It’s interesting how many ways a story can be told. Major plot points line up, but everything else in between, the actual meat of the matter, differs depending on who is recounting the tale.
I first learned about the Vietnam War as a five-year-old toddler, wondering why my grandfather only existed as a picture on the altar in our home while my friends’ grandfathers lived with them in flesh and blood. Since then, I have been taught about the war from many perspectives, all similar yet so dissimilar to one another.
The first is from my parents, who experienced the effects of the war firsthand during their youth. My mother was a student in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) while my father studied in a Catholic seminary in a rural area, also in South Vietnam. My mother often spoke about the troubles after the fall of Saigon: how she had to sell all of her jewelry and belongings to take care of her family, how she had to travel more than an hour every other day to visit my uncle in prison (He got caught trying to escape the country), and the grief she felt when her own father died in what was essentially the Vietnamese version of a concentration camp.
While my mother and the other Saigon civilians faced financial struggles and drastic changes to their everyday lives, my father dealt with the more raw and dangerous side of war: the fear of death. Of course, I am not saying that everyone in Saigon was safe from enemy fires and natural causes of death such as starvation and illness. However, being in the economic center of Vietnam does have its advantages. If Saigon was bombed and devastated, Vietnam as a whole would fall with it, which was not desirable for any side.
People in rural areas, where most aggressions took place, not only faced economic problems, but also had to deal with these problems while avoiding bombs, M1’s, K-50M’s, as well as the other dozens of weapons and explosives by military forces from both sides. Even if one makes it out alive, the mind is forever traumatized by the violence of the war. To this day, my father still remembers cowering in the closet of his bedroom while the sounds of bombs and explosives surrounded him, not knowing if he will make it through the day.
Having two parents who sided with South Vietnam, my first exposure to the Vietnam War was quite negative towards North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. This sentiment completely opposed the views imposed by my teachers during my two years in a Vietnamese public elementary school. Students were taught to basically worship Ho Chi Minh and his efforts to “free” and unite the country. We were told that the Vietnam War was a victory for all of Vietnam, disregarding that the communist North Vietnam faced opposition from the democratic South Vietnam. Moreover, similar to how American students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Vietnamese students would have to sing, in my opinion, what is essentially a propaganda song every morning.
After moving to the United States, I was exposed to yet an entirely different point of view of the war. Communism was frowned upon according to my U.S. History textbook and the United States was preserving freedom and democracy by joining the Vietnam War. Although the book did point out anti-war protests among the population and the U.S.’s failure to prevent communism from taking over Vietnam, those details were briefly glossed over in favor of the heroics shown by American troops during the Vietnam War.
These pro-American ideals seemed to fit with the anti-communism/North Vietnam beliefs held by my parents. They made a lot more sense together than what I was taught in Vietnamese school versus my family’s experiences. I had wanted the world to be black-and-white, easy to understand. I wanted the Vietnam War to have a good and a bad side to choose from.
Needless to say, I was not ready for what awaited in Vietnam.
What I saw at the War Remnants Museum had me completely floored. In the United States, I viewed museums as a place of relaxation where I can stare in wonder at the displays and learn with a peace of mind. Here, any optimism I had turned into sadness, anger, and fear as I passed each exhibit. The walls were lined with photograph after photograph about the devastations of the Vietnam War to its people. I saw countless pictures of people running away from gunfire and bombs, people with their limbs missing or deformed from Agent Orange, and what I found the most heart-wrenching, children mourning the dead bodies of their families. The images were so vivid, so gruesome, that anyone can’t help but feel empathy for the Vietnamese people during and after the war.
Next to these images were “historical truths” about the Vietnam War. They described the atrocities committed by American soldiers and the “unprecedented” cruelty that the United States showed toward Vietnam. They told stories of Americans not showing hesitation to capture, rape, torture, and kill innocent Vietnamese citizens. They celebrated every American defeat while incriminating the Americans for every Vietnamese death.
There was even a quote of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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”. This was done so the Americans can be portrayed as hypocrites who pursue freedom but prevent other nations from doing so.
These quotes and facts explicitly pointed their fingers at the United States as the sole cause of all evil and destruction that occurred during the war and praised the communist party for helping Vietnam defeat the Americans and unite the country. As a Vietnamese-American, I was very conflicted on what to think and which side to believe. On one hand, I understand why the Vietnamese Communist Party held a strong grudge against the United States. If the U.S. did not interfere with the Vietnam War, South Vietnam would have fell much quicker and the country would have been “united” sooner. More importantly, it would have saved the lives of so many countrymen and their families. Perhaps less children would have been mangled, less people blown up by bombs, and less family bloodlines infected by Agent Orange.
However, as an American citizen, I felt uncomfortably defensive. My country was directly attacked by the images and quotes from the museum, which represented the mentality of many Vietnamese people. I was angry that the American perspective of the war was completely disregarded and ignored. As I walked through the museum, I had the urge to defend the United States, to explain that we joined the war as an attempt to preserve democracy, a fundamental principal of our country. Furthermore, even though many Vietnamese lives were lost during the Vietnam War, death is not uncommon during any war. World War II remains as the war with the most casualties, with estimates up to 85 million people (as opposed to 4 million for the Vietnam War). We just feel the deaths of this war at a much greater scale because the Vietnam War was the first war that was heavily televised and broadcasted across various medium.
These two opposing beliefs battled for dominance in my mind. Both failed. I decided that there was not a right and wrong side in this fight. While information about the war was much heavily censored and biased in Vietnam, both Vietnam and the United States were flawed in that they failed to fully acknowledge each other’s beliefs and personal impacts from the war. In the end, the Vietnam War was a dark mark in our history that devastated many lives. Instead of placing blames, we should honor the people that we lost.
It took me nearly a month to write this blog post due to the controversy around this subject. These are simply my own views, not those of my peers or associated institutions. I apologize if anything mentioned caused any offense to those reading.