The pounding rain and lead-gray skies kept the crowds and the tour buses away, and the politicians seemed to have no interest in coming out to observe the 20th anniversary of America’s greatest military defeat.
But that was just fine with the handful of veterans and other Americans who came out to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Sunday to remember the dead exactly 20 years after the fall of Saigon.
“The rain was a blessing,” said Vietnam veteran Charlie Harootunian, as the rain mixed with the tears streaking down his face. He had flown in from Massachussetts Sunday to spend the day at the wall. “I realized as I was coming in from the airport that the rain would mean that the only people here on this day are the people who really care.”
Political Washington allowed Sunday’s anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War to slip by unobserved.
After all, nations tend to celebrate victories, not defeats. So there were no official ceremonies held during the day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of all 58,191 Americans who died in the conflict from 1959 to 1975 are etched in reflective black granite.
A Vietnamese-American organization was the only group to mark the day here, laying a wreath at the foot of the wall. Meanwhile, 23 other wreaths were left at the memorial as well, most brought by high school students not born 20 years ago.
But the remembrance was so low-key that officials at the Arlington National Cemetery were unaware that an informal wreath-laying in honor of Vietnam veterans was held at the cemetery Sunday.
Yet the wall’s emotional power has always been extraordinarily personal, and the small, hardy bands of veterans, families and curious teenagers who paid their respects Sunday had come for the wall itself, and not for speechifying. It was a day for reflection.
On April 30, 1975, South Vietnam finally crumbled and surrendered to the invading North Vietnamese - two years after the United States had signed a peace treaty with the North and pulled out its forces.
But even without American troops in the field at the time, the fall of Saigon was a humiliating experience for the United States, one that left the indelible image of a frantic evacuation by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.
Twenty years have healed many of the scars, and many who came Sunday seemed to have put some distance between their memories and their new lives.
“I think we have learned a lot as a country from Vietnam,” noted Tim Dressing, an Illinois car dealer who served in Vietnam in 1969-1970. “I think the gulf war was a perfect example of a conflict where we had people who weren’t going to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam.”
Others also seemed to understand that the memorial now belongs as much to the teenagers born after 1975 as it does to them.
“Vietnam changed the way our parents’ generation thinks … I don’t feel like I totally understand what happened, but I thought this would help,” said high-school student Ann Fitlow.