By Arthur H. Gunther III
I don’t know if either my childhood friend or my neighbor’s first born had coffee at a Saigon café before they were killed in the Vietnam War, but many an American tourist and business person can do so today. And soon, in post-war Ho Chi Minh City, even U.S. culture icon Starbucks will open its first outlet. Makes you wonder why commerce could not have happened before the battles and saved many lives, including those neglected souls still suffering from a conflict which brought so much protest that it redefined America.
Whether Starbucks proves popular in a nation so steeped in French-inspired coffee fascination and discrimination will be up to the tasters, but once again, America’s way of life has been exported. McDonald’s went to Japan, Europe, the Soviet Union and so many other places and now China. U.S.-style jeans, though doubtlessly no longer American-made, are regulation style almost everywhere.
Perhaps, when Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea, American business should have hired the Asian expert to open up trade in Southeast Asia as a better way to blunt what was then seen as an overwhelming worldwide Communist threat. The general would later caution John Kennedy against military escalation in Laos and told him not to listen closely to advisers in 1961 urging war against North Vietnam. MacArthur understood the Asian mind and knew Soviet-style Communism was not a real fit.
Maybe Lyndon Johnson should have reread President Eisenhower’s warning speech about a growing, ever more powerful military industrial complex, the very existence of which depends on continual war as surely as did Germany’s Krupp Works in the world wars. LBJ, whose true genius lie in his ability to charm and compromise as Senate majority leader, wanted to try the same approach on Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s leader, to sort of smooze him into helping end the escalating Vietnam War, but he was diverted from his folksy, Texas ways by administration hawks. His presidency ended because of the war. Soon enough, there wouldn’t be time for anyone to drink coffee in either of the Vietnams.
Today, almost 38 years since the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, a reunited nation continues to build trade with the United States. One shirt I recently received was made there. Ho Chi Minh City is sister to 25 communities in the US, France, even South Korea, which 50 years ago so desperately worried that the “domino theory” of communism would see it invaded not only by North Korea but by China, Russia and Southeast Asia.
May the new Starbucks customers enjoy their coffee in Ho Chi Minh City as well as the famous noodle shops and world-acclaimed native cuisine. May they see the charm of the people and relish in the culture of this land. But I wish my childhood friend and my neighbor’s son could be among those savoring all that and not be with the 58,000 dead. I wish the thousands of Vietnam War wounded, especially the mentally and emotionally afflicted -- so many among them still suffering -- could instead have sat at the French-style sidewalk bistros back in the 1960s-1970s.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.