I was advised that if I attempted to cross a street, I must steadily shuffle forward—not stopping or changing directions—and the swarm of motorbikes would steer around you. I saw on one motorbike five people: a father, mother and three little children. Motorbikes also serve in Vietnam as delivery vans carrying everything from chickens and ducks to clothing and huge bottles of distilled water to restaurants, retail shops and homes.
I visited My Tho in the Mekong Delta the next morning. We traveled across the wide Mekong River and then I carefully stepped into a small sampan, its hull barely above the water line, rowed slowly by a woman. The estuary was narrow, peaceful and lined with coconut and palm trees that provided shade. The experience was like stepping back in time.
When we returned to the main river, I suddenly recalled the fate of a fellow Navy officer, an Annapolis graduate, who left our destroyer after volunteering to serve on a Vietnam river patrol boat—like Senator John Kerry. Sadly, my shipmate Bill never returned home. One could easily imagine Viet Cong forces hiding in the heavy foliage along the riverbanks, ready to launch a rocket or mortar attack at the patrol boat.
My tour guide had briefly served in the South Vietnamese Army after he turned age 18. When the final peace agreement was signed in l975, the communists sent him to a “reeducation camp” for two years. He survived by follow two rules: one, don’t get sick (no medicine or doctors); and two, stay calm (don’t react to the guards’ abuse or provocations).
After those tough years, he was sent to work for eight more years on a collective farm growing rice. Sometimes the tide would go out in the rice paddy fields and fish would be left behind. He and others would secretly catch the fish with their bare hands, kill the fish out of sight under the water, and then hide them in their trousers to later eat for protein to bolster their meager rations. If caught, they would be severely beaten or killed, since the state owned the fish! Humor helped him survive. He still chuckles recalling how a friend caught a fish and put it into his pants—but the fish wasn’t dead and flopped around. As he admitted to me, his youth and will to live helped him to survive this ordeal.
In l976, one year after the Vietnamese communists gained power, Pol Pot’s Cambodian forces launched an attack on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta border area, hoping to regain what the Khmer Rouge claimed as historic Khmer territory. Border clashes between these two communist nations persisted for several years. When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in l979, occupying Phnom Penh and toppling Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the Cambodians felt liberated. But when the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia until 1989, setting up a new government, I was told that nationalist resentments grew against the prolonged occupation.
After Vietnam negotiated a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, China invaded Vietnam in l979 on a brief but bloody “punitive” mission. The Chinese lost 20,000 men in less than a month of warfare, but achieved their strategic goal of demonstrating that the USSR would not militarily help Vietnam in China’s sphere of influence. Thus, despite the fact that all four states had communist rulers, nationalism, historic border disputes and power politics led to conflicts among these “socialist comrades.”
The major purpose of my trip to Saigon was to visit the city’s war museum. My next book project deals with interviews I conducted with crewmembers and officers of the USS Maddox (DD 731), attacked on August 2, 1964, by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats while on “routine” patrol off the coast. An alleged second attack two nights later is more doubtful. The incident led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—followed by the massive bombing of Hanoi (Operation Rolling Thunder) and escalation of American troop deployments to over 500,000 that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon claimed the Resolution authorized.
The War Remnants Museum (a non-descript title) currently documents the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident, but maintains the U.S. Army (not the Navy) fabricated the attacks. This denial surprised me, since the Vietnamese government and officials have previously acknowledged the first attack by their “patriotic defenders,” while vociferously denying the alleged second incident.
When the war museum opened in l975 it bore the dreadful name, The House for Displaying the War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam). The name was shortened in l993 to The Museum of American War Crimes. The current ambiguous museum name reflects the restoring of diplomatic relations with the United States in l994, followed by the Vietnamese government’s efforts to attract American tourist dollars and foreign investment.
Despite the less inflammatory name change, the museum’s so-called exhibits still focus on atrocities committed by the United States and our then-South Vietnamese allies. Displays highlighted the My Lai Massacre, mutations resulting from spraying Agent Orange in the countryside, the devastations from napalm bombs and the tiger cages torture methods used in the South Vietnamese Phu Quoc Prison.
The museum also reflects the old adage, “The victors write history.” No reference was made to the torture of Senator John McCain and other downed American pilots in the Hanoi Hilton. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the use of terrorism, torture and violence against South Vietnamese civilians by the Viet Cong.
In the last five years Vietnam, by permitting entrepreneurial business endeavors, returning ownership of land to the peasants and welcoming of foreign investment, has achieved greater economic growth—and hope for a better future. A terrible famine in l991—in this normally rice-exporting country—served as a wake-up call. Vietnam is still run by the communist party, but economic growth, urbanization and modernization have unleashed powerful social and economic forces only beginning to be felt. Vietnam’s development appears to follow the Chinese model, but lags far behind.
I sometimes scratch my head at how rural collectivization under Stalin, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot’s brutal removal of Cambodia’s city populations to rice paddy fields and the Vietnamese collectivization campaign all led to economic failure—and horrendous human suffering and the deaths of millions of people. If they had read Karl Marx more carefully, they would note he recognized the conservative nature of the peasantry who simply wanted to till their own land. The grim cliché about how history tends to repeat itself is all too true!