Of the two brothers, Robert has personal connections to Vietnam. He married a Vietnamese woman and brought with him to the US many Vietnamese things, including a sampan, which is typical for southern Vietnam. Robert Whitehurst, who returned to Vietnam in early April, granted an interview with VOV reporter Quang Dong to talk about the diary.
VOV: Could you tell us your first impressions when you first encountered the diary?
Robert: I first encountered the diary back in 1970 when I was in Vietnam and my brother, Fred, wrote me a letter mentioning the discovery of the diary. He came and spent two weeks with me in the Mekong delta on a boat, and brought what he had at that time, the first diary. I was impressed that Tram was a heroic person, and from what I could read in a short time, she was very courageous, very honest and very good. She was a very emotional woman. At that time she was still alive in Quang Ngai.
VOV: Has the diary changed your life and if so, how?
Robert: Well, I became aware of the second diary in 1971. At the time Fred thought Thuy Tram had been killed. The diary affected my judgement of the people and raised my expectations. I have rarely met people that met the many standards she lived by. She was at a level of human achievement that few people arrive at. It is there in front of me that I often find myself judging people by their standards; especially, they talk a lot about what they do and what they are. Many people can talk of big stories but when it comes to having the courage to live up to their beliefs, very few people have the courage Thuy Tram had.
VOV: What do you think about the responses the diary had after it was published?
Robert: I was very surprised that the sales kept growing and growing. We came to Vietnam five days after the diary was released on the market, serialized and talked about a lot. We were immediately involved in different media events that the family took part in and we were very happy to do that. We were asked surprising questions that we had not thought about, but I was very grateful and particularly impressed by the responses the diary had from youngsters all over Vietnam. It is easy to understand that she was a young person talking to young people, not talking down to them, but talking on their level. Her words were very compelling. Of course, the whole family was a family of achievers, and her mother, who is still very healthy, is a person who is very easy to love, very easy to respect and impossible to forget.
VOV: When did you first come back to Vietnam after 1975?
Robert: August last year. I left in 1972 and only returned last year.
VOV: Why did it take you so long to come back because, as we understand, you have personal connections to this land?
Robert: Well, I’ve been busy raising a family and doing part-time business. I wanted to do business in Europe and I have a daughter to send to college in the US.
VOV: So we see you came back to Vietnam very late after 1975. What about your wife, a Vietnamese? When did she come back to Vietnam?
Robert: Well, my wife did return. She did not hear about her family for 10 years after 1975, but she has been back every three to four years recently, and has returned five to six times already. The situation has improved a lot. Last year my wife took my 32-year-old daughter to Vietnam for the first time. Everybody was very surprised and very emotionally excited by the fact that they all bonded so well. They all realised immediately that they were a family. Even though she had an American father, cousins, uncles and others. She told me that she has now met her favourite aunt. I am very happy about that.
VOV: What about your own feelings when you first came back to Vietnam last year? Was it different from what you had envisioned?
Robert: I continued to read about Vietnam, from a veteran’s point of view and from other points of view, about the war and the history. I was very interested in the time the French were here and previous to that. So it was not too much a surprise. But I was struck by how clean Hanoi is, how colourful it is, and how friendly the people are. And I am grateful that people are so gracious trying to understand my spoken Vietnamese.
VOV: I’m sure you were welcomed by those who know you are a person related to the diary. What about those who do not know you are Robert Whitehurst?
Robert: I do not know whether they know who I am or not, because the Vietnamese are very polite. I am rarely asked whether I am Robert, Fred’s brother. I’ve been very pleased that people have been so polite. I enjoy the fact that I can look at people and they do not stare back, and in that moment when we make eye contact I try to capture them with a smile, and invariably, they smile back. In short, I am very pleased and very touched by what I have found here.
VOV: What else do you think about the Vietnamese attitude to you as an ordinary American citizen when they meet you 30 years after the war ended?
Robert: Before I came over here, I read official publicity that the country was looking forward and really letting bygones be bygones. I suspected there might be still a deep emotional well of sadness about the war.When I came here, I found that people were looking forward, we talked about the war for 10 days, but not with bitterness. The reason that Fred and I came here was intimately tied up to the war. Thuy Tram has become more and more important to the Vietnamese people. Everything we do has more and more significance, gratification and impact on the perception of the war for a veteran like me and your society, especially regarding the feelings and passion they had. The younger generation began discover what it was, how their parents and grandparents fell, and that moved them. Basically they could see what had to happen to help Vietnam play the role as it is doing today. Thuy Tram’s words can serve as a bridge over the river of bitterness that has separated our countries for so long, and may enable us to better understand each other more sympathetically.
VOV: Thank you very much.