A tragic spring day that brings a long ago war into focus

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

In early May, while much of the country was in lockdown mode, a milestone anniversary passed without much news coverage, except for a few broadcast outlets who dared to focus on one of America’s darkest days 50 years ago.

May 4, 1970 was an otherwise warm spring day in northeast Ohio when 67 shots suddenly rang out on the campus of Kent State University, claiming the lives of four students and wounding nine others. The senseless shootings by members of the Ohio National Guard sparked various forms of outrage across a nation deeply divided over escalated U.S. military actions in the Vietnam War.

As a high school senior with three older sisters scattered about several college campuses, I was stunned by news of the Kent State killings, wondering aloud if our country was coming apart at the seams.

But for my parents, both loyal Republicans, the shootings had an even more profound impact. Suddenly, and tragically, the news arising out of Kent State became personal. They, in a matter of moments, began to imagine the “what if” the killings had happened where their daughters attended college and were voicing their opposition to U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

A change of perspective, indeed.

In recent weeks, while many have been consumed by rising tensions between those who believe in science and those caught in the time warp of pre-pandemic days, I have been riveted by a history lesson contained in a 10-part documentary directed by Ken Burns and his long-time collaborator Lynn Novick. In graphic terms, it depicts how the Vietnam War – and the Kent State massacre – may have marked the start of America’s political polarization.

“The Vietnam War” serves as the title of the 18-hour series that begins in reverse, a striking opening sequence in which “bombs fall up, riot police back away from protesters, and villages and draft cards reconstitute themselves out of flames.”

In a sense, it’s a symbolic way to treat a tragedy that still is fresh in the minds of many Americans who somehow and in some way served their country during a war that raged at home and abroad.

The story as told by Burns, whose film credits include a spellbinding look at “The Civil War,” begins with Ho Chi Minh, the Communist revolutionary leader who longed for Vietnamese independence from French colonists and then their U.S. successors in the Southeast Asian country. Fascinatingly, the opening episode casts Ho in a far different historical light, from his time as a pastry chef in a Boston hotel to his role in helping the U.S. repel the Japanese invaders from Vietnam during World War II.

The real pull of the documentary, however, is the breadth of its storytelling, of how a misunderstood war impacted the lives of millions of men, women, and children across the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

Now, some 45 years after the fall, Vietnam is a study in contrasts for tourists bent on acquiring a taste of the life and culture of the country that forever will be etched in the historical mind of America.

Capitalism in the midst of communism.

Faith in the face of religious persecution.

A Hanoi Hilton within minutes of the “Hanoi Hilton.”

April 30 marked the 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, effectively ending a war that claimed nearly 60,000 American lives, exacting a death toll of more than 3 million Vietnamese from 1954 to 1975.

Today, however, Vietnam is doing its best to put a war-torn past to rest, welcoming westerners and their tourist dollars just as the communist-ruled country shows increasing signs of loosening its tyrannical grip.

In the past five years, several close friends and relatives have caught a firsthand glimpse of the land where guerilla-warfare once was a way of life. Fittingly, they began their journeys in the capital of Hanoi, staying in the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, a 268-room landmark located in the city’s French Quarter.

It, of course, stands in contrast to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” the POW compound where such Americans as Lt. Commander John McCain, the late U.S. Senator from Arizona, spent years in captivity. McCain’s flight suit is on display there and the museum reportedly describes “how well” the prisoners were treated in terms of food and medical care.

The TV documentary, not surprisingly, portrays their captivity in a different light, offering first-hand testimony of the hunger, pain, isolation, and torture the American POWs were forced to endure.

Surprisingly, many visitors never sense any “anti-Americanism” or lasting residue from a war that scarred both countries. Two of my friends, in particular, were struck by the fact that “there were monuments to their war heroes, but there wasn’t any visible evidence of the destruction” caused by the tragic conflict.

“We were reminded that this was not the ‘Vietnam War,’” my friend said. “They viewed it as the ‘American War.’”

That Vietnamese perspective often has been lost in the murky story of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, just as we now grapple with how history will judge our embroilment in a war against an invisible pathogen that shows no signs of abating.




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