<em>“Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”</em>
— President Richard Nixon
I was the starting varsity goalkeeper for South Philadelphia High School’s soccer team during my senior year. It was September of 1987, and a large majority of 20 kids on the roster were Asian. As best as I can remember, all of my Asian teammates came from the former French colonies: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The language barrier made it tough for me to communicate with my defenders—the result being that I usually got my face kicked in during our matches. That is not my regret now that I am in my mid-40’s. What I lament is that I did not befriend those kids. There was no acrimony between us. We just went our separate ways when we left the pitch.
I have to assume that many of the Asians I went to school with had come to America in the wake of the Vietnam War. They came here to escape the Viet Cong, Khmer Rouge and other genocidal Communist regimes. Many of the refugees and evacuees who came to America were settled in Philadelphia and tried their best to make a life for their children.
Move forward to the summer of 2002. The president for the South Philadelphia branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a rather odd request of me. He asked if I would come to church on a given Sunday and speak to the youth of the branch. What made this peculiar was that there was no reason or targeted subject for my talk. He just thought I was an eloquent speaker who would resonate with teenagers.
The LDS Church had undergone a radical change in South Philadelphia a couple of years before this request. The first change was with the borderlines for the branch. Many of the Mormons who lived in the posh, expensive high rise condominium buildings in Center City Philadelphia were now required to be members of the South Philly branch. Nearly all of these Mormons were married couples, with the husbands attending the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania—the best business school on the planet.
The second change was that the two branches in South Philadelphia, the so-called “Asian” and “English” branches, would be merged into one. On the occasions that I would step foot into the Mormon chapel—which occupied the second floor of an inconspicuous office building above a hair salon—I would see pearly white couples from affluent backgrounds sitting next to older Asians who still did not grasp English and were living in abject poverty.
The experiment worked. As I spoke in front of the Mormon youth on that hot summer Sunday morning, nearly all of whom were Asian, I was impressed with the assimilation they had undergone. They spoke clear, coherent English. They were dressed nicely. They had dreams of going on Mormon missions and afterward, college. They appreciated the sacrifices their families had made to escape the brutal regimes of their homelands. These impressive teenagers would not join gangs, do drugs or fail to achieve goals like others who were equally poor were doing on a daily basis. They were proud to be Americans.
Those who ran the Mormon Church in South Philly did it as good as anyone could. They created a generation of good people from a pool of poor, disparate immigrants. We should all hope to leave this world a better place, ran by our children, who should all be greater than we are.
And now it is 2015. April 30th marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon…its impact and legacy has made it a proper noun. As the Vietcong closed in on the southern city of Saigon, the last remaining American diplomats, intelligence agents and military personnel frantically struggled to remove all Americans, Vietnamese wives and children and Vietnamese collaborators—who would surely be executed by the Communists—out of the country before the city fell. These events were powerfully discussed and portrayed in a documentary film I watched this week entitled, “Last Days In Vietnam.”
“Last Days” was directed by Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Had he not been struck down by an assassin’s bullet, RFK would most likely been elected President of the United States in 1968; and the Vietnam War would have ended sooner than it did. Rory Kennedy honors her father’s legacy and those who bravely fought in Vietnam with this documentary.
The film shows interviews with those who gave an exhaustive effort in those last desperate hours to get as many of the Vietnamese out of the country as was humanly possible. Many of the CIA agents, diplomats and military risked their lives, disobeyed direct orders and ignored the easy exits available to them for one reason only: it was beyond them to leave those behind they had come to care about for what would have been an almost certain death.
I cannot urge you to watch this amazing film passionately enough. I am grateful that taxpayer dollars go to fund PBS, which broadcast this movie Tuesday night. All week, PBS has shown remarkable documentaries about how the Vietnam War ripped this country apart. While some cable networks have dropped historically relevant and educational programming in favor of trashy, scripted “reality” shows with no redeeming qualities, PBS has formulated a week of remarkable television to remind us of this dark time in our history.
The men, American and Vietnamese, featured in “Last Days” are heroes. And their story made me rethink the legacy of the Vietnam War as it is germane to America and its identity.
Maybe it was not America’s destiny to have won every war it ever fought. Being the best is not embodied in having a perfect record in conflicts. A smug belief in America’s superiority over the world died in Vietnam—but, we as Americans might have gained an exalted level of humanity in our defeat.
In the final days of a divisive war, a group of Americans saved thousands of people from torture, suffering and death. Faced with a total, humiliating defeat they stood their post and got out as many Vietnamese as they could. It was only when Viet Cong tanks pointed their gun turrets at the U.S. Embassy compound did the last military personnel reluctantly evacuate. They were forced to leave some Vietnamese behind. That knowledge haunts these men to this very day.
To paraphrase The Talmud, if any of us saves a life we save the world entire. Generations will be born, live and hopefully prosper because of the actions of those featured in “Last Days of Vietnam.” I can think of no other criterion to define the word hero better than that.
America lost the Vietnam War. But there is a level of dignity we gained in that defeat that can never be taken away from us. That dignity, America’s dignity, lives and breathes in the children of refugees who were brought to America in the days after April 30th, 1975.