Vietnam: Then and Now

My first memory of Vietnam was not the horrific pictures from the war that became the staple on the nightly news. Instead, in 1967 I remember looking out the window one day and watching as an official-looking car entered the driveway across the street. Two men in uniform got out and walked up to the front door. I wondered what that was all about and asked my mother. She correctly guessed what news they were bringing to the young woman and her two children that day. I never forgot the scene.

The boys in my high school graduating class were the first that didn’t have to go through the lottery that had been set up to tell us who was going to have to go fight in that war. But I remember feeling the tension as those who were one or two years older than me watched those numbers get called. When Bill Clinton was running for president and some people tried to gin up outrage that he had done what he could to avoid the draft, I remember sitting with some male friends while we all laughed and they told stories (some rather horrific) about what they did to avoid it. For years I worked with a man who was the first in Iowa to register as a conscientious objector. It ended his relationship with his father – at least for a while.

Those are the stories that define my generation. I can understand why they don’t carry the same emotional weight for those who came of age after all of that was over. And I can also understand why President Obama’s words today to the people of Vietnam sound thoughtful, but don’t bring the tears that I shed when I read them.

During the Second World War, Americans came here to support your struggle against occupation. When American pilots were shot down, the Vietnamese people helped rescue them. And on the day that Vietnam declared its independence, crowds took to the streets of this city, and Ho Chi Minh evoked the American Declaration of Independence. He said, “All people are created equal. The Creator has endowed them with inviolable rights. Among these rights are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to the pursuit of happiness.”

In another time, the profession of these shared ideals and our common story of throwing off colonialism might have brought us closer together sooner. But instead, Cold War rivalries and fears of communism pulled us into conflict. Like other conflicts throughout human history, we learned once more a bitter truth — that war, no matter what our intentions may be, brings suffering and tragedy.

At your war memorial not far from here, and with family altars across this country, you remember some 3 million Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, on both sides, who lost their lives. At our memorial wall in Washington, we can touch the names of 58,315 Americans who gave their lives in the conflict. In both our countries, our veterans and families of the fallen still ache for the friends and loved ones that they lost. Just as we learned in America that, even if we disagree about a war, we must always honor those who serve and welcome them home with the respect they deserve, we can join together today, Vietnamese and Americans, and acknowledge the pain and the sacrifices on both sides…

And I believe our experience holds lessons for the world. At a time when many conflicts seem intractable, seem as if they will never end, we have shown that hearts can change and that a different future is possible when we refuse to be prisoners of the past. We’ve shown how peace can be better than war. We’ve shown that progress and human dignity is best advanced by cooperation and not conflict. That’s what Vietnam and America can show the world…

And many years from now, when even more Vietnamese and Americans are studying with each other; innovating and doing business with each other; standing up for our security, and promoting human rights and protecting our planet with each other — I hope you think back to this moment and draw hope from the vision that I’ve offered today. Or, if I can say it another way — in words that you know well from the Tale of Kieu — “Please take from me this token of trust, so we can embark upon our 100-year journey together.”

Conservatives are always worrying that President Obama is intent on apologizing for America. As these words demonstrate, that is not his concern. His aim is to further the cause of healing from the wounds that still reside in many of us – both here and in Vietnam – so that we can embrace that “token of trust” for a more hopeful next 100 years.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .