The Vietnam War. For most Americans, the long slog of the 1960s conjures up painful memories of frightened soldiers trekking through steamy, tropical jungles in distant Indochina while mass protest and violence consumed the country. Thanks to the draft, most baby boomers recognize the war as an exercise in hubris that consumed too much blood and treasure. Nearly 58,000 young Americans perished. Countless others were injured. At the peak of our operations, the United States deployed nearly 550,000 ground troops to the country and pummeled Vietnam with more than 7 million tons of bombs. To put this in perspective, we dropped 2 million tons of ordnance during the entirety of World War II. The scale was unimaginable. And when the smoke cleared, the aftermath was shameful. But the Vietnamese know this pain with even greater intimacy.
The Vietnamese don’t call the long period of conflict during the 1950s through 1970s the Vietnam War. In the annals of Vietnamese history, the war is the “American War” or even sometimes referred to as “The War of American Aggression.” Many older Vietnamese citizens are deeply acquainted with the bloodshed of Nixon’s excessive “Christmas bombing” of 1972 or the aftermath of our indiscriminate use of napalm in the country’s more remote regions. The scars of calamity still dot the countryside. In Hanoi, visitors can casually walk by the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber in Huu Tiep Lake or circle the imposing walls of the Hoa Loa Jail in search of Hanoi’s famed egg coffee. In fact, the devastation and the reconciliation of the war have been integrated into today’s tourist experience. A visit to the ever popular Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay includes an obligatory visit to the Cave Hospital, a clandestine medical treatment center. Ho Chi Minh City’s visitors regularly tour the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex network of passages used to wage guerrilla warfare against the enemy. Memorials and monuments are visible along highways, city streets, and mountaintops.
But the war is also remembered differently by the Vietnamese for other reasons. The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, an event captured by the iconic photographs of the desperate evacuation of U.S. personnel and people, is today known in Hanoi by the euphemism “Reunification Day”. It is still celebrated across Vietnam as a national holiday. Journalist Elisabeth Rosen noted in her Atlantic article that many northern Vietnamese who fought in the war recall the moment as the happiest day in their lives since it marked the end of the long and bloody conflict. The War Remnants Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, which houses a collection of wartime artifacts, photographs, posters, and memorabilia, extensively chronicles the use of Agent Orange and features comprehensive exhibits dedicated to American war crimes. In the musty, dark corridors of colonial Hoa Lo Prison, the curators claim that American Prisoners of War received stellar treatment in captivity and showcases photographs of soldiers playing volleyball and carving a Thanksgiving turkey. To my surprise, a complete and well-rounded interrogation of the Vietnam War, and the rise of the Vietnamese Communist Party are conspicuously absent. Selective memory seems to reign supreme.
In preparing this post, I got bogged down. Yes, I’ve been incredibly busy with the final days of travel in Southeast Asia. But I also had to collect my thoughts and strike an exceedingly tricky balance. How does one critique an autocratic government’s policies when our own have caused such suffering? Where does the truth end and fiction begin? There are no easy responses. But I hoped this post would capture that tension. In retrospect, I also confess that my overview of Hoa Lo Jail serves as a tribute to the late John McCain. If you hated his policies, then you may find my descriptions frustrating but please consider reading it. Regardless, I decided to write this essay because Hoa Lo Prison and the War Remnants Museum have reshaped history as propaganda. They forge a national identity of Vietnamese independence and communist ascendance in the face of an exploitative barbarism from external invaders. We, the United States, are those invaders.
Yet these narratives fall short. And too often they rely on distorted views of history.
To be clear, I am not defending American actions in Vietnam and Cambodia; far from it. But I am pointing out that democratic regimes fair better than their autocratic counterparts in establishing holistic, well-rounded understandings of their histories. And such societies achieve this balance through a robust civil society that views dissent and skepticism as indispensable. Ultimately, I realized that there is no better introduction to Vietnam’s contemporary political order than to interrogate its approach to history. Its omissions are just as telling as its inclusions. My visits to the infamous Hanoi Hilton and the War Remnants Museum served as difficult bookends on an amazing but challenging tour beginning in the north and ending in the south. Let’s start in Hanoi.
In the Footsteps of John McCain: A Visit to Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison is an unassuming colonial structure nestled on a side street in the heart of Hanoi. Among the chaos of buzzing motorbikes and shouting street vendors, you can find the former jail now surrounded by luxurious restaurants and government buildings. France constructed the structure during the colonial era but only half of the maison centrale continues to operate as a memorial. Urban development has erased even the most notorious of scars. During France’s brutal backlash towards the Vietnamese in the first half of the twentieth century, countless Vietnamese were imprisoned behind its stone walls. Similar to tactics deployed in Algeria and other revolting French colonies, the French mercilessly tortured alleged suspects. And yet it was the section on American Prisoners of War that had attracted me to the jail in the first place.
As the prison’s most well-known captive, John McCain’s death three weeks before had spurned my interest in visiting. His imprisonment also provided a lens through which to filter truth from propaganda. This spoke to the Hanoi Hilton’s strange dichotomy. While the museum provided a painful glimpse into France’s ruthless past, it also discussed the “exceptional” treatment of American POWs during the war. But what exactly happened there?
Vietnam’s revisionist history is no secret. On my first day in Vietnam, it came into focus when I toured the city on a motorbike with a Couchsurfer named Dung. As we passed the wreckage of a downed American plane in Hanoi’s Huu Tiep Lake, she cheerfully informed me that the Vietnamese provided all American POWs with humane treatment even while the country’s citizens experienced grinding poverty. Dung described prisoners being rescued from planes and cared for tenderly by the North Vietnamese troops. I found this narrative suspicious. While I had not officially read John McCain’s firsthand account of his time as a captive in Vietnam, American commentators had never disputed that he underwent torture. After all, his harrowing experiences in solitary confinement became a hallmark of his political career.
I paid a visit to Hoa Lo on my third day in Hanoi. As I entered the jail, its long musty hallways were lined with dark cells once used to house Vietnamese freedom fighters before American POWs. Plaques shared stories of the original communist rebels that suffered at the hands of the French or attempted daring escapes from the jail. The language of oppression was patriotic. The French were described as barbaric and vindictive, responsible for overcrowded conditions and intentional deprivation of their Vietnamese denizens. There was even a room that housed a full-sized guillotine, used to execute the most outspoken freedom fighters. The photo of three decapitated heads in baskets was chilling. The jail also described the poor treatment of women and some of the more vicious torture techniques employed by the French. Again, these were not dissimilar to those “enhanced interrogation techniques” used in Algeria (which should be familiar for those that have seen the Battle of Algiers). I would later find similar descriptions of abuse when touring S-21 in Cambodia, a famous torture facility overseen by Pol Pot.
The American POWs section was comprehensive. The exhibit featured galleries of each American prisoner and thoroughly described their backgrounds. Glass cases housed paraphernalia of American uniforms, insignia, weapons, and air force gear. As a precursor to my time in the War Remnants Museum, visitors were presented with statistics of bomb tonnage dropped on North Vietnam and the number of B-52s shot down by patriotic Vietnamese forces. There was also a special exhibit that attempted to chronicle the reconciliation of American POWs and their Vietnamese captors. Much of this section consisted of poster-sized placards featuring the POW’s biographies and carefully plucked quotes about the war’s injustices. Overall, I found that the exhibit focused more on the warming relationship between the United States and Vietnam or painted all returning POWs as pleading forgiveness for their sins.
Unsurprisingly, I found John McCain’s firsthand account of his time in Hoa Lo to upend the museum’s rosy retrospective. His lengthy testimony, published in 1975, methodically describes a rollercoaster ride of excessive punishments and solitary confinement during his seven years in jail. Of course, as a relic of history, McCain uses cringe-worthy racial slurs and still harbors offensive assumptions. But it does not discount the intensity and despair that is expressed during his recollections. In plain, simple language, he lays out the brutal treatment that he suffered at the hands of his jailers. From neglecting to treat his broken arms and legs after his crash to regular beatings by interrogators, McCain’s first three years were marked by cruel and unusual punishment. In one moment of particular roughness, he writes: “For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked.” McCain was tied up with ropes, denied medical treatment, forced to stand for hours on end, and tortured to either extract an admission of guilt or provide a false statement of positive treatment. He did neither. Even as the “crown prince” of the jail, McCain maintained that he had to follow military procedures rather than embrace the temptations of collaboration.
If I detected the loose contours of McCain’s patriotic stubbornness during his captivity in Hoa Lo Prison, it was Obama’s stirring eulogy that painted the sharp brushstrokes of a man transformed by principle. I decided to watch it along the lake after my visit to the jail. Obama, of course, was a frequent target of McCain’s wrath during his eight years in office. As McCain’s 2008 presidential rival, Obama consistently disagreed with McCain over policies ranging from health care to military support. And yet it was McCain’s capacity for forgiveness and his ability to parse the personal from the professional that created the bedrock of their tenuous friendship. Obama remained impressed by McCain’s knack for sustaining hardship and drawing upon this adversity to forge a moral compass steeped in democratic virtue:
John cared about the institutions of self-government, our constitution, our bill of rights, rule of law. Separation of powers. Even the arcane rules and procedures of the Senate. He knew that in a nation as big and boisterous and diverse as ours, those institutions, those rules, those norms are what bind us together. Give shape and order to our common life. Even when we disagree. Especially when we disagree.
McCain’s quest for truth, capacity for forgiveness, and staunch belief in democratic principle led him back to Vietnam in 2000. His first top, ironically enough, was Hoa Lo Prison. He walked the damp hallways of the same compound where he was beaten, neglected, and humiliated by his captors. He even embraced the very man that pulled him from the wreckage of his planed after his Skyhawk Dive Bomber was shot down. In fact, McCain led the charge in reaching out to Vietnam as the glaciers of suspicion and resentment thawed in the early 1990s. The simultaneous resurgence of Chinese military might in the South China Sea smoothed this normalization in relations. After all, the United States was glad to have a regional ally to balance the emerging superpower.
Today, there is a memorial along Truc Bach Lake in central Hanoi that commemorates John McCain and the other POWs that suffered during the war. The memorial features a sulking prisoner chained to a wall. After his death, American citizens and Vietnam residents alike lined this memorial with flowers. The memorial’s inscription reads “On Oct 26, 1967, at Truc Bach Lake, the military and people of Hanoi arrested Major John Sidney McCain, a pilot of the American Navy’s air force.” Even his former captor and interrogator, Tran Trong Duyet, the head of Hoa Lo Jail, remembered McCain fondly. Despite such heartening recollections, Duyet to this day denies any wrongdoing committed by guards inside the jail. And while McCain’s return to Vietnam was lauded as a milestone in reconciliation, he never stopped critiquing the erosion of freedom in the communist country. He regularly condemned the Vietnamese government for its crackdown on human rights and freedom of expression. To be fair, he also never officially denied the wrongdoing of the American government during the Vietnam War. McCain felt that the “domino theory” formed a credible foundation for an American invasion. Regardless, individual interpretation and government censorship are different. While individuals may concede the war is hell narrative, rarely is this expressed by the official party line. This was on full display when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.
Inside Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum
If you’re heading to Ho Chi Minh City, most people will implore you to visit the War Remnants Museum. The museum draws over 500,000 visitors annually and ranks as #2 of 196 on Trip Advisor for the city’s top attractions. The general feedback I received followed a standard pattern. The person heaped praise on the museum’s exhibits, recalled a specific image or statistic, despondently gazed off into the distance, and finally concluded that I would have to see for myself. Flanked by a barb-wired wall and manned by two security entry points, the hulking three-story museum is surrounded by a courtyard of American warplanes, tanks, and helicopters. It is unsettling. The gargantuan, decommissioned American war machinery seemed to plead for the sympathies of the visitors while also suggesting the raw power of Vietnamese triumph. After all, even a steady barrage of high-powered machine guns, Apache helicopters, and armored tanks failed to prevent the communist victory.
The museum followed a chronological path through the war’s evolution. My journey began with “Historic Truths” and concluded with a special exhibit on the peace and reconciliation process. Although “Historic Truths” started in the French colonial period, the placards also suggested American collusion from the beginning of the Independence War. Americans indeed funneled arms and supplies to the French in the 1950s, including warships and airplanes. Harry Truman invoked the Mutual Assistance Act to grant money to the French in 1950 and Graham Greene’s famous book The Quiet American tells the story of CIA agent Alden Pyle who provides support to the fledgling southern Vietnamese government. Although fiction, it is widely considered to be accurate. As I arrived at the conclusion of “Historic Truths”, American military involvement had become the primary focus. From numerous signs discussing the brutality under the Ngo Dinh Diem regime (supported by the United States) to ominous photos of American aircraft flying in formation over jungles, the initial plunge into the museum painted a picture of American brute force flouting the rule of law. There were also select quotes from American politicians criticizing the war as an arrogant and unnecessary example of American adventurism.
As I meandered through the exhibits, the museum transformed into a paroxysm of unsettling photos, staggering statistics, and accusatory language. It soon became clear that the United States continues to occupy a singular space in the Vietnamese government’s imagination. Inside the “Agent Orange in the Vietnam War”, I was confronted with chafing images of Agent Orange victims and their chemical-induced deformities. In the “Aggressions War Crimes” exhibition, the anti-American tone increased. Near the entrance, I read the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence which guarantees the unalienable rights for all Americans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Immediately next to this quote, I found two black and white photos of American soldiers leading Vietnamese soldiers to “interrogation camps”. I slowly proceeded. As I shuffled through the hall, I witnessed photos of American GIs waterboarding their captives, standing alongside decapitated heads, or cheerfully carrying the mutilated remains of a Vietnamese soldier. Laced between the grotesque imagery were captions describing the definition of a war crime or the extent of destruction that North Vietnam suffered. The combined effect was jarring, and it was disturbing.
In addition to the select words from the Declaration of Independence, another quote stood apart from the rest:
“To initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evils of the whole.”
(The judgment of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, passed on September 30 and October 1, 1946, unanimously adopted along with the Nuremberg Charter by The United Nations General Assembly on December 11, 1946)
There is no doubt that the United States has committed war crimes and is responsible for broken homes around the world. But this particular quote struck me because of the dark implications of its history. The Nuremberg Trials are widely considered the hallmark for the successful prosecution of war aggression. They were also committed to law after punishing Adolf Hitler’s ruthless German war machine which annexed sovereign states and perpetrated the largest genocide in modern history. While the legal convention is not the trial itself, the quote sought to punctuate the contradictions of the American nation. How could the United States purport to spread American values when it was responsible for such brazen crimes against humanity? How can we not interrogate the chasm between our written statements and our overseas foreign policy? And why hasn’t the United States come to terms with the other side’s version of events?
And yet, the blade of hypocrisy cuts both ways. Throughout the museum, the absence of information sometimes overshadowed the exhibits themselves. Most prominently, I noticed the conspicuous failure to mention North Vietnamese war crimes. While the museum featured photos of the infamous My Lai Massacre, there was no discussion of the Dak Son Massacre of December 5, 1967, where hundreds of Vietnamese farmers were massacred by the North Vietnamese. Accounts of the Dak Son Massacre describe carnage that left nearly 200 women and children dead in a small, South Vietnamese village. Additionally, despite the museum’s use of selective journalistic coverage critical of American policies, magazines like Time also reported on the calculated policy of terror deployed by the Viet Cong throughout the war. The New York Times pointed out that “terrorists carried out assassinations, planted explosives and launched grenades into crowded spaces.” These crimes explain the lingering resentment that persists between the north and south. In an Atlantic article, one Vietnamese commentator noted that “Vietnamese media have shown many pictures of American soldiers hugging North Vietnamese soldiers. But you never see any pictures of a North Vietnamese soldier hugging a South Vietnamese soldier.”
The museum concluded with an exhibit entitled “The World Supports Vietnam’s Resistance”. The framed posters and grainy photos of worldwide communist solidarity left me with two impressions. First, the exhibit assumed that the North Vietnamese spoke collectively for the will of all Vietnamese people. Or, in other words, it implied that the American-supported southern Vietnamese government lacked any democratic legitimacy. Undoubtedly, the museum was sprinkled with references to the fraudulent “puppet” government of South Vietnam. Secondly, despite American posters that protested the war, I found that that majority of the support still emanated from the communist world. Ho Chi Minh himself thanked “the communist parties and working class of the countries in the world.”
I was filled with Frustration as I exited the museum. On one hand, I accepted many of the alleged crimes committed by the American government and acknowledged the false pretense of our involvement. But on the other hand, I felt vexed about a government that relentlessly critiqued the chasm in American values and actions while refusing to address any of its own. A museum that could rely on American investigative news reports and critical statements from U.S. senators seemed problematic in a country that arrests dissident journalists and allows only one party. It’s not that the United States has accepted a complicated version of the war’s events, but we have created the space for those opposing viewpoints to flourish. It begged the question: What can a country’s selective use of history and memory tell us about its current policies?
Public Memory and the Patriotism of Dissent
“History is written by the victors,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin once penned. And such history frequently informs a country’s public memory. From the narratives of shame and repentance internalized in post-World War II Germany to the presentation of the Tutsis as both the victims and saviors in Rwanda, the accepted version of events shape the public conscience. The accepted history can dictate what is remembered and what is intentionally forgotten. It can serve as the bedrock for consent and governance. And it can fortify the strength of those who rule. Most Americans have come to terms with the Vietnam War as an unnecessary and painful episode of American hubris during the Cold War. As the alarming revelations of the Pentagon Papers circulated among American media outlets during the late 1960s, Americans lost their stomach for the carnage. The trust they placed in the post-World War II government soon disintegrated.
For students of history, the United States remains a complicated case. There is no doubt that we are responsible for countless wartime atrocities, from violations of international law to crimes against humanity. We have supported autocratic regimes in Africa and Asia, conducted covert assassinations of democratically elected leaders, and overtly lied to start wars. One merely mention the School of the Americas to any Latin American and watch the hair on their necks stand on end. American foreign policy suffers from a perpetual gap between our ideals and our actions. In the past, many of these episodes have been uncovered by investigative news outlets and received swift condemnation by world leaders. After all, it was on my flight to Bangkok where I watched The Post, a film presenting the difficult decision faced by the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers and break the cozy relationship between the political establishment and the news media. The case of Vietnam is particularly frustrating. As Anthony Bourdain once opined, it is hard to not want to personally beat Henry Kissinger to death when traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia. Indeed, there were and continue to be U.S. military commanders and policymakers, either by willful neglect or ruthless intention, that should pay much-needed visits to the Hague. We are not above the law, and we should never assume that power and wealth eclipse justice and accountability.
At the end of the day, I admit that I was filled with pain and shame as I read personal accounts of the My Lai Massacre. It was excruciatingly difficult to look at photos of children and parents that suffered from the side effects of Agent Orange. And I hung my head in sadness reading through the statistics of North Vietnam’s relentless destruction. But my contempt for American actions has not erased an abiding appreciation for American principles. The critical narrative of American imperialism presented in Hoa Lo Prison or the War Remnants Museum is, ironically enough, bolstered by quintessentially American institutions. I’m not speaking of the brick and mortar facades of Congress, the Supreme Court, or the White House. I’m referring to the traditions of American journalism, American dissent, and American freedom of expression. These memorials’ exhibits demonize American aggressors but draw their power from American professors signing petitions, American protestors setting themselves ablaze in front of the White House, and American newspapers running front page stories chronicling the atrocities of the My Lai Massacre. But this discord is not reciprocal. There are no narratives of the North Vietnamese protesting their government, no North Vietnamese newspapers featuring massacres committed by Communist troops, and no dissenting voices that question the value of the war.
If there is a testament to the power of democracy, it is the plurality of voices and narratives that are allowed to exist within its confines. The recent Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam speaks volumes. As a hypercritical examination of the Vietnam War, the film pulls no punches in its negative portrayal of American policymakers during the Vietnam War. It is a gripping but exceptionally critical take on Robert McNamara, Lyndon B. Johnson, Dean Acheson and the ruling cabal that plunged the United States into one of its darkest conflicts. And this treatment is warranted. Ken Burns would argue that far from outliers, the excessive violence perpetrated by American troops was part of a deliberate and systematic government strategy to crush the Northern Vietnamese liberation movement. The 2003 LA Times investigation “The War Crimes Files” would agree. But there are other spaces of American civil society that disagree. In a letter published in response to that same LA Times investigation, a Vietnam vet noted:
Having talked with and interviewed scores of veterans, having talked with scores of Vietnamese (I speak the language), having read scores of personal memoirs and battlefield accounts, having plodded through reams of operation reports and declassified material, the inescapable conclusion arises: U.S. war crimes, as vile and disgusting and treasonous as they were, simply were not a common occurrence.
America’s fourth branch will continue to serve as a check on power. And it will continue to critique accepted history. The investigative work of ProPublica has provided resources, background, and critical analysis of our use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) in Yemen and beyond. Jeremy Scahill’s extensive digging into Blackwater has illuminated the rampant impunity that exists in private armies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of a flourishing democracy, a robust media aims not to bolster the government narrative, but constantly keep it in check and adhere to its inscribed values. And more often than not, the freedom of expression is exercised in conjunction with transparent reporting. Just as the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post spurred mass protest against the Vietnam War, today’s major investigations continue to push people towards their poster board and sharpies to take to the streets. Dissent is American as apple pie.
Vietnam’s selective memory is complicated. Regardless, it is not simply driven by its post-war nationalism but remains a product of its stifled political environment. Today’s Vietnam may deploy American investigations to illustrate the horror wrought by the American military during the American War, but it will never allow such criticism from its own journalists. If anything, the country continues to tighten its civic spaces. Vietnam has increased its targeted oppression of online dissenters and relied more heavily on obscure laws to prevent its citizens from debating alternative versions of history. While many citizens seem to quietly acknowledge the omission of fact in its war memorials, it cannot do so vocally and publicly.
Alas, it is unclear that Vietnam will ever officially turn inward to discuss rifts among the South and North Vietnamese. It will never acknowledge that it tortured American POWs in its jails in the north. And it may never create the enabling environment for its journalists to publish articles highlighting crimes against humanity perpetrated by its own government officials. While America undoubtedly remains guilty of countless war crimes and violations of international law, it is often Americans themselves who shine a light on these atrocities. After all, as Obama pointed out, those democratic norms bind us together not only when we disagree but especially when we disagree. I can only hope that Vietnam will eventually provide those same freedoms to its own people.