Stories connected to American childhoods
No Bloodbath Indeed
Ah, a day at the beach with the kids. Sun, surf, severed heads in the sand.
Wait, what? This photo (circa 1972) shows five of the seven Welch kids happily ensconced in sand up to their necks. The caption: “Shirley Faye did not like this picture. She said it ‘looks like a war.’”
I don’t remember that day at the beach but the reference to decapitation brought to mind my mother’s letter of March 13, 1975:
“We did get down to Vung Tau one Sunday–always a wonderful place to go to get out of the city and breathe the sea air. [T]he children have 9 days off for Easter vacation and I had hoped to go to Dalat and Nha Trang. However, I guess with the war situation as it is we’ll just have to stay around Saigon … Jim received a report today from Ban Me Thuot and the province officials were all captured and 9 of the 12 were executed – – by beheading! No bloodbath, indeed.”
The actual assault on Ban Me Thuot by the North Vietnamese Army began 44 years ago today. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger heard of the rout, he “was both surprised and puzzled at the news. Yet according to staffers who were with him, he did not feel that this unfortunate turn of events betokened any real crisis for South Vietnam.”1
On the other hand, historian Frank Vieth states that, “Rarely in the history of nations can one point with such precision to the beginning of the country’s demise.”2
Of course, to be fair to Kissinger, Vieth had the benefit of hindsight. Like Kissinger, those of us living with the war had no idea that the news of the fall of Ban Me Thuot would soon be followed by a melee of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to get out of the country.
1. “Decent Interval,” Frank Snepp, 1977, p. 183.
2. “Black April, The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-75, Frank Vieth, p. 8.
Stories connected to historical moments
Burned into Memory
“… people periodically do burn themselves up,“ my mother wrote in Sept 1974. “We are always to avoid any large crowd of people milling about, so riding seems to be the order of the day. Such a shame.”
Oddly, my mother was referring to the Buddhist practice of self-immolation and I could find no reported incidents in the 1970s.
The image she was certainly thinking of was that of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who, on this day in 1963, had his body set aflame on a crowded Saigon street.
He was protesting the ongoing mistreatment of the country’s large Buddhist population by Ngo Dinh Diem, the autocratic US-supported leader of South Vietnam.
Quang Duc left a respectful plea that the president “take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally.”
Diem responded with empty promises and defensive conspiracy theories. Soon five more monks self-immolated in protest. The U.S. distanced itself and Diem was assassinated by his own generals that November.
AP Photographer Malcolm Browne captured Quang Duc’s sacrifice, winning a Pulitzer Prize and a striking a “match” to the question of Vietnam.
“No news picture in history, ” said JFK, “has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
A similar upswelling of emotion followed the viral video of George Floyd’s murder by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. From thousands of peaceful protests around the country, to riotous clashes with militarily armed police, and, in some cases, burning and looting, the response has resonated worldwide, sparking international rallies of tens of thousands of people in support of the American Black Lives Matter movement.
In retrospect, it is clear that Diem’s failure to respond sincerely to Quang Duc’s death contributed to his assassination.
It is likely to be some time before we can see clearly the result of our own burning questions about the issues at hand, but one thing is certain—while George Floyd did not choose his death as Quang Duc did, his image will go down in history marking this pivotal time.
Are you teaching about the history of the Vietnam War? I have unique resources that can help. Please email me to find out more, or check out my chapbook, The Fight to Write, What the Vietnam Taught Me About Truth & Writing.
Or if you just need a quick answer about why your students should care about the Vietnam War, check out Five Reasons Kat Fitzpatrick Cares about Vietnam (And Three Reasons Why You Should, Too).
I hope you find all the resources you need and, again, please let me know if I can help.