OPINION: “Lessons Learned” Hide the South Vietnamese Perspective

On this 45th anniversary of the twelve-year war waged in Vietnam, we’re presenting voices from those belonging to the community most impacted by the war, and who remain an integral part of our city — Vietnamese Americans. Locally, the Vietnamese community has created a thriving Little Saigon in what were once abandoned and dilapidated buildings around Seattle’s 12th and Jackson. 

They have also built businesses and homes that helped revive the White Center neighborhood. Because of the generous sharing of their culture and cuisine, every high school student knows that a banh mi is a great after-school snack, and pho has become a household word. 

The Vietnamese community continues to touch every aspect of our society, from artists, composers and writers to doctors, nurses and other health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and all walks of life. In the past few days, the War has been mentioned only in the context of the deaths from the coronavirus surpassing the number of American deaths in Vietnam.
To reflect upon the past and contemplate the future, we share two voices from local second-generation Vietnamese Americans who have distinguished themselves in their work and community volunteer efforts — and who bring their unique perspectives on a war with ongoing repercussions: State Senator of the 34th District, Joe Nguyen, and longtime journalist and Vice President of Community Engagement & Marketing for the Washington Technology Industry Association, Julie Pham.

by Julie Pham

It’s April 30, and this year marks the 45th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Typically, this anniversary invites a flurry of opinions on “lessons learned” from the Vietnam War (just Google it and you’ll see what I mean) coupled with how those lessons should be applied to whatever foreign military, political, diplomatic situation the U.S. is currently mired in.

As a trained historian, I object to the practice of extracting “lessons” from history as if it’s possible they will keep us from sacrificing future lives and wreckage. Wars are not the result of faulty human strategy. Wars exist to challenge excess and unchecked ugliness within humans. It’s too easy — and arguably manipulative — to see a “failed” venture in hindsight and say, “we should have known better.” We live to learn from our failures. 

The many American historians, political scientists and journalists who focus on the “lessons of the Vietnam War” continue to place the American perspective at the center. This focus distracts from a key perspective on the Vietnam War, one held by millions who live and thrive in the U.S.: the South Vietnamese refugee community who once held allegiance to the Republic of Vietnam. I’m one of them. 

I came to the U.S. in 1979 as a two-month-old baby with my parents as “boat people.” We are refugees who escaped by sea. When we left, my father had just been released from three years of imprisonment in a “re-education camp,” where hundreds of thousands of the Republic of Vietnam military men and government employees were sent to be indoctrinated in communism. 

Short history review: Americans fought alongside the Republic of Vietnam (democratic South Vietnam), against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (communist North Vietnam) and the National Liberation Front (Vietnamese communist guerrillas in South Vietnam). When I refer to “South Vietnamese,” I’m referring to those who supported the Republic of Vietnam. 

I grew up with non-Vietnamese telling me some version of, “we’re so sorry for what we [America] did to you and your people in Vietnam.” Or “after what the U.S. did to your country, we owe you. You deserved to make a new life here.” 

These statements emphasize the “pull” factor in immigration. A desire for a better life compels people to leave. They also reflect an American savior mentality. The “push” factor is underestimated. The South Vietnamese needed to flee the communism imposed by North Vietnam for their physical and mental safety. Somali-British poet Warsan Shire put it best, “You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

The apologetic American attitude is an extension of the belief that the U.S. should not have been in Vietnam in the first place. Therefore, the Vietnamese rightfully won their independence. Many Americans assume that the war was fought between the U.S. and Vietnam, which is understood to be North Vietnam. But what about South Vietnam? What about the independence for the Republic of Vietnam my father and nearly a million of his fellow servicemen were fighting for, for decades? Where is that Vietnam in the narrative of the Vietnam War? Just because they lost, does that mean their freedom was not worth fighting for? 

In the quest for an explanation, a “lesson learned,” about the American loss of the war, South Vietnam is often written off as a puppet government and its military as useless sidekicks to its American counterpart. A scene in “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) demonstrates this patronizing attitude as an American officer bursts out in anger and yells at a South Vietnamese soldier saying, “Listen jerko, we’re here fighting for your country.” 

Those who see the Vietnam War through this lens typically imagine an alternative history in which had America pulled out earlier, the communists could have established an independent Vietnam faster, without all the senseless deaths. They might even point to Vietnam’s fast-growing economy as evidence. So, the communist version of independence couldn’t have been so bad if capitalism can thrive. What’s overlooked is that overseas Vietnamese have been sending billions of dollars home — more than $16 billion last year alone. That’s a lot of money in a country where the average GDP is $2,200. The South Vietnamese who found freedom abroad share what they earn with those they had to leave behind.

Here’s another version of alternative history: what if South Vietnam had become an independent, democratic state and stayed in armistice, like South Korea? What if South Vietnam hadn’t experienced a massive brain drain and instead their economic and cultural influence grew globally? Perhaps South Vietnam would have had a V-pop and the first foreign film to win an Oscar. Or perhaps South Vietnam would follow the path of other democratic Southeast Asian countries, like Singapore or the Philippines. 

What if? We don’t know. And that’s the problem with trying to draw lessons from history — there are too many variables to claim, “we should have done this instead.” 

It’s been 45 years since “the day we lost our country,” as April 30 is known among South Vietnamese. In communist Vietnam, it’s called “liberation day.” Independence is relative. When American pundits stop focusing on the winners and losers, perhaps they will begin appreciating why the South Vietnamese fought in the first place. 

South Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. experience the freedom we envisioned possible for an independent Republic of Vietnam. We’re proud to have the highest naturalization rates of any immigrant group and a high rate of registered voters. Vietnamese American Amanda Nguyen changed legislation to help sexual assault survivors and was nominated for a Nobel Prize for her advocacy at the age of 28. Speaking about her mother’s escape from Vietnam by boat, Nguyen said, “She went into death to seek life. She got me here, and we are all the dreams of our ancestors.” 

To recognize our own hopes, dreams, and aspirations in each other, regardless of whose independence we fought for, should be the most important lesson we seek to learn from history.

Julie Pham, PhD, is the author of Their War: The Perspectives of the South Vietnamese Military in the Words of Veteran-Émigrés.

Featured image: Vietnamese students in France protesting on behalf of an independent South Vietnam on April 27, 1975, three days before the fall of Saigon, taken by Tran Dinh Thuc, a Vietnamese student studying in France.