Riverside, Calif. veterans object to Vietnam sister city plan
The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Riverside city officials and local dignitaries say they were welcomed warmly on a recent trip to Can Tho, Vietnam, to explore a sister city relationship.
But reactions to the proposal back home have not all been positive, with some critics questioning the need to form ties with a communist country where the U.S. went to war.
The debate has even extended to city staff. In an email, Councilman Chris Mac Arthur's aide came out against the proposal, making comments that another councilman considers out of line.
Riverside now has eight sister cities in countries including China, Japan and Germany. Its friendship with Sendai, Japan, is among the oldest such ties in the U.S. and led residents here to raise about $590,000 in aid after the Japanese city was hit by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
After a July visit to Can Tho, a city of 1.2 million people in southern Vietnam, Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge and Councilman Paul Davis proposed ideas for educational and cultural exchange and business development between the two cities. A Thanksgiving-week visit from a Can Tho delegation is planned to formalize the relationship.
The Vietnamese city's several colleges and universities and its focus on environmental sustainability make it a good match for Riverside, Loveridge wrote in an Aug. 14 report to the council.
But others see key differences they think make the proposed relationship untenable. Among them is Glenn Waggoner Jr., an Army veteran who served in Vietnam. He emailed Davis to object.
"I can't understand why there is such a need to have a sister city in Vietnam that is a communist nation," Waggoner said Thursday, Aug. 23.
"I hold the (local) Vietnamese community in high regard, but I just don't understand the politics of it."
Can Tho was the site of intense military conflicts between U.S. troops and the North Vietnamese Army, Waggoner said. His email noted there are U.S. prisoners of war and missing troops still unaccounted for in Vietnam.
Mac Arthur's aide, Chuck Conder, who served in the Air Force, was blunt in an email he sent to another local veteran. Conder called it "disturbing" that the Can Tho party was invited during Thanksgiving, suggested they contact others to oppose the sister city move, and commented, "These socialists are nuts," though it's not clear who he was referring to. Conder couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.
Davis called Conder's remarks, sent with his city email address, "completely inappropriate." As a city resident, Conder can say whatever he wants, Davis said, but, "He is staff. He's not there to make policy."
Davis said so far Vietnam veterans and others he's talked to have supported the sister city proposal, but Mac Arthur said he's gotten the opposite response.
An email to constituents sent Wednesday has brought in about 30 responses, Mac Arthur said, and "Right now it's running about 80 percent against."
One concern is extra costs to the city during tough economic times, but the main issue is consideration of U.S veterans, he said.
"I think that for a lot of veterans that have served it's still a very emotional issue, and I think their concerns need to be heard," Mac Arthur said.
He rejected Davis' criticism of his aide's remarks. "I think Chuck was speaking as a veteran to other veterans, certainly not in his role as a legislative field representative."
San Francisco, Seattle and New Haven, Conn., have sister relationships with cities in Vietnam, according to the website of Sister Cities International, a nonprofit organization that promotes international friendships. But strife and soul-searching are not uncommon when those bonds are proposed, said Charles Ward, executive director of South Carolina-based nonprofit Vets With a Mission.
Ward wrote a long and heartfelt message to Waggoner, Davis and others in the email chain after receiving their comments from Vien Doan, a Vietnamese American doctor and Riverside resident. Doan is on the board of advisors for Vets With a Mission and was part of Riverside's delegation to Can Tho.
Some U.S. veterans welcome new relationships with Vietnam, others are indifferent, and a third reaction can be quite negative, Ward said.
"They're thinking of Vietnam as it was when they were there, and of course it's not that way anymore," he said. Today, "The Vietnamese truly like and appreciate Americans, and they have gotten past the war."
The issue could still lead to greater understanding, or at least dialogue. Doan suggested a meeting with Waggoner, which in turn became an invitation for Doan to speak in October to the Riverside chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America and other local veterans.
Doan said he appreciates what Vietnam veterans have done and he has wanted to reach out to them.
"Actually it's a welcome opportunity, and I plan to speak to them on it and listen to their concerns and share my view on it and see where we go from there," Doan said.
"I think there's a good possibility this (sister city proposal) can go forward and heal our local communities."