THE MAKING OF VIETNAM 2

Ho had chosen his words deliberately, hoping Washington would rec¬ognize what he saw as the rightness of his cause. Washington had, after all, supplied Ho’s guerrillas with grenades and rifles to fight the Japanese, and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of today’s CIA) had supplied Viet Minh partisans during the war. But within months of Ho’s declaration of independence, President Harry S. Truman had thrown his support behind France’s claim to Indochina. The French re¬turned as rulers, and over the next decade the United States would pour $2.5 billion into France’s ill-fated campaign to keep Vietnam a colony. When the French left, the Americans took their place, confident they could bring Ho’s communist army of peasants to heel in short order. At the time General George Decker, the U.S. Army chief of staff, stated, “Any good soldier can handle guerrillas.”
The reaction I received in Vietnam as an American was perplexing. It was as though the United States had accepted Ho’s overtures and that our countries had been friends through the ages. The American War was sel¬dom mentioned in conversations unless I brought it up. My reception in the “new” Vietnam was more gracious and welcoming than the one I re¬member receiving in the “old” Vietnam, on whose behalf much of my generation had fought. People who had lost two or three sons in the war invited me into their homes and treated me as an honored guest. Families whose villages had been leveled, like Mrs. Nguyen and her three sons outside Dong Ha, took me briefly into their Eves and thanked me for car¬ing. Strangers smiled when they asked my nationality and I answered My—“American.” Almost every male I knew in Hanoi over the age of forty-five had been a soldier—and almost all had fearful tales of battles and bombings along the Ho Chi Minh Trail—but no one gave the vaguest hint of considering me or the United States an adversary. When I told former combatants I had covered the war as a reporter thirty years earlier they would often place both hands on my shoulders as though to say, “I traveled those roads too.” My admission established my credentials as someone who had shared bad times.
It would be easy to dismiss my observations as those of someone who had discovered only what he wanted to hear or see. But every American I met in Vietnam, whether tourist, businessperson, or former GI, had the same reaction: The Vietnamese liked Americans. They had forgiven, if not forgotten. They had lost 3 million citizens, been pummeled with 15 million tons of munitions—twice the tonnage dropped on all of Europe and Asia during World War II—and lived through a war that created 7 million refugees in South Vietnam and destroyed the industry and infra¬structure of North Vietnam. Yet they had put the war behind them in a way that many Americans hadn’t. Their hospitals weren’t full of veterans with postcombat trauma, and they had no national mourning memorials like the Vietnam Wall in Washington. They didn’t write books about the war. Veterans didn’t gather over beers to talk about it. Schoolchildren studied it as only a brief page in their country’s 2,500-year history.
Perhaps the Vietnamese of the North weren’t haunted by the war be¬cause they had won it. Perhaps humility belongs to the victors. Yet it was difficult to understand how a country could consider itself victorious after it had paid such a terrible price. Sometimes Id look for an opportunity to challenge Hanoi’s contention that it had won a military victory. Before I went to sec a former North Vietnamese colonel whose battalion had at¬tacked Hue in the Tet Offensive of 1968, I jotted in my notebook a com¬ment General Norman Schwarzkopf had made in his autobiography: “The United States military did not lose the war in Vietnam, period. In the two years I was in Vietnam, I was in many battles. I was never in a de¬feat—came pretty close a couple of times, but we were never defeated. The outcome of the Vietnam War was a political defeat, but it was not a military defeat.” I read the retired colonel the quote and asked his reac¬tion. “That’s irrelevant,” he replied without dropping a beat. “Whose flag do you sec out there?” And indeed, outside the window the flag over the citadel of Hue bore the yellow star on a red background that once repre¬sented North Vietnam and was now the symbol of the unified country.
Usually when I asked a Vietnamese why he harbored no animosity to¬ward Americans, the answer had something to do with Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho, I’d be told, said that the enemy was the U.S. government, not the American people. Or Uncle Ho said independence was worth any price and the American War was a cost the Vietnamese were willing to pay to claim what was rightfully theirs. Sometimes, more to the point, they’d explain that Vietnam had spent a good part of the past 2,000 years at war and that the decade they’d fought the Americans added up to no more than a blip in history.
Another reason the Vietnamese hold no apparent grudges against Americans is that they believe U.S. servicemen were forced to fight in Vietnam against their will and that the majority of Americans were on the streets protesting Washington’s policies. Their interpretation of his¬tory ignores the fact that two-thirds of the GIs in Vietnam were volun-teers, not draftees, and that in a poll taken after the war 91 percent of Vietnam vets said they were “proud” to have served. Jane Fonda and other activists who visited Hanoi to denounce the war are remembered with fondness in Vietnam, but many Vietnamese admit privately they had a difficult time respecting the activists: To the ultranationalistic Viet¬namese it was unfathomable that anyone who campaigned against his or her government in time of crisis was worthy of esteem.

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