A United States citizen in Ho Chi Minh City cannot escape the Vietnam War, or the “American War” as it is known locally. Saigon was the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam, the city where hordes of US special agents and advisors and GI’s invariably journeyed through during the war years.
Painful ghosts from past abound and confronting these fraught-filled years is unavoidable in Saigon. There are two Vietnam War must-see’s in the city itself: the Presidential Palace (now known as Reunification or Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum, a propagandist and somber North Vietnamese account of the war.
Formerly the Presidential Palace for the Republic of South Vietnam, it is an exceptional example of 1960’s architecture and design. Built in 1966, it has not changed since the mid-1970’s when the South Vietnam fell to the communists.
With fascinating administrative offices, social halls, policy rooms, and breezy hallways, the Palace presents a glimpse into life before reunification. It is set on expansive grounds with marvelous gardens. The halcyon setting is antithetical to the tumult and violence of the war years.
Against this tranquil backdrop are interspersed salient reminders of the war and North Vietnam’s victory. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to communist National Liberation Army forces. Viet Cong tanks stormed the Presidential Palace, crashing the metal gates surrounding the building. Today some of these tanks remain on the front lawn, their guns pointing menacingly to the Palace.
There is a replica of a US Air Force helicopter on the Palace roof, which recalls the airlift of South Vietnamese presidential staff on this fateful day. These iconic images were on the front pages of newspapers worldwide, signaling the end of hostilities.
In the basement, we passed through bunkers and command rooms with maps unchanged from the early 1970’s. This is where the war felt real, it was easy to picture South Vietnamese policy directors and bureaucrats, war commanders and foreign agents scurrying back and forth as the battles edged closer to Saigon.
In an ironic twist for a building considered a “national treasure”, I noted the following on the back of the entrance ticket:
Some of the rooms in the Palace are available for hire for meetings and banquets. The palace also has facilities for celebrations such as weddings and birthday parties. To contact us, please call: 0808 5038
Ignore the tanks and helicopters, forget that bothersome imperialist Yankee war. Yes, it seems everything is indeed for sale in communist Vietnam.
War Remnants Museum
The tragic War Remnants museum is somewhat propagandist and of course that would be the expected perspective of a single-party communist regime. But facts alone speak for themselves: 3 million Vietnamese dead, 60 thousand lost US soldiers. $600 billion taxpayer USD wasted. The American people lied to. The agent orange genetic deformities continue to this day in thousands of Vietnamese (and American combat soldiers and their children). A very long and dark shadow hangs over both our countries.
The War Remnants Museum’s purpose is to ensure the indisputable atrocities committed by US forces (and the South Vietnamese) endure. What they don’t mention is the similar barbarity by the Viet Cong and the pro-Hanoi involvement of China and the Soviet Union, and the appalling post-war repression in the South. This was not a simple war of America against the Vietnamese people (with South Vietnam as a puppet state) as the museum would like to portray.
The museum exhibits the compelling worldwide support against the war and unified opposition to the American forces. Honestly this provocative account does show how widespread popular aversion to the war existed at the time. It painstakingly details isolated grave offenses, predictably the horrific and shameful My Lai massacre.
It also comprehensively documents manifest wrongdoing, particularly the impact of chemical defoliants on the Vietnamese people, most notoriously Agent Orange which contained highly-toxic dioxins. The photographs showing the birth defects and psychological trauma evident to this day were, frankly, heart wrenching.
I found two quotes by American officials striking. In 1953 Eisenhower said of Vietnam:
Suppose we lost Indochina. If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attach such a high price, would cease coming…
I am a relatively young person, only 42 years old. Yet I have seen my country engage in violent conflict for overt economic reasons more than once. I am so sick of these “oil” wars, the second Iraq war is a classic case of a tin and tungsten war.
The second extraordinary quote, the last in the museum, was from Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson until 1968, from his “In Retrospect” memoir published in 1995:
Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.
I was never taught about the Vietnam war. My high school ran out of time, this momentous chapter simply skipped. And just a month ago, in a memoir-writing exercise with my mother, I learned new details about how horribly this war affected my my family and our lives.
Americans don’t pay attention to the details of world events, we don’t learn the history of our conflicts, for better or for worse. We don’t question and challenge our leaders as the drum beats intensify. We don’t hold them (and ourselves) accountable when the smoke clears and our children are buried. And the wars go on and on.
Tin and tungsten. Leaving the museum, I was actually sickened.