The Long Shadow of Vietnam

“Fierce!” Hope College Women with Vietnamese at Buddhist Center

The 2017 Vietnam May Term was the first ever such experience offered to Hope College students. For two weeks, eight fierce young women helped their two gasping male professor chaperones keep up as we traveled across the immense beauty of Vietnam. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, the Vietnam May Term was a life-changing experience. The people of America’s former bitter enemy welcomed us with world-class hospitality, but always hovering and extending a long shadow was the living memory of the war.

Vietnamese Hmong Children

Looking into the faces of Vietnamese Hmong children, one tried to imagine the fear and passion that had cost 58,000 American and countless Vietnamese lives. For young American and Vietnamese soldiers, waging war in a land of such breathtaking scenery, and whose people possessed such a rich history, must have heightened the incongruity.

One of many buildings at the Royal Ancient City of Hue
Artistry and Beauty at the Royal Ancient City of Hue
The Prior Marine Hope History Professor Ponders the Tactical Geography at Dien Bien Phu

When we traveled to Dien Bien Phu, pieces started falling into place. In 1954, French commanders, determined to preserve their nation’s right to dominate as Vietnam’s colonial master, casually ceded the highlands to their opponents. One need not be a military genius to quickly deduce the dangers of surrendering such an advantage. Presumptions of inherent Vietnamese inferiority proved costly. France’s subsequent defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam underscored the extent of French hubris and highlighted the perils of Western racism.

French Trench Line at Dien Bien Phu

France’s defeat, happening so soon after America’s frustrating stalemate against the communists during the Korean War [1950-1953], underscored the urgency to stand firm against global communism’s clear and present danger. With the situation compounded by the reduction of international complexities to simplifications of East vs. West, Communism vs. Capitalism, Good vs. Evil, Us vs. Them, the turmoil in Vietnam became the de facto possession of the United States.

Over forty years later, Americans are still wrestling with the “How” and “Why” of the Vietnam War. The most recent large-scale attempt to uncover answers to those questions happened on September 18, 2017, when PBS aired Episode I of The Vietnam War by documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

As I watched the program, memories of the May Term were immediately refreshed. Seeing the actual places where Vietnamese and American soldiers had clashed in bloody combat deepened my comprehension of the conflict while challenging me to understand humanity’s ongoing love affair with war. I recalled the powerful bond between the combat vet Marines who trained me in OCS [Officer Candidates School] and how they’d privileged me, and my fellow officer candidates, with their knowledge. Most importantly, I resolved to fight harder against attempts to dismiss the necessity of history. For as one of my undergraduate professors at Bowie State College once proclaimed: “War is a joke that old men play on the young.”

Knowing history may not ultimately prevent war, but it can serve as a powerful force of mitigation. Because it’s difficult to play such lethal jokes on the young when they know the backstory, nature, and motivations of the joke-tellers. Knowing history makes it harder for chicken-hawk leaders to bamboozle and bedazzle with their blustery talk. Knowing history makes it harder to send other people’s children to war while the senders obscure that they’ll bear little, or none, of the cost. History shouts cautionary reminders that Vietnam vets were also once young, did their duty, and returned home to a nation determined to forget the war, and them. History challenges contemporary Americans to demand the same dedication and self-sacrifice from its leaders that is expected of the young people who are, have been, and will be sent to war.

Brothers and Sisters

Many Vietnamese sincerely told me that, while they’ve forgiven those responsible for the deaths of so many of each nation’s best and brightest, they will not forget. They choose to remember their history. They choose to learn. They choose to have a future that honors the sacrifices of the past. During the 2017 May Term they did so by accepting their American visitors as brothers and sisters.

Photographic Memory: My History Journey to Holland in World War I

Me in front of a wagon at a local museum, ca. 2006. I’ve always loved history and poor hair decisions.

Student Feature: by Aine O’Connor

My history begins with a photo album. The album follows the childhood and adolescence of my mother and her four siblings, tracing their stories. It is a green book overflowing with papers and letters. Everything that you could possibly imagine is stuffed in there. Birth records, First Communion Polaroids, school photos, and high school diplomas line the pages. Creases run through the binding now, and although it is almost five decades older than me, I am convinced the cracks come from the unbelievable number of times I opened it. Long before I knew what a major was, or that Hope College existed—even before I could read—I have clear memories of spending hours poring over that album.

When I finally arrived at Hope College almost exactly a year ago as an undeclared History and English major, my mind floated back to that old photo album. Since I had learned to read, books and literature had taken over my life. All I did was read, taking in unbelievable amounts of information useful to almost no one. I could have told you all of the presidents in order, and I probably would have thrown in a random fact for each one (Millard Fillmore married his schoolteacher!). But as I threw myself into my history methods class and other upper-level courses, I found myself drawn more and more to the photographic evidence. What were they trying to say, I wondered. What were photographs trying to tell me?

Ernest Vanden Bosch in his uniform.

As it turns out, both the photographs you take and the photographs you find say a lot. I learned that most poignantly this summer. Along with my two research colleagues, Avery Lowe and Natalie Fulk, I researched the Holland, Michigan and Hope College experience of World War One. I was shocked at how moving the photographs taken during this time could be, even one hundred years later. For much of the project, I followed the exploits of Hope College soldiers at the front, told mostly through Hope College’s newspaper The Anchor. This was a fascinating experience, but it was not until I started to carefully comb through yearbook photos in the Milestone that their stories became real. These were men my age,who fought and died for my country. One of them, Ernest Vanden Bosch, lost his left leg in battle, returned to Hope, and graduated four years later as president of his class. Remarkable people, leading remarkable lives, reserved for posterity in a yearbook photo.

All of these photos, and more, can be viewed at our website, “We All Must Do Our Utmost: Holland, Michigan in World War I.” While you’re there, I would advise you to take a look at the “Hollander Heroes” page, as well. Many of these men had no yearbook full of easily accessible photos to look back on. Instead, I was lucky enough to go and photograph their graves at Pilgrim Home Cemetery in Holland. Even though their journey here on Earth ended in Holland, their history journey had only just begun. Someday, when my college memories are just pictures in a photo album, I will include these soldiers, part of a history journey that is only just beginning.