Vietnam, Then & Now

In February of 2015, I was in Vietnam for the first time in over half a century, seeing Saigon and Hue again, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay for the first time.

It’s a country we “lost” in April of 1975. There were commemorations and announcements everywhere in 2015, celebrating the “reunification” of North and South Vietnam. The red hammer-and-sickle flag flies from doorways, balconies and trees, north and south.

Looking into the young faces of Vietnam 2015, hearing their questions about the time when I lived in their country, before they were born, before their parents were born, I kept seeing faces from long ago, all but one of them dead now.

If you’re old enough to remember the Domino Theory, you know that Eisenhower, Dulles, Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson, Kissinger, Nixon — one after another, U.S. leaders told us that if another Asian nation took up “Godless communism” all the others would also go red. We had to send troops against our evil nemesis Ho Chi Minh, the anti-colonialist president of the North, or see all of Asia populated by oppressed automatons in gray jumpsuits, mouthing Maoisms rather than prayers, owning nothing, mindlessly obeying State orders, hating Americans, and ready to storm across the Pacific and do us in.

Since returning from a look at the new Vietnam, I’ve been having a dream that I can, Dickens-style, appear to those long-ago statesmen and be their Ghost of Times To Come. Ho Chi Minh has to come along too, to see what’s become of the country he led to victory.

Alright, gentlemen, here we go.

First, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? A blessing from Mother Nature that the blasted, poisoned trees have regrown; a kudo to hard-working people that the buildings and roads have been rebuilt, restored.

Look at the young of this country, gentlemen, so many of them eager to do business with the world, curious and courteous to the many graying Americans coming back to see the places they fought when they were young. Young Vietnamese know nothing of the war, only that bad things happened. They cannot tell you what became of people you may have known here. It was long ago, and only the old have memories.

Do you see that there are multi-national corporate logos everywhere, and ebullient mini-enterprises in every direction? See those farmers whose fields circle the cities? They each own their land and the produce they grow on it. Look at all the old farmhouses with new rooms added on, look at the new mopeds parked at the doors. Farm families are buying these things, from their profits.

See the people streaming into pagodas, bringing flowers and their prayers for a prosperous year? In every city, there are also churches filled for Christian services.

Are you wondering what’s going on, gentlemen? What could possibly have happened to create this world so different from the one you were so sure would follow the defeat of the US?

Are you stunned, Ho Chi Minh, that the inborn entrepreneurial spirit of your people is fueling private commerce now? The government — the communist government — officially sanctioned private ownership of businesses and farms almost 30 years ago. Are you appalled by seeing the main drag of Ho Chi Minh City lined with sleek stores selling ultra-luxury goods from decadent Europe? Hammers and sickles on the trees and balconies, “Prada” and “Bottega Veneta” on the shop windows. Listen to this young Vietnamese entrepreneur saying, “Those anti-business ideas just don’t work for us.”

Neither does the “Godless” part, gentlemen. The deep human instinct to seek God was not stopped by the communist victory. Suppressed for a while, but not erased. Just look at those bustling pagodas and churches, and tell me your thoughts.

Ike, Jack, Lyndon, Dick — all of you, and your so-certain, brilliant advisors, look at Vietnam long after all the young fighters’ lives cut short, the civilians killed, maimed, displaced, the suffering of every human who loved them and survived in grief. Look now at a country where free enterprise and religion are not gone but flourishing.

What if you all go back to your times and just let human nature play out, understanding that the Vietnamese drive to prosper and to pray will prevail over an ideology that doesn’t suit them? You Americans don’t need to send troops and bombers, back there in your time, all those decades ago. Re-education, Ho Chi Minh? Imprisoning and indoctrinating your fellow citizens? Looks like it didn’t work. I urge you all to take a Mulligan, and just stand down.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. All those years ago, I wouldn’t have believed the Vietnam that was to come either — it would have taken time-travel to convince me. I just want to take these men with me, thinking they’d surely change course, if only...