tv Book Discussion on A Sense of Duty CSPAN May 1, 2016 8:00am-8:48am EDT
>> this program was recorded in 2010 -- >> next on history bookshelf, former u.s. marine quang pham talks about his personal experience as a vietnamese refugee in his book, "a sense of duty," it begins just before the fall of saigon in 1975 when he and his siblings and mother went to america. his father, and air pilot, stay behind and was held in a prisoner of war camp for 10 years. this program was recorded in 2010 in san francisco. it is about 45 minutes. [applause] mr. pham: good evening. i know that the wine is part of the program, but i hope that is not why you are here tonight. [laughter] having done this a few times, i will only answer questions that
are written in vietnamese. [laughter] tonight is a special night. 35 years ago, april 22, 1975, was the night our family left saigon. it brought an end to the life that we had. a life full of joy and happiness living among your own people, speaking your native language, being around family and friends. that life will always be a part of me, but as you will hear shortly, my new american life turned out to be very rich as a result of the people i have met in this country. and i am humbled and honored that you're here tonight so i can share that part of my journey with you.
vietnam is always a loaded topic in this country, despite 35 years. it is part of the debate that sparked me in 2004 to write this book, "a sense of duty." in 2004, i have been out of the marines for 10 years on active duty. i was married and turning 40. and the election between john kerry and george bush was about to take place. as most of you remember the , discussions about who went to vietnam, who did not, the national guard. and we were in the middle of a war. the war in iraq was in its second year. in the middle of all this debate, the vietnam memories came back up. the newspaper articles, the interest in the media, and the conversations about iraq and
vietnam, what lessons have we learned? are we going through another fiasco? are we going to win this time? what was consistent was despite vietnamesely 1.7 living in the united states, of which 500,000 had served in the military, having thousands of self vietnamese veterans who spoke english and fall with many -- fought with many of you in vietnam, i found no voice. it was as if it had taken place between the north vietnamese and the americans, and is it the south vietnamese were just characters in the background. like a good marine, if you don't find your voice and a book that shares your experience, you write one. [laughter] but as a first-time author,
trying to write a book about the vietnam war from a south vietnamese perspective was humbling because i think when you show the editors in new york that your manuscript is what you they are try to look at and you get rejections. they tell you you have a great story, but your story is stiff, like your military training. [laughter] i am thankful that my publisher, ballantine books, took a chance. what i would like to share with andin the interest of time see that we have enough time to take some questions, i would like to share with you my life in vietnam, what it was like. in the vietnam context, the american people see the vietnam war through several lenses. one, through the veterans' eyes. those who have served honorably have come back and told their stories.
we have seen it shared through the movies. for my generation of marines in the 1980's, that had a major influence on how our military saw the vietnam war. and obviously, military lessons taught in military schools. living in vietnam, as i have reflected back when i wrote this book, was part "the great santini" and part the best dream a boy could have. being the only boy in the family with three sisters and a father who was a career air force pilot living in saigon, it was like a dream. you watch your dad go fly, i saw but in vietnam i saw my dad go , fly, and he took me flying in a military aircraft when i was a kid. i saw them go off and come back,
sometimes with the smoke trailing. i saw parachutes coming out of aircraft, coming back from war. it was something that, until i lived in this country for a number of years and saw the war as a civilian, i really did not have the perspective that we were living through a war. , think growing up in vietnam as americans, we send our men and women overseas and leave the families here. but in south vietnam and most other countries, you live in a war zone. so your fathers and uncles are fighting a war and raising a family. in 2004 when i was turning 40, i remember my late father. it was in 1975 when he was turning 40, that he had to make that decision on april 22 19 75,
eveningears ago this when your president had left office and the president of , south vietnam had left the country, and the north vietnamese army was encroaching on your city, and the war is coming to an end, and the americans are about to pull the evacuation. what do you do? do you stay and fight until the end even though your leader has already left? do you send your family away and sneak out, which quite a few people did? or do you just stay and do your duty? i think those are the decisions that, as an american looking back, those were extremely difficult decisions. later in his life, my father would say that he stood his ground and did his duty, and that he would not do anything different despite having to spend 12 years in the prison
camps that the north vietnamese put him through. we left vietnam. we were evacuated to guam. and on april 30, we received the news. i still remember the day, playing on the beaches on april 30, 1975. there were mostly women and children of this refugee camp, and it was an old marine barracks. there was a radio that was available at one of the barracks. our parents were gathered around there, and in the afternoon there was a big cry. someone yelled out that the bbc had announced that it was all over. and at that moment, we thought we had lost my father forever, because it had been a week, we did not know where he was. there have been planes and boats coming out of vietnam, and he was nowhere to be found.
from that moment, our american journey began. we were moved to arkansas, one of the three refugee camps. and from there, right into the sixth grade where we resettled in southern california. so i think as a vietnamese refugee coming to southern california, it is already a big melting pot. and by the way, when our planes were coming to the air force base through san francisco, governor jerry brown was adamantly against the vietnamese refugees coming here. he literally went out to the ied to stopd tr airplanes from landing. the secretary of state at that time said, we have plenty of minorities in california, we do not need any more. straight out of the pages of history. nevertheless, we grew up in california. i remember the early days.
what i remember was that there were a lot of fights. a lot of kids thought we were chinese. and we told them we were not chinese, we were vietnamese. they would say, what are you doing here? aren't we fighting you? why did you come to america? it was a bit confusing. we picked up english right away because at that point, there was no english as second link which vietnamese kids, so they brought in a vietnam veteran who claimed that he spoke the enemies. -- spoke vietnamese. so now my sisters and die in ir in grade school, they bring in an american, and spoke french. and he started speaking gi slang to us, and it got confusing. [laughter] after a few weeks he stopped coming to the school. after that, it was sink or swim.
the first big lesson for us and america was, learn english. and we had to learn it, because because without english, we would not be speaking to our friends. they did not speak vietnamese. they spoke spanish or english, and that was it. as we continue with our life in america, my mother became this head of the household. in vietnam, she had been a schoolteacher. and when you are married to a hothead pilot in the vietnamese air force, it was a different role for her because now in america she had no husband and no job, when i look back at those years, i don't know how we made it except we met some very nice americans. our member having been sponsored -- i remember having been sponsored by a family in oxnard california, and we are forever , grateful to those. i remember my coach maurice who
drove me to every little league baseball practice for two years. those are the things i remember about the kindness of the americans who actually helped us despite what happened in the aftermath of the vietnam war. to fast-forward, the second part of my life as i entered college in los angeles in 1983 at ucla, it was time to become an american citizen. let me tell you, when you carry a green card for nine years and everything you fill out, they say are you an american citizen? no. where are you from? in the first couple years, vietnam was not on there. china, korea, philippines, and then vietnam was on
there and it became pacific islanders. i remember in 1984 when i became an american citizen, it was great. not because i can put an american sticker on my bumper and say usa, usa. i was happy because every piece of paper i filled out i could check "yes," i am an american citizen, don't bother me. [laughter] it was a time of ronald reagan, and i think it was something that, when i became an american citizen and the oath of allegiance that you would support the constitution and join the military. as a child in vietnam that is , all i wanted to do, to serve my country in south vietnam and become a pilot like my father, but when you come to america and you watch "an officer and a gentleman," you just really don't really see yourself as zack mayo. you really didn't. [laughter]
and i think at that time in my life, being in l.a., it was the time those vietnam war movies came out. "dear hunter," "apocalypse now," "platoon," "full metal jacket." it was something i always had a the interest in seeing how vietnamese were portrayed in those movies. obviously i wanted to be in a movie myself. at the college paper one day, they said we need extras. students welcome. no card needed. asian americans needed to make a movie, that's me! i live in l.a. so i called the number and the woman comes out and says your english is very good. and i said yes, i am a student. we need a lot of extras to play
the viet cong. true story. i said, hang on. in 1985, if you remember the 1980's, the apartheid in south africa, there was a lot of protests on college campuses. so i was used to that walking through ucla. one day in april in 1985, a young man with long hair of my age ran by, i bumped into them, him, he gave me a flyer. i opened it and it said come celebrate the 10th anniversary of the eviction of the american occupiers in vietnam. i did not go to that party, either. [laughter] a year after, i met my marine recruiter on campus.
it all started when i became an american citizen. i found out that if you want to be a pilot in the american military you have to be an officer. and to be an officer you have to go to the academy or get a college degree or join rotc. by that time i was a senior in college, so i had to join the officer school. i call of the air force. any air force veteran in here? the air force recruiter said mr. pham, are you an engineering major with a 3.5 degree -- i ? i said no. i am studying economics. they said, can you swim, mr. pham? i said, not very well. i took one of the last planes out of saigon. i did not take a boat.
then it was the marine corps. they said do you have a 2.0 gpa? [laughter] this is where the marine connection started to come in. i said i do. it went back to high school. you remember the series with robert conrad, "baa baa black sheep?" i said, i remember those planes, the show. they got in fights all the time, and they were marine pilots. and they only need a 2.0. having lived in vietnam during the war and seeing my father, i thought i knew something about being in the military, that i could handle what it took to become a marine officer.
so in 1986 i signed up for marine officer school. 10 wonderful weeks of summer vacation in quantico, virginia. i think i underestimated how difficult it would be emotionally. i knew the three mile run, the 20 pull-ups, that stuff was difficult but very doable. but in the summer of 1986, 11 years after the fall of saigon, wanting to become a marine aviator, showing up at quantico, this is also the summer that "top gun" came out. so you have a l.a. kid going to quantico. there is no mentioning of the air wing in quantico. you have a father who was still in reeducation camp. my first days standing at
quantico, the instructor came up and said quang pham, chong, whatever your name is, what you are you doing in my marine corps? are you a viet cong spy? things got easier because after four weeks i figured out the marine corps did not like everybody. they did not like the vietnamese, the mexicans, the poll lock, the black kid from south carolina. it was equal opportunity harassment. the attrition rate was high, . only 35 of us made it out of a class of 60. the lightbulb came on that they were just working everybody with no special treatment for you. i made it through the ninth week , and i said this is not for me. the marine corps having spent
nine weeks watching training films. first the marines on iwo jima, firebombing the japanese. in korea, right? and the initial training films of the vietnam. boy, they really like asians in the marine corps. but those are the facts. that is the history. that is where the 20th century marine corps history was made. i am not trying to change it, . just watching those films and realizing this is not the place for me. and i was not the brightest candidate. there was some legacies, some general's sons in the class i was in. the captain asked one day, if any of you had fathers who are lieutenant colonel's or above, raise your hand. i did not know what he meant, i i figured my father was a kernel in 1975, so i raised my hand.
the captain said in the american military, pham! [laughter] by the ninth week i made it, i marineaid i will take my corps certificate and go home, and hang it up in my apartment, and that was it. my best friend, mark henderson, his father was a vietnam vet, and a force pilot graduate of the air force academy. we decided to go to georgetown. and we went to the vietnam wall. it was one of those moments that you remember for the rest of your life because when you look at the wall and see 58,000 american names and you knew that your country south vietnam was lost in your father was still up don't knowou
a name on the wall. it was a moment that i remember for six months when i went back to college. by december of 1986, i realized that what i thought the wall and theaw at the wall and impact it had on me, meant i had to go serve my country of the united states of america. i joined and throughout my early years of the marine corps, there was something that always drew me back to vietnam. by the time i got back through quantico, and pensacola, where navy pilots go to train, i am walking through the naval aviation museum one day going, god, i am almost done, i am going to be an american naval aviator. how cool is that? i am looking at all these planes in the museum in pensacola, and i see one little plane hanging on the ceiling. it is a little 01 observation
plane. it had the markings of south vietnam from the south vietnamese air force. do know what that plane is from? it is from a vietnamese pilot who landed that plane on the last day of the war, waved to his whole family. i said wow, a record of my past. it landed in the museum of my future. when i got to my first squadron, i realized that he did not it did not matter what your rank was, what your color was, it mattered if you could fly. as a helicopter pilot, you have marines in the back of your helicopter. and so to be trusted as a first lieutenant flying helicopters in the persian gulf war was one of the greatest responsibilities i
ever had. the war was very brief. it was overwhelmingly victorious. it was something that a young marine recently told me on the driving range, we were hitting some golf balls last month, he had been in iraq twice, afghanistan twice, and he was home. and we were talking. and he said, what war were you in, sir? and i said desert storm the , short one. we were there for seven months, days.r was 71 and he said, that is my kind of war, sir. [laughter] in 1992, my father was released from vietnam. i think up until that point, we had given up hope. we knew he was alive, and we
knew in 1987 he was released, but the communists like to take their time. it took another five years. to give you a quick synopsis, we of the 17 years, we did not know what happened to him, and did not know until he passed away and i started writing a book. my father was born in 1935, and vietnam was divided in half in 1954. he joined forces with the south, joined the new vietnamese air force, went to france, took a ship, became an aircraft mechanic. he then applied for flight school because the americans took over training at the vietnamese military by 1956, if .nd he was accepted if you look at the history of americans training foreign militaries, what we're trying to do in afghanistan and iraq, you
have to look at the vietnamese example. they brought the vietnamese to the united states and set them through language school in texas and became a u.s. air force-trained pilot by 1959. returned to vietnam, served the entire war until 1975. he amassed over 7500 hours of flight time, mostly in combat. returned to the united states as part of a commander school in 1966. by the time he stepped off the plane in 1992, it'd been 17 years since we last saw him, 35 years ago tonight. from april 22, 1975, until may 17, 1992. when i last saw dad, he was 40 years old, tall, loud, cocky, proud.
when i saw him again when he walked off the plane he was an , old man. the weather, the prison, he was hunched over. he walked off the plane, and we looked at him and said, what are we going to do? what do you say to her father your father after you have not seen him for 17 years? then he smiled, and we ran toward him. and he had a spark in his eyes that told me that the communists had not broken him, his spirit was still there. knowing that the reunion would be brief because i was about to board for my second summer vacation in the persian gulf. the marine corps is great. they say captain pham, you have not seen your dad in 17 years, we will give you four days off. [laughter] the amphibious group was sailing from san diego to hawaii. the word got out, the kernel
lonel called me and said we will give you six days. but he said, you better be at pearl harbor when we pull in. after 17 years, i spent six days with my father and went to the 11th unit to the gulf. and then briefly into mogadishu. we never became father and some son like in vietnam. there was always a bridge to there. you cannot make up that time, it was not just generational, but cultural. when he passed away, i felt as if i had let a great opportunity -- how many kids have fathers who passed away in the vietnam war had the opportunity i did? i did not know what he did in the war, what happened to them, him, why he did not leave with us when we left saigon.
i was able to reassemble the pieces. a journalist had interviewed my father. in the recording, he talked about things that i wished i had asked him when i was alive. and when my father passed away, bernie sent me the tapes and said, you better sit down. you better take your time and listen to the words carefully. because my father was very straightforward on his feelings about the vietnam war, about his time in the camps, about how the communists treated him after the war. but also, his thoughts on serving with the americans. he talked about having all the advisors that came in for six months and went back to america. he spoke about the captain from west point who entered his landed in his fighter squadron and said, this war will be over in six months.
so there were a lot of things i learned from the vietnamese side of the war that i did not read about in the history books, i did not hear about in the military school, or see in the hollywood movies. so the last part of the book was to reconcile the trail of the -- the portrayal of the vietnam war versus the memory of your father. let me close by saying, there there was one other thing i wanted to do was find out who was responsible for an act early in my father's career. when i grew up we knew he had , been shot down. rescued andad been that he was spared an early death work activity. during the book, one of the greatest rewards i had was that people would always essay why did you join the marine corps?
i wanted to serve my country. i felt a sense of duty. but in 2004 i learned that it was destiny. i found out that dad had been shot down when i was only five months along, and he had been picked up by a marine helicopter in the central highlands where he was shot down. in 2004, i met colonel bradford john bradford and thanked him for that, and put the pieces together and came to terms with the angst and memories of the vietnam war. the colonel passed away this december. we went to arlington, where he received full military honors. he received a silver star as part of his actions in april of 1964.
i also learned a few things by serving in the marines and meeting many great vietnam vets. i thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service on behalf of the people of south vietnam, but i also learned that if i had a son, i would never name him victor charles. [laughter] thank you very much. [applause] >> that was very, very interesting. we have some questions. the first question comes about the role the united states played in vietnam. do you think the united states was right to go to war in vietnam? mr. pham: yes i do. hindsight is always 20/20, but if you look at what was going on after world war ii, the chinese had gone communist, and had a
tie to korea. the face-off with the soviet union. the fact that we were the only superpower after world war ii, all play into the fact. the dynamics of the war evolved, from an east-west confrontation into an insurgency, into a full-blown war, and a last-minute evacuation. but i think by the late 1950's and early 1960's, i think we did the right thing by intervening in vietnam. i also believe that the early intervention with advisers between 1961 and 1965 probably should have been that way, instead of sending 550,000 american combat troops. >> have you gone back to vietnam? mr. pham: i did go back to
vietnam. it was the week after i was discharged from the marine corps in 1995. back, butg to sneak we did not have relations with vietnam. in the clinton administration, things were getting closer. i made a decision to go back because my grandmother had passed away. i also had cousins i had not seen in 20 years. so i went back for a week. the effect of having the vietnam memories of watching movies and hearing about the communist government, i did not want to go back as a marine officer i was very careful i did not wander off in saigon. it was probably paranoia, but i did not want them to lock me up for trying to start some sort of expatriate movement. >> the second related question,
how did you feel? was there a cultural gap for you when you were back in vietnam? mr. pham: back in vietnam i felt like an nfl football player. [laughter] you get off the plane in ho chi minh city, but for me, it will always be saigon. i felt like a giant. and i had an american passport. was a american passport $20 bill and that was part of the deal. that was the way the government worked. it was $20 to get through if you are an ex-pat going through. you had to carry a lot of cash. it was great to see the friends, the kids, some of my cousins, the people who took care of us when we were small. life was tough in vietnam. it was 20 years after the war.
the aftermath of the war and the economy, the communists knew how to fight, but they did not know how to run a peace time economy. it was really almost depressing to go outside and saigon and look at the way people were living compared to how we were living in southern california. >> you mentioned in your introduction the millions of refugees who came to the united states and 500,000 had served in , the vietnamese military. is there a feeling of u.s. betrayal among those refugees who are veterans of the vietnamese military? mr. pham: i think it depends. when you ask an american veteran about the vietnam war, it depends what year you were in the country, what unit, what service, and the same with the vietnamese veterans because some
got out during the fall of saigon. officers went to long-term reeducation prison camps. you had a flip in the society. those who left in 1975 and became very successful. they came to america, and if you're good, you get ahead. there is no system. and then come you may have a general or colonel who comes out 17 years later and is pumping gas, like my dad, at the airport. my father never felt a betrayal by the americans. we talked about the americans giving up 58,000 plus lives for vietnam. we always felt the americans with theire because there was no invasion of the americans -- they really fought for south vietnam's survival. he did not have it and his
friends did not have it, but there is a certain group in the vietnamese military that felt that they were abandoned because the americans left, cut the deal with the north vietnamese to get the pow's out. president nixon went to china and once there were relations between the united states and china, there was no more red scare. we were friends with the chinese, and it was time to bring the troops home. congress did not support the violation of the paris peace accords in 1973. there are elements of the veteran community in the vietnamese community that definitely feel a sense of betrayal and abandonment. >> how about your feelings to the current communist regime in vietnam? mr. pham: they are a lot like likely cubans in florida, except the united states did not lose 58,000 in any kind of war. we had a missile crisis in the
1960's, but i think there are parts of the community that have strong resentment against the communist government. not the people. when i went back and saw the young kids who were clearly born after 1975, and you look at the statistics, it was like our baby boom years after the war. they had nothing to do with the vietnam war. but i think they were against the government for human rights violations, and for not having developed the country further along. in vietnam, despite all the good things, still behind all the asian tigers. still a lot of red tape. it may be another generation before the new blood takes power. >> one of our audience members asked, do you want to go back to
vietnam to visit now? mr. pham: i would like to go back to vietnam again. i have a small daughter who is four, and my wife would like to go back. i think we will wait a few years just because of the age. not because of any fear like i had during my first return. >> we switch a little bit to current operations here, this . this question that relates. any comparisons you want to make between the war that took lace place in vietnam to the war that we are now engaged in in afghanistan? mr. pham: i think there are similarities. but many differences. the differences are the scale of the war. i think vietnam was not just a simple civil war between the north and the south. vietnam was a full war, plus a counter insurgency, and an
east-west confrontation between superpowers, and a diplomatic effort from the 1950's through the 1970's. we went through six presidents before my father was released. very complex. i think the similarities are the nationbuilding. i am not sure we mastered that in iraq, afghanistan, to what we learned in vietnam. on military strategy, i have shared this, and i have a lot of friends still on active duty, and i support what we are doing because the decisions have been made in afghanistan. as a marine, as somebody who studied the south vietnamese perspective, i am not sure the -- ifan military is built you look at our training and heritage and victories, we are
built to kill and win. what you ask a young marine, a combat unit to go to vietnam, iraq or afghanistan, and take a one-page note out of the vietnam war, something we took out of general abram's latter years in vietnam, cleared the area, hold it, and build it so we can leave and they take over. i am not sure that is the model. i just know when you have an allied military like the south vietnamese, the iraqis, the afghanistan, and a first world military like the united states, with close air support, with drones and all kinds of weaponry if you really want to train the world military, you take away the fancy stuff.
it is hard to do big compat operations in third world countries and expect them to perform. if you read the newspapers, when things go bad, there are three things the papers say. the government is corrupt, which we have no control over. the military is inept and unwilling to fight for their own freedom. the same three headlines. i think it is more like clear, hold and build, it is really more like clear, hope, and send the taxpayers a big bill. i am being serious when i say that. we are very good at shock and clearing the enemy. in the gulf war shock and awe. , we are very good at clearing. in holding and hoping that the locals who stand up except the accept the american ways of
doing politics, education, it is a hope. there is no other country like ours. going into a third world country that has been at war for years, and who have fought for it powers for many years is really a big hope. and you look at the bill, how much is the war going to cost the taxpayers? certainly it is not an issue with politicians. congress is completely missing in action with wars in afghanistan and iraq. 2003, andvote in there has been no other vote really. but in 1965, 98-2 in the united states senate to enter. when you had the limitations of the presidential power act, and at the end, in april of 1975 when the north vietnamese send t those divisions of south and president ward that with congress and asked for last-minute aid, congress said no. at least they were active. those are differences and
similarities in the wars that we are in now. the last thing i will say is, war?s fighting the less than 1% of the population . there is no draft. so when you do polling about what is important to the american people, you have those who say we support the troops, but you will also hear health care, the economy, the tax. you hear everything the wars don't even come up in the top three or four. that is different than 150,000 people marching in the 1960's and 1970's against the vietnam war. when you don't have to be called to go fight, war protesting is a lost art. [laughter] >> last question. you spent a life of service, in in the marine corps, and a lot
you are on a lot of nonprofit boards to help people, like scholarship foundations, marine memorial associations and other nonprofits. you seem to have a desire to always be in a position to provide a service to your country. what is your next plan? mr. pham: i had explored running, and i did run for nine months for the republican nomination in california's 47 district. i withdrew from the race last month due to several personal factors in my life as well as the dynamics of the race. i think service to community and country are honorable, and i think i learned that through meeting people. the sponsors of our family, the men and women in uniform, the vietnam veterans, and the veterans who continue to support
our troops through nonprofits like the marines' memorial. as far as politics, my late father would say, not for me. we will have to see what happens after this cycle. >> thank you very much. [applause] >> you are watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook at c-span history. toledo, university of history lecturer chelsea griffis