Politics & Policy

American Exceptionalism: Learning It Firsthand

Thirty-five years later, immigrants and soldiers still remember the fall of Saigon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

The Fourth of July came early this year. It arrived on the anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

That morning, I was co-hosting a national radio show when a woman named Kim called from Detroit. At 19, she and her family were among the “boat people” who fled Vietnam. Her father “knew that he didn’t want to be there when [the Communists] took over Saigon.” He had been born in Hanoi and moved south “because he wanted freedom,” she said. And now he was going to make sure his entire family had it.

When their boat failed, American servicemen took them the rest of the way and gave them water. Kim remembers being surprised: “But these people don’t know us,” she said at the time. One serviceman even gave her a ten-dollar bill. “He said I might need it. I didn’t know the value of it.” Kim and her family didn’t know a word of English, but once she got to a refugee camp, she was taught it. “They didn’t have to do that,” she remembered, 35 years later, holding back tears. “This is the greatest country. I am forever grateful.”

When they came here, her father was full of hope and determination. “If you cannot succeed here, you cannot do it anywhere else,” she remembers he said. “Set your goal and go after it.” Kim did — she’s a physician — and it’s no wonder she did; her father set a good example. She remembers, “When we lined up in Detroit for unemployment, for food stamps, I’d never seen my dad so sad. He said, ‘We have our hands and feet, why are we standing here?’ We left the line.”

When people talk about American exceptionalism, it is the hope Kim’s father saw here they are thinking of. Kim called in in response to a letter, which to this day is hard to read. It’s about an American surrender.

As we were moving out of South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge was taking over nearby Cambodia. The American ambassador asked Prince Sirik Matak there if he wanted to flee, too. He did not. In his letter to the American ambassador to Cambodia, he explained that he “never believed for a moment that [America] would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. . . . I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.”

Matak, who would be shot by the Khmer Rouge, didn’t make the mistake; we did. Our political leaders disappointed him. And our servicemen were ill-served and underappreciated.

After the radio show that morning, another listener e-mailed me. I had referred to Kim’s call as the welcome parade Vietnam veterans never received. In response, he said: “I’m one of those vets, and your observation made me feel better about the sacrifice I made, small though it was compared to that of others.” He wrote: “Several years ago my daughter-in-law mentioned my year in Vietnam and thanked me for serving there. I surprised her when I told her that she was the first person to tell me that.”

Warts and all, we are an exceptional nation of exceptional people — so many who are motivated by the founding principles that men fought and died for, principles that got us engaged in Vietnam and that we lost along the way there. Principles that many of us worry the majority of our political class is forgetting again.

“Every morning I wake up and thank God that I’m here.” Mike was born in Croatia, and he was calling in to the same radio program during the same week. His call was in response to a New York Times story about Americans renouncing their citizenship.

In the last quarter of 2009, 502 expatriates gave up their citizenship or permanent residency, according to the Federal Register. That, the Times pointed out, was “the largest quarterly figure in years, more than twice the total for all of 2008, and it looms larger, given how agonizing the decision can be. There were 235 renunciations in 2008 and 743 last year. Waiting periods to meet with consular officers to formalize renunciations have grown.” Taxes are burdensomely high for Americans living abroad. Our light, financially and otherwise, isn’t what it once was.

Mike, who was born in Croatia but raised a family here, would have none of it.

A listener to conservative radio, he’s become too used to hearing complaints, not from overtaxed executives living in Switzerland but from those disappointed in the paradigmatic shift the Democratic party seems to be forcing on the country against the majority’s will. “I cannot believe that one and a half years of Obama will bring the American people to its knees,” Mike said. “You have to fight for your freedom.” After all, people are doing it right now on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Speaking directly to their frustration with and despair over the current White House and leadership in Congress, he said: “You’re willing to give this up because of one man from Chicago?”

President Obama has downplayed American exceptionalism, comparing it to the national pride felt by the citizens of any country. I wish he had heard Kim’s story. There is something special about this place: This country is a beacon of freedom, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we have to work to keep it that way. We can start by preserving and protecting freedom, forever treasuring the inspiration that our nation is and needs to be — and never forgetting the dad from Hanoi who knew our work ethic better than some of us do today.  Especially some of those who are working to change the nature of our country.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com.

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