TIME Essay: How Should Americans Feel?

"It is now almost universally conceded that the American intervention in Viet Nam was a mistake—a mistake that involved four Presidents, many of the nation's top statesmen. Once they had followed the French into the wrong war for the wrong reasons, they failed to heed the evidence that—short of the notorious suggestion to bomb the country back into the Stone Age—the Viet Nam War could never be "won" in the traditional sense. At fault perhaps was an American inability to accept defeat, or a hypnotic preoccupation with the models of previous, simpler wars. There was no precedent to quote, no guidebook to lead the way out. This dilemma produced not only tragedy for the Vietnamese but a series of mistakes, half-truths, lies and euphemisms that damaged the fabric of American society. Leaders first deceived themselves and then deceived the public. The American people, misled from the top and from the sides, underwrote an opaque conflict that neither generals nor Presidents quite comprehended. The tragedy was only heightened by the fact that the U.S. entered the war not for any base reasons, but out of an understandable desire—although many saw the conflict as merely a civil war—to thwart Communist aggression. Even Senator J. William Fulbright, long a foe of the American involvement in Viet Nam, concedes that the war was not fought 'because of any bad motives or evil purposes, but because some of our leaders didn't understand the situation.' "

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