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As we reflect on the 42nd anniversary of the merciful and jubilant end of the American War in Viet Nam, I have good news to share with US Americans, especially those who remember, or came of age in, that turbulent era: Viet Nam is alive and well and, indeed, prospering in many respects. In fact, it’s faring better than the superpower it defeated in terms of optimism, dynamism, and hope.
This leads me to my second message. Contrary to what you may have heard from the US media, overseas Vietnamese, or other sources, each with its own ax to grind, the United States lost the war even though Viet Nam now has a free market economy. Sadly, this is a message that has not penetrated the hearts and minds of most, including those who should know better, among them a public intellectual whom I deeply admire for his courage in speaking out about important issues of the day and his sober recognition that he is a refugee not an immigrant.
Last December, Viet Thanh Nguyen, a chaired professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, described by Amazon as “thrilling, rhythmic, and astonishing, as is the rest of Nguyen’s enthralling portrayal of the Vietnam War,” made the stunning pronouncement in a TV interview that “the US won this conflict” (8:03) because Viet Nam adopted a capitalist system, what is officially referred to as a socialist-oriented market economy.
I could see many viewers nodding their heads in solemn agreement. “Yes”, I could hear them proudly and confidently saying to themselves, chests puffed out and hearts beating red, white, and blue, we belatedly yet ultimately triumphed because Viet Nam acquiesced and became like US. Wasn’t that our goal from the beginning?
The Big Lie
This is a line, a fairy tale, a lie that I’ve heard many times. It somehow makes US Americans feel good that the “commies” finally came around and saw the light. 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.
3.8 million of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s fellow Vietnamese and over 58,000 US Americans did not die in a war of economic systems or ideologies. The world is not binary and the cause for which they gave their all was not about a free market vs. a centrally planned economy. It was about Vietnamese governing Viet Nam without continued foreign interference, occupation, and war. Viet Nam won the war because it expelled yet another foreign invader.
Despite what embittered Vietnamese-Americans and diehard veterans who desperately want to believe, and want you to believe, that the loss of limbs, life and sanity were not in vain, it’s really that simple.
The “hardline communists” of whom you spoke, Mr. Viet, were also pragmatists – out of necessity. They made the fateful decision to bend rather than break with the Đổi Mới (renovation) reforms of 1986, which began to bear fruit in the mid-1990s during my first visit to the country of your birth. Viet Nam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is considered to be one of the great success stories of the developing world. It also ranks 5th among countries sending their young people to study in the US.
In spite of extremes of wealth and poverty that are characteristic of any rapidly developing economy, Viet Nam’s government has been praised for converting wealth into national well-being, i.e., helping to create a rising tide that raises all boats, certainly not a claim the US can make, where extreme wealth concentration and a resulting oligarchy are the order of the day. (20 US Americans own as much as wealth as 50% of the population.)
The Communist Party is not a monolith, as you know. In fact, there’s probably more diversity of opinion within this one party than in the US in which “there is only one party… the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat”, as another US writer and public intellectual, Gore Vidal, once described the US political system. I know this because Viet Nam is not a country I visit from time to time; I have lived here for over a decade.
Of Errand Boys (and Girls)
Have you ever been to Hàng Dương Cemetery, where about 2,000 independence fighters are buried, most in unmarked graves, on an island used by the French, South Vietnamese, and US Americans as a penal colony in which 20,000 Vietnamese died? Many US Americans who lived through that era know Côn Sơn, part of the Côn Đảo Archipelago off the coast of southern Viet Nam, a melancholy and now peaceful island, as the place where the tiger cages were “discovered” by Tom Harkin and Don Luce in 1970.
In this memorial cemetery is the grave of national heroine Võ Thị Sáu, a Vietnamese schoolgirl who fought against the French colonialists, was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, becoming the first woman to be executed at Côn Sơn Prison. Every night, a throng of people, mostly Vietnamese, along with a few curious tourists, make the pilgrimage to her grave to pray, burn incense, pay their respects, and leave offerings.
Before her execution in March 1952 at the tender age of 19, Sáu spoke of “the colonialists who stole Viet Nam and the errand boys who sold it to them,” in reference to fellow Vietnamese who did the bidding of the French and, later, the US Americans. You know that the official country of your birth, “South Vietnam”, would have ceased to exist in 1956, four years after Sáu’s death by firing squad, if the US had not intervened and ignored calls for a national election, as stipulated by the Geneva Accords of 1954. Those who supported the Republic of Viet Nam and US patronage in thought, word, and deed, especially in deed, were the “errand boys” of whom Sáu spoke.
It is said that on the morning of Sáu’s execution the prison chaplain offered to baptize her and “wash away her sins” to which she replied “I have no sins. Baptize the people who are about to kill me.” …I ask only for one thing. When you come to shoot me, don’t cover my face. I am brave enough to look down the barrel.” If you know this part of your country’s history and understand it, you understand beyond the shadow of a doubt that the war was not about capitalism vs. communism.
The myth that the war was a battle of diametrically opposed ideologies is so pervasive that even some young Vietnamese studying in the US have internalized it. In a summer 2016 essay entitled What Vietnam Can Teach Us About a Divided America the author – on the occasion of Remembrance Day, July 27th, a national holiday in Viet Nam for remembering those who died and were wounded in the service of their country, a Vietnamese undergraduate enrolled at a southern university and a graduate of one of the top high schools in Viet Nam, remarked that while listening to her grandfather’s wartime stories, she “couldn’t help admiring and yet pitying my grandfather, a soldier risking his own life and sacrificing everything he had for the ideology he believed in.”
Reality check: Her grandfather and millions of others who courageously fought against the US military, its allies, and that of its client state did so for the noble cause of independence not on behalf of an ideology. From a Vietnamese perspective, the war was not about competing economic and social systems. He doesn’t need his granddaughter’s pity; he needs her understanding, deepest respect, and eternal gratitude. He has mine, and I am neither a relative nor am I Vietnamese.
The US was not ultimately victorious because there are now Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Popeyes dotting Viet Nam’s commercial landscape. The US didn’t win because Pepsi and Coca-Cola are battling for the palates and wallets of thirsty, sugar-deprived Vietnamese, or because prominently displayed Amway advertisements greet visitors as they exit the Nội Bài (Hanoi) and Tân Sơn Nhất (HCMC) international airports.
Viet Nam won because its cause was just, its sacrifice supreme, and its military leadership brilliant. While April 30, 1975 was the day Saigon fell for the US and those locals who hitched their collective cart to the South Vietnamese client state, it was a day of liberation and celebration for most Vietnamese. It was the day Viet Nam became a unified, independent, and sovereign nation.
Mark A. Ashwill is a Hanoi-based international educator who has lived and worked in Viet Nam for over a decade. He is the author of Vietnam Today: A Guide to a Nation at a Crossroads.