Opinion: Why the Vietnam War still matters

“I feel very connected to the conflict. My father was a member of the South Vietnamese military and because of his standing in the military … we were sponsored into a Navy base in Arkansas,” said Annie Nguyen — a professor here at UW Tacoma — remembering her family’s story of leaving Vietnam shortly after the war ended.

She identifies this as an essential turning point in her life.

“My father’s military experiences is really where my family’s story starts and ends … if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here,” said Nguyen.

Her father served in the South Vietnamese navy and managed to escape via his American military connections after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. Her family’s story of leaving Vietnam for America or another nearby country is not a peculiar story, either — up to 2 million Vietnamese left their home country after the end of the war to flee political persecution or to find better socioeconomic opportunities.

To many Americans today, the Vietnam War is an obscure conflict that still haunts our collective conscience. Many oversimplify the conflict by boiling it down to sound bites and anecdotes. One will hear things like: “it was a long fought conflict that happened decades ago,” “it was the U.S. fighting against the expansion of communism,” and “it ended brutally and unceremoniously with the fall of South Vietnam.” The war — as well as these modern perceptions of it — still affect both Americans and Vietnamese who fought or lived during the war and their descendants.

Some continue to believe that a strategic victory was somehow achieved by body count ratios — despite the large amounts of misinformation about the size of enemy forces. There was also deliberate mislabeling of civilian casualties as Viet Cong, the militia arm of North Vietnam’s forces present in South Vietnam. However, there is a larger context of the conflict that is widely ignored by many — the struggle of the Vietnamese to create an independant nation and foreign influences’ effects on the outcome of the war.

For one, foreign intervention by the U.S., the Soviet Union and China made a regional conflict become a proxy war rather than a direct confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviets. However, the backing of both the United States in the South and the USSR/ China in the North resulted in political corruption and the violation of civil liberties in both North and South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese government was widely regarded as unstable, corrupt, predominantly Catholic and particularly hostile to certain religious groups — such as Buddhists — and political activists who wanted a more democratic and liberal South Vietnam. The United States helped administration after administration — after successive coups — maintain power through economic and military aid to fight the Viet Cong. The U.S. further justified its intervention as a “fight against communism” and used the previous Korean War to justify the theory of “containment” — preventing the spread of communist influence abroad.

However, the U.S. by no means maintained a moral high ground. The U.S. military committed notorious war crimes against civilians in combat zones — such as the My Lai massacre and the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant —  and aided an oppressive regime. Many historians and tacticians alike recognize that these actions may have influenced rural Vietnamese communities to aid the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese government was one in a long history of U.S. backed regimes created during the Cold War to combat the threat of communism, only for the regime to commit political suppression similar to that of communist nations. It should be noted that the North Vietnamese were aided by other communist nations such as China and the Soviet Union. The government in North Vietnam was also oppressive towards political dissidents and religious minorities.

Perhaps the larger aspect that is widely overlooked is Vietnam’s long desire to become an independent nation, separate from external forces that had controlled it for so long. First as a territory under the French, and then under Imperial Japan and Vichy France during World War II; Vietnam has been controlled, plundered and fought over for centuries. The Vietnam War was a continuation of this desire to be free, but intervention by the United States and the Soviet Union changed the narrative by focusing on who would become the “sponsor” of this liberation. Ultimately, North Vietnam succeeded in “liberating” the country from U.S. backed forces in Vietnam and claimed victory in the conflict — even though Vietnam was now under the political influences of China and the Soviet Union.

Nguyen also remarked how — when she was a Fulbright Scholar visiting Vietnam in 2001 — political relations and social attitudes towards Americans had warmed since the Vietnam War. However, the perspectives the Vietnamese — and Americans — had about the Vietnam War had remained relatively the same. While studying how American media covers the war, Nguyen discovered that in Vietnam, “…it was like that narrative was totally flipped on its head. You start seeing things from a very different perspective … the way it was framed [in the U.S.] was about how we had to stop communism from spreading. If you go to Vietnam, the story is that ‘we want independance, we don’t want western influences.’” Nguyen continued that overall, “The way we frame the war is different from how people in Vietnam frame it.”

Ultimately, we here in the U.S. must come to understand that the Vietnam War was about larger issues than the ones we prefer to tell ourselves. The will of the Vietnamese to have an independant nation was corrupted by external forces who funded and influenced internal politics to benefit themselves rather than the Vietnamese. If we are ever to have some form of final reconciliation about this war, we need to start with the understanding that the Vietnamese wanted to be free just like the U.S. did under colonization — and that both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union must repay the Vietnamese for the injustices and loss of life each committed.