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A Vietnam test for candidates?

In 1975, as the helicopters were preparing to lift off the American Embassy's roof in Saigon, President Gerald R. Ford declared an end to the debate on Vietnam.

"America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam," he said. "But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned."

There would be no official post-mortems on the worst defeat in our history, no attempt to find out what went wrong and who was responsible.

Now, with the release of Gov. Bill Clinton's 1969 letter about his draft status, the men ordered to fight are being held accountable for their actions rather than the leaders who sent them to Vietnam. During the war those young men reached a silent verdict: Most eligible men, no matter what their political convictions, actively avoided fighting in the war.

To decide that Clinton is no longer presidential material because he avoided the draft and opposed the war is to admit that Americans feel guilty about Vietnam but are still unsure whom to blame.

As his letter attests, he took the war seriously. It is a confession, alternating between high moral conviction and the raw ambitions of a politician. He mentions how tortured he and his friends were about the war. This is not a coward's note; it reflects angst.

As a candidate, Clinton is stumbling over his Vietnam past. But, then, the country as a whole still stumbles over Vietnam, unable to agree whether we should have fought. Until members of this generation started running for president, it did not seem necessary for them to justify what they did during the war. Clinton's peers _ in business, government, journalism _ have not been subjected to a Vietnam test. The depth of the nation's misgivings about Vietnam is accurately reflected by the lineup of candidates from that era: Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Bob Kerrey and Clinton. They exemplify how most draft-age men, through their actions or words, publicly doubted the wisdom of America's war.

Neither Quayle nor Clinton fought in Vietnam. Quayle says he believed in the war _ but not enough, apparently, to go to Vietnam. He found safety in the National Guard. Clinton says he opposed the war and, through various maneuverings _ which have now opened like a wound _ was never called by his draft board.

Even though Kerrey fought, lost part of a leg and returned home a decorated hero, he says Vietnam was a mistake.

How, then, shall we judge our candidates' actions during the war? Combat service? Political support of the war? This implies that America believed that Vietnam was a just cause and that families willingly sent their sons to battle. The record of the period contradicts such thinking. Out of the 27-million Americans eligible for the draft, 15-million won deferments as Clinton did. Another million took Quayle's path to the National Guard or the reserves. Draft-dodgers fled to Canada. Less than 2-million actually saw combat like Kerrey.

In Vietnam many servicemen saw no meaning, no point, to the war; to express their alienation, they were absent without leave and used drugs at the highest rates in U.S. military history.

In 1971 the Armed Forces Journal, a monthly, said: "The morale, discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. armed forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States."

The military, at least, took the defeat in Vietnam seriously and conducted wrenching post-mortems. The victory in the Persian Gulf war demonstrated that the armed forces had learned the lessons of Vietnam. America's political leadership has avoided any such soul-searching.

If Vietnam is going to become an unmarked yardstick for this generation of politicians, then the leaders of both parties who waged the war should be held accountable for their war records as well.

Elizabeth Becker is author of the forthcoming America's Vietnam War, a book for teen-agers.