President Hồ Chí Minh during one of his trips to the home of resistance up in the northern mountains. May 19, 2021, is his 131st birthday. VNA File Photo
I am an American of the generation in the wake of armed aggressors who attacked Việt Nam from 1964 until the peace accords were signed in 1973. I was a teenager then and too young to be conscripted. However, my father, Walter Eugene (Gene) Wilber, was very much a part of the American war of aggression against the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam.
He was a pilot, a fighter squadron commanding officer, shot down and captured in 1968. When Gene Wilber arrived in Hà Nội, President Hồ Chi Minh was in the last full year of his life, and would, sadly, pass away on the 24th anniversary of independence on September 2, 1969.
In Hoả Lò prison in June of 1968, Wilber began his deep personal reflection on his role in the troubling and disappointing actions the US was taking against Việt Nam. Wilber concluded that the war was illegal. He chose to act, voluntarily, to communicate to others that the US should depart Việt Nam immediately. He recorded his statements in Hoả Lò prison. They were broadcast on radio from Hà Nội and heard by US troops in Southeast Asia and the international community around the world.
In a statement he made on the US Independence Day holiday in 1971, Wilber told Americans of their country’s many deceits and violent aggressions, summarising: “We were wrong in these actions, and we are still continuing these mistakes.”
"The Vietnamese people have rallied and fight under the words of the father of their country, the late President Hồ Chí Minh: 'Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,'" he added.
Back in the US in 1973, Wilber was criticised heavily for speaking against the American war. Despite controversy and rejection, he did not falter in his firm belief that the US had been the aggressor in the terribly long struggle for independence by the Vietnamese people.
He remained respectful in his attitude and belief toward Việt Nam, encouraged normal diplomatic relations, even offering to serve as an ambassador, and always spoke kindly about the Vietnamese people until his death in 2015.
I am most grateful to my father for speaking his mind that the war was wrong. Five years of family separation and a lifetime of criticism are minimal costs considering the benefits that my father’s actions presented to me. Through his experiences, Gene Wilber helped me to develop a deep appreciation for the Vietnamese people, including profound respect for the life and leadership of Hồ Chí Minh.
I have made more than 30 visits to Việt Nam. Many of my trips have centred around Nghệ An Province. Wilber parachuted into Nghệ An, Thanh Chương District, Thanh Tiên Commune, travelling to Hà Nội on the trails and roadways of Trường Sơn (also known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail). Not far from Wilber’s entry point into Việt Nam, the childhood home of Uncle Hồ is in Nghệ An, Nam Đàn District, Kim Liên Commune. I have visited the Kim Liên relic several times. In my earlier trips to Nghệ An, it was in realising the humble beginnings for Hồ Chí Minh that I began to sense the meaning of those words that I had overlooked as an American: “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom.”
I consider Nghệ An not only as the birthplace of Hồ Chí Minh but as the birthplace of my awareness borne to me by my father who arrived in Nghệ An. Nghệ An is my portal to insight.
Bùi Bác Văn is a lifelong Nghệ An resident now living in Vinh City. Living in Xã Thanh Tiên in 1968, it was Văn who helped capture my father. When we met in 2015, Văn embraced me as a friend. He took time to teach me, showing me many historic sites in Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh. Not only have we visited bomb-damaged areas from the American war, but he also explained to me the significance of the poet Nguyễn Du in literature and philosophy and the victorious Quang Trung in the history of liberation from foreign invaders. From more recent history, he has illuminated to me Bác Hồ’s childhood village in Kim Liên and the influences of Hồ’s mother Hoàng Thi Loan and Hồ’s educated father Nguyễn Sinh Sắc, along with the inspiration of the nationalist scholar Phan Bội Châu, residing a few kilometres to the east of Kim Liên in Nam Đàn. At an early age, the young Hồ would overhear many deep conversations between his father and Phan about modernisation, patriotism, and freeing the Vietnamese from the grip of colonialism. Based on my education from my friend Văn, who greeted my father, and then, 47 years later, welcomed me, Nghệ An and the area of President Hồ’s childhood have become, for me, rich in meaning.
There are so many things that could be said about Hồ Chí Minh from his beginnings in Kim Liên to the learnings and influences that shaped his ability to develop his plan, as western historian Virginia Morris describes in Hồ Chí Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution (2018). His blueprint allowed Việt Nam to “fight and win a protracted asymmetric war,” as Morris wrote, “against superior powers of the French, and then the United States.”
In his early twenties, Hồ Chí Minh would work his way around the world – to New York, London, Paris – developing his strategy to realise his country’s independence and freedom.
Historian Christopher Goscha, in Vietnam: A New History (2016), chronicles how Hồ Chí Minh’s travels “brought him in contact with a wider range of reformists and anticolonialists". On the 110th anniversary of his departure from Việt Nam for the West, it is important to remember how Hồ Chí Minh’s exposure to thought, his debates and discussions, the further refining and distillation of purpose – building upon the intellectual and practical influences of his learnings in childhood and youth in Nghệ An – would emerge from this crucible as the precious element from which independence and freedom would be forged.
The people of Việt Nam today enjoy the “happy spring” of reunification. I encourage westerners, especially Americans, to learn more about Hồ Chí Minh and Việt Nam’s sovereign struggle, their inevitable victory, and their role in peaceful international relations. As more people understand how we arrived at the present moment, our mutual recognition of Hồ Chí Minh becomes clear. – VNS
* Tom Wilber is an independent researcher, investigating US prisoners in the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam from 1964 until 1973. In addition to having been a lecturer at Hà Nội University, he assists with special exhibitions at Hoả Lò prison relic. His early research became the source for the 2015 award-winning film produced by Ngọc Dũng, The Flowerpot Story. His essays have been published in Việt Nam News. He is co-author along with Jerry Lembcke of Dissenting POWs: From Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison to America Today (2021). Wilber represents a US-based non-governmental organisation that works on humanitarian projects with Vietnamese organisations.