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  • History Friday: A Vietnam Meditation

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on April 30th, 2015 (All posts by )

    (Posted a bit early, as I have been reminded of the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I wrote a version of this early on at SSDB, around 2004.)

    Never been there, never particularly wanted to: to someone of my age, it is Bad Place, a haunted place, where ugly things happened. It gave nightmares to friends, co-workers, and lovers for years after it dropped out of the headlines and the six-o-clock news. Today in light of the current war, it seems as far away in time and nearly as pointless as the Western Front. You look, and remember, and wonder, knowing that yes, it really happened, but really, what was the point of it all? Platoon seems as much of a relic as Journey’s End, the image of a helicopter hovering over jungle with “All Along the Watchtower” on the soundtrack an image as archaic as doughboys with puttees and soup-plate helmets, marching along and singing “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”.

    But it was a beautiful place. My friends Xuan-An and Hai brought away pictures of where they lived in Dalat, in the highlands, where they married and lived with their three older children, snaps of cool, misty green pines and gardens of rhododendrons, and a horizon of mountains. Eventually, they had to flee Dalat for Saigon, where their youngest daughter was born, and Xuan-An’s mother came to live with them. Hai had left Hanoi as a teenager when the Communists took over there, his family being well to do, part Chinese, and immensely scholarly. He worked as a librarian for the USIS, and Xuan-An as a teacher of English and sciences, so they were on the Embassy list of Vietnamese citizens to be evacuated in the spring of 1975, with their four children, aged 12 to 2 years old. They were waiting at their home, for someone to come fetch them, on that last day. Perhaps someone from the Embassy might have come for them eventually, but Xuan-An’s brother who was the captain of a Vietnamese coastal patrol vessel came to their house after dark, instead. He had sent his crewmen all to fetch their families, they were going to make a run for safety out to sea, and he came to get his and Xuan-Ans’ mother. He was appalled to find his sister and brother-in-law and the children still there, and urged them to come with him straight away, and not wait any longer for rescue. They brought away no more luggage than what the adults could carry, in small packs the size of student’s book-bags, and the youngest daughter was a toddler and had to be carried herself. Xuan-An’s brother’s motor launch was a hundred feet long, and there were a hundred people crammed onto it, carrying them out to an American cargo ship, the Pioneer Contender, which waited with other American rescuers, just beyond the horizon.

    “Always take the family pictures,” Xuan-An said, when she showed me the pictures, “Anything else in the world you can get back again or something like it, but not family pictures. And jewelry. You can always sell jewelry.”

    It was a an article of faith among the South Vietnamese fleeing Saigon in 1975 that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong would treat anyone with the barest connection to the Americans and the Saigon government as they had treated the civilians in Hue, when they overran that city during the 1968 Tet offensive. Those on the losing side of a vicious civil war were not inclined to trust in the magnanimity of the victors, since none had ever been demonstrated heretofore. They took their chances and whatever they could carry and fled, by boat, and by aircraft. Xuan-An, Tran and the children, and her mother, who was always called Grandmother eventually wound up in a tent city at Camp Chafee, Arkansas, with thousands and thousands of other Vietnamese. Grandmother had made a vow, that if all of her family escaped, and were safe, she would shave her head, and so she did: when I first met her, her hair was coming back, an inch or so long. One of Xuan-Ans’ pictures was of Grandmother in her youth; she was gorgeous, and looked like the Dragon Lady of Terry and the Pirates fame. In the vast mess-tent one day, a young Vietnamese man began complaining loudly about the spaghetti and meatballs being served, and a little, elderly Vietnamese woman in line behind him asked him what his name was. The young man turned out to be the son a of a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, whereupon the elderly woman dumped her bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on his head and told them that if his father had only done his job better, then none of them would have had to be eating food like that. Xuan-an still giggled when she told me that story, and I wonder if Grandmother might have been the dumper of spaghetti.

    I met them all when our church began working with some other local churches and associations to sponsor and resettle refugees. They were the first of the families to be sent to us. We had spent a weekend cleaning out the tiny rental house we had found for them, and fitting it up with donated furniture, linens and kitchenware. As we were raking up and bagging desiccated dog-poop from the dusty little side yard, the owner of the house across the road came over and asked what we were doing. When we explained that we were setting up the house for refugees, he asked if we needed a refrigerator, and brought it across the road on a dolly when we said yes. The town was quietly, undemonstratively supportive: like the little elderly Vietnamese woman in the camp, I think a lot of local people felt that we had not done a good job, we had left a lot of good people in the lurch, and now we owed them. (Sunland-Tujunga at this time was a working-class, blue-collar sort of town.)

    Xuan-An and Grandmother practically cried when they first walked in, as plain and minimal as the house was. Grandmother immediately took over the housekeeping and taking care of My, who was grave and scholarly and her father’s pride, Liem and Tien, who were a year apart and for whom the phrase “irrepressible scamps” was specifically invented, and little Tao, who at the age of three became Grandmother’s translator when school began in the fall for her sister and brothers. They made an interesting pair, in the local Ralph’s’ grocery, a tiny elderly Vietnamese woman in black loose trousers and white blouse, earnestly picking over the fresh fruits and vegetables, and Tao, barely up to Grandmother’s elbow, translating from English to Vietnamese and back again. I am not sure that Grandmother really needed a translator, after a while: she had the most elegantly expressive face and hands, and the gift of communication without language. Somehow we always knew what she was on about, and she instantly divined whatever it was we were trying to get across. Without ever learning any other English other than the word “Hello”, Grandmother also become quite fond of the soap opera General Hospital. She did all the cooking, putting the cutting board on the floor of the kitchen and dismembering a whole chicken with a cleaver the size of a machete.

    Occasionally, Grandmother gifted us with a jar of homemade pickled vegetables, beautifully carved slices of carrot and daikon radish, and whole tiny onions, in a brine slightly spiked with fish sauce.
    Xuan-An and Hai meanwhile worked two jobs each, for a while. Like many of the 1975 Vietnamese refugees, they spoke English well, although the children did not at first. All summer, we gave them lessons, and they started in the fall at grade level. My would eventually go on to college, while Xuan-An and Hai bought first a car, then a house of their own, in the neighborhood where they had lived as refugees. Later, Liem and Tien would serve in the Army. In the early days, Xuan-An sometimes talked of going back to Vietnam, that it would be important for the children to remember their original language, in that case. I would look at Tao, and know that Tao would not remember anything but growing up in America.

    In a strange way and looking back on it now, perhaps in one way we did win that war. We skimmed off the cream of the middle class, the city folk, any of them with any ambition, any restlessness, any desire for more than what they had. It’s a third-world backwater, of fields of rice, and jungle, and rather lovely beaches, where they are trying to grow coffee, and induce the more adventurous tourists to come back. Failing that, maybe a factory for export shoes and clothing. You can buy a Coke in Ho Chi Minh City, so they tell me, and perhaps they hope for the Diaspora of Vietnamese, who came away in 1975 to return.

     

    23 Responses to “History Friday: A Vietnam Meditation”

    1. Mike K Says:

      I interviewed a young woman, when I was interviewing medical school applicants, who had been awakened by her father when she was nine. He carried her to a canoe and, with the rest of the family, they paddled out of sight of land where they rendezvoused with a fishing boat. They ended up in a camp in the Philippines for a while and eventually made it to Orange County where there is a large Vietnamese community. I hope she got into medical school.

      When I was on the admissions committee of the medical association, about 1978, we interviewed many Vietnamese applicants. Their original problem (I should do a blog post on this ) was that North Vietnam would not provide any records from medical school. What they did was to reconstitute the faculty, most of whom had made it to California, and they decided who had graduated, etc. That way they could approve graduates and California accepted their certifications. I talked to a number of them. Many primary care docs had the same patients they had had in Vietnam. The villages and neighborhoods reconstituted themselves. They all joined the medical association because it was important to have a certificate.

      I asked one how his practice was going and he said it was slow because he could not yet afford a van. It turned out that all the doctors had vans which picked up their patients since many could not drive. They would bring a group to start, then go get more and when they returned to drop off the next load, they would take the others home. They were a very hard working and patriotic population.

      The British Muslims are mostly on The Dole.

    2. Mike K Says:

      “We skimmed off the cream of the middle class, the city folk, ”

      This is also true of Cuba. Also, if the truth be known, of Ireland. An Irish friend told me they don’t like Americans coming back to look for “roots” because “they all know the cream left.”

    3. dearieme Says:

      I thought that this was interesting. I don’t know much about Vietnam; is the author broadly accurate?
      http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/the-fall-of-saigon-extraordinary-claims-give-extraordinary-hopes-science-and-statistics/

      I take it that “not only did Kennedy allow the assassination of the man who invited his help” is euphemism?

    4. Robert Schwartz Says:

      For many long years, I believed the popular version of the Vietnam War. That the United States had been defeated and that we fled Saigon in 1975 with our tails between our legs. It is only in the past 15 years as a result of our confrontation with Islamic Jihad, and the requisite visitation with the US role in the world, that I began to reassess my knowledge of what was not yet history to me, but current events. Here are the main points of my reassessment:

      1. The United States did not loose the Vietnam War. The United States defeated the North Vietnamese Army in the feild and forced North Vietnam to sign an accord, under which both sides agreed to end hostilities and withdraw from South Vietnam. A free and independent South Vietnam was the aim of the US in the war, and we had achieved it. By 1975, there were fewer than 1,000 American Servicemen in Vietnam.

      2. The conquest of South Vietnam by the North, was carried out after American ground troops were withdrawn and in violation of the North’s obligations under the Paris Accords. North Vietnam thereby achieved its war aims, but not by defeating the United States.

      3. The Congress of the United States, under the control of the Democrat Party (particularly its pro-Soviet Wallacite wing) aided and abetted North Vietnam in achieving its war aims by refusing to provide funds for a response to North Vietnamese aggression. There can be little doubt that a US response like the Operation Linebacker II bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972 would have halted the Northern offensive.

      I would like to call that Congress traitors, but under the Constitutional definition of treason they are most likely not since the United States was not at war with North Vietnam, and had no formal legal obligation to defend South Vietnam.

      Be that as it may, Congress and the Democrat party had the blood of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians on their hands, and were sufficiently treacherous to those the United States was morally obligated to protect, to earn them a rightful spot in the 9th circle of Hell.

      They have repeated that performance in Iraq, and proven that the United States will never be a faithful friend to any country as long as the Democrat party exists.

    5. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Dearie — yes, pretty much. Don’t know about the Diem assassination; there was nothing in the initial link that you posted about that. (Not to rule out something in the secondary links.)
      About Diem – I honestly don’t know. Not my area of interest or expertise; did Kennedy know, and just stand away? That’s what has usually been suggested, but I defer to the opinions of other Chicagoboyz and commenters who may have studied this in more depth. Excluding the customary trolls, of course. Whose possible posted ravings will be edited humorously.

    6. Xennady Says:

      I briefly worked with a guy from Laos who told me the communists had murdered his parents and other relations. Eventually, he ended up in the US, went to school, married, and by the time I knew him had several children. I’d describe him as middle class by the time I knew him, although I know he left Laos as a penniless refugee.

      Anyway, I reflexively think of that guy whenever I see Vietnam mentioned today, although he wasn’t from there. I find it grating that the US has- without qualms- resumed normal relations with the murderous regime that killed the parents and grandparents of so many American citizens of today, including his. Worse, I recall reading that the US had promised the murderous government of Vietnam we would aid them against China. This was when Hillary was secretary of state, so I suppose neither myself nor the Vietnamese regime should take those promises seriously. But what struck me, when I read that, was the possibility that one or more of the children of that former refugee could have been in the US military- and could have been ordered to fight, kill, and die to defend the regime that had killed most of their family.

      I found that extremely vile, somehow- and I still do. It says something- and not something good- about the US government, that it seems completely indifferent to the murder of our friends, yet seems to agonize about the deaths of our enemies.

      I suppose I don’t really have any more point than that, except to say that it happens to be my only personal anecdote of any refugee from SE Asia.

    7. Mike K Says:

      Dearieme, Vietnam was a civil war but we intervened and had many people who thought we would save them. Nixon and Kissinger negotiated an agreement that might, just might have held but it was abandoned by the large Democrat majority in the post-Watergate period when Nixon was driven from office by a Coup d’Etat run by the FBI. Story here.

      Long afterward, Mark Felt, who was angered because Nixon passed over him when J Edgar Hoover died to name another (well qualified) man to head the FBI, admitted his role as “Deep Throat.” Woodward and Bernstein were stenographers.

      Should we have gotten into the Vietnam war ? I would have been in favor of a Special Forces role which is how we began. It would probably have been unsuccessful but the cost would have been low and the men involved professional soldiers.

      Instead Johnson committed hundreds of thousands of draftees who were poorly motivated and who brought the drug scene back with them.

      The US Army was not well trained to do a counter insurgency war, just as it was not well trained for Iraq. In both cases, it learned fast but there was not enough time in Vietnam. Of course, Obama happened to Iraq.

    8. Mike K Says:

      “resumed normal relations with the murderous regime”

      I can’t get too excited about that since Japan did worse. We tend to befriend former enemies if we defeat them. Iran will probably be similar but the regime will have to go. I just hope we don’t have to kill 20 million Iranians, most of whom hate the regime, to do it. I would much rather have Iranians here than Arabs who have no history of civilization, contrary to myths about the Muslim “Golden Age.”

    9. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      dearieme Says:
      April 30th, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      No, it is literal. As buggered up as Ngô Đình Diệm was as a choice for leader of South Vietnam [Catholic in a Buddhist country, collaborated with the Japanese AND the French, elected as leader in a plebiscite that was less honest than an election in Chicago (or any putative election in 2016)] he was the leader that asked both Eisenhower and Kennedy for American help against the VC. The coup that overthrew him [and killed him and his brother] was backed by the US government which had decided that the Buddhist demonstrations against him were too much. General Dương Văn Minh was installed in power by our State Department and CIA.

      Sgt. Mom, that reminds me of what happened in Denver when the boat people arrived. Denver Social Services put them in “The Projects” with those who had been on welfare for 5 generations. Most of our refugees were Chinese ethnic Vietnamese, a large number from Cholon. Grandma/Grandpa watched the pre-school kids. The adults worked at least two jobs. School age kids had the job or excelling in school, and then adding a regular job on top of that when old enough [and still excelling]. There was an ethnic/cultural clash in the Projects.

      It ended in a couple of nights of literal warfare in the Projects, and all of the boat people were moved out to sponsoring churches on a panic basis. Businesses started being founded almost immediately, and the growing Asian sector of the Metro Denver economy sprang from that.

      I’ve watched some of those kids grow up. Some have taken over the businesses their parents founded; many are doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Those they left behind in the Projects are still there, with a few more generations added.

    10. Xennady Says:

      I can’t get too excited about that since Japan did worse. We tend to befriend former enemies if we defeat them. Iran will probably be similar but the regime will have to go. I just hope we don’t have to kill 20 million Iranians, most of whom hate the regime, to do it. I would much rather have Iranians here than Arabs who have no history of civilization, contrary to myths about the Muslim “Golden Age.”

      We smashed the former Japanese empire so thoroughly that too many people in the Western World have no suspicion of its existence, simply imagining the anti-Japanese hostility they’ve been told about- I will not credit them with the ability to read- was caused by nothing more than racism. Japan learned their lesson, North Vietnam and Iran, not.

      I have no interest in killing Iranians who as you note likely hate their regime but if people are going to die I prefer it to be them and not us. If the Iranian regime succeeds in their dream of killing huge numbers of Americans- alas. I want the US military- if enough of its capability remains- to make Farsi a dead language. I do not expect that it would succeed, I just want the attempt to be made- and more importantly known to have been made, pour le encourager les autres.

      I hate to write that, not having any ill will toward the people of Iran- but it seems to me that they have at least as much responsibility for the actions of their government as the inhabitants of Hamburg and Hiroshima did for theirs.

      It seems to me that one reason why the people of South Vietnam were murdered in great numbers by the North was that the Northern regime had taken measure of the US government and had concluded that it was safe to murder our friends and allies. Other regimes- Iran, North Korea, Etc- have since learned the same true lesson.

      It also seems to me that Americans have lately begun to learn that same lesson- that we will be thrown under the bus, so to speak, for the convenience of the regime. Examples are legion.

      Hence, I conclude that should the Iranian regime kill a large number of Americans- and the present regime do the usual and react with the typical casual indifference, followed up with a huge foreign aid program- the regime would face resistance such that it would end.

      And it would deserve to end. Since our present regime, however tenuously, is based upon the Constitution of 1789, I prefer that we avoid that eventuality- and retain the possibility of reform under the present Constitution, instead of having to start over, de novo.

    11. Glen Says:

      I was 9 years old in January 1968. The Tet Offensive was one of my first memories of the war. My father was stationed a Bien Hoa air base in 63/64. His tape recordings of the Presidential Palace after a the Nov 63 coup are wild.
      I think of how we could have possibly won the war quite often. One thing for sure, sending 18/19 year old draftees into the jungle was insane. Thanks Lbj, bundy, McNamara and the rest of the best of the brightest. I am convinced if Lbj had done what Nixon did in 64/65 it may have been enough. However, I always go back to john Paul vann and the ineffectiveness in 62 63 and I’m not sure it was winnable.
      I believe that given the stupidly employed, those draftees did the very best they could.

    12. Grurray Says:

      Also the South Vietnamese military had been trying to kill Diem for years. He survived several attempts on his life, mostly thanks to having the CIA in his corner, which in the latter days of the Kennedy Administration meant less and less.

    13. dearieme Says:

      If “the coup that overthrew him [and killed him and his brother] was backed by the US government” then I’d say that “not only did Kennedy allow the assassination” is indeed euphemistic.

    14. Jonathan Says:

      Xennady:

      The USA is the worst country, except for all the others.

    15. Will Says:

      Distressing that this topic would arise on a Communist holiday, as it were. It got me thinking about John Kerry, who was probably still in the Reserve when he met with the Viet Cong in Paris, and who’s doing the business these days with Iran. Just how deep the rotten streak goes. Failure to operate in the best interests of the country, failure to secure the embassies, failure to secure the border, failure to protect the city, etc. I think of those I know who served there and the anger and hostility they feel towards guys like him, and those who “opted out” that hang on to turds like Kerry and his boss. Very distressing.

    16. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Will: I shall quote myself: “the United States will never be a faithful friend to any country as long as the Democrat party exists.”

    17. Xennady Says:

      However, I always go back to john Paul vann and the ineffectiveness in 62 63 and I’m not sure it was winnable..

      I disagree. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if, for example, LBJ had used the US Army to seal off South Vietnam from the North, circa 1965, instead of deciding to send a half million US troops to mill about the South while leaving the North intact.

      Counterfactuals aside, I refer you to A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley. Briefly, Sorley argued that the US essentially won the war on the ground after William Westmoreland was replaced by Creighton Abrams, only to lose later when we cut off the South from aid, thanks to the traitorous left. I note also that the South defeated a Northern invasion during the so-called Eastertide offensive, with US support, in 1972. Years ago, when I used to argue politics in person, including such topics as Vietnam, I never ran across anyone who had even heard of that invasion. Universally, people believed the US Army had been driven out by the North Vietnamese, followed by the immediate collapse of the South. I always found that strange, but whatever.

      The USA is the worst country, except for all the others.

      There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the United States, only with the regime that misrules it.

      Distressing that this topic would arise on a Communist holiday, as it were. It got me thinking about John Kerry, who was probably still in the Reserve when he met with the Viet Cong in Paris, and who’s doing the business these days with Iran. Just how deep the rotten streak goes. Failure to operate in the best interests of the country, failure to secure the embassies, failure to secure the border, failure to protect the city, etc. I think of those I know who served there and the anger and hostility they feel towards guys like him, and those who “opted out” that hang on to turds like Kerry and his boss. Very distressing.

      You’re right, alas. However, what really grates for me now is how people like Kerry have been allowed to slide by with so little criticism from their supposed opponents. I still think George Bush would have lost in 2004 without the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth exposing so much more of John Kerry to the public- but enough about that…

    18. Mike K Says:

      “the US essentially won the war on the ground after William Westmoreland was replaced by Creighton Abrams, ”

      Abrams adopted the 1970s version of COIN and much of what Bing West wrote about in The Village .

      A side note for Jonathan: the Amazon banner shows up in Opera but not Safari.

    19. Bill Brandt Says:

      The story of Swift 22

      https://www.azpm.org/p/crawler-stories/2015/4/30/62648-last-helicopter-out-of-vietnam-rests-at-the-boneyard/

    20. Bill Brandt Says:

      On Netflix streaming there is this series Vietnam in HD well worth seeing. They have taken a lot of home movies and videos hidden and shown them for the first time. Each episode denotes an era so you progress though the war.

      A side note: I saw PBSs The Fall Of Saigon and an interesting fact jumped out at me. Because Níxon was removed from office, the North Vietnamese were emboldened to invade the South. After the mining of Haiphong harbor they were afraid he would bomb them if they invaded.

    21. dearieme Says:

      So the Democratic Party managed to seize defeat from the jaws of victory? Unamazing. Was Harry Truman the last leading Democratic politician of any merit?

    22. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Pretty much yeah, Dearie.

    23. SgtBob Says:

      I was there from Nov. 1966-Nov. 1967. I have read around 100 historical works and novels on the war. I am amazed that most comments reflect so little knowledge of the war and its politics.