A Letter from 2009

Thursday 26 February 2009

Dear Blair,

Sorry it has taken so long to respond to your simple question—but as you are a teacher, I can probably count on your understanding.

You wrote: “From everything you’ve read about Vietnam and the war, do you have any ideas why the Vietnamese explored the culture of their enemies rather than rejecting it?”

I am such a beginner in looking at this period, but it seems that from the leadership (Ho Chi Minh) on down, the Vietnamese looked at the U.S. with great respect, incredible as this sounds.  Ho Chi Minh had pestered U.S. presidents to support  the Vietnamese struggle against the French from after WWII up to the Truman presidency.  He figured that, OF COURSE, the U.S. would side with the cause of Vietnamese nationalism, given the American struggle against Britain in the formative struggle that gave birth to the USA.  Ho was naïve.

And this admiration for things American evidently was not an unusual thing in the culture of the Vietnamese struggling for independence.   Keep in mind that they could hold such interest in U.S. history and culture (that Sontag quotation I mentioned previously) and also see that what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam was worse than barbarism.   Consider this assessment by Nguyen Thi Binh: “If I could make a comment to overseas Vietnamese, including those in the United States, I would like to have their understanding that it was American policy that destroyed our nation and caused the separations of our people. Now the war is over and Vietnam is the country of all Vietnamese people. For the nation’s interest and a brighter future, I hope we can heal the wounds of war. Vietnam has a glorious history and every Vietnamese can be proud of it.” [467, italics mine]

Holistic knowledge about the American soldiers obviously was an asset, as in this unsentimental view from Tran Thi Gung: “We had to wait for [the Americans] to come very close. As soon as I started to fire, I killed an American. After he fell, some of his friends came rushing to his aid. They held his body and cried. They cried a lot. This made them sitting ducks. Very easy to shoot. From then on we knew that if we just shot one American soldier others would rush to him and then we could shoot many more.” [17]

The Vietnamese resistance respected greatly the American peace movement for standing up to the U.S. government.  The following is from Appy’s interview with Anne Morrison Welsh, whose husband immolated himself near Robert McNamara’s office at the Pentagon in protest of the war:  “Five days after Norman died, the North Vietnamese poet To Huu wrote a poem called “Emily, My Child.” He wrote it in the voice of Norman and had him trying to speak to the soul of America. It was an anguished voice, but also a voice full of hope for the future. What I didn’t realize until we went to Vietnam was that two or three generations of students have learned that poem by heart. When we were in Saigon a very handsome man in his midtwenties was behind the desk at the travel bureau. He said, “I can’t wait to tell my parents that I met you.” I said, “Well, how would you know me?” He started to recite “Emily, My Child.” He said, “I learned it when I was in fifth grade.” The poem reads in part:

Emily, my child,
It’s getting dark
I cannot take you home.
When my body burns on fire tonight
Your mother will come to find you.
Please run to her, circle her with your arms and kiss her for me
And help me to tell her
I leave with joy. Please don’t be sad.
The time when my heart is most right,
I burn my body
For the fire, I shine
For the truth.

Last thing I will offer are two passages (from a man and then a woman, but there are many I marked) from Martha Hess’s interviews with Vietnamese in the early 1990s, Then the Americans Came:  There are truths here that our nation has yet to confront….

I don’t hate Americans. I hate the policy of invading other countries. And the debt, the distribution from the Paris Agreements, why haven’t they given us anything? We are very poor because of the war. The Americans don’t see how they destroyed everything, and they won’t pay their debt. I listen to the radio and hear how the Americans still have an embargo on our economy, and have no diplomatic relations with us. That’s not right.

This is the Vietnamese people’s land. Why did the Americans come to destroy us and make war, and why don’t they help now to rebuild our country? I am a farmer, I stay here. And I ask a simple question. Why did the Americans come here to destroy homes and kill people? And I ask you, who invaded who? If Vietnam decided to invade America they would have to send troops—the distance is far, thousands of kilometers. I ask you, if I came to your land to destroy and burn your houses, how would you feel? So I say, when the Americans came here to fight and destroy the Vietnamese people, they were wrong. The Vietnamese were not wrong to defend their land. And when the Americans lost the war, why didn’t they want to have relations with us?

The American people didn’t make the mistake, it was the government. American people and Vietnamese people are alike, we work in the fields, we till the land. We have blood, we have hair, we have skin. Since we are all the same, we should be friends. Johnson and Nixon should ask pardon of the Vietnamese people and help to restore our country, as the Paris Agreements say.

I live in this temple now, close to the spirits, so I don’t know anything.  [43-44]


The Americans started the war, and then they knew they were losing they kept on killing, until they were defeated. But they didn’t all want war in Vietnam. There were American soldiers who resisted, who agreed with the massive anti-war demonstrations in their homeland. There were even some, for instance, who would ignore the secret shelters in the villages. They didn’t want to stay in Vietnam and they didn’t want to die in Vietnam, they wanted to go back to America.

But most of them were barbarous. The crimes of the United States are on our minds, even now. Our losses were inconceivable. Ten people in my family were killed by the Americans and the puppet government. They rounded up families that had relatives in the revolutionary forces. What we remember most is the barbarity. They burned houses, they stole, they beat people, and they killed them. Thousands and thousands of people were injured, especially women. I can tell you, many women are now paralyzed, they have half a body, because they were beaten and tortured by the Americans. They tortured women with electricity. They did many, many terrible things. 

We want peace so that we can rebuild our country. We lost so much in the war. What can the Americans, who are responsible for so much loss, do for my nation? We try to do away with the past and to shake hands. We try not to hate, but it’s been a long hatred now. [177]


Forgive the delay in sending this and the demand on your time by the length of the above.  Your question is a very good one and makes me wish someone would write a book about this love/hate ambivalence of the Vietnamese toward the Americans and U.S. culture.

I am also haunted by that woman’s last question, “What can the Americans, who are responsible for so much loss, do for my nation?”

Dr C

P.S.  Are you coming to St. Louis this spring?

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