The Seeds of Freedom: A Speech by my Father
(My grandfather is on the front row to the right.)
My father was recently a speaker at Kiwanis Club event. I can’t do his words justice, so here are his words verbatim.
“We now live in an age where things are happening faster and at a much more intimate level than ever before. From the good things of being able to connect to our family, friends, business associates, or even strangers practically around the clock, from around the world, via Face Time, Face Book, Twitter, Instagram to say a few. The feedbacks we receive from many things are nearly instantaneous. With information now practically at our fingertips, it seems that we would be able to make decisions quickly. Yet it is harder than ever for many of the things we do.
For example, let us take a look at our involvement in other parts of the world such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and so on. Through media and social media, we now get images and videos of things as they happen. We get live reports with on scene reporters. However, we are nowhere nearer to knowing exactly what to do at those locations. Should we be there? Is our presence there justified? Do they even want us? Overall, are we doing the right things? No doubt the questions of why we should be there at all are in our minds.
Since I am neither an expert nor a local person in the areas I just mentioned. Please allow me to take you back a few decades, to the place near and dear to me – Viet Nam.
I was born in 1957 in the city of Saigon. My parents were originally from North Vietnam. They escaped to the South in 1954 when the communists took over the North according to agreements made during the Geneva Conference. My parents’ families suffered tremendously during this period. My grandfather was sentenced to a concentration camp where he later died. Many of my great uncles and aunts died either through brutal public executions or in concentration camps.
My memory of the early years of my life was spotty. My dad was an officer in the army. All I remember was moving from one city to another to follow my dad and his assignments. In 1961 we moved to the city of Bienhoa, a small city about 30 klicks from Saigon. Due to my early development, my parents put me in kindergarten when I was about 4 yr old because I already knew how to read by that age. Since our house was close to the school, I was allowed to walk to and from the school every day. I guess that was when I developed my wanderlust since I tended to walk around a lot after school before going home. That was also the time I got the first taste of what the war was like.
The Vietnam War in the early sixty, prior to the US troop involvement was not much more than a propaganda war in my eyes as a kid. Every other week, some communists will be caught for spreading propaganda pamphlets. They will then be handcuffed and paraded on the streets for people to see and to condemn. Whenever that happened, I and other kids often come out and watched the adults yelling, cussing, and calling the communists stupid. And while we were supposed to be at war, my dad often went hunting with his friends in the jungle without much fear.
Then November 1963 came and one day my dad didn’t come home for dinner. As a matter of fact he didn’t come home for several days. Since we lived right next to the soldiers’ housing, I noticed that the men weren’t there either. A few days later the men came home and there was so much commotion in those houses that I sneaked out of my house for a look. What I saw was the women yelling at their soldier husbands, and in a couple cases beating their husbands with the brooms. Among the things I heard were:
“Why did you kill him? He was our president!”
“He was a good man. Why?”
My dad came home later that day. He was really quiet and his eyes were bloodshot. He told my mom: “At the urging of the US advisors, they decided to stage a coup. I objected so they put me in confinement. Now that they have succeeded, my military career is over.”
Soon after that day, General Thieu, my father’s superior came into power and our family was moved to Saigon. Two years later, my father retired from the army. Due to his refusal to participate in the coup, he was no longer trusted by General Thieu, the man who later became our president.
After my father’s retirement from the army, and soon after the death of President Kennedy, we started to see GI’s on our streets. As a kid, I remember them as friendly soldiers who liked to toss Chiclets on the streets and laughed when the children scrambled to pick up the gums. I remember not liking that and thinking that the soldiers were arrogant. Now that I am older, I can’t help but think: My God, those soldiers were but children themselves at that time. And since we are now in Louisiana, I no longer thinking of tossing candies for children to pickup as arrogant gestures.
Along with the arrival of the GI’s, the war turned ugly and violent in a hurry. The early days of pamphlet spreading were replaced with ambush attacks on military and civilians alike, with bombing in our busy streets. We became fearful. Even as children, we learned to avoid parked vehicles without people around. We learned to no longer flock to the scene of an explosion to gawk because sometimes the first explosion was weaker to attract people for the second more deadly one.
Soon after my dad’s retirement from the army, he was hired as a local analyst for the US Central Intelligence Agency. All in a sudden, our lives became shrouded in secrecy. My father withdrew us from the county’s registry of families. Even though we still lived in our house, we are officially not living anywhere.
While the actions heated up all around the country side and we read news about it every day on our newspapers, the people of the larger, more protected cities, most particularly Hue & Saigon, were largely insulated from the heavy actions. All of that changed in 1968. As Tet ’68 approached, there was a higher level of festivities because we had reached a ceasefire agreement with the communists for the first 3 days of the years. These were days set aside for remembering our ancestors, for visiting our elders. In our culture those days were as sacred as Christmas in the USA. Precisely at midnight, explosions started to rock us. At first we were amazed at the extremely high level of noise from the customary fire crackers. My brothers, cousins, and I were all in the court yard playing when one of my uncles ran in from the street. He was covered with blood and his clothes were tattered. He shouted: “Run! The communists are attacking.”
My father immediately got us all packed for travel but decided to wait for daylight. That morning, he instructed me to climb to the roof top, to look around, and to tell him the direction where the fighting was. I clambered onto the roof top just in time to stare at an A37B on a bombing dive directly at me. It was surreal. The sound compression made the jet sounded so loud and when the bomb was released, I thought we were all dead. Time froze and all the sound faded and I watched in a daze as the bomb flew above our house and struck the neighborhood nearby us. I rushed to the ground. My father handed me a bag of provision and place a hand of one of my younger brothers into my hand saying: “He’s in your care.” I was but 11 years old.
In a few days, the fighting was over in the city of Saigon. Our family was still seeking refuge in the home of one of my distant uncles because my dad didn’t think it was safe for us to return to our own home. After the Tet offensive, for 2 months, I had no school, and since my mother and father were busy, I pretty much had the freedom to roam the street. During the first week after the attack, I watched the adults collect the bodies of the dead and placed them tightly side by side in rows on a large field twice the size of a football field. For the next 10 days, while the bodies rotted under the hot sun, people walked among the dead looking for their missing family members. I will forever remember the image of a lady, with a large bamboo basket of lime powder at her hip, walked solemnly between the rows of dead bodies. In perfect rhythm with her steps, she scattered handfuls of lime among the dead bodies in the effort to keep the decay in check.
When the identification period was over, the bodies were bulldozed into a pile for mass burial. It was there, on that fateful day, with me sitting on the fence of the cemetery, watching a bunch of orphans climbing among the dead bodies looking for anything they could loot to trade for food, that a thought popped into my mind: “Who are more unfortunate, the dead or the living?” Others may not know exactly when they mentally become an adult. For me, it was that exact moment.
Our lives after the Tet Offensive became even more secretive. We moved from the city of Saigon to the suburb and lived in an area that was controlled by our side during the day and the communists at night. My dad kept his job with the CIA but as far as all our new neighbors knew, he was just a high school French teacher. The move was extremely risky but it actually kept us safe for we were in a place they never thought we would be. Of course we were still not registered in the family registry with the local government. The war actions got even worse. We lost thousands and thousands of people in the 1972 summer of fire, when the US troops started the withdrawal.
Somewhere between the 1972 summer of fire and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the will to fight of the people in the South was lost. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was the US Congress refusal to approve the request for 700 million dollar foreign aid to Vietnam during the 1975 budget planning in 1974. That was devastating to us. Without the aid, we were fighting without munitions supply, without parts for our airplanes, tanks, and trucks, without replenishment for the bombs we’ve used. Days after days, our soldiers complained loudly about not having what they needed to defend our people.
The conditions continued to get worse and news of cities being taken by the enemies started to fill the air waves. The people of South Vietnam were scared.
10 days prior to the fall of Saigon, the CIA flew the families of their employees to the Island of Phu Quoc, telling us to set up a communication center for support. We went to a remote location of the island and worked for days to set up our radio equipment, shore up the perimeter, etc. We were told to get ourselves set up for the long struggle ahead. Well that was all a ruse because on April 29th, 1975 our family was taken out to sea and instructed to board a merchant ship, the American Challenger. Once on board the ship, it didn’t take long for us to realize that was the plan all along for us. The crew told us that they had been out at sea for weeks waiting for the fall. We were but pawns in the game of world politics.
The American Challenger took us to the Island of Guam. From there we were flown to Pennsylvania and finally sponsored out by two extremely nice families in Cincinnati Ohio.
I’d be lying to you if I say that things were easy for us in the first ten years in the US. I was truly conflicted. On one hand I was grateful for the chance of a life in freedom, a life with a future I can build for myself. On the other hand, I missed my homeland dearly and felt like we were politically left for dead by our most trusted allies. News from the homeland really exacerbated our despair. Many members of my extended families, my uncles, my cousins were sent to the concentration camps and many never returned. Many more died at sea while attempting to escape. From there grew the anger that nearly consumed me. When I saw the reception given to the GI’s on their return from the war, my heart broke for them. Didn’t they know what their soldiers have gone through?
For a long time after arriving in the United States, I could not keep from crying each time I hear the song God Bless America. My thought centered on a question in anguish “Why not us? God? Why?”
While that question languished in my mind, I also saw the suffering of the US soldiers. During the war they endured things young men should never have had to go through. After the war they suffered scorns no warriors should have received after serving their country. We were all suffering for what? Was the war truly a wasted war like we were repeatedly told? But the causes felt so right for millions of South Vietnamese, how could it ever have been wrong?
Then on one occasion that I was home, I shared my trouble with my father. I also asked him: “Dad, you interrogated thousands of prisoners yet you told me you never hurt anyone of them to get the information. How is that possible?”
He told me: “Son, I was their advocate for better treatment; I brought them books and cigarettes for their days of doldrums in prison. In return they talked to me. When a man complained to me about how his knees hurt during his days of hill climbing, I coupled that with my knowledge of the topology of the Ho Chi Minh trail and I learned their troop movements. When a man complained about how much more stuff he had to carry for others who weren’t there anymore, with just a tiny bit more probing, I found out their casualties. You beat a man hard enough and he would tell you that a cow has buffalo horns, but if you listen to his laments, you get data, and data reveal so much. For your trouble, I suggest that you take a look at the data.”
The answer finally came for me. The war was never for naught. I and 20 millions others in my generation grew up knowing freedom thanks to the sacrifice of soldiers like my father, uncles, cousins, and the sacrifice of the US soldiers who served there. Think about it – The idea of freedom presented to 20 plus millions people. So what are the results of that work? To understand that you have to know the Asian culture. For generations we had been taught to perform our duties, first to the king, then to the people, then to the family etc. But when you do things as duties, innovation and creativity is stifled. When a soldier is tossed a peeler and told to peel potatoes. Guess what, he sits and peels potatoes for as long as he’s told. But when an entrepreneur needs to peel a ton of potatoes to bring to the market in a hurry, some way some how he’ll come up with an automatic potato peeler. And the data speak: the southern region of Vietnam now is far more prosperous than the north. What the people in South Vietnam do was so contagious that a famous communist general once lamented: “We won but now we are doing everything their way.” If you compare North Korea with South Korea, Shanghai with mainland China, the Cuban communities in Miami versus Cuba, you will see that the data speak. Freedom is contagious and with the unlimited potential of human, once planted some will bear unbelievable fruit.
Now let’s take a look at our current involvement all over the world. I truly believe that, when we enter a country and act within our principles, it’s a win-win situation; both sides will benefit from the engagement. The converse is also true, when we go anywhere just so we can manipulate things for some under the table dark benefits, we sow the evil that will come home to roost some day.
I’m on the board of Damien the Leper Society and have been involved with this charity to help the people with leprosy for more than 15 years. In that span I have seen so many children of lepers, with our help, blossomed into beautiful people. You at the Kiwanis club are doing the same thing to children all over the world. You never know, one of the children that you help may turn out to be the next Bill Gates, the next Steve Jobs, who can change the course of human. What we are doing is never for naught.
Thank you for your time.”