The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is an interesting outing. It is operated by the Vietnamese Government and was first opened September 1975 under the name Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. Puppet of course refers to government of South Vietnam, who were our war hosts in tropical unparadise. Saigon fell April 1975 so just like any nation ravished from war, they opened a museum 4 months later. History shows that apparently this is a North Vietnamese post war tradition. In 1990 the museum name changed to Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. Then in 1995 after diplomatic relations fully normalized with the USA, the museum became, as it remains today, War Remnants Museum.
We entered with both an open mind and empty mind. Other than the many fragments that media and popular culture placed in my psyche, I was rusty as hadn't done a lick of research. I was 11 when the war ended so most of those fragments were from a child's view. I do remember our neighbor's son being killed when his helicopter was shot down. I have to say that still to this day I hear a helicopter and think of Vietnam.
The building is classic communism. You walk into the outside courtyard prior to entering and there is an arsenal of US fighting machines. Helicopters, tanks, planes…all in good shape leaving one to believe they were abandoned not captured. You go inside and the heat is stifling and it smells like communism. The entire museum is photographic. A display on Vietnamese school children during the war greets you. The kids are going to school in trenches and wearing thick rope hats on their sides to protect against shrapnel. The sign conveys that even though war was raging children went to school every day. The schools in the Vinh tunnels are shown. They are in the underground village, which lies at depths up to 10 meters underground. The pictures continue showing the kids brought a first aid kit, their straw body protector and a bamboo stretcher with them every day. A giant picture of Uncle Ho aka Ho Chi Minh is mounted on the wall larger than life laughing with a group of children. If there were a soundtrack it would be Song of the South (Zippity Doo Dah, Zippity-ay). The picture appears to be part of Uncle Ho's Good Child Campaign, which I believe continues to this day, to encourage children to strive to follow his teachings: study hard, become good citizens and contribute to the cause of national construction and defense aimed at making the country wealthier and stronger. My reaction? Heavy propaganda, but certainly undeniable caring for their children like any society does. It was strange for me to really see communism serving its people versus being a sickle and hammer pointed at them to build something to make the country proud.
The museum carries on with a very large section of pictures and newspaper clips labeled The Anti - US War of Resistance of Vietnamese was Supported Enthusiastically By the People All Over the World. A large peace dove poster holds the words, The World Supports Vietnam In Its Resistance. A thank you letter is posted, We would like to thank the communist parties and working class of the countries in the world, national liberation movement, nationalist countries, peace-loving countries, international democratic organization, and progressive human beings, for their whole-hearted support, and strong encouragement to our people's patriotic resistance against the US, for national salvation. All the plaques refer to the war as the American War. It is only those outside of the country that ever call it the Vietnam War. The British codename it Operation Masterdom, which is perhaps a sneak peek into the psyche of the Empire. When viewing the summation of conflicts in Vietnam they are often called the First, Second and Third Indochina Wars with US-Vietnam being the Second.
We make our way through the worldwide response. It is freaking powerful. You can no longer reason away the staged photos, as the sources are vast and independent sources. It is sobering and makes you feel bad. Real bad. You look around to see if anyone is glaring at your presence. Then comes the section on the people of the US response to the war. The biggest punch in the gut for me was the spread showing the dead and mourning students at Kent State. I was just in Tiananmen Square weeks ago delivering dialed down propaganda to my kids about protesting students shot on this very site under the blue sky dripping red umbrella of communism. I feel lost now at this reminder. My perspective has become totally unanchored. My twisted mind remembers Captain Kirk fooling the Borg by saying to it, everything I say is a lie…..I am telling the truth. Endless loops of thought that circle back and get you nowhere. It did the Borg in. Next is Dr.Martin Luther King, Come home America. Come home from your dark country of racism…from your tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam. Next David Miller is in a photo burning his draft card. Alongside him, a Newsweek article and photo on Michael Heck, The B52 Pilot that Said No. A photo of an American supposedly water boarding a Vietnamese- it looked like he was offering water from a very small canteen to me. Excerpts from the Bertrand Russell Tribunal Stockholm and Copenhagen sessions of 1967. A graphic description of the death of women and children ending with the sentence, it was not until April 2001 that US Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crimes. A confession by Robert McNamara, former US Defense Secretary, We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong. We Owe It to Future Generations to Explain Why. The section wrapped up with Jane Fonda strangely missing. I wonder if Ted Turner used his mojo.
If you aren't feeling bad enough if you are an American then you surely will after you finish with the next room. It is painted orange. Do you see where this is going? First there is some cold shocking science about dioxins (TCDD) then it is followed up with the complete rainbow of TCDD agents sprayed on Vietnam during 1961 to 1971. The most dangerous of all, Agent Orange. A picture of a tract of green landscape is side by side with an after photo of the same space. It is utterly a cracked earth, desertified space with only the river bends matching it to the before photograph. There are numerous such photos. Napalm and toxic gases are then described and a March 1965 plea from Professor Bernard, Chairman of the World Peace Council to stop their use is displayed. A tank of napalm is shown with a US soldier standing proudly next to it. On the tank is written The Purple People Eater. I recall my undergrad love of Sociology for all the weird social experiments we got to study and do. The ones that depicted crowd dynamics and how people's behavior changed by the role they were asked to play jumped into my consciousness as a way of sparing the soldier depicted from being labeled monster in my mind. The Agent Orange atrocity photos and jarred fetuses were vast. US Operation Ranch Hand and larger chemical warfare program Operation Trail Dust were detailed with an estimated 20 million U.S. gallons of defoliants and herbicides spread from planes over rural areas of South Vietnam in an attempt to deprive the Viet Cong of food and cover. The Ranch Hander's motto used the smoky bear poster and changed the wording to, only you can prevent a forest. The effects of Agent Orange were then outlined. Not only is it a primary carcinogen but also has genotoxic effect that gifts the generations with birth defects and misshapen human beings. The volume of photos and other clues make it clear this can't be confabulated propaganda. Acknowledgement that US and Korean service personnel were sprayed as well and suffered is also present. This all SUCKS. I feel like a sh*t. But no one is treating me as such. ABSOLUTELY no one. The vibe is extremely neutral.
A storyboard at the close of the orange section catches my eye. It is titled, Comparative Figures About 3 Wars in Which the United States Participated.
World War II: 3.8 years, 16 million soldiers (bad tanks and weapons, high soldier count was the strategy we learned from our visit to Normandy), 5 million tons of bombs, $341 billion spent. Korean war: 3 years, almost 6 million soldiers, 2.6 million tons of bombs and shells, $54 billion.
Vietnam War: 17.2 years, 8.7 million soldiers, 14.3 million tons of bombs (ouch), $676 billion.
Let me help you by putting the wow factors next to each other.
3 years versus 17 years
2.6-5 million tons of bombs versus over 14 million tons of bombs.
I didn't verify these figures. But if they are anywhere close which I suspect they are, the length of time and amount of bombs combined with the millions of gallons of chemical warfare struck a chord.
And, we lost. Or should I say did not meet our objective. Everyone lost.
The top of the museum contains the only air-conditioned space and houses photos that are part of a traveling exhibit called Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. It features more than 150 images taken by photojournalists who died in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam and French Indochina war. This is the first, and last war that played out in front of televisions across the world. Media was heavily present and involved.
I left the museum confused about the vibe and feeling like I needed verification and refreshment on some facts to help ease my discomfort. Here is a high-level time line of key events.
1858-1884. France invades Vietnam and makes Vietnam a colony. Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon are walking the earth.
October 1930 - Ho Chi Minh establishes the Indochinese Communist Party.
September 1940. Japan invades Vietnam during WWII. Some say due to their imperialistic ways, others say they went on their land grab bender to gain oil rich resources, still others say it was to gain access to a section of Chinese border for attack. Probably a threefer.
May 1941. WWII ends and the Allied leaders made the decision to divide Indochina in half at the 16th parallel and China's Chiang Kai-shek is designated to receive the Japanese surrender in the North, while France's Lord Louis Mountbatten will receive the surrender in the South. The Allies agreed that France was the rightful owner of French Indochina, but because they were critically weakened as a result of the German occupation during the WW, a British-Indian force was put into place to help the French in re-establishing control over their former colonial possession.
August 1945. British occupying forces were ready to depart for various Southeast Asian destinations, and some were already on their way, when General Douglas MacArthur creates what I think could be categorized as a clusterf**k (a situation with large scale disarray), or SNAFU (situation normal, all f**ked up). Maybe it was a FUBAR (f**ked up beyond all repair). Take your pick. He wouldn't allow any reoccupation until he had personally received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo, which was actually set for 28 August, but a typhoon caused the ceremony to be postponed until 2 September. This is my spin but I think he was going for the photo op. Just seemed like SUCH an egomaniac. Guess he made his condition work for him. This power play had enormous consequences. It delayed the Allied troops arrival, which enabled communist revolutionary groups to fill the power vacuums that had formed since the announcement of the Japanese surrender. BTW, the Allies stated the French had sovereignty over Indochina, but America supposedly opposed the return of Indochina to the French. MacArthur finally had his ceremony on board the USS Missouri on 2 September. My guy's Papa was onboard, and my Grandfather on a ship nearby. They were probably pissing and moaning about MacArthur too. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh establishes the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam).
September 2, 1945. Ho Chi Minh declares an independent Vietnam, called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
October 1946. The French announce their intention of reclaiming the north, which meant conflict with the Viet Minh. The war starts November 1946 when the French bombard the port of Haiphong and kill 6,000 people. The French try to win over the people of the north with baguettes and empty promised of independence. However, people in the north prefer rice and had their fill of the French. Bao Dai is appointed by the French as the local leader. The Russians and Eastern Europe refused to recognize his rule. They claim Ho Chi Minh is the real ruler of Vietnam.
January 1950. The Viet Minh receive military advisors and weapons from China. Mao Tse Tung had taken power there in 1949. Visitations in REM begin to take place by every American to a red wall with Stalin, Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho's portraits mounted on it. Is it just me or does it feel chilly…er down right cold all the sudden? The nightly visits to the red wall have a profound effect on the American psyche. John Foster Dulles, America's Secretary of State, adds to the nightly red wall films some large Stone Henge-like dominos stacked in a row that are falling, falling….the last domino is the USA….the first is Vietnam. Must..keep…dominos from starting to fall…must.. becomes every predawn conclusion. His Domino Theory is heavily invested in. By July the United States pledges $15 million worth of military aid to France to help them fight in Vietnam.
1953. Someone drop a dime. Dwight has made the scene. Eisenhower is president.
May 7, 1954. The French send their fancy paratroop regiment to Vietnam. Arrogance has them assume this unit will sort out the Viet Minh guerillas. They miscalculate Vietnamese capability and suffer a major defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. I mean major. There are photos.
July 21, 1954. The Geneva Accords create a cease-fire for the peaceful withdrawal of the French from Vietnam and provide a temporary boundary between North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. This becomes the famous DMZ, demilitarized zone. Bao Dai is to lead the south and Ho Chi Minh the north. By 1956 an election is to take place and north and south to decide how the country will be ruled. The election will be supervised by neutral countries. The election does not take place and the split becomes permanent by 1956.
October 26, 1955. South Vietnam declares itself the Republic of Vietnam, with disliked Ngo Dinh Diem and his supercilious wife as president. Please do not confuse this word with superdelicious. Look it up if you have to.
1959. The communists in the north start a war to take over the south. Ho Chi Minh wanted all of Vietnam to be one communist nation. The Government of South Vietnam asks for US help. President Eisenhower sends economic aid and military equipment to assist the people of South Vietnam in their efforts to prevent a Communist takeover.
December 20, 1960. The National Liberation Front (NLF), also called the Viet Cong, is established in South Vietnam. Ugh Oh.
May 1960. The largest iceberg in history is forming in the Atlantic. Under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev a United States U-2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet airspace. The US denies the plane's purpose and mission, but then was forced to admit its role as a covert surveillance aircraft when the Soviet government produced its intact remains and surviving pilot, Francis Gary Powers, as well as photos of military bases in Russia taken by Powers. It's a little like getting caught with porn. The US is embarrassed.
1961 J. F. K. Kennedy is president.
1961. There are 500 special advisors from America's Special Forces sent to train the South Vietnamese Army in how to fight the Viet Cong. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
1962. Regardless of their presence and attempts by the west to demonize the Viet Cong, it is probable that over 75% of all South Vietnamese peasants supported the Viet Cong as they were seen as liberators from the unacceptable government of Ngo Dinh Diem. To "save" the peasants from the Viet Cong, Diem organized a system whereby whole villages were moved into defended camps - known as fortified villages. This policy backfired as the peasants did not want to be removed from their land and as such the policy played into the hands of the Viet Cong who were promising the peasants more land once communism have taken root in the south. The US guys didn't know who the heck to fight.
October 1962. DEFCON3…DEFCON2… Kids are being taught to hide under desks…spies…secret U-2 flight missions to take pictures… Sun-of-a.. We may have been caught with porn a few times but find missiles are pointed at us in Cuba. One of the US U-2's is shot down by a Soviet missile crew leaving Kennedy's slightly shaky finger a millimeter above the red button that will make the fake mountain top pop open and the nuclear bombs come out and sail into the sky. Cuber…erah, JacKIE. Her shift and scarf are ineffective images so he steadies himself with the flashback of Marilyn's Happy Birthday song from month's prior. A living Risk game is underway (BTW, that game was released by Parker Brothers in 1957- what a reflection of the times). Kennedy and Khrushchev have public and secret agreements involving the word warheads. They both run into each other in the men's room doing an underwear change. Such a great historical moment of superpower vulnerability. Joking. They do however collaborate to install a direct US- Soviet phone so they can communicate at a moments notice. They get that they came just a second away from mass mutual destruction.
1963. There are 16,000 special advisors in South Vietnam.
November 2, 1963. The South Vietnamese people are suffering greatly under fanatical Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem who rules as a Dictator along with his brother Darryl, I mean Nhu. Their government is corrupt and brutal yet backed by America. The locals revolt and execute him.
November 1963. Kennedy is shot and killed. Lyndon B Johnson takes office. LBJ's spidy senses are tingling and he asks his military chiefs to formulate a plan should a full-scale war break out. The enlarged prostrate crowd proposes a nonnegotiable provision that America has to be seen as the victim rather than the aggressor. Meanwhile, back in the jungle, the Viet Minh train guerillas to go to the south to spread the word of communism. Attacks surely happen but also to the surprise of the south, the Viet Minh also help on the farms and do not abuse the south. They are courteous and helpful to the civilians in the south. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the most expansive military logistical system ever established, is used by the Viet Cong to travel between Hanoi and all points south deep into South Vietnam. It is a 1000-mile trail along the border with Laos consisting of heavy jungle coverage so detection from the air was very difficult. They easily adapted to Agent Orange jungle kills and moved the trail east or west as needed. All the aggressors are playing hearts and minds games on the civilians when they are not blowing them to bits.
August 2 and 4, 1964. The North Vietnamese SUPPOSEDLY attack two U.S. destroyers sitting in international waters- the Gulf of Tonkin. This is what the Americans use to sway public opinion about why they were sending troops. It comes out 30 years later that this incident was poppycock. Unilateral action, fooling its people into carrying out what is arrogantly decided within ivory towers, using the media to sway the masses? I don't know, is communism infectious?
August 7, 1964. In response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident the U.S. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The evidence 30 years later shows that the Senators that voted for this resolution knew the incident was fabricated. Makes you wonder what we have to look forward to when the Weapons of Mass Destruction time capsule is opened.
March 1965. The first American ground troops land in South Vietnam and a sustained U.S. aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnam begins called Operation Rolling Thunder.
December 1965. There are 150,000 US troops stationed in the country. Between 1965 and 1969 a maximum of 500,000 American troops are in Vietnam. A number of the front line troops are draftees and not professional troops. They are young, usually from lower social groups and frequently minorities. They were trained in conventional warfare whereas the Viet Cong used guerilla tactics - hitting the enemy and then moving away; not wearing a standard uniform; merging into village life with ease. Is there any heart that does not bleed for what these guys were asked to do and endured? They have NO idea who the enemy is; the locals don't want them there; their home country is not supporting and actually loathing them. Super Ugh.
January 30, 1968. The North Vietnamese join forces with the Viet Cong to launch the Tet Offensive, attacking approximately one hundred South Vietnamese cities and towns. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year tied to the lunar calendar similar to the Chinese so this was a big nasty tactical change and surprise. All the major South Vietnamese cities were attacked as well as major US military bases.
March 16, 1968. U.S. soldiers kill hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the town of Mai Lai.
July 1968. Fire the CEO. General William Westmoreland, who had been in charge of the U.S. troops in Vietnam, is replaced by General Creighton Abrams.
December 1968. U.S. troops in Vietnam reach 540,000. Chemical warfare is in full swing. Napalm firebombs are dropped from planes, defoliation chemicals are used to destroy the jungle cover the Viet Cong sneak around in. The average age of a US soldier or grunt is 19. They quickly find out the land they operate in is littered with booby-traps. Each step they take in the jungle or long grass could result in serious injury. There were mines called bouncing betty's that were springs that when tripped would spring up to about waist height and explode. They wounded the soldiers as well as sounded an alert to the Viet Cong. Most of these creative bombs were made by cleverly recycling scraps from US bombs and shells. Punji traps were also used. These were horrific pits in the ground with spikes in them covered in grass and leaves and left all but invisible to a soldier. The tips of the spikes were usually covered in poison or dirt. Punji traps were also found in rivers and streams where troops had to make crossings. The soldiers were splayed, stuck in holes and left vulnerable to capture and torture. All of these methods of butchery along with their own murdering of innocents left a devastating psychological effect on US troops.
1969. Nixon is in the house, and he sweats. By July 1969 he orders the first of many U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam- Vietnamization is underway. This is a return to the original policy of aid being limited and NOY including troops.
September 3, 1969. Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh dies at age 79.
November 13, 1969. The American public learns of the Mai Lai massacre. The immediacy of media coverage does not allow for censorship and is a big issue in the inability for the US to control public opinion.
April 30, 1970. President Nixon announces that U.S. troops will attack enemy locations in Cambodia. This news sparks nationwide protests, especially on college campuses.
May 1970. Kent State. We did that. Seriously?
March 1972. The South Vietnamese Army could not cope with the North Vietnamese forces. Once the bulk of the American troops had pulled out, the North Vietnamese changed their tactics by launching a full-scale attack against the South, which wilted. The North Vietnamese cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 17th parallel to attack South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive.
January 27, 1973. The Paris Peace Accords are signed that provide a cease-fire. All sides agreed to a cease-fire while the remaining American troops are withdrawn and POW's released. It is agreed that Vietnam would be eventually reunited. South Vietnam is PEAVED at us.
1973. Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politburo member Lê Ðức Thọ are awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Lê Ðức Thọ refuses to accept it.
1974. Hullo Gerald Ford. Operation Babylift evacuates about 2,000 orphans from the country. Additionally, over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees are brought out of South Vietnam.
March 1975. North Vietnam launches a massive assault on South Vietnam.
April 30, 1975. Saigon falls and South Vietnam surrenders to the communists.
July 2, 1976. Vietnam is unified as a communist country, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The new communist government sent many people who supported the old government in the South to re-education camps. Lê Duẩn purged South Vietnamese who had fought against the North, imprisoning over one million people and setting off the mass exodus and humanitarian disaster.
1977. The National Review reports that some 30,000 South Vietnamese were systematically killed using a list of CIA informants left behind by the US embassy.
1979. Vietnam is again at war. Indochina War Number Three. First, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. Next, dealing with China's response- Khmer Rouge was their b****.
Both the content and timing of the original opening of the museum clearly reveal it as a propaganda tool. Duh. But even with this prime objective, it is interesting and thought provoking. Every conflict has an alternate point of view- few are the work of pure madness.
Communism today feels lot like Catholicism- the doctrine does not match the practice of the masses but everyone just carries on accepting the imperfect misalignment. I will say that Vietnam feels the closest to the purest form of the doctrine. They are such a collective culture in the nicest way. China as a contrast feels on the edge of an uprising. While there is still great disparity, their current generation is quite outspoken and independent. I predict that the lack of transparent communication (which breeds distrust) and the lack of ability to provide clean air and water will instigate a situation. I hope there is no violence but have to say a heavy lever hangs in the air and came through in interviews I conducted. I decided not to write about all the details and things we discussed because of that lever. I found it impressive they spoke to me about the things they did…but find it worrisome that this outspokenness will surely collide at some point with the lever.
Commies, pinkos..I was just a kid yet the Cold and Vietnam Wars profoundly shaped my psyche. They are not neutral. Perhaps you yourself have had a reaction to this post? Guess what. The Vietnamese here in Ho Chi Minh have SO moved on without a shred of anything hanging in the air. Spain and Gibraltar should make a field trip and observe.
Peace, Love, Sex and Drugs, Rock and Roll, Hootchie Coo, Beads, Bells, and Incense from 10.779475°N 106.692132°E