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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting Wars That Can't Be Won

As the United States reflects this week on the meaning of the Vietnam War 25 years after the fall of Saigon, a few fateful words of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson's tumble across the decades to remind us that a senseless conflict might have been avoided.

On a May morning in 1964, as Johnson was weighing whether to expand American military involvement in Vietnam, he confided in a conversation with Senator Richard Russell that he did not really know why Washington should go to war in Southeast Asia. Referring to Sergeant Kenneth Gaddis, who was one of his valets, Johnson said he was troubled by the idea of sending this father of six children to war. "And what the hell are we going to get out of his doing it?" Johnson asked himself. "And it just makes the chills run up my back."

Even so many years later, it is hard not to be saddened and angered by Johnson's failure to follow that simple impulse. His comments, recorded by the White House and published a few years ago by Michael Beschloss in a compendium of Johnson tapes titled "Taking Charge," captured a larger truth that still rests uneasily on the American soul. No compelling national interest was served by waging war in Vietnam, and the men who directed the war, including Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, knew it at the time.

More than 58,000 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in a land of negligible political and economic importance to the welfare of the United States. The idea that communism would advance inexorably across Asia if Ho Chi Minh was victorious in Vietnam was the hallucination of men numbed, and trapped, by the liturgies of the Cold War.

The same men also violated a cardinal principle of politics and warfare by drafting citizens for combat without first building strong public support for their cause. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, approved by Congress in 1964 after the Pentagon reported that U.S. naval vessels had been attacked by North Vietnam, was a flimsy license for committing the country to a land war in Asia.

As opposition grew, and demonstrations against the fighting spread across the country, Johnson and his aides failed to recognize that a divided democracy cannot sustain a foreign war without doing grievous damage to itself and its principles. By the time Johnson realized the harm he had done, his political career was wrecked and the domestic achievements of his presidency had been overshadowed by his reckless spilling of American and Vietnamese blood.

The physical wounds of those who fought bravely in Vietnam healed long ago, but the war will always loom large in their lives, as it does in the political memory of the nation. It changed America in innumerable ways, for better and for worse. It undermined a generation's faith in the judgment and truthfulness of its military and diplomatic leaders. But above all, it taught us that the United States must not commit its soldiers to protracted combat in the absence of clear security interests, and that future wars cannot be fought without the support of the American people.

For these and many other reasons, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington is different from the other monuments where America honors its fallen soldiers. The starkness and simplicity of the memorial, with the name of each soldier etched in polished black granite, reminds visitors that no victory is celebrated on this spot, no noble cause honored in memory of those who sacrificed their lives.

The monument instead commemorates the needless sacrifice of troops who were betrayed by a president who prosecuted a war he did not believe in for a goal that he could not define in public speeches or private conversation. That, more than anything, is what the nation must remember this week, and that is why the words of Lyndon Johnson still sting.

This editorial first appeared in The New York Times.