Coming to Terms with the Vietnam War

Adventurous Kate contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

Let me start this by saying that I’m no expert on the Vietnam War. I know about it.  I’ve read a lot about it.  I’ve watched a lot of movies and read a lot of fiction with the war as a backdrop.

And I studied it in school.  But considering that my US History class was tailored to the AP Exam, by the time we got to studying Vietnam, it was largely passed over in favor of drilling for essay questions.

In short, I haven’t studied the war as in-depth as I should have.

But at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, I got to see the Vietnamese viewpoint of the war – and it was horrifying.

Is this museum filled with propaganda?  Yes.

Does it exaggerate for Vietnam’s benefit?  Absolutely.

I can understand why they do, but honestly, I think they would get more mileage out of the museum if they were more truthful.  There’s no need to exaggerate.  The truth is powerful enough.

The War Remnants Museum is filled with devastating photographs, artifacts and first-hand accounts from the war.  There are also sections showing weapons and propaganda from other countries supporting Vietnam.

But to me, the worst part was the Agent Orange exhibition.

During the war, the US dropped this herbicide, made from the deadly chemical dioxin, on much of Vietnam.  The chemical had devastating effects.  People living in dioxin-contaminated areas began getting cancer.  Birth defects became rampant in affected areas of Vietnam, and even today, children are still being born with deformities due to dioxin exposure.

How in God’s name could anyone with a conscience order an attack like this, an attack that would disable innocent civilians for generations?

How could my country do something so vile and unconscionable?

I’ve never felt so much shame for my government.

While the government has compensated American soldiers exposed to Agent Orange, many of whom have since had children with birth defects, nothing has been done for the Vietnamese.

And there was a beautifully written letter from a young girl, an Agent Orange victim, to President Obama, telling him how much she admired him for trying to create the best opportunities in the world for his daughters and all American children, but she wished he would think of the Vietnamese children exposed to Agent Orange as well.

Beyond Agent Orange, what horrified me the most was the brutality of the attacks on civilians in Vietnam.

Most famously, there was a massacre in Thanh Huong that left more than a dozen women and children dead, murdered with knives.  Two young girls were disemboweled.  Only one was left alive.

The man who ordered the attack?  Former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.

This was first reported by the New York Times Magazine and 60 Minutes in 2001, and Kerrey admitted that yes, he authorized the attack, but he did not carry it out. He thought that it would be an attack on Viet Cong soldiers, not women and children.  He says that he deeply regrets the act:

“You can never, can never get away from it. It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.”

That’s what Kerrey says.

But one of the men in his unit, Gerhard Klann, says that Kerrey fully participated in the attack, helped kill an elderly man, and rounded up the women and children before shooting them.  The lone survivor of the attack says that Klann is telling the truth.

What shocks me the most is that Bob Kerrey continues to have a political career. He was even floated as a running mate for John Kerry in 2004 (albeit probably just because people loved the aspect of a Kerry-Kerrey ticket).

You would think that ordering the deaths of innocent women and children, whether intentionally or unintentionally, would be a political death sentence. Not so much in America.

It was a difficult day for me.  As the lone American among my friends, I didn’t have anyone who would understand these feelings — most especially, the shame and guilt I felt and continue to feel on behalf of my country.

It was particularly poignant to visit the War Remnants Museum at this time, when our country is at war once again.  It’s abundantly clear that the war in Iraq, just like in Vietnam, should never have begun.

And I’m even more afraid for the civilians in Iraq than I was before.  Remember how shocked the world was when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke?  WHO KNOWS the extent of what’s going on there?!

Here’s what I know for sure: I will never support a politician who is quick to encourage war. I’m proud to support President Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq War before it began, and who is keenly aware of the many costs of war.

We can’t let this ever happen again.

Get email updates from Kate

Never miss a post. Unsubscribe anytime!

48 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with the Vietnam War”

  1. As you travel around the world, what you learn is the U.S. loves to bomb the Sh&t out of very poor people. I can’t remember where he was from, but I met a man who once told me that in his history class he had learned the U.S, had bombed over 60 countries in 50 years. I looked it up. He was right, what startled me is that they were all incredibly poor countries.

    We don’t know about it cause our propaganda comes with exceptionally high production values, but once you give up your suspension of disbelief it gets pretty transparent.

  2. I’d be very interested in seeing that museum. Even if does contain propaganda, it’s good to see the other side sometimes. After 9/11, some people were shocked to see those video clips of people in foreign lands celebrating the attack, because they had no clue how the rest of the world views the U.S. Getting other perspectives is crucial to having a complete understanding.

  3. As a daughter of a Vietnam Vet, one who questions why he was ever there, as one who has wept at the Vietnam Memorial while taking etches of his friend’s names, I would love to see this museum. I’m sure there were plenty of monsters in Vietnam from our country, but it’s probably good to remember that the vast majority were not – they were young boys, just graduated from high school, who were thrown into a time, place and war that they didn’t understand.

    I’m so glad that times have changed here, where, even if we don’t agree with the war in Iraq, we aren’t spitting on soldiers upon their return, which is what happened to my father (who was an airplane engineer and just worked planes all day).

    I can’t imagine though, what it feels like to go through a museum that is dedicated to the horrors committed by Americans. It would be interesting to go through with my Dad, although he can’t even watch Forrest Gump without getting upset. The Vietnamese are right to bring to light those atrocities. How else will the young learn the cost of war?

    However, judging an entire people (and the generations following) by their worst moment in midst of war is unfair. If that was true, no one would ever talk to (or visit) Germans. Or the Japanese.

    1. Blaming the poor kids who think they are going out to serve their country does no one any good. It is the old men who keep on sending them out for fun, fantasy and profit that are the problem.

      You hear the same “saber-rattlers” today, long after their “Great Game” (that’s the term British East India Company gave to these misadventures) have failed and failed again. Last week there was the horrible tragedy in Afghan where the helicopter ambushed 9 young boys. The boys are dead, but you can be certain that those young air cavalry soldiers have been very damaged by the experience. But they were at war and horrible and terrifying things happen during war. The problem is that our “very serious” people never run short on targets or young lives to waste.

  4. Thanks for sharing Kate! It’s truly heart breaking what happened in Vietnam. I think as Americans many of us are completely oblivious to these types of things. It’s sad, because if more people knew about it and/or cared then we could help prevent it from reoccurring. I completely understand the shame and guilt you felt after leaving the museum– it’s difficult to ever feel proud of our country after knowing the atrocities that have been committed to innocent people around the world. I, too, support Obama and believe that, even if it’s hard to tell now, he will make changes to better our country and perhaps the world.

  5. I echo your sentiments of crippling shame. I had lived in Vietnam for 4 months before I went to the war museum and was doubly disturbed from the fact that I was an American and this country had shown me nothing but acceptance and kindness. I had a similar experience in Laos that I wrote about for The Travelers Notebook

    Agent Orange, as dreadful as anything ever dreamed by killers and madmen. The most devastating aspect is that it yet remains in the eco system and every year scores of children are born mentally handicapped and deformed. We became friends with a man in Saigon who had severely deformed limbs do to the high levels of agent orange near the village where he was born.

    American aggression, the gift that keeps on giving.

    1. Josh, the kind people of Vietnam are definitely the icing on the cake — just when you couldn’t feel more guilty, you do.

      I could not believe what I was seeing in the Agent Orange gallery. Devastating.

  6. “I think they would get more mileage out of the museum if they were more truthful.” Um, you DO know that Vietnam is still Communist, right? Cuz that fact makes your wish that they would just quit it with the propaganda sound, well, just a tad bit naive to say the least.

    I don’t suppose this museum talked about the atrocities of the Viet-Cong and Communists against other Vietnamese – you should know a bit about this after visiting the Cambodian Killing Fields. Or the boat people and millions arrested and forced into reeducation camps after the Fall of Saigon when the United States pulled out and left the South Vietnamese to be slaughtered? I would be very surprised if they did present this truthfully considering the Communist government denies it ever happened:

    “After the southern part of Vietnam was liberated, those people who had worked for and cooperated with the former government presented themselves to the new government. Thanks to the policy of humanity, clemency and national reconciliation of the State of Vietnam, these people were not punished.

    “Some of them were admitted to re-education facilities in order to enable them to repent their mistakes and reintegrate themselves into the community.”

    Anything about the POW camps and the torture of our soldiers? Or did they trot out Jane Fonda to say our soldiers were treated humanely?

    I hope now that you’ve seen the Vietnam War from the Communist side you will take the time to learn about it from the side of South Vietnam. Or maybe even the United States’.

    1. Did the Viet Cong do a lot of horrible things as well? OF COURSE they did.

      But that is no excuse for the atrocious things our country did. As a country, we pride ourselves on being BETTER. Do we drag dead bodies through the streets? People do that to us! No. We don’t. Because we are better than that.

      Refusing accountability for our country’s actions is no different from Lindsay Lohan blaming her troubles on her dad and the paparazzi. Everything is someone else’s fault. And while the North Vietnamese did a lot of horrible things, that’s no excuse for inflicting generations upon generations of Vietnamese with incurable disabilities.

      1. I was not making any excuses, simply questioning what the Communist propaganda museum said about the atrocities of the Viet Cong. Sounds like they said nothing.

        I’m glad you know about the horrible things the Viet Cong did. Your post did not mention them at all so I had no idea if you learned about it. Knowing about the genocide they committed does not excuse any US war crimes that may have been committed, but it does explain why we were there and what we were up against. While we don’t always do things right, we are always trying to do the right thing.

  7. “I’m proud to support President Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq War before it began, and who is keenly aware of the many costs of war.”

    Also interested to hear your thoughts on Obama ramping up the war in Afghanistan, his use of drones to kill targets in Pakistan, and leaving Gitmo open.

      1. Um, that’s not what I was asking. Am I to assume from your response “Obama does not romanticize war” to my question about Obama continuing Bush’s policies – even policies Obama claimed to oppose and that helped lead you to vote for him – mean that actual policies don’t matter to you, what matters is who is president and what you judge their motivations to be?

  8. Earl Squirrelson

    I am not American but I know my country has sent troops to pretty much all wars since WWI as we are an ally of America. All I can say is I hope people in positions of power hurry up and read Michael Morres book entitled “Stupid White Men”.

    As much as I think President Obama has helped mend plenty of bridges internationally I do not think he is all that different to previous presidents.

    My 2 cents worth.

  9. I had the same kind of experience in Moscow. They have these military museums about the cold war and it’s an entirely slanted view of what actually happened. Definitely propaganda, but still interesting to see a global story told from the other side of the story. Love your blog!

  10. What a heartbreaking post. Like you, my time studying the Vietnam War was cut short for focusing on the AP exam, and glossing it over definitely leaves out details that you’ve mentioned. I’m sorry you had to go through that as the lone American..I can only imagine the shame you felt. It’s amazing the acts the government seems to forget so easily.

  11. Ouch, that must have been pretty harrowing for you. I’m sure your values don’t align to Mr Kerrey’s and I would tell you to not feel so guilty like that. However, I feel exactly the same being an Englishman when the Iraq war is spoken about. Great post anyway, Kate.

  12. First of all, I’m with you and Christine on the sad fact that our education is swayed by things such as AP tests. Living in Europe has opened my eyes to so much more that happened in history besides the American Revolution, which in my memory was repeated every year in history class. Although I understand it is importance in OUR history, there is so much more that is important in the history of the world and as citizens of the world we deserve to be educated. I don’t know about you, but my AP exams are a distant memory and have done absolutely nothing to attribute to what I consider my knowledge now.

    On to what this post is really about. I took a political media course which completely opened my eyes to how much the American public is jaded when it comes to war coverage. We learned about some of the ‘controversial’ photos and reports that began emerging at the time of the Vietnam War and into the War on Terror and Iraq War. These were images of things that were actually happening but the public couldn’t handle and the government didn’t want shown because it exposed the real horror that was taking place. I think that any country is so jaded by what its own government wants the public to believe that only people who are determined to connect all the dots are able to learn the pieces of what really happened.

    Politics is a pretty difficult thing to understand and pretty much anything you read or learn is swayed in one way or another.

    Your conscious is telling you that our country was part of a horrible time in history, and that makes you human. No it wasn’t you, and no you shouldn’t feel guilty but as a traveling American (and I think as any traveler from any country with a past of war) it’s all you can do to feel conscious about the roles your country played.

    1. But passing my French AP exam enabled me to do absolutely NOTHING second semester of senior year. I had all my hard classes out of the way — I took a “science for English majors” class, two writing independent studies, and banged out a semester’s worth of work in three all-nighters. 😉

      I agree — we do not learn nearly enough history, especially when you consider that Asian history is completely avoided.

      I’m glad that Obama lifted the ban on photos taken of coffins home from war (with the consent of the families).

    1. agreed!
      I didn’t really know how bad the Vietnam War was until I visited this War Remnants Museum (but of course my country wasn’t involved in the war).
      Funny that I was wondering how an american would feel (about their country/government) if they saw the museum displays. And this post has answered my question..

  13. I understand your outrage about the Agent Orange, Kate. It’s yet another shameful blot upon American history. I was just thinking about this when I was reading Steph Yoder’s post about how heavily we bombed Laos and then just left all those unexploded bombs lying there so they can continue to be, in Joshy’s words, “the gift that keeps on giving.” It angers and embarrasses me as an American that our government has ordered these things done and continue to do.

  14. That letter to Obama nearly drove me to tears as well. The whole Agent Orange section was very, very difficult. I struggled with this again in Laos, seeing the destruction from the “Secret War.” Our country has done a lot of really good things, but is also responsible for an insane amount of death and destruction.
    This trip has been really eye opening. I think it’s possible to love my country and still feel shame for the wrongs that it’s committed. It will always influence how I vote and how I look at world politics. I think that’s something travel is really important for: understanding your context in the world.

    1. Stephanie, I looked for the letter online and couldn’t find a transcript — please let me know if you come across it!

      “I think it’s possible to love my country and still feel shame for the wrongs that it’s committed.” Yes. Not only is it possible, I think it’s vital to do so!

  15. Thanks for sharing this Kate – it was one of my ‘ask Kate anything’ questions and you have answered it in a compelling article. You are right – it is possible to love America, but be shamed by it’s actions. I often feel the same with the UK. You can’t tar everyone with the same brush, not everyone in the UK or USA is into war mongering – for whatever reason, Oil, Regime Change, Crimes against Humanity (!), Genocide, National Security, Economic Stability, Re-election etc etc. I find it interesting that Obama and Cameron are now up to their necks in Libya, though with the backing of the UN. But, it is lead by USA and UK – why can’t it be led by UN and we hear UN spokesman rather than Presidents and PM’s? Anyway, enough of my rant.

    Why wasn’t Kerry had up on war crimes?

    History is very interesting and travelling really opens your eyes to a huge amount of history. I found India fascinating, especially because I am British. Bali has an interesting history as well. Especially as the only predominantly Hindu island in the biggest Muslim country in the world.

    Enjoy the last month of this trip Kate (assuming you are sticking to the 6 month plan – kinda hope you are not!)

  16. It was my time spent in Vietnam that made me realise that war is never and will never be a good thing. When can put men on the moon, we can create so many amazing things, yet we can’t come up with simple ways to use peace and co-operation as a means to solve a problem. War only brings death and destruction and I am all for living.
    I wrote a post (link above through my name) on how Vietnam changed my views on life.
    I was really mad at the US when I went to Vietnam and Laos, but then I realized that serves no purpose and that is not being peaceful. It is pointless to argue and debate about these things that happened in the past. All we need to do is learn from them and do what we can in order to not let them happen again.
    Not really doing a great job of that are we?

  17. As a Brit, I’m unfortunately quite accustomed to touring sites where my ancestors were instrumental in various forms of slaughter and mayhem.

    While I would never want to take away from the severity of these actions, I think it can be really interesting to see how different nations put forth their perspective on an atrocity. I visited Pearl Harbour when I was in Hawaii and couldn’t help but feel that it was not an objective telling of the events, understandably. I wonder how easy it is for any visitors, to any war museum, to get an independent persective one which is not clouded in propoganda.

    I look forward to visiting this particular museum when I am in Vietnam in June.

  18. We visited the same museum and felt exactly the same way. Yes there’s clearly a lot of bias and propaganda there, but does it make the facts on display any less true? Certainly not. As Australian’s we never really studied the Vietnam War in depth but we’ve grown up with American films and documentaries, so seeing the war from the other side was a real eye opener. When it comes down to it both sides did horrible things but I agree, the Agent Orange photographs of children still being born to this day were one of the most heart breaking things I’ve ever seen. I’d like to say people have learnt from their mistakes but then I think of Cambodia, Rwanda, the current conflicts … perhaps one day the human race will grow up.

    Thank you for sharing such an honest account of your feelings and experiences Kate. It must have taken a lot for you to write this as you have and open yourself up for negative comments.

  19. All women would certainly try to stay away from having the PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome at all costs. This condition takes place gradually. The symptoms are usually too prevalent among ladies that you might not even notice that you’re actually acquiring it. While PCOS may not bring about fantastic pain, you could turn into at risk of other far more serious medical conditions.

  20. Kate. I have been to that museum and yes, it shows some horrific results of war. Let me say this. I was a U.S. Marine there. I was wounded twice. I witnessed many atrocities from the other side and I can tell you that that museum is one huge propaganda machine. To the vicyors go the spoils…they get to tell the story their way, but trust me, that was very twisted. Yes, agent orange was bad. No one knew it then. It was not a weapon, it was a defoliant used to clear jungle so our enemy could not use it to their advantage. Yeas, in retrospect, it did a lot of unintended human damage including to our own troops.

    I have gone back and made my peace wi the Viet people. I have dined with a former NVA who was fighting my units. I was in his home as a guest. We both agreed that it was not he and I, it was the governments. Ours was an elected government and therein lies the message.

    If you ever want to meet an anti war person find someone who was in real combat. Killing each other solves little, be careful who you vote for, and be proud of our country. All of your traveling should prove some of this to you. Our freedoms are a tremendous thing.

    But, yes, be wary of any saber rattling politician. Almost invariably they haven’t “been” there.

    Keep up the good blog. I enjoy it a lot!

    1. Conrad, thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate it greatly, and I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the blog!

      I wish I could agree with you that people who have seen combat are anti-war. Most — though not all — of the people I know who have seen combat have said the opposite. Though I do agree that most of the war-happy people I’ve seen have never been close to seeing combat. But over the past few weeks, I’ve had a series of enlightening encounters, including making a new friend who spent years fighting in Afghanistan and raves about how much he loves the people of Afghanistan, the culture, the food, and how much he wants to return — as a traveler, not a soldier!

      Hearing that, and hearing from you, really makes me happy.

  21. Hi Kate! I just want to say I am a HUGE fan of your blog! You along with many other bloggers are what inspired me to create my own travel blog and follow my dream of exploring the world, although at the moment I am only a college student! I can especially connect to you as a fellow New England girl 🙂

    This was an amazing and heartbreaking post. My knowledge of US history was definitely skewed due to the fact of preparation for the APUSH exam like you, so I enjoy reading a lot outside of school in order to get different perspectives and the real picture of world history.

    The atrocities that both sides committed in the war are truly awful. I think humanity has come a long way with stopping the romanticism of war and learning to live peacefully, but we still have a LONG way to go, which what has happened in recent history and even now clearly goes to show. Hearing about the kindness of people around the world to others despite differences and even past history always makes me smile.

  22. I can’t believe I haven’t read this post before (considering the amount of time I spend reading your blog).
    I had a similar reaction when I visited the memorial and museum at Hiroshima. I’m Australian, but to think that a country, any country, would do something like that to another really affected me. I wasn’t ignorant of the situation (Pearl Harbour etc) or under the impression that such things hadn’t and don’t still happen elsewhere, but visiting a place like that really brings it home. What is more incredible, is how welcoming I found the Vietnamese and Japanese. Given the post-9/11 attitudes to certain cultures, it’s inspiring to see how forgiving the people in those countries have been towards Americans and the Allies.
    I found the museum in Vietnam was just as shocking although this time I was acutely aware of what went on during the so called war (war was never officialy declared). Your point about the information contained in the museum is interesting. I visited a museum in the US about Vietnam and there was no mention that Australia had participated in the war. I struggled with this just as much as I did to look at some of the photos in the museum in Vietnam – My dad fought in with the Allies in Vietnam after his number was called up. I went to Vietnam as a tourist when I was 24. He went there as a soldier, younger than I was, all because he was born on a certain day.

    And all this time later it seems we haven’t learnt anything. We’re still at war for reasons younger generations will struggle to understand.

    Great post Kate.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.