Has Vietnam been abandoned by the U.S.?

Posted on May 2, 2011

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Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, who served as South Viet- nam's unofficial first lady, died at age 86 on Easter.

It’s ironic that the death of Madame Nhu happened on April 24, just a few days before the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. While the sorry end to that sad chapter of Vietnam involvement is relegated to the trash heap of American history, the continued struggle for democracy and human rights for the people of Vietnam is raging anew.

More than a dozen peaceful dissidents and bloggers are imprisoned. Cu Huy Ha Vu, the regime’s favorite son and outspoken French-educated legal scholar, is sentenced by a kangaroo court, and contemptuously slapped with a 7-year prison sentence, plus an additional three years under house arrest.

Perhaps the passing of Nhu, the sister in-law of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-1963) hardly registered in the consciousness of the Obama administration, as it had its hands full with the liberation uprisings in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East.

I wonder if America is still haunted by the ghost of Vietnam when it considers the nagging affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan?

When President Lyndon Johnson goaded Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on Aug. 7, 1964, signaling war with Hanoi, Obama wasn’t yet 3 years old. Yet for many Vietnamese Americans, who are the victims of the ensuing 1975 debacle, the murders of Diem and Nhu (Madame Nhu’s husband) in order to pave way for American military intervention, remains at best a fickle foreign policy, and at worst a betrayal of tragic proportion.

Perhaps it behooves Vietnamese and Americans alike to ponder Madame Nhu’s insistence in a 1982 interview with WGBH: “So the only legitimate power of Vietnam was the one assumed by President Ngo Dinh Diem and it was precisely that one who was beheaded by the U.S.”

As a teacher now for two decades of U.S. History and American democracy, I’ve struggled with competing principles of American idealism and Dollar Diplomacy. I could not teach the complexity of Vietnamese issues without assuming alternating roles, that of a democracy-seeking Vietnam versus the United States pursuing its national interest. When does idealism merge with realpolitik? And does the Vietnamese perspective reflect the North’s or the South’s point of view?

Yet neither the perspicacious government nor the impatient American public has understood the voice of the North or South Vietnamese, despite what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to say on our behalf in his Vietnam anti-war speech: “…while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else.”

Today, coddling Hanoi to wean Vietnam away from Chinese ideological influence by abandoning the Vietnamese people’s aspirations for democracy seems a strange exercise.

Thus, 36 years after the tragic end for Vietnam, when the people’s voice inside Vietnam is still gagged, I am reminded: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

And that time has come for us as Americans in relation to Vietnam.

Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District.

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Posted in: Politics