How Vietnamese View The Vietnam War

As hard as it is to believe, just forty years after millions of Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans died in a vicious and protracted conflict, most Vietnamese — who are under 40, and thus too young to remember their “American War” — hold a favorable view of the U.S., as Elisabeth Rosen in “How Young Vietnamese View the Vietnam War” The Atlantic. 

[U]nlike me, my Vietnamese contemporaries grew up in the communist country that the war created. That country has changed dramatically over the course of their lives. When Nguyen and Hien were children, Vietnam had just begun to integrate into the global economy following a postwar decade of scarcity and stagnation. Since then, Vietnam has become one of East Asia’s fastest-growing economies, and the government’s staunch communism has given way to a new pragmatism as it privatizes state-owned companies and seeks foreign investment. A recent Pew survey found that 95 percent of the Vietnamese people support free-market capitalism—a higher percentage than in any other country surveyed, including the United States. As a Hanoi secretary in her 30s told me: “The war is the past already. … We care only about money. We don’t care about politics or history.”

It is interesting to see how Vietnamese textbooks and officialdom cover the war, which in the U.S. is fraught with political and social upheaval and pacifist sentiment.

One 12th-grade history book I read meticulously detailed the number of South Vietnamese and U.S. planes, tanks, and helicopters that were shot down in each major battle as well as the number of enemy soldiers who were captured and killed. It made no mention of the estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas who dieda common omission, according to locals I spoke to. “It’s war, so Americans have propaganda and we have it too. It’s inevitable,” retired high-school teacher Le Van Bon, 81, told me.

When these textbooks briefly turn their gaze toward the United States, according to the young Vietnamese I spoke with, they focus on the antiwar movement, crediting American protesters with changing U.S. national sentiment and putting pressure on the government to end the war. They do not inform students that a handful of North Vietnamese also protested the war; the existence of these protesters, and the punishment they faced for their opposition, challenge the narrative of national unity. And unlike my AP History book, the Vietnamese textbook I read contained little information about the Cold War ideology that motivated the United States to enter the conflict. Today, some young Vietnamese recognize that these books may not tell the whole story. As Hau, a university student, told me: “All the history books are written by the government, so they include 80 percent of the truth. The other 20 percent is left out.”

Indeed, considering that the Vietnamese spent many centuries of their long history fighting the Chinese — which is still often regarded warily — the conflagration with the U.S. is almost a blip in their historical consciousness.

While the specter of communism drew the United States into the war, and communist forces ultimately won it, political ideology meant little to ordinary Vietnamese even during the fighting. At the time, some Northerners told me, they didn’t even know what the word “communism” meant. The country has remained officially communist, and many veterans express continued loyalty to the ruling party. But as the Pew survey demonstrates, it’s not clear whether that means much to young Vietnamese.

“I don’t care much about capitalism or communism. What will leaders do for our country? Will it develop more?” said Hoa, 23, who works in marketing.

This attitude separates millennials from their parents and grandparents. “Older people might put communism on a pedestal, but for us it means very little. Young people care more about their own dreams, their own careers”, Nguyen, the university student, said.

Given all this, it is little surprise that Vietnam is one of the most pro-American nations in the world, with 77 percent having a positive view towards the U.S.; among Asian countries, only Filipinos, South Koreans, and Bangladeshis are so favorable.

But far more important than their love of the U.S., which is more of a curiosity to me, is the young nation’s vast potential. In addition to the aforementioned impressive economic and entrepreneurial achievement, Vietnam might be in the cusp of sociopolitical change — albeit ever so slowly and cautiously, given the lack of a visible pro-democracy movement.

…Young Vietnamese I’ve met see the potential for producing social change outside the formal political system. “We have activities to raise awareness about the environment and underprivileged people,” Trang told me. “But we don’t care about the government or any political stuff. The government controls everything.”

While Trang’s generation is not rebelling against Communist Party leadership, its members are finding ways to communicate their views to the government. Young people have started using social media to express their concerns about development issues, such as a plan to build a cable car through the world’s largest cave. And sometimes the government is even responsive. A Facebook campaign to stop Hanoi from chopping down thousands of old trees drew 20,000 supporters in one day, motivating city authorities to reverse the decision.

What a remarkable turnaround in so little time. Vietnam has a long way to go in many respects, but it has made remarkable progress in healing its deep wounds and emerging as a leading player in the global economy. Perhaps our dated popular image of the country as a dirt-poor, war-torn jungle will finally get a more contemporary and optimistic update. It would merely reciprocate their positive and nuanced view of us –government officialdom notwithstanding.

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