Ngô Thanh Nhàn

Ngô Thanh Nhàn

Ngô Thanh Nhàn was born in 1948 under French rule in Vietnam, where he lived with his family in a French army barrack. His life drastically changed when Ngô Đình Diệm made himself president of South Vietnam. He was no longer able to read certain books and his family could not practice Buddhism as freely as before. As Diệm’s restrictions on Buddhists grew more severe, Nhàn and his mother joined protests against the regime. During the war, Nhàn continued his education and became valedictorian of his high school. This allowed him to be recognized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program, which gave Vietnamese students like Nhàn an opportunity to receive education in America. He went to college at San José State University in California, where he was made aware of the anti-war protests that divided the United States. Soon after, he joined the protests and became an anti-war activist, beginning a life of activism. Currently he is fighting for American Vietnam veterans, Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese people who are victims of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used during the war.

Ngô Thanh Nhàn interview by Rebecca Clark, Atyab Jagirdar, Abusayem Mahfuj, and Molly Wu. July 25, 2017, The Vietnam War Oral History Project, New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.

Ngo Thanh Nhan in this clip talks about his early memories in Vietnam and what living under the French was like and the sudden switch to Ngô Đình Diệm’s presidency. He recalls his early education and how that was influenced by the French.  Nhan also remembers his introduction to Americans in Vietnam.

Ngo Thanh Nhan:  My father, his family all died in 1928, when he was 14, and he ran away from home in the north and he joined the French Army.  He met my mother in 1948 and I was born then. I lived under the French for about six years.  I grew up learning French.  I went to a French school because my father was a French soldier.  So, he was living in a soldier’s family barrack, and I stayed there and there was a little school for in the barrack, and so I went there and learned French.  I learned the French history.  [They said] The ancestors of the Vietnamese were the Gaulois in France, and I learned French customs and songs, and a perfect French accent. Then, when the French left, my family had to leave the barracks.  It was when Ngô Đình Diệm came back from the US, from New Jersey actually, and he became president.  And I remember, I was playing on the ground and he was doing, like, fireworks with his face in the air, to introduce himself to the people.  And under Diệm was not very good, because people are not allowed to read a lot of things related to the victory of the Vietnamese over the French [in 1954].  I read [those] in the US, actually.  He was a very tough president and during the time that I was there, you had to be anti-communist.  If you are not anti-communist, then you are a sympathizer, then you are a communist.  So, it was very tough.

I knew the Americans were organizing the Army and the constitution for Ngô Đình Diệm.  My brother, on the first day, took me to the wharf where the American ship came in, a battleship came in.  The soldier was in white uniform and I remember very clearly because my brother took me there.  And in white uniform, with a Thompson gun, and really nice, and my brother wanted to be one of them, so that’s why I remember.  And they went down to the yard and they us gave Coca-Cola, processed cheese, and some candies, and chocolate, and so I brought the processed cheese home.  It looked like a French bar of soap, so my mother cut it and tried to wash the dishes with them, and it didn’t have any bubbles.  My mother said the American soap is really bad, but she didn’t know that it was cheese.  It smelled like soap too.

In this clip, Ngo Thanh Nhan discusses the mixed emotions he felt as a Vietnamese person at once proud of the nationalism fought for by Hồ Chí Minh and sense of duty to support the South Vietnamese Army.

Ngo Thanh Nhan:  A lot of people were supporting of Hồ Chí Minh because for the first time in the history of over 100 years, Vietnam was independent, and so everybody was supportive of Hồ Chí Minh, including Ngô Đình Diệm’s  secretly, because he was arrested one time and Hồ Chí Minh released him.  So, he never talked about Hồ Chí Minh during his time in the south, even though he opposed the north.

But I never joined any Communist Party here or in Vietnam, but I am supporter of Hồ Chí Minh because he is one of the greatest men in Vietnamese history recently, and General Lương Xuân Việt. The two of them became the most famous people in the 20th century in the world, and so the Vietnamese are very proud of his achievement, because fighting the French at that time is like almost impossible, and he did that easily.  With ingenuity and smarts, and the knowledge of the international [world].  You know that when he came to New York about 1908 or 1910, the first thing he wrote was on lynching.  He was criticizing the US on dealing with black people, at that time already, so one of the first international leaders talking about lynching of the blacks in the US.

Rebecca Clark: When you were still in Vietnam, how did you feel about the South Vietnamese government?

NTN:  We have to live under it and we have to be smart, and my brother wants to be in uniform, so at about 12, he joined the children of soldiers of the French, you know.  He went into a barrack and lived in a soldier’s style.  When he was 18, he joined the South Vietnamese Army, so a lot of my people and relatives were part of the South Vietnamese soldiers, and working for the South Vietnamese government, so I had to go to school in the south.  So in that sense, we have to live there, but we wanted to be reunified with the north.  It’s complicated.  It’s simple like that but it’s complicated. We want peace, for a long time, because Vietnam has over 100 years of war, so everybody wants peace.  Peace means that we have to reunify the country and also, no more war.

In this clip, Ngo Thanh Nhan shares how the South Vietnamese government’s oppression of Buddhists under Ngô Đình Diệm’s spurred his family’s and the larger community’s activism.

Ngo Thanh Nhan:  My family followed Buddhism.  We lived in an area near a lot of Catholics and Protestants, we had friends with them, but the Ngô Đình Diệm’s government, at that time wanted to promote the idea that his government promoted Catholicism in Vietnam, and wants to lobby his brother to be a cardinal of Vatican, so that they want to ask people to join the Catholics.  A lot of it was in Huế, where my mother’s homeland was, and the protests are there because of the treatment of the Buddhists, and they forced the Buddhists to — at that time, you know a lot of people got killed because of the fighting with the Buddhists.  So my mother, against my father, she brought me to the street and protested against the government. I was like 12 or 13.  I was already out in the street to demonstrate, and I didn’t actually know a lot, you know I was too young.  But I just know that my mother is opposing the Ngô Đình Diệm’s government on a Buddhist issue.

Later on, I was studying at the college level, I was a high school student.  I was very good in high school, so I said this is easy, so I have to go to college and I tried the test college class.  And then I went there and I studied and on the way home, I was riding bicycle and I saw a commotion and a monk was burning himself in the street, and my legs just buckled and I fell off, and I just started bowing.  Later on,  it was Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself, and the [wife] of Ngô Đình Diệm , Trần Lệ Xuân, she called it, the Buddhist “barbecued” himself, in the US when she visited, and it got an uproar in the US too, because people protest that kind of language, you know.  So that, that was my experience when I grew up.

Ngo Thanh Nhan shares how his interactions with disillusioned U.S. soldiers, hopelessness of ever seeing the end of combat, and his brother’s tragic death led him to leave Vietnam.

NTN:     When I grew up, my father said do not go and demonstrate you can get arrested and they will do this and that to you, and so…  But my mother is different you know?  My mother took me into the street.  And my brother, who became 18 and he went to the war and he came back, told me that the war is bad because the American GI didn’t know how to fight. And he said, but they want to lead, they want to tell you where — what to do and what to do, and so he said you know, if the Americans go home it would be the best.  So he told me over and over, and he said that. He was a soldier at that time already and I learned English, so I had some friends who was GI, who just came, who lived in the same area as I was, and I talked to them and they were very nice, young people, like 19, 20, and they were full of life, and then after an operation in the battle and they came back, they were all depressed. And they started smoking marijuana.  In Vietnam, marijuana is easy to get, you know.  They got it and they smoked it all the time and they listed to Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, and others, you know, singers like Joan Baez.  I knew them when I was in Vietnam and I was learning English, so I, I wrote down Bob Dylan songs you know and I learned it, at that time.

So, in Vietnam, for a long time, people wanted peace and to have an independent country, and so this one is not leading us to an end of the fight, because fighting Hồ Chí Minh is impossible.  He’s very smart and very strong.  So, this war may go on another, all my life, you know, like all my life will be in the war.  So, peace, the sooner it comes the better.  So, when I came to San Jose State, I believed it stronger, because the Americans also opposed it.  It’s not like the Vietnamese alone, and I was like impressed with that.

Abusayem Mahfuj:  If you had stayed in Vietnam, would you have joined the army like your brother?

NTN:  I would be forced to join the army, whether you wanted or not.  So, being a good student is an escape, my brother said. That’s the only way for my mother to get me out of the house, to get me to the US. She didn’t want me to go to Vung Tau, which is about 100 kilometers away, for vacation, but she sent me to the US, believing that it’s safer than. So, I was joking with her, you know, like I go for — with my friend, with a Boy Scout, about 100 kilometers away, she prevented us from going, but instead, she sent me like 10,000 miles away.  It is weird, because I was joking with her all the time about that.

Rebecca Clark: You were speaking about how, when your friends would come back from operations they would be very upset.  Did you yourself experience any loss during the war?  If so, how did that really impact you?

NTN:     Yes, a lot of my friends died being a soldier.  My brother finally died.  My brother died in 1974.  It is tragic in the sense that he was in a battle with the Women’s Liberation Army.  He was encircled by them and was about to be eliminated by them, and then the South Vietnamese government decided to drop a napalm bomb onto the battlefield and declare victory, because it killed both sides.  But they say that it is a victory.  A victory means that my brother was burned by napalm instead, not by the enemy.  My mother was getting him home, identified him by the teeth only.  By that time it was about yea long, and dark and black, burned by napalm.  And so, she buried him like that.  So, a lot of loss and I saw a lot of killing, I saw a lot of fighting.  I could identify which jet, fighter jet, was flying in the sky, because at that time, you know there was many different kinds of airplanes from the US flying.  I could identify them by just hearing them.  I could identify the gun, the canon.  I could identify the gun by the sound of the gun.  And at that time, you learned a lot of things that you, you want to unlearn very fast, because that’s not necessary in life.

Nhan talks about his introduction to the USAID scholarship program, the program’s role in President Nixon’s plan of Vietnamization, and the process of selection. He discusses his period of transition after his immigration to San Jose, California and the drastic differences in culture with which he had to contend. He also discusses his introduction to anti-war activism while attending college in San Jose.

Ngo Thanh Nhan: The Vietnamese American School taught English, and introduced the program from the USAID, US Agency for International Development.  At that time, the USAID had a program, called Leadership Scholarship, and “Leadership Scholarship” means that the then leaders of South Vietnam didn’t study past 11th grade, so [there was a need for] younger people who could speak English, who were very good in school [to become new leaders]. The USAID wanted to educate these people [in the US, and] to come home and explain the American world to Vietnamese instead.  It’s called Vietnamization of the war; it was under [President] Nixon.  And so I went to that, I got that scholarship, to go to the US. They asked.  They wanted 100 students from all over the southern part of Vietnam, who opposed the communists, to go to the US to study for four years, and then come back and become leaders.  I was like the best student, so, I was chosen among the 64 in 1968.  We planned to go on February 1st, but actually February 1st was Tet Offensive, so we couldn’t go.

I knew English but you know, actually it was very difficult actually.  It took me a long time to cope.  I was sent to San Jose State College at that time, and it took me a long time to get used to the food, get used to the milk, because I can’t drink milk.  I couldn’t find fish sauce, I couldn’t find rice.  I was like miserable actually, especially during the weekend.  You know, we didn’t have any food in the dorm, so it’s terrible, because every day, you have eggs.  I thought that when I was in Vietnam, egg was like the best.  I was reading about the US and [you have] eggs every morning, you do this and that with eggs, but then in the US, when I ate eggs in San Jose it wasn’t good at all.  I hated it, and there was no Asian food, and the Chinese food at that time was really bad.  You know, you had egg foo young and all that sort of thing, it’s not Chinese food.  But in any case, it was terrible, it was terrible.

There were good things and there were things that we didn’t learn in the books.  What we learned in the books was not as good, when we were here, but what we — I didn’t learn in the books, was really good here.  It’s like when I came, the first day I went to school and students were demonstrating in school against the war, and they asked me what I thought, and I said I support the war, of course I said, we had to fight communism and everything like that, and the students were looking at us.  And there was protesting against the recruitment of young people into the war, and eventually, I was changed by the idea of people involved in the streets and involved in the policy about big issues like the war, from the students, from the young people, like students 19, 20 years old.  It was amazing to me, because at that time, for me, I said I was 20 years old, I couldn’t do anything, the war was going on, and I looked at it like we couldn’t solve this thing in my life or something.  But the students, they changed me.  They asked me every day and I changed slowly. And I was studying English at that time, waiting for the fall, and the teacher gave me Martin Luther King’s, Beyond Vietnam paper to read because he was assassinated in April, and so I had to write a paper.  And I read his speech and I changed.  I said peace is the solution.

In this clip Ngo Thanh Nhan talks about the government denying responsibility of the issues caused by Agent Orange and how the US government needs to work with the Vietnamese government to provide relief.

Ngo Thanh Nhan:  The cost of postwar now is about a thousand times more than the [hot] war, because there are [still] three million Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange, and the cost every year for Vietnam is big.  The US [government] looked at it and they got scared because this is so big.  But also, there are GIs who got affected by Agent Orange, who were not treated by the US, the US denied it, especially second and third generation male GIs.  They said that second or third generation was not affected by Agent Orange, they denied it.  The [GI victims’] children look exactly like the Vietnamese children affected by Agent Orange.  They stood by each other, their fingers were like all off, you know you can see a little finger coming out like this.  The US cannot deny it, but they say that OK [to give some aid to] the GI who got affected by the war because they sprayed it, but the victims who were sprayed by the US they said no, you’re not affected by it, so they denied that the Vietnamese were ever affected by it.  So these are three groups [Vietnamese, U.S. veterans and especially their offspring and Vietnamese Americans] that we – in order to educate more than anything else, the US population about the postwar problems, but also postwar and effects of Agent Orange, that chemical warfare was used in many countries.  They have used it on the shell of the ammunition and the ammunition themselves already destroyed the economy, destroyed the environment, destroyed many other things in life, and it’s also affected generations after generations, so ending war is very good for everybody.  So the aim is like peace, the aim is always peace.

This organization was [initiated] by the American Vietnam veterans. When they called it, I was very happy, because if the American veterans called for it, it would be a good thing for the Vietnamese and the Americans to come together.  The best thing is that the two sides who were fighting directly during the war, now they’ve become friends, and no other can say well you know, we shouldn’t make peace, right?  That’s the main, the first thing we did.  So if the two combatants on both side come together and say we are friends, then nobody else can say oh, why should we be friends, you know they are enemies in the past.  That is the main aim that we did.  The second is to have the Vietnamese government also pay for Agent Orange [and put substantial resources towards dealing with its impact], for the population, which is really good in a sense, because it affects the future of Vietnam, so they have to pay for it.  But they also asked the Americans to pay for it [since they are responsible] to make the two countries, going closer to each other, that’s the main thing, to prevent war, to prevent misunderstanding.

To resolve this issue of Agent Orange, it requires the population of both countries and scientists to get together to say OK.  And also, manufacturers of chemicals, they have to be conscious about using chemicals in warfare [or selling them to the public].  From now on, we should have no chemical warfare, ever, in any country.  So that is also the main thing, because we demand the US to pay for it, they really say wow, three million people, how do we pay for this?  You know?  For two or three generations afterward?  They got scared when they looked at the number, I saw them, you know, in court. The US is really scared of paying for it. That’s why we call the organization, Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility.  Whether they take responsibility, meaning no more chemical warfare in the future.  To get together to solve the problem of dioxin, and if you solve the dioxin problem, then you helped Vietnam a lot already, yeah, see?  So that we don’t have a future generation affected by Agent Orange.

In this Clip Ngo Thanh Nhan discusses what influenced him to teach classic Vietnamese music to students.

Ngo Thanh Nhan:  I was always a good student.  I was arrogant when I was young.  I say study is easy, and it was easy. So I didn’t want to go for a PhD program.  A PhD program, eh that was bad, because I was an activist.  Activism is harder than being a professor, because activism, you need to have a theory [for everything].  You go test it by yourself and if it is true, then you take it back and it becomes an organization.  You take a mess and then you put it together in an order that is good  for everybody, and that is hard, that is harder than being a professor. A researcher, academics, is easy.  You take a little problem and then you try to publish a paper, and then 90 percent of [the published papers] are worthless.  It helps nobody, but they stay in school and they stay professors.  Yeah, so I think activism is harder and it is essential.  So, at that time, I said I didn’t want to be a Ph.D. — but somebody said, “because you can’t do it,” and so I came back and I did it like that *snap*, and finished a PhD, and so I do research now.

I’ve found that there is activism in science, yes there is activism in science.  Proving there is global warming is challenging.  It wasn’t easy, but [now that] you’ve proved it, it helps a lot of people.  So, proving there’s life on other planets is important; to look back into yourself, to do history is important.  History is hard, because you look back in history and in the old days, when you look at the history, only you look at the books, and the books are written, not by [ordinary] people, because people who are poor cannot print books.  Especially in Vietnam, they couldn’t print books.  So usually, the Europeans came in, printed books, and brought them back to Europe and thought they knew about Vietnam, while the Vietnamese knew nothing about themselves [through books about them], and the [Europeans] say they copyrighted [the ideas learned in Vietnam in the] books, so the Vietnamese [no longer] have [them].  But they copyright the Vietnamese thing, so in that sense, it happens all over the world.  You know, in that sense, “science for the people” is a challenge, it’s a challenge, it’s hard, it’s activism.  But then you know, you study something, you say OK, this is “for the people,” and then you have to think about it and you have to come out with something that is more helpful to a large populatio

I taught Vietnamese music in order to tell Vietnamese tales, you know.  The Vietnamese tales are very strange [and have a sense of humor] too.  Vietnamese is based on a river, every town has a river, so we have rivers everywhere.  So, people who grew up in the village, at a certain time they say, I am bored with the village, I want to escape, and the escape route is the river.  When you look at the black history in this country, the train is an escape route, you know, so you have a song, “Freight train, freight train, going so fast.”  You know that song, right?  [sings] Freight train, freight train, going so fast.  Freight train, freight train, going so fast.  Please don’t tell what train I’m on, so they don’t know where I’ve gone.  That was a girl who was 13, she was 13 when she played that song.  She wanted to escape being a slave.  So for this country, the train is the escape route for the younger people, for the slaves.  For the Vietnamese, for the women to escape, you know if they are afraid [of someone] in Vietnam, they jump into the river and they go, go with the river.  That’s why they go into a different village, and they do a different life.  So there is a common theme here.  I have created another performance next year, on the theme of Vietnamese mythical tales.