What We Still Don’t Understand about the Vietnam War
Julie Pham was just two months old when she arrived in the United States with her family in 1979. They were among the 800,000 refugees known as “boat people” who fled Vietnam by sea in the 20-year period following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Pham’s father, a former officer in the South Vietnamese military, had spent three years in a re-education camp after the war, and they were desperate to escape the country that Vietnam had become after reunification under the Communist regime.
When Pham was studying history in her late teens, she began to question the received wisdom about the Vietnam War that she encountered in America. Movies and TV shows often portrayed the South Vietnamese military and government as submissive, corrupt, or inept. Historical accounts framed the war as an example of American overreach and profligacy. Among ordinary Americans, the consensus seemed to be that their country and its military should never have been involved in the conflict in the first place.
A fateful conversation with her father about his own wartime experience would open her eyes to just how much of the South Vietnamese perspective had been sidelined in the prevailing American historical narrative. She began interviewing émigré veterans of the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces to hear their stories and give voice to the experiences that often get overlooked, such as the oppression that the South Vietnamese faced immediately following the war. In 2019, these interviews were published as Their War: The Perspectives of the South Vietnamese Military in the Words of Veteran-Emigres.
For Humanities Washington, Pham gives a talk titled “Hidden Histories: The South Vietnamese Side of the Vietnam War.” It draws on her book and the topic that she’s been researching and reflecting on for the past 20 years. Crucially, it doesn’t purport to be the definitive version of the South Vietnamese experience. Pham’s primary intent is to provide the audience with an opportunity to have the same revelation about the Vietnam War that she once did and better appreciate its complexities.
Humanities Washington spoke with Pham about her talk and the research behind it. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the basic premise of your talk?
With the Vietnam War, most of the time it’s portrayed as being between the U.S. and Vietnam. The “Vietnamese” in that sense are de facto the North Vietnamese, or the Communists, whereas the South Vietnamese are shunted to the side. So I examine that overlooked perspective.
The research for it is based on my undergraduate research. I did interviews with 40 different South Vietnamese veterans who are Vietnamese-American and served as officers during the Vietnam War.
And what were some things you uncovered during that research?
There was definitely a multiplicity of perspectives. And that’s something I make really clear when I’m giving the talk — that this is not a monolithic experience and what I’m sharing is based on these 40 interviews I conducted. That way, people don’t think, “Oh, after hearing this, now I know the South Vietnamese perspective.”
I also break these stories out in different ways. There are things that impact people’s memories. How long did they serve in the military? How long did they spend in re-education camp? When did they come to the United States? The answers to those questions will influence how they think about the war and how they remember the war. And so I talk a lot about memory, too.
The thing that I really want people to leave with is that we remember things differently and we have different perspectives. And to appreciate that the media portrayal and common understanding of the war is still very much centered on the American experience. It doesn’t look at the fact that the South Vietnamese considered the Americans their allies and their peers.
This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, of course, but to frame it in a way that might hit home, is it somewhat analogous to only telling the American War of Independence from the French point of view?
That’s an interesting point. I never thought about comparing it to another war. I just think an easy way to describe this is that when we talk about the war solely in terms of winners and losers, there are a lot of perspectives that get lost.
What are some of those lost perspectives?
If you watch Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War, like Apocalypse Now or Good Morning, Vietnam, or if you read any American history books, the writing about the Vietnam War states that the South Vietnamese were the puppets of the Americans. It was the Americans who were really in charge.
And some people who I interviewed felt that was true. But a lot didn’t. A lot felt like, “No, we were their peers. They were our counterparts. They were our allies.” And there’s a strong sense of betrayal there. If the South Vietnamese really were equals, why should they be portrayed as less than?
Did any of the interviewees’ stories present you with a viewpoint you’d never even considered?
Yes. For the most part, people weren’t trying to defend themselves. For example, there are all of these negative stereotypes about the South Vietnamese — that they were corrupt, that they were apathetic. And a lot of the interviewees admitted, “Yeah, that existed. There were times when I myself was ambivalent.” That stuck out to me — the sheer complexity of it. There was good and there was bad.
So it’s not that my interviewees were saying, “No, everything was good, and people didn’t understand we were good.” It was more just like, “We want to be heard.” That was the overall message. They just wanted to be able to tell their story. Especially now that they were in the United States, a lot of veterans felt misunderstood. And they felt that this was particularly important for their children, too, because they felt like they couldn’t talk to their children about it.
And were there striking differences between the stories of those who emigrated from South Vietnam and those who remained?
Oh, yeah. The big difference is that those who are still in Vietnam, they’re under a Communist government, so there’s heavy censorship. One of the examples I hold up here is Ken Burns. For his seven-part documentary on the Vietnam War, he interviewed South Vietnamese veterans, but he only interviewed those who were living in Vietnam. And I bring this up because, with talk about historiography, it’s usually about who writes the history. If you’re only interviewing those who are living under Communist censorship in Vietnam about the South Vietnamese perspective, what perspective are you going to get? That’s going to be quite different from the South Vietnamese military perspective that you find in the U.S.
And, again, I stress that it’s not that one is right or wrong. There are differences, and I actually think that the differences are what makes it fascinating.
“When you say we shouldn’t have been there, a South Vietnamese veteran might think, ‘Well, why not? We believed in our cause.'”
Was there a personal connection to this research that spurred you to pursue it?
I was 19 years old when I started this research. I was at [the University of California at] Berkeley, and all these classes gave this perspective of the Vietnam War, and I was confused. So I talked to my Dad and said, “We were the losers. That’s what’s in all these books.” And he said, “No, actually, we fought for something.” That’s when I started talking to his friends and doing the research. And I realized, wow, this perspective is sorely overlooked.
What’s personal about it for me is, how can such a large community be so misunderstood? And when Americans say we shouldn’t have been there, then you don’t understand why we were fighting. What’s also interesting is, for some of the American vets who attend [this talk], when they hear this, they feel the same way. When they came back from their service, people misunderstood them and vilified them.
So, yes, it was very personal research. But at the same time, I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being biased. For a number of years I lived in Vietnam, too, and my dissertation ended up being about a South Vietnamese communist because I was interested in both sides.
And your father spent a number of years in a re-education camp. What role do those camps play in the South Vietnamese experience?
After the war, any officer was sent to a re-education camp — and that, of course, is a euphemism. It wasn’t some polite place where people sat at desks and read about Marxism and Leninism. It was a prison camp, a hard labor camp, because the South Vietnamese were considered traitors to the Communist regime.
For Americans, there seems to be a lot of national psychology bound up in the Vietnam war. The savior complex. American exceptionalism. Is that what you found as well?
Yes, and I think American guilt is part of that too. There’s such a sense of guilt for being there, and what that guilt does is it takes away from the agency of the people who were there. Because when you say we shouldn’t have been there, a South Vietnamese veteran might think, “Well, why not? We believed in our cause.” And that’s actually a huge revelation when I talk to audiences. Most of those who come to these talks are older, and quite a few are American vets themselves, and what I have to share is quite a revelation for them. Some Americans really did see their South Vietnamese counterparts as peers, and they didn’t even know that this is how they felt.
And even though my initial research was published 20 years ago, there’s still a huge gap in what people understand. There are over 2 million Vietnamese here [in the U.S.], and most of them are from South Vietnam and feel incredibly misunderstood.
Regarding American exceptionalism, the other thing I talk about is the story of why people come here [to the U.S.]. It usually focuses on these ‘pull’ factors like the American Dream. But what most people don’t think about is the ‘push’ factor: What incites people to leave? That’s where you get into the distinction between refugees and immigrants. I often quote from this Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, who said, “You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” And whenever I quote from that, people start to get it. To be able to introduce that notion to people has been really gratifying in my experience as a speaker.
Maybe this is indicative of my own milieu, but I think this notion of, “We shouldn’t have been there,” is the view of the Vietnam War that a lot of Americans have now internalized.
Yes, and I think that puts a lot of the conflict on American shoulders. It’s still very much centered on the American experience. South Vietnamese veterans would say, “Well, we were there, and we were still fighting Communism.” And that goes back to the sense of betrayal in the interviews: “The Americans pulled out. They left us. We had to stay and keep fighting.”
In talking to veterans in the interviews, many of them said, “We served for decades. Once you were in the military you didn’t know when you were leaving.” Whereas, in the American case, you did your tour of duty and that’s it. But for the South Vietnamese, once they joined the military, that was it for the rest of their lives.
With so many perspectives and so many factors influencing them, what’s the grand takeaway from all this? Is it simply that the Vietnam War is far more nuanced than we might have been led to believe?
Yes, and that we are all capable of still learning. But are we open to that opportunity?
On a related note, when people talk about Vietnam, they often talk about the lessons learned. However, to me, as a historian, I know that we can learn from history, but we can’t prevent bad things from happening. We can’t prevent war. There will be things that come up that we feel we have to fight for. Right now, nearly 50 years on, Vietnam might be doing really well economically, but they still don’t have political freedom.
And that’s what I want people to leave with. This sense that it’s much more complicated than we initially think.
Julie Pham is currently presenting her talk, “Hidden Histories: The South Vietnamese Side of the Vietnam War,” online and across the state. Find an event here.