Vietnam Journey

What was that all about?

One-third of Americans alive today were born after 1975 when the United States was finally driven from its futile war in Vietnam. That explains an airplane conversation I had going from Siem Riep in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. My seatmate was a young man about twenty-six or twenty-seven dressed in shorts and tee shirt doing a quick vacation through Southeast Asia over the New Year holiday. He was amiable, intelligent, and a business manager at Dell Computers in Austin, Texas. As the short flight was nearing its landing at Tan Son Nhut Airport (the phrase springs with a surprising ease from my memory), he turns and says, "Wasn’t there once a North Vietnam and a South Vietnam. What was that all about?" I am stunned. In the two minutes left, I try to give a quick rundown of ten years of history that dominated my political consciousness and that of millions of young Americans during the sixties and seventies.

"What was that all about?"

What was it all about, indeed? The same point could be made about the young Vietnamese we encounter at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Saigon. These twentysomethings were eager to have us try the regional treats they were cooking for the festivities. Sweet potato beignets with shrimp. Delicious! Vietnam’s war with the United States? What was that all about?

When Bill Clinton visited Vietnam in the last months of his presidency, the warm welcome he received was widely commented on in the United States. As it turns out, it was a warm welcome in Saigon; his visit to the capital, Hanoi, was kept quiet by the government, as we heard from friends there. The welcome in the former capital of "South" Vietnam came, a long-time resident observes, because "people have put all of that behind them. Now, they want only a normal life." The obliviousness of my young American seatmate and his peers in Vietnam was remarkable and, it seemed to me, tragically shortsighted.

When I was a young adult in the sixties, Vietnam loomed large in my moral imagination and political consciousness; the war the United States waged there was, in fact, a major ingredient in forming them. As histories and memoirs have appeared over the last decade, the failure of our politicians and military leaders has come to seem ever more egregious. And yet, except for its afterlife in the "Powell Doctrine" (the military should never go into combat without the necessary resources, a clearly defined goal, and an exit strategy), the war in Vietnam seems to have slowly fallen into political and cultural oblivion.

The chance to visit Vietnam with close and knowledgeable friends could not be missed. My husband Peter and I said, "Yes"-immediately. Saigon, Hue, Da Nang, Hanoi were names from the war. Today, though Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world, these are bustling cities in an economically developing country. Streets are filled with Chinese motor scooters; the sidewalks covered with vendors selling everything from noodles to bicycle repairs. The countryside is lush with green vegetables. Rice paddies in varying states of cultivation are parceled out in crazy- quilt patterns. Streets have no stop signs and few stop lights. Roads are in varying degrees of construction or disintegration: This is a country without trial lawyers or liability insurance. Monuments, temples, pagodas have been restored for use and for tourism. Food is delicious and plentiful; coffee is good (the country is a major exporter of both rice and coffee); the beer is very good; the wine is improving. The visual density of both city and country means there is always pleasure in looking. The choreography of scooters, vendors, pedestrians is worthy of George Balanchine. Vietnam is beautiful and absorbing. Yet our visit was not exactly what I imagined.

Though I opposed the war, I expected to have to answer for it. I wanted to express my grief for the carnage, the Agent Orange, the napalm, the children left behind, the utter waste of a whole generation of Vietnamese and American soldiers. On the other hand, crossing the dikes that keep Hanoi from being flooded by the Red River, I was grateful that something-antiwar protests, political commonsense, sound moral judgment-had kept us from bombing them. As well, I was surprised by a piece of history that had slipped from memory. Visiting the original "Hanoi Hilton" (there is now a real Hilton), where U.S. pilots were held as prisoners of war, reminded me that the United States had not been the only, or most powerful, enemy of Vietnamese independence. The large relief on the wall of the prison (Hoa Lo) memorializes the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were tortured and guillotined by the French until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. France finally ended its colonial regime there in 1956 with the country divided between north and south at the seventeenth parallel. That’s when the United States took over.

But for all my expectations, nobody asked for an apology. The war was barely mentioned. And in truth, there was so little evidence of war that it is hard to believe it ever happened. No doubt, the subtropical climate has covered a multitude of sins with greenery. A bomb crater, pointed out by a guide, could have passed as a gentle dip in the earth, so small, so innocuous did it seem. The armless or legless men begging on the street, I was told, were more likely victims of Vietnam’s war in Cambodia than of American mines or bullets.

My one effort to explain my feelings and expectations, to speechify I am afraid, was graciously received by a Vietnamese woman who listened attentively and then said, "Why should we be angry? Why should we want an apology? We won." And so they did.

Flying from Da Nang to Hanoi at 30,000 feet, I recall reading a bomber pilot’s reverie from the war about this green land touched everywhere by the blue ocean. The blip of a bomb hitting something, anything, hardly seemed to disturb a thing, he wrote, so distant were he and his plane from the human reality below. This became something of a metaphor for the power and indifference of the United States to the terrible damage it was doing. Now it seems that time, like the altitude of the bomber pilot, has had something of that effect on the memory of our war in Vietnam.

Published in the 2002-02-22 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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