Home > Uncategorized > Ngo Vinh Long: An Appreciation – posted 4/23/2023

Ngo Vinh Long: An Appreciation – posted 4/23/2023

To my generation of 1960’s progressives, I would say, without hesitation, that the Vietnam War was a central event in our collective lives. Opposition to that war was defining for many of us. It was our education about American imperialism but, at the same time, I would acknowledge that Vietnam is rarely even mentioned now. It has disappeared down the memory hole.

That reality struck me when I learned about the death of Ngo Vinh Long. Long died last October. For many years he had worked as a history professor at the University of Maine. I lived in the Boston area in the 1970’s and I remember Long for his highly visible anti-war activism. Along with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Long was one of the strongest voices in the whole peace movement.

He became the most prominent Vietnamese scholar-activist against the war in the United States, speaking at teach-ins, lectures and demonstrations.

Long’s story is amazing. He was born in Vinh Long province along the Mekong Delta, 90 miles south of Saigon. His family was famous for producing scholars. Long’s father was a revolutionary who opposed the French colonialists who occupied Vietnam before the Americans came. At times, his parents had to disappear to avoid capture, leaving Long and his two siblings alone to fend for themselves, often for weeks. The French eventually did capture and torture his father but his father refused to work for them.

Initially Long was hopeful about the American presence in Vietnam. His father had told him America was “a beautiful country” and Long imagined America was an ideal place. It led him to study English. Long taught himself English by memorizing British novels. He read and memorized Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It was the first of many English language books he memorized.

At a very young age as a teen, Long moved to Saigon and he got a job working as a private tutor for the children of Saigon’s elite. Through his job, he was able to hang out at Saigon country clubs and he met many American officials. He convinced some that he could help them as a military mapmaker. His motivation was to help the Americans produce good maps. He reasoned that if the Americans were going to drop bombs, there was less chance they would bomb the wrong village if maps were highly accurate.

Long’s mapmaking job duties allowed him to travel widely but what he saw troubled him and made him question his role. He saw mass starvation and terrible suffering in the countryside. The Americans called what they were doing “pacification” but it was counterinsurgency, featuring population control, mass arrests and thousands of assassinations. The government moved villagers into strategic hamlets, a wildly unpopular approach.

Long saw Vietnam’s farmland defoliated and contaminated by dioxin. He was the first activist to provide evidence to Americans of birth deformities experienced by many victims of Agent Orange. He raised the issue of the indiscriminate spraying of herbicides by the U.S. military in Indochina.

Long was horrified by the suffering he had personally witnessed. He resigned from his job, returned to Saigon and he helped to organize demonstrations against the South Vietnamese government. Long’s CIA friends told him to stop demonstrating or there would be consequences. In 1963 he was asked to leave the country. He came to the U.S. in 1963 but he returned to Vietnam in 1964 where he resumed organizing student protests.

After an October 1964 demonstration was broken up by the Saigon police, Long ran to the home of Gen. Maxwell Taylor, a top American military official and an architect of the counterinsurgency strategy. Taylor’s wife was home; she was sympathetic to Long and she helped him out of a sticky situation.

Long had been accepted at Harvard with a full scholarship but the South Vietnamese government blocked him from leaving. Taylor’s wife intervened. The American Embassy helped Long get a visa and a one-way ticket out of Vietnam to Boston. Long started at Harvard in fall 1964. There were very few Vietnamese living in the U.S. then. At Harvard, Long had individual tutorials with Henry Kissinger and Samuel Huntington, two professors who had helped to formulate American policy toward Vietnam.

Kissinger and Huntington told Long he was naive. Long had tried unsuccessfully to convince them that the only way America could win the war was by destroying the country. Long went on to earn a Ph.D. in East Asian History and Far Eastern Languages.

From the moment he arrived in Boston, Long had high visibility, almost celebrity, because of his Harvard admission. Very quickly, Long connected with Zinn and Chomsky and he joined the anti-war lecture circuit. He often spoke last at teach-ins because Americans wanted to hear what a Vietnamese had to say. Long said it was a way to keep people seated for the entire teach-in.

Long challenged the Cold War narrative Americans liked to tell about how the war was an invasion from the North. He argued that Vietnamese opposition to the war was nationalist and that the widespread American bombing in South Vietnam was a massive human tragedy.

There is an eerie national amnesia about the millions we murdered in Indochina. As an activist and later as a historian, Long exposed the American war crimes. He bore witness. America probably has no greater moral failing than our continuing refusal to take responsibility for the countless Indochinese peasants we killed in violation of the laws of war. Tom Hayden once wrote:

“Our national forgetting is basically pathological. Our systems – politics, media, culture – are totally out of balance because of our collective refusal to admit the Vietnam War was wrong.”

In his scholarly books and in his articles, Long always provided independent analysis regardless of the risk to himself and there was significant risk. From 1975 to 1999, he was the focus of much hatred from right wing Vietnamese-Americans. He said about those years “my life was hell”.

In April 1981, Long survived an attempt on his life. After speaking at Harvard, a Vietnamese-American threw a Molotov cocktail at him, barely missing. The Boston Globe interviewed him afterward and he said, “They accuse me of being a communist agent. I am not”.

Long helped to found the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, later renamed Critical Asian Studies. He recognized the complicity of silence in his profession and he always remained the engaged anti-war, anti-imperialist intellectual.

In a remembrance of Long, his University of Maine colleagues, An Thuy Nguyen and Professor Douglas Allen wrote:

“Living consistent with his beliefs, Ngo Vinh Long worked for a democratic and socialist Vietnam. He worked for a Vietnam that would be diverse, inclusivist and pan-humanist”

Nguyen and Allen described Long as “very welcoming, kind, warm and hospitable” and with a great sense of humor. Ngo Vinh Long means “distinguished dragon”. That is entirely fitting.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bebo6004
    April 23, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    Fascinating! I confess I’ve never heard of him – how shameful is that! Such an important scholar, activist and human being. Thank you for this informative tribute!

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  2. Pat Dawson
    April 23, 2023 at 11:11 pm

    Thanks for telling me about this person. I always enjoy learning new things from you!

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    April 24, 2023 at 3:46 pm

    I’d never heard of Long, either, so another thank you from me. I remember as a high school student accepting at first the “domino theory,” until reports from the field started coming in.

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