I am Henry Kissinger's human 'legacy of war' – a trauma passed among generations

The death of Henry Kissinger evoked an outpouring of reflections about his place in history and his controversial legacy in shaping the Vietnam War. While debates and comments on Kissinger’s life centered around whether his life’s work made him a war criminal or a cold-blooded genius who restored America’s prestige, I found myself reflecting on my own experience as a child born in Saigon in the middle of the war to which he was the master architect.

This moved me to confront the stark truths of the conflict, the profound consequences of the war and the enduring agony it inflicted, leaving physical and emotional scars that endure to this day.

I am one of millions of Vietnamese Americans whose trauma from the war was hidden behind a wall of shame and pride, untreated and passed down from one generation to the next. It is time for the truth to be told, and for our voices to be heard, so we could finally embark on a journey toward true reconciliation and healing.

Erin Phuong Steinhauer, right, with her extended family in Northern Virginia in 2022.
Erin Phuong Steinhauer, right, with her extended family in Northern Virginia in 2022.

My mother escaped Saigon with 12 children

The lies started when I was growing up in Saigon, where U.S. politicians and soldiers walked around looking invincible and with an air of superiority. We were told they were there to save us from the northern communists, and we felt safe.

When Saigon fell in 1975 and I saw North Vietnamese soldiers celebrating on tanks rolling down Nguyen Hue boulevard, I realized we have been living behind a smoky veil. Our homes and assets were confiscated, and my father was arrested and put into reeducation camp. I was 5 years old.

Erin Phuong Steinhauer, fourth from the right, with her family in Lancaster, Pa., in 1980.
Erin Phuong Steinhauer, fourth from the right, with her family in Lancaster, Pa., in 1980.

My mother had no choice but to take her 12 children to flee Vietnam by boat to escape further prosecution (my father never joined us after years of being in the camp).

The lies continued when we arrived in 1979 to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a small city known for its large Amish population. My siblings and I were taught that America was our savior who gave us the opportunity to restart our lives, and that we should live the life of “model immigrants” to be worthy of the “gift of opportunity” we were given. This meant to be obedient and study hard, keep our heads down and work hard, not talk back and achieve as much as possible.

We lived the lives of people who always felt we owe it to someone to do well, to give back, to always be grateful.

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Kissinger's Paris Peace Accords betrayed both US and Vietnam

Eventually I learned the truth. It is a very different narrative about U.S. policies in Vietnam, which asserts that American geopolitical policies must be attained through any means deemed necessary.

As the secretary of State and national security adviser, Kissinger’s decisions resulted in the killing of millions of people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, many of whom were civilians. America dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than the amount dropped on Europe and Japan combined during World War II. Five decades later, there are up to 800,000 unexploded ordnances still killing and maiming children.

Kissinger ordered to strike “anything that moves” in Cambodia, seemingly to not care about civilian lives. The extensive spraying of Agent Orange caused severe neurological and physical deformities in hundreds of thousands of people for generations and poisoned the soil until this day.

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Kissinger undermined the opportunity for a resolution to the war in 1968 and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords that betrayed both the American people and the people of Vietnam.

Pride and prejudice come in many forms. In this case, American imperialism resembles a bit of the plot in the film "Avatar," where Vietnam was the beautiful land in the “far east” with incredible natural beauty and little brown people before the helicopters arrived over green rice fields.

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People say the truth sets you free, but I needed to come to terms with the fact that I am on a journey toward healing from the traumas of war. This starts with accepting that I am a human “legacy of war,” and that I must wrestle with all the sentiments and emotions that come with the process, including navigating the complex emotions that arise when confronting the actions of Henry Kissinger – the man who played a pivotal role in changing the course of my life.

I must contend with the reality that I am a person who was forced from my home and forced to gamble with my life on the open seas, who went from riches to poverty in America, who endured mockery and prejudice and felt ashamed for not knowing English or the American way of living.

It was hard, so hard that every time I see a child refugee on TV, whether from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine or Yemen, my eyes automatically cry for them, and wish the world would see there are long lasting consequences to war.

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Henry Kissinger the war criminal is dead and will now face the criminal court that really matters, so I know justice will be had.

As for me, the wounds of war, both physical and emotional, are not easily forgotten, but I can celebrate my own victories. I am not only a survivor of the war, but also a successful Vietnamese American who co-founded Vietnam Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the understanding of Vietnam using the power of art and culture to help people heal from the war.

My hope is that everyone who is affected by the war will be able to embark upon a journey of healing and find their voice in the process.

Erin Phuong Steinhauer
Erin Phuong Steinhauer

Erin Phuong Steinhauer is the co-founder and executive director of Vietnam Society.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Henry Kissinger the war criminal is dead. I'm his living 'legacy'