Vietnam and the American War

by Andrew Stein

Growing up in the US education system, it’s almost hard to imagine that Vietnam has such a long history before the Vietnam War. The first time Vietnam appears in textbooks is in the chapters on the Vietnam war in the second half of the 20th century. With a little extra research, I learned that Vietnam has a history stretching as far back as Paleolithic times—when humans were beginning to realize the advantage of using stone tools. There is recorded Vietnamese history as far back as a couple hundred years BCE before even the Chinese had consolidated Vietnam’s land into its empire. The Chinese then ruled for only about 1000 years—one full millennium. The ancientness of these places that I am visiting is hard to fully grasp. The recorded history of California if we go by the first European explorers is about 1550. There were of course the indigenous people of California, the Native Americans, before the European explorers; however, there is very limited recorded history from this long period. The first Vietnamese state arguably existed in the 3rd century BCE, and America became independent only in 1776. The fact that I don’t know anything about Vietnam pre-1950 is embarrassing, and I wanted to at least learn some basics before arriving.

I skimmed through bits and pieces of Stanley Karnow’s book, “Vietnam: A History” to get an idea of this rich history so that when presented with its relics, I hoped I would have a larger appreciation of what I was looking at. I wanted to have a reaction when visiting sites other than those having significance from the Vietnam War.

However, given that I am an American in a country that has had such a difficult history with America, the Vietnam/American War cannot be ignored. The Vietnam War, lasting twenty years starting in 1955, is something I’ve heard about from my parents generation and read about in history class. I learned the bigger issues and the major players and why the US wanted to contain the spread of communism. I have been told about the controversy with US involvement and of the casualties that ensued. The 58,159 U.S. Service members that died is unfortunately a small number compared to the 200,000 plus Cambodians and undetermined but frighteningly large number of Vietnamese. The estimated numbers of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians that were killed during the war range from around 1,000,000 to greater than 3,000,000 people.

I come to Vietnam with an open mind, and from what I’ve heard, I feel that the sentiment is reciprocated.