Saigon: the Second Look

Tom McEnery recently returned from a visit to Vietnam. This is the second in a three-part series.

Beyond the Continental Hotel and the Cathedral of Notre Dame—we just missed a wedding there—is a place I was both anxious and nervous to see. It was once called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. But in slight bow to political expediency,  it has a new name: The War Remnants Museum.

In this bit of a concession to the regime’s new attempt to join the world community and economy, there are other things that make a point clearly. All is not forgotten, and there are few other concessions.

The outside yard is filled with old US tanks, planes and artillery, abandoned in the pell-mell flight from Saigon at the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. A triple amputee met us at the entrance and asked for alms—he extended his stump to me to shake hands: I did.

There are many unpleasant and bothersome sights in that building. Inside are versions of the tiger cages of the French colonial period, and images of the South Vietnamese regime of a similar bent. Many of the photos were disturbing beyond description. They contained images we all saw for most of a decade on our own televisions. Many of the articles on display were reprints from American publications, critical of American policy and strategy.

Perhaps the most shocking display to me was the “war crimes” section, and the juxtaposition of Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy with a man I know well, Bob Kerrey, the former Senator and Medal of Honor winner. It chronicled some of his “war crimes” in Vietnam that were discussed in the press extensively, but fuzzily, a few years ago.

How unfair and tragic a statement about a confusing and painful war to have Calley and Kerrey considered in the same display; how indicative of that confusing war.  I was reminded of the Oliver Stone movie, Platoon, and the battle for the soul of the young recruit by the good and evil forces, Sergeants Barnes and Elias.

We had many more of the Elias type than Barnes/Calley. Kerrey was certainly in the Elias camp ( played by Willem Dafoe), fighting for a good resolution of a hopeless situation. He is an honorable and decent man.  In a place where shocks abound, I think of this one still.

Yet perhaps more than anything, I think of the horror brought to that country and ours, and to the later pogroms that drove so many across the South China Sea to San Jose and other spots of refuge.

These new immigrants have enriched our city and nation out of a profound tragedy where they were the victims: twice. So, out of much horror came a new beginning. That’s something, I guess.

I found another more recent comment in the front of my mind: “We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

If only Robert McNamara had said that in 1968 instead of 35 years later.

Next: A Look at the North


  1. #1 Things did not improve there.  Life for the decent and hard working Vietnamese people changed for the worse, not better.  The country did not progress after the war.  The corrupted Government of modern day Vietnam took the country many years back and they are no where near where it was once before.

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