April 30th marks the fortieth anniversary of the ‘fall of Saigon’, as Americans remember it, the day that the North Vietnamese army took over the capital of South Vietnam and reunified their country. Wars, as the old adage goes, are fought twice: first on the battlefield and later in the remembering. While this day is celebrated as a national holiday in contemporary Vietnam, some Vietnamese expatriates call it Black April, a day of U.S. abandonment and ongoing betrayal. Their war stories are now finding a voice in talented American writers who are complicating and indicting the blinkered remembering that has prevailed in the US; killing 3 million Vietnamese is an awful stain, while forgetting the 240,000 allied Vietnamese soldiers that died at Washington’s behest adds to the national shame. Their names are not etched in Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, perhaps they should be, but for now they have their own site in Orange County, California.
Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies from Temple University of Japan, gathers scholars to reflect on memory politics and the Vietnam War.
A few years ago I was wandering through the cemetery for the fallen soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam located in the distant outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. It is a desolate and depressing place, largely overgrown and neglected, brightened here and there by flowers placed at relatively few of the graves. These dead soldiers fought for Washington’s succession of puppet governments and died for a losing cause, now forgotten pawns of Cold War machinations.
President Richard Nixon extracted the US from the war in 1973 because he had bigger geopolitical fish to fry—normalization of ties with Beijing and détente with the Soviet Union. America’s Vietnamese allies were left holding the bag in a classic bait-and-switch; they grudgingly agreed to the withdrawal/peace deal in exchange for massive amounts of aid, but the Americans didn’t live up to their promises. Although many Vietnamese who worked with the US were evacuated in 1975, lots were not and reprisals against these ‘collaborators’ were extensive.
The US defeat lead to what’s called the Vietnam Syndrome, referring to a less interventionist US foreign policy due to domestic political opposition to sacrificing “blood and treasure” for dubious and elusive goals. Well, memories are short. Iraqis and Afghans are learning all about another aspect of the Vietnam Syndrome: once you are no longer useful, compliant and grateful, you are road kill. Those who take huge risks for Washington and become pieces on the geopolitical chessboard should have no illusions that it will end well and that the US will reciprocate; semper fidelis indeed.
Lan Cao is the author of two haunting novels that poignantly unravel torn loyalties, treachery, and lingering pain that cross generations, eras and continents: The Monkey Bridge and Lotus and the Storm. She is a refugee from South Vietnam who, as a professor at Yale Law School, is emblematic of the American Dream. Her novels are about the second wind of war and America’s selective amnesia, awakening readers to the yearning for dignity and understanding among Vietnamese who lost much and deserve better. Her epiphany came in 1980 while attending a five-year commemoration conference at the University of Massachusetts. She emailed: “I was astounded when one of the speakers said that today we celebrate the victory of the Vietnamese people. I was astounded because at that moment, the exodus of boat people was ongoing. These were people who were not necessarily part of the elite – whom you could denigrate as ‘puppets’ or imperialist lackeys of the US or Western powers.”
In her view, “Americans of the left believed that the US was on the wrong side. That Viet Cong and North Vietnam was the right side. The mainstream (not the left) believed that the war wasn’t worth the effort.” But, these views elide inconvenient truths, especially the post-war brutality: “Ironically and tragically, when peace came to Vietnam, more people left the country in search of freedom than ever.”
Lan Cao draws attention to the US mindset regarding its Vietnamese allies, blaming their flaws for American failure, “To sustain the myth that the US is always noble and always wins wars, it had to create the myth of ignoble, unreliable, effete, cowardly allies – those are the unreliable ones that dragged the US into the quagmire. This allows the US to exit with honor.”
Perhaps not much honor, but at least a comforting excuse.
Douglas Karsner, Professor of History at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, explains that in the US many of his students are not taught much if anything about the Vietnam War in high school where ‘defeat’ is often unspoken.
He emailed, “Americans are still fighting the Vietnam War. For many Americans, the outcome of the war contradicts the myth of American exceptionalism….the loss cannot be explained other than looking for a scapegoat.” Frequently, he notes, the media is blamed for turning the public against the war, while others blame politicians for tying the military’s hands.
Lan Cao has little sympathy for this narrative because her people were framed: “Nothing the South Vietnamese did was right. US newspapers gleefully recorded every flaw, every story of corruption, every battle lost, every suppression of demonstrators, etc.”
She mordantly comments that in the wake of 9/11, “quickly the US was willing to suspend civil liberty and enact all kind of actions which, because it was done by the US, was somehow deemed by the government to be ‘reasonable.’ Waterboarding? Of course, reasonable. National Security Agency eavesdropping? Yes, reasonable too. This is a WAR, after all, not a crime. Guantanamo? Okay too.”
Paradoxically, she adds, “If another country had done that, especially a non-Western, poor country, it would have been immediately condemned as tyrannical and unworthy of US support.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California, points out, “You would be hard pressed to find a more patriotic bunch than us, from the man who helped write the Patriot Act to the woman who designed a bunker buster bomb for the Iraq War.” He has written The Sympathizer, a Vietnamese spy-thriller slated for release on April 7 that is already garnering accolades. He emailed:
“We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars that we have instigated. Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see, and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it.”
Problematically, uplifting (and self-exonerating) stories of redemption are more appealing in the land of the defeated. Nguyen laments,
“This fantasy of Americans as rescuers has re-emerged in Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam…telling a story that is good for the American soul. The movie depicts how, in the final hours of American involvement in Vietnam, a handful of courageous Americans initiated the rescue of 130,000 South Vietnamese allies from the clutches of evil communists.” A glorious tale no doubt, but what’s a drop of good in a tsunami of bad?
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University (Japan Campus) and a Japan Focus associate. He is the author of “Burma’s Despair,” Critical Asian Studies, 40:1 (March 2008), 3-43, several recent articles on East Timor, and Japan’s Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2004). He also is the editor of Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11, Routledge 2012 and the author of Contemporary Japan. (2ndedition), London:Wiley 2013.
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