More than two decades ago, Lan Cao published her debut novel, “Monkey Bridge.” It was among the first novels by a Vietnamese-American author about the Vietnam War, and it was partly based on Cao’s own experience coming to the U.S. as a teen-aged war refugee, in 1975, at age 13.
In 2014, she published “The Lotus and the Storm,” another novel exploring a Vietnamese perspective on the war. And Cao, also a professor of international law, became an outspoken critic of how Americans think and talk about the war.
For example, her 2018 op-ed for the New York Times headlined “Vietnam Wasn’t Just An American War” took to task American popular culture from “Apocalypse Now” and “Rambo” to Tim O’Brien’s acclaimed novel “The Things They Carried." She argued that most depictions of the war purveyed a one-sided view of the conflict, one that emphasized how it affected Americans, while downplaying the experiences of millions of Vietnamese who died, survived, or fled the country.
As Cao put it in a recent interview, “It’s all about what’s happened to the U.S. … ‘What has Vietnam done to the U.S., or what did Americans learn from Vietnam?’”
Her targets in the article included a 2017 New-York Historical Society exhibit on the war. This year, the Heinz History Center debuted its own expanded version of that very exhibit. Now the Center is giving the last word on it to Cao, whose Sept. 5 appearance marks the conclusion of the speakers’ series on the exhibit.
Cao said she has not seen the History Center’s version of the exhibit; indeed, her on-stage discussion with lead curator Samuel Black marks her first visit to Pittsburgh. She said her talk would draw on her own experience as well as her 45 years of watching Americans process the war and its aftermath.
Cao grew up in South Vietnam, near Saigon. She left Vietnam two days before Saigon fell, and ended up living with her parents, in Virginia. Estimates of how many Vietnamese fled their home country in the decades after the war – many as so-called “boat people” -- top one million. But Cao says their perspective particularly is ignored.
To her, even critically lauded accounts like Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 2017 PBS series on the war short-changed Vietnamese perspectives. Vietcong fighters in the series seem to have been interviewed largely to prove U.S. enemies were tough, for example, while South Vietnamese allies were typed as corrupt and inept, she said. These accounts tend to turn the Americans who sought to force their will on Vietnam into the war's victims.
“‘Our enemy was great, our allies were dumb. We were great.’ That’s the template,” she said by phone from Orange, Calif., where she teaches at the Chapman University School of Law. The reality is much more complicated, said Cao, who noted that one of her own uncles fought for the Vietcong.
The typical American focus “doesn’t even take into account the history, the suffering, the policy, the values of the people the U.S. is supposedly helping,” she said.
While the Heinz History Center exhibit does explore the conflict’s geopolitical history, and acknowledges the nearly 2 million Vietnamese casualties, it’s a pretty U.S.-centric show. Much of the material added by the Center, for instance, revolves around artifacts donated by Pittsburghers who served in Vietnam.
Cao emphasized that her goal isn’t simply to advance inclusivity. She said that the way Americans think about Vietnam has warped the U.S.’s entire worldview.
“It’s reproduced itself into a template for how American foreign policy and discussions of American foreign policy seem to revolve around, which is a very U.S.-centric direction,” she said. She added, “It’s … better for us, for America, when you deal with other countries, to make sure that you know the countries you’re dealing with, that they’re not just background.”