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Remarks at the Conference "After the Fall: Vietnam Plus 25"

Remarks by Gerald R. Ford
Ann Arbor, Miichigan
April 7, 2000

Thank you very much, Richard. Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to you and everyone responsible for organizing today's program. In many ways it is a harbinger of what the Ford Library and the University can achieve together. For sharing this vision, and for placing my name on the School of Public Policy, I am deeply grateful to President Lee Bollinger and the University's Trustees.

A university, of course, is a somewhat paradoxical institution. Here the wisdom of the ages co-exists with the latest scientific and technological innovations. Here, too, we are reminded of the essential truth of liberal education - that so long as books are kept open, then minds can never be closed. Twenty-five years after the end of American military involvement in Indochina, there is no end to the books being written about this country's longest war. Indeed, the Ford Library proposes to spur the process along ... for today, it is releasing nearly 25,000 pages of newly declassified material, covering everything from the Paris peace talks to the tumultuous final hours inside our Saigon Embassy.

These records, made available under the terms of President Clinton's Executive Order speeding up the declassification process, contain rich veins of information for future scholars to mine. A special word of thanks to those at the State Department and the CIA who have helped expedite their release - consistent with my personal view that history is best served by providing the widest, earliest possible access to official documentation.

A year ago this week I stood in the lobby of the Museum in Grand Rapids that bears my name for a bittersweet ceremony involving hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans. We had gathered to dedicate a symbol of the war, and of their own unquenchable desire to be free. Today visitors to the Ford Museum can see the original stairway that led to the roof of the U.S. Embassy. Eighteen steps that afforded the only way out for over 6,000 Vietnamese and American personnel in South Vietnam's beleaguered capital.

For me, April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month. The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days, the saddest of my public life. I pray that no future American President is ever faced with the grim options that confronted me as the military situation on the ground deteriorated ... mediating between those who wanted an early exit from Saigon, and others who would go down with all flags flying ... running a desperate race against the clock to rescue as many people as we could before enemy shelling destroyed airport runways ... followed by the heartbreaking realization that, as refugees streamed out on to those runways, we were left with only one alternative - a final evacuation by helicopter from the embassy roof.

A quarter century after Operation Frequent Wind concluded, I still grieve over those we were unable to rescue. I still mourn for 2500 American soldiers who to this day remain unaccounted for. Yet along with the pain there is pride. In the face of overwhelming pressure to shut our doors, we were able to resettle a first wave of over 130,000 Vietnamese refugees. To do anything less would, in my opinion, only add moral shame to military humiliation. It would have repudiated the values we cherish as a nation of immigrants, and our longstanding tradition of providing refuge for the victims of religious, ethnic and political persecution.

Age has its privileges. Certainly old men are entitled to their memories. I will never forget a visit to Vietnam in 1953, where I listened, in Saigon, to French generals confidently predict victory at Dien Bien Phu. But there is such a thing as collective memory too. Writing recently in the New York Times magazine, Ward Just noted that the Cold War that gave rise to American involvement in Indochina is long since over. "Yet the ghosts remain at the table," he added, "rising whenever Washington contemplates a military venture. Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo were all seen through the shadow of Vietnam. For American statecraft, the legacy is as profound as that of World War II.”

It is to examine that legacy, along with the enduring impact of the Vietnam War upon this country's political institutions, its politics and its journalism that we have gathered at the Michigan League. To help in our examination we have assembled a remarkable group of diplomats and other public servants, together with historians, biographers, journalists, and academic experts. Many are no doubt familiar to you. One, however, I'd like to single out. We arrived in Congress on the same day in 1949. He was a liberal Democrat from Minnesota, one of the most eloquent and principled members of his party. I was an Arthur Vandenberg Republican from Grand Rapids, who didn't object, then or later, when people called me charismatically challenged.

In 1968 his convictions led him to challenge an incumbent President with whose Vietnam policies he profoundly disagreed. On countless campuses across America, including this one, he was and remains a true hero. I'm delighted to welcome him back to Ann Arbor. I'm honored to call Gene McCarthy my friend.

And now it's time for this morning's first panel, which will examine the legacy of Vietnam on America and the World. To moderate this and the following panel, I'm happy to introduce one of this country's most distinguished, if youthful, historians, a student of the Presidency who is as thoughtful as he is prolific. He is the author of definitive biographies of Jimmy Carter and Dean Acheson, as well as an epic history of the United States and a forthcoming life of the great civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Will you please join me in welcoming Douglas Brinkley.

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