It Happened Before

The day after Crimea broke away from Ukraine, our director in Kyiv shared a message from a grantee and the picture below. The message read: “Today I feel like my home was taken. away from me. Miss you Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine.”

When I read the words and saw the seascape, I thought about the two countries I had “lost” in another career: South Vietnam and Iran.

“Need help” was the last message I received from one of my closest friends in Saigon. It was early April 1975, and I did my best by immediately replying with a name and address in-country who offered to help. I never heard from my friend again and years later learned that he perished in a re-education camp.

At about the same time, another family with whom we were very close found themselves pressed into a surging crowd headed for the Saigon river docks. They had not intended to leave but were swept up by the crowd onto a departing boat. After 10 days at sea, they landed at a refugee camp. Three months later they were living in our home in Washington, DC. Eventually the husband returned to his profession (as a composer), his wife found a job in a place called Minneapolis, and their son enrolled in school. A few years ago he graduated at the top of his class from Johns Hopkins University. His mother recently retired as the head of the state’s department of social services. She was always about giving back.

So when Saigon fell in April of 1975 and the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist, I thought I would never return to Vietnam.

After the death of the Communist party chief Le Duan, I heard about the overtures that his successor was making to Senators John F Kerry and John McCain and other former POWs. That would have been in the late 1980s. All were way ahead of our country, though, and I did not think a rapprochement, let alone talks about normalization, would soon be possible. There was little Vietnamese cooperation in the search for U.S. soldiers missing in action. And since the Vietnamese had hundreds of thousands in that category, some of their war veterans were not so eager to help us locate the remains of our 2,646.

There was also great bitterness among our Vietnamese Americans about the Communist victory and post war re-education methods. And the new Vietnam chose to isolate itself from much of the world at a terrible cost. In fact, the average life expectancy of an adult male was several years shorter for a decade after the war than during it.

Kerry and McCain persisted, as did a few of my colleagues. One colleague surprised me greatly. We were then both at Georgetown, and he was running the service learning program to send our students as volunteers to help in the refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia.

“When are you going back?” He asked me one day. And I was quite taken by surprise. My colleague and his brother were famous for buying a jet while Saigon was falling and taking their entire extended families and many others out. Both were known for their fierce resistance to Ho Chi Minh and the communism in the north from when their families had originally fled in 1954. Not only did I think it would be inconceivable that I would go back to Vietnam, but it was even less likely that my friend would.

When he asked the question I was surprised even more when he told me that he had been back already half a dozen times and was actually working on promoting the normalization of US -Vietnam relations. He urged me to visit and said he would make some arrangements. And that he did.

I returned to what was renamed Ho Chi Minh city, which everyone was still calling Saigon. Very little had changed, and people everywhere wanted to reconnect with Americans. A few years later I would take my wife and boys to live and teach in Hanoi.

And the rest is history. We and the Vietnamese worked on finding many MIAs—theirs and ours. Diplomats began talking, veterans returned for closure, families in America started to seek out relatives especially during the lunar New Year holidays, and Vietnamese students began enrolling in U.S. colleges. Heritage was found and honored, and many in both countries were able to close a painful chapter in their lives. The Fulbright program resumed, and Vietnam became once again a country and not just a war. So, in a certain, sense I regained a bit of what I felt I had lost.

It took at least a generation. International education played a big part.

Iran is still a different story.

When the U.S. embassy was taken over the first time in 1979, I was on the team that debriefed Ambassador William H. Sullivan (for whom I had previously worked) on what happened. He was actually taken hostage for about six hours and at one point was taken by two Revolutionary Guards to a stairwell where he thought he would be shot. Instead, they both asked for his help in getting student visas. At that time, Iran was the number one sending country of international students to the United States.

The second time the embassy was overrun, I was a weekend watch officer taking my kids to a Superman matinee. We never saw the end. My colleagues and I thought for at least a few hours that this was a repeat of the first take over and would be over in a matter of hours.

History proved us wrong, of course, and the proverbial next chapter in U.S.-Iran relations has yet to be opened. International education is already playing a role. Many Iranian students are again coming to the United States, and IIE is exploring the possibility of leading a university delegation to Teheran—something we do whenever there is a sudden openness to people-to-people exchanges. I am hopeful, as some of the same key actors that made Vietnam happen are still active in Washington.