A Complex Conflict

Was it a Cold War hot spot or an independence movement? More than 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese died in this war. Why?

The “it” in question refers to the Vietnam War, which spanned decades from November 1955 to April 1975. In an Upper School FOCUS course, “1, 2, 3. What are we fighting for?” students look at the in-depth causes of the Vietnam War, known as the “American War” in Vietnam, its toll on the populations of Vietnam and the U.S. and its long-term legacy.

Students review primary sources including literature, songs and film, as well as secondary sources, to help decipher the immediate and long-term impact the war had in the U.S. and Southeast Asia. To supplement the students’ learning, US History teacher Lauren Tartaglia invites distinguished guests to speak to the class. For example, Vietnam War veteran David Walker Zoomed into the class in late May to expand their understanding of the conflict and answer questions. “He embodies the values of bravery and service,” said Ms. Tartaglia.

On June 1, students enjoyed another special visit. This time, Chapin parent and Chair of POCC’s Parents of Asian American Children (PAAC), Dr. Ngan Nguyen, joined the group to share her first-hand experience.

Born in Southern Vietnam, Dr. Nguyen has vivid memories of the war. “It is a very complex conflict,” she began. “We all have biases but, today, I’m going to share my perspective.”

Dr. Nguyen then shared a few key dates including 1930, when Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party; 1950, when the Korean War started and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam became recognized by China and USSR; and 1954, when Vietnam split into the North and South due to the Geneva conference.

“My family saw it as a civil war and the North as the aggressor,” said Dr. Nguyen, explaining that her father was a renowned pilot during the war.

By 1975, at the early age of 4, Dr. Nguyen recalls having to evacuate her home country due to the fall of Saigon. “My father flew out so many senior rankings and families who had to leave,” she said with admiration.

After a few harrowing days, her family (mother, father, brother, sister and she) made it to a boat that ultimately arrived in Louisiana. “A couple took us in,” she shared. “Betty and Jim. She was a teacher, and he was a pilot – my parents own professions! Betty helped my mom learn English and she became the first Vietnamese teacher in Louisiana.”

Dr. Nguyen shared the mix of experiences she had growing up, saying, “My mom took in so many refugees and opened our home to them, like a soup kitchen. My house was full of Vietnamese dishes for those who had to come without their families. There were no Vietnamese restaurants at this time!”

She also discussed that, at times, it was difficult “growing up as a refugee,” especially for her parents and elder Vietnamese folks. “This group lost their families, their country – all they knew.”

A few years later, her parents achieved their goal of buying a house. However, it was often vandalized with obscene and hurtful phrases spraypainted on it. “They thought we were communists,” she said solemnly. She noted her father was particularly hurt by that assumption rather than the destruction. “He used to say, ‘We are allies! We fought with you against them!’” Dr. Nguyen said, however, as time went on, they did become friends with their neighbors.

“My mom’s dream was to reunite with her family in Vietnam,” she continued. Unfortunately, her mother passed away when she was in college, so Dr. Nguyen made it her mission to find her family.

After receiving the Thomas J. Watson fellowship after her college graduation, Dr. Nguyen embarked on a trip to Bangkok, and, later, backpacked to Vietnam. She told a touching story about finding her grandparents and having the opportunity to kayak across the “17th parallel,” an imaginary line that split Vietnam during the war. “It was an emotional time,” she said.

She also talked about her work with UNICEF, the goal of which was “empowering girls and women through education.” After 30 minutes of speaking with heartfelt passion, Dr. Nguyen wrapped up by sharing sweet photos of her as a baby, her parents and grandparents.

Dr. Nguyen, along with her family, exemplifies strength, resilience and acting with courage. As she finished her moving talk, the Upper Schoolers gave her a robust round of applause.