A Vietnamese Restaurant

The street in Albany, New York, is located at the edge of a ghetto whose housing is often run down. About fifty yards away is a large brick charter school. A Vietnamese restaurant is located nearby. I can’t recall where I heard the euphemism that our connection in the US to some groups is that we consume their food, and that’s where our connections and intimacy end.

Given the wealth of New York State, that housing and the lives of many residents in the nearby ghetto is about the same as over a half century ago is telling! That the equation of militarism includes poverty and racism is a cliché in 2023. 

I have known the Vietnamese family that owns and operates this restaurant for many years. We are on a first-name basis, but that is where our intimacy ends. Our interactions are limited to buying and selling, but we have had long talks about the Vietnamese culture in Albany and the history of their family.

Danh (a fictitious name), is one of the two owners of the restaurant. His mother was Vietnamese and his father was a US soldier who had a relationship with Danh’s mother when his father was in Vietnam. The latter was not uncommon during the Vietnam War. The other owner of the restaurant, Tuyen (a fictitious name), gave me a print article a few years ago written about Danh in a local newspaper. That article told of Danh’s mother’s journey through Vietnam soon after the North won the war there in 1975. The details of her flight are harrowing, as Danh reports that his mother feared for both her life and the life of her son, as Danh’s father was a US soldier and such liaisons and the children coming from those relationships were unpopular to the extreme following the war.

The article, which I no longer have, portrayed the US war in Vietnam as noble to use Ronald Reagan’s incorrect categorization of that war. Danh’s life changed for the better in the US and his and Tuyen’s restaurant is a success.

A general lack of concern for the children of Vietnam, both during and after the US war, is of great concern. The photo of a Vietnamese girl with burns running from an attack is seared into memory, much as are the photos of the masses of innocent civilians killed at My Lai. The US never paid reparations to rebuild Vietnam following the war and the effects of lasting chemicals such as Agent Orange continue. Unexploded ordinance is still apparent across Southeast Asian countries affected by the Vietnam War. Children and farmers are sometimes wounded and killed by their detonation.

Nothing in the article about Danh mentions the US carpet bombing of Vietnam, the strategic hamlets, and the massacres of entire villages. The millions of people who died are absent from that writing.

About a mile or so west of the restaurant is the campus of the State University at Albany, a sprawling campus that was built as part of then Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s educational initiative of the 1960s. When the massacre at Kent State took place on May 4, 1970, the campus at Albany erupted into mass demonstrations. The university was a bedrock of protest throughout the Vietnam War and the US incursion into Cambodia (Operation Menu) that precipitated the protest at Kent State in Ohio. The US war in Cambodia had been going on for well over a year.

In October and November 1969, hundreds of thousands protested the Vietnam War both in the US and across the world. The Movement and the “Madman” (PBS, 2023) points to the threat of nuclear war in Vietnam by Richard Nixon, but both Vietnamization, turning the war over to the forces of the South along with massive US bombing, which proved disastrous, and the end to the military draft in 1969 through a system of a draft lottery that took effect in 1970, were complex issues that impacted the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War. These combined forces meant the end of the power of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

Nixon hoped that by getting the message of his willingness to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam that the Vietnamese and their leadership would cower. The Vietnamese were going to reunite Vietnam, which had been illegally kept apart by the US disregard for the Geneva Accords and the election promised in that document. US leaders knew Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam, would have won any popular ballot in Vietnam. His popularity as a national hero was unsurpassed in Vietnam until his death in 1969.

Nixon’s probable thinking through all of this was rational within the insanity of mass murder. Rather than nuclear war, he took action to take the wind out of the sails of the antiwar movement by further removing the skin in the “game” phenomenon. Without skin in the game, many walked away from the antiwar movement and moved seamlessly into careers and careerism.

Holding the history of protest at the Albany campus in mind and the protests of 1969 at the same time as knowing the history of the owners of the restaurant nearby is difficult, but it brings the specter of the Vietnam War and the larger war in Southeast Asia into somewhat of a perspective.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).