BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei — Soon to be the first American president to visit Hanoi, capital of communist Vietnam, President Clinton said Tuesday he is more sympathetic about Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war there. "He did what he thought was right," said Clinton, a college war protester who avoided military service.
In an interview from Air Force One on a trip that will make him the first American president to visit since the war ended in 1975, Clinton said, "I now see how hard it was" for Johnson.
When Johnson took office in 1963, the United States had 16,000 military personnel in South Vietnam. U.S. troop strength grew to 536,100 by the time Johnson left office in 1969, and more than 30,000 Americans were killed in action while Johnson was president.
"I believe he did what he thought was right under the circumstances," Clinton said. "These decisions are hard. And one of the things I have learned, too, is when you decide to employ force, there will always be unintended consequences."
The president avoided saying whether he holds second thoughts about his 1969 description of the war as one he despised. Instead, he said he is glad "the American people have been able to look to the future" in relations with Vietnam.
As a student at Oxford University in England, Clinton was a chief organizer of two anti-war rallies in London in 1969 and, back home, helped organize a huge march on Washington.
Clinton spoke en route to an economic summit in Brunei with leaders of Pacific Rim nations. Relaxing in a leather seat, wearing jeans and a jacket embroidered with his name and the presidential seal, he was in high spirits even though it was nearly 1 a.m.
He said the United States does not owe Vietnam an apology for its involvement in the war, and that no one should say the 58,000 Americans and the 3 million Vietnamese who were killed lost their lives in vain. "I don’t think any person is fit to make that judgment," he said.
"People fight honorably for what they believe in and they lose their lives," the president said. "No one has a right to say that those lives were wasted. I think that would be a travesty."
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