CAS Event Series Commemorates 50 Year Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that Ended American Combat in Vietnam
American combat in Vietnam ended 50 years ago with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. 50 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that the United States would have close and peaceful relations with Vietnam—specifically a Vietnam united under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), a communist government that we had fought a war against for over two decades. Vietnam itself was in the midst of nearly continuous conflict and upheaval from 1940 to 1975, facing decades-old French colonial domination, Japanese occupation and a massive famine during World War II, an 8-year war against France, and then a prolonged conflict of varied intensity lasting from when the nation was temporarily divided in 1954, until 1975, when the DRV defeated the southern, American-backed Republic of Vietnam, marking as well the first time that the United States had lost a major war. The subsequent communist economic program failed badly, and Vietnam began to abandon it in the mid-1980s under a liberalization program known as doi moi. Ever since, Vietnam has achieved high, though unevenly distributed, rates of economic growth. In the mid-1990s the United States and Vietnam normalized relations and have since become significant trading partners and remarkably friendly nations.
The median Vietnamese citizen is about 32. Most people there have no personal memory of these wars; they learn about them in school and from older people. More than once older Vietnamese people have complained to me that the youth don’t know and don’t seem to particularly care about this history. Maybe in some ways that isn’t so bad. At least a few generations of Vietnamese people might live without ever experiencing significant war in their nation. But moving on from war is something I’m bad at myself. I’ve spent about a month in Vietnam in total, visiting battlefields, bases, cemeteries, temples, memorials, museums, prisons, tunnels, galleries—just about every kind of place you can imagine. It is not difficult to find echoes of the war here. They are everywhere. Guide Tam Le calls this “The Syndrome.” I think he suffers from it too. It’s the thing that sucks people like me, born six months before the Fall of Saigon, and him, born several years later, back in time, back into the War, decades after it ended. There is always another book to read, one more place to visit, another thing about the American War in Vietnam that you knew nothing about and now have to chase down. After I first toured Vietnam a student interviewed me and I said whenever I went back to Vietnam I was going to be fully on vacation, no war stuff. I knew it was a lie. Le took me this past month to the A Shau Valley, through the DMZ, and to My Lai, taking in more and more of the war.
I write this as I wait in the Con Dao airport to return to Ho Chi Minh City—aka Saigon. I think this is the place that symbolizes more than any other place I’ve been the tension between history and the future in Vietnam. It is a rapidly developing archipelago about 100 miles SE of the coast of southern Vietnam, the kind of place tour books tell you to visit now before it gets spoiled by a dozen mega resorts and blocks of luxury timeshares. I stayed three nights in a simple room in a nice hotel within easy walking distance to an amazing and practically deserted beach for about $100/night in the offseason. I rented a motorbike for six bucks and covered most of the roads on the only populated island, Con Son, in an afternoon.
But for a long time, Con Dao was probably the most notorious place in Vietnam--not a tropical paradise, but rather a prison island. Here, in 1970, Tom Harkin, later a longtime US Representative and Senator from Iowa, acting on a tip from a South Vietnamese dissident, somehow slipped away from the government handlers giving an American delegation a tour of the “official” prison and got through a door he was not supposed to. He shot a roll of film documenting the “Tiger Cages” that our South Vietnamese ally was running, subjecting its numerous prisoners to unbelievably torturous conditions. Life Magazine published the photos. It was a big scandal that almost no Americans remembered once the war was over.
This wouldn’t have been news to most Vietnamese, however. The South Vietnamese prison on Con Son was a successor to prisons French colonizers had built on the island they called Poulo Condore. France invented the Tiger Cages—cramped cells with a raised walkway above from where jailers hurled abuse upon the prisoners below. Tour the several prisons of the island and the museum and you will see a who’s who of major figures of the Vietnamese Revolution having spent time as political prisoners here during French rule.
This place is gorgeous, and most of the archipelago is a national park, protecting undeveloped tropical forest and seas. Most of the tourists are Vietnamese, and they are enjoying the natural beauty. But they also come here to tour the prisons and to visit the Hang Duong cemetery, where thousands of tombstones, many unmarked, document the toll of the French conquest. They pay tribute at the tomb of Vo Thi Sau, a teenage girl executed by firing squad in 1952 after she carried out a successful grenade attack on French soldiers. Perhaps the greatest fantasy of the subsequent American war was that all this history wouldn’t matter that much. Even the best of American reflections on our war often treat French colonialism, which met its demise in the First Indochina War (1946-1954), as a prologue to our conflict, rather than what it was—the much longer and more definitive story that would inevitably shape and condemn our own Vietnam war to failure.
My favorite conception of history is simply the defense against forgetting. So maybe the role of historians is just that simple—to insist that we had better not forget a lot of things that are very painful, even as the future maybe doesn’t look so bad.
The Center for Asian Studies is running a series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords that ended American combat in Vietnam. The theme of the events is moving from war to peace. Ambassador Ted Osius was on the ground in the 1990s as the United States normalized relations with Vietnam and began to leave the war behind. During the Obama Administration, he served as ambassador. Our other speakers have all been involved with humanitarian and cultural exchange work between Vietnam and the US in the decades after the war.
We began with a November showing of a rough cut of a forthcoming PBS documentary, The Movement and the Madman about the confrontation between the antiwar movement and the Nixon Administration. In early February we have three more events:
February 2, 5:30 PM, CASE E422: Vietnam and the USA: Looking Forward and Back, a panel discussion with Sister Sen Nguyen, Dr. Ted Ning, and Dr. Pete Steinhauer.
February 3, 5:00 PM, Chancellor’s Auditorium, 4th Floor, CASE: “Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam” with Former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, followed by a reception
February 4, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium: A showing of the film Hearts and Minds, in conjunction with CU’s International Film Series. Featuring a personal video introduction by director Peter Davis.