Remembering Vietnam should be a time for self-reflection and less finger-pointing on all sides.

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The PBS documentary “Last Days in Vietnam,” directed by Rory Kennedy, and widely talked-up as the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam approaches, portrays harrowing events of April 1975, when haphazard efforts by U.S. personnel enabled the evacuation of some 130,000 U.S.-affiliated Vietnamese from Southern Vietnam as communist-led forces closed in on Saigon.

Christoph Giebel is an associate professor of International Studies and Southeast Asian History at the University of Washington and teaches regularly about the war in Vietnam.
Christoph Giebel is an associate professor of International Studies and Southeast Asian History at the University of Washington and teaches regularly about the war in Vietnam.

It powerfully lends voices to those acting decisively in the face of moral dilemma, chaos and loss. Unfortunately, the film bastardizes history in its attempt to contextualize the tragedy. In order to tell a simplistic tale of communist connivance, South Vietnamese “abandonment” by the U.S. establishment and an “American Spirit” prevailing in acts of heroism, historical facts are distorted and turned on their heads — from the 1973 Paris Agreement, to actual military developments and Washington, D.C., policy debates.

That a prominent media organization uses an important anniversary to enforce mythologies rather than strive for complexity and accuracy should be of concern. But the flaws of “Last Days” point to a larger problem: The misuse of commemorations of the war in Vietnam to score political points, and to insist on deeply felt, but self-serving, narratives to reiterate old certainties — facts be damned. It is a disservice to the millions who perished and suffered unspeakably on all sides, and all parties to this horrific war are guilty of it.

Instead, this 40th anniversary should give rise to somber and earnest reflection that acknowledges and respects, rather than vilifies, former enemies and examines one’s own responsibilities in the terrible events. Such introspection would finally free the debates over the war in Vietnam from the grip of outdated Cold War sound bites and lead to a more mature engagement with the traumatic past.

Seeking Refuge: 40 years after the fall of Saigon

Editor's note: As the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, the Seattle Times editorial board admires former Gov. Dan Evans and citizens who welcomed Vietnamese refugees into their homes and lives. That legacy continues, though citizens can provide more direct assistance to today’s refugees. Read more about this project.

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For the United States, a self-reflective commemoration of the anniversary might mean abandoning exceptionalism, simplistic narratives of anti-communism and defense of freedom and acknowledging the deep (neo-)colonial roots of interventions in “Third World” countries. It would mean realizing that the unilaterally imposed propagandistic framing of the conflict as one between two discrete entities — North Vietnam and South Vietnam — was not accepted by most Vietnamese nationalists and therefore did not reflect lived realities. As well, the United States should take responsibility for the widely disproportionate application of violence and massive devastations during the war and dramatically increase its aid to alleviate the debilitating legacies of war still hounding contemporary Vietnam.

For the Hanoi government, rather than indulging in triumphalist national liberation rhetoric of the past decades, it would be a welcome signal to admit its own role in excessive wartime violence and particularly its failure to foster postwar reconciliation and inclusion of those on the losing side into the reunified state.

The post-1975 collective punishment of Southerners and so-called re-education camps remain stains on Vietnam’s record if unaddressed. Lastly, a rhetorical “disarmament” when talking about the communist Vietnamese opponents as mere “puppets” of the United States is long overdue and would not only have symbolic, but also practical value in furthering renewed connections and understanding. Vietnamese on all sides of the conflict were motivated by strong patriotism, albeit conflicting visions for the nation.

Finally, the Vietnamese-American community has a real need to have its wartime sacrifices, loss of home and subsequent immigrant struggles more widely acknowledged in broader U.S. society. However, its sole focus on “abandonment” in 1975 and post-1975 victimization — legitimate as it may be — and the habitual vilification, in some corners of the community, of their Vietnamese opponents as communist “traitors” will only continue to prevent a more nuanced accounting of past events. The Republic of Vietnam (1955-1975), to which many feel loyal still, certainly shares heavily in responsibility for the widespread civilian suffering during the war, particularly among rural southerners, the majority of the population. While offering an alternative for many urban, educated middle class and elite Vietnamese threatened by revolutionary nationalism, the republic habitually employed repressive policies that alienated many patriotic Southerners and contributed directly to the war’s outcome in 1975.

The 40th anniversary of the war’s end in Vietnam should be occasion for more self-reflection and less finger-pointing on all sides, and for adopting a whole new vocabulary to talk about the painful past with greater honesty and a sense of meaningful reconciliation.