WASHINGTON — It is a whisper still, but slowly the voice of the Vietnamese is joining the chorus about the war.
"People have stopped arguing about it. They've stopped debating. They ask my point of view now," former South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Bui Diem said over lunch in the city where he once lobbied Congress, the State Department and the White House. "They ask me why the United States got involved."
The need to understand what happened in that Southeast Asian country, the desire for "terms of comparison," Diem said, may help to explain why, 12 years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are looking to the Vietnamese to tell their own story.
Diem's own--"In the Jaws of History" (with David Chanoff; due out Aug. 31 from Houghton Mifflin)--is the latest in a quiet stream of books about the war from Vietnamese now living in America.
Last fall, there was "The Palace File" (Harper & Row) by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerold L. Schecter, "Shallow Graves" by Wendy Wilder Larsen and Tran Thi Nga (reprinted this season in paperback by Harper & Row, from a Random House hardcover). In 1985, Chanoff co-authored "A Vietcong Memoir" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) with one of the founders of the Viet Cong, Truong Nhu Tang. Chanoff is also the co-author of last fall's "Portrait of the Enemy" (Random House) with Doan Van Toai, a book currently being filmed as a documentary.
Of Bui Diem's book, Douglas Pike, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley and director of that school's Institute of East Asian Studies, said, "It's a long-awaited, long-expected book for which a lot of people have great hopes. He was in a key position and is able to tell his story better than most Vietnamese."
But "up until now," co-author Chanoff said by phone from his home near Boston, "books by Vietnamese about the Vietnam experience have not sold particularly well."
Often overlooked by critics, the handful of nonfiction books by Vietnamese authors has seen small print runs, seldom more than 15,000 copies. Publishers are reluctant to discuss their reception.
"The things on Vietnam that tend to do well are stories about the brutalization of young American soldiers there, the kind of things that came out in 'Platoon,' or in Phil Caputo's 'A Rumor of War,' or in Al Santoli's 'Everything We Had,' " Chanoff said. "They're very strong books, but that was their theme: the story of American soldiers during the war, very emotional stories about 18-, 19-year-old boys over there in action."
Largely absent, Chanoff said, has been "any sensitivity to the people we were dealing with--the Vietnamese--both as allies and as enemies."
For their part, the Vietnamese in this country have until recently remained silent about the ordeal that brought them here. Rebuilding their lives in a new country, they have been too busy concentrating on "survival," Bui Diem said, to commit their thoughts to paper.
There was the language barrier. ("Up to now, they wrote in Vietnamese most of the time," said Diem, as fluent in English and French as in his native tongue.) But also, for most Vietnamese, there was an inherent cultural aversion to speaking about themselves at all.
By "education--by environment--as part of our modesty," Vietnamese, Diem said, "like all Asians" are uncomfortable focusing on themselves.
On the other hand, not everybody in this country was ready to hear what the Vietnamese might have to say.
As early as 1975, soon after he escaped to this country following the fall of Saigon, Diem said he began approaching publishers with his idea for a book. "Nobody wanted it," he said. "People seemed to say at that time, let us forget it."
Diem had another obstacle, Chanoff suggested. "Back in the 1970s," he said, "Bui Diem would have been stigmatized as a spokesman for dictators."
Even though Diem "had a reputation of being an independent man, somebody who had strong democratic instincts," Chanoff said his own politics would have prevented him from working with a man accused of trying to influence the 1968 American presidential election, a man vilified as the chief of staff under Prime Minister Phan Huy Quat who wrote the communique "inviting" U.S. troops into Vietnam.
"If he had tried to write a book then, he might have gotten some far-right-wing publisher, or maybe some university press," Chanoff said. "He would have had no exposure at all."
But now, Chanoff said, "we don't have quite as much of a monomaniacal emotional reaction to things. We can look at his story and say 'My goodness, look at the history that we didn't know.' "
Raw from a war that ripped America apart as surely as it devoured any dreams of democracy in Vietnam, "we saw it as an immoral event," Chanoff said. "That was it. It was not just a mistake from a geopolitical point of view, but a horrible ethical mistake.
"Wherever those ideas came from, that was not an accurate interpretation of reality. The reality was much more complex than that."