VVMF representative explains group’s objectives in Vietnam

Stephen Harrison

Sitting at an outdoor café in bustling downtown Hanoi, Quang, my guide, asks the waiter if the Westerner a few of tables over is Mr. Searcy. The server smiles and says, “No, that’s not Mr. Chuck.” He certainly knew who we were looking for, though.

Soon after, the Hanoi-based representative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund strolls in and speaks candidly about the American organization’s objectives, as well as his personal views on U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

After the introductions, it does not take long for me to feel as though I am sitting next to an uncle. The earlier reaction of the waiter now made sense. Besides learning about his work with the VVMF, I want to know about Chuck Searcy’s experience during the war and what his views are on the state of U.S.-Vietnamese relations 27 years after it ended.

He is forthright from the outset. In 1966, Searcy enlisted in the Army in order to avoid the draft. He laughs as he tells me he was guaranteed a job as a radio broadcaster anywhere other than Vietnam. Instead, he was assigned to military intelligence and found himself on the outskirts of Saigon during the Tet Offensive in 1968, churning out “McNamara’d” reports of American progress in the war. This would seem to be an unlikely start for someone currently in his seventh year of voluntary residence in the country he once tried to avoid.

First I ask how he perceives both governments with regard to VVMF operations. The Vietnamese government has never meddled in its work, and the organization was accepted there from day one. This is due in part, he says, to the VVMF’s goal of establishing long-term self-sufficiency instead of a lump sum cash payment before moving on to another country, as many other non-government organizations do.

VVMF has also been well received because the it is not about politics, except for trying to correct past wrongs. Searcy tells me the U.S. government is generally supportive and the State Department is slowly considering helping with funding.

However, he is, in his words, persona non grata No.1 at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. U.S. officials there are not too pleased with his criticism of the U.S. government for not addressing the Agent Orange question. He has been bluntly informed we are simply not going to address the issue of defoliant-related birth defects and illnesses that still linger.

I wonder aloud why the Western media doesn’t make us more aware of this, and he explains the media does have a major responsibility, but that he doesn’t realistically expect much from them. The Vietnamese press, he says, is much more open and critical than foreigners would imagine and that there’s more world news to be found in the Vietnamese press than in most U.S. newspapers (It’s true, there is definitely more international news from wire sources such as Reuters and the AP in the Vietnam News English edition than one will find in any paper obtainable from a dispenser outside the local grocery stores in the U.S.).

Searcy sees the arrogance of the U.S. government and military as being worse than ever. We have grown more stubborn with our refusal to consider opinions of other countries, and despite the Bilateral Trade Agreement between the United States and Vietnam that went into effect at the end of 2001, and we still provide massive agricultural subsidies to American farmers while demanding compliance from Vietnam (see basa/catfish article). He predicts Vietnam may slow the implementation of the BTA rather than submit to being overtaken by Citibank and Coca Cola, while Vietnamese reap few benefits.

He feels the United States learned nothing from the war, other than what is heard in the occasional rhetoric about how, if our government had let the military run the war, the United States would have won. This outlook is reinforced by the fact that, after the devastation of their country, the Vietnamese have slowly rebuilt mostly by themselves, while at the same time they are forgiving and welcome Americans to their country. Searcy says, with more than a hint of bitterness, that the amount of money the United States gives Israel in one year is twice what was promised Vietnam after the war — an amount never fully delivered.

Winding down our visit, I ask him what he thinks Americans should know about Vietnam. His response: Despite our self-righteousness and generosity to the rest of the world, we have been very unfair toward Vietnam. They’ve done us no harm considering the level of destruction we imposed on their nation, and that we have not taken the basic steps toward reconciliation, beyond President Clinton’s actions at the end of his administration.

After hearing all this, it is not surprising that this laid-back Southerner has no immediate plans to return permanently to the United States.