Setting the Record Straight on South Vietnam

Words From the Wise -- a regular column from NAM's Ethnic Elders News Beat

New America Media, Commentary, Lam Quang Thi, as told to Andrew Lam Posted: Feb 11, 2009

Editor's Note: Born in the Mekong Delta in 1932 to a wealthy land-owning family, Thi Quang Lam spent 25 years in the army and rose to the rank of lieutenant general by the time the Vietnam war ended. In Vietnam, he obtained a French baccalaureate in French philosophy and later, in the United States, an MBA. During his military service, he was awarded the Vietnamese National Order, The U.S. Legion of Merit and the Korean Order of Chung Mu. He currently lives in Fremont, Calif. He talked to his son, Andrew Lam, an editor with New America Media.

For Victor Hugo, the famous poet and writer who was a great admirer of Napoleon, the 19th Century had only two years. Ce siecle avait deux ans! [This century had only 2 years] In those two years, peace was established in Europe and France reigned supreme.

dadIf I could borrow from the great French poet, I would say that for a great number of young men of my generation, the 20th Century had only 25 years. Why? From 1950 to 1975, which covered my entire military career, I participated in the birth of the Vietnamese National Army. I grew up and participated with this army that achieved some of the greatest feats in contemporary history, during the Viet Cong Tet offensive in 1968 and during North Vietnam's multi-division Great Offensive in 1972. My career and the careers of my comrades-in-arms abruptly ended in 1975 with the army's tragic demise.

In 1966, when I was 33, I was one of the youngest in the army to become a general. At 39, I became a lieutenant general and was promoted to commander of an Army Corps Task Force along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I was 43 years old when the war ended.

I left Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975 and joined my family who fled a few days before me in America, got an MBA a few years later, and became a trust officer for Bank of America and raised my family in the suburb north of San Jose. Later on I retired and taught at local high schools in the San Jose area. I taught French, English, Math and PE. I also hold a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do. I still practice at 76, almost everyday, and I go regularly to the gym and play tennis on the weekend and in summer time swim.

After retirement, I was reluctant to write a book about myself. I agree with the French proverb that "le moi est haïssable," [The me is detestable]. But I changed my mind.

The literature in the U.S. regarding the Vietnam War is one-sided. Books written by American soldiers, journalists, historians, and public officials only view the war from the American perspectives while the perspectives the South Vietnamese army, their former ally, was often ignored or worse, portrayed as cowardly and weak, despite the fact that more than a 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died during the course of the war as compared to 58,000 American soldiers -- our toll and suffering was far greater than what Americans cared to imagine or know.

Many American journalists were antiwar. The war was presented from the most unfavorable angles with the media sensationalizing the news and distorting the truth if necessary to achieve its antiwar objectives. It is no secret that, for one reason or another, the U.S. media was biased – if not outright hostile - to the Vietnam War. They carry that attitude toward looking at the history of the Vietnam War as well.

Even the Vietnamese communists had written quite a few books, which were eagerly translated into English by many American professors, to brag about their military and political achievements after the war. North Vietnam's Gen. Van Tien Dung's "Great Spring Victory," for instance, is widely circulated. Truong Nhu Tang, a former cabinet minister in the Viet Cong provisional revolutionary government wrote "Memoir of a Viet Cong," to tell the story of his life and frustration with the heavy tactics of Hanoi. There's an American fascination with the only enemies who defeated them. Even former defense secretary Robert McNamara went to Vietnam years later to talk and interviewed his counterparts. The South Vietnamese who fought alongside the U.S. army, McNamara never bothered to talk to, and many live near him in the U.S.

Only a handful of books had been written in English by journalists, public officials and soldiers from the former Republic of Vietnam, despite the fact that the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam is here in the U.S.

Lam Q ThiI believe that it was time to set the record straight. That was when I wrote my memoir, "The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War," published in 2000. It was my take on what happened and how Saigon fell.

Now, seven years later, I'm finished with another. It's called, "Hell in An Loc." It's a less-known battle in 1972 when the communist army attacked from the east, from Cambodia, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. An Loc, a small town, was defended by 6,900 South Vietnamese soldiers who fought against 30,000 North Vietnamese and 100 tanks. Against heavy odds they withstood 94 days of horror and prevailed at a tremendous cost.

My memoir I dedicated to my grandchildren, Amy, Eric, and Brandon, all born here in the U.S., innocent and with no memories of Vietnam. I wish to leave something lasting and a record of what happened so when they're old enough, I hope they will read and learn something of their heritage.

General Lam signing book with his daughter and son and granddaughter, 2003

The book on An Loc is primarily to tell the South Vietnamese side of what happened and, more importantly, to render justice to their history. These "unsung heroes" have inspired me throughout writing this book and were a source of constant encouragement for me to carry out this at times very difficult undertaking.

I bear the loss of my homeland. So many of my comrades-in-arms died, some committed suicide and many were sent to concentration camps. I feel both anger and sadness. Anger because we were a democracy abandoned by our allies -- the U.S. – at the darkest hour of our history. But I tell myself that the Indochina and the Vietnam War bought time for the Free World to regroup, marshal its energy and to finally win the Cold War.

If this were not true, then let my work be testimonies to the extent of the devastation and human tragedy caused by unnecessary wars and that my friends and comrades in arms died for nothing.

I get philosophical in old age. I understand that tragedy can strike the best and brightest, and human sufferings have their intrinsic grandeur. I don't expect history to be kind.

I am in exile. America is destination but it'll never be fully home. But I do my best to contribute to the canon of Vietnam War literature, and balance the perspectives of that three-sided war, one in which the South Vietnamese point of view is woefully underrepresented.

Besides I am optimistic. Since the Marxist system is all but collapsed, I still nourish the dream that I will live long enough to have the opportunity to come back to a free and democratic Vietnam.

Andrew Lam is a NAM editor and author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (Heyday Books, 2005).

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User Comments

Gary Harlan on Feb 15, 2009 at 13:07:57 said:

I would like to say that I deeply appreciate reading this exchange between Thai Nguyen-Khoa and Mike Goldberg. That is, I'm glad to know there are people who care about what took place during the Vietnam War. I fully agree that Americans generally have little or no appreciation for the suffering of the people in the South Vietnam, particularly after our departure. Nevertheless, regarding the antiwar movement, I am firmly with Mike Goldberg on that. I was active in the antiwar movement for three years--following my Marine Corps enlistment, during which I served two tours of duty as an infantryman. As paradoxical as it may seem, I am proud of both my service in Vietnam and my opposition to the war following my discharge. You seem like a thoughtful man, Mr. Thai. Do you really want to argue that Americans had no right to protest against our involvement in Vietnam?

Quang P on Feb 14, 2009 at 11:02:21 said:

General Lam Quang Thi’s long overdue second book will provide crucial missing perspectives from America’s longest allies on the battlefield, those from South Vietnam. Perhaps more importantly, his work documents the South Vietnamese military’s valient efforts in the largest battle of the Vietnam War which have been omitted by the American media, military, and in the movies. Current U.S. advisors and the nascent Iraqi Army leaders will learn much from his book about fighting a war together.

mike goldberg on Feb 14, 2009 at 07:26:34 said:

Hello Thai Nguyen Khoa: I will try to keep the temperature down too. No question I'm an outsider when it comes to Vietnam, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong.
I will defer to you on whether the S.V. gov't ever officially asked for US troops, but that seems like a formality to me. They needed and wanted them, didn't they? Regarding communism, while I share your hatred for it, I also see the war the Vietnamese communists fought against the French as a war of national liberation from colonialism, similar to our Revolutionary War against British rule. If they were the ones who fought the imperialists, they deserve credit for it.
If we are going to talk about who f----- up Vietnam, I would start with French colonialism and events in the aftermath of WWII when the French insisted on restoring their colonial rule and the US supported them. Perhaps wiser action by the French, Americans, and anti-communist Vietnamese nationalists could have avoided civil war and the return of illegitimate colonial rule. Ho Chi Minh is said to have been more flexible than other Communist leaders, Vietnamese independence may have been more important than Communist dictatorship to him. 1945-6 may have been a big opportunity missed.
I can understand why you wouldn't want to be ruled by Communists but maybe there was rough justice in it after all those years that the majority of Vietnamese didn't want to be ruled by the French and a Westernized elite either. Our President Eisenhower admitted that if an election had been held in 1956 as planned, the Communists and unification of the country under their rule would have won 80-90% of the vote.
Regarding your other bete noire, the US antiwar movement, I can understand why you would feel you were abandoned by the US. But it looks very different from my perspective. Lyndon Johnson won in 1964 as the antiwar candidate compared to his opponent, so he had no mandate for what he was about to do. And the Tonkin Gulf incident of early 1965 was 90% made up. You're suggesting that Americans had no choice but to stick with this commitment that was illegitimately made in their name thru Johnson's lies, no matter what the cost to Americans, and no matter how corrupt and unrepresentative the gov't in S.V. was. Even after opposing the war, I remember hoping for years that S.V. would move towards democracy before giving up on that hope. What I didn't know at the time and only learned later, is that many of the sons of S.V.'s elite spent the war in gay Paris, having a very fine old time. It was very very wrong and immoral, for America to conscript it's own sons to die to support the lifestyle of South Vietnam's elite.
I'd say the greedy, missionizing French imperialists started this tragedy and it unfolded from there, with leaders on all sides (including the small violent wing of the antiwar movement) being more concerned with their own glory and power than with the lives of ordinary people, who, as usual, were the victims of the powerful.

Thai Nguyen-Khoa on Feb 13, 2009 at 12:59:06 said:

Hi Mike Goldberg,

Although we are both Americans, you surely are an outsider when it comes to VN.

My family, the Nguyen-Khoa lineage, has a strong devout Buddhist tradition in Vietnam. In fact, the linealogy of our family parallels the history of Buddhism in VN. For over 500 years where our clan can trace its roots, Buddhism has always been our strong suit. But that doesn’t mean that as a majority religion, Buddhism doesn’t have a few bad worms that knowingly or unknowingly become the tools of the enemy, the communists. Time Magazine, although not definitive, at least has an issue on Thich Tri Quang and the period in question. Check it out.

As far as American intervention in Vietnam, I stand firm, the government of South Vietnam had never officially asked for American military involvement. Check this out.

Inasmuch as I may have problem with the Tri Quang Buddhist movement, I have more issues with the antiwar movement here in America.

Let’s say your government lied, but it represented America, and your Congress voted almost unanimously to go to war (Gulf of Tonkin Resolution ‘64). America widened and escalated the war in VN, all the while your democratic system allows you to shout and tear it down, in the process the antiwar crowd played a big part in f..king up VN and left the Vietnamese to clean up the mess. Thirty-four years later, our people are still paying a heavy price for that fallout.

I’ve become a U.S. citizen in 1981, now I can speak as an American. As the leader of the world, the U.S. must debate carefully our role in this turbulent world, we must not take the invasion or our military involvement in other countries lightly. Most of all, the U.S. has no legal or moral right to eff up a country, leaves it in shambles and wash it hands from the affair.

mike goldberg on Feb 12, 2009 at 11:15:03 said:

Thai Nguyen Khoa: sounds like you have unresolved issues with the Buddhist majority of South Vietnam. You claim they dominated the government in South Vietnam? That's not what was reported here, I can sure tell you that.
You say that South Vietnam never asked for US military involvement. I think that would be amazing news to Americans.
I didn't even discuss how corrupt the South Vietnamese government was.
I'm not passing judgement on the South Vietnam people, but their government failed them and us, as our own government did in those terrible times.
America would still be in Vietnam if it wasn't for the people who opposed the war, I'm slightly proud of the little I did to help stop it.
I very much wish to see democracy come to Vietnam.
My conflict regarding Vietnam isn't with our democratic system, it's with leaders who lied to us. They were the ones who trashed our democratic system, which depends on our leaders telling us the truth about critical issues like war and peace.

Thai Nguyen-Khoa on Feb 11, 2009 at 21:36:37 said:

Hell fire,
Who the Hell does this American think he is to pass judgment on a Republic they know little about?

Surely, South VN was far from being a full-fledged democracy but the South did represent the best hope for self-determination and the last bastion of freedom - as we knew it - for Southeast Asia until the CIA supported the dirty coup that killed Diem and put an end to his regime in 1963, opening an era of America military intervention.

From 1963 to the early 70's, who but the very Buddhist movement led by Thich Tri Quang and dominated Southern politics. They are the catalysts who provided fodder for the Communist insurgency to tear at the South social fabric and win.

The South had never asked for American military involvement, but it was people like Mike Goldberg -- who possesses unresolved issues and conflict with his democratic system -- that is responsible for America's greatest failures, and in the process effed up Viet-Nam.

We did not ask for America to shed its citizens' blood in VN, but neither did we ask for its unruly citizens to f... up VN either. Now nearly a half a century later after the U.S. cut and run, VN is still fighting a war of democracy and human rights in VN while the ignorant and ugly American is still debating its own country immoral involvement.

mike goldberg on Feb 11, 2009 at 10:02:28 said:

South Vietnam wasn't a democracy, it was an anti-communist dictatorship. The Buddhist majority was marginalized and the Catholics who dominated under French colonial rule continued to dominate. A South Vietnamese government that represented the people of South Vietnam might have deserved American aid, but still not the blood of draftees. The author is probably right that Americans don't know or care much about the sufferings of the South Vietnam military, they're focused on how their government lied to them, whipped up war fever, and caused so much suffering to Americans. Any thoughts they have of Vietnamese suffering are probably focused on civilians, like the victims of the My Lai massacre. Ordinary South Vietnamese soldiers were in a similar situation to American soldiers in Vietnam, of being betrayed by their top leaders.




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