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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Vietnamese drawn to American ideals

It seemed we met them everywhere in Vietnam. Aging men would approach us, asking for our nationality in broken English. At first we glanced at one another nervously before replying'calling oneself an American now has a weight to it few of us felt a month ago. But the smiling Vietnamese remained undaunted by our hesitation, rephrased the question and experimented with new simple sentence structures. 




'Where from'? 




When we finally responded, they were even more enthusiastic about our presence. Were we from California? Had we been to Texas? Then, from back pockets and worn wallets came the 30-year-old pictures of the very same men when they were our age. The earlier versions of themselves smiled back at us in military uniform, their mouths full of teeth, their faces clean and smooth. They stood straight-backed, young and proud in front of American fighter jets or with American officers. Here were ghost images of boys reaching manhood early, looking out at us and grinning in the South Vietnamese way'out at a future they could not have possibly comprehended. 




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With the pictures came stories. These men had fought with the Americans in the war'many had even been trained in Texas and had the opportunity to see some of the United States. Now cyclo drivers or tour guides or cooks, they had once been fighter pilots and prisoners of war. They had spent years in 're-education camps,' concentration camps for those that opposed the North Vietnamese government, and had endured further years of institutional discrimination. 




Phuoc, a Saigon man, spent two years in one of the camps. His mother burned most of his pictures of America or American soldiers out of fear of communist retaliation. All that remain are two pictures he kept hidden from her. 




Another man we met in Can Tho, Thanh, spent more than four years in a re-education camp and lost two fingers to the experience. 




At first, given the circumstances of their hardships, it was hard to understand their reaction to my national identity. They reacted almost as if it were a part of their own, and I sensed very little resentment over the Nixon doctrine that had tapered off military support to South Vietnam after the United States prolonged and intensified the debilitating war for years. Weren't they disappointed by America? Didn't it hurt them a little to see the privilege we represented, evident in our flippancy with dollar bills, our straightened white teeth and even our very presence in Vietnam? When I asked two veterans if they were angry at all, though, they didn't understand the question. When I persisted, one finally shook his head and held up his index finger. 




'America number one!' 




America represents something far larger than the accumulation of our history, far grander than our actions and far nobler than even our best intentions as a nation. The United States is a sovereign state, but America is an idea. It represents a value system with profound social implications, prizing equality, liberty, democracy and opportunity. Whether or not the practical incarnation always lives up to these ideals'indeed, whether or not all the ideals are even fully attainable at present'is not the issue. The very existence of the idea of America is magnetic and powerfully symbolic. As Americans, it gives us enormous privilege, and demands even greater responsibility. 




Vietnam is changing. The U.S. Senate voted last week on a trade pact with Vietnam, finally normalizing trade relations. The Vietnamese government is experimenting with liberalizing the economy. The Museum of American War Atrocities in Saigon was renamed the War Remnants Museum and includes new, glossy photographs donated by Americans and Europeans. 




Like the rest of the Cold War, American values of capitalism and democracy are finding success in the passage of time where they never succeeded through war or threats. The takeover of South Vietnam that all the efforts of the U.S. government could not stop is steadily being reversed not by force, but by what the Vietnamese government calls 'new thinking.' The thinking is really not all that new, but rather the same idea America represents. It is an idea that some of us in the world are privileged enough'and today, perhaps burdened'to call home. 




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