As a Baby Boomer, I am a child of the í60s, the same as the next person. I was strongly against the Viet Nam War, and cut my political teeth on Eugene McCarthy, Ernest Gruening, Wayne Morse and the Berrigan brothers. When Country Joe sang, "...1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?" I and millions of others knew the correct answer. The smooth posturings of the great Military Industrial Complex as it explained its noble motives (and substantial profits) were righteously regarded as evil, dangerous foolishness. The quaint ideas held forth by our national leaders, the "Domino Theory" and the defense of freedom, were easily dismissed; after all, they kept getting themselves stuck without permission in places like Cambodia and Democratic Headquarters.
Itís not so simple, as it turns out. The intervening years have taught me much. "Donít trust anyone over thirty" rings very hollow when youíre over forty. It is not so much that my opinion of the war or our handling of it has changed, but that I have come to know what we were fighting for. The scene changes to Pomona, California, in 1995. As a new teacher of English as a Second Language, I was eagerly learning the ways of some of the cultures represented in my classroom. A group of Vietnamese immigrants hosted a New Yearís party for the Year of the Boar, and I was an honored guest. On the wall of the school auditorium was the flag of a once-free nation that no longer exists. Our national anthem was sung in English, but with a distinctly Asian inflection. There were comedians, singers of all the popular Vietnamese styles, speeches by dignitaries, and even a ceremony by monks. Prayers were said for the thousands of Vietnamese who still rot in Communist "reeducation camps," uniquely Vietnamese Gulags whose purpose is to punish anyone who had any connection to the Americans. A very long time was spent distributing bags of supplies to newly arrived refugees, gaunt men who only weeks before had been in the camps. I saw one turn and wave to the enthusiastic crowd, a look of triumph on his new American face. The greatest applause was reserved for the recipients of the relief bags, the newly arrived refugees. This was no display of public piety for the home crowd; they were acknowledging their own. Everyone in that room is a refugee.
The speeches spoke of the power of freedom, the love of a long-gone country and a new love for their adopted homeland. The leader of the Vietnamese community spoke of citizenship and voting and civic pride. He sometimes spoke in English; the rest was translated patiently for me by a woman sitting beside me, who nodded fervently at each of the major points he made. Then the oldest of the community, about twenty women and one man, were brought up to the front for special New Year honor. My seatmate explained that most of the men had died in the war or in the camps. Others in the audience were recognized: an energetic man in a French beret was a famed sculptor; a snowy-haired, stately woman was identified as a great poet. Then all the teachers were recognized in turn; my family and I stood up to great applause, and I was identified as a representative of the future of the young people. I sat down humbled, feeling inadequate for the task. A seven-year-old girl, with Vietnamese mother and Mexican father, came out and sang in Vietnamese and Spanish, and brought down the house. Welcome to America!
I left early, after three solid hours, escorted out by an enthusiastic group of my students, honored to near speechlessness by my presence. I felt the same; I am so honored that they are here, and proud that America, for all its faults, is still what it is. Things are clearer now. Images of the era such as Hollywood celebrities taking photo-ops with antiaircraft guns in Hanoi seem especially out of place after meeting these people. Look at the vacuous legacy of some of those "anti-war" heroes, people who were born in freedom but somehow didnít inhale. I think of the so-called "divinity students," whose religion seemed mostly anti-establishment rhetoric and often was a smokescreen for personal irresponsibility. It is very much in doubt how much good some of these people have really done for the Church. Or how about the many who fled to Canada rather than clean bedpans in a VA hospital (or have to stay here and try to prove a conviction conversion that may have been based more on political persuasion than spirituality). I see my Vietnamese-American neighbors and I wish that somehow we could have done better by them, yet they have nothing but gratitude for the effort Americans gave and for the home they now share with us. Many years ago, John Kennedy stood before the Berlin wall and said, for those who did not understand the difference between freedom and totalitarianism, "Let them come to Berlin!" For all those who do not yet know what the true issue was all those years ago in Da Nang, Saigon, Hue and a host of other cities and hamlets, "Let them come to Pomona!" For in this valley, with these new Americans, we know, and we understand.