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Trump to visit Vietnam after helping to reopen old war wounds at home

Noah Bierman, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

DA NANG, Vietnam -- Until Americans elected another president who came of age in the Vietnam War era, it seemed the country had finally run out the clock on the quadrennial political controversies over who did what, and why, during the conflict.

But as President Donald Trump, 71, visits Vietnam over the weekend, the debate back home over the economic and social inequities behind who served, who got drafted and who got deferments has been rekindled by a confluence of events, including Trump's own provocations.

The September release of Ken Burns' 10-part PBS documentary "The Vietnam War," widely watched, reminded Americans of the deep cultural wounds that the long and costly war inflicted on the citizenry along with the tens of thousands of deaths and injuries half the world away.

Before that, Trump brought attention during his campaign to his own history of draft deferments, joking about them. He mocked the heroism of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot in Vietnam who was shot down, captured and tortured during 5 1/2 years of captivity. "He's not a war hero," Trump said, adding, "I like people who weren't captured."

That conflict with McCain has not receded; McCain hit back just recently. In an interview timed to the release of the Burns series, McCain spoke acidly of affluent Americans who "found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur" to avoid service -- a clear swipe at Trump's five deferments, four for college attendance and a fifth for a bone spur.

Beyond the questions of military service, many hear an echo of other flashpoints from the Vietnam era in Trump's politics. He has renewed divisive debates over the meaning of patriotism, saluting the flag and respect for Gold Star families. Trump's criticism of some National Football League players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest what they see as police brutality recalls criticism of war protesters.


"I don't sense that we've advanced the ball very much on this," said John Weaver, a longtime political aide to McCain and a Trump critic.

However, the Vietnamese have, it seems. Vietnam experts and former government officials expect Trump to receive one the most enthusiastic receptions of his five-nation Asia tour in Vietnam. That's been the experience of other visiting presidents ever since Bill Clinton opened relations with the country 22 years ago and found the streets lined with cheering crowds after he landed in the middle of the night.

President George W. Bush also was roundly celebrated. President Barack Obama's reception in 2016 was said to be rivaled in enthusiasm only by the one he got in Kenya, his father's country.

Clinton's normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations was an unlikely accomplishment, given his political history. His bid for the Democratic nomination in 1992 was nearly foiled early on by questions over his involvement in the anti-war movement and his efforts to avoid service in Vietnam.


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