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From the July/August, 2001
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Vietnam & the American Century by Greg Metzger

Vietnam & the American Century

Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family
by Duong Van Mai Elliott
Oxford University Press, 1999
(608 pages; $30.00, cloth)

reviewed by Greg Metzger

The turn of the century has occasioned a host of publications examining the meaning of our times. As would be expected, a great many are focused on the “American Century.” As Christians we welcome the opportunity for an “examination of conscience,” as Pope John Paul II has called the period before the new millenium. Yet some of us are troubled by the myopic nature of many Western takes on this century. There seems to be, particularly in American media, a sense that this century should be seen as the triumph of American values and an assumption that those values are always good for the world. From this perspective the war in Yugoslovia was a perfect cap to the American century, showing as it did the triumph of American technology and the punishment of rulers who resist “pluralistic democracy.” In this context of heightened triumphalism it is helpful to see how this century looks from a non-Western viewpoint.

The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, by Duong Van Mai Elliott, is an example of the rich benefits of an alternative perspective. As the subtitle suggests, Duong’s book is a combination of family memoir and national history. She reverently weaves the tale of a century of tremendous upheaval in her family’s life and shows how the tragedies of her family are a window to understanding the Vietnamese century. It is a wonderful book, written with care, and it is extremely suggestive for us living at the end of the American Century. The book takes us from French colonialism, through American intervention and all the way to the present situation in Vietnam. At each stage Duong’s personalist historiography provides new insights to perennial questions about the tragedy of the Vietnam Century. This review will focus on the early stages of the story, for it is here that I think we learn the most new information and from which we can make the most immediate applications to our current situation.

The Elite & Marginalization

Duong’s family origins are in the North of Vietnam. It was here that her great-grandfather carved out a place of great honor for the family name. He was a brilliant poet and a mandarin of the highest order. His family was honored for his academic and cultural achievements and was seen as key leaders of the community. In fact, when the author returned to the North in 1993 to research the book, she found local peasants who still remembered the family name and her great-grandfather’s achievements. Duong’s family, then, has its roots in the elite of North Vietnam. They were inheritors of a mandarin tradition and a code that on the one hand was deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition and demanded tremendous mastery of the Chinese language, history, and code, while on the other hand was committed to Vietnamese independence from and resistance to Chinese domination throughout the centuries. The mandarin class was therefore inherently nationalist and well educated.

Though not without flaws, particularly in its views toward women according to Duong, the mandarin leaders were people of integrity, culture, and disinterested leadership. Although they received honor and were financially comfortable, they were not a class of tremendous wealth or inherently prone to great corruption and exploitation. It was into this class that Duong’s grandfather and then father were born. By calling to mind the stories of her great-grandfather’s leadership, Duong helps the contemporary reader imagine a Vietnamese world that existed before the French and before the Communists.

By presenting this context, Duong helps us understand the difficult choices that the mandarin elite had to face when French rule began to expand to the North. Do they collaborate or resist? This question of loyalty dominates the life of Duong’s grandfather. His generation was one where a genuine alternative to both French imperial rule and Communist domination sought to find expression.

There were many non-Communist nationalists who resisted French rule. My wife’s grandfather, for instance, lived under house arrest by the French for being a leader of a non-Communist political party opposed to French colonial domination. The failure of French leaders to offer genuine concessions to non-Communist nationalists is the first great tragedy of the Vietnamese century.

Duong’s grandfather believed that the best thing he could do for the masses of North Vietnamese was to work with the French to make their rule as beneficial as possible for the native population. By choosing to work with the French for the sake of the greater good of the country, people like Duong’s grandfather and father were compromised morally. The very people who by virtue of their education and social standing had helped stabilize the region for centuries were eventually discredited when communism came to be seen as the only viable nationalist expression in the North.

For decades to come, particularly during the American phase of the war, westerners would wonder with increasing disdain where the quality leaders of non-Communist Vietnam were. Yet it was Western imperialism that marginalized and trivialized the class of people that could have offered genuine alternatives to Marxism at the earliest stages of the Communist campaign in the North.

Hard Choices

By virtue of the way France asserted its colonial power over the mandarins, the one who could lay claim to the nationalist mantle was Ho Chi Minh. This occurred in spite of the fact that he was importing a utopian vision deeply at odds with Vietnamese culture and tradition. Indeed, Marxism was and is an ideology rooted in the Enlightenment of the West and in its pretensions of control and progress. The Communists therefore downplayed the more radical tenets that they would later implement. They emphasized instead resistance to the French and vague promises of justice to make their cause more palpable to the Vietnamese and to make inroads with the middle class who they needed to draw into the struggle against the French.

This strategy effectively split families and it is here that The Sacred Willow finds its emotional voice. By simply telling the story of her childhood in the North we gain an existential connection to the choices that real people had to make between French collaboration and Communist resistance. It is easy to read back into historical situations a moral and intellectual clarity that draws sharp lines between the good guys and the bad guys. We sometimes assume that people in revolutionary periods of history had been presented with coldly rational choices on a multiple-choice test with all the evils of Communist rule on one side and the benefits of Western democracy on the other.

Yet as Duong’s book points out in terms of the Vietnamese context, often families are simply trying to survive, put their kids through school in the midst of bombs, and make agonizing decisions about the regime that rules them. Particularly illuminating is the story of Duong’s sister, Thang. She decided to marry a member of the Viet Cong and lived a life of incredible sacrifice in the jungles of Vietnam. Thang lived for decades in impoverishment, separated for months at a time from her husband, and unable to even know the status of the rest of her family.

Over the course of time it became clear that the Viet Cong, to whom Thang had signed her life over, were intent on ridding the North of people like her father whom they viewed as traitors to the nation for their involvement with French colonial rule. After the Communists drove out the French from the North in 1954 this same sister would witness the “class cleansing” of the North as the full agenda of the Communist leadership was let loose. But did she know this was the future when she made the difficult choice to participate in armed resistance to the unjust French rule? She had seen how often her father was forced by the French to make decisions that he knew were not best for the Vietnamese people. She decided she did not want to collaborate. That this decision was a tragic mistake is clear, but can I say that I would have chosen differently at that time? And would my choice have been determined by my own desire for comfort and safety rather than a perceived common good?

Personalist historiography, though not without its own weaknesses, invites us to ask precisely these kinds of questions. At its best, this form of history humanizes periods and places without sentimentalizing them. We see people as subjects in a particular story rather than as mere objects in the hands of larger geopolitical forces. From this we can more fully empathize with people involved in thick and complex settings. Then when we come to broader questions about, for instance, what appropriate involvement by the American government in Vietnam might have been, we have more humility and our moral imagination is sparked.

I am grateful to Duong Van Mai Elliott for The Sacred Willow. It is often hard to speak honestly about our families, but by telling her particular story she reminds us of the dignity and grandeur of all the sons and daughters of Noah. We are all part of a grand Covenant story that places our national stories in a broader plot. And by simply testifying to her family’s survival we may gain renewed hope in the midst of this violent age. Because her story is of the Vietnamese century it inevitably provokes reflection on the American century. But more than that, it helps the people of this century come into focus as subjects in God’s redemption rather than as objects of American will. What more can history do? 

Greg Metzger is completing master’s work in international relations at Boston University.

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