WASHINGTON -- Those of us who were in Vietnam during the '60s or '70s, when that war was supposed to be the one we couldn't live without, remember well the huge, strategic deepwater port and former American base at Cam Ranh Bay, about 150 miles north of Saigon.
The idea from the early '60s, when we first sent trainers to the South Vietnamese army, was that, once our South Vietnamese allies won against the North, which soon they would surely do, Cam Ranh would be a friendly port for the Yanks for decades to come.
Few of our unfounded predictions about the Vietnam War came true. Not all of the twisted hopes of the Pentagon's war room planners, who dreamed of empire, were to be fulfilled. Yet, this one may be: It looks as though Cam Ranh Bay will indeed turn out to be available to American military and commercial shipping.
Funny, isn't it, the way things happen? Could almost make you disbelieve in war if there weren't so many good songs about it!
It seems that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited the former Vietnamese military base on June 4 for a stop that even the bellicose Wall Street Journal called a visit with a "deep historical resonance." He was the first American defense secretary to do so, and there was a purpose.
Aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd anchored in the sparkling bay, he talked of the blood spilled in the war and about healing the wounds of the past, and it became clear that American ships have been stopping in Vietnam (about 20 since 2003), and that Washington would like to have a deepening relationship with Hanoi so that American ships could land there regularly.
Funny, too, because after the war ended so devastatingly in 1975, with such costly memories etched into the American psyche, Cam Ranh became a major port for the Soviet Union.
But that experience is past -- like the Soviet Union itself -- and today Hanoi looks to Washington to buttress its increasingly troubled relationship with China, whose military is growing and whose attention becomes ever more focused on the resource-rich South China Sea.
Funny yet again, because when we were fighting in Vietnam, a good part of the reason given for the war was that Communist Vietnam was allowing an expansionist Communist China to take over South Asia. No worry about that now.
Now, you may well say that my sarcastic attitude is out of place for those who truly hope for the future. After all, while he was in Vietnam, Panetta exchanged war relics with the Vietnamese generals. Panetta was given undelivered letters of a fallen American soldier, and his hosts returned the diary of a young Vietnamese found by a U.S. Marine. Keep in mind that the remains of 1,284 U.S. service members are still missing in Vietnam.
All of this is to the good, as is the idea that wartime enemies can become, if not friends, at least civil-minded former antagonists. That has certainly happened with Germany and Japan; but one must always remember that those countries were unconditionally defeated by the U.S. and the Allies.
My question here is, What do the American Vietnam vets think of all of this postwar friendliness? Do they feel humiliated by the superficially simple pictures of such American-Vietnamese reconciliation? And if this is so easy today, then why did the war ever have to happen? I know how I feel.
Other concerns must surely be strategic ones. President Obama recently announced publicly his "pivot" to Asia in American foreign policy. I guess this doesn't mean we are going to abandon Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (if only we could!), but that we will move our focus to the Far East.
Already, the president has successfully approached Australia to have a small, rotating group of American military pass through there; negotiations with tiny but rich Singapore will more likely take the form of our troops being available for showdowns in the South China Sea but not being based there.
For those of us who felt we were devastatingly overreaching already, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and who think that, for all intents and purposes, we are at war with Pakistan, too -- this new "pivot" to another potentially troubled part of the world is not something to applaud. (Unless it means invading the Central Bank of China and getting enough money to pay our debts to them!)
China historically has not been an expansionist nation or society -- but one has to think that this is in great part because they were usually closed in by enemies on all sides. Now China is rich and increasing her military. Will she not try to get the oil in the South China Sea?
Will it not come down to a fight if Japan, as seems likely, is going to try to get the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea from China? There are dozens of reasons for war in those waters.
It would seem to me, as we dance our destroyers and drones around the world, that we need to examine why we are in these places and what we intend to do.