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Revisiting Vietnam: Both Here and There


No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now.— Richard M. Nixon, 1985

I actually have a favorite outdoor bench in Washington, D.C. It’s situated on the northwest edge of the Mall, just north of the Reflecting Pool. Seated there, especially before the trees bloom, I have an unobstructed view of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, the top of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome. With only a slight turn of my head to the right Daniel Chester French’s Doric, columned, marble Lincoln Monument comes into view in its full glory.

No matter how often I visit Washington I never fail to spend a few minutes here. For me, it all coalesces here, freedom, justice, virtue, mortality, promises kept and those unfulfilled, and somehow the focal point of this American triptych was Vietnam as exemplified by The Wall.

There is no “short course” on Vietnam. In July of 1945 at the Potsdam Conference Vietnam was a mere addendum to the larger agenda. The country was bisected at the 16th parallel, with the Chinese being given the north and the British the south, to rid the country of the Japanese. The French pre-war colonies were to be returned to them, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, after the Japanese were driven out. One month later the Japanese surrendered and Ho Chi Minh declared a provisional government based in Hanoi. In September Ho Chi Minh, quoting the Declaration of Independence, declared Vietnam independent. That same month the British and the French arrived in Saigon. In October of 1945, 35,000 French soldiers landed to occupy South Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s troops began a guerrilla campaign.

The United States provided thousands of advisors in the early years, but in 1965 sent 200,000 armed troops to stabilize the South Vietnamese government. Eleven years later a Communist Vietnam was recognized as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. During the conflict, the longest in U.S. military history (1955-1975), 304,000 Americans were wounded and in excess of 58,000 were killed. Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison High Schools lost substantially more men to the conflict than other schools in the nation. The average age of those who served was 19.

Purple Heart awardee Jan Scruggs was seriously wounded while serving in Vietnam from 1969-70. After his discharge he moved to D.C. to practice law. Realizing that the country was ideologically torn over the war and many returning vets felt dishonored, in 1979 he began an effort with $2800 of his own money to build a monument that would memorialize the contribution of the 2.7 million who served and facilitate a national healing.

With the increasing support of Vietnam veterans, the project went forward and Congress provided a two-acre site on the Mall, the first since the Jefferson Memorial. The criteria stated that it was to be built with donations only, contain the names of those who perished, make no political statement and be a place for reflection. The design was chosen by a panel of eight judges from entries submitted by both firms and private citizens. No veterans were on the selection committee.

The 1,421 entries were stored in an airline hangar. The design submitted by Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old Yale student of architecture, was unanimously chosen. She was enrolled in a course on funerary architecture and her design was also submitted for a grade. Ironically, she received a “B.”

Her design brilliantly captured the essence and spirit of the loss of life and potential, the conflict’s conclusion and acceptance, and healing as a result of Vietnam specifically and war in general.

The V-shaped memorial is 493.5 feet long and is made of black granite imported from India. Lin stated that Vietnam was comparable to a knife puncturing the earth, creating a huge rift that can only be healed by reflection and time. The Wall is the visual depiction of that journey through battle to restoration.

Seventy panels list the 58,256 names of the dead, denoted with a diamond, and the 800 MIA denoted with a cross. There are still 805 MIAs, and 451 names have been changed from MIA to deceased. Three hundred names have been added to the original inscription after dying as a result of war wounds; the most recent was a veteran paralyzed since 1982, added this year. No person listed as MIA has ever been found alive but should that occur, the cross would be changed to a circle. Eight women, all nurses, are listed on the wall.
The names begin at the deepest point in the monument, at the 10.5-foot panels. Start at the midpoint, at the name of the first person killed, and proceed east (right) until you reach the end. Then take the path to the western end and read to the right until you reach the midpoint and the name of the last person killed.

No reference is made to race, rank or religion; all are equal on the wall. The names are not alphabetical. There are 667 Smiths and 38 are named James. Instead, Maya Lin’s design called for them to be listed chronologically by the date in the order they were killed. Those who died together remain together on the wall, likewise, the first and last killed are together.

Visitors are encouraged to locate names in large books placed around the perimeter that give the location of each name. A significant number of veterans volunteer to assist people in locating names and making rubbings of the corresponding inscription. Volunteers may stand at any panel but it has been noted that they tend to position themselves near the one that contains members of their unit.

As you walk along the wall your image is reflected through the names in the highly polished granite. The experience is incomparable.

Though it is now the most visited monument, 4.5 million annually, in D.C., the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial was highly controversial when it was completed in 1982. To stem some of the controversy in 1984 Frederick Hart sculpted a life-sized bronze statue of three combat-equipped soldiers. The soldiers appear lost, bewildered and incredibly young. They gaze in the direction of the Wall as if stunned by the sheer magnitude of the losses.

A Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated in an adjacent grove of trees in 1993. The 7-foot bronze sculpture depicts three military nurses caring for a male soldier. The soldier rests atop piled sandbags as one nurse anxiously searches the sky for assistance. The 2,000-pound statue was the creation of Glenna Goodacre to honor the 265,000 women who served.
The Wall and the adjacent monuments are accessible 24 hours a day.

Visiting Vietnam

The Vietnam Conflict, referred to as the American War in Vietnam, resulted in the loss of more three million Vietnamese combatants and more than 1.5 million civilians.

A tourist tries a tunnel entrance.

“Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict….Such action would offer no solution at all to the real problem of Vietnam….The South Vietnamese have the basic responsibility for the defense of their own freedom.”  Lyndon Johnson in 1964

“Those who do not remember the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

Until recently everything I knew about Vietnam I learned from the movies. Just as the times changed and the storytellers varied, so, too, did my perspective on our participation. Hindsight may not be 20-20 but it does provide a greater sense of clarity and a broader view of events and their aftermath.

I set out to visit all of the places I had read about, the staging grounds for occurrences that would forever change the lives of millions of Americans and Asians. Once in Vietnam, I saw international hotels, gourmet restaurants and designer stores. There were luxurious fabrics, intricate carvings, fine artworks, spa treatments and nightlife, anything and everything to satiate the American appetite and earn our dollars.

I knew there was much more to the story and so I left the beaten path and sought the sites that relate the tales I wanted to hear, the story of the “American War” through their eyes.

In 1975 Americans pulled out of Vietnam, in 1976 the country was reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Eighteen years later the U.S. resumed trade with the country and the following year, in 1995, reopened diplomatic relations. In January 2012, Vietnam was temporarily seated on the Security Council of the United Nations.

A diorama depicts prisoners of war.

Numerous sites within the country interpret the American presence and the Vietnamese attitude regarding the conflict, but four in particular best capture a real sense of the times: Ho Chi Minh’s Tomb, the War Remnants Museum, Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton) and the Cu Chi Tunnel System.

Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex has achieved the status of a shrine for the Vietnamese, and the number of visitors, both foreign and domestic, reflects the significance of his role in the country’s history. The people — ignoring Ho Chi Minh’s desire to be cremated and his ashes divided among three urns positioned on three mountains in the middle, northern and southern parts of the country — began construction of an elaborate mausoleum in 1973. The Soviet’s embalmed his body and it has been on view since 1975.

Tourists visit Ho Chi Minh’s house.

A short walk takes visitors to the two houses he chose to live in, rather than reside in the more elaborate Presidential Palace, from 1954 to 1969. A smaller house he resided in from 1958 to 1969 was built atop stilts and the tour takes you past the area beneath the house used for meetings and to the upper-level living room, sleeping quarters and working room. In adjacent buildings are the entry to his bomb shelter, car, and the small house in which he died.

The War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, Saigon, opened to the public in the same year as the mausoleum. The museum serves as an exhibition center and a repository for the information and artifacts that interpret the “war crimes and aftermaths foreign aggressive forces caused for the Vietnamese people.” Tours are self-guided and include outdoor displays of captured weapons employed by the U.S. during the conflict, seven additional, thematic galleries and special exhibits. The eight permanent galleries are largely chronological and begin with the history that led to war. The special exhibit when I visited was comprised of photographs depicting Jane Fonda and her anti-war activities.

A Vietnamese market.

A 30-minute film details the enormous number of children born with birth defects as a result of toxic chemicals as well as citing statistics on the thousands of people more recently killed by unexploded bombs that have never been removed. Over a 10-year period the U.S. dropped more than seven million tons of napalm on the country and huge amounts of defoliant and herbicide to denude the countryside.

This museum, more than any other I visited, presented a documented Vietnamese viewpoint, and for that reason I highly recommend it. The gift shops on the grounds are excellent. They are located at the end of the tour route. The selections include handcrafts, artworks and the usual tee shirts and caps. This is a good source for souvenirs and memorabilia.

Hoa Lo Prison, referred to by Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton,” is considered of international significance. The majority of the prison was razed in 1993 but a small portion was maintained intact and opened as a “historic vestige.”

Originally constructed by the French for the incarceration of Vietnamese dissidents, it was a place of extreme torture and abuse under their regime. In 1954, under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it functioned as a state prison and beginning in 1964 it was also used for the internment of captured American pilots. Its most famous prisoner was presidential candidate John McCain.

Self-guided tours cover 19 areas including cells, interrogation rooms, bathrooms and an authentic guillotine. Many of the rooms are populated with replicas of prisoners, recreating conditions in the prison and adding an aura of realism. The “Detained American Pilots Exhibition Room” exhibits personal possessions belonging to the downed pilots. The highlight of these displays is McCain’s flight suit.

The Memorial Courtyard, near the end of the tour, showcases a sculpted mural dedicated to the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned here.

An aerial view of the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”

Approximately 30 miles north of Saigon visitors can access the 75-mile long, tri-level, Cu Chi Tunnel System and the Liberated Area of Cu Chi. The 125-mile, four-layer tunnel was begun by the Viet Minh and the villagers in 1940. They secretly dug at night and hid the displaced dirt in the rice paddies. In 1959 the Viet Cong entered the area and expanded them. The top has been removed, steps have been added and the tunnel has been enlarged in the areas open to visitors. Several rooms recreate the underground activities, and local, surviving Viet Cong soldiers lead the tours.

The first stop is a former meeting room in which a grainy orientation film is aired. The film is, as it should be, told from the point of view of the Viet Cong. Tourists are invited to climb into a non-enlarged tunnel entrance and later to walk a short distance through the system. Other accessible rooms are a shoemaker, hospital, kitchen, uniform maker and sleeping quarters, and demonstrations are given of the various types of traps constructed by the soldiers. The walking tour concludes with at a typical encampment and a traditional “snack” of pineapple tea and casaba melon. Visitors can buy items in the gift shop, eat in the café or purchase bullets and test their combat skills by shooting an AK47.

More than 60 percent of the population of Vietnam was not born during the conflict, but the legacy lingers and there are valuable lessons to be learned by revisiting that legacy. Lives were lost and we are left with monuments and memories on both sides of the world.