It is not my intention to make this a right vs. left discussion and frankly, if it is possible, I would like to keep politics out of the discussion. But I’m not sure that will be possible. But I can hope for the best.
A couple of years ago my wife and I visited her younger sister and family who live in Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. “I wonder what it will take for Americans to feel shame.”
That question posed to me was the only bit of animosity I experienced during a two week stay. The question was uttered by a woman sitting across the aisle from me on a bus tour of the city. Her words came just after the tour guide had stated that more than 3 million people lost their lives, including 58,000 American soldiers, in the civil war that began in 1954 and lasted until the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon in April of 1975. The woman spoke English with a slight German accent. I assumed that she, like so many Germans I know, had learned English as part of her elementary and secondary education and now had a strong command of the language. But I was wrong. She explained to me that she grew up in Nebraska and in 1970 she met and married a German citizen and had lived in Germany ever since. Her question prompted a spirited discussion between the two of us about American foreign policy, past and present, and we found common ground on several issues.
That exchange took place on the second day of our two-week trip and my thoughts returned to that question many times during the trip and have continued to bother me since the trip. And so I did some research to further develop my understanding of the issues surrounding the Vietnam War and considered what kind of response I would give if such a question is ever asked of me again. I realize that by staying in Ho Chi Minh City I was surrounded by the most pro-Western area of the country, the former capital of South Vietnam. My experience was pleasant for the most part with only that one question as a reminder of the once hostile relationship between our counties. But experiences related to me by other Americans now living in Vietnam, who have traveled throughout the country, would seem to indicate that the friendly attitude exists elsewhere, including in Hanoi, the capital of that now unified communist country.
In anticipation of the trip, I imagined an oppressive communist government and police force looking over my shoulder wherever I traveled. But the reality of what I found couldn’t have been further from that image. The city is vibrant with what seem to be thousands of small merchants selling their wares. Most often they live in the floors above their shops and there were fewer beggars on the streets than almost any American city I have visited in recent years. It is an urban area and as such has the same blight and disrepair observed in most large cities. But there are also beautifully manicured and maintained city parks and tree lined boulevards. Overall my stay in Vietnam was one of pleasant surprise and unexpected pleasure.
I was an adolescent during the height of the Vietnam War and I received a draft lottery number in 1971 high enough to keep me out of the service as the war efforts drew to a close during the early 70’s. I’m sure my limited research might be challenged by scholars with a differing opinion but briefly stated, what I have learned is that after World War II there was a civil war that rid the country of the 100 year occupation of the French government and ended in 1954 with what was known as the Geneva Accord. This agreement stated that the country would remain divided, at the 17th parallel, until 1956 when an election would be held and the people of Vietnam would choose between the communist government of North Vietnam and the anti-communist, capitalistic government of South Vietnam. As the months drew closer to the election, it was apparent that the sentiment was in favor of the communist government of the North as most of the people remembered the unpleasant occupation of another Western power, the French. But the Geneva Accord was never signed by the South Vietnamese Government nor was it signed by their primary supporters, the United States government, because they had evidence that the political leader, Ho Chi Minh, and the government of the North enjoyed overwhelming support from the people on both sides of the partitioning. And so it was the South (and their Western sponsor) who rejected the free elections and the civil war erupted again over the ideological differences of the two governments. After many years of small skirmishes, full-scale war broke out in 1964. In 1972 the two sides negotiated a peace agreement but fighting continued until the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.
After several years of struggling with strict Soviet –style communism, some restrictions were lifted allowing for a more free market society in the mid-1980s and within a decade the United States established diplomatic relations with the government of Vietnam and opened an embassy in Hanoi. After this transformation Vietnam went from being a rice importer to being the world’s largest rice exporter. There are still some restrictions indicative of a communist government – on the practice of religion and on travel and immigration, in particular – but it seems that the country is making efforts to emulate the United States in economic matters. Trade talks have continued since the United States established diplomatic relations and there is every indication that those talks will result in policies beneficial to both sides.
And so the question needs to be asked, “Why did 3 million people have to die over ideology?” After all those deaths, tragic for all countries involved, the communist government seems to be inching ever closer to a western style capitalistic government. Would they have eventually ended up in that condition had the elections of 1956 been carried out? Or would they have floundered for years in the bankrupt ideology of the Soviet Union and eventually collapsed and died only to struggle for years after, trying to establish a free market society such as Russia is doing today. We will never know the answer to these questions and speculating on them is probably a waste of time. Would the United State’s acceptance of free elections in the Vietnam of 1956, no matter which type of government was supported, and then engaging in sincere trade talks with that new government have proven more successful in bringing the Vietnamese government to a free market society than waging a violent war did? We stood side by side with another communist government in defeating fascist Germany in World War II. Would it have been better to engage Vietnam diplomatically and through trade than it was to attack them with our army? It is a question worth considering as our country continues to intervene around the world in the stated policies of bringing democracy to everyone.
I am reminded of a child’s hymn I learned as a youngster:
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
A simplistic thought to be sure, but one worth considering in all that we do. And wouldn’t it be worthwhile for those in the highest ranks of government to consider those very thoughts as they determine our place in the world and our relationship with other nations? Have we done well by our interventions or have we done harm
“I wonder what it will take for Americans to feel shame.” If there is shame to be felt it is in not recognizing when a bad decision turns disastrous. It is in letting ideology stand in the way of pragmatism. It is in seeing only the forest and forgetting that the trees are really what count, especially when it comes to human existence. Individual citizens have limited control over the actions of their governments and sometime political ideology overpowers even those who impose it. Shame should not be displayed by hanging our heads in defeat but rather in committing ourselves to seeking truth and telling it no matter how painful or what the consequences. The lessons that should have been learned by our experience in Vietnam have long been forgotten it seems. Today the headlines in the newspaper and on the television news would seem to indicate we haven’t learned a thing.
So what are your opinions about international intervention?
Is isolationism better?
If there are some reading this that live outside the U.S. what is your opinion?
How does your church membership and commitments affect your opinion?