by Andrew Wiest
The research for my book Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN was in many ways typical historical sleuthing, involving both fruitful and frustrating trips to archives in search of needed source material. The research, though, also included numerous interviews with both South Vietnamese and American veterans of the Vietnam War. That research, especially an extended trip to Washington DC to interview Tran Ngoc Hue who was one of the main characters of my story, resulted in an unexpected immersion into the Vietnamese expatriate community. It was my work with the other main character of the book, Pham Van Dinh, though, that was so different that it almost became dangerous.
Dinh, who I had met on a study abroad course to Vietnam, had been a hero in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). However, in 1972, after his unit had been hopelessly surrounded, he surrendered and later defected to the North Vietnamese. I just knew that I had to know more about Dinh’s story, but he could not speak openly of his South Vietnamese past in today’s Vietnam. After considerable labor Dinh secured a travel visa to the US, and I secured travel funds for him to come over for two weeks of extensive interviews. While here I convinced a reluctant Dinh to give a public talk on his experiences – after all he had a unique perspective on America’s most controversial war.
Dinh’s goal was to bridge a gap of shared pain between Vietnam and the US. But, even nearly half a century later it turned out that the pain was still too biting, the memories too stark to allow for forgiveness or rapprochement. Once word got out that Dinh – a traitor – was going to speak at a public forum a torrent of negative reaction flooded in. There was certainly positive reaction to the prospect of a public talk, and much of that came from US Vietnam veterans. But other US veterans threatened to stand in the doorway of the venue to deny audience entry. Several donors to the university called the university president directly, threatening to cut off their funding if the event took place. The university even received a telephone call from one of Mississippi’s senators at that time informing the president that allowing Dinh to speak would be a grave mistake.
The furor weighed quite heavily on Dinh. He decided that he would not speak publically. His goal had been one of reconciliation, something he sadly found to be impossible. Both he and I knew that his story was an important one. But it was a story that his own country would not allow him to tell, and it was a story that much of the US did not want to hear. After so many years Dinh was still a man caught between two nations – a man in many ways without a home.
We completed our interviews, and I used them to write what I hope is an important book. But I still think that it could have been more. Dinh returned home and continued to help me with my research by interviewing many of his subordinate officers from the time. We were in nearly constant contact as my writing progressed. And then, suddenly, the contact simply stopped. Emails and letters went unanswered. I never really knew why the contact stopped, but I heard from another Vietnamese contact that in working with me on the project that Dinh had “gotten some trouble from the government.” Shortly after that revelation I learned that Dinh had been struck down by a stroke, from which he never fully recovered.
To this day I do not know if Dinh ever had the chance to read the book that I wrote about his life. To this day I do not know if my work with Dinh caused him to face the wrath of his government. I did learn, though, that in both Vietnam and the US the Vietnam War is far from being just a memory. It remains a potent force that still has the power to alter lives.
Andrew Wiest, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of numerous books including, most recently, Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines (Osprey, 2013) and The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 2012).