As I’m pretty sure everyone is familiar with, the US has a fairly sordid history in Vietnam that we as Americans don’t particularly enjoy talking about. There is no doubt about the fact that the US did some pretty evil things in Vietnam – for example, napalm and agent orange were used to defoliate the thick vegetation where there just so happened to be people living. Not to mention the basic act of the US imposing its will unilaterally. Guess we’re still making that mistake. But let there be no mistake here – in my opinion, the US certainly weren’t the “good guys” in this war.
But, well, we lost the war. And the North Vietnamese won. Communist/socialist regimes (though I’ve actually found myself delighting in the fact that they are more capitalist than America these days) are no stranger to presenting one sided stories, and the Vietnamese are no different. The Vietnamese government thoroughly presents its view on the war at three sites we visited – the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Hoa Lu Prison Museum in Hanoi.
Reunification Palace began life as Norodam Palace, for use of the French Governor of Indochina. Then it became Independence Palace in 1945, I’m sure you can guess why. It was bombed by a North Vietnamese secret agent and destroyed, then rebuilt in 1963. And since 1975, its been called the equally obvious Reunification Palace. There is allegedly Chinese character symbolism in the design of the central column of the building, forming characters for good fortune, etc. It’s really not very clear if you ask us.
Out front, the tanks that crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975 permanently rest. They and the crew that guided them are commemorated for their role in the “liberation” of the south. The inside of the Palace is beautiful, as I suppose most palaces are. But the most fascinating area I saw was the basement bunker, where war operations were conducted. All of the old radio equipment remained untouched, the maps presumably the same ones. It was eerie but captivating. We then arose into a room on the history of the Palace and further down, a video room. It was here we got our first view of the Vietnamese perspective.According to the Vietnamese government, the war was fought between all Vietnamese people and the Americans. It was a war of “Imperialist Aggression” against the Vietnamese people. No South Vietnamese people fought against the North, and the reason it took them another two years to capture Saigon after the Americans ostensibly left was not really discussed. Furthermore, and I find this odd for a socialist regime, the Vietnamese people are not glorified. Instead, the US is denigrated. The video and history display repeatedly talk about the tactical mistakes Americans made, their failed bombing runs, their failed war policies. Rarely did they mention how valiently their own soldiers fought, how they exploited weakness and kept the tactical upper hand, or anything or the sort. It was quite the opposite of what I expected.
Leaving the Palace, we headed to the nearby War Remnants Museum. The first exhibit was a haunting display of the photographs of the photojournalists killed during the war, often including their last frames from just minutes (or less) before their death (oddly, this exhibit was almost fully sponsored by Louisville based companies … the Courier-Journal, UPS, KFC, the Bingham family, LG&E, etc … can anyone explain this?). It was an amazing exhibit. But after that, the museum focused on detailing fully the atrocities of the Americans. This consisted of five separate exhibits. Now, make no mistake, the Americans did many horrible things worthy of these exhibits. There’s what Agent Orange has done to thousands of children, just tragic. There’s the endless and quite indiscriminate bombing campaigns. The torture and deadly beatings of prisoners at Phu Quoc island. The infantry attacks that left villages empty. And so on. Feel pretty lousy yet? But the activities of the North Vietnamese soldiers during this whole sordid “war” business is strangely absent. There certainly is no mention of the horrible things their soldiers inevitably did.
Now, I’m willing to concede that on a tally of war crimes and failed war policies, the US won handily. So these first two museum, while one sided, were not on the wrong side of truth. But Hoa Lu Prison, perhaps more familiarly known as the Hanoi Hilton, definitely crossed that line. Since the prison was built by the French, it was first used to house Vietnamese criminals and dissidents. The first half of the museum glorified the communist party members who suffered there under the “horrible atrocities” of those evil French imperialists, which included the worst cuts of beef and pork at mealtimes and a nine hour workday. Theresa and I both looked at each other and said “sounds better than a lot of free people’s lives.” Course, a fair number of prisoners were executed, so I suppose that’s not so great. The two best rooms in the museum, however, dealt with the treatment of American POWs. One room focused on the northern bombing campaign and how evil it was, complete with John McCain’s flight suit!
The other room dealt with how wonderfully the Vietnamese treated the American POWs. There were photos of them celebrating Christmas, a curio case with the guitar they were allowed to keep, the Americans playing basketball, and finally, the Americans being released. All the while declaring how the gracious Vietnamese government, despite the horrible things the Americans had done, treated these prisoners so well and gave them a “home away from home.” Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American POW tell a story that would corroborate that tall tale. We had a good long laugh at that. But as they say, history is written by the victors, so I guess there must be some other reason John McCain can’t use his right arm.