When I was bored by the Saigon traffic (we’ll you can have too much of a good thing) I took a trip to what used to be known as the War Crimes Museum but, since relations have thawed in recent years between Saigon and Washington, has now been subtly renamed. The museum is well worth a visit. It gives a graphic and often shocking picture of life, hardship, fear and often death, for ordinary people during what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American war”. Rather than try to describe these powerful images I am just going to show here some of the pictures that I took of exhibits and photographs at the museum. Some of these iconic images were taken by well-known war photographers such as Bob Ellison (who was killed in the conflict) and Robert Capa.
There is the picture of Kim Phuc, the girl who was badly burned by a misguided napalm strike on her village Trang Bang and was immortalised by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut running naked on the road away from her village with other very frightened children. It is said that this picture, when it splashed across newspapers around the world, did more to change public opinion and end the Vietnam war than any other single thing.
There is also the equally well-known, and equally shocking, picture of a South Vietnamese General executing a suspected Viet Cong in the middle of a Saigon street. There are some very sad images showing the aftermath of the American use of the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which contained dioxin one of the most powerful poisons known to mankind, and which produced terrible birth defects in Vietnamese children.
I was a teenager in the 1970’s and I remember vividly the regular nightly news reports on American military progress or setbacks in Vietnam. Anyone old enough will remember the increasing resistance by young Americans to the army draft (these were days of flower power and “peace and love not war”) and the gradual change in public opinion in the USA as throughout the world as people watched the world’s first “televised war”. Slowly, as the cost in dollars and young American lives mounted and seemed to many never ending, the American government and people lost their appetite for the war, the support for the South Vietnamese was wound down, American troops withdrew and those from communist North Vietnam drove their tanks into Saigon.
In spite of the subtle name change of the museum, the thrust of the information presented lays the blame for the war and all mistreatment, torture and killing of civilians at the feet of the Americans. Without wishing to pass judgement on this, I suspect that a similar museum in the United States would present a similarly slanted view of which country was right and wrong and whose troops behaved well or badly. Most of us have heard for example of the incarceration and terrible mistreatment of American POW’s in Vietnam, many of whom were never traced, and which was a stumbling block to Vietnam-US relations for many years.
The final gallery in the museum shows artwork from modern-day Vietnamese schoolchildren on the theme of peace. There was no propaganda here. These are the paintings of children who had been told about war and its horrors but thankfully have never experienced it. Who would not be glad to see that today’s children in Vietnam have not been put through the same miseries as their parents.
Vietnam is history still in the making. It is now 35 years since the war ended. Vietnam is still there. It did not implode, or produce the US-dreaded “domino effect” of communism spreading from one country to the next in succession. It is still a communist run country and it is still poor by any standards. On the positive side it is one country and no longer split in two. The country is attracting more foreign investment and there is a fast emerging tourist industry. It is interesting to wonder what the country(ies) would be like now if the US had “won” and succeeded in keeping the communist North at bay. But you need a crystal ball for that!