best thing we can do to honor the sacrifice and service of those who believed on both sides that what they were doing was right, is to find a way to build a different future, and that's what we're trying to do." (My italics)
It is frankly staggering that an American president would draw a moral equivalence between the troops who fought to plunge Vietnam into a Leninist nightmare of tyranny, torture, and "re-education" camps, and the troops who fought to stop them. It is outrageous that he would pronounce them equally deserving of our honor. No doubt Hanoi's army and the Viet Cong did believe "that what they were doing was right." But what they were doing was strangling freedom and extinguishing all hope of democracy in Vietnam. And killing 58,220 Americans in the process.
Clinton had a chance to redeem himself on Nov. 17, when he spoke at Hanoi National University. There, before the sons and daughters of Vietnam's communist elite, he could have done what President Reagan did at Moscow State University in 1988: He could have delivered a ringing defense of political and economic liberty. He didn't. He told them -- in a few sentences more than halfway through his speech -- that freedom and competition were good. And then he took it back.
"Now let me say emphatically," he assured his audience, "we do not seek to impose these ideals," he said. "Vietnam is an ancient and enduring country.... Only you can decide how to weave individual liberties and human rights into the rich and strong fabric of Vietnamese national identity." The message was unmistakable -- and disgraceful: We like freedom, but it's okay if you don't.
There was no good reason for Clinton to be in Vietnam. But having decided to go, it was his duty to speak up for liberty and democracy. His timidity was a betrayal of Vietnam's people. It wasn't the first time he let them
Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.