“No two countries have come together faster than Vietnam and the United States,” Dr. Margaret McFarland, professor of social work and Vietnam Fulbright Fellow, said during the presentation “The Fall of Saigon: 40 Years Later” on Wednesday, April 29.
The panel discussion consisted of McFarland, Dr. Robert Wheelersburg, professor of anthropology, and sophomore Anh Bui, a student from Vietnam studying at Elizabethtown College.
Wheelersburg began the presentation by having a student from the music department perform “Taps” in honor of the estimated 4,250,000 soldiers, both American and Vietamese, who died during the Vietnam War.
He then explained why the U.S. became involved with the war. “The war started for us, essentially, because we decided to fight communism overseas,” Wheelersburg said. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution allowed the U.S. to deploy troops anywhere in South Vietnam. By 1968, the U.S. had 500,00 troops in Vietnam.
The war, until recent years, was the longest war in U.S. history. Wheelersburg said that it was a war about socioeconomic status. Those who could go to college went to college, and those who could not were frequently drafted into the war. Additionally, racism and sexism were also prevalent during the war. 86 percent of the soldiers who died were white, and the war consisted of almost entirely male troops.
Wheelersburg said that people could focus on the negative aspects of the war, such as death of many troops or dislike, for some, regarding military and government involvement. However, Wheelersburg said that he chooses to focus on the positive effects of the war. “I think America’s a better country because of what happened in Vietnam,” he said. International relations have improved, and America would be a very different country without its Vietnam citizens.
McFarland, who had received a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Vietnam, Skyped into the discussion in order to contribute her perspective from living in Vietnam. The country is currently celebrating what is called the Day of Independence in the South and the Day of Unification in the North.
An interesting aspect of the celebration is that the Vietnamese are using a Northern perspective for the day. McFarland said that this perspective has left some living in South Vietnam discontent. She added that some have temporarily left in order to avoid celebrating the day. “It feels like a celebration being forced on them in their city,” she said.
“We have come a long way in the last 20 years,” McFarland said regarding U.S. and Vietnamese relations. McFarland said that while she has been there, many have come up to her and asked about relatives living in the U.S. Many young people have also told her they want to visit the U.S. as soon as they have the opportunity.
The young people in particular are excited about relations with the U.S. and eager to put the past of the war behind them. “Vietnamese tend to be really forward thinkers,” McFarland said. To many, the war feels as though it were so long ago that it is time to move on.
Bui next spoke about Vietnam now. She is from Hanoi, Vietnam, the country’s capital located in the North. During the summer, Bui had the opportunity to travel back to her country with nine other students from Vietnam who are studying abroad in the U.S. “I got to know my country more,” Bui said.
In Vietnam, there are different ethnicities within the country. Depending on the ethnicity, the way the people dress and the language they speak will differ. “It’s like little countries within a country,” Bui said. She said that she speaks the language 80 percent of Vietnamese speak. In her ethnicity, they commonly dress similar to Americans, but other ethnicities will wear more traditional clothing.
“Our generation doesn’t really know much about what happened in the war,” Bui said. She explained that they learn about the war primarily from museums, but do not learn about the war in detail, which makes it easier for them to focus on present relations with the U.S.
The economy in Vietnam has improved greatly over the past few years as well. McFarland said, “There’s a whole new middle class of Vietnamese that has appeared here.” Bui added that the economy is based on exports. Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter and exports seafood in great numbers. Tourism also has become a vital part of their economy. “It is definitely a developing country,” McFarland said.