Tom McEnery recently returned from a visit to Vietnam. This is the third article in a three-part series.
Perhaps it was never expressed better than by Graham Greene’s fictional journalist Fowler (played by Michael Caine in the recent film, The Quiet American) when he notes of the naïve American: “ I never knew a man who had better motive for all the trouble he caused.” As I visited Hue I thought of Tet, and the victories that broke the American will to continue, those pyrrhic victories and the carnage on both ends of that offensive and its aftermath.
This marked the end of our “better motives” era. Is it so possible that the lessons of “ the best and the brightest,” a term now used as a positive, when even a cursory knowledge of David Halberstam’s book reveals it as a pejorative, a case of the allegedly “smartest” being unable to see the simple, obvious facts. The arrogance and incompetence of the Iraq War is a chilling reminder of the old bromide about those who forget history: Bush et al were sadly ignorant of anything to forget.
On to Hanoi, and a stark contrast with the Saigon of the South. It is a gray, colorless city, full of people, four-story narrow homes, and impassable, bumpy roads. Our guide was quite happy to point out the lake, smack in the center of the city, from which John McCain (“…you know,” he offered, “your Republican candidate for President…”) was fished out. We continued to the Hanoi Hilton, where McCain and the other downed pilots, including the first, a man from Santa Clara University named Everett Alvarez, were tortured and imprisoned.
In a bow to the future and something we have seen in so many American cities, only the front of he prison remains, the major portion was redeveloped and a tall building sits there now while only the facade remains, Go figure—it’s progress, I guess.
In the center of the city is the tomb of the revered Ho Chi Minh. His nearby office and sleeping quarters, toured by many, were quite Spartan even for a man who lived in bohemian, squalid Paris and traveled the seven seas as a cook. This spot was where he ended his life in 1969, a heady end to a mercurial and often impossibly incongruous life. American misjudgment of him was critical in the tragedies of the sixties and seventies.
Here in Hanoi, all seemed regimented; all in its place. The contrasts were stark and the area unforgettable. Although it was a short visit, I was not sorry to leave.