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Coming to Terms with the Past by Honoring Historical Truth: The Case of Fulbright University Vietnam

No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Thanks to a Google Alert, I learned that Dam Bich Thuy, founding president of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV), was at Carthage College, a small liberal arts institution in Wisconsin, to deliver the 2019 commencement address. During her visit, Ms. Thuy sat down for a one-on-one conversation with Carthage President John Swallow about the state of higher education in Viet Nam.  Below is a revealing excerpt from a local newspaper that offers some disturbing insights into her view of her own country, the US War in Viet Nam, and critical thinking.

A history lesson

While relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have improved in more recent times, the portrait was starkly different a half-century ago.

Thuy said Fulbright University Vietnam has used history instruction as a prism for students to peer more deeply into conflicts between nations.

Case in point: Thuy’s students watched an episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War. At the end of the episode, Thuy said many were sobbing and physically moved by the narrative they watched.

Recounting the conversation, Thuy said the students relayed to her, “We never knew the Americans suffered so much. We only thought the Vietnamese suffered.”

Speaking to the importance of critical thinking, Thuy said, “You need to see things from a different lens — especially for history. There are so many interpretations of history.”

Regardless of where higher education is headed in Vietnam, Thuy recited a quote about its transformative powers: “Education is the best way to heal the past,” she said.

While it’s true that “There are so many interpretations of history,” there is also context and immutable historical truth, which are too often cast aside if they are incompatible with whatever ideological ax the narrator is grinding, in this case, a decidedly US-centric one. The brand of “critical thinking” to which Ms. Thuy refers is part and parcel of a red, white, and blue world view that engages in historical revisionism and runs roughshod over the truth. She might wish to review the definitions of “critical thinking,” that include “the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence.”

While Ms. Thuy presumably believes what she says, her comments are also an example of pandering to the home crowd, telling the Americans in attendance what they want and need to hear, most of whom have no idea how many Vietnamese perished and how many continue to suffer because of war legacies such as unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange. It’s the same old bloodstained story. The US occupies, destroys, and walks away, with no desire or perceived collective need to remember the past nor to learn from it, to paraphrase George Santayana. History continues to repeat itself ad nauseam with no end in sight.

The Big Picture

Perhaps the students who watched that episode of The Vietnam War documentary should be required to read Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, which was translated into Vietnamese within months of its publication in the US. This book, which I advise readers to digest in small increments and set aside if they’re depressed, have been drinking, or before going to bed, is about body count as a metric for progress in the war along the lines of “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC.”

Perhaps someone could have informed the students that there should have been a national election in 1956 under the terms of the Geneva Accords of 1954, following the crushing defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. The most salient fact is that the US chose to ignore that provision in order to create a client state in the southern half of Viet Nam, making another generation of war a foregone conclusion.

Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the popular vote, according to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s memoirs, thus reunifying his country and staving off the 2nd Indochina War. Without the suffering, death, and destruction that war inflicted, mostly from 1965 to 1972, by the US, its client state, and allies, e.g., Australia, South Korea, and others, Viet Nam would be at a very different stage of development, most likely in the same league as Singapore.  Most importantly, 3.8 million Vietnamese, over half of whom were civilians, and 58,300 Americans, would not have lost their lives.

Perhaps someone could have made the point that those Vietnamese who fought against the US were patriots fighting for their country’s independence and that those who died were martyrs.  Most US soldiers fought for nothing except for themselves and each other in the fervent hope that they would return home with all of their limbs and not in a flag-draped casket, if not their sanity.

While the suffering of the Americans is tragic, it pales in comparison to that of the Vietnamese. Save the lion’s share of your tears for them and the sacrifices they made to defeat the latest in a formidable array of foreigner invaders. Put simply, the US had no right to be in Viet Nam in the first place; without the Americans and their weapons of war there would have been no suffering, period.

What a perversion of history to focus on US suffering in a war it should never have fought, but this sad spectacle is not surprising coming from an institution whose US-centric leaders thought it was acceptable, indeed, commendable to appoint a self-confessed war criminal as chairman of its board of trustees.  (It subsequently paid the PR price for this morally despicable decision.)

From the Frying Pan Into the Fire

FUV compounded that blunder by later appointing Bob Kerrey’s friend, Thomas Vallely, as chairman of the board of trustees. Vallely, who once referred to FUV as his “electric train set,” is on record as saying that he didn’t view Kerrey’s appointment as a mistake and was surprised by the backlash that ensued. In a 2018 interview Vallely said that Thạnh Phong, literally the scene of Kerrey’s war crimes, was not a cause for concern: “I don’t think Thạnh Phong is a negative. I think Thạnh Phong is an asset.” He referred to Kerrey as a “hero” because he dealt with the repercussions with “moral fiber” and because “Bob understands what human beings can do to each other when they become inhuman,” conveniently overlooking the obvious fact that it was well-armed US soldiers being “inhuman” to unarmed Vietnamese civilians by murdering them with automatic weapons and knives.

Digging himself even deeper, Vallely argued against “singling out Kerrey for criticism” because of the “sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in Vietnam, but especially in the densely population Mekong Delta.” In other words, what are 21 human lives when measured against the millions of Vietnamese who were slaughtered elsewhere? A small drop in a very large and bloody bucket.

Vallely’s arrogance rooted in nationalism was on full display when he referred to FUV’s “de facto autonomy” and the “two halos” over the university: “One’s called the United States government, and the other is called Harvard. Those halos are helpful.” Implicit in this statement is the notion that FUV is beyond criticism, like Bob Kerrey, because it enjoys the imprimatur of the USA and one its most famous institutions of higher education.

US-Centric View of History as a Chapter from FUV’s Playbook?

Ms. Thuy’s selective, US-centric interpretation of this past is nothing new, either from FUV or people close to the institution. One example is 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 US-educated Vietnamese woman with close ties to FUV’s leadership, it was a lame attempt to turn the tables on Viet Nam, as I stated in a May 2017 article.

She wrote about Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of the FUV board of trustees 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 US-Viet Nam relations.

The author came off sounding like an American dupe toeing the US line with a stupefying lack of knowledge about her own country’s history. In embracing the “US side,” she besmirched and dishonored the memory of the victims of the slaughter perpetrated by “Kerrey’s Raiders” in February 1969, thereby choosing the victimizers over the victims and betraying historical truth.

Enter Bao Ninh: The US War in Viet Nam as a “Civil War”?

Coincidentally, the same month that FUV president, Dam Bich Thuy was in the US, Bao Ninh, author of The Sorrow of War, flew down to Ho Chi Minh City and made a rare public appearance to speak to FUV students and faculty. In an official FUV article, presumably written by a student, the author noted that most of the questions came from undergraduate students, adding “Listening to those questions, one can easily recognize the inquirers as thoughtful readers with social and cultural concerns.  It may be too early to predict what these pre-freshman students can do during their college years and afterwards, but what they asked in the conversation with the author of the Sorrow of War brings us joy and hope for a world of peace and empathy.” Praiseworthy sentiments but I wonder exactly what Bao Ninh told them about the war. Was it something that fit neatly into and reinforced FUV’s pattern of US-centric statements and actions?

In the ninth episode of The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, entitled A Disrespectful Loyalty (May 1970-March 1973), Bao Ninh described the US War in Viet Nam as a “civil war” in the following context: “We ate the same rice, drank the same water. We shared the same culture, the same music. We were cowardly in the same way. We were brave in the same way. No difference. It was a civil war,” he said, looking sternly into the camera, with absolute certainty.

One colleague noted that Bao Ninh’s reference to a civil war, “completely omits the overwhelming and defining impact of the world’s mightiest military and the political machinations of the US, which forced Vietnamese to make choices that they otherwise would not have faced.” In other words, he failed to address the rather imposing elephant in the room who made the war that pitted Vietnamese from the South against fellow Vietnamese from the North possible in the first place.

While it’s true that Vietnamese from one region of the country were fighting and killing Vietnamese from another, it was hardly a civil war, based on a political definition. Impressionable young Vietnamese, including FUV students, who hear this message may not make this critical distinction and end up internalizing the false US-centric and overseas Vietnamese narrative, in some cases passed down from family who were affiliated with the Republic of Viet Nam, that the war was indeed a civil war between North and South that was literally a battle of diametrically opposed ideologies.

Most of the younger members of his audience may not be aware of the previously referenced historical fact that the war would never have occurred had the US been a signatory to the Geneva Accords of 1954.

Serving the Truth

Individuals and countries don’t overcome the past, in the sense of the German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past,” by whitewashing it. Festering wounds can only be healed with the cleansing power of historical truth not by revising history it to fit a false, self-serving narrative.

A US colleague who knows Viet Nam well caustically observed, “Isn’t it an inspiring example of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘liberal arts’ in the FUV sense that Vietnamese students are learning that Americans suffered as much as Vietnamese? Yes, indeed, 58,000 and 3.8 million,” in reference to the lopsided balance sheet of suffering. “With a ‘university’ like that, you don’t need Joseph Goebbels,” he added.

A Vietnamese student at Yale-National University Singapore (NUS) who participated in an April 2019 conference at FUV “New Approaches to University Education in Asia” wrote that “America’s legacy in Vietnam — both its violent and benevolent manifestations — besets FUV’s founding. FUV is a product of the Vietnam War, and now functions as a site through where American foreign policy interests continue to unfold. …Beyond my personal anger at the Bob Kerrey debacle, FUV’s claim as an independent institution is also rather questionable. Do we (Yale-NUS) want to engage with an institution that is complicit in perpetuating America’s imperialistic foreign policies in Vietnam?”

Education is one way to heal the past, assuming it is objective, comprehensive, and truthful. FUV has yet to live up to its billing as a university with a mission grounded in the liberal arts. If it is ever to truly become an independent international university, it must jettison the US exceptionalist mindset that infuses so much of its thinking and actions at the highest levels. If not, lingering suspicions of the institution as a US Trojan horse bent on molding Viet Nam into the United States’ image will continue to simmer.

More articles by:

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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