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...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.