An American Child in Vietnam

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An American Child in Vietnam
The Westmoreland family in 1968. Margaret Westmoreland is second from right. Credit Associated Press

I am the youngest child of Gen. William Childs Westmoreland, who was in charge of all armed forces in South Vietnam from 1963 to 1968. In 1964, we flew to Saigon to spend a year with him. I was just 9 years old.

My father had been sent to South Vietnam to assume control of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, from Gen. Paul Harkins. MACV was a sprawling joint command made up of officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Once he had settled in, he sent for us.

We landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, on a hot, humid day in February. Stepping outside the air-conditioned Pan American passenger jet into the brilliant sun, I felt as if I had been hit with a raging fever. It was a penetrating, suffocating heat we weren’t familiar with in America — especially in New York, where my father had been superintendent at West Point before taking over in South Vietnam. In my disorientation, I looked to my mother for guidance.

Our father was there to greet us, and my mother literally fell into his arms with joy. But she was a veteran Army wife, and he was the dictionary definition of an Army officer. Within seconds of their embrace, they became stalwart soldiers marching toward the group of American and South Vietnamese dignitaries there to greet us. They had smiles on their faces and were extending their hands. I followed suit, reluctantly leaving behind America and the Pan Am jet.

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Behind his soldierly calm, Dad was apprehensive. The day before we arrived, terrorists had killed a Marine captain at the Capital Kinh Do theater, where Americans and Vietnamese were watching a Sunday afternoon movie. The officer, Donald Koelper, had seen the bomb, jumped onto the stage and warned everybody to get down; then it exploded. Fifty others, many of them women and children, were wounded. Dad, still relatively new to South Vietnam himself, was scared to death over what he had brought his family into.

There was no fear at the airport, though. Rip, my older brother, stared in awe at the Vietnamese women as they put garlands of flowers around our necks. The women had the most delicate features and the most perfect figures, which were wrapped in the traditional Vietnamese women’s attire, the ao dai, the strangest outfit I had ever seen — long silk dresses that were split on each side, displaying baggy pants that looked like long bloomers. Yet the slim women wore them with such grace and elegance that the dresses reminded me of flowers.

The Vietnamese who greeted us were kind and gentle, and I felt instinctively that we were wanted. I looked at their sweet smiles and wondered, as children do, why people were smiling at me. I wanted to make a good impression because I knew we were here for an important reason, and I shyly smiled back at these young women who were assigned to greet General Westmoreland’s family. I was a little girl who wanted to do right, but I couldn’t wait to escape the situation I found myself in.

I longed for Hawaii, where we had been living right before coming to Vietnam, with its comforting winds and exotic sweet smells. This place was no paradise, I realized as our motorcade drove through the city. Being an Army dependent, I knew it was just another station, but this one seemed too different. It was the first time I had ever left my beloved home, America. My parents were in another car and I wished for some explanation.

I was looking out the car window at the most chaotic scene I had ever witnessed. Bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians and small cars were everywhere. I was afraid we were going to run over somebody, or something. Then I was overtaken by a smell that tickled my nostrils. What was it? I would soon get to know it well: nuoc mam, or fish sauce. It is ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine, and its pungent, unmistakable aroma, especially from its production, seemed to hang over the entire city.

Later, I would recognize another smell I first encountered in Vietnam: the heady blend of burning wood and dung, the only two sources of fire fuel in a poor country.

We drove past a graveyard filled with seemingly endless rows of white crosses. Had that many American soldiers already died? I thought to myself. “Whose graves are those?” I asked meekly, terrified of the answer. They were the French soldiers’, I was told. I was puzzled. Why were there so many French soldiers buried in South Vietnam? I had no idea of the history of the war we were about to fight.

We drove past the burial ground to the French-built section of the city, where the houses were shaded by large trees and the grounds were well manicured. The stucco buildings comforted me, and I was glad when a gate closed behind us and we headed quickly toward an pink mansion complete with guesthouse. We were finally locked inside a little America.

The American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, greeted us along with his wife, Emily — a naturally elegant woman who seemed almost English in her bearing and grace. But she was American — a “blue blood,” as I later learned to call it. There was a certain air in her voice that sounded almost like a whine. I had heard the same tone before from several of my parents’ friends, and Mom often picked it up after being with them.

Nevertheless, I found Emily Lodge’s voice comforting; I could tell my mother and she would get along well, and I knew we would have friends in South Vietnam. I didn’t realize then, but I shouldn’t have worried: Between the large American military and diplomatic presence, and the general Western influence in Saigon, there was a ready-made network of people for us to join, and that would embrace us.

During our first month we stayed in the guest quarters of Ambassador and Mrs. Lodge. The guesthouse was pink, like the mansion, with a kitchen and living room as well as two bedrooms. Rip and I shared a bedroom and would jump from one twin bed to another. We were restless and confused and we took it out on that small dark bedroom, which we upended daily.

I could not sleep at night because of the chill of the air-conditioner. I was only 9 years old and was just beginning to understand the dark fear that lurked behind images and shadows. There was a crack in the wall at which I would stare for hours, imagining Frankenstein’s monster would emerge from it.

I knew I was safe, but I soon learned the flip side of that safety: There was no escape or freedom while we lived in South Vietnam. Little did I know that there was a world beyond the secure gates of the Lodges’ compound where our men were fighting an enemy who looked like our friends, the South Vietnamese. The jungle and terrain I never saw, except from an airplane. My mind wandered.

Things were not always what they seemed to be. My family was in the eye of the storm now, but I was protected and insulated from the horrors of war. Only because of the gentle guidance of my mother did I never consciously know the reality of that world, but there were many unconscious thoughts and feelings filling my soul.

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