January 16, 2010
The Quiet Man
A few years ago, I met a very stone-faced facility manager to give him a quote for janitorial service. He was an old-school Asian businessman, and he wasn't about to give anything away in our conversation. It took about an hour, and throughout, he was never more than icily professional.
It was a large facility in the suburbs, bordering some fairly wild open land. As we were winding up the quote, the room suddenly throbbed with the unmistakable beat of rotor blades and the growling whine of a jet-powered helicopter making a very low overhead pass. The melody was identical to a Viet Nam-era Huey. Suddenly, my indifferent friend's eyes widened as we exchanged glances, and both of us raced to the door to see what was going on.
It wasn't a remake of Apocalypse Now. It was just the power company using the helicopter to set some new poles on the land next door. However, something happened to that man in our dash to the door. The sound instantly connected us to another time in both our lives. He suddenly opened up and ultimately told me what happened to him in the wake of April 30, 1975.
His father was someone the communists wanted desperately to arrest. They badgered his mother daily in her home for over a month, but she never gave up her husband. When the daily interrogations stopped, they posted spies in the woods near this man's home. After six more weeks, the spies finally gave up and left. He said they could tell they were gone because they no longer smelled the cigarette smoke at night.
Some time after that, he escaped on his own, packed into a small boat with forty or fifty other people. They were at sea for weeks, encountering pirates who lost interest in them only once they spotted the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the foredeck. They made two landings on the Malaysian coast. The first time, they were caught and forced back out to sea. Weeks later, they landed successfully, and the man spent the next two years living in the Malay jungle.
We ran out of time, so I never did learn how he made it to the States. Obviously, he had done well in America.
I walked away from that meeting with a sudden appreciation for the thousands of Americans who began their journey to citizenship in similarly horrid circumstances, those who have very quietly and very quickly triumphed in the same America as have countless others before them. Their stories inspire me.
This April 30, it will be 35 years since that last Huey hovered above the embassy roof in Saigon. For 35 years we've been told that that shameful image represents America's defeat.
It does not.
It wasn't America who abandoned her allies, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to the vengeance of a ruthless enemy. It was America's elite: her politicians, diplomats, and most of all, her media that condemned them to their fate. That helicopter is an image of their failure, their treachery, and their mendacity.
The shame and guilt is theirs, not America's.
On the contrary, it was America who welcomed the survivors of that disgraceful day. It was America, and everyday Americans, who sponsored them as they established themselves in a strange land, with its strange language and culture.
Once they got their feet under them, these new Americans quickly proceeded to write another chapter in their new country's success story. While the image of that last Huey stands for the failure of America's elite, their immigrant tale is a glorious testament to the real America, reflected in the everyday experience of real Americans. Their triumph is the triumph of the true America.
From restaurants to roach coaches, barbershops, nail salons, watchmakers, and countless other enterprises, no obstacle stopped the spirit of these amazing people. A quiet backdrop to American life for 35 years, they raised a generation of sons and daughters who in their turn seized their opportunity. Today, they are more often than not professionals in various walks of American life.
One of the more recognizable of these quiet Americans is Dat Nguyen. Certainly, he is symbolic of these remarkable people's determination to succeed in their new home. He played six successful seasons for the Dallas Cowboys as a middle linebacker -- no mean feat for someone of modest stature descended from slight Asian stock.
His generation's kids, grandchildren of the hearty souls of '75, are now entering college as fully assimilated as any other ethnic group before them.
The conditions their parents and grandparents faced were every bit as dire as the slave ships of earlier centuries. In fact, they were probably much worse. Packed into overloaded, rickety vessels, usually without sanitation, they faced starvation, drowning, pirates, disease, and indifference. Unlike slaves, their lives represented no investment to shippers or owners. They were on their own in a vicious, hostile world. Their only value was to pirates, who would happily murder them on the off-chance that they were carrying a little gold.
While over 58,000 Americans never came home, millions of Vietnamese died, and millions more woke up one day to find their nation dissolving around them. Many of them had their names on lists that guaranteed at least a few years in a reeducation camp. More likely, they'd earned a bullet in the back of the head.
By various miracles, many made it to America.
In the 1980s Thomas Sowell, wrote a superb book called Ethnic America. He describes the cultural characteristics of the various immigrant groups with uncanny accuracy. He then traces how those characteristics influenced where the immigrants and their children found themselves in American society.
Because the Vietnamese were busy writing their own story at the same time he was writing the book, there was no chapter about them, but if ever he thought about updating it, they would be another case confirming his hypothesis. It is human capital: the knowledge and skills, values and attitudes of Americans, both old and new, that profoundly influences success of individual members of any group.
In addition to whatever other challenges they faced, the Vietnamese also reminded many Americans of a very painful time in our history. Still we've never heard a peep from any pressure group or "leader" -- just the quiet hum of their success as they make their way and enrich all of our lives.
Today, our elites are at it again. This time it's not a foreign nation they are abandoning but our own. They may not be abandoning us to the whims of a conquering army just yet, but they are chaining us to an anchor of impossible debt. Curiously, our largest creditor also happens to be our most likely future military rival. We may have very little time indeed before the last Gulfstream departs Dulles.
As we look out to the challenges coming our way, take some inspiration from our quiet neighbors. They faced much worse and lived to triumph. Of course, they had the promise of America to look forward to.
We still have her. At least for the moment.