April 29th — A Remembrance of Leaving South Vietnam


April 29, 2014

Today marks the 39th year when South Vietnam fell to communism.  As usual, I called my father who lives in northern Virginia to make sure he is feeling okay.  He was cheerful and reminded me how it was rainy that afternoon 39 years ago, when our family was fortunate and lucky as we were allowed to climb a ladder and on to the American Embassy roof in Saigon (South Vietnam’s capital), at about 5p.m.  We waited on one of the upper floors of the embassy, all of us hungry and thirsty, until about 2 a.m. on Wednesday, April 30, when we climbed from the roof into one of the last helicopters flying out of Saigon.  We were among the last Vietnamese civilians rescued by the U.S. from the embassy early that morning.  At 10 a.m., the communists came into Saigon, and the rest of the Vietnamese who were waiting in the lower levels of the embassy, including friends of my parents (with whom they reunited years later in the U.S.), were advised to flee the embassy and tend to their own fates.  I reminded my father that April 29, 1975, was also a Tuesday as it is today.

Do not take our freedom for granted, I often tell my teenage son.  Freedom is never really free.  There is a price for everything including having a peaceful and organized society.  I read a thoughtful article in last Sunday’s Washington Post (the Outlook section), by Ian Morris, professor of classics at Stanford University and author of “ War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”

In his excellent article “War, a necessary good,” Dr. Morris used historical facts and events to explain how many wars have helped create a more peaceful and organized society and have reduced the number of violent deaths.  How does it happen?  Organized societies have rules and regulations to suppress violence between their citizens.  The number of deaths from different wars is staggering, with 15 million people killed during WWI, and 100 million people killed from the two great wars combined.  War is hell, Ian Morris admitted, but the alternatives would have been worse.  He cited how, with large and organized societies, the risk of violent death has decreased dramatically, ten times less likely for those born in the 20th century as compared to those during Stone Age.  The United Nations reported that the risk of dying from a violent death has fallen to 0.7%.

Of course, everyone wishes for the world to come to peaceful resolutions through negotiations and dialogues, without any wars and violent deaths, but as Dr. Morris pointed out:

“But this did not happen.  People almost never give up their freedom — including, at times, the right to kill and impoverish one another — unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.”  

Morris understood very well the human condition.

On April 30, 1975, my family and many Vietnamese began our journey on the China sea, surviving on a cargo ship for a one week journey to Guam Island.  We were among the lucky Vietnamese refugees who reached the U.S. safely a few months later after staying in several refugee camps.

On this day, I cherish my freedom and independence.  I consider myself a centrist…well… maybe a bit to the right, as I watch the two extreme left and right political wings fighting with each other.  The fact that the two opposite ends of the spectrum can openly and publicly fight has proven to me how well democracy works.   As long as two sides can fight openly with each other, I know we don’t live in tyranny.  We all should appreciate this fact.  Vietnam, on the other hand, has been under strict “communist” rules (not true communism) where the ruling class lives in luxury and the vast majority of citizens still live in poverty.  The Vietnamese leaders send their children abroad for their education, live in large mansions and drive fancy cars (much more fancy than yours and mine).  Clearly this is neither a society of true communism nor of capitalism, as only the corrupt ruling class can live this way.  There is no free competition as in our society.  Priests, monks, political activists who speak up against the government, and other free-thinkers are still jailed for years in harsh conditions.  Communism, in theory, creates an “equal” society with equal sharing of wealth and resources.  In reality, I have not seen this work anywhere.  

Think Syria.  Think Ukraine.  Think North Korea.  Think Vietnam.  Think Myanmar.  Cherish our democracy and do not ignore or forget those who lack this incredible way of life.  I believe strongly that we cannot live a full life without democracy.

Happy April 30th to all my Vietnamese friends who have made it, like me and my family, to this free land.  It is a day of celebration, but a remembrance too, for those who tried to seek freedom as one of my aunts did, but perished in the sea.  Freedom is never free.



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