by Bette Lee

The U.S. war on Vietnam remains an immense tragedy that still haunts many Americans. Thousand of veterans have made the journey to Vietnam since the “American War,” as the Vietnamese call it, ended 30 years ago, in search of some kind of healing and redemption. Others have gone out of a sense of commitment to social justice and hopes of reconstruction.

Natasha Beck, a Portland educator, activist and writer, made the long trip to Vietnam last month. As a student in the ‘60s, she was involved in the anti-war movement. In the ‘70s, she became a member of the Women’s Union in Eugene, a socialist feminist organization. As a teacher, she has taught ESL, or English as Second Language, to Vietnamese students in high schools and colleges. When she heard that Global Exchange was organizing a “Lessons and Legacies of War” trip to Vietnam, headed by Linh, a member of the Vietnam Women’s Union, she decided to go. She had felt a deep shame for what the US had done to Vietnam, but also a hope that Vietnam had been able to recover from the devastation of war. She was not disappointed.

During her 15 days in Vietnam, she saw a country that had turned around from the hell of war. “The country is moving forward and rebuilding. The people were working tremendously hard,” she said. There were new housing and factories built after the war. She saw many women vendors in the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, selling everything from TVs to vegetables and handicrafts. She saw flowers and trees in bloom. Vietnam is once again a “beautiful country.”

She was profoundly impressed by the social progress the Vietnam Women’s Union has achieved. Founded in 1930 by the Communist Party, its goals include increasing education for women, gender equality and extending international relations and cooperation. It has worked with GABRIELA, a group based in the Philippines, to end prostitution and trafficking of women and children in the international sex trade. The union provides sex workers with information on HIV/AIDS prevention and loans to start small businesses. It helped to implement the Safe Motherhood Project, which provides pre- and post-natal care to women. It offers support and help with finding jobs for mainly war widows through the “Single Women’s Club.” Beck wrote in her journal, “What I’ll never forget is … the ovation I received when I told the Single Women’s Club, composed mostly of war widows, that I was an anti-war widow: I knew what it was like to lose a comrade and beloved spouse.”

The scars of the “American War” are still there. The U.S. had bombed North Vietnam heavily, more than the South. Beck visited a place called Friendship Village for victims of Agent Orange. “Agent Orange gets into the DNA,” she said. She saw children, who are the third- generation victims, with horrible deformities. There were also older people suffering from neurological damage caused by Agent Orange.

She met a U.S. veteran, Chuck Searcy, who visited Vietnam 10 years ago and ended up staying. He helped to start an anti-land mine program funded by non-governmental organizations. Searcy told her that many U.S. veterans have come to Vietnam with tremendous feelings of guilt for what they did during the war. Many were stunned by the forgiveness and compassion they encountered. When they broke down crying, the Vietnamese tried to comfort them by telling them that the war was not their fault; that they were used as pawns by their imperialist government.
Beck thinks that the Vietnamese people have been able to move forward because of deep convictions of forgiveness and compassion based on their religion. Eighty percent of the people are Buddhist. They expressed no hostility towards her or other Americans. “They believe that if you remain angry, you will be bitter. Bitterness leads to hatred, and hatred leads to war. They don’t want anymore war,” she said.

Beck also believes that their socialist ideals have helped them to express kindness and concern for each other, and to build a positive vision for the future. Although the government is better described as a state-run capitalist system, the goals are still socialist. Beck toured a state-owned factory in Ho Chi Minh City, where there have been no layoffs in 35 years. The workers, both men and women, are provided with health insurance, free lunches and living wages.

Her trip to Vietnam has convinced Beck that we can learn a lot from the Vietnamese. “They are a very resilient people who understand protracted struggle,” she said. They have survived “1,000 years of Chinese feudalism, 100 years of French colonialism and 30 years of American imperialism.” Yet they have endured. They remain fiercely independent, and have succeeded to a great extent in overcoming the bitterness and hardships of the past. Despite the millions of people killed in the “American War,” and the ongoing scourge of land mines, Agent Orange, and other horrors caused by the war, they harbor no bitterness or despair.

Community Calendar December 2005
Victims of Agent Orange

A delegation of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange will meet for the first time with U.S. veterans also suffering from the wounds they sustained in the war in Vietnam. More than 30 years after the end of the war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese, U.S. veterans received partial compensation for their injuries from the chemical companies and the U.S. government but the Vietnamese veterans received not one penny from the U.S. government which sprayed them to Agent Orange. Three million Vietnamese and tens of thousand of U.S. soldiers are affected by Agent Orange. Agent Orange causes birth defects to hundreds of thousands of children and continues to poison the natural environment, soil and crops of Vietnam. At the PSU Multicultural Center.