Vietnam War: “It was their country. They deserve respect.”  

Nguyen Van Kiet in a recent photograph. Photo: RFA  

By Dan Southerland          2006.03.24

Lubbock , Texas —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 U.S. airman.

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 Texas Tech University . 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 U.S. 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.

April 10, 1972: Kiet participates in a search of an abandoned North Vietnamese Army (NVA) tank along Highway 9, near the Mieu Giang River . 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 South Vietnam .

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 Quang Tri Province 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 Center in Lubbock 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.

Nguyen Van Kiet as a young Navy SEAL in the South Vietnamese Navy. Photo: RFA

Hollywood , 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 Vietnam , including support for the 1972 rescue effort. He led one of the panels at the Lubbock conference.

Increased respect 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 Vietnam 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 “Lessons Learned.”

One lesson that should have been learned: When talking about Vietnam – even when it concerns the presidency – it’s useful to talk with and listen to the Vietnamese themselves. It was their country. They deserve respect.

Dan Southerland, Vice President and Executive Editor of Radio Free Asia, covered the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the 1960s and 70s. He left Saigon 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.