Today, we commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. My father, a diplomat in Europe and later a professor in the United States, yearned and prayed for peace in his homeland of Vietnam during the war.
My mother, who had not seen her parents and siblings from Vietnam for decades, also prayed for peace, hoping that the raining of bombs from B-52s would cease.
Since the end of the war, and especially as a result of President Bill Clinton’s state visit to Vietnam in 2000, we have witnessed the spirit of reconciliation, renewal and cooperation between Vietnam and the U.S.
Only a few years ago, some immigrants within the Vietnamese-American community argued vehemently over the loss of their country — mat nuoc (literally, “loss of country”) — even while the term giai phong (liberation) and ngay thong nhat (day of reunification) was commonly used to mark the end of the war. Those strong passions are diluted with the passage of time, but they remain etched in our memory as an integral part of what it is to be Vietnamese-American.
The end of the Vietnam War four decades ago meant for the Vietnamese people “bon muoi nam mien Bac va Nam thong thuong” (“40 years of the Vietnamese people in the North and South regions traveling freely as a people of a reunified country”).
A Vietnamese-American leader in the Bay Area, who has worked with Vietnamese-American immigrants since shortly after the end of the war, stated to me that the past four decades has meant “40 nam tao lap cuoc song moi o tren dat nuoc thu hai” (“40 years of establishing and building a new life in the new land of the second country”).
This Vietnamese-American leader also shared with me that the task and challenge for Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese residing in other countries is straightforward and clear: To be united and unified as a Vietnamese community wherever we live. To continue to understand each other. To be tolerant of each other and of people in the mainstream society. To focus on living well, healthfully, and happily in the new society and one’s adopted country, and to give our children and grandchildren bright opportunities and healthy futures.
When Saigon fell and the war ended in 1975, who was the victor and who the vanquished? Regardless of one’s perspective, certain facts left their indelible mark: More than 58,000 American troops died. Millions of Vietnamese troops from all regions of Vietnam were killed. More than 3 million Vietnamese children and adult civilians perished. Millions more were left widowed and orphaned.
The U.S. bombing in Vietnam has been estimated to have been about four times greater than the combined U.S. and British bombing of Germany in World War II. U.S. napalm bombing and the use of herbicides in Vietnam scarred much of the landscape. The effects of the defoliant Agent Orange resulted in human deformities and cancers — monstrosities that will probably linger in Vietnam for generations to come. Atrocities were perpetrated by troops on all sides. The photo of the young girl running naked along the country road, her body burned by napalm, still sears our memories. The My Lai Massacre will remain a part of our collective remembrance.
During the war, on the evening news the networks reported the daily military casualties. The numbers broadcast each evening were surely obtained from the press releases issued by the Pentagon and government sources in Saigon. The numbers seemed to have the purpose of painting the war as “progressing well” and “winnable.”
Yet it was when news anchor Walter Cronkite, “Uncle Walt” as we fondly remember him, traveled to Vietnam and reported that the war “was not winnable.” At that point, President Lyndon Johnson said to his advisers, “When you’ve lost Cronkite, you’ve lost the people of this country.”
During the Vietnam War, the use of nuclear bombs was reportedly also considered by the U.S. government. Historical records indicate that President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger discussed dropping nuclear bombs over Vietnam, but Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird opposed the idea.
President John F. Kennedy, whose presidency saw the early U.S. military buildup in South Vietnam, later tried to find an exit from Vietnam. Kennedy’s assassination cut the plan short, and prevented the U.S. from extricating itself from Vietnam.
The U.S., too, was scarred, its idealism tarnished by the anti-communist propaganda that fueled the conflict.
For Vietnamese-Americans in the Bay Area and throughout the U.S., as well as for the Vietnamese in Vietnam along with all Americans, the healing since the end of the war in 1975 has continued. The history has not been forgotten, however. It must be remembered.
Today, the Vietnamese people are enjoying the normalcy of a nation free of war and with a higher standard of living. Vietnam’s natural beauty, rich culture and friendly people make it one of the top 20 travel destinations in the world. It is a strong developing economic power in Asia.
But challenges remain.
n A major challenge to Vietnam’s security today has been the continuing conflicts over territorial claims over the Spratly Islands between Vietnam and China, as well as China and her other neighbors, reminding us of the threat of war looming over this oil- and gas-rich region. Last year, when Vietnam called for international negotiations and adherence to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, China rejected it.
n Vietnam must be careful as it develops as an economic power. There is evidence that rapid economic growth has resulted in environmental degradation, including marine, river and waterway, and air pollution. Vietnam must address these problems seriously, as they pose significant public health problems now and in the future.
n Vietnam faces an ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest among the populace. The increasing economic inequality, unless addressed and resolved, would not seem to bode well for the overall quality of life, society and nation of Vietnam.
For me, the main lesson of the Vietnam War was best stated by former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, who ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern, a highly decorated Air Force bomber pilot in World War II and an ordained Presbyterian minister who was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, said in 2011, “I don’t know anybody alive today that thinks the war in Vietnam was a good investment for the U.S. It weakened us militarily, economically and morally. We went against our moral principle when we were carpet bombing a little country like Vietnam.”
Let us not forget the Vietnam War.
Let us not, in the name of misguided foreign policy, allow the government to send our young men and women abroad to kill and to be killed. Instead, let us strive to learn the lessons from it. Let us strive to work for a peaceful world, for ourselves, for our children and for all future generations. Let us reclaim our belief in the sanctity of human life, and turn swords into plowshares. As human brothers and sisters, we deserve to live in peace.
Chuc nuoc Vietnam hoa binh mai mai. May Vietnam enjoy lasting peace.
Anh Lê has worked with the Vietnamese-American community in San Francisco and the Bay Area for many years.