Fifty years after the Tet Offensive: ‘The war was a long time ago. We are all friends now.’

In this 1968 file photo, smoke rises over battle-scarred Saigon during the Tet Offensive as the sun sets over the South Vietnamese capital Saigon.
In this 1968 file photo, smoke rises over battle-scarred Saigon during the Tet Offensive as the sun sets over the South Vietnamese capital Saigon. AP

It is Tet in Vietnam.

For most Americans of a certain age, just hearing the word “Tet” conjures up memories of the Vietnam War, and especially so this year as this is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.

But in Vietnam today the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is marked by visits home with family members, streets set aside as flower displays, holiday lights glowing throughout the cities, exchanges of “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese. There is little, if anything, to remind people of what happened 50 years ago.

We can debate forever whether America should have become involved in Vietnam. But it is an almost universally accepted fact that the 1968 Tet Offensive showed the world that the Vietnamese people were prepared to do whatever it took to gain control over their country. It illustrated almost beyond a doubt that there was no “light at the end of the tunnel,” except for the Vietnamese.

It is difficult for Americans to accept the fact that as the most militarily powerful country, we did not “win” a war fought against what was called then a Third World country. America is considered as having lost the war because it did not defeat such a small undeveloped country. Vietnam is considered as having been the victor because America did not defeat it. Put succinctly, America lost because it did not win, and Vietnam won because it did not lose.

All of which is why Americans have such strong memories of what the Vietnamese call the American War, and why we still argue with each other about it. But in Vietnam they have moved on. The Tet Offensive was 50 years ago, and Vietnam is a country where approximately 50 percent of the population is under 30. This group has no memory of the war and many of their parents don’t either. Their daily focus is on the future.

This is not to say that the Vietnamese have turned their swords into plowshares, nor forgotten the past involvement of not only the Americans, but also the French and Japanese. But they have been relatively clever in turning things to their advantage. A good friend was recently visiting from Raleigh and we went to see what, if anything, was left of the American military base where his dad has served on the outskirts of Saigon. There is still a base there but now the Vietnamese flag flies over it, and serves as a training post for new recruits. Learning from their past, the training is directed toward possible future aggressors.

The emphasis in this country of over 90 million people is squarely on the future. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is undergoing an incredible building boom of upper middle class apartment complexes, shopping malls and office buildings. Even a number of what were referred to as “boat people” have returned to take advantage of the economic opportunities offered here. These people were primarily southern Vietnamese and Chinese whose families feared for their lives and fled the country as the North prevailed. Some ended up in America, many in Canada and Australia.

Last week I had lunch to celebrate Tet with some Vietnamese friends who had been among those refugees in the late 1970s. One grew up in Canada but now lives and raises his family in Saigon. The other told his story of going with his girlfriend and her family to the boat just to say goodbye to her and with no intention of leaving. They finally persuaded him that if he returned home his life would be at risk and that he had no future in the country. With nothing but the clothes on his back, he and over 100 people crowded into a 30-foot-long boat where there was no room to lie down. They were eventually rescued and ended up in Australia. As terrible as those events had been to both of these men, this had all transpired a long time ago, and they, and Vietnam, have moved way beyond those days.

Recently I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels which the Viet Cong used to move soldiers and supplies throughout the country by virtue of tunnels that also served as hospitals and schools. This trip was another illustration of just how distant the war is to the Vietnamese. I was the only American in my group and the only one of my age. Seeing the craters still left from the American bombing, as well as the pits developed by the Viet Cong that were filled with sharp-edged stakes that would impale any American GI who fell into them, and firing an M-16 for the first time in 45 years all brought back so many memories of those years and the debates that tore American society apart. An older Vietnamese man had been looking at me and had noticed that I was struggling with my emotions. He came up to me and asked if I was American. When I answered in the affirmative, he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said simply, “The war was a long time ago. We are all friends now.”

As I walk along the modern streets of Saigon this Tet, I can’t help but remember what happened 50 years ago. But there is very little here that would jog such memories. Vietnam is a young and vibrant society whose people clearly believe their best days are yet to come. At Tet the Vietnamese people do reflect, but they look back in order to honor their ancestors, not to replay past wars. We, as Americans, would do well to do the same. We should honor those who fought believing they were right, but we should learn from the past, not be captured by it. If we do that, perhaps America’s best days will be ahead of us too.

Clark Plexico, a former three-term Democratic state senator from Henderson County during the 1990s, lives in Ho Chi Minh City , Vietnam and conducts leadership and cross communication/negotiation seminars in Asia and the Middle East.