Vietnam War: “It
was their country. They deserve respect.”
Van Kiet in a recent photograph. Photo: RFA
By Dan Southerland
—When Hollywood made a movie about the dramatic rescue of a downed American
pilot during the Vietnam War, it left one man out: the South Vietnamese navy
officer who was a key member of the rescue team.
In April 1972, during the largest
search and rescue operation of the war, Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet spent 11
days behind enemy lines helping to locate and extract the
Kiet’s story was highlighted among
many others honoring the South Vietnamese military during a recent two-day
conference organized by The Vietnam Center at
. The center’s main goal is to collect archives representing all aspects of
the war, including the work of those who supported the war as well as those
who opposed it.
Why was the heroism of Petty Officer
Kiet and so many others ignored by the
media and numerous historians during and after the war?
It was easier to
cover American actions
First of all, it was easier to cover
American actions and American views on the war than to report on the
Vietnamese. Due partly to the language barrier, the South Vietnamese were
never good at explaining themselves. The Communists were better propagandists.
Few American reporters tried to learn Vietnamese and few covered the
Vietnamese armed forces with any consistency.
10, 1972: Kiet participates in a search of an abandoned North Vietnamese Army
(NVA) tank along Highway 9, near the
. Photo: RFA
I studied the Vietnamese language on
and off during the war and had the good fortune to be assigned to cover “the
Vietnamese side of the war” by both UPI and The Christian Science Monitor. I
traveled to every province in
I reported on Vietnamese successes -
and failures. I reported on crucial battles in 1972, when the South Vietnamese
withstood encirclement and tank attacks at Kontum and An Loc. I was in
when South Vietnamese marines fought inch by inch to recover a provincial
capital which had been pulverized by North Vietnamese artillery and tanks.
But I now wish that I had done much
more and dug much deeper.
In recent years we have finally begun
to gain a better perspective on the South Vietnamese Army, or the Army of the
Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
On March 17 and 18, The Vietnam
brought together a number of historians, political scientists, writers, and
former South Vietnamese officers to reexamine the role of the South Vietnamese
military. Drawing on their own research, many Americans at the meeting
concluded that the South Vietnamese had performed much better in the war than
most accounts acknowledge.
Van Kiet as a young Navy SEAL in the South Vietnamese Navy. Photo: RFA
, of course, will probably never get it right.
“When Hollywood produces a movie,
they are under no obligation to tell the truth,” said Darrel D. Whitcomb, an
author and former Air Force officer who flew rescue missions in
, including support for the 1972 rescue effort. He led one of the panels at
for them is more than deserved
But historians have an obligation to
tell the truth. And three decades after the end of the war, they are producing
work that challenges the conventional wisdom on
and restores credit to the South Vietnamese.
Take for example, Lewis Sorley’s
fine book, A Better War, published in 1999, that documents improvements in the
ARVN over the years. The South Vietnamese paid a price for fighting hard. They
lost more than 230,000 men during this terrible war. Increased respect for
them is more than deserved.
A conference on “Vietnam and the
Presidency,” the first of its kind, held March 10 and 11 in Boston, featured
prominent American figures from the Vietnam War: Henry Kissinger, Alexander
Haig, and Jimmy Carter among others. Unfortunately, no Vietnamese were invited
to speak. I understand that some leading Vietnamese-Americans tried to get
invitations but were turned down.
One topic at the meeting was
One lesson that should have been
learned: When talking about
– even when it concerns the presidency – it’s useful to talk with and
listen to the Vietnamese themselves. It was their country. They deserve
Dan Southerland, Vice President
and Executive Editor of Radio Free Asia, covered the wars in Vietnam,
in the 1960s and 70s. He left
at the end of April 1975 on one of the last helicopters out of the South
Vietnamese capital as North Vietnamese tanks entered the city.