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Commentary: Shared History of America and Vietnam

Mark Ashwill
Mark Ashwill

By Mark Ashwill

Buffalo, NY – I recently began a workshop for social studies teachers by holding up a T-shirt I had received as a gift from a Vietnamese colleague. On the front are both nations’ flags united by a handshake -- in commemoration of the 1999 negotiation of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Agreement.

I explained my reluctance to wear it in public for fear of offending, insulting or even enraging some of my fellow citizens, be they veterans, Vietnamese-Americans, or those for whom Vietnam is but a bad memory. Most nodded their heads in agreement. Such is the psychological divide that still exists between the two countries: one side “lost” the war but escaped relatively unscathed in terms of human losses; the other “won” but at an incomprehensible cost.

Every time I see the black POW/MIA flag flying at my local post office, I am reminded of the 1,700 American soldiers who remain unaccounted for. In Vietnam, this figure is a mind-numbing 300,000. While 58,000 Americans perished in what is logically known in Vietnam as the American War, an estimated three million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed, according to Stanley Karnow, author of the classic book and PBS special of the same name, "Vietnam: A History."

Imagine a Vietnam Veterans Memorial 50 times as large as the one on the Mall in Washington. As many times as I have touched the granite, read the names, and heard the whispers, I feel a gnawing sense of sadness, always searching for the name of a young man I knew who died in 1968. For me, it was a time when the war became more than images on a TV screen or talk around the dinner table.

Fast-forward 30 years. I wander around a cemetery in central Vietnam, just me, my camera, my thoughts, and row after row of white tombstones with the inscription “hero,” many without human remains, some with photographs of men, forever young. Year of death - 1946 during the First Indochina War against the French… 1968, 1970, 1973 in the Second Indochina War against the Americans. They, too, were “fathers, brothers, husbands, sons.”

In Vietnam, whose people and environment bore the brunt of the wars’ devastation, English is now the most popular foreign language, many young people are eager to learn about the U.S., and American multinational corporations are well-represented in the new economic order. Battles are now being fought between Pepsi and Coca-Cola for the loyalty of Vietnamese consumers, and in other peaceful arenas.

This is not to say that, 27 years after the end of the war, everything is forgiven and forgotten, especially among members of the older generation. Many have horrific memories they will take with them to their graves. They live out their years quietly, rarely giving voice to their pain, bitterness and sense of loss. As one acquaintance put it, if you ask older people about the war, many of them will probably say “‘Same old sad story, forget about it’, while inviting you into their home for a drink because they think the tropical sun might kill you.” She continues: “But somehow, the United States should know its part in that common history book.”

In the years following April 1975, Vietnam, the victor, remained a hated enemy, became an obsession, and insinuated itself into our national psyche, pervading our popular culture and forever transforming our political discourse. Thanks to the efforts of a hybrid alliance of corporations, nonprofit organizations and veterans groups, including former “guests” of the Hanoi Hilton, the U.S. and Vietnam have made more progress in the past seven years than in the previous 20 by normalizing diplomatic and economic relations. Vietnamese and Americans are coming to know each other through academic exchanges, business relationships, the work of nonprofits, and a rapidly growing Vietnamese student presence in the United States.

Vietnam and America have a special relationship born of bloodshed and redeemed in peaceful, productive and mutually beneficial interaction. It is what President Clinton meant during his historic visit to Vietnam when he spoke of how "the histories of our two nations are deeply intertwined in ways that are both a source of pain for generations that came before and a source of promise for generations yet to come." Those of us who are educators owe it to our fellow citizens, especially our young people, to teach them the truth not only about Vietnam as a war, but also as a dynamic, beautiful and captivating land that, for all of its problems, is at peace, without foreign occupation, and with a bright future.

Dr. Ashwill is director of the World Languages Institute and Fulbright Program Adviser at UB. He is also executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Buffalo.