Who would have thought that the unifying note in the Time of Trump would be Vietnam? Our country, after all, has been tearing itself apart over ObamaCare, tax policy, Russian meddling, immigration, climate change and the Middle East.
Yet there was President Trump Monday, bestowing the Medal of Honor on a one-time Army medic who was advanced for our nation’s highest award for valor by former President Barack Obama. It seems the two presidents actually agree on something.
And what they agree on is that a modest, retired coach and teacher from Michigan, James McCloughan, now 71, deserves our nation’s highest military honor for deeds done nearly 50 years ago. And in a war on which our own Congress turned its back.
What a deeply satisfying moment.
Not that this is the first time that a recent president has reached back to award a long-overdue Medal of Honor for valor in Vietnam. Just last year Obama draped the blue ribbon with white stars on an Army lieutenant colonel named Charles Kettles.
In Vietnam, Kettles had repeatedly flown his helicopter through heavy fire to rescue from an enemy attack 40 of his fellow GIs. It was an incredible display of valor. “Entire family trees,” Obama said, “were made possible by the actions of this one man.”
In 2014, Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to two Vietnam veterans. Sgt. Donald Sloat, honored posthumously, clutched an enemy grenade to his breast to save his buddies. The other, Command Sgt. Major Bennie Adkins, slew as many as 175 enemy soldiers while rescuing his comrades and sustaining 18 wounds himself.
Five years ago in a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery, Obama formally thanked the long-shunned veterans of Vietnam. And he went further, rightly calling America’s treatment of its Vietnam veterans a “national shame, a disgrace that should never have happened.”
It was Obama who signed the waiver legislation needed to enable James McCloughan to be awarded the Medal of Honor so long after the war (awarding the medal is restricted to the five years after the actions it recognizes). President Trump rose to the occasion, in a powerful White House ceremony.
It honored McCloughan for saving the lives of 10 fellow soldiers during 48 hours of desperate combat on a hill called Nui Yom. “It was as if the strength and the pride of our whole nation were beating inside Jim’s heart,” Trump said.
What a contrast to the way The New York Times is marking the 50th anniversary of Vietnam in 1967, which it calls the year that changed the war and America. It’s running a series riddled with praise for those on the Communist side or those who, while loyal to our side, opposed the war.
One piece celebrates “the women who fought for Hanoi,” meaning Soviet-backed Communists of North Vietnam. “My First Anti-War Protest,” reads another headline in the Times series. Another kvells about “a frontline nurse for the Vietcong.”
There’s a piece celebrating the glories of an antiwar concert. Another is by Joan Baez’s ex-husband, who’d decided “my country was wrong” and chose jail rather than answer the Vietnam draft. The Times series also extolls Muhammad Ali for refusing the draft.
Unless I missed it, though, there’s nothing about Jim McCloughan and the other outsized heroes who were touched by glory in Vietnam. Or about what turn history might have taken had we let the Communists seize Indochina without a fight.
These oversights might be rectified in the new series on Vietnam by documentary film-maker Ken Burns. It is set to be released in September. He and his filmmaking partner, Lynn Novick, have a piece in the Times series on the war.
“If we are to begin the process of healing,” they write, “we must first honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served and those who died, not just as we do today, on Memorial Day, but every day.”
A preview of their documentary makes clear how wracked with guilt are those who greeted returning veterans with sneers and jeers. One antiwar activist they filmed appears close to tears as she recalls such behavior.
Hence the importance of what Obama and Trump are doing. Let the next step in honoring the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served (and sometimes died) in Vietnam be finding a way to acknowledge that theirs was, as Reagan put it, a noble cause.
New York Post Seth Lipsky