Some who heard President Barack Obama speak on Memorial Day about the men and women who served in Vietnam will say the performance was political, a rhetorical tour de force crafted to score political points. Those cynics are wrong. Rather, it was a heart-felt effort designed to right past wrongs. In that sense, it was an endeavor that should help heal divisions that have long roiled U.S. society.
Speaking with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a backdrop, the president reminded veterans of that war and the nation as a whole that those who fought in Southeast Asia often were treated as pariahs. "You were blamed for a war you didn't start when you should have been commended for serving your country with valor," he said. "You were sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of a few, when the honorable service of the many should have been praised."
"It was a national shame," he added, "a disgrace that should have never happened. And that's why here today we resolve that it will not happen again."
Then he offered words that many of the Vietnam veterans -- some of whom were jeered publicly on their return from combat -- had yearned to hear. "Welcome home," he said. "Welcome home. Welcome home. Welcome home. Thank you. We appreciate you. Welcome home."
The president, who earlier had placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, traveled to the Vietnam memorial to officially mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, and to start a 13-year project marking U.S. involvement there. The multiphase commemoration is more than a showpiece.
It involves variety of commemorations and celebrations as well as forums, seminars and the gathering of oral histories. Diehard Obama opponents might claim otherwise, but the project is hardly a partisan initiative designed to drum up political support among veterans -- who as a group have favored Republican candidates and policies in recent years -- for the president's 2012 campaign. The project was approved by Congress without the usual partisan bickering, and it will be carried out by the Department of Defense.
The president's overriding theme Monday was that the nation should not lightly send men and women to war. And that once troops are engaged in combat, the nation should support them regardless of political belief.
"Let's resolve," the president said, "that in our democracy we can debate and disagree, even in time of war. But never let us use patriotism as a political sword. Patriots can support a war. Patriots can oppose a war. And whatever our view, let us always stand united in support of our troops that we placed in harm's way. That is our solemn obligation."
It is an obligation all Americans should honor. Vietnam taught this country many lessons. Perhaps the most important is the one the president cited on Memorial Day: The politics of war should never erode support for the troops summoned by the nation's leaders to wage it.