How The Vietnam War Resonates 40 Years After The Fall Of Saigon

Tom Ashbrook interviews Viet Thanh Nguyen for On Point, his show on WBUR, Boston’s local NPR station. 

Americans and Vietnamese run for a U.S. Marine helicopter in Saigon during the evacuation of the city, April 29, 1975. (AP)

On the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, we’ll look back on the end and long resonance of the Vietnam War.

For anyone who lived through it, the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War was unforgettable. After so many years of blood and protest and napalm and drama – American and Vietnamese – there was the image of the helicopter taking desperate, fleeing people off the very rooftop of the US embassy in Saigon. Of choppers being shoved off the sides of a US aircraft carrier into the sea to make room for more waves of desperate evacuees. Of history turning. Nations’ fates, parting. This hour On Point: Forty years later, we look back on the fall of Saigon and the epic war it ended.

Read the partial transcript below:

Tom Ashbrook: Our home station WBUR also has put together a very interesting piece on this, ‘Saigon: The final hours.’ You can see it at wbur.org. I want to look at exactly that bigger picture. David Greenway, stand by with me in the studio, with us now from Los Angeles is Vietnam born, Vietnamese-American novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the new novel, ‘The Sympathizer’, which begins essentially with the fall of Saigon. Washington Post calls it extraordinary, the New York Times, remarkable.

Tom Ashbrook: Viet Thanh Nguyen is associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He was just four years old when his family fled South Vietnam in 1975. You can read an excerpt of his book our website, onpointradio.org. Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you very much for being with us today.

Viet Nguyen: Hi Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Ashbrook: We have invited you, and we could have invited you anytime, especially at the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, to be fully reminded that this is much more than just an American story. As Congressman Cao from New Orleans just reminded us. There was tremendous drama in Vietnam itself, the Vietnamese at the heart of that, and they paid the price in suffering for years after the fall of Saigon. How do you see the way Americans remember the end of this war, the image of the top of the embassy, the movie depictions of the war all these years later?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think generally the way that Americans have chosen to remember their Vietnam war is a war about Americans. The American perception is that this war was really something that cost a lot of American lives, over 58,000 American soldiers died there, and if you read the journalistic accounts, the soldier’s stories, novels, watch a lot of American movies, what’s remarkable is that they focus very much on this being something that involved Americans or became something that was like a civil war in the American soul.

Viet Nguyen: And the Vietnamese people tended to function as extras or faceless people in most of these types of accounts, especially in Hollywood, but of course, as Congressman Cao said, the war extracted a huge cost on the Vietnamese population of all sides. He talked a lot about the Southern Vietnamese and so on. But the war killed up to 3 million Vietnamese people, and that’s something that I think many Americans have forgotten, that this was really a war that was tremendously devastating for all sides in this Vietnamese conflict.

Tom Ashbrook: David Greenway, for Americans who may have lived through the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, maybe even the Gulf War, but maybe not, younger Americans I’m not sure fully take on board how much drama was around the Vietnam war. These have been fairly low drama wars by comparison. Well, in Vietnam, plenty of drama, in Iraq and Afghanistan plenty of drama, but at home.

David Greenway: Well, there was no draft for Iraq and Afghanistan, and it was the draft that really split this country because people were going, “Oh, volunteer army. You don’t have to worry about that.” But when you are made to go and you don’t want to, that’s bad for morale, and it split the country, I think, more than anything since the Civil War.

Tom Ashbrook: For a decade of the music, the protests in the streets, the culture, I find it not easy to convey how consumed with debate over this war the United States was.

David Greenway: I have one memory of that day, 40 years ago, that Mr. Nguyen might find interesting. I had to get out of the embassy through this terrible crowd of panicked people to file the Fall of Saigon for the Washington Post.

Tom Ashbrook: The story.

David Greenway: The only way I could file it was from my best friend, Phạm Xuân Ẩn, who I’d known at Time Magazine, and he let me use the Time telex, even though I was working for a rival paper.

Tom Ashbrook: This is pre-internet ladies and gentlemen. This [inaudible 00:04:00] you had to have a [crosstalk 00:04:00].

David Greenway: Telex. You had to have a telex.

Tom Ashbrook: A very cumbersome, clunky old pound, pound, pound away.

David Greenway: He was by far my best Vietnamese friend. We’d worked together as colleagues, and I found out after the Fall of Saigon that he’d been an agent for the North Vietnamese during the entire time and during the French War as well.

Tom Ashbrook: Viet Thanh Nguyen, the protagonist in your novel has a somewhat similar role. This is a deep mole, a spy within the South Vietnamese, and later comes to America as well. David Greenway lived this reality, though he didn’t know it at the time. How did you choose to tell the story of all this through the story of a mole, a spy Viet?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it’s when I heard of the story of Phạm Xuân Ẩn that David talked about, and when I wanted to write this novel, I thought the spy story would be great because here would be a person who would get to be involved in all the historical moments and be able to see things from both sides. That was really the critical idea for me.

Viet Nguyen: This war was a war that was fought passionately by people of different factions and beliefs, but all of them, or most of them, really believed they were doing the right thing, and they saw things from their point of view exclusively. I didn’t want to write a novel that would simply repeat that kind of a story, I wanted to have a character who was capable of sympathizing with all the different sides in the conflict. And the reason why that was important was because for me, what made this war a tragedy was not that it was a conflict between right and wrong, but that it was a conflict between right and right. That is all the different sides had legitimate reasons for believing that they were fighting for the right cause, and that’s what leads to tragedy, or in the case of my book, tragic comedy.

Tom Ashbrook: Cam in Omaha, Nebraska. Thank you for calling captain. You’re on the air.

Cam: Yeah, my name is Cam. I was 12 years old when this happened. I was watching from the balcony of our home.

Tom Ashbrook: You were Vietnamese in Saigon, Cam?

Cam: I’m South Vietnamese. I live in the U S right now.

Tom Ashbrook: Yes. Yes.

Cam: So I was three years old when I saw the Soviet built T-54 tanks rolling through the streets of Saigon. It was pretty chaotic. Just half an hour prior to that, I saw Soviet soldier in the GMC trucks stopping their truck on the bridge near my home number known a uniform M 16 rifle on them. All the gears they have, they run like mad men trying to catch the other vehicle, so about an hour later I saw the Soviet T-54 pound tank rolling through the bridge, so it was quiet scene watch.

Tom Ashbrook: How did you and your family, if it was all of you, get out of Vietnam camp?

Cam: Oh, I stayed there for four years. The majority of my family members left through a Korean ship that happened to leave around I think April 26 or April 27, a few days prior. So they were leaving together with the Korean ship.

Tom Ashbrook: And all these years later, how do you look back on the end of the war? [crosstalk 00:06:58] Does it look inevitable? Does it look like betrayal?

Cam: 40 years go by fast. I can tell you that now. I have a lot of gray hair now. I moved to Canada in 1979 and went to school in there and then now I sat on in the US.

Tom Ashbrook: Lives sent in a million directions at the end of the Vietnam War. Cam, in Omaha, thank you for calling. [inaudible 00:07:23] stars war from 1970. I’m Tom Ashbrook. This is On Point.

Speaker 5: [inaudible]

Tom Ashbrook: Hi everybody, tom here. I’m glad you’re joining us for this On Point podcast. Before we get back to the show, I’d like to tell you about another podcast you might enjoy too. Dear Sugar Radio, join hosts Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond as they field questions about love, sex, work, guilt, money. You name it. That’s Dear Sugar Radio. You can find it at wbur.org/dearsugar or subscribe on iTunes.

Speaker 5: [inaudible].

Tom Ashbrook: I’m Tom Ashbrook. This is On Point. We’re talking today about the Fall of Saigon in Vietnam 40 years ago this week, today and tomorrow and the end and echos of the Vietnam War. Viet Thanh Nguyen is with us, novelist author of the new novel, ‘The Sympathizer’ a novel you can read an excerpt@ourwebsiteonpointradio.org Vietnamese American. He was just four years old when his family fled. Some of them, not all, in 1975 he’s now University of Southern California. H.D.S. David Greenway is with us as well. Author of ‘Foreign Correspondent’, a memoir, cover the Vietnam War for Time Magazine and the Washington post was there on that last day as it bled over the 29th into the 30th and finally all the choppers headed out and the end. David Viet, lots of response from our listeners online. Linda writes on Facebook, “Vietnam was my generation’s war. I still get tears in my eyes to think of all that happened.

Tom Ashbrook: I hope that at some future time there will be a generation who doesn’t have its own war, that we haven’t seen yet.” Ari writes, “considering that the nation and Pentagon forgot everything we learned about insurgency theory in Vietnam. I say Vietnam doesn’t resonate enough.” Ari writes, “we forgot that you can’t send only a military to war. We forgotten or neglected to learn all kinds of things in Vietnam.”

Tom Ashbrook: Listener says, “regardless of what we want our lost a lot of brave soldiers serve, got wounded, and died, but this is treated practically as a nonevent now. Sad, well maybe true, but it’s not a nonevent. I was just hearing today from person who been talking with those working with homeless Americans about the enormous numbers of Vietnam war vets that remain among our homeless population.”

Tom Ashbrook: Ray writes to us from Vermont, “the whole affair, it should be a warning as to the limits of the ability of a power to combat an irregular foe, which has support or at least sympathies or the acquiescence of the local population. This very relevant still to the United States today.”

Tom Ashbrook: Viet Thanh Nguyen, tell us the story of you and your family and how it came to be that some of you got out. Some of you did not.

Viet Nguyen: Well, my family were originally refugees in 1954 when the country was divided in two and my parents were living in a small Northern village and they came South. [crosstalk 00:10:43]

Tom Ashbrook: They were devout Catholics and that put them at some risk?

Viet Nguyen: Yes, 800,000 Catholics left because the CIA led them to believe that communists would persecute them and my father left behind his entire family, wouldn’t see them again for 40 years. My mother came with her family, settled in the South in a small town called Ban Me Thuot, which had the distinction of being the first town overrun in the 1975 invasion, [crosstalk 00:11:05] so this is actually

Tom Ashbrook: a coffee producing center there.

Viet Nguyen: It’s still a big coffee producing center, so if you drink, Yuban coffee, things like that, you’ll probably have Vietnamese coffee beans in there. But my father was actually in Saigon at the time. My mother was home with my brother, myself, and my adopted sister. She had to make a life and death decision without being able to communicate with my dad. She decided to leave my adopted sister behind to take care of the home and family business because she believed, like many other Vietnamese people, that this wasn’t the end. The war had gone back and forth for a very long time, so she thought it was going to be a temporary getaway. So she took my brother and I to the Seaside Village, seaside town of Jang, which was 120 miles away. She walked all the way downhill, at least, got on a refugee barge and managed to make our way to Saigon where we reconnected with my father. And then [inaudible 00:11:51] in April we had to flee again on another boat to Guam.

Tom Ashbrook: A long, long story and many, many years of separation there. Your father was started grocery in the United States, eventually ended up supporting a lot of those in Vietnam. What about the feelings between those who left and those who stayed? How did that play out over the years?

Viet Nguyen: I think it was very tense because, my family in Vietnam for many years, because the country was very poor, really needed assistance just to live. And that was what my parents were doing, sending money back as remittances and many, many people in the Vietnamese diaspora were doing exactly the same thing. So there’s a real relationship of dependency and potentially envy, you know, because the people in Vietnam didn’t really know what was happening with the overseas Vietnamese people, didn’t see the struggles that they were enduring as refugees and as immigrants in many foreign countries. They just saw the overseas Vietnamese people as being lucky and as being rich because they were in the West or if they happen to be communists Vietnamese, they, they thought of overseas Vietnamese people as being traders and puppets who had served the Americans and the French.

Viet Nguyen: So when the overseas Vietnamese started to return to Vietnam starting in about, you know, the early 1990s in an increasing numbers, up until the present day, it was a very fraught encounter oftentimes, there was certainly homecoming and welcoming and tears and all of that, but underneath all that there was jealousy and envy and resentment and unanswered questions and fraught emotional relationships. And the relationship between the Vietnamese people remains sort of sort of tense. A lot of Americans who go back to Vietnam are amazed at the fact that the Vietnamese generally welcomed them with open arms and and have put the past behind them, at least in terms of Americans, but the Vietnamese in Vietnam and the Vietnamese overseas haven’t been able to put that history to rest.

Tom Ashbrook: You can see ‘Sigon: The Final Hours’, you can link to it at our website onpointradio.org or at wbur.org.

Tom Ashbrook: Patty in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Patty, thank you for calling. You’re on the air.

Patty: Hi. Hi Tom. Thank you. What I was recalling was after having been down in Washington DC with my husband and a two year old and four year old as a protest against the war and having to run away from tear gas with them children. I recall the, the joy when the war was over taking, the kids with, going together with many friends from an alternative school and taking the kids to New York city where the celebration then and the war because the war had ended was so joyous, with Phil Oak singing and I think Joan Baez singing and people dancing and, and just a wonderful, wonderful spirit that finally we were out of, out of a war. I wish we were out of all wars now.

Tom Ashbrook: Patty, you clearly recall the joy of that day, the war ending to be in central park in New York was joyful. What did you think then or what do you think now about the suffering that we’re hearing of the Vietnamese who were left behind? It was not a joyful moment for many of them.

Patty: I don’t, I think they didn’t have a very joyful time with foreign invaders in their country either. And I know there were certainly differences and people coming from many different angles and the thousands of young Americans that got killed too.

Tom Ashbrook: Yeah.

Patty: You know, it’s, it’s not a good part of our history. And the sad thing is that so much, so much of the time since then we’ve been at war as well.

Tom Ashbrook: True, this is very true. [crosstalk 00:15:22]

Patty: And I’m proud to say that my children and grandchildren and husband and I still, I have protested against the current wars.

Tom Ashbrook: There have been plenty. Patty I appreciate your call. Janice in Greenville, South Carolina. Janice, you’re on the air.

Janice: Hi Tom. I just wanted to share some of the insights that I had. My ex husband, when he came back from Vietnam, we were together. He was 19 years old and when he left Vietnam they told him not to wear their uniform, to travel in civilian clothes because there was so much opposition to the war. So he didn’t come back as a hero. He came back afraid to tell anybody he had fought in the Vietnam War. His best friend who was a medic, was killed on the battlefield and he had to carry him out. He was afraid to leave him and those things had such far reaching and tragic effects on his life. As a Marine, he was sprayed with agent orange and wound up with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in later life. So there were so many things that people go through and continue to go to and their families suffer. And the fall of Vietnam ending in 1975, I’ll never forget. He was watching TV and he put his hand, his head in his hand and just stopped and said that it was all for nothing.

Tom Ashbrook: Janice, I, I’m, I’m sorry for that memory, but I appreciate your call very much. Your husband, who suffered from the effects of agent orange later. 12 million gallons of that sprayed by the U S over 10% of South Vietnam and the decade ending 1971 cup, 2 to 4 million Vietnamese exposed, more than 2 million us service members exposed. David Greenway, Viet Thanh Nguyen, I want to think about lessons from, we can look at that day endlessly. The drum of it was so high, but it ended a large engagement, a large and deeply divisive war. David, when you look back on all of that now, what lessons do you draw and has the country drawn them? Is it evident that we, we all imagined we would draw deep, profound, unending lessons from the Vietnam War. Did we?

David Greenway: Well, I remember talking to general Dempsey in Baghdad 10 years ago. He’s now chairman of the joint chiefs, but then he was in charge of training the Iraqi army and he and his staff told me that you can train any equip an army, but you can’t motivate it. That’s up to the Iraquis themselves.

Tom Ashbrook: And at that time in Baghdad, he’s talking about the Iraqi army.

David Greenway: The Iraqi army, which again collapsed much the way the South Vietnamese army [crosstalk 00:18:11] and I think that to try to instill American values by means of intervention and military occupation just doesn’t work out and has not served us well.

Tom Ashbrook: What does that mean? Does it mean stay home because Americans are exhorted to go abroad and go to war with as, as our callers are pointing out one after another with the notable frequency?

David Greenway: Well, I think that if it’s deemed necessary that the nation go to war, that we have to be very careful about how we do it. I think the best example was George Herbert Walker Bush and the first Gulf War where we got in and got out, accomplished the mission.

Tom Ashbrook: Iraq had invaded Kuwait, go in, boot them out of Kuwait and be done.

David Greenway: Yes.

Tom Ashbrook: And in a matter of 30 40 days.

David Greenway: Yes and not spend 10 years trying to occupy your Iraq.

Tom Ashbrook: Viet Thanh Nguyen I’m curious, when you think of lessons of the Fall of Saigon, the end of the war, the entire war as a Vietnamese American, what lessons tend up to they might be, they might be quite different.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that there’s been a failure to imagine creatively and you know, as David said, we haven’t learned the conventional military lessons. We haven’t learned the conventional strategic lessons about why we should get involved in foreign countries. And I think that means that we haven’t thought enough about how it is that we could actually do things differently if we want to encourage democracy or if we want to help people think better of America. Maybe we should tried peaceful means instead of military means or instead of inserting ourselves into foreign countries. Because what happened in Vietnam was the United States went in and told the Vietnamese how to fight the war in a particular way, boosted the economy with enormous amounts of money. And what that ultimately led to was the corruption of South Vietnam and the corruption of the military corruption and the political leadership and, and the terrible end of the war. And that’s I think something similar happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Viet Nguyen: Then lastly, as a Vietnamese person who’s a refugee and came to the United States, I think that the United States had not, has not learned the fundamental lesson, which is that you cannot look at people in other places from an American centric point of view, that is partially what brought the U S to Vietnam, ignoring Vietnamese viewpoints and imposing American ones. And again, I think that’s exactly what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Tom Ashbrook: When you go back to Vietnam, you have gone back, what do you see? How do you feel?

Viet Nguyen: Oh, I feel tormented, you know, because we know many of my relatives are still there and many of them are still poor. So it’s emotionally difficult thing for me. And then I also see, you know, I’m also very sad because this terrible war was fought, so many people have died and in the end we ended up with a Vietnam that is exactly something the Americans would have loved, which is a Vietnam that has completely turned itself over to capitalism and has turning into an American strategic ally in the conflict with China. And I think what happened is what would happen if the United States has simply left Vietnam alone and spared all the cost of blood and treasure and we might’ve ended up with exactly the same situation, but without all those lost lives.

Tom Ashbrook: Without all that loss, David take us to that last day again, Viet was four years old. You were fully in the midst of a career as, as a journalist. [crosstalk 00:21:25]

David Greenway: I was almost 40.

Tom Ashbrook: When, when did you get on the chopper that took you out? Where was that? What did you see as you left? What were you thinking?

David Greenway: Well, I left around dusk and is the helicopter.

Tom Ashbrook: [crosstalk 00:21:38] on the 29th that would be the next morning before the last choppers went out I guess.

David Greenway: Yes and I could still, I could see ammunition dumps blowing up to the North.

Tom Ashbrook: Were the North Vietnamese troops in the city or on the outskirts?

David Greenway: They were on the outskirts at some distance, but there were explosions at that time going off, I could see the crowds of people milling through the streets of Saigon trying to get onto boats and this vivid impression of as the helicopter landed on the Navy ships of these hundreds and hundreds of little boats, overcrowded boats.

Tom Ashbrook: Bobbing around

David Greenway: Bobbing around in the ocean is if they were the flotsam and jetsam of some terrible Shipwreck.

Tom Ashbrook: Yeah.

David Greenway: Which once since they were, and I think in my notebook, I had jotted down that poem by James Russell Lowell that’s above the graves of the British killed it conquered.

Tom Ashbrook: From the revolutionary?

David Greenway: From the Revolutionary War he wrote, they came 3000 miles and died to keep the past upon the throne.

Tom Ashbrook: [crosstalk 00:22:45] And there he was talking about red coats and resisting the American Revolution. Your thought then?

David Greenway: I say my goodness, we might, we may have been the red coats.

Tom Ashbrook: 10,000 miles instead of [crosstalk 00:22:58].

David Greenway: 10,000 miles instead of three, yeah.

Tom Ashbrook: The past did not stay upon his throat. I mean the colonial era ended ended ended.

David Greenway: Exactly. And I remember Roger Rotman, the prime minister, the foreign minister of Singapore, a great friend of the United States said the Fall of Saigon marked the true colonial the end of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, the effective and symbolic and if four centuries of Western political and military intervention in the region, and this is coming from my friend of the United States.

Tom Ashbrook: Viet Thanh Nguyen you remind us that in your Vietnamese American circles, this is called not just, it’s called black April, I guess for the sorrow of suffering that came with the end of the war.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely, is a very important anniversary for many of the Southern Vietnamese in the United States. And for them, their history, the way they look back on the war is that they lost their country. They lost many family members, they lost property and you know, health and peace of mind. And so it’s important for them to commemorate this event from a Vietnamese point of view because they feel they’ve been overlooked on the American side and it is a dark time for them.

Tom Ashbrook: Will, will they go back, do they go back, repatriate, or are our most Vietnamese American forever now?

Viet Nguyen: They’re Vietnamese-Americans. They, they’re proud to be Americans, but they, many of them choose to go back. Either, you know, people from that generation or even people of my generation, they go back because they missed their country or they have relatives or for the younger generation, they see economic and cultural opportunities in a capitalist Vietnam that many of them can’t find here.

Tom Ashbrook: 40 years later. What an irony. Viet Thanh Nguyen author of ‘The Sympathizer’, thank you so much for being with us from LA today.

Viet Nguyen: Thanks for having me.

Tom Ashbrook: And H.D.S., David Greenway, author of ‘Foreign Correspondent’ David. Thank you, as always.

David Greenway: Thank you.

Tom Ashbrook: Smokey Robinson and The Miracles track of my tears. I’m Tom Ashbrook. Thanks for joining us. This is On Point.


Category: Interviews

 

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