While abroad, I have met travellers from England, Sweden, Canada, America, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and so many other areas. In Vietnam many of my travel buddies asked, “Were you taught about the Vietnam War in school?” My answer to their question was yes and no. I was lucky enough to attend private high school so my education was a little different than what public schools teach. I was taught in depth about the pain and suffering that the American soldiers encountered while in Vietnam, and also the horrible things the American soldiers did to Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. I felt like my teachers critiqued the war’s purpose, the media coverage, as well as the Communist leaders in Vietnam. One of my teachers in high school was kind enough to point out that up until that point, we had all been taught that America had never lost a war. We won the Revolutionary War of course. The War of 1812 was a tie (even though our capital was burned down and we lost land to Canada). We were on the winning sides of WWI and WWII. The Korean war supposedly no one really won even though North Korea stayed communist and the borders were hardly negotiated. The Vietnam War was again, won by no one, even though Vietnam is a communist nation. The facts weren’t wrong, but the interpretation was a little twisted to flatter the US.
When travelling to the museums in Vietnam, I expected to find something similar but swayed more towards the Vietnamese side, but what I really found was shocking. The American soldiers were almost exclusively referred to as “The Enemy” and were bashed repeatedly in text and in images on the wall. There was an entire section of the museum titled “War Crimes Against the Vietnamese.” This consisted of various plaques accompanying images emphasizing the number of innocent women and children killed as well as disturbing images of the effects of Agent Orange. I have never felt unwelcome in Vietnam, but I felt like I didn’t belong in the War Museum. It felt like a huge slap in the face to the American soldiers who fought, as well as the Vietnamese rebels who tried to fight for democracy that the American soldiers were backing. The tone of the museum was that of blame towards Americans. I wish that it was more of a memorial for both, however it seemed more like pointing fingers.
Obviously the Vietnamese government is allowed to be angry with their attackers, however to me it was so clearly propagandized that it felt insincere. Many of the people I had been travelling with looked to me for information on the war because I was the American of the group. I said simply, “I learned a different version back home.” The reply would sometimes be, “I’m sure this version is more truthful.” Nope. Not at all. With a corrupt* government that dictates the information supplied to its citizens, how can you trust what information is truthful (*I use this word because after speaking with multiple Vietnamese citizens, that is how they describe their government). In Vietnam there is a one party system where citizens “elect” a couple people, and then, similar to America, those elected will chose their cabinet. One Vietnamese woman I spoke with said that she will most likely stop voting because the elections are rigged anyway.
I was shocked that people from other countries did not study the Vietnam War. I guess it makes sense since other countries weren’t really involved in the Vietnam War. I was even more shocked to hear that my British friends had never learned about colonialism. This is absolutely astonishing since England was one of the worst imperial powers in terms of abuse and injustices to ethnic groups. I asked my friends, “Did you learn about India or places in Africa?” They had no idea what events I was even referring to. One of my friends who had travelled to Kenya this year said she could never participate in the conversations about the effects of colonialism in Africa. It’s tragic that one of the most detrimental events in history is simply swept under the rug in the perpetrators country. I’m sure they must be ashamed and want to forget about it, but that is no excuse. The purpose of learning history is to prevent it from repeating, in my opinion. If huge populations of people aren’t learning from their home country’s mistakes, the likelihood of history repeating itself increases.
After I thought more about it, I realized that it really depends on the country’s government as well as the result of the conflict. Usually the party committing the injustices will sugar coat it and subtly apologize. The party harmed in the conflict, on the other hand, will rave about the injustices and cruelty of their oppressor, even beyond the truth. When it comes to the type of government, if free speech is allowed, the propaganda is a little softer, while governments that constrict information will alter it to favor the country. This is not a foolproof formula, however from what I have seen this is generally true. It also may seem like common sense to Westerners because we tend to believe that free speech is good, restriction is bad. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. What I do think is a negative result of the restriction of information is that there is no outlet to gain more information. Furthermore, if you have only grown up knowing one version of the story believing it is the truth there would be no reason to search for further information. Then begins the cycle of ignorance and the repetition of history.
I don’t know if there is a solution to this. The beauty of freedom of speech is that everyone can have his or her own version of a story. On a worldwide level, each country practices freedom of speech, though on the individual level this may not be true. Trying to force countries or organizations to tell an “unbiased” version of history would essentially take away freedom of speech. There is also no such thing as unbiased. Facts may seem clear cut but there is always something behind the way it is presented. Perhaps the only way to achieve a well-rounded knowledge of history and international relations would be to study every single country or ethnic group’s perception of the event. This seems a bit ridiculous to me, but maybe there is an easier way? Hopefully in my lifetime there will be a way for everyone, no matter where you live, to have access to multiple sides of the same story. For now each country or community will continue to turn a blind eye to the injustices they have committed in the past, as well as the suffering of others. We will all continue to listen to the news and believe what we hear is the truth. It may be the truth for your group, but the story you hear is likely not the only truth out there.