By Paul Woodruff – Special to the American-Statesman
The Vietnam Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library claims to be an unvarnished look at the Vietnam War. But in fact its design reflects the same racist myopia as the war itself; there is virtually nothing on the program about Vietnamese points of view or on the effect of the war on the people of Vietnam.
From the start of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, American decision makers paid scant attention to the people of South Vietnam, their hopes and their tragedies. How else but by ignorance would U.S. leaders have installed a Catholic government in a Buddhist nation in 1954? Now, over 60 years later, with over a million refugees from Vietnam living among us, we still think of the Vietnam War as all about us — and the program of this summit reflects that. But it wasn’t all about us.
I was an adviser in Vietnam, in an area where there were no U.S. troops, from June 1969 to June 1970. I loved the people I worked with — all of whom, I am sure, were either executed by their enemies after the U.S. betrayal or forced to flee for their lives.
At least then we accepted many refugees into the U.S., although we did not treat them as well as we should have. Doubters should read “The Sympathizer,” this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nhuyen. The racism against Asians that greeted these refugees is subtle, but it is damaging — and it is still with us.
Is there a session in the summit’s program on the conditions that created refugees? On our policies toward them? Now things are even worse. The U.S. has put hundreds of thousands of people in danger in the Middle East and has no plans for providing them with safe havens.
We memorialize the 50,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam, but what about the Vietnamese civilians who were killed in the war — well over a million? What about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese troops, allied with us, who were killed? Or the millions of refugees who had to flee when the U.S. cut off military support, breaking a solemn promise to the government of South Vietnam?
A brief look at the program for the Vietnam Summit will show that this program has been designed from the same racist ignorance that got us into the war and led to our defeat. When will we learn to pay attention to the people we say we are trying to help? When will we stop seeing the world through no eyes but our own? The war in Vietnam was a small tragedy for the U.S.; for the people of Vietnam it was a cataclysm.
Woodruff has taught at the University of Texas since 1973. He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.