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Killers at the orphanage gates. They’ve all come with their blades, their grins and their candy. Everyone in town recognizes their arm sleeve insignia, their flags and their loud, easy talk. To cut off the heads of one’s enemies while sparing the heads of their offspring must be a horrific enterprise. Even if one of these killers were to sever and then burn down his enemy’s bloodline, another line could be traced back to a rubber tree in a plantation on the western edge of town that survived the onslaught.

These mercenaries photograph themselves performing puppet shows or giving the tikes rides in their Jeeps. All the while, their humanity and magnanimity clash with their mission to engage in the sordid business of murdering these kids’ parents. Their wide fleshy smiles seemingly cradle the enemy’s children as if they were their own; as if they had fathered these children themselves.

Life is crowded in by death. It is a bizarre, fatalistic, ritual these Grim Reapers engage in when they hand out food and supplies to the sons and daughters of liberation. They mingle among the living, finicky about whom they take an interest in, searching for the cutest in the bunch. These shadows of death cross in front of the bright, shining orbs of young life lying expectant in their cribs, creating a voiceless void that sucks in both the infants and the soldiers, minute by minute and molecule by molecule.


For the past couple months, as you’ve probably noticed, I posted a series of excerpts from books on the Vietnam War that had an unstated, but clear, purpose (Notes from a Disintegrating Nation and It Was Never About Freedom). I’m more than happy to admit that I can come off as polemic and bit too scholarly for many people’s tastes. But, something must be said for a person who refuses to buy all the bullshit information that society chooses for you to eat your whole life.

No one enjoys being lied to, especially about one’s beginnings in this world. Growing up, it was generally expected that I accept the white baby scrapbook, the photos of little old me arriving at the airport in 1974 and my parents’ awkward silence on the country in which I was born and the unintended consequences of a war from which they tried to shield me. The looking glass into my past was wrapped in plastic and secured deep in reinforced concrete because I was never meant to step out of the amusement theme park that my life had become. For all the relative affluence my parents and this country handed down to me, I was expected to trade in my conscience and critical thought processes that had been hard-wired into me at birth.

The Vietnam War was recorded extensively, both officially and unofficially, and it has been imagined and re-imagined over and over to “teach” us lessons about life and death. In the American mass media marketplace, the war is usually recounted from one vantage point and with one singular goal in mind: To make the United States and Americans look good.

Ever since I can remember, the people of the United States and South Vietnam have been cast as the victims in the war and the twin beacons of freedom who fought for a noble cause. This kind of rhetoric is still used on us older Vietnamese adoptees to help explain how we were exiled from Vietnam and resettled in foreign countries. No one wants to acknowledge, however, the unpleasant paradox inherent in how we ended up in the very same country whose government and citizenry readily accepted waging a war against the very people who conceived us.

As a result of this rhetoric, compliant gratitude was slowly being fostered in me, leaving me temporarily with no defense against emotional manipulation and open to the planting of disinformation. However, no matter how unpleasant the topic of war was, I chose not to escape the devastation caused by other people’s decisions and actions. I wanted to rush back in time and witness for myself the events that likely contributed to my own adoption from Vietnam. Someone had to answer for the reason for my being here, I thought.

The more historical memory is contested with inconvenient facts and the more political propaganda is debunked and then dissolved through critical analysis, the more life seems to have purpose. And, if I can pique even just one person’s curiosity and get him to take a second look at conventional wisdom, then I feel I’ve served my purpose.

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]



In France in the spring and summer of 1946, in negotiations over the future of Cochin-China, the southern region including Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, I learned with some astonishment, was accorded the honors of a head of state and negotiated with the French on that basis. Jean Sainteny, former chief representative of France in Vietnam, had signed an agreement in March that the decision on whether to include the South in that independent state would be settled by a popular referendum. But the French government had no intention of carrying out that agreement. Its failure to do so, and its clear intention to return Tonkin as well to quasi-colonial status by force, led to the outbreak of hostilities on both sides at the end of 1946. …

… Ho and his colleagues had every reason to feel betrayed in the fifties by France, the United States, and the international community – perhaps above all by their Communist allies, the Soviets and Chinese – because of their failure to enforce the exactly comparable agreement in the Geneva Accords in 1954. These had explicitly denied that the demilitarized zone (DMZ) was an international border separating two independent states. They had called for an internationally supervised election in 1956 to determine the government of a unified Vietnam. … Both internally and to the public Secretary of State Rusk and his subordinates proclaimed over and over that “all we may ask is that North Vietnam leave its neighbors alone” and that it observe the provisions of the 1954 accords. The implicit and often explicit premise was that the accords had created two separate, independent sovereign states, the two “neighbors,” North and South Vietnam. That was … a brazen reversal of the letter and spirit of the accords as written. Equally brazen…was the frequently repeated demand by the United States throughout the sixties for a “return to observance of the 1954 Accords” when the United States had never intended, did not support, and would never permit observance of the central political provision of the accords, which called for nationwide elections for a unified regime.

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]


[Ton That Thien]


…on U.S. stakes in the coming elections in Vietnam and why our policy should change from Vietnam and why our policy should change from exclusive backing for military candidates, Ky or Nguyen Van Thieu, to encouraging, or simply permitting, their replacement by respected civilian leaders. As an outstanding Vietnamese journalist, Ton That Thien, had put it to me the leadership that the country needed had to have respect, and “for a government to be respected, it must be respectable.” Air Force General Ky, currently serving as premier (by support of the other generals and the Americans), could hardly be further from meeting that criterion. Vietnamese saw him as immature, lacking in strong nationalistic instincts, a playboy, promiscuous, narrowly educated, undignified, impulsive, only sporadically “serious.” And flamboyant (commonly visiting the countryside in a black nylon flying suit with a lavender scarf and a pearl-handled revolver, on which was engraved the name of his mistress). This in a Confucian culture giving highest values to age, dignity, maturity, education, and virtuous example. As Thien said, for America to favor or support a Ky – at the time I wrote this, the only choice of the mission for the presidency – as symbolic chief of state was seen by him and by a wide range of Vietnamese as an insult, a gesture of contempt.

But personality and appearance were the least of it. Ky was a northerner, a military man, a former French officer lacking any record of patriotic opposition to the French, widely believed to owe his position to American support.

As for General Thieu, Ky’s chief military rival for the candidacy, his liabilities were only marginally less than Ky’s. He wasn’t a northerner, but he was still from Central Vietnam, not the South, and he added to his list of liabilities by being a Catholic. He was more dignified, I acknowledged, more mature, more experienced and prudent than Ky, yet for other reasons these qualities didn’t assure him more public confidence. “Where Ky fails to gain the instinctive trust and respect of the Vietnamese because he is so ‘different’ in Vietnamese cultural terms, Thieu fails their trust because he is simply regarded as untrustworthy”: conspiratorial, sly, “too clever,” an impression strengthened by his role in the coups that had displaced a number of his predecessors. “Above all, as he himself admits, Thieu shares with Ky the political burden of being a military man; as he is reported to have remarked some weeks ago, “The Vietnamese people are weary of military rule.” I quoted a young Constituent Assembly member: “Give us anything. Young, old, I don’t care, Central, Southern, Northern: just as long as he’s not military.”

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]


[Gen. Ngo Dzu]


One night in mid-January 1967 Colonel Chau had me over to dinner at his house to meet his new boss at the Joint General Staff, General Ngo Dzu. … Dzu said that poor morale throughout the ARVN stemmed from lack of confidence in and respect for top GVN leadership. Each level – from squad leader to division commander and above – saw that its superior officers were engaging in corrupt practices or political maneuverings and took this for license to do the same. Until there was reform at the top, the troops would continue to alienate the population by their practices of theft and maltreatment. These malpractices by both troops and officers, he said, reflected directly their feelings that “the long war, of which they have grown very tired, cannot be won by the type of national government and leadership now in place.” … Corruption, he went on, reflected this mood of despair. “When you see, from the nature of our leadership, that there is no hope of any progress, nothing you can achieve in your province or division, militarily or politically … you turn to doing what you can do, which is to take care of your family.”

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]


[Nguyen Cao Ky]


In the spring of 1966 there was another major Buddhist uprising in I Corps, the northernmost provinces of South Vietnam, including the cities of Hue and Da Nang. …

In the excitement of his strong U.S. backers, Ky decided to dispense with his greatest rival, General Nguyen Chanh Thi, perhaps the best military commander in ARVN. Though both Ky and Thi were Buddhists, Thi, who was in charge of I Corps near Da Nang, had closer relations to the Buddhists to the north. When Ky fired him, Thi refused to go and rallied the Buddhists to his support. They defied the administration in Saigon and joined forces with Thi, pressing for the replacement of the Ky regime by national elections.

At this point Lodge and MACV arrange to transport Vietnamese marines to Da Nang, along with tanks and air support, to put down the uprising. By this time monks, joined by women and children, had erected Buddhist altars in the streets and sat by them. The tanks of the ARVN First Division based in I Corps came up to the altars and stopped. They would not go through them. It appeared that ARVN tank crews were poised to join the Buddhist revolt. But on April 7, the day I was briefing the Mission Council, tanks transported by the United States from a different region rolled right through the altars. All the demonstrators, including the Buddhist monks, were arrested. Many Buddhists now went into the jungle to join the Vietcong, while others were arrested and tortured.

[Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi]

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]



Chau was a brave soldier as well as an intellectual. He had been decorated by both the Vietminh and Diem for bravery in combat. He was clearly committed to seeing the GVN improve in areas that unmistakably needed improvement, and despite his obvious respect for the courage, discipline, and patriotism of the Communists, he still believed that it was necessary to fight against them and if possible to prevent their dominating Vietnam. …

As I had already learned, one of the things that prevented much progress in the war was the extremely poor quality of leadership in the South Vietnamese army. Most of the officers had either bought their positions or acquired them through nepotism. The problem wasn’t the lack of good officer material but the refusal to promote the good leaders who actually did exist. The officers had to have rich and educated backgrounds; they were part of the landowning class, meaning that they had little empathy or experience with their own troops. The French had favored Catholics, a tradition that Diem and his successors had continued. Chau was one of only two officers of his rank or higher in the army who had had serious experience in the Vietminh. That background, as well as his Buddhism, made it extremely unlikely that he would rise to the rank of general, despite his extreme ability.

John Vann and Doug Ramsey believed that the major “problem” in the countryside was that “the present leaders, bureaucrats, and province and district officials do not come from, think like, know much about, or respond to the wishes of the rural population.” In all these respects, they contrasted sharply with NLF officials.

[Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]


[Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, 1963-1964]


Lodge…responded to this opening with a good deal of reserve, launching into a long commentary that put him on distinctly different ground from Thang, Porter, and Landsdale. He began “When you talk about honest elections, you can mean two things: (1) lack of intimidation – this we must have; (2) the fear in some quarters – not, I think, in the highest quarters [i.e., LBJ] – that we won’t be nice enough to the people who would like to tear the whole thing down.” This last referred to concerns expressed in a cable in that morning from State about the prospect that Buddhists, who had been the major force demanding the elections and were suspected of wanting peace even if it meant negotiations with the NLF, would be excluded from the candidate lists.

[The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War, The Complete and Unabridged Series as Published by The New York Times, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]



Their report evaluating the results of the Rolling Thunder campaign began:

“As of July, 1966, the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam had had no measurable direct effect on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations in the South at the current level.”

They then pointed out the reasons that they felt North Vietnam could not be hurt by bombing: It was primarily a substinence agricultural country with little industry and a primitive but flexible transport system, and most of its weapons and supplies came from abroad.

These factors, the scientists said, made it “quite unlikely” that an expanded bombing campaign would “prevent Hanoi from infiltrating men into the South at the present or a higher rate.”

In conclusion, the Pentagon study says, the scientists addressed the assumption behind the bombing program – that damage inflicted on a country reduces its will to continue fighting. The scientists criticized this assumption, the study says, by denying that it is possible to measure the relationship.

“It must be concluded,” the scientists said, “that there is currently no adequate basis for predicting the levels of U.S. military effort that would be required to achieve the stated objectives – indeed, there is no firm basis for determining if there is any feasible level of effort that would achieve these objectives.”

[The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War, The Complete and Unabridged Series as Published by The New York Times, taught me that sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. In this case, all I had to do was open a book, and some of the truth spilled out. Bolded text is my emphasis.]


[Gen. Nguyen Khanh]


Gen. Nguyen Khanh, the nominal commander of the South Vietnamese armed forces, had ousted the civilian cabinet of Premier Tran Van Huong on Jan. 27. Led by Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, a group of young generals – the so-called Young Turks – were in turn intriguing against General Khanh.

(A footnote in the account of the first reprisal strikes, on Feb. 8, says that Marshal Ky, who led the South Vietnamese plans participating in the raid, caused “consternation” among American target controllers by dropping his bombs on the wrong targets. “In a last minute switch,” the footnote says, Marshal Ky “dumped his flight’s bomb loads on an unassigned target in the Vinhlinh area, in order, as he later explained, to avoid colliding with U.S.A.F. aircraft which, he claimed, were striking his originally assigned target when his flight arrived over the target area. Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp, commander of United States forces in the Pacific, reported the incident to the Joint Chiefs.)

Referring to the political situation in Saigon, the account says: “This Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere notwithstanding, Taylor was undaunted.”

“It will be interesting to observe the effect of our proposal on the internal political situation here,” the Ambassador cabled back to Mr. Johnson in Washington about the bombing. “I will use the occasion to emphasize that a dramatic change is occurring in U.S. policy, one highly favorable to GVN interests but demanding a parallel dramatic change of attitude on the part of the GVN. Now is the time to install the best possible Government as we are currently approaching a climax in the next few months.


A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

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