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People & Events: American GIs, Vietnamese Women and Children

American servicemanLike soldiers occupying foreign territory in any war, American GIs routinely encountered Vietnamese civilians. As their lives became interconnected with those of local people, opportunities for problems abounded. In Vietnam, the American military generally taught soldiers to suspect any Vietnamese person could be linked to enemy forces. This policy did not encourage an appreciation for Vietnamese culture, to say the least.

Sandra Collingwood, a former community development worker in Vietnam, often saw American military personnel treat Vietnamese with blatant disrespect and worse. Sometimes GIs would throw a grenade into a field, and then laugh when the farmer jumped. If they happened to kill the farmer's livestock, the economic loss to his family was devastating.

Collingwood also witnessed good intentions on the part of GIs. Some would give food rations to orphanages. Their good deeds were often undone by corrupt administrators who sold the donated food in the black market instead of feeding it to the children.

In Saigon, journalist Anne Allen met Dewey, a six-year-old Vietnamese street boy, whom she and her husband later adopted. Dewey had been "adopted" once before -- by a group of GIs. They had a miniature set of fatigues made especially for him. Dewey wore these constantly. He adored "his" GIs, who taught him to speak English fluently, sparing none of the expletives. The GIs used Dewey as their interpreter. He even accompanied them to brothels, to bargain with the prostitutes on their behalf. Once the transactions were completed, Dewey would have soft drinks while waiting for his friends.

Many GIs formed relationships with Vietnamese women. The women worked at military bases as cashiers, waitresses, laundresses, and secretaries. It's not surprising that many thousands of young American men who were far from home looked for female companionship. Whether they sought sex, comfort, friendship, or mothering, there were a lot of needs on all sides. The women were often struggling to survive while their husbands, boyfriends, fathers or brothers were away fighting. Despite these women's dire situations, many of their fellow countrymen looked down on them for entering relationships with Americans. Vietnamese public opinion considered them no better than prostitutes.

Vietnamese women often lived with their American boyfriends, and referred to them as "husbands," regardless of their actual marital status. Relationships usually ended when the soldier had finished his tour of duty and went home. Some men left without telling their Vietnamese girlfriends. Others made promises they never kept. Some men married their girlfriends, or at least proposed to them. Once back home, the men faced bureaucratic hurdles trying to bring their girlfriends or wives to the United States. Saigon fell to the Communists before some of them could finish the paperwork, trapping their women in Vietnam. In other cases, women refused to go to the States, either because they did not want to leave their country, or because they had family obligations keeping them in Vietnam.

Mai Thi Kim, Heidi Bub's mother, had an affair with a naval officer who promised to help her struggling family. "I had sacrificed for my children, for food and clothes," Kim said. "Because my husband left without saying anything." Kim knew the American was going to leave, but did not know the exact date. When she found out he was gone, she was four months pregnant with his child. A friend of his comforted her, saying that the boyfriend had not wanted to make her cry. The friend took Kim to her boyfriend's room, and told her she was welcome to any possessions he had left behind. When Kim saw that her boyfriend had not taken her picture with him, she still believed he loved her, but she understood that he had a wife and that she wouldn't be hearing from him again. She left the room carrying the photograph with her.

Vietnamese women who had American boyfriends or had borne a child of an American suffered from their society's disapproval. They might be beaten or rejected by their parents, and most Vietnamese men would not even consider marrying them. Mai Thi Kim said, " When you gave birth to a mixed kid, in the countryside, they hold many prejudice against you... I was very bitter and shameful when they looked down on me that way."

Bi-racial children were called "con lai" (half-breed) or "bui doi" (the dust of life). Contrary to their mothers' fears, the Communists did not hurt Amerasian children after the fall of Saigon. In fact, there was no official national policy of persecution or discrimination. Years later, Kim's husband, Do Huu Vinh, explained that he would have accepted Kim's mixed-race daughter if she had been there when he returned to Danang. He said, "I would have raised her as my own child. We fought against adults. She was only a child."

The greatest cause of discrimination towards Amerasians came from Vietnamese societal attitudes. Mixed-race children were often so horribly tormented by their peers that many did not attend school. The more Caucasian or African American they looked, the more severely they were harassed. Faced with these pressures, many mothers abandoned their Amerasian children. Some were accepted into orphanages, while some became street kids, pursuing criminal activities to survive.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, it became virtually impossible for anyone to leave. Because the United States had broken all diplomatic ties with Vietnam, even legitimate children of Americans -- who had American citizenship -- often had to wait for years before being allowed to leave.

In the mid-1980s, the American press focused attention on the plight of Vietnamese children of American fathers. Acknowledging public pressure, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1987. By 1994, approximately 25,000 Amerasians had arrived in the United States, accompanied by about 60,000 family members. Because they were already young adults, adjustment to American life proved difficult for many of them. Some returned to Vietnam.

If an Amerasian newcomer had enough information on his or her father's identity, the Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations would try to locate him. If he was found, they contacted the man, who would decide whether or not to meet his child. Of all the father search attempts, in only about two percent of the cases did the fathers contact their children.

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