The American-Vietnam War was one of the bloodiest and most unpopular wars in Western history. During World War II, Japan invaded and occupied the then-French colony Vietnam, leading to a period of brutality and unrelenting warfare. The Viet Minh was formed to defend the country against the invading Japanese. After the withdrawal of the Japanese troops at the end of WWII, the Viet Minh turned their fight for an independent nation toward their colonial rulers. From 1946 until 1954, Ho Chi Minh waged a resistance movement with the Viet Minh against the French. After fighting for almost eight years, France decided to leave Vietnam, on the condition that it would be split it into North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel.
The division of the country worked well in theory: South Vietnam was pro-Western, Catholic like the French, and led by the Western puppet president Diem; in contrast, North Vietnam was communist, Buddhist, and led by Ho Chi Minh. However, the situation was, in fact, much more complex. Much of the country was politically split, and many people changed affiliations during the war.
Starting in the early 1960s, the United States sent troops, money, and supplies to assist South Vietnam. After refusing to hold free elections, the United States removed President Diem from office. During this time, political dissent in the South started to move underground, creating military support in troops known as the Vietnamese Liberation Front, or Viet Cong. The United States sent more troops over the next decade; at one point, over 500,000 troops were present. Despite its military strength, though, the United States was unable to defeat the North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong. Fighting in an unfamiliar and dense jungle against guerrilla warfare, the military might of the United States was insufficient. The war faced strong opposition at home as well. Although peace talks began in 1968 between North Vietnam and the United States, they were stalled numerous times. In 1973, the United States finally pulled troops out of Vietnam, leaving the country to the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The losses of the war—physical, emotional, financial, and psychological—were enormous. Over 50,000 U.S. troops died, and more than 300,000 were wounded; more than 5 million Vietnamese are estimated to have lost their lives. The war cost the United States over 100 billion dollars and left Vietnam nearly destroyed. During the war, many Vietnamese left the country for other Asian or Western countries, mainly the United States and France. These Vietnamese expatriates, or Viet Ku, were a displaced population. In the 1980s, the North Vietnamese Communist Party allowed Viet Ku back on special visas, hoping to better international opinion of their failing and impoverished nation. Le Ly Hayslip was one of these Viet Ku and documented her experience in the first book of her memoirs, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.
Born Phung Thi Le Ly in 1949, Hayslip was the youngest of six children. She spent her childhood and adolescence struggling through two wars. In 1970, she left for the United States with her two children and her American husband. They settled in San Diego. When he died a few years later, she briefly remarried, but her second husband died shortly after their wedding. She was left to raise her three boys alone. Hayslip started The East Meets West Foundation in 1988, a humanitarian relief organization that aims to heal some of the war wounds of all sides involved. The foundation has established health centers and schools in Vietnam and provides emotional treatment for American GIs who were scarred by their experiences in the war.
In 1989, Hayslip began to write When Heaven and Earth Changed Places with Jay Wurts. Her book was the culmination of her journey back to her homeland after an absence of seventeen years. The book chronicles her life growing up as a peasant on the central coast of Vietnam, a region geographically and politically torn between North and South Vietnam. Hayslip experienced the war from every side, as a member of the Viet Cong, a war profiteer, and a friend and ally of the American GIs. Her book contained her own personal experiences as well as lessons learned from war—that tolerance and forgiveness are the ways to heal the horrors inflicted from war and can lead to peace. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places enjoyed both critical and popular success.
The second book of her memoirs, Child of War, Woman of Peace, chronicles her experiences once she arrived in the United States. Hayslip’s literary work and humanitarian foundation have attracted the attention of many supporters, including Senator John Kerry, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran turned peace advocate, with whom she built Peace Village, a medical center for children in Vietnam; and filmmaker Oliver Stone, also a Vietnam veteran, who produced and directed a film based on Hayslip’s two autobiographies, titled Heaven and Earth (1993).
In addition to the East Meets West foundation, Hayslip also founded The Global Village in 1999, which focuses on improving schools and the quality of education for children in Vietnam. Hayslip currently lives in San Diego and continues her humanitarian work related to Vietnam.