Postwar Journeys Cover

Postwar Journeys

American and Vietnamese Transnational Peace Efforts since 1975

Hang Thi Thu Le-Tormala

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2021, 232 pages

Book Review published on: February 11, 2022

Timely best describes Hang Thi Thu Le-Tormala’s history Postwar Journeys: American and Vietnamese Transnational Peace Efforts since 1975. In 2021, as the long and bitter war in Afghanistan was moving toward its chaotic and disappointing end, Postwar Journeys came to press with its stories of American and Vietnamese veterans, government officials, and civilians’ efforts to find peace in their lives following a similar official peace. Although written for a scholarly audience, veterans of this generation may find inspiration in Le-Tormala’s study of how some veterans of a previous generation and their families worked to find peace in their lives following a similarly disappointing end to a bitter war. One of Le-Tormala’s main arguments is that the actions of veterans, their organizations, their family members, and others affected by the war, despite government-to-government acrimony, helped prepare the way for future positive U.S.-Vietnam relations. Although there are certainly myriad differences between Afghanistan now and Vietnam then, veterans of the Afghan conflict may yet find ways to influence the situation for good. Furthermore, Postwar Journeys serves as a clear reminder of the value of people-to-people contacts in international relations.

Individuals and their emotions are the heart of this book. It is “an attempt to understand how people transformed their negative emotions into positive actions, and how those acts helped reshape the relations between” the United States and Vietnam. Le-Tormala asserts that her book makes three arguments: (1) everyday citizens of the U.S. and Vietnam played an active role in changing their environments; (2) these same citizens “laid the ground work for US-Vietnam diplomatic normalization”; and (3) “‘universal human aspirations and emotions’ … played a significant role in U.S.-Vietnam postwar relations.” Point 2 will likely be of most interest to readers of this press as it has the potential to be the most meaningful for individuals seeking a path forward after a bitter conflict.

To achieve the book’s stated purpose and support her arguments, Le-Tormala focuses her study on “Vietnamese refugees, children of U.S. personnel and Vietnamese women, U.S. and Vietnamese veterans and their families, relatives of fallen soldiers on both sides, and other civilians who experienced the impacts of war one way or another.” These groups serve as a rough framework for the outline of the book. Chapter 1 discusses the initial efforts of U.S. citizens to reach out to postwar Vietnam with humanitarian aid and examines the challenges of the Vietnamese that fled by sea after the war ended. Chapter 2 examines the heart-wrenching and diverse experiences of Amerasian children, their American fathers, and their Vietnamese mothers. Chapter 3 details the work of U.S. veterans and their organizations in helping to normalize U.S.-Vietnam relations between 1980 and 1994. Lastly, Chapter 4 explores the continuing efforts of individuals to find peace after the 1995 normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. Although part of almost every chapter, this chapter takes an especially close look at U.S. veteran travel to Vietnam with a particular focus on meeting former adversaries and returning mementos of war. Chapter 4 also details the struggles of individual Vietnamese and their families as they try to locate and reconnect with lost loved ones in the aftermath of the war.

Le-Tormala is at her best when she is retelling a heart-wrenching story that ultimately ends in the healing and peace sought by those involved. Among the highlights of her book are the stories of the first U.S. veterans’ return to Vietnam. She skillfully depicts the terror and solace of the experience. Another is the story of a U.S. soldier’s quest to return a father-daughter photo he took from a Vietnamese soldier he killed. Some of her stories have multiple layers; for example, the stories of a U.S. fighter pilot, a Vietnamese fighter pilot he shot down, and the crew of a plane the Vietnamese pilot shot down. Of all her stories, the ones that echo most with present times are the numerous stories of parents and children separated during evacuations. It is in and through these stories that Le-Tormala reminds readers of the value of people-to-people relations, not just in healing broken lives but also in laying the groundwork for government-to-government relations, even between bitter enemies.

Le-Tormala’s main weakness is that her political analysis tends to be one-sided, and she ignores the political complexities of the times. She condemns almost every U.S. government action, or at least views them in a negative light, while remaining largely silent or seemingly unconcerned about the actions of the Vietnamese government. It is true that U.S. policy left a lot to be desired and was hypocritical at times, but she overplays the negativity. This is particularly true in the way she brushes off U.S. concerns for the full accounting of U.S. service members missing at the end of the war. She uses these concerns to support her claim that there was a “gap in US and Vietnamese understanding of humanitarianism,” which she goes on to describe as “a political construct to further isolate Vietnam.” As she attempts to support this argument, she undercuts it when she describes the feelings of betrayal that drove the POW/MIA community and the “unprecedented” nature of their organizational and political influence. Unfortunately, most of the negativity builds in chapters 1 and 2, which may be an early turn off for some readers.

Despite this negativity, Le-Tormala delivers an excellent compilation of stories and achieves her goal of shedding light on how individuals “transformed their negative emotions into positive actions, and how those acts helped reshape the relations between” the United States and Vietnam. She honestly admits the near impossibility of quantifying the influence veterans had on U.S. policy, but her history telling helps the reader qualitatively appreciate the effect veterans and others had in fostering good will and helping keep communication lines open between the former adversaries. In her stories, veterans of other bitter conflicts may find inspiration to continue to be forces for good in the places and for the people they have already given so much for. Lastly, they may also find pathways to healing and peace in the examples of the veterans and others from Postwar Journeys.

Le-Tormala does the reader a great service by compiling so many excellent stories in one place. Many of the stories come from English language news accounts of the times. Others are taken from Vietnamese language sources, including news and television programming. Without Le-Tormala’s diligent work, many of these stories would remain inaccessible to most readers. She deserves our thanks for her efforts.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David W. Bell, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas