Love and Companionship
In 1971, an honorably discharged veteran wrote an emotional letter to President Nixon pleading for support to reunite with his fiancée, Kim, and their infant daughter. The soldier had met Kim in Saigon while on leave during his army tour in Vietnam and had fallen in love. They pursued a devoted relationship, had a child, and intended to marry. He had expected to bring Kim and their daughter back to the United States once he finished his tour, but the immigration process was keeping them apart. The complex paperwork and mounds of bureaucratic red tape took longer to complete than his tour, leading him to return home alone.1 He quickly lost touch with them when sent a world away. In the letter he pleads with Nixon to help find Kim and reunite his family. With only a name and a year-old address, he hoped that someone might be able to expedite the visa process and find out if both were healthy and safe.
The letter arrived on Nixon’s desk at a point in the Vietnam War when transnational antiwar movements were demanding accountability for America’s social impact in Vietnam. It came along with a stream of others asking him to support Amerasian orphans and other relationships and marriages between GIs and Vietnamese women divided by military policies and immigration politics. The administration recognized the stark distinctions between these personal cases and the more prominent struggles to manage the illicit prostitution industry. Nixon’s staff forwarded the veteran’s letter and marked it for a personal reply from the president. By engaging with soldiers directly, Nixon might demonstrate his interest as part of what can be considered an effort to improve public diplomacy for the benefit of those observing the war around the world.2 The archival records on this case stop here, however, as the document includes no follow-ups.3 Many other personal stories about returning home from Vietnam crossed Nixon’s desk, and the disorder in South Vietnam in the early 1970s led to many unhappy endings. Service members who wanted to maintain their relationships needed to put in significant work for there to be any possibility of achieving success. Not all relationships had to include romantic or sexual elements to have an impact on the world’s perception of American behavior abroad. Non–sexually intimate relationships, including friendships and workplace partnerships, are also included under the umbrella of service member–civilian social encounters.
The United States and South Vietnamese governments and militaries responded to relationships between GIs and Vietnamese that occurred beyond the brothel, including dating, cohabitation, marriage, and parenthood, through the establishment of complex laws. Non-sexual relationships play a role in this discourse too, since many officials shared a heteronormative view that any interactions between GIs and members of the opposite sex might lead to an eventual relationship and needed to be monitored. Navigating romantically committed relationships, which were not deemed necessary to morale in the same way as prostitution, proved particularly difficult for young couples. Women hoping only to date or live with service members in exchange for companionship, protection, or money could face harassment or stigmatization. As many women engaged in these relationships were still labeled prostitutes, or opportunists at best, obtaining legal marriage meant facing considerable challenges posed by both governments, including racial barriers, bureaucratic fees, long lines, and the need for multiple ceremonies, and even after dealing with all this, couples still met with uncertain results.4 In other cases, couples navigated the bureaucracy successfully before the GI completed his tour, married in Vietnam, and happily returned to the United States. Military rank and financial stability often contributed to success.
Stories like that of the soldier who never reunited with his fiancée and daughter, however, occurred throughout the war with service members struggling to bring home the woman they fell in love with while serving abroad. Reflecting on the 75 to 90 percent of men who served in the rear echelon during the Vietnam War, in what Meredith Lair has described as a space where GIs “labored in supporting roles, out of danger, and in relative comfort,” the number of loving or committed relationships that were formed makes just as much sense as the boom in sex workers.5 Couples hoping to remain together, however, faced a long, and sometimes purposely complex, legal process. In contrast to the “war brides” of World War II, women in Vietnam did not receive the same rights and ease of access to a US visa or path to citizenship.6 Changes in immigration policies in 1965 limited the prioritization of spouses of service members which Congress adopted after 1945. In addition to enforcing stricter American immigration policies, and in line with their stance on other social issues like prostitution, US officials wanted to work with the Vietnamese and abide by their laws before allowing engaged couples to apply for marriage in the United States. Ignoring Vietnamese law would only reinforce anti-American perceptions that the RVN’s supposed ally harbored colonial intentions. Concerns on both sides over dating and marriage were heightened by the prominent sex industry and the large number of orphaned children fathered by American servicemen. Relationships outside the brothel proved to be just as complicated and risked similar negative impacts on US public diplomacy by undermining the Americans’ purported goal of protecting civilians from the threat of communism.
The structure and realities of intimate relationships beyond the commerce-driven world of sex work drove Americans to consider how their interactions had evolved from the most casual of exchanges to the most intimate and legally, or biologically, binding. Through addressing the legal alongside the illegal, it becomes clear that US-RVN policies regarding dating, marriage, and paternity were just as fraught with disagreements as policy on prostitution. Tensions arose on account of the previously discussed expectations about the sexuality of Asian women originating from colonial representations, and the challenges that surfaced when Americans were faced with Vietnamese laws attempting to establish political legitimacy and values seen as incompatible with Western influence.
War and Intimacy
Laura Ann Stoler asserted in 2015 that scholars’ definitions of “intimacy,” including her own, were either misinterpreted or, worse, inherently flawed.7 To best comprehend the intimate, she argued, we must be aware of the deeply personal context of each relationship we study. She laid out additional criteria to help reach a clearer understanding, including keeping our focus on the line that exists between the social and the political in order to conceptualize a hierarchy of the intimate as a power struggle. Finally, she suggested, scholars must be particularly aware that the intimate is not exclusively—if at all—the sexual. The sexual, however, has, for many scholars, been the most important venue for understanding gendered power relations.8 Recognizing that intimate contact extends beyond sex offers a different perspective on both intercultural and gender relations during the Vietnam War.
One of the most compelling elements of studying intimate contact during the Vietnam War, and all wars involving allied occupation for that matter, is the competition between political powers for the hierarchical control over society. By taking control over elements of social politics in Vietnam, especially the sexual elements, the United States asserted itself as a dominant figure not only over the civilian population but over the RVN as well. If we wish to understand the political significance of sexual encounters, however, addressing non-sexual intimate spheres of military-civilian relations provides a broader lens through which to interpret the political setting of wartime sexual policies between the United States and the RVN. Adding the meaningful stories about relationships between domestic workers and American civilian women adds greater context to the romantic relationships between GIs and civilians.9
Examining the structure of relations between servicemen and civilian Vietnamese women hired to work in support of the military’s needs, including those doing housework like laundry or cooking, reveals some of the complexity of these relations. Domestic workers did not typically offer sex as part of their services. Military bases hired civilian women to do laundry, clean, and cook for the troops because of the lack of time and the affordability of the labor. Women and girls thus had access to US bases during non-curfew hours to work, creating space for friendships and relationships to develop.
The proximity also created a space where the workers could see beyond the curtain and gain insight into the outsiders. Cynthia Enloe states in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics that a laundress who works on military bases typically develops “her own thoughts about what the military personnel on [a] base are doing with their deadly weaponry, but is careful not to express her political thoughts out loud.”10 Their proximity makes them privy to information other civilians would not have access to. Enloe argues: “Every military base depends for its operation on women occupying a range of social locations, performing quite different roles. To make visible that gendered base system, one must take seriously the lives and ideas of the military base laundress, the military wife, the woman in prostitution in a disco just outside the gates, a woman who is paid to sneak on base to have sex with a male soldier, the military enlisted woman and woman officer, and the woman who has become a public critic of the base.”11 The examples Enloe offers apply well to the case of Vietnam. She describes female base workers as one of at least four types of civilian women and girls that servicemen would have contact with in the course of base life but clarifies that none of the groups of women likely viewed one another as allies. Rather, they were all merely surviving. In the process, their efforts contributed to vital day-to-day operations during the war.
Whether employed on or off bases, the women and girls hired by the US military to clean house for the troops found themselves working with close access to service members, for better or worse. Single officers serving in the rear echelon could choose to live off post, and many hired housekeepers to do their cooking and cleaning.12 Sometimes the arrangements included an expectation of sexual contact, similar to employing a concubine who performed sexual and domestic duties as part of her services, but many of the men simply sought affordable labor to maintain their apartments. In some cases, relationships between employers and employees blossomed without prior arrangement. These encounters occurred as the result of close contact and were more likely related to human nature than to the nature of war.13 Proximity and privacy also created settings in which employers could take advantage of unequal power relations, leading to instances of assault. Cases of foreign employers forcing themselves on their housekeepers, and stories about maids offering sex as part of their service, created a perception among Vietnamese citizens about the types of young women who might accept jobs with Americans.14
The shared space between housekeepers and Americans living in Vietnam established a form of prolonged intimacy that was unfamiliar to service members living on bases and only visiting bars and brothels. The relationships often worked to humanize the other, a connection that Americans serving on the front saw as completely foreign to their experience of the war. To find that sense of domestic comfort, some GIs attempted to keep girlfriends in the cities who balanced domestic chores with sex. In her memoir, Le Ly Hayslip, who married an American herself, describes her sister’s experience with soldiers who paid for her to stay in their apartments as their girlfriend.15 The relationships that developed out of these interactions were often deeply personal and far less mechanical than encounters at bars and brothels.16
The companionship element of the GI-housekeeper relationship also contributed to deeper intercultural perceptions of the other. These interactions were typically less problematic than those in the bars, since meeting a girl for a short time, the term used for a one-off sexual episode, was not the goal. Relationships formed outside the sex-for-hire industry posed different types of non-illicit intercultural intimacy challenges for foreign relations and war making, since the governments could not simply outlaw friendship, dating, or love. When arrangements between GIs and housekeepers led to accusations of rape, however, the situation became far more complicated.17
To balance the relationships forged between service members and civilians, the military promoted interactions between Vietnamese women and Western servicewomen and wives. While less common because of the limited presence of foreign women, these female-to-female bonds helped promote different paths of employment for Vietnamese women and girls in the hope of reducing the likelihood of their turning to sex work. These encounters offer a unique perspective into how the two cultures viewed each other. Between 1965 and 1967, there was a notable presence of Australian wives living along with their spouses in Vietnam, where they could both keep their husbands in check and support civilian causes. When the 1968 Tet Offensive brought the war to the streets of Saigon, Australian forces required noncombatants to leave the city. Proximity allowed Australian women, unlike their American counterparts, to travel with their diplomatic service husbands before the proliferation of urban attacks.18 Few American wives ever made it to Vietnam after 1965, and those who did typically had a job of their own or were married to Foreign Service officers with permanent posts abroad. Like sexual encounters, the relationships between Vietnamese and American or Australian civilian women developed out of mutual need. These interactions illustrate how non-sexual intimacy during the Vietnam War contributed to the war’s legacy through the impact of social programs run or staffed by civilian women.
When entire families traveled to Vietnam, they also typically hired a household worker to cook and clean for them at a nominal charge. Embassy workers all had housing staff to look after their needs, leaving spouses in a new country, typically without work or domestic duties.19 The relationships that developed between Western women and their housekeepers show a different kind of intimacy than existed in the relationships between Vietnamese hired women and American men, as Western women replaced the men’s expectation of sex with ideas regarding work ethic and questions about cultural beliefs. While the relationships between military wives and local women varied, just as the sexual encounters did, both foreign and Vietnamese women who wrote about their experiences all expressed a mutual curiosity about how their fellow women lived in their respective cultures.
The American writer Wendy Wilder Larsen expressed in her poetry how the curiosity between women was intertwined within the culture of sexually explicit encounters between GIs and Vietnamese happening all around them. On the surface, the men were what they had in common, but over time, the relationships between some of the women took on deeper meanings. After she completed her Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, Larsen moved to Vietnam in 1970 to be with her journalist husband. Trained as a teacher, she befriended a Vietnamese bookkeeper, Tran Thi Nga, to help her overcome the language barrier so she could work with students.20 The two collaborated on a poetry collection, Shallow Graves: Two Women and Vietnam, to tell the parallel stories of Western and Vietnamese women negotiating the war from inside Vietnam. Larsen explored not only the lives, and often the suffering, of bar girls but also the intimacy that occurred between women. The poems shed light on Larsen’s and Nga’s experiences with American servicemen and Vietnamese, including their treatment of the conflict in the press and their lives on the edge of war.
Larsen’s reflections as an American wife on her life in Vietnam offer readers the opportunity to look past the clash of cultures they often associated with the American presence to examine instead the universal similarities ranging from material desires to childbirth. In one poem, Larsen describes how her Vietnamese housekeeper stole her underwear out of both curiosity and need. When the woman’s “deserter husband” could not take her to a hospital when she experienced pregnancy complications, Larsen brought her. During this encounter, Larsen noticed that the housekeeper was wearing her “missing silk underpants.”21 In other poems she reflects on her encounters with a young woman suffering from an unwanted pregnancy. Larsen explores daily life in vivid glimpses of everything from the weather to the lack of proper gynecological care for women. She even includes the voice of her husband, who responds to the deficiencies by joking that women coming to Vietnam should “B.Y.O.B.G.Y.N.,” or bring your own obstetrician-gynecologist.22
Both Larsen and Nga point to the social problems tied to the war when assessing its impact on civilian life. Larsen compares the struggles in Saigon to those described in William Blake’s 1794 poem “London,” about changes purported to be for the good of society. She includes what she identifies as a student’s response in which the student shares the desire for a “traditional and peaceful Saigon” that could not survive amid “bar-girls in mini-skirts,” “jazz music,” “far-away cannons,” “garbage,” “corruption,” “refugees,” and poverty caused by the war.23 In turn, Larsen’s co-author, Nga, writes in “The Americans” that while the allies came in with plans to help, their presence only caused problems: “Their soldiers slept with our women./Their generals patted our generals on the heads/as if they were children.”24 Her depiction of the condescension of the American military leadership toward the Vietnamese leaders gives an interesting insight into Western feelings of superiority. On the issue of corruption within the military and police ranks, Nga writes, “Everyone was in on the deal.”25 Their poems complement each other well, with the women remaining divided by their national perspectives but expressing similar unease over the pervasive themes of social disorder. Civilian foreign women saw Vietnamese women in a different light than did soldiers or diplomats, but their encounters were overshadowed by the broader realities of war.
Like the wives of Australian diplomats,26 Larsen reflected that her awareness of the desperation in the war-torn city existed a world apart from her personal experiences as a Western housewife. She knew that her position as an outsider living a privileged life meant she could never fully understand the lives of Vietnamese women turned upside down by the war. In her poem “Consciousness-Raising,” Larsen writes:
The poem recounts how, together, the women sat in a “hot small room” to discuss what she thought of as frivolous arguments about why girls wear pink and boys wear blue. Larsen frames this memory to show how insignificant her daily conversations were in the larger scheme of the war:
Their proximity to war put the differences into sharp focus for foreign women like Larsen, who wanted to help their fellow women but faced the realities of an entrenched culture of war-manufactured corruption by the early 1970s.
The discourse over the intimate in Larsen’s poetry illuminates how the gritty underworld of prostitution and corruption failed to capture the depth of GI-civilian experiences. Both cultures found themselves changed by their interactions, as in Larsen’s account of the woman who stole her silk underwear, which shows how something she took for granted was an object of envy in Vietnam. Larsen’s ability to aid another woman in her pregnancy also demonstrates the willingness to work together and the kindness often shared between the cultures. Nearly all young South Vietnamese women living in urban spaces from 1965 to 1973 experienced some form of personal encounter with Americans, whether those relationships were sexual or not. While this book focuses primarily on the sexual, these non-sexual relationships illuminate the mutual cultural interest and emotional power inherent in the non-sexual ones.
On a state level, the United States and the RVN negotiated civilian women’s mobility in society through programs targeted at supporting women impacted by the war. Vietnamese archival records show that a reciprocal concern about women’s social issues entered into the US-RVN foreign relations discourse as early as 1966 or 1967, acknowledging that women suffered in unique and visible ways during the war.28 The Agency for International Development allotted $9.5 million VN for a “Refugee Relief—Women’s Training Program” in October 1966 to train and supervise 135 female camp workers in Vietnam to address this problem.29 The women worked for the provincial staffs of the RVN’s Special Commissariat for Refugees. Their focus included training for “areas of health education, home economics, personal and social problems, and maternal child care.”30 The objectives of the program included responding to the “special need” of women and children forced from their homes and living in temporary settlements. Developed in the months following Senator Fulbright’s “brothel” debate, this program represented one effort to engage with Vietnamese civilian women beyond the brothel. Indeed, it offered an avenue to guide Vietnamese civilian women into lines of work not dependent on the American presence.
American military women serving in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) also participated in developing new opportunities for Vietnamese women. The formation of the South Vietnamese Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) created pathways for women to learn new skills and contribute to the war effort. Photos collected by the WACs show a variety of training scenarios, including performing highly physical airborne training as well as prenatal exams.31 The welfare division of the WAFCs hoped to relieve some of the pressure felt by families. The WAC summarized the unit’s mission as “to look after the soldiers’ dependents. They operate maternity hospitals, kindergarten and elementary schools, distribute clothing and food as needed, assist dependents in burial of dead soldiers and get them (dep.) [dependents] relocated and see that deps get benefits (death gratuities).”32 As Heather Stur has argued, the fact that “the corps’s members were in the South Vietnamese Army but doing ‘women’s work’ illustrates one of the ways in which the Vietnam War expanded gender roles without completely transforming them.”33 WAC Lieutenant Colonel Judith Bennett, the senior advisor for the WAFC, described how capabilities such as English language skills distinguished women for officerships.34 The growth of the WAFC after 1965 opened pathways for women into the national police forces, the “People Self-Defense Forces,” and “Revolutionary Development” workers. A researcher for the Vietnam Council on Foreign Relations, Phung Thi Hanh, estimated that by 1970, over a million South Vietnamese women worked actively in national defense.35
The strikingly high numbers of females working in legitimate military agencies with advanced training still failed to shift the sexist narrative of many observers, who continued to view Vietnamese women and girls as either corrupt or corruptible. A 1971 US congressional inquiry revealed how the association of Vietnamese women with vice could be used to defame the employees of American organizations. The investigation into the alleged improper behavior of an American supervisor, Joe Ahee, at the National Training Center in Vung Tau, and the alleged illicit activities of his employee, Pham Thi Xuan Hue, resulted in an inquiry that challenged their personal attitudes and business practices as well as Hue’s sexual behavior. The investigation began as the result of an unsigned letter sent to Hue’s mother and her husband, who was serving in the Vietnamese Air Force, on behalf of the local Vietnamese Employees Committee complaining that Ahee’s treatment of employees created an atmosphere of fear.36 To further defame Ahee’s character, the letter alleged that his business practices included the illegal buying and selling of goods facilitated by his female assistant, Hue.
Hue’s role in the case is of particular interest. Ahee hired Hue to work as the primary buyer for the National Training Center. In the letter, the Vietnamese Employees Committee showed particular concern over a woman receiving this position of power. To discredit her reliability with money, the letter also points out that she came from a poor socioeconomic background.37 Unhappy that she had chosen to make regular trips from Vung Tau to Saigon to expand her available sources of supplies at more favorable prices rather than doing business locally, the writers denounced her as manipulative and authoritarian. They condemned her decision to turn away from previous suppliers as “dishonest activities.”38 In addition to these faults, they ultimately pointed to Hue’s sexuality as her most damning attribute, accusing her of serving as a prostitute to get ahead in her work and secure better deals.
They made charges against Hue that pointed to relationships with many foreign men to tie her in with the worst repercussions of the American escalation on the Vietnamese economy. “Thanks to crook activities,” they alleged, “illegal transactions and relations with Americans, Koreans, Filipines [sic] and even ARVN high ranking officers, she and her family gets rich of millions of piasters. She is specialized in PX items which are carried back to her home by her foreign boy friends. Informants and neighbors comment very badly about her. Briefly, she is a kind of crook and international prostitute girl just good to dupe foreign victims.”39
The US government opted to drop the charges against Hue and Ahee, since the letter writers had a significant amount to gain from replacing the pair. It would have greatly benefited the accusers if the Americans had hired employees who would purchase goods for the National Training Council locally, so we cannot know for sure what merit the claims had. Whether the accusations against Hue were true or not, by placing her sexuality at the center of the claims, the incident illustrates how accusations of sexual promiscuity with foreign men made Vietnamese women vulnerable to harassment. Hue’s connection with an American-led program and her ability to profit from it made onlookers suspicious and resentful. Her decision to snub local businesses in her purchasing only intensified their scrutiny. Vietnamese women and girls faced constant accusations against their character throughout the war as rivals used allegations of promiscuity to undermine them.
Suspicions over American motives overshadowed many of the United States’ efforts to nation-build in Vietnam. Simultaneously with the Americanization of sexual and social policies, the Nixon administration also took heed of calls from advisors to increase employment-training programs. These programs for Vietnamese citizens sought to Vietnamize the national military and economy. In October 1970, however, the war correspondent Richard Tregaskis wrote to ask for a meeting with Nixon to share his concerns after a trip to Vietnam. He had observed the programs and felt that they were largely failing to achieve their goals. He reported that only 150 Vietnamese were receiving employment training and licensing per week.40 Nixon’s advisor for communications, Herbert Klein, brushed off Tregaskis with an assurance that the president would be informed and thanked him for his concern. The requested meeting with Nixon never occurred. With the employment-training programs and other efforts failing to make any major impact on the state of affairs in South Vietnam, Tregaskis recognized the missed opportunity to promote a positive image of intervention. As the war dragged on, international scrutiny fell on all forms of intercultural relations, whether sexual, social, or political. The diverse anti-American sentiment kicked up by corruption, failures in nation building, economic inflation, and the prolonged nature of the conflict raised the suspicions of onlookers and made genuine long-term relationships between GIs and civilian women difficult.
The relationships formed during Vietnamese women’s daily encounters with American service members, Foreign Service families, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State offer insight into different forms of intimacy forged outside a sexual transaction. Still, the possibility of sex overshadowed the way everyone from outsiders to their peers viewed their employment. Soldiers hired Vietnamese women and girls to perform cheap labor on military posts, not to perform sexual transactions, even though in some cases this close contact led to sexual relationships, dating, or sexual assault. Anti-American propaganda encouraged women to work against the “imperialists” in the cities at any cost, putting them in a difficult position between Westerners who questioned the intentions of Vietnamese women and Vietnamese who felt the encounters exposed women and girls to coercion.41 Keeping in mind that personal relations of all kinds faced constant scrutiny from both Americans and Vietnamese onlookers helps frame the public and government reactions to more explicitly sexual intercultural relationships including dating, marriage, and paternity. Accounts of interactions with friends, household workers, WAFCs, and office workers reveal the closely related experiences of working for foreign allies and engaging in relationships with them as a reflection of the war’s intrusion into Vietnamese life. Recollections from Vietnamese citizens offer a different perspective.
While sexual relations may not be inherently intimate, the social perception of them as such led many to see relationships between GIs and local women as a threat to Vietnamese culture, if not an attempt at a social form of neo-imperial domination. Often, soldiers and their significant others overlooked the anti-Americanism inherent in these fears, which created risks to the Americans and increased support for the North Vietnamese and their supporters in the South, the National Liberation Front (NLF). Just as with the French decades earlier, dating, marriage, and paternity represented a more long-term threat than prostitution. When relationships moved beyond the justifiable morale-boosting category of sex work, they drew concern from both governments. The United States and the RVN attempted to limit committed relationships through a series of regulations, but couples easily bypassed loopholes in the system. In addition, the two sets of policies often worked against each other. While neither government prohibited consensual relationships between adults outside the sex trade, their respective policies indicated a shared goal of limiting or preventing what they thought of as potentially problematic behavior.
Dating and Cohabitation
American military personnel stationed in cities often carried on long-term relationships with civilian women in Vietnam. Every veteran I spoke to while writing this book, whether officially or in casual conversation, seemed to know someone who took an apartment off post to live with a woman or otherwise maintained a generally monogamous relationship throughout his time in country. Memoirs also consistently describe relationships that could be viewed as long-term when compared to prostitution. Jim Stewart, a retired military policeman, reflects in his memoir that despite the prohibition on “living in other-than-government facilities” in the army housing directive, GIs simply ignored the rules. Stewart, who moved in with his partner Mai shortly after they met, claims that the enforcement of the regulations was “nonexistent.”42 Michael Herr refers to a situation involving a pilot he encountered named Davies who kept his belongings in his assigned bachelor enlisted quarters at a Cholon hotel but actually lived with a woman he called his “wife,” named Hoa.43 Herr places quotation marks around the word “wife” to indicate that Davies may not have officially married the woman. Nevertheless, not only did Davies financially support Hoa, but also her immediate family shared the apartment. In another indication that they may not have been legally married, Hoa continued to work as a bar girl, “out hustling Saigon tea,” to bring in extra money. Herr implies that she may also have been working as a prostitute.44 The cultural differences and language barriers between servicemen and their girlfriends created these types of ambiguities. Monogamy seemed a fluid concept for many couples, and personal relationships were not always separate from bar work.
Soldiers took girlfriends for all the reasons one would expect. They sought companionship or a sense of normalcy, or just wanted a warm body to come home to each night without going to the brothels. Each consensual relationship was different, some leading to love while in other cases couples used each other for mutual gain, exchanging companionship for material comfort. Over the course of the war, open relationships in cities like Saigon became more common and acceptable both socially and legally. Wendy Larsen describes the whimsical side of these relationships in her poem “Pidgin,” in which she depicts a couple, an American and his Vietnamese bar girl girlfriend known as Twiggy, who can communicate only through broken pidgin English. What her poem recalls is their shared giggles and their affinity for taking Polaroid pictures of each other.45 They visit her for dinner as a couple, not restricting their affair to the bar or the brothel. This couple, like many others, could communicate only in limited ways, but desire or love brought them and countless others like them together in relationships throughout the war.
Offering a Vietnamese woman’s perspective, Le Ly Hayslip reflected during an interview in 2016 that Vietnamese women engaged in romantic or physical relationships with Americans generally fell into three categories.46 Women in the first category worked as base housekeepers or in other roles that did not require much education. Many of these women had children or otherwise needed to rely on an American for necessities because their husbands were away serving or had been killed in army service. Women in the second category generally lived in the cities and had received an education. They worked in professional jobs, clubs, or hospitals. Many recognized that they would not be able to marry Vietnamese men and looked to Americans for romantic relationships or financial support. The final category included the highly visible population of prostitutes in the cities who exchanged their bodies for money.
In her memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Hayslip presents her sister Bich as a woman in the second category. Bich had American boyfriends who provided her with money and gifts in exchange for her maintaining an apartment for them while they were serving out their tour. Bich also worked in a bar, since the men she lived with regularly left Saigon for combat operations, leaving her bored and short of expendable income. For many women, living with an American, or several, offered a more desirable alternative to street or brothel prostitution. Hayslip recalls the striking image of Bich returning to visit her family village from Saigon dressed in provocative clothes and makeup.47 During a conversation with Bich about beauty products and Western clothes, Hayslip learns that her sister is also working for the NLF and uses her appearance to get close to American military men. Bich tells her that there is a “difference between real prostitutes and women who simply looked like prostitutes to please their men.”48 Hayslip did not want to be either.
Hayslip’s other sister, Lan, worked as a “tea girl” in a Da Nang bar where the women peddled to soldiers iced tea priced like whiskey. Tea girls split their income with the bar owners for mutual profit or to repay debts. In addition to working in the bar, Lan also had American boyfriends on the side. Girls from the surrounding villages resisted going into prostitution for fear of shaming their family and instead took on other jobs like bar work to earn money.49 Hayslip recalls one instance when her sister had to choose between “honoring her father,” who had traveled to the city to see her, or “pleasing ‘her man,’ ” an American soldier who wanted her to have sex with him when she returned home.50 Faced with a difficult choice that might cost her her livelihood, Lan felt forced to pick her boyfriend and the associated financial support. She left her father waiting behind a curtain. Many of the American GIs provided an income or paid rent that allowed their girlfriends to move into more private apartments, away from their family or the bars they may previously have lived in. Perceived dependence on their relationships for this way of life contributed to a Westernization of clothing and behavior for women living with Americans. These changes divided families and communities, which felt they disrespected their heritage, and piled onto the discontent many Vietnamese felt about foreign military men disrupting local culture.51
Reminiscences by Americans about living with or dating Vietnamese women also point to the pushing of cultural boundaries. In the case of soldier Eric Karlson, his love affair with a prostitute who used the name Nina contributed to his decision to abandon his post and go AWOL.52 Karlson met Nina as a client on what he remembered as his quest for sex across Vietnam. He started to make regular visits to see her at work and purchased her services for longer periods of time. Eventually the US officer who ran the brothel stopped charging him to see her, recognizing that they had formed a relationship.53 Prior to his own love affair, Karlson reflected that he understood how “an American falling for a gook could be a problem.”54 He thought most American men fell for women only for the sex, recalling that Vietnamese women “sure know how to take care of a man.” Karlson felt betrayed when Nina ended the relationship to continue working in the brothel. His long-term relationship with Nina threatened her procurer’s business, which points to the divide in independence that existed between the women and girls who worked exclusively as “tea girls” and brothel prostitutes. She likely received pressure to end the relationship from brothel organizers, since offering her services for free would obviously limit their income. Pimps and madams looked for ways to trap women like Nina into service to avoid losing them to relationships.55
One should not assume, however, that all love affairs began in brothels. Jim Stewart’s bittersweet story of falling in love with an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese woman named Mai offers a different type of love story. Stewart’s work as a military police officer in Saigon put him in a position to see Mai pass by on a motorbike one day. He flagged her down for a conversation, which began their courtship.56 After their first date, the relationship quickly escalated, and he moved into Mai’s apartment in the city. She assumed that Stewart had another girlfriend in the United States, since she had seen servicemen come and go before. To prove his commitment, he chose to renew his tour in Vietnam and stay with her.
Despite their monogamous relationship, local police regularly harassed Mai and Stewart when they went out together, even for seemingly mundane acts like trying to share a ride in a taxi. Vietnamese police stopped the couple and accused Mai of being a “V.C.,” short for Viet Cong, the derogatory term for an NLF spy, and took her away to jail.57 Similar accounts surface in other stories about women who dated GIs. American MPs received specific guidance not to pay bribes to the South Vietnamese police for the release of women, but Stewart cared far less about the long-term repercussions of funding a corrupt police force than about freeing his partner. Because of the realities of war, however, it took over a day and significant bribes from both Stewart and Mai’s family to buy her way out of jail. For South Vietnamese police, intercultural dating could be easily portrayed as a threat to the local public, and corrupt officials used this as a means to profit from couples like Mai and Stewart.58
The harassment did not limit the eagerness of servicemen to take apartments off post. Even soldiers fighting on the front often stayed with girlfriends when they returned to the cities for short leaves rather than staying in the barracks.59 Cohabitation relationships differed significantly from couple to couple, ranging from basic exchanges of money for relative comfort and a steady sexual partner to fully committed monogamous couples with children seeking licenses to wed. The inability of officials to paint the relationships as prostitution, and the elimination of Vietnamese arranged marriages in favor of self-selected marriages by the 1959 Code of the Family, made them legal. At the same time, the 1959 code also made the practice of concubinage illegal. Living together while engaged in an active sexual relationship outside of wedlock went against Vietnamese moral standards, but it never proved to be enough of a problem to spark significant legal changes. Even if money was exchanged in the form of housing, food, or gifts, cohabitation was not prostitution and was legal with the appropriate military permissions or licensing by the early 1970s.60 Traditional American and Vietnamese family ideals both viewed men serving as the breadwinners as normative, so the practice did not push the ideals too far. Only the fact that most relationships occurred outside of marriage seem to have raised eyebrows for government officials. The laws on both sides appear to have been weakly regulated and rarely upheld. Prewar regulations regarding concubines were out of date and impossible to manage in the wake of escalation. For foreign relations, the issue of cohabitation, like prostitution, tied soft power relations together with security. Servicemen living openly with women in Saigon created targets for NLF attacks or monitoring for intelligence. Under this chaotic system, officials manipulated couples by collecting bribes, coercing women, or otherwise using fear tactics to maintain a sense of power.
Public expressions of affection between US servicemen and Vietnamese women appear to have threatened some members of the Vietnamese city police, who harassed women seen in public with American men. The relaxed social laws after the coup that overthrew Diem left some Vietnamese confused about what constituted legal behavior in this regard.61 The post-coup government in the South quickly invalidated or otherwise ignored many of the morality laws but, after US escalation, discovered it needed to reinstitute some restrictions.62 Corrupt police found an opportunity in this confusion to profit from the relationships. In some instances, police required “tips” or bribes to clear the women of the accusations and allowed them to go free. Dating, however, did not violate Vietnamese law in the way that prostitution did. Cases of police harassment grew so severe in the later years of the war that the Capital National Police Command (CNPC) in Saigon released a notice to Vietnamese police regarding the legal rights of women in an effort to limit illegal bribery. The fact sheet “Police Harrassment [sic] of Vietnamese Girls Riding With Americans In Taxis” warned police that women and girls were not required to show “Cohabitation Certificates” in order to date or even live with Americans.63 Likewise, the police could not request a marriage certificate to prove the couple had a right to be out in a taxi together, since this was not covered by the law.
The report, translated and distributed to American servicemen for reference by the MACV Office of Information in 1972, laid out the legal rights of couples and advised Americans not pay any bribes to the police. It maintained that Americans did not need to file for government-issued cohabitation papers, which had “a particular status recognized by Vietnamese law” and were not required for any Vietnamese woman to date or live with an American. Not only did the fact sheet clarify the legality of dating, but also it included the social observation that it was not “improper for a Vietnamese girl to ride in a taxi, walk on the street, or accompany American men to public or private places.” Furthermore, “any Vietnamese female including prostitutes has a right to accompany men—either Vietnamese or American—in taxis or elsewhere, without the threat of police harrassment [sic].”64 The stipulation that “any Vietnamese female” had the right to accompany Americans illustrates how local views shifted against the eradication of prostitution late in the war. In addition, the comment that it was not “improper” to date Americans pointed to a previous perception that the behavior would be seen as such, leading the Vietnamese to adjust their laws, or at least the interpretation of them. Removing the stigma from the relationships proved far more difficult. Vietnamese women recalled that families and friends viewed interracial couples in a negative light and pushed back against any marriages to foreigners.65 The harassment fact sheet revealed a shifting focus toward legal couples, indicating that prostitution represented only one type of socially troubling GI-civilian personal encounter, and thus broadened the scope of interactions Americans needed to be aware of when addressing GIs’ needs in public diplomacy.
Throughout the war, Vietnamese police retained the right to conduct searches of all persons in the name of national security. While police could not require civilians to show their marriage or cohabitation papers, since neither was required by law for a woman to be out with an American, they could ask for personal identification cards.66 Just as with bar girls, maintaining a current ID was critical for all civilians hoping to remain in the good graces of local police. In its instructions for servicemen, the CNPC also warned that the women might be working with the police, and under any circumstances, Americans should refuse to pay out of pocket for any fines levied against them. Instead the CNPC suggested that GIs ask to be taken to the police station to meet with an American officer, which would cause most corrupt officers to drop illegal harassment attempts. The harassment fact sheet also included a page written in Vietnamese explaining to women how to respond to police questioning if stopped for riding with US servicemen in taxis. Above all, though, the fact sheet stressed that soldiers should support the military’s desire to work with the Vietnamese to maintain an amicable alliance.67 Corruption within the local police forces, however, kept MACV and service members on edge about what exactly was and was not legal behavior for soldiers living among civilians.
The culture of having “girlfriends” in Vietnam meant something different to each person. For some, the relationships were serious and monogamous, for others simply a source of comfort for a few days. Whether for an active duty service member or a contract employee working abroad, love and war became such a commonplace combination in Vietnam that laws prohibiting public fraternization slowly dissolved or became unenforceable. The fact that racially targeted harassment against couples resulted in MACV directives advising on how to interact with police and the legal limits for dating indicates that the military took the social behavior of their soldiers seriously, whether they had hoped to devote attention to that area or not. It became too difficult to monitor the number of Americans dating local women when, as one USAID epidemiologist reflected, “we all did.”68 Like prostitution, the pervasive nature of human relationships forced the military to acknowledge the encounters. But without the pressing links to the increase in disease and violence, they had to settle for a more limited response.
Marriages to Vietnamese women presented an entirely different set of issues for both governments, as well as for those seeking licenses to wed. The end of World War II and the rise of an early Cold War nuclear family ideology had driven up the number of married military personnel. In 1940, army families numbered only 67,000. By 1971, that number had risen to over 500,000, including a total of 1.7 million dependents. The family researcher E. James Lieberman noted that the growth forced a shift in the military’s treatment of families and an abandonment of the old adage “If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a wife, he would have issued you one.”69 Married soldiers, officials likely hoped, would be happier and less likely to engage in relations with prostitutes while abroad.
During World War II, GIs brought home an estimated 125,000 brides from their tours in Europe.70 Congress passed the War Brides Act on December 28, 1945, to facilitate the admission of wives into the United States.71 The first of five laws passed in the immediate postwar era regarding wartime marriages, the act eased the process by which brides and their children could enter the United States. The laws stayed in effect until the mid-1960s, gradually admitting more brides, and eventually even fiancées.72 The problem for GIs arose when they attempted to take Asian brides, who were barred from entry by a 1924 anti-immigration law that, in order to promote a nativist vision of the United States, expanded existing anti-Chinese immigration policies to most of Asia.73 While the War Brides Act opened up marriage to European women, Asian brides required an act of Congress to be granted approval to return to the United States with their husbands.74
Congress excluded the Philippines from its restrictions because of the unique colonial relationship between the nations, but as populations of Filipino migrants increased in California, they too faced resistance. Paul Kramer’s work on race and US foreign relations with the Philippines covers this complex relationship, relating an incident in which a judge designated Filipinos as Mongolians in 1925, using this logic to annul interracial marriages previously allowed under a 1921 exemption.75 Controversies over nativist overuse or misuse of immigration and interracial marriage laws led to scrutiny, especially for those in the military, who were more likely to meet a spouse abroad, but change came slowly. Finally, a 1952 ruling overturned American laws barring Asians from immigrating to the United States, opening the door to marriage in the East.76
Following the Korean War, and into the occupation period, tens of thousands of Korean women lived in “camptown” settings, which provided American soldiers with easy access to women.77 As with Vietnam, relationships beyond prostitution developed and led to marriage. The large numbers of GI marriages with Korean women alarmed military officials. They had previously seen the unions as what the historian Susan Zeiger summarizes as “a national responsibility for the U.S. to shoulder, a conduit for international understanding, or a reward to American soldiers,” but were later deemed “ ‘immature’ and ‘improvident.’ ”78 They dissolved programs designed to support brides applying for entry into the United States. The withdrawal of support worked to some extent, and the number of military-civilian marriages during Vietnam fell far lower than the World War II numbers.79
Racism largely shaped immigration policies that placed Asian brides on a more difficult path to marrying American service members. During the Second World War, the Pacific theater, including Japan and China, developed a reputation as deployment areas where GIs often married local women. These brides were not permitted to return with their husbands until the passage of the 1946 Chinese War Brides Act and the 1950 Act on Alien Spouses and Children.80 Congress proved more flexible here than in the policies enacted immediately before escalation in Vietnam. Unlike during World War II and the postwar occupation era, Vietnamese newlyweds could not apply for war bride status. Laws changed again with the passage of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, opening pathways but not ensuring entry. The Hart-Celler Act focused on family reunification and merit rather than the “race-based policies” that shaped immigration in the first half of the twentieth century.81 As Zeiger argues, despite the elimination of guarantees for entry, American GIs in Vietnam still managed to marry locals at rates on par with those from the First World War.82 While Vietnamese were not targeted directly in anti-miscegenation laws in the way that Chinese, Mongolian, and Malay peoples had been, the othering of Asians in marriage laws left them vulnerable to racist legislation until Loving v. Virginia struck down anti-miscegenation statutes as unconstitutional in 1967.83 Over the decade of American combat forces serving in Vietnam, the military approved roughly eight thousand marriages. Some service members simply opted to wait until after their discharge to circumvent the military application process, which involved time-consuming paperwork, but those attempts also risked failure, since veterans would have to use their own funds and apply outside the military system, which at least offered a pathway to a visa.
The US military attempted to work with the RVN on marriages between soldiers and civilians to maintain positive foreign relations over the issue of personal relationships. Although they disagreed over the validity of prostitution, both nations felt that high marriage rates were contrary to their interests. Both race and the Cold War culture of suspicion regarding communists played into each country’s resistance to the marriages. The US military hoped its process would ensure that the unions involved genuine feelings, since officials suspected that bar girls working as undercover North Vietnamese or communist spies might manipulate service members.84 MACV directives also insisted that couples fulfill all requirements under Vietnamese law before applying for a visa from the US government.85 This procedure served two purposes, ensuring that Americans remained respectful of South Vietnamese laws and customs while enabling the slowdown to be used as a deterrent against the marriages. The long duration of the process, compounded with prohibitive financial costs, proved a particularly challenging hurdle for a typical service member to clear during one deployment.
Within Vietnam, race also played a role in the resistance to marriages, in addition to views regarding marriage traditions and emigration. Prior to Diem’s 1959 Code of the Family, Vietnamese marriage traditions centered on a system of arranged unions.86 Following the division of the country and the passage of the code, however, the RVN adopted the stance that marriages should take place out of love.87 Madame Nhu hoped the laws would give women greater mobility and more rights in society. They also opened up the possibility of more marriages to outsiders. Even within small villages, the rates of arranged marriage fell to only 20 percent of the total during the 1960s and to under 3 percent in the 1970s.88 Still, women wishing to marry men not selected by their family needed to request permission to do so or disobey their parents outright.89
Although South Vietnamese government officials passed laws and visited villages to encourage a new outlook on marriage, many continued to follow the moral principles that had long existed within their religious and social culture. When I asked about the influence of Nhu’s morality policies on young girls in the villages, Le Ly Hayslip laughed and said her Confucian upbringing had shaped her far more than a politician coming in to tell her what her values should have been.90 The actions of the younger Vietnamese showed that they were more open to deviating from traditional values to pursue love and opportunity, but they did not always connect the shift to government initiatives.
Older generations struggled to adapt to the changing social and marital norms more than the youth. Kim Norrell, the daughter of a laundry owner in Saigon, had difficulty persuading her family to allow her to marry an American she loved, since they believed “good girls just don’t go out with GI[s].”91 Norrell, and thousands of others like her, challenged tradition to pursue love—or safety—beyond Vietnam. While Norrell’s story appears to be the more common one, founded on love, families in desperate financial straits did recognize that a relationship with an American could offer security. A New York Times article that ran in August 1965 told of a Mr. Thinh and his daughter, whom he sent out to work as a hostess in the hope that she might meet and marry an American soldier, or at least live in relative comfort with one until he returned home. He spoke of the success that others had had in sending their daughters to the cities to meet Americans, and in turn gaining wealth and security for their families.92 Whether relationships were based in love or convenience was difficult for outsiders to judge and contributed to the air of suspicion around romantic encounters.
Marriages were perhaps the most politically significant form of GI-civilian sexual relationships apart from prostitution. Applications for marriages increased in line with the overall progression of the war, yet only about eight thousand couples successfully completed the process. The US military maintained strict policies to deter hasty marriages, and legislation like the Hart-Celler Act raised immigration hurdles. The possibility of marriages for profit, manipulation, or access to the United States with no intent to pursue the relationship concerned Americans and inspired the policy changes that took place for service members. In 1966, American officials added language pertaining to “security” to the marriage application process, requiring women to undergo background screenings and penalizing service members if any possible security threats were discovered.93
The fears translated to the American public as well, with many looking at divorce rates for evidence that a bride had used a soldier just to obtain access to the United States. Divorce rates alone did not offer a clear reflection of cause, however. Some separations were spurred simply by the fact of coming to the United States, living life together outside the conditions of war, or untreated PTSD. A 1967 brief reportedly compiled by two US Army medical staff members investigated service member marriages and their outcomes. Findings about the general study shared in Jet magazine reported a pattern that many service members who married Vietnamese women were “sexually inhibited” and “bitter” about American life and women, possibly leading to their struggles.94 Citing the same report, the exposé Saigon After Dark noted that of the approximately six hundred GI-Vietnamese marriages between June 1964 and November 1966, 20 percent ended in divorce as soon as the Vietnamese wives arrived in the United States.95 Reports of these quick dissolutions bred skepticism among Americans concerning the intentions of foreign brides and the viability of their marriages. Divorces only increased the level of scrutiny on interracial couples by the American public.
Memoir accounts provide some of the best insights into the scrutiny placed on marriages. Duong Van Mai Elliott, a US-educated researcher for the RAND corporation, was clearly not a bar girl seeking a quick escape from Vietnam when she told her family she wanted to marry her American boyfriend and colleague, the historian David Elliott. Her family was still suspicious of their relationship, however. Her father told her bluntly that if she “married an American, everyone in Vietnam would take [her] for a whore.”96 In turn, she worried about the impact of their marriage on her husband’s career and hoped he would be able to continue government work. The two married in Saigon after much resistance from her extended family. She recalled fondly that David Elliott was able to persuade the family to accept him because of his pedigree and his manners, and especially his Vietnamese language abilities.97
Le Ly Hayslip’s experiences as a Vietnamese single mother who worked in clubs and sold black market goods to support her family offer an alternate perspective on the same resistance to American-Vietnamese marriages. Unlike Elliott, she had no family nearby to impress. Hayslip dated a few American men during the war and faced harassment and risk of arrest.98 Eventually she met and entered into a committed monogamous relationship with an older civilian contractor named Ed. They shared a home, and he helped care for her son. Together they had two more children. Like many Americans who found love in Vietnam, Ed payed expensive bribes and underwent extreme scrutiny while he worked to obtain the necessary paperwork to marry Hayslip and bring her and their children back to the United States with him.99
The difficulty of the marriage process often created considerable headaches for those seeking multiple layers of civil, military, and government approval. Hayslip’s marriage to Ed took roughly a year to finalize. The couple spent approximately $300 to $400 for various bribes and paperwork. As a civilian contractor, Ed had the time and money needed to complete the process both for the wedding and for the adoption of Hayslip’s son Jimmy. Hayslip found that she needed to purchase forged birth certificates for herself and her son, a document that few Vietnamese possessed but that the marriage paperwork required. Women who could not read or write, and those hoping to marry enlisted men with less control over where they were sent while in country, found even greater difficulties.100
In contrast to the social stigma and personal struggles faced by Hayslip and Elliott, other “war brides,” including Kim Norrell, recalled the process more positively. All three women wrote about their initial marriages to American men in Vietnam from the perspective of someone who was in love with her spouse and excited about beginning a new life together. Norrell’s story follows a trajectory that differed from that of the other two, however, as her husband was not an older military or Foreign Service officer but rather a young man working in army Intelligence. As in most accounts on the subject of marrying American soldiers, time and paperwork proved to be the most significant challenge for legalizing the marriage. She spent five days a week for nearly six months working to complete the necessary forms and tests, from urine samples to police reports.101 Many Vietnamese women were unaware why they needed so many credentials to enter into marriage. Like Hayslip, Norrell had to undergo mental and physical exams and produce documents, including a birth certificate, to complete the process.102 She did not have any children from a previous relationship or an arrest record, and this likely helped her complete the process in a relatively short amount of time.
In spite of the challenges of satisfying three bureaucracies and their ever-changing rules, those with enough money and desire could navigate the process successfully. MACV determined the American side of marriage regulations for service members during the war. In 1971, as Nixon was drawing down ground forces, new laws went into effect for marriages between RVN citizens or Australian civilians and service members.103 MACV changed previous regulations allowing service members to apply for permission to marry when they had less than 150 days remaining in their tour. reducing the window to their final ninety days. For the military, spouses represented a potential distraction and a liability for service members.104 Race also played a role in how fast American bureaucrats processed applications even though it no longer had an official impact on immigration policies. If the proposed marriages were between GIs and US citizens or Australians, MACV offices sometimes fast-tracked the approval, but for citizens of the RVN or other nations, couples reported that they faced more resistance to their requests.105
Complaints likely reached higher powers, who chose to funnel all applications after 1971 through one office on the American side. Chain of command dictated that any applications approved by the local Vietnamese government and the American officers was then sent to MACV headquarters for final consideration. Officials hoped this new process might reduce the risk of bribes or other corrupt behavior on the ground by limiting the number of hands through which the papers passed.106 In addition to American laws, Vietnamese officials required statements that showed the women were not already married and that they had maintained the vague qualification of “good conduct” for their “entire period of residence in Vietnam.”107 After the applicants obtained a legal marriage through the Vietnamese government, MACV encouraged them to hold a religious service in their preferred faith to finalize the union. Only after completing the exhaustive marriage process could couples visit the US embassy to discuss the potential for the spouse to return with her partner.108 The American fear of communism meant that the families received no guarantees, but the exhaustive process required to reach this point usually prepared couples for the interviews.
MACV regulations could not promise a successful marriage, but they ensured that couples, in a test of their dedication, had already overcome considerable obstacles to obtain their license before reaching the United States and beginning the path to citizenship. Stories about covert spies tricking soldiers into marriage for access to the United States reinforced American concerns about the blurred lines between allies and enemies in South Vietnam. Soldiers received training in remaining constantly vigilant toward civilian populations, and issues like marriage created considerable concerns not just in terms of security in the war in Vietnam but as part of the broader Cold War that framed it. For Americans, successful marriages had the potential for positive outcomes, demonstrating the joy and collaboration possible between service members and civilians in their support of a nation fighting to stave off communism. Within Vietnam, marriages had negative connotations for some who felt that the Americans were coming in to corrupt women and girls, or worse, turn them into prostitutes and then marry them or leave them behind. Whether the unions ended in divorce or remained happy, for many Vietnamese women, marriage to an American offered their best chance for starting a new life in the United States. As a foreign relations issue, resistance to interracial marriage finally presented the Americans and the RVN with something to agree on in their discourse on the social front.109
Friendship, dating, cohabitation, and marriage have received considerably less attention in postwar representations of the Vietnam War then miniskirt-clad bar girls and prostitutes. Marriages and children created lifelong connections to the conflict that remain important reminders of the war today for many families. The roughly eight thousand soldiers’ brides who emigrated from Vietnam have helped create networks to build communities and homes for refugees in the United States. Through the influential work of brides after the war, more Vietnamese had the opportunity to reunite with their families or escape oppression.110 The children of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers also linked the two cultures and provided a catalyst for later collaboration.
From a policy perspective, illegal practices like prostitution presented officials with an easy target not afforded by dating or marriage. Service members who maintained successful relationships beyond the brothel gained a far more intimate perspective on the allied culture, but this closeness also brought risks. The potential that brides might be attempting to infiltrate the United States or, conversely, flee a collapsing Vietnam threatened the public image of each of the allied governments. Concerns over non-clandestine relationships drove the Nixon and Thieu administrations to rewrite laws attempting to control the social and sexual lives of their citizens.
The popular memory of the war that centers on combat and prostitution might represent the most vivid images of GI-civilian sexual encounters, but the relationships that occurred beyond the brothel offer a glimpse into a complex world of military-civilian interaction. From non-sexual relationships shaped by the presence of American or Australian women to concerns over cohabitation and government restrictions to limit marriages, the encounters forced the United States and its allies in South Vietnam to once again take a stand on policies regarding social and sexual behavior. Resistance to the desires of American servicemen and South Vietnamese civilian women to engage in long-term relationships also points to the underlying distrust within the alliance. The US government made the wives of diplomats and high-ranking officials leave Vietnam as the war grew more violent after the 1968 Tet Offensive, cutting short the relationships between foreign wives and local women. American WACs worked closely with South Vietnamese WAFCs through the end of the war. Dating and marriage continued in earnest through 1973. Some soldiers reenlisted to remain with the women they loved, while others left the military to work in Vietnam as civilians in order to avoid the military rules and regulations.111 To pursue love, soldiers took extraordinary measures to negotiate the layers of bureaucracy created to hinder them.