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Vietnam’s heartbreaking half-century

The reports of 39 people – now assumed to be Vietnamese – who froze to death in a lorry container coming from Zeebrugge, and found in Essex – has been hugely distressing. A friend rang me last weekend to say she couldn’t get the sufferings of those afflicted souls out of her head.

Smugglers and people traffickers – who so heartlessly exploit the hopes of would-be migrants – should be found, charged, and, if guilty, made to face the consequences.

But an essential question remains: why are young people – they are mostly young – so desperate to leave Vietnam? Is life so penurious and so unpromising that it’s worth any risk to get away?

And a further question occurs to me, too. What do the now elderly Western radicals think of the Vietnamese cause so many of them championed back in the 1960s – the cause of Ho Chi Minh and a communist Vietnam?

My late husband, Richard West, spent more than 40 years reporting from Vietnam and wrote three books about it, one with the artist Gerald Scarfe. His opinions matured over the years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, and in his last book, War and Peace in Vietnam, he took a much more nuanced view of that divided country, which he loved, than he had during the Vietnam War.

It will be recalled that America first got embroiled in Vietnam when it tried to prop up the South Vietnamese regime against the communist North. Dreadful bombings ensued, as well as massacres, and Richard never changed his mind about these odious methods of war. But he did come to feel that “the gallant South Vietnamese fought on their own against all odds”; and that Saigon’s aspiration to be democratic was honourable, while communism nearly always turned out to be wretched. He also came to deplore the cruelty with which the North Vietnamese regime treated mixed-race children.

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