An American Historian visits Vietnam & Cambodia

By Neil A. Wynn

Several things got me interested in U.S. history when I was a teenager – rock n’roll, blues, civil rights, John F. Kennedy (hard to believe now!), and the war in Vietnam.  By the time I became a student at Edinburgh University, protests against American involvement in the conflict in S.E. Asia had spread to Britain and elsewhere in the world.  I joined the Council for Peace in Vietnam and took part in a number of small demonstrations before I went to the USA to study for a year at SUNY at Buffalo, NY, where anti-war demonstrations, peace gatherings, and  draft resistance were almost commonplace.  I particularly remember the anger many of my fellow students expressed when President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 – part of an escalation of the conflict that was to have dire consequences.  These experiences undoubtedly influenced my teaching when I became a lecturer in American History  at the universities of Glamorgan and then Gloucestershire – it was very hard to be objective about some subjects!  So the chance to go on a tour of Vietnam and Cambodia early this year was something that had a special significance for me.

Obviously, in fourteen days, my visit was going to be very superficial, and, as part of an organised tour, it was going to have a broader focus (although not much) than the war.  But from the start of the tour in Hanoi, the war was an ever-present subject, difficult to escape and images of many movies and newsreels flooded back – even at the sight of women carrying  fruit in panniers and wearing conical woven hats, or the paddy fields near Hanoi.

A major site for visitors to Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and museum – “Uncle Ho” is regarded as the founder of the nation and his image appears on all currency and often in public places.  Visitors from Vietnam and abroad queue in their hundreds to see the body of Ho who, like Lenin and Mao Tse Zedong, lies in state in a huge austere building.  Marshalled by white-suited guards, the visitors have to wait patiently in twos, properly dressed and hands out of pockets before filing silently and reverentially past the ghostly body in a glass coffin.  It was hard for me not to shout “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” – just as well as even photographs are forbidden, and there are no postcards of the corpse either.  Indeed our guide and others insisted it was not the body at all, but a wax-work likeness, much to my chagrin. Despite this the embalmed body is sent to Russia every year or so to be refreshed and maintained.  Ho would no doubt shudder at the cult of personality – he always seemed a modest individual – as his home in the grounds, small in contrast to the presidential building, suggests – and, as Ken Burns’ recently made clear in his outstanding documentary “The Vietnam War”, Ho had actually been displaced as leader by Le Duan sometime before his death in 1969. Nonetheless his image appears everywhere and is recalled in the re-named Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

The American side of the war is portrayed from a very different perspective at the “Hanoi Hilton” or “Heartbreak Hotel” as the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was known as by U.S. prisoners of war – including Senator John McCain.  The image of the Americans as aggressors who inflicted great suffering on the Vietnamese people is evident here, and even more so in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.  However, the American presence in the prison is a relatively small feature as it was also used by the French (hence its name Maison Centrale) to detain – and execute – Vietnamese people involved in the struggle for independence waged from the 1890s through to the 1950s.  In the descriptions the French are colonialists, the Americans aggressors, while the Vietnamese are patriotic revolutionary fighters.  Women’s role in the struggle is also celebrated in the small, but moving, Women’s Museum in Hanoi. All these museums give a powerful insight into the suffering of the Vietnamese people over a very long period – much greater than the war with America but in images of the results of  bombing or the use of the defoliant, Agent Orange (and the presence of people affected by it subsequently), in the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) one really gets a sense of the horror of the American war from the Vietnamese perspective.

The nature – barbarity – of the war is also obvious when you visit the Cu Chi tunnels in the jungles outside  Saigon/HCM city.  In the images are just some of the hundreds of kilometres of tunnels  which Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers used to infiltrate Saigon – most famously in the Tet Offensive of 1968.  Also on display are some of the booby traps used by the guerrillas –  primitive warfare versus 20th century technology.

In Saigon, now a massive developing modern and brash city – quite a contrast to Hanoi – you can still see the presidential palace with the gates the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through in 1975, the former CIA building from which helicopters airlifted some of the last remaining Americans the same year, and various monuments to the conflict.

But Vietnam’s ancient past is also being revived as part of the booming tourist industry.  Clearly some of the old imperial palaces and temples in places like Hanoi and Hue had fallen into disrepair during and in the immediate aftermath of the war, but slowly they are being restored and are well worth visiting.  In every city too you can find beautifully maintained Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and other temples as well as Catholic churches and the cathedral in Saigon, all reminders of the ancient culture and the diverse (and apparently tolerant) modern society that has developed.

Vietnam is a fascinating country, and not just for its recent or distant history  – it has beautiful scenery, crowded and chaotic cities, a mixture of poverty and affluence, of modernity and aspects of an almost pre-industrial society.  There is now massive foreign investment evident almost everywhere in the building of roads and new urban dwellings – but you will see barefooted labourers working on the roads, using shovels instead of cement mixers, and the bowed backs of the people working in the rice paddies.  And, we were told,  “we like the Americans now” – particularly since Obama re-established trade, including weapons!

Much the same can be said for Cambodia, a country also torn apart as a consequence of the Vietnam war.  Massive bombing and  American and Vietnamese troop incursions destabilised the government and enabled the rise of a left-wing group – the Khmer Rouge – that seized power in 1975.  In their attempt to return to “year zero” they evacuated the entire 2.5 million population from the capital, Phnom Penh, attempted to eliminate educated elite groups, and drove people to work on the land.  In the process between one and two million Cambodians were murdered or died from starvation and hardship.  Now Phnom Penh is a lively growing business centre with new buildings financed by external investment.  Much of the country at large remains in extreme poverty, but tourism again is helping the economy.  Much of the attraction in Cambodia is to its natural beauty and to the ancient buildings and temples, especially the amazing Angkor Wat, or the royal palace, but one can also visit the places, such as  the former school, now Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh where people were tortured and killed or sent to the “killing fields” where thousands more were brutally murdered.  Our guide told us in detail of the torture and murder of men and women in the school that became Security Prison S-21 and only later revealed that his father was one of those who died there.  The photographs of many of the victims are on display, a record of this brutal period.  Two of the last of seven survivors are also there to recall their experiences.  It was a sobering and haunting experience – Cambodia and Vietnam demonstrate that history isn’t just the past described on the page, but often a living memorial to individuals, named and nameless, but not forgotten, who suffered in periods of conflict both recent and in the more distant past.



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