Somewhere in the Gulf of Tonkin

About a year ago, when I was finalizing my cruise schedule for 2019, I got the speaker assignment on a cruise that would go to Vietnam during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year that coincides with the Chinese one.  

Anyone my age associates Tet with the Tet offensive, which the North Vietnamese army undertook in 1968 during the ceasefire for the holiday.  Places on the cruise itinerary like Hue and Da Nang were in the news every night, Hue because it was so close to the DMZ and suffered according, and DaNang because the biggest US and South Vietnamese air base was there.

As soon as the assignment was confirmed, I knew who I had to ask to join me: my best friend in college, Nancy Strathman Regan( photo above). We were ardent war protestors  back then, and it just seemed too amazing to be able—fifty years later!—to go to the place that, though half a world away,  was such a part of our lives. And now, here we are, on a ship crossing the Gulf of Tonkin ( remember that?) on our way to spend the next few days visiting Hue and the area around Da Nang.  

In Halong Bay yesterday we spent a couple of hours in the nearby town, and I realized that about 99% of the people we saw weren’t alive at the time.  It is such a young population, I am not sure many of their parents were either.

Still, the scars remain on the psyches of many Americans in my generation, who lost confidence in our leaders over their handling of the war, and through the critical lens of the time, formed strong views of social justice at home, which for some of us became lifelong commitments.

I remain an unabashed “liberal,” having never seen any reason to change my mind about values like inclusiveness, equity, and respect for the dignity of all people.  I thought, erroneously it turns out, that America changed for good as a result of the civil rights era, and now I am so deeply saddened by this horrendous backlash against it.  

A deliberate lie told to the American people about an attack on an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin precipitated a power grab by Lyndon Johnson to expand the war.  Even  one lie can have such enormous consequences. Tell that to the dead, both American and Vietnamese, and their grieving families. Tell that to every sentient being and every landscape that became what is brushed off as collateral damage. 

The damage to me is small, limited to a life of American guilt. Don’t argue with me about whether I should feel that way—I do, and I think it is far better to bear it than to try to make it go away.  Others have paid far greater prices for that war, but no one escapes entirely when moral courage and human empathy are drowned out by expediency and use of power for selfish ends.

Presumably anyone who knows me, in person or through this blog, knows where my thoughts are going with this, but I don’t have the stomach to write about our current national  sickness, fed once again by lies and megalomania.  May the uprising begin, strong, robust and committed, because we know we can take down power. We have done it before.