A History of 50 Years of MCC Service in Vietnam: 1954-2004

by  Kenneth Martens Friesen

MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 1998-2002

This history was self-published, in both English and Vietnamese, by the MCC Vietnam office in 2004. The Vietnamese version is available upon request.

 

The occasion of Mennonite Central Committee's (MCC) 50 years of service in Vietnam is an appropriate opportunity to summarize and reflect on MCC's work in Vietnam. Vietnam plays a special role in the history of MCC and in the lives of many MCC workers, as its experience in Vietnam both helped to shape its ideas and priorities of service and development throughout the world for years to come.

MCC began as an organization in 1920, when leaders from various Mennonite groups in North America responded to the cry for food assistance from Mennonites living in the Ukraine. Mennonites in North America felt compelled to help their hungry brothers and sisters because of their belief that God calls people to help those less fortunate, especially those who are poor, hungry or sick. The money raised by MCC to assist the poor Russian Mennonites came, and still comes, from individuals in Mennonite churches. MCC has very seldom accepted money from North American governments to help do its work, feeling that doing so can compromise its independence from government policies.

 

From that initial experience of helping others in need, MCC began to expand its work throughout Europe, and then throughout the world. During the closing years of World War II, MCC worked in several war torn European countries to provide relief assistance to many thousands of people. MCC helped war-displaced persons find food and shelter, locate their relatives, relocate to new homes, and begin new lives. Through these activities MCC gained experience as a church agency working to show compassion by relieving suffering and aiding people in need.

As MCC's work continued in Europe after World War II, it realized that the needs of people were just as great in many other countries around the world. MCC soon expanded its work to several developing countries, including India and Indonesia. In these countries the struggle for independence from colonial powers in the late 1940s had caused significant suffering. MCC workers came to try to alleviate the suffering and to help build up the newly independent nations. As it did so, MCC developed its philosophy and mode of service by emphasizing relationships and grassroots connections. MCC felt strongly that assistance and development included building personal relationships, not simply sending food or funds. It is for that reason that most MCC programs throughout the world involve the use of expatriate volunteers working in close collaboration with a local population.

It was with similar motivations that MCC began its work in Vietnam in 1954. The Geneva Accords brought a hope for peace and reconciliation for many in Vietnam. There was great expectations that independence from colonial rule was near for the Vietnamese people. A side effect of the accords, however, was a collection of displaced people in South Vietnam. MCC began its presence in Vietnam in 1954 with the purpose of aiding these displaced people. The first MCC director arrived in Vietnam in August, 1954 with instructions to assess the needs of these displaced people and to begin an MCC program in Vietnam.

From these humble beginnings MCC's ongoing work in Vietnam has now stretched to five decades. This presence in Vietnam can be divided into five distinct periods. 1) 1954-1965: Displaced People Assistance and Program Buildup; 2) 1966-1972: Cooperation through Vietnam Christian Service; 3) 1973-1979: MCC's Presence in the Transition to a Unified Vietnam; 4) 1980-1989: Working through Vietnam's Difficult Years; 5) 1990-2004: Establishing a Representative Office and Increasing Grassroots Activities. Each of these periods of time will be briefly recounted and a summary of important lessons learned through this period will be given.

1. 1954-1966: Displaced people Assistance and Program Buildup

On August 16, 1954 MCC began its work in Vietnam when Delbert Wiens arrived in Saigon as the first MCC Director. His work, and that of three other MCC workers who soon followed, was to assist displaced people in areas around Saigon. This was done, in part, by distributing 42 1/2 tons of food, clothing and soap sent by the U.S. government for distribution in Indo-China. In the first year of its work MCC distributed approximately $50,000 of its own resources and $75,000 of U.S. government relief supplies. Other projects focused more on longer term development goals, but some were more difficult to begin than expected.

The arrival of a doctor in 1955 focused MCC's attention on the great medical needs in rural Vietnam at the time. A clinic was set up. by MCC in'Banrriethuot to focus on the health concerns of some of the region's ethnic minorities. The effectiveness of both the clinic and a mobile clinic led other groups to ask MCC to help set up additional hospital facilities in Saigon. Another hospital was begun by MCC in Nha Trang in 1961. The 35 bed in-patient facility was often overfull, and by 1965 the out-patient clinic was treating over 40,000 patients each year.

Other programs began to develop in the late 1950s to augment the relief assistance and health work. A bread-making project began in 1958. Its purpose was to provide 1,600 loaves of French-style bread for 4,000 orphans and needy children in the Saigon area. Additional programs and locations were added each year.

By the mid-1960s MCC was expressing concern over the growing American involvement in Vietnam. MCC was also increasingly concerned about the impression that its work was somehow supportive of the American war in Vietnam. As MCC's Country Director stated in a 1965 report:

The Vietnam conflict is still basically a political arid economic conflict in spite of its military headlines. The U.S. is responding with considerable political and economic activity to gain the good will of the masses. As the programs build up, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep one's identity separate from that of the military and AID missions. Identification with such is the most regrettable since we decidedly oppose what the U.S. is doing in Vietnam.... The activity of MCC and similar American relief organizations can make it a little less distasteful for the U.S. to continue with its disrupting and mutilating of the population.

It was during this time that MCC also sought to bring relief from the suffering of the war to both sides of the conflict. The Executive Committee of MCC urged that MCC program directors find ways to also assist those suffering in North Vietnam. Over the next ten years there was increasing contact with officials from the North, leading to shipments of relief supplies. The U.S. government was obviously very opposed to MCC's assistance to the "enemy", but MCC tried to be consistent with its religious beliefs which mandated helping all those who were suffering, regardless of their political leanings.

2. 1966-1972: Cooperation Through Vietnam Christian Service

 

As the American involvement in Vietnam turned from "advising" the South Vietnamese military, to becoming a large military force, MCC moved to a new phase in its own relief and development efforts. Three North American church agencies - MCC, Church World Service (CWS) and Lutheran World Relief (LWR) - came together in 1966 to form Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS). MCC was initially asked to administer the volunteer personnel seconded by the other two organizations since MCC already had an established program on the ground in Vietnam. Between 1967 and 1972 there were several dozen VNCS volunteers serving each year as doctors, nurses, social workers, agriculturalists, home economists, and community development workers. There were also an increasing number of Vietnamese working alongside the VNCS volunteers, with over J50 Vietnamese on staff by 1968.

As a result of the combined efforts and resources of the three organizations, the work of VNCS became much larger than that of just MCC. Distributions of food, clothing, and school kits were given to those displaced people living in temporary camps and to flood victims in the Mekong Delta. A school lunch program was begun, eventually aiding over 60,000 students daily in seven schools in the Saigon area.

With the increased number of volunteers, work also began in new areas in Vietnam. Volunteers began working in Quang Ngai, where a small feeding program for school children was established in two temporary camps. The success of this relief work opened up possibilities for other programs in Quang Ngai. Similar work began in Tarn Ky, where there was also a heavy concentration of displaced people. A clinic was opened in Pleiku, admitting about 75 patients a day. Also in Pleiku an agriculturalist and home economist began working with ethnic minorities on nutrition and animal husbandry projects. A volunteer doctor and nurse began working in a district clinic in Nha Be and in Di Linh.

Social workers and public health nurses were brought in to work in Saigon as well as in some areas in the highlands. Agricultural work as well as vocational training programs began in Hue and Khe Sanh. During this period volunteers were also later placed in Tung Nghia, Dong Ha, Danang, and Dak To and Can Tho.

As VNCS volunteers came to serve in Vietnam, they observed what was happening and many became increasingly opposed to the U.S. war efforts. Some felt that VNCS should withdraw itself from Vietnam as an act of protest over U.S. policies. They called on VNCS to follow the example of another U.S. volunteer organization, International Voluntary Service, which had done just that. Others felt that it was important that VNCS stay and maintain a presence in this place of suffering. MCC and the other church agencies wrestled with these questions of response to American involvement through the end of the war.

On the other hand many Vietnamese in the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, which VNCS often associated with in its relief programs, felt that it was important that VNCS not promote policies that would imply disloyalty to the U.S. government. The Church was concerned that if the VNCS showed disloyalty to U.S. government policies it would be construed that the Vietnamese Church was being disloyal to the South Vietnamese government. The Church attempted to take an apolitical stance, though it became clear as the war went on that it was difficult to be seen as neutral in Vietnam.

As the war progressed into the 1970s, MCC continued to work at ways to provide assistance to all sides of the conflict. MCC delegations visited representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) and the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) in Europe to express MCC's concern for peace and service assistance. Though the amounts of material aid were relatively small, the visits laid the groundwork for a future relationship with the DRVN and PRG.

3.1973-1979: MCC's Presence in the Transition to a Post-War Vietnam

In the closing years of the war, South Vietnam was afflicted by increasing instability and a deteriorating economic situation. The United States began to withdraw its forces from the country and also its technical and economic aid, which had helped prop up South Vietnam's economy over the past decade. Increasing disillusionment with the South Vietnamese government led to a growing restlessness among the population.

Within VNCS it was agreed by the three church agencies that each group could work better towards its own goals if the cooperative work of VNCS ended. MCC therefore ran its own programs in Vietnam again in January 1973. It continued to run the programs it had established in Nha Trang, Pleiku and Quang Ngai over the past decade under the auspices of VNCS. Besides the continued health and social service work that MCC provided the program in Quang Ngai, volunteers began a program to study the problem of unexploded ordinances in the area, which led to a program of ordnance removal. As the war in Vietnam came to a close, virtually all the foreign aid agencies and their expatriate staff left South Vietnam. Four MCC volunteers decided that their commitment to the Vietnamese people they lived and worked with, and to the country of Vietnam, required their presence in Vietnam during North Vietnam's campaign to reunite the country. The story, told in part by Earl Martin in his book Reaching the Other Side, recounts the way in which increasing contact and trust between officials in the PRO and the MCC volunteers enabled these foreigners to remain present in Vietnam during this highly volatile period. After Saigon was captured by the DRVN and the transition to the new government was complete, the four MCCers left Vietnam. Upon their return to North America they shared extensively of their experiences in Vietnam, to Mennonites and others in North America.

 

In the immediate years following unification,Vietnam went through a period of great difficulty. An international economic embargo imposed on the country by the United States, the difficulty in integrating two very different economic systems, and a series of natural disasters all caused extreme hardship among the people of Vietnam. The food situation in Vietnam became one of the worst since the Japanese occupation during World War II.

MCC's commitment to Vietnam continued and expanded in this period of extreme difficulty. It was a time when most American aid agencies, bound by U.S. government restrictions, were not able to assist Vietnam in any way. In this context MCC, together with a coalition of other privately funded aid agencies, worked hard to help relieve the suffering in Vietnam. As part of this aid, the coalition raised $2 million in the years immediately following the unification of Vietnam for humanitarian aid for the reconstruction of Vietnam. MCC's work relating to Vietnam in the immediate post-war years consisted of three aspects: 1) reconstruction assistance for projects in Vietnam; 2) sharing about and interpreting Vietnam to the MCC constituency, and 3) expressing concern to the U.S. government on Vietnam issues, especially regarding reconstruction aid and the need to normalize relations. MCC's budget for Vietnam rose significantly following the close of the war, with a high of nearly $800,000 in 1979. These funds were used for help in several major projects, such as re-equipping the Lang Giang District Hospital in Ha Bac Province, destroyed in the U.S. bombing in Christmas 1972, and providing equipment and supplies for a Chemistry Research Center in the Saigon area. 

4.1980-1989: Working Through Vietnam's Difficult Years

 

The decade of the 1980s was a period of extreme difficulty for the people of Vietnam. Relations with the government of the United States and much of the West continued to be very strained because of the continued U.S. economic embargo, and the lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Relations with China were strained after Vietnam defeated the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, and removed them from power in Cambodia. Natural disasters, including flooding, cold, and drought, plagued Vietnam through the 1980s. The very poor economic situation and difficult political conditions helped push hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, including ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese, to flee Vietnam in the late 1970s and 1980s.

MCC and several other private organizations asked permission to establish a Representative Office in'Vietnam, but this was not yet possible for the government to grant. In the meantime the MCC Vietnam Representative office was shifted from Saigon to Bangkok, where Louise Buhler began as the MCC representative in 1982. Though no volunteers served with MCC in Vietnam during most of the 1980s, Louise's regular and frequent visits to Vietnam through the 1980s provided a window through which MCC could develop a new relationship with Vietnam, and which could help Vietnamese officials better understand the West. Buhler also helped to organize and lead many North American delegations to Vietnam during the 1980s. These delegations also helped outsiders understand the realities of Vietnam in the 1980s and continued a dialogue with the people of Vietnam. The program work of MCC in the 1980s reflected the realities of a very impoverished nation with little access to Western assistance or technical expertise. The annual MCC budgets for Vietnam through the 1980s averaged about $350,000, very high by MCC standards. The commitment to these budgets continued to reflect MCC's concern for the people of Vietnam and for the need for church-based development agencies to contribute greater assistance in places deemed by the United States government to be "enemies". This commitment reflected a primary goal of MCC, to promote peace and reconciliation, irrespective of official government policies.

MCC's assistance to Vietnam during the 1980s was made especially difficult because of U.S. laws. The "Trading with the Enemy Act" forbade any development aid to Vietnam, still considered an "enemy" by the U.S. government. Special permission was required for food and material shipments, which both complicated and delayed assistance. Still MCC provided assistance to Vietnam throughout the 1980s, and a variety of programs were carried out in the fields of agriculture, health, education, economic development, and emergency assistance. Because of the size of these programs, MCC asked several, private organizations, including the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Bread for the World Germany, and Lutheran World Relief, to help fund MCC's programs in Vietnam.

5. 1990-2004: Establishing a Representative's Office and Increasing Grassroots Activities

 

As the 1980s concluded, there was no official change in relations between the United States and Vietnam. This was the case in spite of many positive economic and political reforms in Vietnam over the course of the decade, and many requests for a policy change by U.S. non-government organizations (NGO's), including MCC.

In spite of the continued cold relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, there was a noticeable openness by Vietnam in the late 1980s to increase foreign involvement in the country. Throughout the 1980s church-based development organizations, including MCC, Church World Service, and the American Friends Service Committee, had petitioned the Hanoi government to allow a Representative Office to be based in Hanoi. In 1990 that request was granted. MCC opened up its Hanoi office in June 1990; the first North American- NGO'to be allowed to do so. Le Anh Kiet, a talented and vivacious Vietnamese, was appointed to assist the work with MCC in its Hanoi location, work he continued throughout the 1990s.

With the establishment of an Hanoi office there was a gradual "normalization" of service work for MCC in Vietnam. MCC continued assistance for various agriculture, education, health, and social service projects throughout Vietnam. MCC opened up work in Tam Dao district in Vinh Phu province, and a Vietnamese MCC program officer implemented a credit and savings program. A primary health care project was carried out in Cu Chi District near Ho Chi Minh City. An educational exchange center was begun to help facilitate study tours and foreign exchange programs for some of the many Vietnamese interested in an further education.

MCC was also able to begin placing volunteers in Vietnam for periods of extended service. English teachers were able to work at Can Tho University and at the Hanoi Foreign Language College.

Though there were difficulties along the way, as trust gradually increased between Vietnamese officials and foreign NGO's, MCC was able to place additional volunteers in various locations throughout Vietnam. MCC's role in Vietnam changed in the 1990's from a "big fish in a small pond" of foreign NGO's to a "small fish in a big pond". Many dozen foreign organizations entered Vietnam in the 1990s, especially after the United States and Vietnam established normal diplomatic relations in 1994. Vietnam's economy also dramatically improved throughout the 1990s, helping to end a decade of extreme poverty in the cities. MCC's role in Vietnam is now focused on supporting grassroots development and improving people's livelihoods at the village and commune level.

Since the early 1990s MCC's program in Vietnam has had com ponents focused on community development, health nutrition, education,-and economic development. The work of MCC has become increasingly focused on several poor districts in northern Vietnam. The community development program has been headed by a capable Vietnamese staff and has become increasingly focused on helping at the grassroots level. A recently added mediation component has helped Vietnamese deal more directly with negotiation at the local level. Expatriate volunteers continue to serve, mainly in the areas of handicraft development and English teaching.

MCC's role in Vietnam evolved as the needs and circumstances around it changed. In its founding in 1954 MCC Vietnam saw itself as primarily giving emergency relief and assistance to bandage the wounds of a civil war. As the war progressed and the U.S. role increased MCC began to see itself as both provider of assistance in Vietnam but also as promoter of the war's peaceful resolution. In the aftermath of 1975, MCC's role shifted to that of promoting healing and reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. Throughout the long, dark years of the 1980s, MCC saw itself as providing friendship and encouragement to Vietnam while continuing to press for improvements in relations between the two estranged countries. Finally in the 1990s, as political and economic conditions improved at the macro level, MCC identified its role as enabling grassroots development in Vietnam. As always, a portion of the role remains an educator of realities of Vietnam to its North American Mennonite constituency.

MCC's role in Vietnam continues to evolve and change. The long and friendly relations between MCC and the Vietnamese will hopefully not change, however. It is MCC's hope that its presence in Vietnam can continue to help build up the country and its people in a positive way, through the personal relationships and grassroots approach to development that help define it as an organization. MCC wishes Vietnam and its people happiness and good health, as it embarks on the next 50 years of its development.