Debate brings historians closer to truth: Vietnam War expert

Prof. Edward Miller discusses Vietnam-U.S. post-war relations and the way the Vietnam War’s history is taught in each country

Prof. Edward Miller talks to Tuoi Tre News in Ho Chi Minh City on March 16, 2016.

As Vietnam commemorates the 41th anniversary of Reunification Day, Tuoi Tre News sat down with a U.S. historian to discuss Vietnam-U.S. post-war relations and the ways the war in Vietnam are taught in each country.

Edward Miller, Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College, an American Ivy League university, was leading a group of MBA students from the Tuck School of Business on a Global Insight Expedition (GIX) in Vietnam last March when Tuoi Tre News caught up with him for an interview in Ho Chi Minh City.

Prof. Miller is a historian of American Foreign Relations and modern Vietnam, with special expertise in the American war in Vietnam.

Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day on April 30. 2016 marks 41 years since Vietnamese liberation troops claimed the Independence Palace in the heart of then-Saigon, putting an end to the American-led war in the country.

Bilateral differences solved better than internal differences

* Your students said they deliberately chose Vietnam as the destination for this overseas exchange trip. Was that your recommendation?

Yes. In the United States many students are interested in Vietnam. Most Americans know about the Vietnam War, and they know it was a war that was destructive not only to Vietnam but also to the U.S. But they do not know anything, or very little, about Vietnam today so they are very interested to see what Vietnam is like nowadays.

Before the trip, many Americans coming to Vietnam for the first time are worried. They think that maybe the Vietnamese will be hostile or angry because of the war.

In fact, it is just the opposite. When Americans come to Vietnam they discover most Vietnamese people are really interested to meet, connect with, talk to, and exchange ideas with Americans. This is exciting for American students and Americans in general.

* Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam, as well as the 20th anniversary of the normalization of Vietnam-U.S. diplomatic ties. Are these milestones significant to you and your research?

Yes, I think they are significant. If you look at what has happened in relations between Vietnam and the U.S. in the last 20 years, it is an amazing story. There has been much reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Reconciliation exists between the two governments who might not agree on everything but have a lot of cooperation and collaboration and reconciliation exists between institutions with educational relations and educational exchanges. There are so many Vietnamese students who study in the U.S. now. This would never have happened 20 years ago and is a huge change.

We also see reconciliation in the personal relationships between Americans and Vietnamese, especially when many Americans travel here, live here, and work here. This is something that would not have happened 20-25 years ago. The reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam has come a long way.

However, in other ways, the reconciliation has not come so far, especially reconciliation inside the U.S. and inside Vietnam.

In both cases, the war has left a legacy of bad memories and bad feelings and I think that both Vietnamese and Americans are still struggling with that. They are still struggling to reconcile and overcome the division within society left by the war. The wound left by the war has not yet healed in either country.

I think this is an opportunity for our two countries. Perhaps we can look at the reconciliation between our countries to find ways for reconciliation within our countries.


General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong (L) talks with U.S. President Barack Obama (C) at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters

* You are talking about the differences between people living in the north and people living in the south in Vietnam?

Yes, of course there are differences between the north and the south. But of course there are differences within each region, within each city, and even within individual families. Sometimes one family member was on one side and one family member was on the other side.

In the U.S., it is the same thing. Of course in the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Americans did not fight each other on the battlefield, but the war was very divisive. Americans really disagreed about the war and there were many families, organizations, and institutions that were split on the issue. The government was split. It was a time in which Americans strongly disagreed with each other. We still need to figure out the way to overcome those differences.

* Do you believe there is a chance to do that, when both governments have become more open in improving their relationships?

I think so. When we see Americans and Vietnamese reconcile and come together to overcome the legacy of war, we see that there is hope for both Vietnamese and Americans to overcome their internal differences as well.

There was one Vietnamese leader who I think was very receptive to this problem - Former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. Prime Minister Kiet understood that his country was still divided and that it was very painful and costly for the country. So in 2005 he called for Vietnamese to heal the wound of the war and I think his statement was very important.

* You mean one of his most famous statements, “There is a war-related event that, once mentioned, makes millions of Vietnamese happy, and millions of others unhappy alike”?

Yes. It is a painful memory not only for people who fled Vietnam but also for those who stayed.


Then-Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet (C) shakes hands with Mike Moore, Director-General of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in this file photo taken before the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995.

* Do you think one day your book about Ngo Dinh Diem will be allowed to be published in Vietnam?

I think so. And I think that day will be very soon. In fact Nha Xuat Ban Chinh Tri Quoc Gia [National Political Publishing House - Miller said in Vietnamese] will publish my book this year in Vietnam. We have finished the paperwork and finished the translation. We hope it will be published and will be available to all Vietnamese readers.

(Editor's note: His book was already published on April 25.)

History is about interpretation

* Do you often exchange ideas and work with Vietnamese historians?

Yes, I do. Whenever I come to Vietnam, I depend on my Vietnamese friends, also historians and scholars, because even though I have been coming to Vietnam for 20 years I still know very little about the country. I need to collaborate with local scholars and historians to get their advice, help me find sources, and help me understand the sources that I do find. So yes, I depend very heavily on local scholars and colleagues.

* Do you often argue with them over disagreements?

Of course sometimes we disagree, but this is normal. And of course I have many disagreements with my friends and colleagues in the U.S. as well. So, it is true that sometimes I disagree with historians in Vietnam, but that is OK. That is what historians do. History is not just about facts. History is also about interpretation. Many times we will disagree, but the disagreements help us get closer to the truth.

* Are the courses you teach mainly about Vietnam and the Vietnam War?

Yes, I teach several courses, and the most popular is about the Vietnam War because students at my university are really interested in the topic. Of course, they are too young to remember the war but they know that the war in Vietnam was a very important event in American history, even though many are not sure why it was important. They are really interested in taking my course and learning more about the importance of the war.

For many, their parents or grandparents were affected by the war. Maybe their fathers or grandfathers were soldiers in Vietnam or maybe their mothers and grandmothers protested the war so they know it is important to some people they may have personal connections with. What they do not understand is why the war was so important and so divisive in the U.S.


Prof. Edward Miller. Photo: Dong Nguyen/Tuoi Tre News

* How about the Vietnamese-American students? How do they react to your lessons? Do they display any hostility?

For some Vietnamese-American students who take my course, they are learning about the history of Vietnam for the first time so they are very interested and sometimes surprised when we learn about the war, but they are not hostile. They are like other American students. They really want to learn. I also have some students in my class who are Vietnamese from Vietnam and they come to my class and are very surprised.

* Did those coming from Vietnam tell you that what you are teaching them is much different from what they are taught at home?

Yes, they tell me that. And I tell them it is okay. Some of the things that I teach will be different from the history that they learn in Vietnam. The reason that we study at university is to learn new ways of thinking. We are not just learning new facts. We are learning new ways to think about the world.

If a student from Vietnam comes to my class and discovers a new way to think about the history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, then I am successful. It means we have achieved the most important goal of the university.

* But we still have to admit that there remains a gap in the way history, especially about the Vietnam War, is taught in the U.S. and in Vietnam. Do you hope that there will be one day when the gap is narrowed?

I think it is very important for historians both in the U.S. and Vietnam to exchange ideas and collaborate. I think they can learn a lot from each other. I’ve learned so much from my relationship and collaboration with historians in Vietnam.

But I don’t think the goal is to have everybody think the same way. I think the goal is to have everybody exchange ideas.

History is about interpretation so we will have different interpretations and we will disagree and we will argue. But that’s how we’ll get closer to the truth.

The goal of history is to get closer to the truth. Maybe we will never quite reach the truth but we will get closer through the exchange of ideas.

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