Immigrant Voices -- Time for Vietnamese To Be Heard on Vietnam War
New America Media, Commentary, Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa, Feb 23, 2006
Editor's Note: American academics, politicians and journalists continue to pontificate about the Vietnam War without the input of Vietnamese. New America Media contributor Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District. He was a Vietnamese Advisory Board member for the Oakland Museum conference "What's Going On," from February 2004 to July 2005. He writes for the English-edition of Nguoi Viet 2 and is an editor of Dan Chim Viet, a popular online magazine.
OAKLAND, Calif.--Thirty-three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the ensuing debacle, America has still not learned the lessons of the war. Despite its utter defeat in 1975, America loves to listen to its favorite sons and daughters rehash the war's shortcomings in the pretext of finding wisdom and relieving future generations of angst and sorrow. But the voice of the Vietnamese people, here and in Vietnam, is always an afterthought.
Thus for two days (March 10-11), the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston will host a conference on "Vietnam and the Presidency," under the auspices of the National Archives and all 12 presidential libraries. Conference organizers have invited an impressive list of political big-shots, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig Jr., Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), first Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Petersen, television journalist Dan Rather and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors David Halberstam and Frances Fitzgerald. President Jimmy Carter will speak via video. The organizers claim to address a wide range of issues and new information, yet curiously, not a single Vietnamese was among the invitees.
In politics, the media and academia, the voice of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is rarely heard. From the "Vietnam as History" conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., to the (USC) University of Southern California's "Vietnam Reconsidered" event in early 1983 to the recent Oakland Museum conference and exhibit, "What's Going On: California and the Vietnam Era" to the upcoming JFK library conference, the Vietnamese voice has always been circumscribed and gagged.
"Vietnam was a complex war and they need a more inclusive view," says Professor Doan Viet Hoat, a dissident who was released from jail in 1989. "The present situation in Vietnam demands it." Hoat and professor Nguyen Ngoc Bich from the Washington, D.C., area were suggested by various Vietnamese forums, but were not invited. Bui Tin, the ex-colonel from the People's Army of North Vietnam and the chief editor of Nhan Dan People's Army newspaper was also bypassed. Quang Xuan Pham, a Marine helicopter pilot in the first Iraq war and author of "A Sense of Duty: My father, My American Journey," says he contacted the JFK library to suggest Vietnamese speakers, "but to no avail."
By purposely framing the conference around Vietnam and the presidency, the organizers have effectively shut the Vietnamese voice out of the historical debate and sidestepped the issue of why America went to Vietnam in the first place. In case the pundits have forgotten, the American promise and premise was to secure the blessing of liberty and self-determination for the (South) Vietnamese people.
Or, as John F. Kennedy pledged in his 1960 inauguration address, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
These words ring hollow today, considering the lack of liberty in Vietnam since the less-than-honorable American Congress decided to cut all aid to South Vietnam in 1975 and effectively foreclose the dream of democracy there. Will the conference juxtapose Kennedy's "survival of liberty" with the Truman Doctrine's call to "support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures"?
Have Americans forgotten that we Vietnamese were fighting for our independence almost a hundred years before the United States decided to side with France in her attempt to retake Vietnam in 1946?
It was convenient in 1963, on the heels of the Buddhist unrest in South Vietnam, for America to engineer the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem so it could have free rein in the execution of the war. How ironic for the United States to take over the war when, in the struggle for nationhood at the waning of French colonialism, the Vietnamese nationalists and communists had in common, at least, a shared struggle for their place in the 20th century.
How disingenuous, then, for Nixon to "Vietnamize" the war, when beginning in 1961 Kennedy had already set in motion an American-led war. How ironic for "Vietnamization" when Robert McNamara and Gen. Westmoreland kept pouring American troops into Vietnam, where, in April 1969, American troop levels had reached 543,400, giving a false sense of security to the Vietnamese and convincing them that only a reliance on U.S. military superiority would bring freedom to Vietnam. Was it "Vietnamization" when Kissinger forced President Thieu to sign the Paris Accords in 1973 (ineffective as he was, Thieu was prescient enough to resist signing a death warrant for South Vietnam), when Kissinger knew all along that the North Vietnamese were not going to honor the accords?
In the end, there was neither peace nor honor for Vietnam, only a sell-out agreement forged by the Americans.
The United States squandered 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese lives in its last betrayal of Vietnam, leaving more than 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans and 80 million Vietnamese in Vietnam to sort out their fates in the 21st century. Now, more than 30 years later, those who consider themselves the top thinkers and the very conscience of America will sit at the JFK Presidential Library in judgment of America's past action and once again leave out the most critical players of all: we Vietnamese .