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Bill Clinton, Historian?

The former president pronounces history's verdict on Vietnam.

11:00 PM, Jan 18, 2006 • By JOEL ENGEL
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A MEMORIAL SERVICE for former senator Eugene J. McCarthy was held last Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington, and former president Bill Clinton was there to eulogize him. This was not surprising: President Clinton will probably be present to eulogize every other boomer icon, whenever photographers are permitted, for as long as his health permits. What was surprising, though, was that Clinton credited the senator, who died last month, for turning the country against the Vietnam War--the operative word being "credited."

"It all started when Gene McCarthy was willing to stand alone and turn the tide of history," said the forty-second president of the United States.

But "to stand alone and turn the tide of history" is the kind of language generally reserved for the likes of Churchill's warnings about Hitler at a time when no one wanted to hear them. Or for Lincoln, risking everything to keep the United States united. Indeed, those could've been the words Clinton used for Rosa Parks, substituting "sit" for "stand" in his eulogy at her funeral. They're used for people whose actions are considered unambiguously good.

As far as I know, there has never been a national referendum in which America as a nation decided that President Kennedy's decision to send military "advisers" to South Vietnam as a bulwark against falling-dominoes communism was an error of historic proportions; that those who fought, and died, did so in vain; that the consequences of our leaving Vietnam without winning--millions slaughtered--were, at worst, morally neutral. That the war, in short, was unredeemable from first to last.

Those appear to have been Clinton's conclusions. After all, he had come to praise the senator, not to bury him. So is this what Senator McCarthy deserves for helping to turn much of the country against the Vietnam War?

Well, I'm acquainted with several Vietnam vets who feel strongly that they served their country well in a noble cause. And I wrote a book with and about a man whose heroic service in Vietnam as a gunship pilot was the proudest time of his life--no matter that he was black in what was then a white man's world.

I think it's unlikely that these veterans believe Senator McCarthy's public opposition to the war served anyone but the North Vietnamese--an opinion, in fact, shared by the North's commander, General Nguyen Vo Giap. Seeing that his forces could not beat the United States militarily, Gen. Giap considered negotiating a truce until the antiwar protests reached critical mass--soon after Senator McCarthy came out publicly against the war. From then, Giap wrote, he realized that he could lose every battle and still win the war. All he had to do was endure.

In Vietnam, the "American War" may be settled history. But in this country the Vietnam War isn't. Not now. Not soon. And when it is, the matter won't be settled by men who, like Clinton and me, could have fought in that war but demonstrated against it instead--and therefore have a vested interest in seeing that turned tide as a flood averted. The truth may be that we started one.

Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.