The Vietnam War Remnants Museum is full of gruesome displays. Children in the room on Agent Orange are pictured without arms, without eyes, with stubs for feet, with single-fingered hands.
It is also full of propaganda. To begin with, the juxtaposition of anti-war signs along the wall with tanks in the front of the museum is jarring. How can they say, “No War,” at a museum about the Viet Cong’s victorious war to defeat both the French and the American-backed South Vietnamese?
The theme continues inside, as the first floor displays images of groups protesting American involvement in Vietnam. “The world supports Vietnam in its resistance,” one sign says, with an image of a dove. To call such a group “anti-war” would be inaccurate. After all, it explicitly supports “Vietnam in its resistance.”
Yet the museum doesn’t include much information about that very resistance. Almost all information is on the suffering Vietnam faced at the hands of the Americans. It would seem almost as if the U.S. weren’t fighting anyone. It is a very one-sided museum.
One interesting cartoon on the first floor states that the US Strategic Organization (Office of Strategic Services) trained one of Ho Chi Minh’s military forces during World War II. It is perhaps the only item that doesn’t present American meddling abroad in a negative light. (In fact, according to HistoryNet.com, “In the mid-1940s, the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, looked to the West for help in its independence movement and got it.”)
As with any good Communist regime, the Vietnamese government apparently hasn’t figured out that “propaganda” has negative connotations with Western audiences. So, as they display images created by anti-American-involvement-in-Vietnam groups made to sway public opinion, the museum text refers to such images as “propaganda.”
“Propaganda poster of the student representatives and international youths supporting Vietnamese people in their resistance against US aggression, April 5, 1973,” one image with a child’s face and a bomb on it says.
It would seem uncharitable to refer to one’s own supporters as “propagand[ists],” but they probably don’t even know it is a bad thing in the English language—the Chinese museum on World War II (the Sino-Japanese War) refers to a Japanese activist who made anti-Japanese broadcasts as doing “propaganda,” and local Chinese government information offices still refer to themselves as “propaganda offices” sometimes. (Maybe they’re being honest.)
But it’s not just the words they choose: the way the Communists present information is propagandistic, too. Rooms are full of carefully chosen photographs with carefully chosen captions. “Even women and babies are targets of U.S. Americal Division mopping up operations,” says the caption under an image of an American soldier standing at what looks like the door of a Vietnamese home.
The information presented is all one-sided. There were indeed woman and children and civilians murdered at My Lai and Thanh Phong Village and elsewhere, so there should be displays about those assaults, which there are. The one on Thanh Phong Village includes photos of Sen. Bob Kerrey, who was the presiding Lieutenant overseeing the operation, and notes, “It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.”
But the Vietnamese government should be understanding of Kerrey’s reluctance to come clean considering that they still haven’t come clean about Hue. There is no display about the civilians who were killed, imprisoned, or buried alive up to their necks by the Viet Cong at places like Hue, because of their class background or their status working civilian jobs for the South government or their religion or some other suspect reasons.
The language they use to present simple facts is also needlessly loaded. It wasn’t the “War in Vietnam,” not even the “American War in Vietnam,” it was “the war of aggression in Vietnam.” The Ngo Dinh Diem government was “the repressive and murderous U.S.-Ngo Dinh Diem regime.” The U.S. military were “henchman military forces.” Special warfare was “utterly ruined.”
The names of rooms—“Aggression War Crimes” and “Historical Truths”—leave no question about the viewpoint.
Even the display on the third floor of Trip Advisor awards the museum won is braggadocios behavior more becoming of Madame Tussauds than of a historical museum.
The museum did do some things well. The photo exhibit on the top floor presents amazing photos from journalists from international journalists and does so with neutral language. There is an extensive display of U.S. military guns. And, for all its propaganda, it does get across the Vietnamese government’s point of view and perhaps educates some foreigners about some of the cruelties visited upon Vietnam by the American side.
But the Vietnamese government might have done a better job convincing foreign visitors to accept their judgment fully if they were more honest in its display—or at least looked more honest. If they didn’t make the language so transparently overwrought, the style of presentation and the images and captions so clearly written to induce a reaction, the information could more easily penetrate a visitor’s subconscious. As it is, a visitor who is educated about history and politics would put up a wall of skepticism upon seeing such presentation. Many visitors comment that they take it all with a grain of salt.
Maybe the Vietnamese government was actually doing the honest thing. They presented unfettered propaganda, and they didn’t hide it behind a facade of neutrality.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.