At a reeducation camp, an instructor exhorts former ARVN officers to memorize communist doctrine so they can be reintegrated into Vietnamese society, 1976.
“IN VIETNAM, the Communist Party is triumphant,” the former Marine Tom Vallely remembered. “And they have their own sense of exceptionalism, and their exceptionalism gets in their way just like our exceptionalism got in our way. So they unify the country in a military sense and then they don’t really unify the country after that. They try, but they fail.”
In the end, there was no bloodbath on the scale many had feared, although hundreds of people in the countryside are thought to have been killed in individual acts of revenge or political retaliation.
Those who had served the Thieu regime—from generals to postal clerks—were required to attend “reeducation” camps. “When referring to the camps,” the journalist Huy Duc remembered, “the press used the term ‘going to study.’ No one ever said ‘going to prison.’ ” Enlisted men were assured that they would only have to submit to three days of “study”; officers wouldn’t have to attend for more than a month.
“Some believed they were going to the camps for a short time. But not me,” ARVN General Pham Duy Tat recalled. “I was detained in a reeducation camp for seventeen and a half years. I was among the last one hundred people to be released.”
A million and a half people are believed to have undergone some form of indoctrination.
ARVN cemeteries were bulldozed or padlocked, as if the memory of an independent South Vietnam and those who had died for that cause could be obliterated. “The communists, in their effort to erase vestiges of the former regime,” Duong Van Mai Elliott said, “have not allowed the South Vietnamese who lost their sons in the war to mourn, to have their graves, and to honor their memory. That the winners would not accommodate the losers in some way caused a division that lasts to this day.”
THE HUGE MISTAKES
AFTER THIRTY YEARS OF WAR, much of Vietnam lay in ruins. Three million people are thought to have died, north and south. Still more were wounded. Thousands of children fathered by American servicemen were left behind.
Villages needed to be rebuilt; land had to be reclaimed. Cities were choked with refugees. Millions were without work. President Ford imposed an economic embargo. Washington refused to recognize the new government of Vietnam.
But Le Duan and his allies on the Politburo remained optimistic. “Nothing more can happen,” one committee member said. “The problems we face now are trifles compared to those in the past.” Le Duan resolved, with Soviet help, to turn all of Vietnam into what he called an “impregnable outpost of the socialist system.” Hanoi forcibly collectivized agriculture in the South, virtually abolished capitalism, nationalized industries, and appointed planners to run it all along strict communist lines.
The result was economic disaster. Inflation rose as high as 700 percent a year. People starved. “Nothing was more terrible than those ten years after the war,” Bao Ninh remembered. “Our living standard collapsed completely. It was terrible. During the war, people could accept hardship. But after the war, it was caused by the huge mistakes of the Stalinist economic policies, the economic problems of communism.”
Children at a ruined, shell-pocked school near Quang Tri
A legless veteran wheels himself between rice paddies.
TO COMPOUND ITS PROBLEMS, Vietnam found itself once again at war—caught between the interests of the two communist powers that had once been its staunchest allies, China and the Soviet Union.
After the brutal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia raided border areas, Vietnamese troops—with Soviet arms and encouragement—crossed the frontier in 1978 and overthrew it. A frustrating ten-year counterinsurgency campaign followed, which some called “Vietnam’s Vietnam.” Before it was over, the Vietnamese would lose some fifty thousand more men, almost as many as the Americans had lost in their war.
Meanwhile, China—determined to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia and to show Moscow it would not have a free hand in Southeast Asia—sent eighty-five thousand troops storming into northern Vietnam. They devastated areas along the border before the Vietnamese pushed them back.
A million and a half people would eventually flee Vietnam—supporters of the old Saigon regime, refugees from the renewed fighting along the Cambodian border, and ethnic Chinese residents of Vietnam, whom the new government had treated especially harshly. Hundreds of thousands died. Others suffered in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia.
Some 400,000 eventually reached America, where they settled in nearly every state—industrious, entrepreneurial, more eager to take part in American political life and more likely to become American citizens than other immigrant groups from Asia.
For that first generation of Vietnamese Americans, memories of their homeland could never be erased. Tran Ngoc Chau—who had fought for both the Viet Minh and France, had served the Saigon regime as a soldier and province chief and then been targeted by it—settled in Los Angeles. “I’m very happy now after almost thirty years, that I did make a good choice for me, for my family,” he said, “although I wish I could go back to Vietnam to die there. I want to say to my children, ‘Well, I want to go back to Vietnam to live out the rest of my life,’ but I have no such courage because I would hurt their feelings, and I don’t want them to misunderstand me.”
Vietnamese refugees come ashore in Malaysia, 1978.
IT IS AS OLD as war itself. The ancient Greeks called it “divine madness.” It was “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” during World War I, and “combat fatigue” in World War II. Following Vietnam, it was given a new name, “post-traumatic stress disorder,” PTSD. There was no more of it after Vietnam than there had been after earlier conflicts, but more had been learned about it.
“I was with one of my daughters at an intersection,” the former Marine Karl Marlantes recalled, “and some guy came up behind me and blasted the horn. When I came to my senses I was on the hood of his car trying to kick his windshield in. And there were people all over looking at me. This is crazy, this is crazy. And I said to myself, ‘Well, this is weird.’ And I sort of slinked back to my car. My daughter, she was about four, looking at me—‘Wow, what’s that all about?’ And I go, ‘What is that all about?’ I had no idea. I had no idea that it was even related to the war. And what you learn is that PTSD doesn’t go away. But now if someone honks the horn, and it startles me, my heart rate’s still going to go up and it’ll be there for five minutes. But—ten, nine—it’s just some asshole, he’s had a bad day at work—eight, seven, six—no one’s shooting at you, you’re safe—it’s seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. And I can control it, whereas I couldn’t do that before because I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Adding to the pain many veterans felt was their country’s eagerness to forget the war. There were few parades. In many ways, everyone came home from Vietnam alone. “When I got home again,” Vincent Okamoto remembered, “my mom and dad were there, my brothers and sisters and my wife were embracing, but I couldn’t relate to my wife or my mother what I had seen, what I had done in Vietnam. I could have talked to my brothers about it, but they knew I didn’t want to. And so it was just something unsaid, you know, ‘Welcome back, Vince, you’ve been through the ringer but welcome back.’ ”
Returning home was complicated for the other side, as well. “I was one of very few who experienced the joy of coming home,” Bao Ninh recalled. “I showed up at the door after six years of fighting. Six years without a letter. For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. Can you imagine the happiness of a mother? The war made women most miserable and then most happy. My mother cried, didn’t say anything. We didn’t make a scene. Vietnamese are like that. My mother right away thought of our neighbors, who had just received a death notice. In our apartment building six young men who served, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.”
U.S. soldiers returning from an unpopular conflict faced an uncertain future.
Friends reunite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
IN APRIL 1981, a panel of eight architects and sculptors gathered in an airplane hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington. They were there to choose the winning design for a Vietnam memorial for the nation’s capital from more than 1,400 submissions.
The memorial was the brainchild of a single stubborn veteran, a former rifleman named Jan Scruggs who, after suffering a frightening flashback, told his wife he wanted to “build a memorial to all the guys who served in Vietnam. It’ll have the name of everyone killed.” With other veterans, he established a nonprofit organization, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and went to work collecting money and making plans. In the end, some 650,000 Americans would contribute more than $8 million.
The judges chose submission number 1026. The architect was Maya Ying Lin, a twenty-one-year-old student at Yale University. “I had a general idea that I wanted to describe a journey,” she said, “a journey that would make you experience death and where you’d have to be an observer, where you could never really fully be with the dead. It wasn’t going to be something that was going to say, ‘It’s all right, it’s all over.’ Because it’s not.”
Jan Scruggs, Maya Lin, and a model of her design
Maya Lin’s rendering of the Memorial
Differences about the war initially colored people’s feelings about the proposed design. Some who believed the war had been unjust and immoral feared that the monument was somehow meant to glorify it. Others feared that its stark design failed to do justice to the cause for which Americans had fought and died. The writer Tom Wolfe dismissed it as “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” One veteran denounced it as “a black scar…the color of sorrow and shame and degradation…in a hole, hidden as if out of shame.”
But in an official vote of support for Maya Lin’s design, the American Gold Star Mothers spoke for many. “Nowadays,” they said, “patriotism is a complicated matter. Ideas about heroism, or art for that matter, are no longer what they were before Vietnam. And there is certainly no consensus yet about what cause might have been served in the Vietnam War. But perhaps that is why the V-shaped, black granite lines merging gently with the sloping earth [convey] the only point about the war on which people may agree: that those who died should be remembered.”
The wall was officially completed in the autumn of 1982.
RION CAUSEY As you get out of the car and you approach the wall, the intensity of it grabs you. You go up, you see the names, you touch the names. It’s intense.
LEWIS SORLEY I did not like the Vietnam wall. I considered it an ugly black ditch and that it said that the only people to be commemorated are the dead, not because they’re heroes but because they’re victims. I didn’t go. Until one year they were going to put a wreath in front of the name of my roommate. I had to go. And I’ve gone every year since then to remember those we lost. I walk down to the far left, and I run my fingers over that name.
VINCENT OKAMOTO You go to that wall—even my son who was nine years old when I first took him—and you see over fifty-eight thousand names and you know that unwritten behind each name there’s a mother or a father or a wife or a daughter whose lives were forever shattered by that damn war.
NANCY BIBERMAN I’ve been to the wall more than once. When I look back at the war and think of the horrible things we said to vets who were returning, calling them “baby killers” and worse, I feel very sad about that. I can only say that we were kids too, just like they were. It grieves me, it grieves me today. It pains me to think of the things that I said and that we said. And I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
CAROL CROCKER I didn’t want to go. It was a beautiful summer morning. Went to the Lincoln Memorial first, a comforting place to be. And then I crossed the street and walked in toward the entrance. And at first you can’t really see the wall and you’re coming down into the grassy hill. When I caught sight of it I literally lost my breath. Of course, I wept. I found my brother’s name. I had help getting lifted up so I could touch it. I looked at my brother’s name in the company of all those other people. There was sadness. But now he wasn’t alone either. He was in the company of people. And he was there for people to know and to think about. And he wasn’t forgotten. And he wasn’t lost. It was incredibly healing and freeing for me.
JOHN MUSGRAVE As I was walking toward it from the reflecting pool, there were so many names on those walls. And all of a sudden my throat swole up and I thought, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this right now.” And I collapsed. And all the tears I’d been holding back—I didn’t cry, I sobbed. I was on my knees, sobbing. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t get my breath. And I was so grateful to God that it was there. I thought, This is going to save lives, this is going to save lives.
ALL AT PEACE
Arizona congressman John McCain returns to Vietnam, 1985.
TOM VALLELY had served with the Marines in Vietnam. Sixteen years later, the country drew him back. He eventually founded the Vietnam Program of the Kennedy School at Harvard, which helped educate some of the country’s future leaders. “I got very involved in the reconnecting between the United States and Vietnam and how that reconnection takes place. I spent a decade of my life helping to put those pieces together.”
Although the United States did not have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, veterans had begun going back on their own—revisiting places where they had fought, meeting old foes, planting trees and building schools, trying to put the war behind them.
Vallely worked closely with other veterans, including three U.S. senators, who became among the most influential American advocates for normalizing relations: John McCain from Arizona, who had endured six years as a prisoner of war; John Kerry from Massachusetts, the ex-commander of a swift boat who been a leading spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War; and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a former Navy SEAL.
Their task would not be easy.
Hanoi insisted that the United States make good on a promise to provide funds for reconstruction. For its part, the United States demanded a complete accounting of the more than two thousand Americans whose remains had never been recovered. Hanoi—which had more than 300,000 missing of its own—initially refused to cooperate.
But events both within Vietnam and far beyond its borders slowly moved things along. Le Duan died in 1986. His successors adopted what they called “doi moi,” a more pragmatic reformist economic policy.
As the Cold War ended, Soviet aid disappeared, and Hanoi finally began to help U.S. military teams search for American remains.
“The architects of normalization are the Vietnamese,” Tom Vallely said. “It’s not the Americans. The normalization of Vietnam is a strategy of the Vietnamese Communist Party to join the world. And the United States makes it hard for them to join the world. Senator John McCain insists, ‘You want to have normalization? All your prisoners need to be out of reeducation camp.’ ‘You want normalization?’ John Kerry asked. ‘I need all the information about the missing.’ ”
In 1994, after the Vietnamese met the Americans’ demands, the United States lifted its trade embargo. Full normalization came the following year. The new American ambassador, Pete Peterson, had spent six years in Hanoi as a POW. In November 2000, President Bill Clinton traveled to Vietnam—the first American president to visit that country since Richard Nixon reviewed U.S. troops there thirty-one years earlier.
In subsequent years, hundreds of American veterans would return to Vietnam.
“Some of my comrades who live in cities often meet American veterans,” recalled Le Cong Huan, who had fought the ARVN and their American advisers at Ap Bac. “They don’t speak each other’s language, but they’re so happy to meet, and they hug each other. They treat each other as veterans treat veterans. We have put the past behind us. Even though I still have bullets in my body, I want to close the war chapter. Now we should look to the future when our children can go to America to study, to learn the best, most beautiful things from the Americans, and get to know the people there.”
Michael Heaney, recovered from his wounds, remembered his return to Vietnam in 2008: “I got in touch with a provincial vets organization, a huge organization of Vietnamese vets. All former enemies but now mellowed quite a bit like me. You know, they’re guys my age, grandpas. And after we got past the initial checking each other out and deciding whether this was a political thing or not, they could not have been more gracious and more loving. They took me under their wings like a brother soldier. We exchanged painful memories, stories. I did a little ceremony honoring the guys I’d lost, honoring the Vietnamese enemies that we’d killed. Just telling them they could all be at peace now. It was a wonderful, wonderful trip. You don’t get closure, but you get some peace. I got some peace.”
Michael Heaney returns with a North Vietnamese veteran to the site of the ambush in which ten of Heaney’s men died and he was himself wounded.
Children play in an abandoned U.S. helicopter near Danang, where the American war began.
IN VIETNAM, the land has largely healed. Old animosities have mostly been buried. But ghosts remain. Americans and Vietnamese work together to clean up places where Agent Orange has poisoned the earth. Unexploded ordnance, half hidden in the ground, still takes lives each year. Aged mothers and fathers from northern Vietnam sometimes still roam the South, seeking to discover what happened to their sons and daughters.
“The parents of the soldiers in my unit trusted me to look after them,” remembered General Lo Khac Tam, whose platoon first fought in the Ia Drang Valley. “Some of their bodies have never been found, and I feel guilty day and night. In my dreams, I’m haunted by brutal scenes of war and death. I think it’s because I haven’t found them for their families. Every day, people call me asking, ‘My son served in this company of that regiment. He was killed on the battlefield. Have you found him?’ I have to answer that I haven’t.”
“I think you could say that the Vietnam War was a heroic song, but it was also a great tragedy,” the soldier and historian Nguyen Ngoc said. “Now, in Vietnam, we are starting to rethink the war, to ask the questions—Was the war necessary to achieve justice? Was it right? The war is over. Now we need to focus on living. What is most important now is that we find some meaning, some lessons in the war for our lives.”
“As we finally came lurching out of Vietnam, we were beginning to doubt ourselves,” General Sam Wilson remembered. “That’s a foreign feeling for an American. We seldom doubt ourselves. This turned out to be the most bitter, the most divisive—or second most bitter and second most divisive—war in our entire history. And we still hurt because of it. We have feelings of guilt about Vietnam.”
More than four decades after the war ended, the divisions it created between Americans have not yet wholly healed. Lessons were learned—and then forgotten. Divides were bridged—and then widened. Old secrets were revealed—and new secrets were locked away.
The Vietnam War was a tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it, stories of courage and comradeship and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.