It was not to be an easy task as the Viet people were forced to do battle with some of the world’s great powers. One must still regard the accomplishment with wonder and awe. The imperial forces of the Japanese and their collaborators, the Asian version of Vichy France; then the newly liberated French intent on winning back its colonies with the approval and assistance of the US; then, after the defeat of the French at the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu, a new obstacle presented itself with the creation of an artificial entity called ‘The Republic of Viet Nam’ again sponsored and supported by American might; and, finally, the US took the commanding role and launched a full-scale assault on the Vietnamese people with all its technological military might and the pretense of merely assisting this government was discarded.
At its height in 1969, the American forces totaled more than 550,000 armed men with foreign allies bringing the total near to 650,000. There was also the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) which would grow under the ‘Vietnamization’ plan to reach nearly 1 million.
Today, the Vietnamese should celebrate and be proud of the giant steps forward that have been made since 1975. Viet Nam is a youthful country with a great portion of its population having been born after Liberation Day. I think it is vitally important for the Vietnamese not to forget the sacrifices and suffering that was borne by so many for so many years. I believe historians in years to come will look back upon the war years in Viet Nam as a turning point in the growth of civilization. The people of Viet Nam led by Ho Chi Minh exhibited to the world and set an example that all other nations could follow. They proved that the peoples’ power of a united nation that will no longer accept an occupation by foreigners will win if great courage and perseverance are shown. I visited Sadr City in Baghdad in 2004 and was astonished to see a book written by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. I asked why it was in Iraq. The answer: “This is how we will learn to defeat the occupation.”
As a young man in 1968, I was sent by my government to this small nation in SE Asia and was told that I was going to fight for the people of that nation to give them a life of liberty, freedom and democracy. I truly had no concept of what the Vietnamese people desired but quickly discovered the harsh reality that my presence was not appreciated nor wanted on their land. I was based in Quang Ngai Province in the village of Duc Pho. I was an alien creature to the Vietnamese. I spoke, ate, dressed, appeared and, probably, smelled strange. But the fact that I carried a weapon and was an instrument of my nation’s wish to impose by force its will upon another was the deciding factor. With this early realization I made a promise to avoid the Vietnamese who opposed me and to do as little damage as possible. For the most part I was successful and, after a year, returned to my hometown of NYC.
I tried to forget the war but was not able to forget Viet Nam and its people. For this reason I followed the news reports as best I could when the final offensive began in 1975. For the most part the American people paid little attention to the reports of the People’s Army rapidly liberating one city after another. After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the war was no longer considered an ‘American’ war. A ‘decent interval’ had passed. Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger were even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Le Duc Tho showed honor in declining the prize stating that “peace had not been achieved”. Kissinger, of course, accepted.
I found an interesting article about the fall of Sai Gon and it revealed that the very same Le Duc Tho, the diplomat who spent years negotiating with Kissinger, was in Loc Ninh and Ben Cat for the final assault on Sai Gon. I find it very difficult to imagine ‘Doc’ Kissinger anywhere near the front lines.
The offensive surprized many because of its speed and complete domination. Sai Gon’s Army simply disappeared and fell apart. The highlands were taken quickly as Phuoc Long (Binh Phuoc) Province and Ban Me Thuot were abandoned and the defenders fled towards the coast. Soon after, the cities on the coast from Da Nang to Vung Tau would fall in rapid succession. All contact with the Cuu Long Delta was cut with the control of Highway 4. Sai Gon was ready for the ‘coup de grace’.
As I watched these events unfold I was struck with how happy I felt for the Vietnamese. All Vietnamese. The horror and sorrow of war was soon to end as Sai Gon surrendered almost willingly. The image of the tank crashing through the gates of the Presidential Palace on Le Duan Boulevard was displayed around the world and the joy of the inhabitants of Sai Gon greeting the People’s Army as it entered the streets of the still beautiful city was apparent.
I also was greatly saddened by the role my country played in creating and prolonging an unnecessary war. Some termed it a civil war but, in my mind, that is an incorrect view. The overwhelming majority of Vietnamese supported independence and, of these, the vast majority supported Ho Chi Minh.
When Ho declared Independence for Viet Nam on 2 September 1945 in Ha Noi at Ba Dinh Square, the United States missed the first of many opportunities to recognize Viet Nam as an independent and sovereign nation. Bac Ho had reason to believe this might happen for President Roosevelt had declared that unless France pledged to grant independence to her colonies then the US would be justified in not returning them to French control. Sadly, Roosevelt died before his wishes could be accomplished. If the US had supported the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own destiny then I have no doubt that any conflict that might have arisen would have come to a quick conclusion with the people choosing to support a government led by Ho Chi Minh instead of the small group of Vietnamese who wished to take the place of the French colonialists who had departed.
Many call 30 April, Re-Unification Day. I again disagree for Viet Nam was always unified. The disunity was imposed from without by the many foreigners who felt it necessary to become involved in Viet Nam’s destiny. The imaginary artificial state, ‘The Republic of Vietnam’, was merely a creation imposed upon the Vietnamese people. As shown when it was left to stand on its own, it could not exist.
There are many telling statements from America’s leaders which illustrate this reality. Lyndon Johnson once asked his military advisors “Why do their Vietnamese fight better than ours?” The possessive pronoun ‘ours’ indicates a great deal. It was not America in a supporting role for Sai Gon but the RVN Army acting in a relatively small role for the Americans. There was much rhetoric >From both sides during the cold war but the oft used term ‘puppet’ certainly was a fitting description of the government in Sai Gon.
That same statement leads to another question as to why one group of Vietnamese was so much better as ‘fighters’. I think the answer to that is obvious. Warfare of any sort is horrible. I do not believe that one ethnicity, race, nationality, etc creates better soldiers. It all depends on why you fight. I feel there is only one justification for wielding weapons against another and that is in self-defence. A ‘just’ fight on an individual level or a ‘just’ war on a national level must be determined by the same criteria. Self-defence! All other wars are thus unjust and must be condemned by all.
‘Our’ Vietnamese, most of them forced into the military, who fought for the Americans were fighting against their own people and against their own interest. I think they knew this, so of course they would not be ‘good’ soldiers. I, too, was a fighter on the wrong side of morality, legality, honor and history. I was the aggressor, invader and occupier of another’s land. I tried to perform my duties as a soldier in an honorable manner but it really didn’t matter because the end was wrong. Thus I might have considered myself a ‘good’ soldier but that made no difference because the cause was unjust.
The ‘better’ soldiers were those who took up arms to resist and to protect their ‘que huong/homeland’ from the invaders and aggressors. That is not only a person’s right but his duty and obligation. It might seem strange to say this but I feel the Vietnamese who were my opponents had an advantage over me. Even with all the technological power of the US Army on my side, the Vietnamese had a reason to fight. I did not! I never even used the word enemy to describe my opponents. That is a very difficult way to fight a battle.
For a short period after 30 April 1975, the Vietnamese were in a jubilant and celebratory mood. But soon the reality had to be faced. The long years of occupation with all the destruction and death created great challenges to the Vietnamese people. Many cities and villages were completely destroyed. “They made a wasteland and they called it peace” (the Roman historian Tacitus). Another quote >From an anonymous American officer during Tet Mau Tang (1968); “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it!” We soon learned that the defoliation program which used Agent Orange was not as innocent as we were told. It might prove to be the final legacy of the war. A legacy that will never end.
A few years later, the Vietnamese were attacked by a true madman, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who were being supported by the US and other powers. I recall photos of Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan being wined and dined on 5th Avenue in NYC during the 1980’s. As the evidence came forth, this crazed regime was systematically committing genocide. And a genocide of its own people. Sui-Genocide? Fortunately for the Cambodians, Viet Nam chose to defend itself and put an end to the horror. For this accomplishment, the US again chose to punish Viet Nam by enforcing a cruel embargo on Viet Nam which lasted until 1994.
There are many examples that could be shown that illustrate the bitterness that continues in some way to this day. The Vietnamese are fond of telling me that the past is over and we must look to the future. Also, that “we will not forget but we will forgive.” I wish my countrymen could follow this same philosophy. I think the hard feelings arise from the way Americans are raised from childhood. We are constantly reminded by all forms of media and through our educational system that we are somehow better than others. That we are a basically good people who will never choose to use our power to do wrong. Thus, it is very difficult to admit to the historical reality of our involvement in Viet Nam. And, instead of trying to aid Viet Nam in its development, we continually find ways to humiliate the Vietnamese people.
The POW/MIA controversy is an example. There are about 1,500 US servicemen missing in action in SE Asia. Millions of dollars are spent each year searching in the jungles and mountains of VN for remains of the lost soldiers and airmen. A few years ago, my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, had an editorial on this matter. I wrote a letter in response which the paper printed.
An excerpt: “We should also not forget the countless thousands of Vietnamese (300,000) who are also missing in action and unaccounted for. Within Vietnamese culture and belief, those lost souls are destined never to find rest until their remains are found and returned to their villages and families. We Americans suffered greatly from the war, but it is important for our own humanity to remember the much greater loss suffered by all Vietnamese.”
Another example might be the periodic attempt by some US Congressmen to chastise the Vietnamese for what is described as “Human Rights Violations”.
My reply to the proposal usually offered by Congressman Christopher Smith: “Viet Nam will survive and prosper as a free, proud and independent people. It would be easier for them if they had a friend in the American government. But rest assured, if need be, they will do it on their own. If the sovereignty of the Viet people and nation mean little to you, I would beseech you to honor the US soldiers who died in that sad war. I feel it is my duty and obligation to help the Vietnamese. Not solely to make amends but to insure that my fellow soldiers, Americans, did not die in vain. Sir, do you remember the ostensible reason we fought in Viet Nam? We were told we were bringing the Vietnamese a chance for a better life. Why not work with Viet Nam and in that way you and I can honor all Viets and Americans who died during the war years.”
These actions and feelings are not to be attributed to all Americans. But they do indicate a syndrome, The Vietnam Syndrome, which still exists after all these years.
I did not intend to dwell on so many sad aspects of what is a day of glory and happiness for Vietnamese and Viet Nam. I realize the great suffering and punishment that Viet Nam had endured for so long; possibly 3 million dead out of a population in 1975 of 35 million; a land nearly annihilated with bombs, napalm, fire and defoliants; and, a continuing loss of life due to the scourge of Agent Orange. Even after so much of this, my country, America, might be said to have suffered a greater wound. A wound to its soul. The only way this stain on our honor can be removed is to offer the Vietnamese an apology and extend a helping hand wherever needed.
I try to honor Viet Nam in my own way as an individual and I will continue to ‘fight’ for my new family. That is how I feel. I will be eternally grateful that the Vietnamese people have allowed me to return and have welcomed me as a friend. ‘Cam on nhieu lam.’
I try to visit Son My, Quang Ngai on 16 March every year and I bring 504 roses to honor the victims. A Vietnamese friend has taught me a phrase that I like to say at these times: “Toi den chia buon vui ban va gia dinh.” It is a simple Vietnamese expression, used at times of overwhelming sadness. The literal translation is "I have come to share with you and your family your grief and your sorrow." Once said, the pain is divided and you carry away a piece of it. It remains with you always.
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The present day events in Iraq indicate we have not learned much.
1st LT, Infantry, USArmy, 11th LIB; Duc Pho, Quang Ngai, Viet Nam 1968-1969