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FIRST-PERSON: Eventually, freedom will come to Vietnam

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–I am the son of a Vietnam veteran. What I knew of Vietnam until five years ago, I knew only from history books, lectures, documentaries and the stories my father told about the war.

My father was a military advisor to South Vietnam. He has never spoken in detail of his mission there, but he has described on numerous occasions the ethnic minority people with whom he lived, the beauty of the jungle and the crimson-colored dirt of the Central Highlands. He has offered brief reflections on his brothers-in-arms who never came home.

In 2000, I made my first journey to Vietnam. I found everything just as he had said. Standing on the battlefield where my father had fought and almost died was surreal. I wish that he had been with me, but I understood then and now why he wasn’t. There were too many ghastly memories of Vietnam.

Nevertheless, I said a prayer there. I prayed that Vietnam would be over for my father. I prayed that he would be able to stop fighting the war in his sleep.

Will I ever fully comprehend what he experienced? Certainly not. But that trip and three successive journeys there have provided insight into the man Vietnam made in my father.

Vietnam was a strange new world for me — a place where I found Americans to be welcome, yet a place where government tour guides are quick to remind that a Third World army whittled away the will of the American people to fulfill their promise to South Vietnam. Pleasant smiles and firm handshakes are common among the people of Saigon, yet Americans do not escape the watchful gaze of many uniformed and plainclothes policemen.

Throughout Saigon, the flag of a united communist state flies outside of virtually every shop, but older storekeepers in private conversations will recall times when the flag of a free South Vietnam flew high instead. It is a flag that is illegal to possess in Vietnam now.

Those from the South who survived the war and the subsequent period of “re-education” under the communists are grateful that so many young Americans tried to avert disaster in South Vietnam. Most Vietnamese, however, are largely ignorant of the war. The majority of the people in the country are simply too young to remember hearing the sounds of helicopters, mortars and machinegun fire. They are concerned with cell phones, motorbikes and dancing.

They know of the war only what the propagandists tell them. They know of the “glorious victories” of the North Vietnamese army, but nothing of the army’s countless losses. They know of the murder of civilians at My Lai by American forces, but nothing of the thousands upon thousands butchered by the Vietcong.

Some of the propaganda is amusing. I was astonished to learn on my second visit to Vietnam in 2002 that the film “The Green Berets” had been surreptitiously edited to conclude with a helicopter crash that claimed the life of “the American military commander John Wayne.”

Ignorance of the war in Vietnam, the complexities of foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the response of the American public to the war is not solely the plight of the Vietnamese. Tourists from Europe have flooded into Vietnam for the past 10 years, taking advantage of high exchange rates and having their anti-American egos stroked by communist officials there.

I have seen party officials tell crowds of Europeans of how the “American devils” invaded their land and of how that transgression was repaid with blood and sorrow. Many of the tourists smile and nod their heads in approval. Some Europeans have bought into the lie that the war in Vietnam was about America’s imperial desires, rather than one component of a global strategy against communism.

The European tourists I met in Vietnam know as much about the Vietnam War as countless numbers of American college students. Parents, high school teachers and college professors have taught these students that the war was a mistake, an error in American military foreign policy. Vietnam was the place where the notion of “manifest destiny” died, and where the American people were forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat under the banner of “peace with honor.”

April 30, 2005, marks the 30th anniversary of the day the iron curtain descended over Vietnam. It is a day for reflection. Did we fail? Were the lives of 58,000 of America’s finest given in vain?

I do not believe so, for I have been to Vietnam. I see in Vietnam the very best ideas of freedom at work, although deep in the protected undercurrents of society. I have seen capitalism flourish in Saigon.

Democratic beliefs deeply embedded in the older generation of Vietnamese who had the opportunity to live freely are being birthed again among the young. They want to be self-determinative. They want to find their own destinies. They want to experience the taste of freedom.

To be sure, Vietnam has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. For example, government officials persecute those who are openly Christian for following “superstition.” In the Central Highlands of the country in particular, there are severe restrictions on religious liberty and persistent violations of human rights. Reports have surfaced over the past four years of brutal government crackdowns on the ethnic minorities in the region.

During one of my visits to the Central Highlands, an ethnic minority Christian told me that his sister, a member of the dissenting church, was led into the jungle and executed after the police repeatedly warned her to stop proselytizing. “She is buried somewhere near Cambodia, but we do not know where,” he said. He, too, had been persecuted for his faith.

This same man who had suffered so much longs to escape the oppression of his government. But he is hopeful for change in Vietnam. He is hopeful that he will someday be free and he has confidence in his hope. If you will go to Vietnam, you will see this hope on the faces and in the stories of many of the people.

I, too, am confident that the tree of liberty, nourished with the blood of American patriots, will eventually bear fruit in Vietnam. The roots of freedom are far too deep.

A new generation of Vietnamese who cannot recall a time of war will eventually gain power in the country. They then will be faced with the choice between isolation, repression and poverty, or international acceptance, liberty and economic cooperation.

When they are faced with that choice, I believe this new generation of leaders will accept the inevitable strides of liberty, and then wonder why they waited so long to grant freedom to the citizens of Vietnam when Americans tried to do just that more than 30 years ago.
Gregory Tomlin is director of public relations at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of a doctoral dissertation, “Hawks and Doves: Southern Baptist Responses to Military Intervention in Southeast Asia, 1965-73.” He has been to Vietnam four times. He can be e-mailed at [email protected].

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  • Gregory Tomlin