The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam

We would ensure not only that Vietnam’s tens of millions of students, but also their education-obsessed parents, see the United States as a key partner in their personal and collective futures.

– US-Viet Nam Education Memo, Spring 2008

This fly-on- the-wall quote is from a US Embassy-Hanoi diplomatic cable that was leaked over a decade ago, i.e., in the pre-Wikileaks era, and quickly found its way into many inboxes in Viet Nam and elsewhere.  As I mentioned in a 2011 article, this manifesto lite offers telling examples and revealing insights into the use of education as a tool and even a weapon of soft power.

The power of leaked internal documents is their refreshing honesty and ability to confirm suspicions based on general information, hunches, and intuition.  As the unvarnished truth about a particular perspective or goal, they usually offer little to no rhetorical wiggle room for dissembling by their authors, who never imagined that their thoughts would see the public light of day.

In this particular call to action and request for additional funding, written by people I worked with at the time in my capacity as country director of a US education nonprofit with close ties to the US State Department, the US is portrayed as a knight in shining armor, with its renowned can-do attitude and munificent spirit, coming to the rescue of millions of desperate Vietnamese students and parents. It is an example of a messiah complex rooted in nationalismWe know best, we are the best, think like US, follow US, become like US, and all will be well.

Brainwashing in Action

Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing.

-German Proverb

In two Viet Nam-related articles I wrote in 2017, I referred to two young Vietnamese, both US-educated, both women, coincidentally, who metamorphosed into honorary US Americans.  These are Vietnamese (and other non-US Americans) who have chosen to embrace US interests over those of their own country and its people, even when they conflict with the latter and even when they contradict historical fact.

This is a disturbing trend that is not limited to Vietnamese students.  Think of it as the hidden agenda of the US government, which I detailed in the aforementioned article and which the education-related Wikileaks cables in Viet Nam made a little less hidden.

Both of these young women, the first a university graduate and the second a currently enrolled undergraduate, come off sounding like marionettes whose strings are being pulled by those whose view of history is revisionist, at best.  To put it more crassly, they sound like opportunists, sycophants, and sellouts.

Below are excerpts from these two articles, preceded by a brief explanation, that graphically illustrate my point about how metamorphoses into an honorary US American.  (The original source material is linked in each article.)

From:  The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position (26.5.17, CounterPunch)

Whose Past Demons Need to be Confronted?

The full throttle public relations battle to defend Bob Kerrey’s appointment included a July 2016 blog post entitled In Debate over Bob Kerrey’s Wartime Role, Vietnam Confronts its Past Demons that appeared on the website of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an influential and well-heeled Washington, D.C. think tank.  Written by a young U.S.-educated Vietnamese woman with close ties to FUV (Fulbright University Vietnam), it was an attempt to turn the tables on Viet Nam and a textbook example of chutzpah in the interconnected realms of politics and educational exchange.

She wrote about Kerrey’s appointment and the resulting controversy as a kind of blessing in disguise because it sparked a debate that “transcends the ethical merits of having a soldier who ordered the killing of civilians during the Vietnam War to reveal two crucial developments in Vietnam” related to U.S.-Viet Nam relations.

Following the author’s twisted logic, I guess we should be grateful to Bob Kerrey and those who tapped him to lead the FUV board of trustees for giving us this golden opportunity to “reaffirm Vietnam’s aspiration to become a U.S. strategic partner” and “prompt individuals to voice their candid opinions about the Vietnam War.”  Think of it as the ultimate version of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, or making lemonade out of lemons.  The hope of audacity?

Explanation:  The author, a US-educated Vietnamese (both high school and higher education), comes off sounding like a US American dupe grinding a red, white, and blue American ax.  Her lack of knowledge of her own country’s history is appalling obvious.  In taking the “US side,” she besmirches and dishonors the memory of the victims of that slaughter perpetrated by “Kerrey’s Raiders” and essentially betrays the interests of her country and historical truth.  The “close ties” to FUV are very close indeed, which makes the half-empty side of me wonder if this wasn’t orchestrated as some sort of team effort.

Sheclearly needs to learn more about the history of the American War in Viet Nam.  Even better, I would recommend that she and her family take a trip to the Mekong Delta village where Kerrey and his unit committed their war crimes to speak with the survivors, pray at the graves of the victims, and offer to help those in need, including a woman who is still in need of medical treatment for a knee that got in the way of automatic weapons fire.

From: Just Because the Golden Arches are in Vietnam Doesn’t Mean the US Won the War (5.5.17, CounterPunch)

Reality Check

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.

Explanation: This young woman,an alumna of one of Hanoi’s top public high schools, also needs to review (or study) recent Vietnamese history, and perhaps have another conversation with her grandfather in order to revisit this issue.  My guess is one of her mentors is at the Independence Institute (II) in Denver, where she did an internship in the summer of 2016, and/or the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in Atlanta, which originally published her essay and, presumably, shared it with a Newsweekeditor who didn’t know any better. (Both are “libertarian think tanks.”)

The American War was not a war between “North” and “South” Viet Nam, i.e., a civil war, nor was it a battle of ideologies.  She should learn to think for herself not parrot the party line of the II, the FEE, the US establishment, and the hardline Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans, or wherever.

Pity Without Context

Another Vietnamese student, let’s call her Linh, who attended a talented and gifted high school back home and is now enrolled in a highly selective private liberal arts university in the US, wrote a blog post for her institution’s literary magazine about a recent discovery that “Not only did the Vietnam War devastate Vietnam, but it also inflicted a scar on thousands of refugees having to flee from their own land.”  This was in reference to the hundreds of thousands of fellow Vietnamese who swelled the ranks of the global Vietnamese diaspora, some as immigrants and most as refugees.

Linh speaks of Black April, “the day that marks the Fall of Saigon” and Vietnamese-American community that “mourns the loss of their country,” evoking the old canard about Vietnamese in a divided Viet Nam, “…we are not đồng bào—born from the same womb, but we are enemies.”

What she fails to inform her readers, assuming she is aware of this historical fact herself, is that the Fall of Saigon, a term used by the vanquished and their benefactor, was actually the Liberation of Saigon for the vast majority of Vietnamese living in the former Republic of Viet Nam (RVN).  It was the final chapter in a long and bloody war when RVN soldiers took off their uniforms and dropped their weapons, literally, in countless cases, knowing that the end was near, and resistance was futile.

Not once does the name of the rather imposing elephant in the room, the cause of her country’s wholesale suffering, appear in Linh’s heartfelt essay: the United States of America. After all, the RVN, or “South Viet Nam,” was not a legitimate geopolitical entity with widespread popular support but rather an authoritarian client state propped up and bankrolled by the US, just as the US had provided the lion’s share of funding for the last gasps of French colonialism in Viet Nam.

The Geneva Accords of 1954, after the military coup de grâce that was devastating delivered to the French by the Việt Minh at Điện Biên Phủ, stipulated that Viet Nam was to be temporarily divided into two zones until a national election in 1956.  It was none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later wrote that Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the popular vote, thereby averting a 2ndIndochina War.  Sadly, the US chose not to support this peace agreement at a pivotal moment in history, making the American War in Viet Nam inevitable.

Thus, it was not about “us vs. them” but Vietnamese patriots vs. the US occupier and fellow Vietnamese who cast their lot with an imperialist power in the name of anti-Communism.  It was a war of national liberation whose goals were simple and two-fold:  1) expel the latest foreign invader; and 2) unify the country.

While the plight of the boat people is a tragedy of epic proportions, Linh overlooks the historical context of the events leading up to their decision to leave their (her) homeland and who was ultimately responsible.  Many supporters of the Saigon regime had supported the French. They simply shifted their loyalties from one foreign occupying force to another.  In doing so, she swallows the revisionist US and RVN party line hook, line, and sinker.

The Reality of Ideological Manipulation

From a foreign policy perspective, these examples illustrate a tried-and-true strategy of co-opting local elites, one way of influencing local policy and practice in a way that is most closely aligned with US “national interests”.  This is soft power at its most effective and insidious.

This issue is a concern and topic of discussion among some senior members of Viet Nam’s political leadership.  Nguyễn Phú Trọng, General Secretary of the Communist Party and, since October 2018, President, referred to this in December 2017, albeit opaquely, when he said that young people “have been manipulated by hostile forces to do things that run counter to the Party and the country’s direction.”

While this quote may sound quaint and propagandistic to the ears of some, including those whose statements exemplify the idiom, “the pot calling the kettle black,” it is not far from the truth.  More precisely, these young people allow themselves to be manipulated for many reasons, including ignorance, a desire for acceptance, and various rewards that result from representing US interests.

All of the above is incontrovertible evidence that intelligence, like a skill set, can be placed in the service of a specific government, company, or cause, for good, evil, or that vast expanse of gray that is a blend of the two extremes.  What informs our thoughts, our statements, our work and, indeed, our lives are our world view and the values system in which it is anchored.

The Real Purpose of International Educational Exchange

In an interview about his book, Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education During the Cold War, Matthew Shannon showed his true ideological colors when he stated – in response to a question about what lessons US universities should take from the US-Iranian example in the 1970s in relation to partnerships with authoritarian governments – that educational exchange can help generate change around the world and enhance American influence and prestige. Change for whom, I wonder, especially if it is related to US influence and prestige?  The kind that only serves US political, economic, and military interests?

The notion of “winning hearts and minds”, a nasty slogan used during the US War in Viet Nam in which not many Vietnamese hearts and minds were won, and 3.8 million souls expunged, is not a justification for real international educational exchange, unless you represent the US government, the US Chamber of Commerce, or you’re a red, white, and blue true believer aka US nationalist.

Overseas study is a unique opportunity to learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the host country, all the colors of its social, political, and economic rainbow, as it were, a sentiment echoed by Senator J. William Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with international educational exchange in the country of his birth:  There is nothing obscure about the objectives of educational exchange. Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is…  [From the Forward of The Fulbright Program: A History]

My advice to these three young Vietnamese, whose stories I have shared, and others like them, regardless of nationality, is as follows: Learn more about your country’s history, the sacrifices made by previous generations, and the role of foreign powers in domestic affairs.  Learn about other countries as they are, not as some people wish you to see them.  Preserve your intellectual and spiritual independence and, by doing so, retain your integrity.  Finally, never allow yourselves to be used by people whose primary concern is their own country, especially when those interests run contrary to those of your country, and other nations and peoplesBe true to yourselves and to historical truth.

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Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005.  He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam

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