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Until the baby boomer generation disappears entirely, Americans will be mulling over the Vietnam War. They know it was a tragic error. But they have not erased the faults that caused us to take over the colonial mission from the French and to think that we could convert the Vietnamese to the joy of receiving the blessings of American life in return for relinquishing their dream of living as an independent country with its own culture and aspirations.
Graham Greene in "The Quiet American" gave us a wonderful picture of how idealistic Americans go about imposing their worldview on others. Now Ward Just in "A Dangerous Friend
" (Houghton Mifflin, $23) has given us a new meditation on our missionary zeal to "help" the rest of the world.
Sydney Parade, married with a small daughter, heeds the call of a mid-life crisis and finds himself in Vietnam as part of the Llewellyn Group, an organization supposedly separate from the military and funded largely by private funds. Its mission is to supply the South Vietnamese with vaccinations, rice, roads and bridges, and sub rosa to supply Washington with estimates of the political and military situation.
Parade finds instead of gratitude only corruption, cynicism, and in the North Vietnamese, only a burning intention to win. As an acquaintance tells Parade: "They don't like negotiating, Sydney. They tried it twice in Switzerland and it didn't get them what they wanted. ...They were outmaneuvered by white men in double-breasted suits."
Just has given us a mesmerizing and readable story. It is not a new story, but perhaps in our present situation, it is good to remind ourselves that Americans do not have all the answers. When we act as if we do, we are rash indeed. I am reminded of one of Lucy's (of "Peanuts" fame) five-cent bits of psychiatric advice: Most of the evil in the world is done by those who think they are doing "the right