Today in history: Vietnam invites US vets to return

Veterans, Vietnam
Bobby Muller and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in Hanoi in 1981.

Vietnam Veterans of America leader Bobby Muller and Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in Hanoi in 1981.

On December 12, 1981 the Vietnamese government invited the first American veterans to return to the country. This was just six years after the fall of Saigon and the reunification of the country, during a time when travel between the US and Vietnam was still difficult.

The four American veterans who went to Vietnam had an emotional journey. “Nothing has changed, but everything has changed,” said one veteran. ”I close my eyes and I am right back calling in airstrikes over these places. It’s so strange. I can still see the scars on the ground.”

The New York Times asked one anonymous Vietnamese official why the Vietnamese government invited the veterans back to Vietnam. He replied, “It was sensible to invite the veterans to come here. They were victims of the war like many of our people were victims.”

Not everyone thought the trip was a good idea, however. The World Almanac of the Vietnam War notes that the four veterans who went were “criticized for serving Vietnamese propaganda purposes.”

This criticism shows just how poor relations between the US and Vietnam were in 1981. It would be 14 more years before diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US were normalized, but the visit marked the beginning of unofficial discussions between the countries about some of the remaining war legacies like the prisoners of war and Agent Orange.