The Magazine

Where the 1970s Are Ancient History

Young Vietnamese line up for American coffee, not exhibits on American ‘atrocities.’

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By MAX BOOT
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I recently visited Vietnam, primarily because of my interest in its history—and in particular the two Vietnam wars of the 20th century, the first one pitting the Viet Minh against the French and their local allies, the second pitting North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against the United States and South Vietnam. In the process of traveling across the country, from Hanoi in the north, to Hue in the center, and Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) in the south, I also learned something of its current achievements and challenges.

a Vietnamese coffee shop

AP

There are plentiful reminders of both the French and American epochs, ranging from the graceful colonial-era Metropole Hotel in Hanoi to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, once used by the Viet Cong, now a tourist attraction. Despite economic reforms that began in the mid-1980s, Vietnam remains very much a Communist dictatorship, and the regime seeks to buttress its legitimacy by stressing its role in defeating the designs of America and France. 

The American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City may have been renamed the more-neutral-sounding War Remnants Museum in deference to the growing closeness between Hanoi and Washington, but it remains a stronghold of anti-American propaganda. The exhibits focus almost exclusively on supposed atrocities carried out by U.S. forces—some of them real (e.g., My Lai), -others vastly exaggerated or concocted out of whole cloth. The walls are studded with quotations from the likes of the left-wing British philosopher Bertrand Russell condemning American conduct. 

An entire wing is focused on the ravages of Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by U.S. forces in the 1960s, which the Vietnamese government now blames for seemingly every birth defect in the country. (The Obama administration has just agreed to help clean up the soil for chemical contamination near the former U.S. airbase at Da Nang without admitting any responsibility for maladies supposedly tied to Agent Orange.) Needless to say, not a single exhibit alludes to Communist atrocities, such as the murder of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians when Communist forces briefly captured the city of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. 

At the modernist presidential palace once occupied by South Vietnamese presidents, exhibits glorify the North Vietnamese soldiers who broke down the gates in 1975 in their Soviet-made tank. There is no mention of the millions of South Vietnamese who subsequently wound up in “reeducation camps” or on leaky rafts as “boat people.”

While the War Remnants emphasizes Vietnamese-as-victims, the exhibits at the Cu Chi tunnels, where Viet Cong guerrillas took refuge underground after striking at South Vietnamese and American forces, tell of Vietnamese-as-fierce-fighters. A television set even plays an endless loop of a 1960s Communist prop-aganda film that glorifies the Viet Cong without, of course, mentioning their close ties to the North Vietnamese regime. 

Meanwhile, at the grim Hoa Lo prison known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton, there is an absurd dichotomy: The prison accurately depicts the torments inflicted by French captors on Vietnamese political prisoners, while inaccurately sugarcoating the treatment of American military prisoners by their Vietnamese captors. A plaque informs visitors (not altogether grammatically): “During the war the national economy was difficult but Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to US pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period.” Well, that’s one way to describe the hellish tortures that John McCain, James Stockdale, and other POWs endured. 

Yet it was striking to me that I saw no Vietnamese visitors at the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels, or Hoa Lo prison—everyone there was a foreigner like me. It was a different story at the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, where the bulk of the visitors were Vietnamese coming to gawk at Ho’s embalmed corpse (or possibly a wax dummy). The mausoleum lies next to the modest house on stilts where Ho lived and worked as North Vietnam’s president. Admittedly, many of the Vietnamese were school children on compulsory tours, but there is little doubt that there is a deep well of affection for “Uncle Ho,” who was, by the standards of the world’s dictators, uncommonly modest and self-effacing. (He would have hated the Lenin-style mausoleum built and maintained with Russian help—he had requested to have a simple cremation.) 

By contrast, there appears to be relatively little interest among the population in the two Vietnam wars—hardly surprising since the median age in Vietnam is 28, meaning that the bulk of the population regards the conflicts as ancient history. 

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