I have had a couple of questions about the Vietnam War and whether we have visited battlefield sites or not. We haven’t.
Is it Over?
The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago and is still a major part of society. Spoiler alert: the North won.
The Government of Vietnam is Communist although they are opening up to more foreign investment including tourism. Major western companies like McDonalds have broken into the market but are not as big as one would think.
I have fairly limited knowledge of the Vietnam War based on some historical readings and tainted by Hollywood movies.
How it Started
Until invaded by Japan in the Second World War, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all part of French Indochina. In 1945, Japan withdrew following its defeat. With the support of Britain and the United States, France reasserted control of Indochina. This led the local people in each area to begin fighting for independence. In Vietnam this was led by the Viet Minh (league for the independence of Vietnam) in the North which was under the communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The independence movement was partially successful and split Vietnam in half. Communist in the North under Ho Chi Minh and the South under Emperor Bao Dai (who was heavily supported by the French). In 1954, after a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu the French negotiated for withdrawal from Indochina.
The Geneva agreement of July 1954 split Vietnam in two along the 17th parallel and called for nationwide elections and a reunification plan by 1956. My father spent a year in Vietnam based in Hanoi during this time. He was part of the International Commissions for Supervision and Control (ICSC). He was part of an observer team that travelled throughout the country and reported on the conditions of the cessation of hostilities. To learn more: http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/od-bdo/di-ri-eng.asp?IntlOpId=341&CdnOpId=414
The U.S. Role
The American role is complicated in Vietnam. In essence, the U.S. and British backed the French when they tried to reassert control under the legitimate Emperor Bao Dai. Ngo Dinh Diem became President of the Republic of South Vietnam after a rigged campaign. The U.S. were drawn into the support of South Vietnam as an opponent to Communism under Ho Chi Minh even though the Diem government was repressive. President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, pushed the U.S. to escalate forces in South East Asia in response to the ‘domino’ effect which conceptually believed that if one country fell to communism others would immediately follow.
Three weeks before the assassination of Kennedy, Diem and his brother were killed. This created political instability which forced President Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara to increase military and economic support. An attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin created the conditions for the US to begin bombing Northern Vietnam.
The anti-war movement in the US divided the country. Troop commitments increased to over 200,000 by 1966 and over 500,000 less than a year later.
One of the key actors in the coup against Diem was General Nguyen Van Thieu who quickly rose to Presidency by 1967 which he held until 1975. Educated by the U.S. he maintained a brutal regime that matched the Northern Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communist). Thieu emigrated to the U.S. following the collapse of Saigon in 1975 and he died in 2001 at the age of 76.
Why the history lesson?
I learned much of this information after visiting three museums in Vietnam by doing my own research. Imperialistic American involvement and captured American equipment is the focus of these museums. It also includes uniforms from POWs (pilots and soldiers).
The Vietnam National Museum of History
Located in the capital, Hanoi, just behind the Opera House and the Hanoi Hilton.
The tickets which included access to both the early history of Vietnam and the Museum of the Revolution for the five us of were 130,000VND (or $7.14CAD). We picked the Museum of the Revolution which started with the rise of Ho Chi Minh and highlights of the Vietnam War. The exhibits were hard to follow as the Anti-American and Anti-French clouded any impartial interpretation.
It is worth to see some of the artefacts particularly those used by Ho Chi Minh and his supporters.
The War Remnants Museum
An excellent photographic display developed in Kentucky made the exhibits more balanced. It was done through the lens of war correspondents and included many famous photos from Life magazine.
One gallery was focused solely on the effects of Agent Orange which was quite horrifying to view as it included many images of little children with birth defects.
Visible in many of the exhibits was anti-American messaging. The My-Lai massacre of 1968 featured prominently.
The captured American equipment on display outside in the courtyard was interesting to look at including a CH-47 chinook and a single engine Huey.
The last item we viewed at the War Remnants Museum was the treatment of Viet Cong soldiers. The examples were based on the Coconut Prison located on Phu Quoc island which was our next destination.
The site of the hotel in Phu Quoc, that we stayed at, was actually part of the prison at one time. A short bike ride, approximately 2km, and we were at the prison. The prison rebuilt a few years ago as the barb wire and concertina wire rust apart in the humid conditions.
History belongs to those who Win
The experience in the Museum(s) is an example of another aspect of society that we noticed. The passive aggressive nature towards western people is perpetuated by the interpretations in the museums and their history classes.