Jeff Kingston: Memory Wars and the Vietnam Debacle

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.”

lan cao
Lan Cao, author and professor at Yale Law School

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.”

VIet Nguyen, author and professor at the University of Southern California

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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  1. I’m no apologist for the U.S. so-called war-time atrocities or racism in VN, but Rob’s tired old argument reeks of the 60’s antiwar over-generalizations. If Rob is an angry white male, or a bleeding-heart penitent, feeling guilty for his ancestors’ racism against native Americans or African-Americans, or Mexicans or Filippinos (or any other ethnic groups that he cares to mention) during or after the Manifest Destiny empire building period then that is his problem. Unless he’s an American vet who’s spent mind-bending ordeals in Nam, I – on behalf of the “5 million innocent Vietnamese souls” – am not going to assuage his unresolved spilled-over conflict.
    If Rob is not white then by lumping the estimated 5 million war deaths to American bombings, and the physical destruction of 80 percent of Vietnam then perhaps he could assist the Hanoi statisticians in proper accounting so they can sue the U.S. gov’t in the International Court of Justice for crime against humanity. Make sure not to mix the Agent Orange contamination with the Bauxite toxic slush on VN highland, lest China gets off scot-free for going in cahoots with PM Nguyen Tan Dung. While Rob is on his winning streak perhaps he can sue Hanoi for denuding 20% of VN old growth forest in one fell swoop too.
    On a serious note, I wonder how much I, as a Vietnamese first (and American second), should thank Rob and the anti-establishment (read anti-war) crowd for shouting down their racist, warmongering U.S. for uprooting 4 millions of us (refugees) from our independent, happy unified Vietnam…

  2. Prof. Kingston’s metaphoric expression “a drop of good in a tsunami of bad” aptly describes the preferred belief that after the killing of five million (mostly civilian) lives and physically destroying 80 percent of Vietnam the saving of 130,000 refugees justified our genocidal action in Southeast Asia. Naturally, the refugees were and are now grateful, but one cannot help wondering about the senseless suffering we had caused the other five million people. I guess, they don’t matter. After all, we believe our lives are more important than the lives of people of other ethnic groups. Maybe, that’s why we talk only about the ones that we “saved” and don’t need to bring up the fact that our money and ideals caused the five million innocent deaths? Was it really communism or was it racism that propelled us to commit such barbaric actions against the people of Southeast Asia? Was it the racism in our own country that we extended against the helpless civilians of Southeast Asia? If we were fighting for democracy, were the deaths of over five million people just collateral damage? We still perpetuate the illusion that we did a tsunami of good in a drop of bad. The reality was we effected a drop of good, but only after we had caused a tsunami of bad.

  3. Sorry Khánh (or Khanh), Your comments are right on the nose, except you use Nixon and Kissinger to validate South Vietnamese cause, which I can’t – and I believe quite a number of other Vietnamese – could take. They are the bête noires, esp. Kissinger, who hammered the last nail on the coffin of South Vietnam.

    Thiệu’s inept leadership, and flip-flopping stupidity during the last hours of S. Vietnam notwithstanding. But Nixon strong-arm tactics forcing Thiệu to sign the Paris Peace Accords, pledging to take strong action against Hanoi before Watergate done him in was bogus. Kissinger one’s upmanship is S. Vietnam death’s wish. He allowed Hanoi to leave 130,000 regular troops (not the Viet Cong) in the South during the negotiated Peace Accords is tantamount to selling S VN down the river. Kissinger knew all along that North VN would never honor the Accords that they signed. Yet brazenly accepted the Nobel Peace prize is nothing short of criminal.

    In the end, it was the U.S. who foreclosed on S. VN nascent democracy and their very own costly efforts while South Vietnam after Diệm – who denied U.S. military intervention and was dealt a death hand – was very much on a slippery slope to self-destruction.

  4. “These dead soldiers fought for Washington’s succession of puppet governments and died for a losing cause, now forgotten pawns of Cold War machinations.”

    “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,”

    These throw-away, insulting statements about “puppet governments” and the South Vietnamese people and government falling for the bait-and-switch may be tolerable in the popular press, but I expect better from an someone writing in a blog about Vietnamese history and culture, to be read by many Vietnamese. There are too many good records of the Vietnam War in the last 40 years for this kind of erroneous statements to be acceptable now. You can simply read Nixon’s and Kissinger’s accounts of the Paris Accords negotiation, for example, to see that the Vietnamese government in 1973 was no puppet regime. It was well aware of the danger of signing the agreement as written, but there was little choice. It is a sad fact that the South Vietnamese government was ultimately proven correct in its assessment that the American government would not be able to hold to its commitments.

    The dead soldiers of the ARVN are not certainly forgotten in the Vietnamese-American community, as pointed out in the introduction. It is sad that their stories are suppressed in Viet Nam at the moment, but perhaps that will change in the future.

    On a positive note, the quotes from Viet and Lan Cao were worthy of the complexity of the war. They make the story worth reading.

  5. Professor Nguyễn Thanh Việt has the last words? Sure, that’s a solicitous consideration of Jeff Kingston for Diacritics. However, I believe Cao Phương Lan should be the representative voice for the majority of Vietnamese-Americans on the Vietnam War if some pollster should care to substantiate that with a Social Science research survey.
    “These dead soldiers fought for Washington’s succession of puppet governments and died for a losing cause, now forgotten pawns of Cold War machinations.” (Jeff Kingston)
    Kingston should remember these facts well: 1) Vietnamese Nationalists and Communists were fighting among themselves beginning in the early 30’s before American combat boots hit the soil of VN. Nguyễn Thái Học, founder of the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng led an unsuccessful uprising against the French at Yên Bái on Feb 10, 1930 and his followers continued fighting the French and the Việt Minh for several decades before Hồ chí Minh usurped the Nationalist movements by trickeries, deception and assassinations until he and the Việt Minh were credited with defeating the French at Điện Biên Phủ.
    2) The Nationalist tradition continued in the South after the partition in 1954. The South never agreed to the partition of VN into 2 countries so they did not sign the armistice (Geneva Conference) and later refused to carry out the farcical ’56 election. 3) The U.S.wanted to intervene and escalate the war so Washington gave the green light for the overthrow of Diem, opened VN as a testing ground for U.S. troops. Ironically 8 years later, they cut and run just as fast as they had pour troops in VN.

    “…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.” (Jeff Kingston) Massive amount of aids? In a letter to Thieu, Nixon promised the U.S. will retaliate if Hanoi violate the terms of Paris agreement. Even humanitarian aids were denied. One must also note:
    The U.S. claims to give about $200 billions aids to Vietnam during the war. Does one stop to think where the largest percentage of U.S. aids went? To support American troops, in arms, heavy equipments, war machinery, pay, housing, foods, uniforms… One should look at the way the U.S. airlifts, and airdrops beer in Khe Sanh, for example.

    Lastly, who are the”we” that Việt talks about? Surely Vietnamese are never the ones who instigated wars since we were forced to accept the geopolitical realities of the Cold War and allowed American troops in lest VN become a falling domino.
    “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.” ̣(Nguyễn Thanh Việt)
    Yet the most cynical, mean-spirited statement that Việt could utter with regards to Rory Kennedy’s Last Days: “A glorious tale no doubt, but what’s a drop of good in a tsunami of bad?” My own take regarding the American soldiers is this:
    As April 30 is near, we cannot blame people for faulting the U.S. for abandoning South Vietnam or executing the war obfuscatingly, yet for more than 10 years close to 60,000 Americans have given their lives in Vietnam. Surely, one is not wrong in saying they have died trying to bring democracy and self-determination to Vietnam. Sadly while they died defending the Cold-War outpost of freedom, giving Southeast Asia and the free world time to build their prosperity, their surviving brethren went home to the scorn and derision of antiwar crowds. The failure of the United states cannot be built on the grave of these soldiers, the failure of U.S. policies rests with the American decision-makers, which today still affect million number of lives around the world.


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