by MARK ASHWILL
Photograph Source: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service – John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum – Public Domain
Dear Fellow Citizens,
I am reaching out to you as current official friends and former enemies of Vietnam because I want you to know the truth about what could have been, an alternative and viable path of history that both countries could have trod together for mutual benefit and a more peaceful world.
One milestone that inspired me to write to you at this auspicious moment is the 45th anniversary of the end of what you call the “Vietnam War” and what the Vietnamese logically know as the American War because it was a war that the US fought on Vietnamese soil.
Tragically, but not surprisingly, based on your history and foreign policy since the late 19th century, you chose the road to war – not once but thrice – the first time with money and materiel, the second time through a client state and, finally, via direct involvement until a quick withdrawal that was coined “peace with honor,” a Nixon/Kissinger turn of phrase that did George Orwell proud.
For you, there was no honor, only national disgrace, international ignominy, and a dark period of history that the US has yet to overcome, nearly half a century after the fact, in the sense of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a wonderfully descriptive German word that refers to coming to terms with and overcoming the past.
For the Vietnamese, there was untold suffering and wholesale death but also martyrdom and triumph. They emerged victorious and the US, the mortal enemy of the day, hastily returned home to nurse its wounds and attempt to justify the unjustifiable, a futile process that continues to this day and will only end with a national truth and reconciliation commission either on- or offline.
The Vietnamese had no choice but to defend themselves and do everything in their power to force the US and its surrogates to pack up and go home, and its client state to surrender. A history of invasion, occupation, and war taught them many survival lessons. Vietnam was left to pick up the pieces but at least it was unified and at peace, a lofty goal achieved and a longstanding dream fulfilled.
In addition to the 45th anniversary, another reason for missive is the upcoming celebration of Vietnam’s National Day on September 2, 2020, the day Ho Chi Minh (HCM) declared independence from the French 75 years ago in 1945, after five years of economic exploitation by the Japanese and over 80 years of brutal French control of all three regions of the country.
Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence
In an historic speech at Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, HCM began with words that will resonate with those of you who know your own history: All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Uncle Ho, as he is respectfully and affectionately known by the Vietnamese, quoted from your 1776 Declaration of Independence because he embraced that universal message of the Enlightenment and knew that it was not reserved solely for the country in which it originated. (Now you know why Vietnam’s national motto, Independence, Freedom, and Happiness, sounds familiar.) This could have been a turning point in history, the emergence of a peaceful, prosperous, and unified Vietnam. The US government once again chose to stand on the wrong side of history and refused to allow that to happen.
After quoting from one of your country’s founding documents, HCM went on to say that the French, whose national motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), which finds its origins in the French Revolution, have “acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.”
In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.
They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.
They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.
They have fettered public opinion; they have practiced obscurantism against our people.
To weaken our race, they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.
In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land.
They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. They have monopolized the issuing of bank-notes and the export trade.
They have invented numerous unjustifiable taxes and reduced our people, especially our peasantry, to a state of extreme poverty.
They have hampered the prospering of our national bourgeoisie; they have mercilessly exploited our workers.
HCM pointed out the obvious by acknowledging that the Vietnamese “wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French. The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.”
The First Indochina War
Sadly, the French were not yet finished with Vietnam in the immediate post-World War II era, in spite of the fact that the Vietnamese tried mightily to avoid war. Ho Chi Minh sent President Harry Truman a letter on October 17, 1945 in which he expressed the desire of Vietnam “to cooperate with the other democracies in the establishment and consolidation of world peace and prosperity,” asking why Vietnam was not part of the (Far East) Advisor commission “while France, which ignominiously sold Indo China to Japan and betrayed the allies,” was. How is it that Vietnam was excluded from an international discussion about its own future?
Unfortunately, his pleas fell on deaf ears. The 1st Indochina War with the French, bankrolled by your government, became an inevitability. Their crushing defeat in May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu in the hills of northwestern Vietnam marked the end of the eight-year war and the French government’s attempts to continue its exploitation of Vietnam, which rid its country of yet another foreign invader and occupier.
The Geneva Accords of 1954, which your government chose to ignore, stipulated that Vietnam would temporarily be divided at the 17th parallel – later to become the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – until a national election was held in 1956. According to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs and other US sources, HCM would have received 80% of the vote, thus unifying his country.
Your government’s contempt for this international peace treaty and a democratic election made the 2nd Indochina War inevitable, yet another missed opportunity. Imagine what Vietnam, the US, and the world would have looked like if this election had been permitted to take place? Imagine how many people would have the survived the 1960s and early 1970s and how many others would have remained intact in body, mind, and spirit?
The Second Indochina War
Once again, it could have been otherwise. When they met in May 1961, the French president Charles de Gaulle spoke these prophetic words to President John F. Kennedy: “You will find that intervention in this area will be an endless entanglement. Once a nation has been aroused, no foreign power, however strong, can impose its will upon it. You will discover this for yourselves. For even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you. The ideology which you invoke will make no difference. Indeed, in the eyes of the masses it will become identified with your will to power. That is why the more you become involved out there against Communism, the more the Communists will appear as the champions of national independence, and the more support they will receive, if only from despair.”
De Gaulle later said that “Kennedy listened to me but events were to prove that I had failed to convince.” As the war was heating up in the summer of 1966, President Ho Chi Minh emphasized the historic nature of the war against the US and echoed De Gaulle’s advice, stating that “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” Surely, that is a sentiment that most of you would agree with. It is the very foundation of your country’s creation. The reality is that your government is much better at paying lip service to certain ideals that actually translating them into practice.
Again, with the initial support of the majority, you chose the wrong fork in the road. You came to the southern half of a divided Vietnam, first as “advisers,” then as soldiers, hundreds of thousands of you, wave after wave. Many of you were initially true believers who, like your government, saw the world in black and white terms, good vs. evil, democracy vs. Communism. You came without speaking Vietnamese or knowing anything about the country’s culture or history. Your ignorance, arrogance, and ideological tunnel vision resulted in wholesale death and destruction in a country just slightly larger than New Mexico. About three million of you “served” in that travesty of a war, nearly 10% of that generation.
The US Legacy in Vietnam
You dropped nearly 8 million tons of explosives on Vietnam’s cities and countryside, nearly four times as much as was used in World War II, 10% of which did not detonate upon impact. According to the Vietnamese government, unexploded ordnance (UXO) has been responsible for more than 100,000 injuries and fatalities since 1975, leaving many of the survivors permanently disabled.
You sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant chemical, on 12% of Vietnam’s countryside targeting food crops, mangrove wetlands, and forests. This poison, which has seeped into soil, ponds, lakes, rivers, and rice paddies, enabling toxic chemicals to enter the food chain, has caused horrific birth defects and a long list of disabilities and illnesses in an estimated four to five million Vietnamese and counting.
Your military and that of your client state, the Republic of Vietnam, and other countries that joined you in this immoral, unjust, and unjustified war, killed nearly 4 million Vietnamese, over half of whom were civilians. Most of this slaughter occurred in a span of seven or so years – from 1965-1972. (In case you’re wondering how this is inhumanly possible, read Kill Anything That Moves – The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse.)
This reign of terror among the civilian population, Vietnamese families just trying to make a living and survive a war not of their making, included all manner of abuse and torture, the rape of women and girls, the poisoning of wells, indiscriminate beatings of people, young and old, and the killing of farm animals. What did you accomplish? Was it worth it?
Even after the war ended in April 1975, the US extended a trade embargo it had imposed on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (“North Vietnam”) in 1964 that caused considerable damage to the nation’s economy and the well-being of its people until it was lifted in 1994 by President Clinton, a year before the normalization of diplomatic relations.Your government is still searching for the remains of US MIAs, who number just over a thousand, nearly half of whom are classified as “no further pursuit.” Did you know that there are 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs, several hundred thousand “lost wandering souls” who have yet to find peace, according to Vietnamese culture, because they have not yet been laid to rest?
Many of your veterans never overcame that war, the defining event of their lives. They are the homeless, the addicted, the lost ones afflicted with PTSD who continue to take their lives on a daily basis even as they approach the natural end of their lives. Some have come back to do penance or have been doing the same in various ways in the US with trips to Vietnam. They are driven by a compelling need to make amends in their own modest way, to try to piece together what they and their comrades systematically destroyed, if only in their own minds.
Others still inhabit a red, white, and blue fantasy world of patriotic (read nationalistic) service in which the war was a noble undertaking. They throw out terms like honor, duty, and sacrifice that are akin to Orwellian phrases like “war is peace” and “freedom is slavery.”
Many continue to live with the trauma of what they witnessed, heard about, or participated in. Regardless of whether or not they accept the cold, hard truth about their generation’s war, most lost their innocence at a tender age and many struggle to retain their sanity even into their twilight years.
What the Vietnamese Were Fighting For
Over four years ago, one of your citizens who is a professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Vietnamese-American refugee, said in a televised interview that “the US won this conflict” – in reference to the US War – because Vietnam made the fateful decision in 1986 to shift from a centrally-planned to a free market economy, known in official parlance as a socialist-oriented market economy.
This is a fairy tale, a lie that somehow makes many of you feel good that the “commies” finally came around and saw the light. As one US citizen who has lived here for almost 15 years wrote, “It’s a psychological and emotional salve that reassures the gullible, the uninformed, and the nationalists that the sacrifices on their side were not in vain. The problem is it’s dead wrong.”
Nearly 4 million Vietnamese and over 58,000 of your fellow citizens did not die in a war of economic systems or ideologies. The fighting was not about a free market vs. a centrally-planned economy. It was about Vietnamese governing Vietnam without continued foreign interference. Vietnam won the war because it forced the US to exit from that bloodstained debacle.
The US was not ultimately victorious because there are now Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeyes dotting Vietnam’s retail landscape. It did not win because Pepsi and Coca-Cola are battling for the palates and wallets of thirsty, sugar-deprived Vietnamese.
Vietnam won because its cause was just, its sacrifice supreme, and its military strategy brilliant. This will come as a shock to many of you but 30 April 1975, the day Saigon fell for the US and those Vietnamese who hitched their collective cart to the South Vietnamese client state and its benefactor, was a day of national liberation and joyous celebration for most Vietnamese. It was the day Vietnam became a unified, independent, and sovereign nation.
Perhaps the more incisive summary of what the Vietnamese were fighting for and against and where the US figured in all of this is contained in a description of a battle in which Steve Banko, a US Army combat veteran, participated: One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that.
The Vietnam of 2020
This may surprise you but Vietnam, which was among the poorest in the world just 25 years ago with a per capita income of $277 per year, is considered one of the great success stories of the developing world, a bona fide Asian economic miracle.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, a temporary bump in the development road, Vietnam had one of the fastest growing economies in the world and was a land of serendipity and opportunity for millions of people. Last year, the GDP growth rate was over 6.8%, according to the World Bank, the second highest in Southeast Asia and 13th in the world. While this impressive growth, the result of strong exports and record foreign direct investment (FDI), has not benefitted everyone, it has lifted the economic boats of most Vietnamese.
Vietnam is benefitting from a demographic dividend with a young population (median age: 32.5) that is hard-working, open-minded, and forward-looking. Most Vietnamese possess love for and devotion to their country, the dictionary definition of patriotism, but do not have a cultural superiority complex, the essence of nationalism. Miraculously, Vietnam has become a start-up nation and the country du jour for investors in a variety of fields.
Among young Vietnamese who have the desire and means to study overseas at both the secondary and postsecondary level, nearly 30,000 are in the US, making Vietnam the 6th leading place of origin with an annual economic contribution of well over $1 billion to its national economy.
It is said that nothing reveals character, or a lack thereof, like a crisis. Viet Nam’s performance during the coronavirus pandemic and the results so far speak for themselves. Unlike your inward-looking country, in which too many people, including your political leaders, hold the nationalistic belief that it’s the “greatest nation on earth,” despite reams of statistical and quality of life evidence to the contrary, outward-looking Vietnam has proven itself time and again to be adept at learning from other countries’ mistakes and successes, i.e., countries as both cautionary tales and role models, in the grand tradition of comparative thinking and culturally appropriate action.
As a recent analysis How Vietnam Learned From China’s Coronavirus Mistakes pointed out, “In the case of Vietnam, the conclusions that may be drawn are that to effectively combat the pandemic, governments in developing countries need to be transparent and open to gain people’s confidence in government messaging against the epidemic and in order to win public acceptance of the need to limit privacy for the common good. …perhaps the most important factors should be the openness and urgency of the government to place the well-being and protection of life above all political endeavors.”
Those who live in Vietnam, both Vietnamese and expats, can be grateful they live in a country whose leadership took action that showed concern for the health and welfare of the people and that acted swiftly in the spirit of collective consent and action. Vietnam country has rightfully been showered with international praise for the way in which it has handled the coronavirus pandemic. The contrast with the US president and his administration couldn’t be starker or grimmer.
With 51 active cases and 0 deaths vs. over 835,000 active cases and nearly 60,000 deaths in the US, as of April 29th,Vietnam offers myriad instructive lessons for other countries, starting with the dos and don’ts of how to cope with a global pandemic. Vu Duc Dam, deputy prime minister, said last month that the total number of confirmed cases will not reach 1,000, if prevention measures are strictly adhered to (my italics). While no one can predict the future, he may very well be right, based on recent results. It is an extraordinary and potentially historic achievement worth aspiring to.
One of the traits of the Vietnamese people that inspires me is their optimism through thick and thin. Based on the results of a recent international survey, Viet Nam ranked number one in the world with 80% believing that the economy will recover quickly in the post-COVID-19 era. (The lockdown was lifted last week and the economy is reopening.) This confidence shared by eight in 10 Vietnamese will help ensure that their belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
China and India ranked second and third with 68% and 63% who share this belief. At the other end of the spectrum, those figures for the US, the UK, Italy, France, and Spain were not as rosy: 43%, 25%, 24%, 19%, and 17%, respectively.
One aspect of Vietnamese character revealed by this pandemic that could be viewed as a silver lining is that the war against a common viral enemy was waged with a mostly unified front. Could it be that this collectivist approach can be applied to other urgent and even existential problems such as environmental pollution? A tantalizing possibility to consider in the post-COVID-19 period.
Past is Prologue, Vietnamese-Style
Since past is often prologue, it should come as no surprise that Viet Nam has experience doing a lot with little. As the saying goes, the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fires, a reference to the fact that great strength comes from great adversity. Viet Nam’s history, including the past 75 years, is a graphic illustration of this saying. In line with the idiom “necessity is the mother of invention,” the Vietnamese are both resourceful and tenacious, as enemy soldiers can attest to.
In his 1966 book Vietnam North: A First-Hand Report, Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett wrote about the ingenuity of Vietnamese medical professionals in successfully confronting difficult medical and surgical issues created by another war that included bombs and resulting injuries for those lucky enough to survive.
While 1966 was a time of war, embargo, deprivation, and suffering caused by the US, 2020 is one of unprecedented economic well-being, continued optimism, and access to knowledge, experience, and resources.
Just imagine what Vietnam can accomplish in the post-Covid-19 era. Once the war against the coronavirus has been won, a crowning feat whose finish line is in sight, the Vietnamese will be well-positioned to harness this can-do spirit to overcome a wide range of daunting challenges to the lasting benefit of their country and the world.
Travel to Vietnam, if you can, to learn first-hand about the dynamic and inspirational path it is on. You will be welcomed as a friend in a place where the past has not been forgotten but where former adversaries have been forgiven. If not, move and notice your chains by striving to learn the truth about the Vietnam of 2020 from afar, a country that has solidified its status as a geopolitical outlier and prevailed against all odds.
A Mutual Friend