David Thomas: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam in my life, my career
Updated at Monday, 07 Jan 2019, 06:56
The Hanoitimes - “I am one of the lucky ones but every day I wake up and wonder if my luck will run out. I have beautiful and normal children and now grandchildren but several of my friends in Vietnam have not been so lucky”.
David Thomas, Director of Indochina Arts Partnership said: “I am one of the lucky ones but every day I wake up and wonder if my luck will run out. I have beautiful and normal children and now grandchildren but several of my friends in Vietnam have not been so lucky”.
This is maybe the reason why he has spent a large of his time engaging to Viet Nam.
Change outdated mind about Uncle Ho
When Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969, I was an American soldier stationed in Pleiku, South Viet Nam. At that time I only knew one fact about him, that he was the leader of the people we were fighting against. Therefore, we all naturally celebrated his death. That was the last time I thought seriously about him until 1987, when I returned to Vietnam for the first time since leaving the war.
It was during that trip that I suddenly found him staring at me from the walls of nearly every building I went into. It became clear to me very quickly that “Uncle Ho” was revered and loved by the Vietnamese people. As I was also falling in love with Vietnamese culture and people, I had a conflict in my outdated image of Ho Chi Minh. I needed to learn more about Uncle Ho to try to resolve that conflict.
David Thomas (left)
Because I am an artist, I began this search for the real truth by making fifty large portraits of Ho Chi Minh, at the same time searching for books I could read about him and his life. I very quickly realized that my government had lied to me or simply did not understand Ho Chi Minh’s intentions. I learned that he even worked for the OSS (now the CIA) in 1945 rescuing American fliers shot down over Vietnam during WW II. And that President Truman refused to answer Ho Chi Minh’s letters at the end of that war begging him to recognize his independent Vietnam and not allow the French to regain control of his homeland.
Because I am an artist
I also discovered that American scholars had largely left Ho Chi Minh out of the discussions about the war in Vietnam. How could this be? Of the thousands of books about that war I could only find two about Ho Chi Minh, one by David Halberstam and one by Charles Fenn (Charles is the author of my artistic book on Ho Chi Minh). That is why I decided to make an artistic book about Ho Chi Minh.
I chose the fictional format because I am an artist not a writer and this gave me the freedom to begin the book. Charles Fenn later rewrote my fictional text. Several years later I worked with Lady Borton to publish a trade book version which includes her nonfiction text. My main goal for doing all of this was to educate Americans about the real Ho Chi Minh. All 4,000 copies of the books we printed (in English and Vietnamese) were quickly sold in Vietnam. Now Lady Borton refuses to allow the book to be reprinted in either language. I still have hopes that someday she will reconsider this decision. If not, we may one day publish the book with Charles Fenn’s fictional text. As you can see, Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam have both played a major role in my personal life and professional career.
Over the past 28 years of traveling back to Vietnam over fifty times and conducting research about Vietnamese culture and Ho Chi Minh’s life, I have come to the easy conclusion that he was one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. His life was one of nearly total sacrifice and dedication to one goal, to free his beloved homeland of foreign aggression and occupation. He was very pragmatic and chose the paths which were open to him. This is often misunderstood by others, especially in the west. His real genius was his deep understanding and first-hand experience of other cultures and political systems and what parts would be appropriate for the Vietnamese people. He truly changed the direction of the 20th century. He certainly has to be included with other great 20th century leaders like Gandhi and Mandela. I firmly believe that America will never understand our relationship until we better understand Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam’s children in my heart
One of the jobs I held during my year in Pleiku during the war was that of a jeep driver. This allowed me to see a lot of the countryside and to come in contact with many Vietnamese civilians, especially the children. I have very fond memories of playing with the children at the local Vietnamese laundry in Pleiku. Several times a week I visited the laundry to drop off or pick up fellow soldiers laundry. My jeep and radio were a fascination to these squealing children.
In spite of these good times, I also remember feeling so sad for these beautiful and innocent children who also reminded me of my childhood in Maine except that they were horribly trapped in this awful war. I had choices. I could have gone to Canada or prison rather than Vietnam but they had no choice in their young lives but to find a way to survive through the destruction and death in their everyday lives. When I returned to the U.S. at the end of my year I made dozens of paintings of these children and exhibited them in galleries in Boston. This was my way as an artist to protest the war. During my 1987 trip back to Vietnam I donated many of these paintings to the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. I felt that this is where they belonged and was pleased and honored that the director of the museum agreed with me.
Improve and grow
I am confident that the U.S. - Vietnam relations will continue to improve and grow. My concern is that this is primarily due to Vietnam’s inexpensive but well-educated and hard working population. I understand that this is all part of developing economies but I wish for more for the relationship in the future. I am encouraged that more and more American universities are looking at Vietnam for joint programs. I look forward to the day when U.S. museums have counterparts in Vietnam so they can talk about exchange exhibitions. Vietnamese and American artists have had a very strong relationship since that first exhibition “As Seen by Both Sides” opened in Boston in 1989. That relationship continues to grow and expand. I like to think that the IAP and all of the talented and generous people we have worked with in both countries have played an important role in nurturing that relationship and that it will continue to grow and strengthen in the future.
For the past three years, my own personal artwork has been focused on the effects of Agent Orange on American veterans and the Vietnamese people. This work is in the form of another artist’s book that I planned to complete for release in mid 2015. Agent Orange is one of the continuing legacies of the war that I believe the U.S. government should do everything in their power to resolve. I am pleased that the U.S. Government has agreed to fund the clean up of one of the dozens of “hot spots” where Agent Orange was dumped, at the DaNang Airport for example.
This is an important but small effort for my government to right the terrible wrong that it did during the war. This is of personal interest to me because I was exposed many times during my year in Pleiku. To date I am one of the lucky ones but every day I wake up and wonder if my luck will run out. I have beautiful and normal children and now grandchildren but several of my friends in Vietnam have not been so lucky. I am also concerned for the millions of Vietnamese who have been exposed to the dioxins contained in Agent Orange for decades now, many since their birth. To date U.S. courts have denied assistance for Vietnamese who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange while the VA allows benefits for many thousands of American veterans who suffer from their exposure. I firmly believe we have a moral obligation to do anything and everything we are able to insure a healthy dioxin-free future for the Vietnamese people.
A type of diplomacy
The IAP is currently working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to mount two exhibitions in Hanoi by well-known American artist Mark Cooper one at the Fine Arts Museum and one at the Fine Arts University. These ground-breaking exhibitions will be an official part of the U.S. Embassy’s 20th anniversary celebration of normal relations between the U.S. and Vietnam and both will open in late December near the end of that celebration. Mark is working with dozens of Vietnamese artists to create large installations at both locations. For me, this is the type of diplomacy we need to nurture and grow our relationship and to learn from each other. This takes both public and private support. Once again all of the participating artists have generously donated their time and skills to insure the success of this project.