The Meaning of Vietnam

This year there has been a lot of reflection and retrospection, 40 years after the pivotal 1968, which included the Tet Offensive, assassinations (King and Kennedy), student uprisings, and protest and police violence outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

A while back, I read a memoir by U.S. radical writer Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow. Albert’s political awakening came in the mid-1960s when he was a student at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Inspired and challenged by the civil rights movement, a new wave of feminism, and the antiwar movement, Albert reached the fork in the road: one path led to pursuing an upper-middle-class lifestyle and the other path to throwing his lot in with social change movements. He chose the latter, and has, since that time, embraced the need for revolution, meaning, a radical change in our society’s fundamental structures.

Recalling his youthful passionate opposition to the war, Albert writes candidly, “And I sure as hell hated Washington. And I sure as hell loved the spirit of the Vietnamese resistance. Vietnam was for me a parent, a brother, a sister, a life guide. Vietnam was and still is everything for me.”

I wished he had elaborated on the latter sentiment of his love for Vietnam. He says that the love and Vietnam’s meaning were not just then, 1967 and 1968, but it is still. I take this to mean, that, unlike many people who were active then in the antiwar movement, he has not forgotten Vietnam. But what, then?

I wonder: How exactly has Vietnam served for him a “life guide”? Who have been the most influential Vietnamese writers, intellectuals, activists, and artists for him? Did he ever learn Vietnamese? Did he become friends with Vietnamese refugees in the greater Boston area? Has he ever visited Vietnam since the 1975 unification? Has he been aware of the work of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, particularly his retreats for Vietnam Veterans? Does his Znet web site focus on contemporary issues and struggles in Vietnam? What does he think of the society the Vietnamese created after the horrific brutality and destruction inflicted by our own country? How has he been a brother to Vietnam, past and present? To younger generations of activists, how would he encourage solidarity with Vietnamese people, given their centrality in his own path of revolutionary activity?

I was seven at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive. It wasn’t until 1982 when I began reading about the Catholic anti-war movement (Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton) that I began to learn about the event that was so life-changing for millions of Americans fifteen years earlier. While working at the Church of Epiphany in Louisville, my first direct contact with Vietnam was as a tutor to a Vietnamese family, the Huynh’s, who had been sponsored by our church in the late 1970s. My political awakening occurred in the 1980s via the church-based Central American solidarity movements. It was during that time that I was exposed to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. For many years, I have assigned Cao Ngoc Phuong’s inspiring autobiography, Learning True Love, to my students at Saint Louis University. In recent years I have had Vietnamese-American students who teach me about their and my history.

I am curious about Michael Albert’s avowal, because I think there is tremendous work we have to do in reckoning—still—with our role in Vietnam. Not enough of us in the United States have faced what our government did in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s. Thinking of Vietnam, I remember something German theologian Johann Baptist Metz once stated, “We Christians can never go back behind Auschwitz; to go beyond Auschwitz is impossible for us by ourselves. It is possible only with the victims of Auschwitz.” If there is to be a future for Christianity, the German theologian contended, it could only be with the Jewish people.

Although Michael Albert isn’t religious, I think, given his comment on the centrality of Vietnam, he would adapt Metz in this way: “We Americans can never go back before the destruction we caused in Vietnam; to go beyond that destruction is impossible for us by ourselves. It is possible only with the Vietnamese who were our enemies and victims.”

Friends in the liberationist Brazilian Catholic Church told me about three essential themes of their ministry and activism: memory, resistance, and utopia.

So be it, for us, too.

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