Notes from Vietnam
(Editor's Note: The women's liberation movement universally
opposed the Vietnam War. In 1967 with war still raging,
Vivian Rothstein traveled to North Vietnam as part of a
delegation from the American peace movement. Her experiences
there helped contribute to the founding of the CWLU. In
1992 she returned to Vietnam. The photo shows Vivian during
her days in the CWLU.)
It's 6:00 A.M. on Sunday, my last morning in Hanoi. The electricity is off -- it's been off and on all night. I didn't sleep well. The sound of a gecko woke me as he scampered from place to place on my side of the room. The lizard, which we've never seen, has been the noisier of my two roommates in Hanoi -- the other being a geologist from Pomona College, the only scientist in our ten woman American delegation.
I feel so many emotions as I contemplate leaving peacetime Hanoi -- inadequacy, awe, rage, embarrassment, confusion, pride.
I feel inadequate to the job of making a difference for the Vietnamese -- but then I always have. In the face of their suffering and courage I could never do enough, be effective enough, brave enough, committed enough.
Yet as the Vietnamese reminded me on my first trip to Hanoi 25 years ago, we American war protesters didn't have to dedicate ourselves to ending the war. Unlike the Vietnamese, we had a choice. And in opposing the war, we faced dangers that could have been avoided through indifference.
Now the Vietnamese are again asking for help from their American friends. This time it is not to end a murderous war but to lift a U.S. embargo, to allow them to enter the world economy and the world community, and to achieve reconciliation with a former enemy.
Landing at Hanoi airport eight days earlier, we had spotted only three or four small jet planes scattered on the airfield; peasants in conical hats and black trousers were squatting in the shade of their wings. Despite the scorching July heat and the drenching humidity left by a recent typhoon, the small terminal had neither air conditioning nor fans. There also were no copy machines on carbon paper, so we were required to fill out our entry forms and customs declarations in duplicate.
I couldn't help thinking that it was a miracle that these people survived more than a decade of total war to defeat the richest and most "advanced" nation in the history of the world. All the components of the U.S. strategy -- rural pacification, strategic hamlets, carpet bombing, the electronic air war, chemical defoliation of rural areas, the imprisonment and torture of suspected guerillas -- were designed to undermine Vietnamese resistance to a U.S. imposed non-Communist government in the south. All these were thwarted by people like the peasants we saw sitting in the shade of the airplane wings.
In 1967, I arrived late at night at a blacked-out airport with a delegation of 20 and 30 year olds. We were treated as a group of V.I.P.s representing the American peace movement. This time, we waited in the heat, in slow-moving lines with other travelers, mostly Asian businessmen and Vietnamese families. A handful of casually dressed European couples turned out to be childless Swedes who, we were later told, are the only foreigners allowed to adopt Vietnamese orphans. They are awarded this privilege because, apart from the former Soviet Union, Sweden gave (and continues to give) more economic and relief aid to this struggling country than any other nation.
Looking over the uniformed customs officials, I saw a slight Vietnamese woman on the other side of the glass doors, stretching her neck to locate us. She introduced herself as Thuy from the Vietnamese Women's Union. The largest membership organization in Vietnam, the Women's Union runs its own women's institutions including schools, museums, and economic enterprises, and has a governing structure which includes representation from the hamlet to the national levels.
After gathering our luggage, Thuy led us out of the terminal into the bright sun where we were mobbed by a small group of thin boys ranging in age from 5 to 12. The boys grabbed our bags to carry them to a waiting Toyota van, and then aggressively demanded tips for their efforts. A translator who accompanied Thuy ended up in an argument with the flock over who got paid what, and then shouted them away. Like the peaceful airfield, this was something I had not previously seen in Vietnam.
Dropped in Hanoi hot and sweaty, we were given ten minutes to stash our bags before piling back into the van and driving to a meeting with the Vietnam/American Peace Committee. There we were welcomed by Madam Binh (since our visit, appointed Vice President of Vietnam). I first met Nguyen Thi Binh 25 years earlier when, as a young woman in her 30s, she headed a delegation from the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) -- the political wing of the "Viet Cong" -- to an international peace conference. With long black hair and wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai -- a clinging silk dress over silk trousers which, it is said, is extremely modest, while revealing all -- she had a magnetic presence.
Still very appealing in simple slacks and shirt, now with the look of a French matron, Madam Binh was joined by others in their 50s and 60s who have run the Viet My or equivalent political body for more than 25 years.
It was at once reassuring and unnerving to see the same figures in charge of the government now as in the 1960s -- considering the numerous upheavals in America's leadership since that time. The Vietnamese generation which came to power in their youth has not let go.
Yet this is the generation which led Vietnam successfully through the war with the United States -- and out the other side. They have made the international contacts, worked together for years, and proven their skills and loyalty to one another.
We met them first as representatives of a young, insurgent movement. But now they are part of the national government that has held power throughout Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. I wondered where the leaders from the later generations of Vietnamese were, how younger people could get access to power, and how they viewed their elders' record in running the nation in its first decades of peace.
I was strongly affected by what I saw in Vietnam during the war years, and by the accomplishments of the now-entrenched leadership. It was through contact with Nguyen Thi Binh and other Vietnamese women that I first developed a political consciousness about women's issues and a sense of myself as a woman activist. The first women-only political meeting I ever attended was at a Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) conference in Illinois in 1966. The second was in 1967 at an international gathering in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia between American peace activists and Vietnamese insurgent forces in which Madam Binh played a key role.
When the North Vietnamese subsequently invited a group from the conference to visit Hanoi, they insisted women be represented in the delegation. That is how I came to Vietnam in 1967.
The Vietnam war was the event which propelled me into political leadership and visibility and put me at odds with my own government. Going back to Vietnam in the 1990s was like visiting my favorite teacher or, more exactly, reconnecting with the event which set my life on its course.
When the sirens went off on the first Sunday of our visit, I may have been the only person in Hanoi who panicked. I was recalling those same sirens in September 1967 at the height of U.S. bombing, blaring several times a day, the rapid knocks on my hotel room door, being hustled outside to a concrete bomb shelter with steel helmets in tow, the nervous jokes as we heard the far-off explosions, the all-clear signal, and the return to whatever activity preceded the raid. If the hits had been in Hanoi, a short time later we would visit the site, already cleaned up with loose bricks stacked in piles, and talk to the people -- often women and children with white mourning bands around their hair -- about the surprise of the attack, the weapons used, who in their family had died, and their resolve to stand firm until the U.S. was "driven from Vietnam" and the country was reunited.
The sound of the sirens recreated in me the pain of listening to the accounts of personal loss and the difficulty of responding to them -- with political rhetoric? with tears? with sympathy? with respect? Sometimes our reactions would be filmed by a Japanese or East German T.V. crew and presumably replayed somewhere in the world as representative of the sentiments of the American peace movement. (When I came home from Vietnam in 1967 a family friend recognized me in footage replayed on U.S.television showing our meeting with a downed U.S. pilot.)
But I knew there was no longer any bombing. Perhaps the sirens reflected the regimentation of life in Vietnam? Was this a public wake-up call to the day's work -- the propagandist's view of life in a communist country?
Later we learned the sirens actually announced the opening of polling places for the election of representatives to the National Assembly. In fact, virtually every person in a position of leadership whom we met during the trip (Madam Binh from the Vietnam/U.S. Peace Committee, Dr. Phuong, director of Tu Du Hospital, Mrs. Hoa, president of the Women's Union) had been nominated by her organization to run.
Binh told us the country is focusing on political as well as economic renewal. Apparently, more power is being given to the National Assembly, which for the first time this election included a few independent candidates.
But when I asked one of our interpreters who really makes the decisions, she said it was still the Politburo.
Hanoi has the feel of a very poor, ancient city with little separation between public and private life. Its stucco walls are black with algae, and much of life takes place right on the sidewalk -- people squat beside their baskets of market goods or chat on tiny wooden stools, women fan pots of burning charcoal for family meals, barbers who fasten a mirror to an old wall trim hair and let it scatter on the right-of-way.
The "popular restaurants" we eat in house the family as well as the business. On our second day in Hanoi we had lunch in an upstairs room which sleeps ten people by night (like "fish in a can" said one Vietnamese-American member of our delegation).
Our tables and stools are set up next to the one double bed and over the floor where mats are spread nightly for the three generations sharing the house. Pigs and chickens live only steps from the kitchen where they will eventually be cooked and the rooms where they will be served and eaten.
Commerce is active everywhere with tiny shops, street stalls and individual vendors proliferating. Consumer goods have dramatically increased in availability since 1967 -- as my Vietnamese hosts frequently pointed out -- but stores are still sparsely stocked by western or Bangkok standards.
For centuries, Hanoi has been organized with specific streets designated for an individual commercial item (paper, clothes, wood, baskets, etc.). One day we found ourselves on the meat and tongue street, with lots of beef parts laid out in the warm sun. The smell and sight were overwhelming. Since there is almost no refrigeration available, the animals must have been slaughtered early that morning and brought to Hanoi by bicycle or scooter to be available that day. It began raining on all these organs assorted in handmade baskets all around us.
I can remember why I was so frightened last time I was in Vietnam. It wasn't just the U.S. bombing but the sense of having fallen into another world.
We arrived at Ha Long Bay after a steaming six-and-a-half hour ride east from Hanoi through Thai Binh, the most densely populated province in all of Vietnam. Our transportation was a hot, constantly honking Toyota van weaving around transport trucks, buses (stuffed with passengers), bicycles (piled high with people), motor bikes (often loaded with pigs or ducks for market), carts pulled by water buffalo, and peasants carrying goods balanced from long bamboo poles. We barely missed colliding so many times I eventually stopped watching the road and focused instead on the busy countryside and the life visible from the van's windows.
We saw many recently constructed brick and stucco private homes built along the highway, especially near the larger cities and provincial capitals. The homes have one large room downstairs opening on to a small yard facing the road and another large room upstairs, sometimes with a patio on the roof. The downstairs room often served multiple purposes, functioning as a restaurant, sewing shop, or retail store during the day; a dining room in the evening; and sleeping room at night.
The villages and rice paddies on the other hand feel centuries old, as do the methods of plowing and irrigation. Two people with a bamboo basket strung between them scoop water from a canal into a rice paddy in a rhythmic motion; individuals alone use bamboo poles to do the same work with basket scoops hung from above. Water buffalo drag wooden plows through the mud endless numbers of people bend deeply at the waist planting rice seedlings in small flooded paddies.
Ninety percent of the population lives in agricultural areas, with the densest population in the north. The Vietnamese authorities tried in 1975 to collectivize rice farming. Now they admit their mistake. Collectivization took away the initiative of the rural laborers, and rice production fell dramatically. Now the family economy has been restored, rice production has skyrocketed, people are working harder, and -- as a side effect -- the population is rapidly increasing to bring more hands to the task of agricultural work, which in turn will lead to more economic pressure from an expanding population. The Vietnamese Women's Union has as its first priority a campaign to limit births to two per family. But without an alternative way to make money, families will continue to need extra hands in the fields.
It took three ferry rides to complete our journey to Ha Long Bay including one which crossed a portion of Hai Phong Harbor. During the war the massive U.S. mining and bombing of Hai Phong was supposed to bring North Vietnam to its knees by cutting off its supply of armaments and goods. Today the harbor seems moderately active with ancient-looking vessels; the city of Hai Phong is bustling and prosperous.
Just north of Hai Phong was our destination, Ha Long Bay, located on the Gulf of Tonkin near the Chinese border. The water of the Gulf was bathtub hot and so salty that swimmers floated easily on the surface. If you looked too closely, you could see the oil, scum, and garbage floating nearby. Still, no anti-war activist could pass up an opportunity to swim in the Gulf of Tonkin.
For over 20 years I kept a small collection of anti-war posters, packing them up each time I moved, storing them wherever there was room, not knowing what I would do with them but understanding that they were part of an important historical record and should not be discarded.
When our delegation was first organized we were told the Women's Museum in Hanoi was anxious for posters from the U.S. anti-war movement for its collection. I knew then why I had held on to the posters for so long -- to bring them to Vietnam as a permanent record of American opposition to the war.
On the sixth day of our tour, when we met with museum director Dang To Ngan, I presented each poster and explained a little about how and when it was used:
The first, announcing the 1966 New York Mobilization to End the War, pictured a smiling, long haired, 18 year old American woman grasping a bunch of daisies. The 1967 Vietnam Summer poster pictured an agonized Vietnamese mother clutching her infant and was used to recruit college students to spend the summer months organizing against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The 1968 Chicago Women for Peace poster was created from a collage of newspaper photos depicting the brutality of the war, torn into letters spelling out PEACE!
A silk-screened poster linked imperialism and male chauvinism as policies which "make profits and maim people" and was produced by the Chicago Women's Liberation Union Graphics Collective circa 1970. The poster was one of the first linking the war to the growing women's liberation movement of the time.
And the last one I presented was the beautiful 1975 celebratory poster "The War is Over!" picturing a smiling Vietnamese woman dressed in traditional ao dai with doves perched on her arms and flying free above her head. This poster was produced for the thousands of Americans for whom the end of the Vietnam war was a personal as well as a moral victory.
In the presentation I recalled the images of brutality and resistance which we used so effectively to communicate the horror of the war -- the old Vietnamese peasant with hands held up in prayer to the American rifle pointed at her terrified face; the N.L.F. soldier dragged dead through the dirt behind a personnel carrier; a Buddhist monk immolating himself in a last selfless act to protest the violence. Other even more powerful images swept through my mind -- the naked girl fleeing the napalm burning on her back; the N.L.F. soldier shot pointblank through the head on national T.V. (later to be used repeatedly as a silhouetted image by the news media to represent the war visually); the G.I. torching the grass hut with his cigarette lighter, staring blankly into the camera.
As I looked around to the teary-eyed American and Vietnamese women sitting together at the table, I felt how powerfully these images still live within us. We are each still reeling from a war which inflicted so much suffering on so many Vietnamese and Americans for so long.
The director of the museum thanked me for the posters: "They are something no money in the world could buy." "You can see Vietnamese women and they look normal. But in every part of their body is a scar left by the war." Despite the heat and humidity, Mrs. Trung My Hoa dressed in a long-sleeved blouse for our meeting in the Hanoi headquarters of the Vietnamese Women's Union. (Their offices in Ho Chi Minh City are in U.S. General William Westmoreland's former house.)
"No book can describe all the suffering and terrible things we experienced during the war. But we remember. It lives in our minds."
Our delegation had asked Mrs. Hoa to describe her experiences during the war; we had heard that she endured imprisonment and torture, and up until then our discussions with her had focused only on the general goals of the Women's Union and the issues facing Vietnam as it invites increased foreign investment. Translator Khanh shared her soft-spoken account:
"I was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but in fact I was in prison 11 years. In 1969 I was put into a Tiger Cage [a rectangular hole dug into the dirt with steel grating overhead]. I met Congressman Tom Harkin [who exposed the existence of the Tiger Cages to the American people] in 1970. For a year about five women were kept in one very small cage.
"Even the five women couldn't speak to each other. So we survived like beasts, not like human beings. Whenever they heard our voices or whispers they threw lye on us and used a thorn stick to beat us and after the lye they poured water on us. Our hair turned into a strange thing and the lye turned our skin brittle. We were treated and tortured like some wild animals.
"At this time I can say I never thought I would survive and would be sitting like this, meeting with you. But we had a very strong belief that our struggle should be at an end and our country unified, peaceful, and independent.
"Seventeen years have passed since the war ended in Vietnam, but we still have suffering and many things to think over. In many fields we lag behind the U.S. We are small and not educated. But in terms of values and virtues we can judge things accurately." I later learned that Mrs. Hoa is the only female member of the Communist Party Secretariat, the most influential body in Vietnam today.
Hoa recalled the conditions which led to her activism -- the resistance of her parents to French colonialism in Vietnam; the betrayal by the French-installed South Vietnamese regime which had agreed to national elections in 1956; the final division of the country into two parts with the resulting separation of families; the guillotine used as a threat against opponents of the Diem regime; the witnessing of bloodshed and killing -- and delicately described her own suffering as a political prisoner. She emphasized that "talking about my life doesn't mean that I want to repeat the past but because you are very intimate friends of Vietnam. If we wanted to condemn U.S. crimes it would not be to you."
When she finished and it was time to break for a "friendly dinner" honoring our last night in Hanoi, Mrs. Hoa, her eyes wet with tears, pulled up her sleeves and went around the table showing each of us the deep scars on her arms from the years of torture she had endured.
While she spoke each woman present, American and Vietnamese, shed tears of empathy and sorrow for the pain she and her country endured.
But some 50% of the Vietnamese population is under 25 years old; 75% under 35. Most have only dim personal memories of a war which ended 17 years ago. Will Madam Hoa and other independence fighters become relics of the past -- as many young people see American activists of the 1960s? Concern about this question is probably one reason the Vietnamese stress that the war is behind them. Madam Binh said, "it's time to psychologically put an end to the war."
"It's a strange thing to say, but sometimes it's so hard to be an American; it feels so bad," I said to our interpreter as we walked across the grounds of Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Our delegation of Americans, along with our Vietnamese companions, had just been taken to view a room filled with jars holding the bodies of infants who had died before or shortly after birth. At first I thought I could not enter the room at all, but a feeling of curiosity drew me in to glance at just a few of the 70 or so jars displayed on shelves around the otherwise bare room.
There were a number of Siamese twins connected at different parts of their bodies, children with horribly misshapen heads and twisted bodies, others barely recognizable as human beings. They were being saved as a record of the genetic defects presumably resulting from the American use of Agent Orange and other defoliants in clearing the jungles and forests of Vietnam.
Some members of our group took photos, but I was afraid to raise my camera to the accusing faces in the jars for fear I would see them peering back at me. Hospital patients and staff gathered outside in the hall to see our reactions -- most of us were beyond words.
We walked into the "peace village" for handicapped children built with the support of European charities. Here we had a chance to see the living evidence of what hospital director Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong believes to be the genetic degradation which resulted when dioxin entered the food chain and the water supply of Vietnam. Here were children born within the last few years to parents who were probably conceived after the chemicals were sprayed across the countryside.
Dr. Arnold Schechter, a professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at S.U.N.Y./Syracuse Health Science Center who has collaborated on some research with Dr. Phuong, said that one would expect exposure to Agent Orange to lead to some of the deformities seen at the hospital. But as yet there is no proof.
On the stairs leading up to the second floor there were color photos of the many pairs of Siamese twins born at the hospital, some of whom have been successfully separated. I had brought a duffel bag from the U.S. filled with colostomy bags donated by an American nurse who is contributing necessary medical supplies. Half of one of these sets of twins, Nguyen Viet, is missing a large intestine and anus. His brother, Nguyen Minh, can live independently, although he has only one of the two legs they shared.
I was sweating as profusely from the emotional pressure of the situation as from the temperature and could barely write down answers to the five questions the American nurse had given me (the exact size of the stoma, its condition, etc.) while brother Minh demonstrated his proficiency at an electric piano for the visiting Americans. We were asked to take some "emotion producing" photos of the twins to help in fundraising for their medical supplies. The nurse held Viet's body on her lap, Minh wheeled his chair alongside, and Viet's single leg was slung across his brother's armrest in a tangle and confusion of limbs and body parts. Emotion producing?
Leaving Viet's room we went next door where eight or so tiny infants were scattered with a nurse on the floor attending them. None over eight months, each had an obvious deformity -- one flipper-like arm, stumps for legs, hands and feet with misshapen fingers and toes and with either too many digits or none at all. One little boy scooted over to entertain us making clownish faces and laughing. A tiny girl glanced sweetly with intelligent eyes while manipulating a cylindrical piece of foam rubber with her deformed hands. Some of these children were clearly mentally alert; others seemed to be missing both mental and physical components. All had been abandoned by their mothers to Tu Du Hospital, one of the only places in Vietnam with the resources to care for them.
Turning from the infants, who are still so appealing because of their young age, we faced six or eight older kids wheeling around the outer hallway and permanently confined to wheelchairs because of missing limbs. "Are you sure this is all a result of Agent Orange?" we asked the nurses. "We have no doubt it is," they told us.
Of course no one has done the careful research to document case histories of each mother, test her body for the presence of dioxin, track her location during the war and the dosage of chemicals sprayed in her area to establish a cause and effect relationship. Vietnam doesn't have the resources. With what little they have, the first priority is to serve the living and keep them cared for as best they can. Given the wide exposure to dioxin of American veterans and of Americans living in industrialized urban areas, collaborative research with the U.S. would be mutually beneficial. But despite Vietnamese interest, such research is impossible because Vietnam continues to be covered under the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act.
Our visit to Tu Du began with the presentation to Dr. Phuong and her staff of a $1,400 donation in honor of American combat Marine veteran Leo Cawley. Leo had died exactly one year earlier following an eleven year battle with multiple myeloma, a rare form of bone cancer he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange.
Mrs. Hoa of the Women's Union said that whenever you step out the door in Cu Chi Province you meet a hero or a heroine. During the war, 50,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Cu Chi, an area about 45 miles from Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon that was formerly covered with French-owned rubber plantations employing some of the most exploited workers in Vietnam.
On our last day in Vietnam we visited Cu Chi and a portion of the tunnels which housed over 20,000 guerillas during the course of the war (16,000 of whom, we were told, were eventually killed during the fighting). Climbing into the tunnels and walking through them bent over -- even after they had been enlarged for the ease of western tourists -- feels hot, close, claustrophobic. The tunnels have sharp turns so you can't see ahead, and the passage is so small you can't turn around. The air vents are tiny and everything feels wet, dirty, and terrifying. Now lighted occasionally with a single bare bulb, the tunnels were pitch black during the war.
A scratchy video presentation in English told us the tunnels were built on three levels, about three, six, and eight yards deep, extending over 125 miles (from the Cambodian border all the way to Saigon) and were designed like a spider-web to incorporate meeting and food storage rooms; living, dining and training areas; operating rooms; and transit ways. The "waist," a narrowing of the tunnel, was designed to make passage by an average-sized American impossible.
We were shown camouflaged vents at the earth's surface to provide air and release of smoke far from its origination point as well as underground wells. The walls of the tunnels have small, irregular indentations which show they were dug with small, hand-held tools.
On January 6, 1966 the U.S. mobilized over 10,000 soldiers in the Cu Chi zone to "neutralize" the guerillas in the area. At first
The U.S. sent dogs specially trained to search for and through the tunnels. The Vietnamese would use American soap and clothes from G.I.s to confuse the dogs about the air vents and tunnel openings. Our guide said that so many dogs were lost that the American animal handlers refused to send more into the tunnels. G.I.s were sent instead. The Vietnamese built special spiked booby traps in the corners of the rooms to catch the Americans trying to make their way in the dark.
Still smelling of mud and mildew from traveling through the tunnels, I arrived at the airport and went through Vietnamese customs, waiting anxiously for the sound of the rubber stamp slamming down on my papers to indicate that everything was in order, and boarded Thai Airlines back to Bangkok. The complimentary orchid pinned to my blouse and the soft napkin on the lunch tray showed I had left the poverty and scarcity of Vietnam and was on my way back to abundance.
During the war people like me idealized the Vietnamese. It was not just that they were courageously enduring the destruction rained upon them. It was also their use of simple resources to defend themselves and fight back. When the U.S. used anti-personnel weapons against North Vietnam, school children were taught to make thick rice-straw hats which the pellets couldn't penetrate. When factories and hospitals were bombed, they were decentralized into village huts in the countryside.
Combs, cigarette cases, and rings were made from the metal of downed U.S. planes as a practical measure but also as a symbol of the power of the Vietnamese to turn a weapon of destruction into an item of beauty and utility.
While we knew that the Communist Party was the key player in the anti-U.S. effort, it was also clear that a cross section of the entire Vietnamese population was mobilized against the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. G.I.s would complain most bitterly about being tricked by old women and little children into ambushes or other dangers. Soldiers couldn't trust villagers who had been "liberated" from the Viet Cong. Buddhists organized to disrupt the South Vietnamese government and protest the war. Vietnamese intellectuals and scholars lent their names and often their lives to the coalitions opposing the Thieu regime and its American allies. It was this broad ranging opposition and guerilla mobilization, dubbed a "people's war," that ultimately prevented the U.S. from imposing its political will on Vietnam.
After my last trip I felt a huge responsibility toward the Vietnamese people. I felt as if my actions could actually end the war -- which in a way they did. My actions, together with those of resisting G.I.s, Vietnamese religious leaders, American students, N.L.F. soldiers, U.S. journalists, and many others did eventually put an end to the war. Perhaps the reason I wanted to return to Vietnam was to recapture, even in a small way, a sense of confidence about the difference my individual actions make in this world.
As Mrs. Hoa told us, the U.S. "wanted to suppress our spirit. But they were totally mistaken. The more they tortured and suppressed, the more our spirit became stronger and we had a very great and confirmed belief. We felt our struggle was just and justice will prevail.
"We believed we were not isolated and alone and had support and solidarity from the international peace movement, including Americans...we knew that besides our force we had a strong foundation in the American peace movement. "That's why we cherish meeting with you and welcome you from the bottom of our hearts. And wish to receive the American people."
And that's why I cherished going to Vietnam and meeting the Vietnamese people -- to acknowledge our shared suffering and to celebrate our shared accomplishment in ending the U.S. war in Vietnam.
The unresolved aftermath of Vietnam still lives with us -- in the homeless, abandoned Vets we see in our city parks, in the feelings of guilt and remorse many Americans feel at the mention of Vietnam, in the distrust of our government's foreign policy forays, and in the efforts of past administrations to isolate Vietnam. The cold war is over yet we are still raging at a foe who defeated us.
Now, calls for normalizing relations with Vietnam are coming from some unexpected quarters. American businesses want to invest in its large, disciplined, and underemployed work force and untapped natural resources; the Vietnamese in turn are courting U.S. businesses with some of the world's most lenient investment guidelines; Japan has already established economic ties. And even Nguyen Cao Ky, former South Vietnamese Vice President and now one of the most vocal Vietnamese-American opponents of the current communist government, suggests "it is time to heal -- time to let bygones be bygones." "They really need America. They are begging to try to re-establish relations with America," Ky said to the Los Angeles Times.
The Vietnamese taught the U.S. and the world an important lesson -- that a determined people, no matter how poor, cannot be dominated by force. It was a hard lesson to learn and it was costly for both sides. Out of respect for that nation and for our own people's suffering during the war, it is time to establish economic relations, normalize political relations, and, above all, to achieve the reconciliation sought by the Vietnamese people.
Individuals interested in traveling to Vietnam can contact Mekong Travel, a project of the Indochina Peace Activist Network; 151 1st Avenue, Suite 172, New York, NY, 10003. Profits finance work in the U.S. to bolster U.S./Vietnamese reconciliation and cooperation.
Vivian Rothstein, a CWLU founder, lives in California and works as a community organizer