WASHINGTON -- In bestowing the Medal of Honor on the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War today, President Reagan honors 58,012 Americans who died in a war he considered 'a noble cause' despite the scars it left on the nation.
For some, the nine years since the fall of Saigon have been a period of reflection: a reappraisal of how and why the United States became involved in a remote war halfway around the world.
Not so for Reagan. His view of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam has shown little sign of change in 20 years.
It was Reagan, by then an established crusader of the political right, who in October 1965 advocated declaring war on North Vietnam.
'We could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and be home by Christmas,' he said.
Reagan since has dropped the light-hearted reference to parking stripes. But during a news conference less than two months ago, he stood by his position that the United States did too little to win a war that divided its people.
Reagan, treading on sensitivepolitical ground, was expected to steer clear of any talk that could rip open old wounds today as a fallen American from the Vietnam era was buried amid full state honors at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
But on the day when Americans remember their war dead, the lasting memory of Vietnam continues to haunt Reagan as he seeks congressional and public support for a foreign policy heavily reliant on the projection of military force abroad.
Reagan, who blamed Congress for the outcome in Vietnam and in 1978 called the conflict 'a long, bloody war which our government refused to win,' contends his arms buildup, invasion of Grenada and dispatch of U.S. forces to world trouble spots signaled the end of 'the Vietnam Syndrome.'
But the experience in Southeast Asia made his own military commanders wary of sending troops to Lebanon, where they suffered their worst casualties since Vietnam. Reagan's critics, pointing to the failure in Lebanon, contend he ignored what he himself has listed as a lasting lesson of Vietnam: that a president must have support at home before using force abroad.
Reporters seized on what many thought to have been a major rhetorical slip when Reagan restated his belief during the 1980 campaign that Vietnam 'was, in truth, a noble cause.'
Almost four years later, there is no compelling evidence that candidate Reagan did not mean what he said, or that Reagan has wavered in his belief that the United States intervened in Vietnam out of legitimate concern that the nations of the would otherwise fall like dominoes to communism: a warning his critics now use to draw a disturbing parallel to his own moves in Central America.