Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part I of an eight-part series.

The canal at My Lai, into which the victims were thrown – March 1968.

In most ways I was too young for Vietnam. I got my draft number, at age 19, several months after January 1973, when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger—to use a Nixonian phrase—“bugged out” of the South. In theory, American advisors and air power were to remain in place and keep the South in the independent, non-Communist game. That was the wishful thinking of a tough-talking, if by then delusional president.

Soon enough, the president himself was the “pitiful, helpless giant,” mired in Watergate and off to San Clemente (despite his mother having been a saint). When the end came for South Vietnam in April 1975, all the United States could do was fly its dependents and a few collaborators off the rooftops of Saigon, ending a war that for the Americans dated to 1965, if not the mid-1950s.

By then, I was a junior in college, and for me Vietnam was a montage of fleeting images formed over a childhood of flipping through Life magazine and watching the evening news on television. In high school and college I took courses on American foreign policy and went to “teach-ins” about the wars in Indochina, but at best my understanding of the issues was theoretical, not much more informed than those of someone who spent Saturday afternoons watching war movies at the local theater.

In high school, I remember struggling to make sense of the shootings at Kent State, the incursion (as it was called) into Cambodia, and the massacres around the hamlet at My Lai. Despite such calamities I found it difficult to condemn American soldiers sentenced to fight and die in the remote jungles spread around Vietnam.

Mine was the generation that grew up in the long shadows cast by the Second World War, in which our fathers had fought. While I knew instinctively from a young age that Vietnam was a lost cause, I still have vivid memories from family car trips in the 1960s of my mother waving to army convoys strung out along the interstates. I never attended an anti-war rally, preferring instead to collect and read books about Vietnam, always with the hope that I might finally figure out the meaning of the war.

I am pretty sure—thinking back to the late 1960s—that the first two books I read about the Vietnam War were David Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire and The Best and the Brightest. Both books were on the shelves of my friend Bob Koch’s library. He was a friend of my parents, and someone I admired. He had flown as a navigator during World War II and had been at law school with many of those who staffed the presidential administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was someone who could read the New York Times and add personal asides about the people making the front page. When I was in college, he encouraged me to read Halberstam’s books, the second of which was an indictment of the same ruling class in which I was growing up (although a lot Halberstam’s prose struck me as score-settling).

It was hard for me to equate the failures in Vietnam with the same men who were a presence (perhaps once or twice removed) in my emotional, coming-of-age life. I might not have known Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but it wasn’t unusual for them to be at meetings or cocktail parties with friends from our neighborhood, many of whom were senior editors and correspondents for Time and Life magazines.

On the military side, my father had served in World War II alongside many of the field officers, now senior Marine Corps generals, who were leading the ground battles in Vietnam. (He thought many of them should have retired as majors.)

Even though I struggled to understand what Vietnam was about, I did have some insight into the men who were leading the United States into those doomed battles, which made my emotions all the more confusing. How did they all get it so wrong?

The Vietnam War in Modern Memory

After the Vietnam war ended, followed by the Cambodian genocide (in which American bombers had played a combustible role), I had no interest in traveling to Vietnam, which, until the Clinton administration diplomatically recognized Hanoi, remained over the horizon.

Presidents Reagan and Bush waved the POW/MIA bloody shirt in the interest of prisoners of war who, allegedly, the North Vietnamese had refused to repatriate when the fighting ended. In the world according to Ron, hundreds, if not thousands of American soldiers and flyers, were being held in remote Viet Cong tiger cages and subjected to torture and brain-washing.

While I didn’t subscribe to the POW/MIA mythology (all wars end with many unaccounted for), the combination of war guilt over American atrocities in Indochina and the hardline government of unified Vietnam did not make the country one that enticed my travel day dreams. As John Quincy Adams said, why go abroad in search of monsters?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked as a magazine editor, and in the course of soliciting manuscripts, I found myself drawn to the narratives of the Vietnam War. At that time, Hollywood was enlisting its special effects so that the war might be shown on the big screen with either a happier ending (John Rambo: “Sir, do we get to win this time?”) or at least with the right sound track (Apocalypse Now, from The Doors: “This is the end, my only friend, the end…”) so the American audience could understand why we had to off so many gooks.

If I failed to warm to the war movies (who could love “the smell of napalm in the morning”?), I did find myself drawn to some of the Vietnam novels and memoirs that were then being published.

I read and admired Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk, W.D. Ehrhart’s Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine’s Memoir, and Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, all of which describe Vietnam as a variation on the disaster at the Little Bighorn.

These books described the Vietnam war on the ground, with the instruments of American enlightenment doing battle with the domino theory, using whatever tactics or weapons were at hand, including rape, Agent Orange, B-52 air strikes, and the summary execution of Viet Cong prisoners. Much of the Vietnam War sounded like a variation on My Lai.

By good fortune, my readings in the 1970s and 80s led me to a number of friendships with men who had either fought in Vietnam or covered the wars in the press. In some cases, I wrote letters to authors whose books I had admired, and their answers led to further exchanges, if not sometimes a meeting or a meal.

Among those who influenced my thinking about Vietnam was William Shawcross, the English journalist and historian, who in 1979 published Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. When it came out, I edited an excerpt for Harper’s Magazine, and the hours that I spent pulling passages from the galleys convinced me that the presence of American bombers over Cambodian sanctuaries pushed to dissolution a society already on the edge—over which lay several million deaths from the genocidal hands of the Khmer Rouge.

In those years I also spent a lot of time with Murray Sayle, who covered the Vietnam War for the London Sunday Times, and T. D. Allman, whose reporting in Vientiane and elsewhere had uncovered the secret war (more bombs from Nixon and Kissinger) in Laos.

I had first read about Sayle in Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (1975), in which he is quoted: “Economic activity in the South has practically ceased, except for the war; Saigon is a vast brothel; between the Americans who are trying more or less sincerely to promote a copy of their society on Vietnamese soil, and the mass of the population who are to be ‘reconstructed’, stand the fat cats of Saigon.”

Both Sayle and Allman, in our conversations, would give the war an immediacy that I had never encountered, either in my courses or through reading the daily press. And both changed my mind about never wanting to visit Vietnam.

Without knowing how I might get there, I began to think of Vietnam as a place that could be seen, and not simply a mythological landscape in which much of the American dream had dissolved.

First Trip to Vietnam

My first trip to Vietnam came in January 1993. I was then working in banking and was scheduled, at the last minute, to make a trip to Hong Kong. My meetings did not begin until Monday morning, so on the preceding Thursday night I flew first to Hong Kong and then to Hanoi, where friends were living on an assignment for several international organizations.

I don’t recall having any problems getting a visa, and I remember clearly landing on Friday evening in Hanoi and taking a taxi to house where I was staying for the weekend. The next day I borrowed a bicycle from my friends and went off to explore the city, which I found as enchanting as any I had ever seen.

In Hanoi in 1993 there were few, if any, cars or motorbikes. To get around people walked or rode in the baskets of cyclos—peddle-pushed rickshaws. The city’s architecture spoke more of enduring French colonialism than the efficacy of American bombers.

On a bicycle, I could go anywhere. I remember riding past the home of General Vo Nguyen Giap (he was still living inside) and Ho Chi’s Minh’s Leninist tomb. I am sure there were a few policemen directing traffic, but there could not have been many, because I remember my paralysis at most intersections, which were flowing rivers of bicycles and cyclos, none of which stopped for an errant American.

I biked around West Lake, into which John McCain had crashed his fighter jet, and past the Hanoi Hilton (formally Hỏa Lò Prison, but it was not yet a tourist attraction), and poked around the old city, where the leading items on sale were bamboo bird cages.

The city must have had a few restaurants, but the only one I remember was that at the Hotel Metropole, one of the few outposts of civilization in what was otherwise one of those Asian backwaters that often are the setting for a Graham Greene short story. (His novel, The Quiet American, published in 1955, is all you need to read, if you want to understand how the U.S. blundered into the war. In it, Greene writes: “‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’”)

Vietnam: A Bright Shining Lie

It was on that first trip to Vietnam that I read and very much admired Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which is both a biography of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, an early and devoted American warrior in Vietnam, and an autopsy of what went wrong in the war. The book is almost 800 pages, and I suspect I purchased a copy in an airport before flying east.

By then I knew both Vann and Sheehan, at least by reputation. Vann makes several appearances in Halberstam’s The Making of a Quagmire; he’s one of the few American advisors to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), in the early 1960s, who thinks that the Americans are embarking on a lost cause (although one that he believes can be reversed, by following his advice).

I recalled Sheehan as the New York Times journalist who had broken the story of the Pentagon Papers (the real war will never get into the Hollywood movies…), which he received from war critic Daniel Ellsberg. By coincidence, Vann and Ellsberg had served together in Vietnam during the 1960s, and at that earlier time both had been gung-ho to defeat Ho’s armies.

The tragedies of Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie are both the progress of Vann’s life (one of the lies in the book) and the story of the American involvement in Vietnam, which ends, as it began, as an illusion.

It would take me another twenty-three years before I made it back to Vietnam. In between, I kept up my reading about the war, but to the stack of novels, histories, and memoirs, I added road maps, railroad timetables, ferry connections, and airline schedules, on the assumption that one day I would take my library, so to speak, on the road.

Part of the reason that I didn’t make it sooner is that—as something of a travel purist—I wanted to begin my travels in Dien Bien Phu, located in the rural northwest of the country and the scene of the climactic French defeat in 1954. But Dien Bien Phu is as remote as some Pacific island battlefield, and every time I plotted its coordinates into my computer, I found that the air tickets would cost $1500, which was more than I wanted to spend to be reminded of colonial disaster.

Around the World to Dien Bien Phu

Only with the advent of discount airlines around the world did I revive my dreams for Vietnam. In 2016, on something of a dare (at least with myself), I tried to see if I could go entirely around the world on budget airlines and have the ticket cost less than $1000.

In the course of my price plotting on websites such as those of AirAsia or Pegasus, I figured out that I could easily route my low-cost self from Colombo to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and there be in striking distance (well, three days on country buses) of Dien Bien Phu.

When I clicked on all those “please confirm” buttons, I was as committed to Vietnam as were the legionnaire armies of French general Henri Navarre, who in the early 1950s was given command of the troops who were to have retaken Indochina, including Tonkin, Amman, and Cochin China (collectively what we now think of as Vietnam) for the glory of the French colonial empire.

The French fought the armies of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap from 1946-54, after which they retreated to what was called metropolitan France, leaving the idea of a non-Communist Vietnam to the so-called “ugly Americans.”

On that 2016 trip to Vietnam, I began in Dien Bien Phu (in my view an Asian Verdun) and then, after taking a bus to Hanoi, I traveled overland to Ho Chi Minh City (still often called Saigon), stopping in Quang Tri, Danang, Hue, and My Lai. But all I really did on that second trip to Vietnam was dip my toes in the rice paddies.

By the time I got to Saigon, I had run out of time and had not been able to see the Mekong Delta (the country’s bread basket) or the Iron Triangle, a deadly battle zone about thirty miles northwest of the city. Nor did I work out the best way to get around what’s left of the Vietnam battle grounds.

At Dien Bien Phu, I had hired a bicycle, and spent a long but rewarding day cycling among the hill fire bases around the town (Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominique, Eliane, etc.), all of which, by some accounts, were named after the mistresses of the commanding French colonel, whose full name was Christian Marie Ferdinand de la Croix de Castries. (He went to war with his tub, although the NVA got it. He also brought in the Bordels Mobiles de Campagne.) But to get to Khe Sanh and the demilitarized zone north of Dong Ha, I engaged a car and guide (at vast expense), only to discover that a “guide” in Vietnam is someone with a YouTube app on their cell phone.

In Saigon, in the mad-dogs and Englishmen heat, I took taxis and stumbled around in the city’s runaway traffic, but otherwise felt like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. (I didn’t see much, but managed not to take down any small shop owners with a baseball bat.)

On my next trip to Vietnam, I approached the Mekong Delta on a hydrofoil that descended the river from Phnom Penh. Only a handful of passengers were on board, and we cleared customs in riverfront huts near the crossing at Chau Doc, where I switched to what is called a “sleeping bus” (although it was daytime) for the ride to Vinh Long, deeper into the Delta, which is a sweeping landscape of expansive rice paddies and endless canals.

I had hoped that I might rent a bicycle to get around the Delta, but when that proved impossible I had no choice but to go around on the back of a motor scooter, driven by the desk clerk at my homestay inn. He took me to the 1963 battlefield of Ap Bac (a pivotal engagement in the life of John Vann and in the American involvement in Vietnam) and otherwise toured me around Ben Tre, which during the war had been a Viet Cong safe haven. Seen forty years later the land was simply rural Vietnam. When Sheehan was writing about it, it was Indian country.

On that trip I hired another motorbike and driver to take me around the Iron Triangle, which is near to the Cu Chi Tunnels. One of the great ironies of the war is that the Americans built a military base on land that was above a vast network of V.C. tunnels, which stretched to the outskirts of Saigon. But neither buses nor motorbikes struck me as a good way to get around the American battlefields in Vietnam, which like the war itself are forgotten corners of foreign fields.

An American Reckoning

On each of these trips I stopped at many of the American battlefields, including Khe Sanh, Danang, Hue, and My Lai. What I learned is that Vietnam has largely forgotten the American war. Yes, in many cities it is possible to stare at sculpture made from downed American aircraft or visit a monument to the Vietnamese war dead, who are usually buried under a soaring red star near some parked tanks.

Otherwise the Vietnam wars feel as remote and distant as does the Spanish-American War to most Americans. Nor is there much of anything (save for a plethora of American tanks and helicopters left behind in 1975) that recalls the American wars.

Saigon has its War Remnants Museum, which is devoted to celebrating the defeat and humiliation of the United States; beyond that I discovered that the war only lives on in the imaginations of its veterans or in the books that they have left behind. The same might be said about Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

At least that first long trip down the twisting spine of Vietnam allowed me to read about the war with more assurance and clarity. I read more books about the French Indochina War (Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall was one of them) and novels about the defeat at Dien Bien Phu (the best was Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions), and I decided, over time, to visit all of the principal American battlefields of war and write a book about my travels.

I might be covering familiar ground to many, but at least it would help me to understand what the Vietnam War had been about. (All of my travels are self-guided tutorials, as I only learn by seeing, reading, and writing, which perhaps explains why I grew bored so quickly in school lectures.)

* * *

For the moment I have stayed clear of Vietnam movies, including the Ken Burns stereopticon. A few times I have tried to watch Apocalypse Now but found the acting cartoonish. Nor have I gotten anywhere with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and any of the Rambo video-game talkies. Charlie might not surf, although that’s because China Beach, in Danang, is now a Miami stretch of five-star hotels.

I would rather read some turgid 700-page biography of Ho or Giap, full of all their self-criticism and party congresses, than endure 120 minutes of the Hollywood war picture industry—all of which requires a happy, morning-in-America ending, and few Vietnam war stories had those. (How about adding the names of the 100,000 veterans who have died from suicide or exposure to Agent Orange to the Vietnam Memorial?)

I cannot say I fell in love with Vietnam as a country. On the ground I found the traffic appalling, many of the rules byzantine, the guides largely indifferent to history, and the climate a challenge. The country looks and feels like a mountainous Holland, although it is covered with jungle, and much of the weather is a variation on the mists that cling to the ground in China.

At the same time, I found my destinations to be compelling, especially as so much modern American history revolves around what happened at places such My Lai, Hue, or Saigon. In Ap Bac or Ben Suc (in the Iron Triangle) I felt as I do when I am at Shiloh or in the Argonne Forest, searching for clues as to whether America is ascendant or in decline.

After each trip, I came home wanting to fill in more blanks, either in my reading or just in my imagination. I wanted to know why John Kennedy got the politics so wrong—he was there as a Congressman in 1951—or how it was possible for the tunnels under the Iron Triangle, so close to Saigon, to be full of Viet Cong. Most of all, I wanted to see the landscape where, it could be argued, the American republic turned into an empire.

In one of the most haunting books I read during my travels, American Reckoning, Christian Appy writes:

The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.

In my travels, I might not have found all the coordinates of this evil, but at least, by returning often to Vietnam or walking along the so-called Street Without Joy, I had the hope that I was headed in the right direction.

Up Next: In Vietnam John F. Kennedy takes up the white man’s burden, from the French.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.