Ghosts of the Nixon Library, and Lee Nguyen’s Revolution.


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Visiting a presidential library should be a learning and reverential experience, resulting in a better understanding , respect and admiration of the men who have represented the most powerful nation on earth, and of the political process that produced them.  If one does not agree with the results of their policies,  at least adequate information explaining them is expected. Having one of these libraries nearby is a good reason to pay a visit, especially when one has had a personal experience with some of the policies of the government memorialized in the library.

My personal experience with the Nixon administration is in the context described in the book by Anaheim journalist Gabriel San Roman, “”Venceremos”: Victor Jara and the New Chilean Song Movement.”   A short cultural history, ‘Venceremos’ charts the development of the movement from the years before Allende’s victorious campaign to the brutal U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973, that overthrew his presidency and imposed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

It took me a few years to get over my reluctance to step into the Nixon library, I knew that sooner or later I had to, and I had to make it a cathartic event. It did not help me much, as something seemed to be missing in the presentation of the events and facts.   A recent article by UCI History professor Jon Wiener put my doubts in perspective:

“The library has been without a director for two and a half years, ever since the departure of Timothy Naftali in 2011. He presided over the installation of the new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit—his number-one duty after the Nixon Foundation agreed in 2007 to bring the library, which opened in 1990, into the National Archives presidential library system.”

Critical domestic events were omitted, as well as some major international events.According to Professor Wiener, the appointment of the new candidate selected by the National Archives,has been blocked because of his views on the Vietnam War.

“Lawrence (the scholar candidate) doesn’t call Nixon a madman or a war criminal, but he does challenge those in the Nixon administration who argued at the time that an American defeat in Vietnam would do irreparable damage to US influence in the world…

“The number-one exhibit in need of revision, not surprisingly, is the one concerning Vietnam. Currently the museum devotes more space to the return of American POWs from North Vietnam than it does to the war itself. The result is an exhibit that suggests America was fighting in Vietnam to get our POWs back.”

Visiting the library was an eerie experience.  The omission of factual and objective information distorts the past, and fuels the intolerance that prevents reaching out to people affected by the old policies.  The anger of the Vietnamese community in OC against the regime in their native country is still strong, as recently demonstrated in Irvine. They are massively united in opposing the regime, but significant numbers have adopted the pragmatic approach of maintaining contact with their homeland.  Many older Vietnamese frequently fly to spend time with their aging relatives over there.  Younger ones are eager to explore their roots.

The generational conflict, which has been long covered by the OC Weekly, was recently reflected in the efforts of the Viet Rainbow of Orange County, to have their LGBT community included in the local Tet parade. The younger are more optimistic about change if they can interact with the people of the country they share the same heritage. The experience of American- born Lee Nguyen, one of the hottest players in Major League Soccer on the New England Revolution team, is an example.   He played in Vietnam, and this is what happened:

When Nguyen moved to Vietnam in 2009 to play for Hoang Anh Gia Lai, he instantly shot to superstardom. Fans mobbed him in shopping centers and tried to grab his clothes outside stadiums. They stopped him on the street for photographs wherever he went. And, within 12 months of moving there, he was on the cover of Dan Ong, Vietnam’s answer to GQ. All in all, it made life pretty good for the 23-year-old Nguyen.

To break down the barriers to improve relations among communities sharing a historical background,objective information is needed, as stated by Professor Wiener:

Redesigning the exhibits in Yorba Linda should be the work of a professional director committed to a nonpartisan and historically accurate museum, not one deferring to old-time loyalists and family members who want a shrine that celebrates the life of their hero. Archivist David Ferrio needs to make that appointment before the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 8.

This would also help us to understand the competition between China and Vietnam for Wal-Mart and Costo’s shelf space which puzzled anti-war activists:

Now, suddenly for me, it was Christmas 2007 and Vietnam was ablaze with festive holiday lights, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. …The fancy Diamond department store next to Independence Palace was filled with shoppers, gawkers and Santas wandering the aisles of Lego, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, Nike, Converse, Estée Lauder, Ferragamo and Bally. The nearby Saigon Centre bore a billboard proclaiming, More Shops, More Life.

As I walked through the busy Christmas streets, however, I was gripped by the question of why the Vietnam War was necessary in the first place. ..Was there any connection between destroying so much life and causing the Vietnamese to go Christmas shopping? Would the same outcome–a one-party socialist government leading a market economy–have occurred in any event, without the destruction?


About Ricardo Toro

Chilean native and Anaheim resident for several decades, who just recently got drawn into the great fray!