If you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ve been watching Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” series on PBS. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you also watched Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations threatening to destroy North Korea.
Wow. We have learned nothing!
During the Vietnam War, as now, America was frighteningly divided. It was a bitter, hateful, destructive period.
Burns’ series, of course, is compelling and beautifully done. It is also extremely painful to watch. The senseless killing and maiming. The merciless bombings. The stupid miscalculations of politicians who didn’t understand the ramifications of what they didn’t understand and their actions in sending thousands of young Americans into incomprehensible horror. The cover-ups to protect egos.
Ask Sen. John McCain, the Republican senator who was imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. There’s a man who understands, who trembles that we haven’t learned Vietnam’s lessons. A patriot whom Trump ridiculed for being captured. Trump, who didn’t serve in Vietnam because of bone spurs. Yeah, his feet hurt.
What was the cost of Vietnam? The loss of 58,000 Americans. The deaths of 3.6 million Vietnamese. An entire generation lost respect for government and civility. And confidence the U.S. would always do the right thing. If you haven’t been to see the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, go.
After Vietnam, the shining city on the hill was, well, heartbreakingly dimmed. As painful as it is to remember, we must.
Many Americans are too young to understand that we also fought in Korea after North Korea invaded the South. We lost 37,000 Americans. Nearly 8,000 are missing. More than 100,000 were wounded. More than 2 million Koreans died as well as 600,000 Chinese soldiers who fought on North Korea’s side. It ended with an armistice; no real end.
Are we going to war again on the Korean peninsula? I don’t think so but I don’t know. Nobody does. Could we be so egregiously wrong again as we were in Vietnam? Yes, I fear we could be.
The origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam went back to Woodrow Wilson. One of those presidents who has a lot to answer for.
Now, in 2017, a new president went before the U.N., a body dedicated to peace and conflict resolution, an organization whose first war was in Korea, and he taunted, like a junior high school bully, the leader of North Korea as “Rocket Man.” Then Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. The country!
Kim Jong Un is, of course, as unsuited to be a leader as Trump is. But you’d think the United States would be a little more adult than North Korea’s mop-topped, self-indulgent despot in this tense situation. Shouldn’t the objective be avoiding more death and destruction?
When Trump urged every nation to serve its own interests first before considering the good of mankind (shades of Germany in the ’30s), the U.N. response was stunned incomprehension and nervous disbelief.
You could see the fear and uncertainty in the eyes of the envoys, trapped between their translating earphones. Seeking stability and a plan for peace from the U.S., they heard incoherence, contradiction and narcissistic arrogance.
Rarely, OK, never in modern history, has the United States been more embarrassed on the world stage because of its president. (Slavery will always be our permanent stain, but inciting an unstable, paranoid nut case to use nukes ranks high on the list of unforgivable, felonious misbehaviors.)
Strangely, Iran pinpointed what may be the most frightening Trump legacy to date. When Trump threatened to walk away from the six-nation agreement that decreed Iran give up its nuclear ambitions, and when he left the worldwide agreement recognizing climate change as a global threat, Trump basically told the world that the United States is not to be trusted to keep its word.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” Trump declared about Kim Jong Un.
You’d think that before threatening the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and possibly even nuclear war, Trump would understand that the million-man North Korean army is as dedicated to its country’s survival and sovereignty as North Vietnam’s was.
U.S. leaders were warned about catastrophe in Vietnam and ignored the warning.
If Trump knew anything about history, he’d be far less flippant about threatening war.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.