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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

Clinton was the first baby boomer to be elected president; later candidates of his generation also were dogged by questions about their Vietnam-era records, even those who served.

In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush faced inquiries about his stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard: whether he got into the unit thanks to his family's political connections and whether he fulfilled his commitments. In 2004, Bush's supporters attacked his Democratic rival, John F. Kerry, a Navy veteran who had been decorated for combat in Vietnam, assailing both his service record and his later anti-war protests.

McCain, Republicans' 2008 nominee, won many veterans' support for his service, yet a vocal few called him a traitor while some on the left accused him of war crimes; both attacks have been refuted. Obama, who was a child during the Vietnam era, not only escaped scrutiny but also seemed to herald the start of a new, post-Vietnam generation of leaders, making the war a moot question for presidential vetting.

Then came Trump's unexpected rise. The attention to his deferments included a recording in which Trump joked on Howard Stern's radio show that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases had been his own "personal Vietnam." And there was his derision of McCain's heroism. The wonder, for many, was that Trump survived controversies that would have sunk past candidates.

Two decades ago, those who took part in normalizing relations with Vietnam believed they were closing the chapter, not only on hostility toward the former foe abroad, but also on the divisiveness at home.

"People thought that that would be -- and it was in a lot of ways -- a seminal moment," said David Wade, who traveled to Vietnam at the time as an aide to Kerry, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and a leader in the reconciliation effort with two other Vietnam veterans: McCain and former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

"But," Wade added, "I still think, 'Look, this was America's most divisive war and to this day we still have not done what the Vietnamese have done, which is end the war over the war.'"

Like others, Wade said that Americans should see Vietnam as a country now, not as a domestic political issue.

Experts on the region do not expect much reflection during Trump's visit to Da Nang, the port city where U.S. soldiers first landed in 1965, and Hanoi, the capital. Vietnam will be eager to show off its economy and modernity as it hosts the annual conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group, comprising 21 Pacific Rim countries.

Vietnam is far more concerned with building its future relationship with the United States, as a counterbalance to China, said Thomas Vallely, director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

"President Trump is following in the same footsteps as all recent presidents have as far as seeing Vietnam on a chessboard and having a relationship," said Vallely, who was an adviser to the American side during normalization and later a consultant on the Burns documentary.

Despite the rekindled controversies, Vallely sees consensus on the larger questions of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Almost everyone now concedes the war was a mistake, he said, adding, "The contours of what happened are somewhat settled, more settled than they have been."

And the issue has lost its political potency with time, Vallely said. He noted that Trump, though widely condemned for attacking McCain's service while avoiding any himself, won the election.

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