How Vietnam changed me — and changed America

In 1950, Harry Truman took a wrong turn that tragically changed the history of the two countries. When the iron curtain fell in Eastern Europe, when Mao Zedong’s party took over China and when Joe McCarthy whipped up anti-communist hysteria for political gain at home.

It was a mistake that led to a disaster like the one Vladimir Putin has trapped his nation and his neighbor in 2022.

Truman’s wrong turn in Vietnam caused thousands of American deaths, wounded bodies and souls for two decades. This also affected my life, people who were getting old at that time and did not go to war, but who both lost many of our classmates and we believe that America can do no wrong.

Vietnam turned my life around twice. It led me to activism in the decades 1965-1975. Then, six weeks ago, I went to Vietnam on a trip that I thought would be mostly rest and relaxation, but it turned out that I reconnected with a self I had long forgotten.

Our lives can be like the rings of Saturn, with interlocking circles of events that begin seemingly unseen. And then some intervening event occurs like a random meteor that both breaks and binds the rings.

In 1946, the year before I was born, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam in its war of independence since 1919, wrote to Truman, asking for his support against the French. The post-war government of Charles de Gaulle in Paris was trying to re-establish its colonial rule over Vietnam, which had been interrupted by the Japanese invasion of India in 1940.

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At the time of Ho’s letter, American diplomatic and intelligence officers in Vietnam described him as primarily a nationalist. Ho inherited Vietnam’s thousand-year history of rebellion against foreign occupation by China, long before French colonization began in 1862.

Ho believed or hoped that the US would sympathize with his country’s struggle for independence. Washington got away with not responding to his French allies. It was a missed opportunity.

In September 1948, a State Department report described Ho as “the most powerful and perhaps the most powerful figure in India” and said that “any proposed solution to remove him is liable to an unintended consequence.”

After two years, geopolitical forces started to have their way. Receiving no help from the US, Ho turned to the Soviet Union and China instead. In response, Truman actively aligned himself with the French, sending them military and economic aid. In an ominous but more or less predictable twist, he also sent the first American military advisers to Vietnam.

When Harry Truman aligned the United States with the French colonial powers in India, it marked a tragic wrong turn in history. Millions lost their lives, and so did America’s sense of self.

France’s colonial war ended in disaster in 1954, but the US was deeply entrenched. In the 20 years since the tragedy worsened, four presidents—Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon—struggled not to be the one who “lost Vietnam.” In it, 58,000 American lives were tragically lost. war, and many others have been permanently damaged in body, mind or spirit.

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Estimates of Vietnamese civilian deaths start at 2 million, and may be much higher. In addition, the legacy of the 18.2 million gallons of Agent Orange that US forces dropped on the jungles of Vietnam is visible today in the thousands of children born with severe disabilities.

The Vietnam War was my first experience standing up to a government whose policies wronged many government leaders, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, as he served in the administration that followed. Vietnam formed a central part of my identity, as it did for many who served.

In the years that followed, I went to law school, became a federal prosecutor, became a civil attorney in public agencies, founded a school, and then, after Donald Trump was elected, became a writer and political commentator. Each part has its own purpose and involvement. But I rarely connected the latter with the former.

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Until I went to Vietnam.

Our guide in Hanoi, who called herself Mary, told the story of her grandfather. He was a teacher in 1964, and the North Vietnamese government rejected his request for military service, saying he was needed in the classroom. The second letter had the same result. The government finally accepted his third request, Mary explained: “He wrote it in his blood.”

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In Hue, when he told the story of his father, tears rolled down the cheeks of our leader Dieu. He took a bullet in his hand and without antibiotics in the field, gangrene developed in his arm. Two citizens arrested him as a doctor removed him without anesthesia.

But after the war, sometimes there is salvation for people. I also met Nguyen Hong My, a 79-year-old former North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilot who in later life was friends with John Stiles, a former American pilot who flew an F-4 Nguyen in 1972. was struck in Hanoi, and former Brig. General Dan Cherry who shot down Nguyen’s plane that same year. Cherry and Stiles wrote a book about this called “My Enemy, My Friend”.

Like those pilots, in Vietnam I bonded and cried with people I had never met, people who lived on the other side of the world and who suffered unspeakable pain. Surprisingly, the Vietnamese seem to have no ill will towards the Americans.

In an America rent by division and a world torn apart by war, John Lennon’s memorable invitation to “imagine” people living in peace may seem particularly absurd. But my visit to Vietnam reminded me of the incalculable waste of war and the basic, fundamental truth that underneath it all, people are defending freedom and connection.

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