The Herd

From a Homeland to a Home

Joe Bergeon, Guest Writer

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A half-century on, the heritage of Vietnamese Americans and the historical implications of the Vietnam War come home to this small town on the Atlantic.

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Here, we have no concept of the violence and instability that can engulf a nation. Driving by the farms on the rolling hills of the west and past the crashing waves of the ocean in the east, we unconsciously relish our peace, blissfully ignorant of the darker sides of the human race. The haven that we call home is the true mother of our security, the bastion that gives us a belief in the stability of the world.

 

It is within this context we live through the half-century anniversary of the great conflict of Southeast Asia, a conflict which most Americans believe is theirs. Strangely, Americans were able to forge a connection with that distant nation, a connection established and perpetuated by the intimate coverage of the experiences of GI’s. The Vietnam War symbolizes how interconnected the world can become; in a way, we felt as though the Mekong had come flowing through our village by the sea.

 

It was not a singular event, but rather a long political struggle that caused division in the United States and across the globe, both during the conflict and in the years following. Today, the convictions of those alive during the war remain resolute and without change; most antiwar activists who picketed the Johnson White House would likely believe they were right, and most supporters of the war would feel the same way. There is, however, a group of people in the United States that have a unique and underappreciated view of the Vietnam War. For many years, even up to this day, Vietnamese expatriates and their descendants are ignored in the debates over what happened, who made the most prudent decisions, and how Communism took over Indochina. At this juncture, soon fifty years since the horrors of Tet, the American people must finally come to an understanding of the true nature of events that occurred in the decades-long civil war on the Indochinese peninsula–but only through the eyes of expatriates and their kin.

 

The topic of the war, recently covered by the New York Times and via documentary on PBS, has for years mesmerized the American psyche. For the first time in history, journalists gained access to the battlefield in real time, giving the many millions watching television an intimate relationship with the men at war; those tuning in each night saw the wounded carried off the field, a wary GI crouching behind an embankment, and that one little girl running from certain death. Through this phenomenon, the Vietnam War suddenly became the American war in Vietnam–and whilst I will always salute the ultimate sacrifice made by over fifty-eight thousand patriotic Americans, we must now recognize the more complex layers in the historical record. Today, as the national attention once again reorients to our recent past, I find myself devoid of healthy dialogue with those of my generation and the generation of my parents; common understanding will only come through a thorough examination of history and its modern implications.

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With the American view of the Vietnam War, reality pierces the pride of patriotic men and women: it’s the only war the United States ever really strategically lost. The French feel a similar way, having encountered the necessity to relinquish their imperial grasp on the resource-rich and strategically- located region only eleven years before the United States began to send significant numbers of troops to fight against the Communist insurgency in the South. With the surge in American forces in 1965, spearheaded by General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara, the war in the South took on a new dimension of guerilla tactics, aggressive flushes of the countryside, and heightened threats to the security of Saigon. Many young Americans at the time believed that American involvement was unwarranted, that the activation of the draft was unnecessary, and perhaps even that the Viet Cong’s struggle was legitimate. Many men at the time did not understand why President Johnson decided to move forward with intervention; most of the men drafted were fearful of what would follow, but others, including my white grandfather, understood that it was their duty as citizens of the United States to defend the nation and its best interests. This sort of patriotism did not exist in this conflict as it had existed in the wars preceding, making Vietnam the political animal a President should never be forced to deal with.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the conflict was real. Thousands of miles from protests on Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Assembly of South Vietnam saw small and sporadic protests on its own streets. Inside, the warring factions of post-independence Indochina argued as if another side were a foreign evil; in the most simplistic and general terms, the pure liberals of Saigon pushed for talks with the North and free elections, the generals argued for total war against the insurgency, and the monarchists despised the government itself. Another group made headway in the debate: relatively conservative Catholics, previously allied with the French, who reluctantly supported the liberals in government but fully sided with the generals in regards to the war.

 

This is where my relationship with the war becomes real: my great-grandfather, among the leaders in this informal parliamentary group, was a rarity in being quasi-conservative holding a constituency in metropolitan Saigon. Among the most experienced men in the National Assembly, his position was seen as traitorous by the nationalists and monarchists; he was a regional governor under the French, worked in opposition to Emperor Bao Dai, and was a friend of President Ngo Dinh Diem. By many viewpoints, he contributed to an environment that was not helpful in directly tackling the Communist issue; by at times adding to the strife and chorus of discontent, many might say that he was a complicit element in crippling the political legitimacy of Saigon. On the other hand, as the descendent of the soon-to-be expatriate, I appreciate his steadfast advocacy of his convictions. After all, principled men lost the war, and unprincipled men won. Within this context, one can find it easier to have sympathy for the South; too often, the republic is portrayed as an ineffective mess, but in reality there were coordinated political efforts across the spectrum. My great-grandfather’s position, capping off a career he pursued for his whole life, brought him into this process and ultimately saved his family from the brunt of the violence. Thus, here I exist.

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Bui Quang Nga’s third daughter, Bui Kim, would go on to marry a man named Joe Bergeon, a captain in the U.S. Army who had grown up as the typical American on the streets of New York City. The story of the expatriates, and the stories of their descendants, are lost in the sea of criticisms directed towards the Johnson Administration, the U.S. military, the government of South Vietnam, and the Republic of Vietnam Army. The video of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong fighter through the head on the street has become representative of the normal conduct during the war, an idea that is simply a travesty. Americans today, especially those who were young in the 1960s and 1970s, remember the Vietnam War as an embarrassment and a failure. Whilst the result was anything but desirable, some good may have come from it–it made many lives possible, including my own.

For the Catholics who fled Vietnam, the political turmoil of the South continued even in the United States. My great-grandfather, in conflict with the liberals of Saigon, would likely have been shunned from most expatriate organizations in the United States; I suspect he wouldn’t have wanted to join regardless. Unlike the liberals who formed activist political parties in California, the majority of Catholics had nowhere to turn once resettled in America. Along with the resentment from some Americans, the community of Vietnamese-Americans still finds itself politically divided; Catholic versus Buddhist, liberal versus conservative, pro-war versus pro-peace, and those who viewed the war as a civil war versus those who saw it as a conflict between nations. As the descendant of a pro-war Catholic conservative whom I still don’t believe ever recognized the border between North and South, I ponder how life might be different had the war concluded early or had America refrained from intervening. It’s not my job to convince the pacifists and the anti-war protesters of the 1960s that U.S. involvement in the war was justified, but it is my job to convince them of the truth that it was not a universal mistake, nor a simplistic American intervention.

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This is my story, the historical record as told through an analysis of my heritage. Any other individual would have a different view, perhaps even those in my own family. Our unifying desire, however, is to change a perception. Ultimately, we were deprived of control over our own destiny, robbed of the luxury of security, burglarized for our legitimate resources, and dropped into an alien society. If our story can be told, then our power becomes legitimate.

 

America gave us an opportunity, and America should demonstrate an appreciation for its own actions and the people it saved; some of us may do great things in the country we call home by providence and the will of God.

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