If we go, you will have a chance to find him. If we stay, we will all die.
My mom had no idea where my dad was the day Saigon fell. He had been serving as a doctor for the South Vietnamese forces in Danang – the most important base for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War – when it was captured by the Viet Cong in March 1975. Everyone was certain that he was captured; some assumed that he became one of the soldiers killed in action.
In reality, the North Vietnamese placed my dad in a POW camp where he spent his days performing forced labor or attending brainwashing sessions. It would be two long years before he would ever come in contact with my mother again.
Regardless, she did not want to leave Vietnam knowing that her husband of only four months still could be alive. As the seven members of her family packed themselves into a small canoe on a small river in Vietnam, they convinced her that the only option left was to leave. Her father had served as a retired officer of high rank in the South Vietnamese Army, and the Viet Cong were quick to punish those they believed to be traitors to the nation.
If we stay, we will all die.
On Sunday, May 2, the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, millions of Americans and Vietnamese reflected on all the lives lost and forever changed by the Vietnam War, a 30-year civil war that ultimately transformed the political and social make-up of the United States, as well as Vietnam itself.
Most of us born after 1975 have come to know Vietnam through analytical exercises in high school history classes and movies like Platoon and Forrest Gump. In some ways, we can never truly understand the way the Vietnam War polarized our country, demoralized our military and tormented our government.
In spite of this shortcoming, however, it is important that we do not let a day like this go by without looking into our nation’s history and extracting the lessons that were so painfully learned. It was not until this year that I went past the history books and sought a more complete understanding of my family’s experience. I used to read about World War II and think how cool it would be to have a relative who flew planes over Berlin, not realizing that inside my own home was a man who saw the bloody realities of war every day in his hospital.
Vietnam is often portrayed as an ugly time in U.S. history when support for the war efforts never really consolidated; when soldiers risked their lives only to come back to chants of baby-killer; when the government, itself, sometimes did not know why the military was fighting there. We should not allow, however, the memories of all the soldiers, student protesters and refugees to turn into mere caricatures in our minds.
I invite you – not just the Vietnamese Americans, not just the Asian Americans, but the whole American student community – to explore, criticize and reformulate what we know of our past and not detach ourselves from our histories. To do so would be a huge injustice to those who had the courage to fight for something, whether that cause be their country, their beliefs, or their lives.
Otherwise, we forsake our responsibility to keep the lessons our fathers learned; and our memories of them will surely die.
-Marie Claire Tran
Daily Northwestern (Northwestern U.)