The Original 1995 Article: “Lessons From a Tet Festival”

As a Baby Boomer, I am a child of the 60’s, the same as the next person. I was strongly against the Vietnam 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 by my generation. 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.

It’s not so simple, as it turns out. The intervening years have taught me much. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” rings very hollow when you’re over forty. It is not so much that my opinion of the war or our handling of it has changed, but that I have actually 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 Year’s 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 a ceremony by Buddhist 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 seat mate 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 Pomona; 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, who can’t bring themselves to condemn the reeducation camps, people who were born in freedom but somehow didn’t inhale.

I speak now as someone who registered as a Conscientious Objector, and whose Draft lottery number was 98 in a year that only conscripted up to number 75. I think of the so-called “divinity students,” whose religion seemed mostly anti-establishment rhetoric and often looks suspiciously like 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? Some left a country they truly believed was immoral, following a spiritual code that was verified by the faith and actions they showed. They have earned the respect that is due a person with the integrity of their convictions. But others headed north rather than clean bedpans in a VA hospital, for then they would have to stay here and attempt to prove a conviction conversion that was based far 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 sacrifice that so many Americans made, 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, between the “free world and the Communist world, Let them come to Berlin!” For all those who do not yet know what the true issue was (for these people around me, if not their political leaders) 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.

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Tet Lesson – Thoughts on the Vietnam War

By Timothy Smith, Originally written in 1995, latest revision in 2020

The Lesson from a Tet Festival

One of Three Articles About the Vietnamese-American Experience

Introduction to the 2020 Re-Posting

This little opinion piece was originally written in 1995, when Lora Pham invited me to a Tet Festival, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration, held in Pomona, California. To read more about Lora and her remarkable journey to freedom, please see “The Old Refugee Boat” article, posted on this site. I wrote this article to hand out to various friends and colleagues at the high school where I was teaching. Four years later, with a new website, I adapted it as an online article. I preserved my original attempt at computer graphics on the left for your amusement. And for the generation that is tempted to try the type of government these people fled, may I suggest looking into the life stories of those who endured and escaped it.

Sincerely, Timothy Smith, March 2020

The original flag of The Republic of (South) Viet Nam, a country which no longer exists. The author at “The Wall” in 1997. A small flag near the name of someone’s relative.

For the other articles on the Vietnamese-American experience, or to check out some of my articles on Kodiak Island history and Alaskan village life, please follow the links  in the photos below.