The Vietnamese/American War Memorial Museum
Personal Reflections on the Vietnam War
This is a long post. I took many photos in the museum. Some of them are just too brutal to post.
Vietnam has recovered remarkably from the war. Visiting the museum makes me feel shame for this unfortunate chapter of American history.
The history of Vietnam is unfortunately one of many wars. Vietnam was occupied by French colonialists for three-quarters of a century. The French influence is visible in the architecture of many HCMC buildings, as well as in the influence of French cuisine on Vietnamese cuisine. The French converted the original Chinese character script to the more accessible Western alphabet.
Yet, no occupied country accepts the occupiers. (Think of the former colonial countries occupied by French, British, Dutch, and Spanish for hundreds of years, who finally gained their independence in the last century.) Vietnam, a French colony, was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. After fighting the Japanese, the Vietnamese turned against their French occupiers. Their independence struggle was led by Ho Chi Minh, the George Washington of Vietnam. The French were forced to abandon their colonization of Vietnam by 1975. At this point North and South Vietnam were two separate countries. North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, was supported by the Russians. South Vietnam was supported by the Americans, who occupied it following the exit of the French and the manufactured “Tonkin Gulf Incident” that marked the beginning of the US military campaign against North Vietnam.
I have a personal interest in Vietnam history, based on living through the Vietnam War from the 1960’s until its conclusion in 1974 with the American defeat by the North Vietnamese. I did not want to join the military and be sent to Vietnam. A common saying in the late sixties was: “Join the army, travel to exotic places, meet exotic people, kill them!” I traveled to Germany in 1969 to study in the “junior year abroad” in Kiel, Germany. After that year, I stayed out of the country, traveling to Sweden and then overland to India (for the first time). I didn’t return to the US until the military draft was abolished in 1973 at the end of the war.
The most thought-provoking aspect of our HCMC visit was the War Museum. What Americans call the Vietnam War is called the American War by the Vietnamese. Of course, the Vietnamese perspective emphasizes the suffering of the Vietnamese people from the American military. America lost around fifty thousand soldiers. Vietnam lost three million people, two million of whom were civilians. At the time, Vietnam had only twenty-two million people. Thus the American War led to the deaths of ten percent of the population. This would be the equivalent of thirty-five million dead Americans as a percentage of the current US population. The current population of Vietnam is approximately one hundred million people.
In current events, Russia is dropping bombs indiscriminately on Ukraine. Hamas fighters mercilessly murdered innocent Israeli elderly women and children. The United States military attacked the Vietnamese even more viciously. The US Air Force dropped more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II, utilizing B-52 heavy bombers. On the ground, the US Army poisoned the land with Agent Orange and poisonous Dioxins. They dropped napalm and phosphorous bombs, burning whole village populations.
The most distressing documented massacre was in the village of My Lai by American army Lieutenant William Calley, who ordered the massacre and destruction of the village of My Lai, murdering hundreds of poor villagers. I am very ashamed to say that Lt. Calley was a resident of my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, having trained at nearby Fort Benning. Lt. Calley was stopped by a fellow American soldier from committing even more murders (mostly by machine guns). He went to trial and was found guilty of personally committing twenty-two murders and ordering his troops to follow his example. Hundreds of villagers were killed, with most likely many more personally murdered by Lt. Calley. He was found guilty, but was pardoned by President Nixon. His only penalty was to serve three years of house arrest.
The museum contains various specialized exhibits, including the history of the French war, the initiation of the American war phase, the lingering effects of Agent Orange and other deadly contaminants, photos and quotes from photo journalists killed during the war, collections of guns, mines, and other weapons used during the war, an exhibit of prisons which employed torture and murder, and an exhibit of some of the airplanes used in the war.
North Vietnam was supplied with Russian Mig fighters. The US had a larger fleet of bombers, fighters, and helicopters. Using Russian weapons and suicide fighter pilots, the North Vietnamese managed to shoot down thirty-four B-52 bombers. I find it so disturbing to imagine hundreds of bombing sorties by American B-52’s, dropping tons of American bombs on the simple Vietnamese villages inhabited by poor subsistence farmers. Just like the Palestinian victims in Gaza and the people of Ukraine, the Vietnamese villagers were condemned to being killed simply for being sympathetic to the North Vietnamese Viet Cong.
The American-backed South Vietnamese puppet government was ultimately unable to triumph because they did not have the support of the rural Vietnamese people in both the South and North. Similarly to the unsuccessful American occupation of Afghanistan, the American military hardware advantage was not effective as a tool of ideological persuasion.
Our US government promoted the “domino theory,” the idea that if Vietnam were to fall to Communism, then the rest of Southeast Asia would be bound to follow. Vietnam did indeed become Communis, now named the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. But the domino theory was false. I asked our local guides about their communist government. I learned that it functions very well.
Vietnam is apparently not as corrupt as other countries’ autocratic/communist governments. There is the appearance of some democratic processes. The population votes for parliament members. The elected parliament members vote to select party members. The elected party members select the communist party leaders, who select the premiere. So it sounds like the best functioning communist government that I’ve ever heard of. I was told, “Even though Vietnam calls itself communist, it’s really capitalistic. “ There are Vietnamese millionaires, and even a few billionaires. I was told, “As long as you don’t break the law, you can do anything in Vietnam.” One does not see many policemen or soldiers as in other communist countries.
One final positive legacy of the Vietnam War occurred when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia under Pol Pat committed the third biggest genocide in world history, after number one murderer Josef Stalin, and number two Adolf Hitler. The Vietnamese military, aided by Russian weaponry, overthrew the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and ended the horrible Pol Pat Cambodian genocide which killed two million people, which at that time was one quarter of the Cambodian population of eight million.
I had some trepidation about how the Vietnamese people would feel about Americans, considering how brutally our military wreaked havoc on their country. It was gratifying to learn that as a country they forgive us and accept Americans as allies. They would have every reason to hold a grudge against us, but I never sensed that in all my interactions.
To conclude on a different note, one guide told us about Vietnamese “Love Hotels.” These hotels are available for rent by the hour or the night. Housing is limited and crowded in Vietnam. Therefore, privacy is rare. The love hotels offer that rare privacy, a place for young lovers to meet, or for married couples needing privacy from their homes which might be full of children and grandparents. We were told that similar love hotels are also commonly found in China, Japan, Thailand, and Korea.