How Vietnam Remembers Its `American War'

FALL OF SAIGON 20 YEARS LATER. To not offend American investors, Hanoi avoids celebrating its victory

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PRESIDENT Gerald Ford, speaking in New Orleans on April 23, 1975, described the Vietnam war as ''finished.'' A week later -- 20 years ago this Sunday -- the North Vietnamese swept into Saigon, the last Americans fled the city by helicopter, and the South Vietnamese surrendered.

In some ways, Mr. Ford spoke too soon. The recent spasm of recrimination prompted by the memoirs of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara demonstrates that the Vietnam war remains unfinished, particularly for Americans. The Vietnamese seem to have adjusted better to what they call the ''American war.''

For Vietnam, the Americans were just one in a series of interlopers, along with the Chinese, French, and Japanese.

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China and Vietnam have warred, on and off, for centuries. The French came to Indochina in the early 17th century, solidifying their colonization of Vietnam in 1862, but were replaced when the Japanese invaded during World War II. At the war's end, the French returned, and the Vietnamese Communist forces fought them from 1946 until the French pulled out in 1954.

As the French left, an international conference of the postwar powers divided Vietnam in half at the 17th parallel, with a non-Communist government taking control in South Vietnam. A Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, the father-figure of Vietnamese independence, led the North.

The US, worried about the advance of communism in Asia, began supporting the Southern government in 1955, a commitment that ultimately involved sending US troops to defend the country from infiltration of troops from the North. During the ensuing war -- waged by the North in the name of nationalism and unification, and by the South and the US in the name of stopping communism -- about 1.5 million people died, including more than 58,000 Americans.

For the US, Vietnam symbolizes the trauma of a divided a nation and the limits of its international power. For Vietnam, the defeat of the Americans is merely another victory for a people who have consistently prevailed over better-armed and more numerous enemies.

The 20th anniversary, similarly, has already proved more complicated for the US, in large part because of Mr. McNamara's remorseful book. In Vietnam the government has put on a series of commemorations, but has studiously avoided celebrating victory over the US. Rather the words ''unification'' and ''liberation,'' have been used in Vietnam to describe what happened 20 years ago.

In what is sometimes called ''the new Vietnam,'' America is too important to alienate. Hanoi is now radically retooling its economic system, since the fall of communism made the pursuit of central planning untenable.

Since the late 1980s, it has welcomed foreign investors, tried to improve its ties with the West, and implemented a series of free-market reforms. This year the US and Vietnam established ''liaison offices,'' a precursor to the resumption of full-fledged diplomatic ties.

Powerful US lobbies insist that missing US soldiers be accounted for before Washington normalizes relations with Hanoi, and by all accounts the Vietnamese have been increasingly helpful in this process.

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