By Elizabeth Villarreal
Despite its current role as New Haven’s “Sister City,” Hue, Vietnam first came to the attention of the American public under dark circumstances. The “Imperial City,” with its ancient citadel and grand pagodas, was in 1968 a battlefield, site to one of the bloodiest and longest conflicts of the Vietnam War.
The story for the Battle of Hue started like many others of the war. In the early hours of January 31, 1968, Hue fell to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces along with more than a hundred other towns and cities in what would come to be known as the Tet Offensive. Unlike many of those other cities, however, which were quickly reclaimed by American and South Vietnamese troops, the Battle of Hue dragged on for over a month, fought house by house as the city turned to rubble. By the end of the war there would be almost nothing left.
Major George R. Christmas, Company Commander in Hue, described the American strategy at the time: “Just as a rat must be drawn from his burrow to be eradicated, an enemy soldier, burrowed in a building, must also be pulled from his hiding place to be eliminated. Normally, he will not come out without a fight. The attacker must go in and dig him out.” Major Christmas would win a Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism” during the Battle of Hue.
Howard Chernikoff, a sailor of the USS Reclaimer, wouldn’t arrive in Hue until September of the next year. From his vantage point on the ship deck his disillusionment with the mission grew as the war progressed. He had enlisted as a junior in high school because he wanted to avoid the draft and hoped to be based close to home in New London, Connecticut. Despite promises to the contrary, he was stationed in Pearl Harbor and then sent off on a ship to Vietnam. “You do things for your country that you don’t want to do,” he said.
When Chernikoff came back from the war in 1971, he suffered from symptoms he would now describe as consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder and, in an attempt to cope with the condition, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). His protests were often bold and sometimes illegal. In December of 1971 he and eight other veterans briefly occupied the office of the commanding general of the Connecticut National Guard in Hartford, Connecticut. “We demand that the Administration cease to defy the Congress and the people of the United States and charge the Administration with treason,” the veterans wrote in their statement. “We demand that the Administration set a date for the immediate withdrawal from all troops and equipment from Indochina and the cessation of bombing from all the bases.”
Eventually Chernikoff’s work with VVAW petered off, but he continued trying to wrestle with his wartime experience. “That’s how I put a lot of stuff behind me, but I wouldn’t do it again. I’ve learned to do things in ways that are more practical, more effective,” he explained. After the war Chernikoff went to college to major in political science with a minor in South East Asian Studies and then got a job at the Connecticut Department of Labor as a Veterans Employment Representative. Now retired, in his free time, Chernikoff attends lectures on South East Asia at a local university and teaches himself Vietnamese. He’s proud of his status as a veteran and still walks around with his belongings in a patch-covered bag, his “flag bag” as he calls it, with the Vietnamese flag sown onto it. It saddens him that children can no longer identify the flag when he points it out to them. “Children are going to grow up to be the future leaders, but they’re just not taught this stuff,” he said. “They cover the whole war, in what—one or two pages of a lesson plan?”
In 1987 he made his first trip back to Vietnam as a civilian and has been back seven more times since. “I don’t care for their government, but I don’t care much for ours either,” he said. Many of his fellow veterans have done the same—visiting old battle sites, “adopting” Vietnamese families, and taking part in volunteer projects like building schools. It was through a network of other veterans that he first heard about the New Haven Sister City project.
Sister Cities are formal relationships between people in two different international cities, sanctioned by their respective governments. The idea was first developed by the Eisenhower administration as a peace initiative. War, or so the thinking went, would be impossible if the citizens of different countries understood each other better. Empathy would prevent hate.
In the early 1990s, certain members of the New Haven community began to push for a Sister City relationship with a place in Vietnam.
The members of the group were varied—one was a Vietnamese-American medical student, several were veterans like Chernikoff, and others activists—but they all believed the time was right to start healing the relationship between the people of the two countries, even if the governments weren’t ready. After a period of lobbying, in 1994—a full year before the U.S. reestablished formal diplomatic ties to Vietnam—New Haven, Connecticut and Hue, Vietnam became the first Sister City pair between the two countries.
For both the mayors of the respective cities and the people that pushed for the change, the decision was far from politically easy. The memory of the war still loomed large over the project. Chernikoff remembers some of his fellow veterans confronting him and asking him questions like, “How could you do that?” They argued that the time for reconciliation wasn’t right until at a bare minimum all of the prisoners of war and soldiers deemed missing in action were accounted for, but Chernikoff thought differently. “I’d learned to put the war behind me; some others couldn’t,” he said.
In Hue, popular opinion was also divided on the issue, but strong support from Vietnamese policymakers helped drive the plan forward.
“The Prime Minister of Vietnam gives foreign affairs direction, and he said he wanted Vietnam to be a friend to every city, especially American cities, so we went forward with it,” explained Phan Van Hai, current vice director of the Hue City Center for International Cooperation (HueFO). “The year 1968 was a big loss for the city,” he said. “We wanted to heal.”
Hue city officials had other reasons to establish ties to the United States. They were looking for humanitarian assistance projects and hoped New Haven might consider funding them. Nguyen Nhien, former director of HueFO, remembers a visit he took to the U.S.: “I went to America and saw the development with my own eyes. We have a lot to learn from each other. If I can be from the war generation and still support cooperation, so can everyone else.” For a while, the New Haven side of the partnership did assist the Vietnamese monetarily. One year the group sent over computers, another they sent over medical supplies.
But unlike in Hue where the city’s government was fully invested in the success of the Sister City project, the New Haven side was run by a non-profit with no municipal funds. When the mayor of Hue visited the U.S., New Haven’s may or welcomed him with a pizza party in City Hall. When the New Haven delegation visited Hue on the mayor’s behalf, they were given a full welcome ceremony. Due largely to the disorganization on the U.S. side, the relationship has fallen into neglect. Accord ing to Nhien, HueFO received “no response from New Haven when they were invited to the annual Hue cultural festival” in 2012.
Other cities, including ones in the U.S., did end up establishing more long-term partnerships with Hue. Hue now has sister city relationships with cities in Japan, South Korea, France, and Hawaii. “Honolulu got USAID funding for Hue—you can tell your city hall about that,” said Nhien. Others in Hue, including the former mayor Le Van Anh, envision a more mutually beneficial relationship. “In the past, Vietnam was a very poor country, and we received a lot of humanitarian assistance, but in the last five years especially we’ve developed to a point where the relationship can really benefit both sides,” he said.
Anh remembers one moment from his trip to New Haven in 1995: “When I arrived in the city, there was a nice meeting with local people. An old lady came up to me and gave me a portrait and statue of Ho Chi Minh. She said her husband had made them while he was stationed in Vietnam in 1967, and when he died she promised him she would find a way to return it to Vietnam where he felt it belonged.” Anh put it in a museum so that other people could reflect on the “love and consideration” that is possible between the two peoples, despite the conflict that nearly destroyed his city.
Although he wishes the relationship were still more active, Chernikoff thinks the feelings Anh described are still there, even among U.S. veterans. In that sense he feels the Sister City project accomplished its goals. “We did what our governments told us to do,” he said. “When I visit Vietnam and meet veterans there, we don’t talk about the war. We talk about family. I didn’t like shooting at people, but you do what you have to do. Harboring resentment only causes ulcers, and I have no intention of getting ulcers.”
Elizabeth Villarreal ‘16 is a History major in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.