David Shribman: Vietnam No Longer Contentious Issue in Our Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

Have a kind of empty feeling? Sense that something has been missing these last couple of months? Me, too. Campaign 2008 is completing its fifth month, and we haven't had a vicious fight about the Vietnam War yet.

Vietnam is the only war in American history never to end. The War of 1812 was contentious, especially in the Northeast, but no presidential election was fought over it beyond 1812. The Mexican War stirred great passions and slopped over into the 1848 election but has hardly been heard of since, except if you are taking a course in 19th-century America. World War I was debated in 1916 (mostly as a question of how to keep the nation out of it) and in 1920 (mostly as a question of how to return to normalcy after the war), but its impact on American elections was basically nil.

Not Vietnam. It's been a major theme in six American elections -- a remarkable feat when you consider that not one person who fought the Vietnam War ever has been elected president. Compare that with World War II, which touched seven American presidents (nine, if you count Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman) but which was an issue in at most one election, the contest in 1944, and even then it was not a major point of contention, as Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the GOP nominee, didn't substantially question FDR's prosecution of the war.

The question for 2008 is whether America can finally bring the Vietnam War to an end. It has looked that way so far this year. The Democrats conducted 21 presidential debates and hardly a peep was heard about Vietnam. Not only that, hardly a disparaging word was heard about the 1960s, another hardy perennial in American politics.

It helped that one of the leading candidates, Sen. Barack Obama, was born in the first year of the Kennedy administration and was only 6 during the Tet offensive. No one questioned what he did during the war. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn't eligible for the draft, so she couldn't have dodged it even if she had wanted to.

Now, as we brace for a confrontation that is likely to be between Mr. Obama and Sen. John S. McCain, there will be little contention over Vietnam. As a Naval airman in the war, Mr. McCain was shot down over North Vietnam and endured five years of brutal imprisonment in Hanoi, making him one of the bona fide heroes of the war and shaping his life after his release. No one will question Mr. McCain's service in Vietnam, and even Democrats acknowledge that it provides him with an aura that no New Frontier baby can match.....
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