Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant is an actress and the director of the acclaimed film From Hollywood to Hanoi. Her most recent film as a director, The General and Me, spans 25 years of her relationship with General Giap, the leader of the North Vietnamese Army and adviser to Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War.
Alexandra-Silliphant discusses the discrimination she faced as a young Vietnamese refugee in Virginia, and how her friendship with actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee gave her confidence as a teenager. She also talks about her decades spent filming and interviewing General Giap, which revealed a much more complex and misunderstood person than is widely believed.
Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant – actress and director – @tianaworld
Joshua Scheer, Rebecca Mooney
RS: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests, hopefully. In this case, it’s Tiana Silliphant. Or is it Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant? Or do you want to go back to your original Vietnamese name? What would that be?
TAS: My Vietnamese name–Vietnamese language is monosyllabic. So Thi Thanh Nga is Tiana.
TAS: So you’re getting, Du Thi Thanh Nga, my first, middle, and last name. I’m one of the few Vietnamese who don’t have that “Nguyen,” the Nguyen. You had the Pulitzer writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen–the “Nguyen,” or Nguyen, is like “Smith” in Vietnamese. But I have “Du”–Du.
RS: You mentioned Viet Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer Prize and also the MacArthur award. And he was [on] a podcast that we ran. And you actually mentioned, he once drove you around Harvard–
TAS: He drove me around at Harvard. He was given to me as an intern by the history department, run then by the historian, a Vietnamese woman ran the history department at Harvard. And I was really struck by him. And then we met a few years later, and I would just absolutely love to see him, I am so proud of him.
RS: I want to get back to you now [Laughs] Ah, and you were in, you were born in 1956–
TAS: Well, that’s subject to dispute, Bob.
RS: OK, all right–
TAS: We Vietnamese women–you know, there was a war going on for, like, over a hundred years, so we have different birth certificates.
RS: But the year 1956 is a very important one. Because the French had been defeated in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.
TAS: That’s right.
RS: And there was a negotiation that are called the Geneva Accords, an agreement was reached, and a number of the great powers endorsed it, including the United States and the Soviet Union and Canada and so forth. And–
TAS: And China.
RS: And China, and the–
TAS: Yup. And they betrayed Ho Chi Minh.
RS: OK, but let me just, for people who are not as intimately connected with this history, explain. So after the French defeat, and its history that has been told most recently by Ken Burns–we can argue about whether it was a good telling of it–but it’s been documented well over the years. And just to be quick about it, the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for a thousand years, and the French had occupied it for a hundred years, and there had always been a strong nationalist resistance to this in Vietnam. And it happened that Ho Chi Minh, who came to be a communist after studying in France and so forth, led a movement that was successful in defining nationalism in its most recent form then. And during World War II, when the French were at odds with the Japanese and the Japanese were to occupy, then Ho Chi Minh was actually an ally of the U.S. And you actually have some very interesting footage in your current film, The General and Me— “the General” is a reference to General Giap, who is the military genius who defeated the French and defeated the Americans in Vietnam. Everybody forgets, you know, that this was America’s most glaring military defeat. And General Giap is the guy given credit, somebody that you have a lot of footage on; you spent a lot of time over 25 years. So you’re in actually a very unique position as a filmmaker, that you got to really know this somewhat mysterious military genius. And he, with Ho Chi Minh, they were during the war, World War II, they actually were somewhat allies of the United States. And you have very interesting footage in your film of Major Patti–am I pronouncing it–?
TAS: Archimedes Patti, the OSS officer.
RS: Right. OSS, for people who don’t know, was the precursor to the CIA. And during World War II, he worked very closely with the Vietnamese communists to help find downed American pilots, to spot targets, and so forth; was a real ally of the U.S. And the assumption was, and certainly Patti recommended, that after the war that we not ally with the French colonialists returning. And that was, had a lot of sympathy with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States; that colonialists should not return, and that in fact countries like Vietnam should be able to have their independence. Ho Chi Minh actually began his declaration of independence for Vietnam with the words, “From the American declaration of independence.” And in your film, which I found very interesting, there’s a discussion, what happened to Major Patti? This OSS’s guys recommendation that we support Ho Chi Minh and–
TAS: It’s scandalous. No one read the reports. They paid for the Office of Strategic Services to go out; the OSS team actually got in touch with Ho Chi Minh, met them–met Giap, who at the time was not known as the General Giap; he was my father’s history teacher, that’s where this personal connection comes in for me. So my father adored his mentor, this history teacher who taught Vietnamese kids who wanted the French out about the French Revolution. This is what empowered them–resist! It was about resistance. And I was so curious, even as a child, my father had pictures of this man who became his enemy. My father was very conflicted. He hated the communists, and he honored this teacher who became the military leader for the people’s army. And I asked the most stupid question when I first got to meet General Giap. I said, “When did you first join the army?” He was so patient with me. He was a really good teacher. He said, “Well, ah, there wasn’t one, so it was needed, so I founded one.” [Laughs] Very modest.
RS: Yeah. And in your movie, the new movie–is this being shown, is it around?
TAS: So General Giap was referring to the fact that the French, it was only the French army–if you were going to resist, you had to form your own. So the film was just finished–30 years. I’ve spent 30 years filming it; 25 years filming General Giap, his family, witnesses; I went up to Dien Bien Phu, who would think that I would end up there. And you talked about the Paris accords, you know, and then after Dien Bien Phu, you know–our democracy is to help people, engage them and educate them, and get, you know, people to, what, become more democratic, country, the governments, and all that. But we, our government, the United States government, stopped free elections when the Vietnamese won fair and square up at Dien Bien Phu and got rid of the French. Which, as you know, ended French colonialism–Algiers, you know, it was–that domino theory.
RS: Yes. Well, and perhaps the major event of the anti-colonial struggle in the post-war period.
TAS: So, but we stopped them–yes–so if you study the peace accords, we stopped free elections because we knew Ho Chi Minh would have won.
RS: Right. And this is not just my guest Tiana saying this, and she is–
TAS: Ken Burns makes it very, very clear. Just watch the Ken Burns series.
RS: OK, but you don’t need to watch the Ken Burns series–
TAS: You can read–
RS: You can read General–President Eisenhower’s memoir, Mandate for Change; that’s where I first encountered it 50 years ago. And in Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change he said there was no question, and he was informed that if the election had taken place in ‘56–which [was] called for in the Geneva Accords. Two years after the accords, there was supposed, you know, there was a temporary separation of South and North Vietnam. And then there were supposed to be elections, and General Eisenhower, honestly, in his Mandate for Change, said that he was informed that if there had been a fair election, that Ho Chi Minh would have won with 80 percent of the vote. That’s–
RS: That’s Eisenhower. I know, but your saying it is not as powerful–
TAS: As Eisenhower.
RS: –as General Eisenhower, or President Eisenhower–
TAS: And Nixon was vice president.
RS: Yeah. So what–we’re going to be jumping all over the place here. But let me get the history straight just a little bit. So you were born the year in which there were supposed to be elections which would unify the country. In fact, the country was divided temporarily, and the U.S. moved in to permanently divide the country and not have elections. This is also well documented in the Pentagon Papers–
RS: –and everywhere else. So we can skip over it very quickly, but people should know this who don’t know this history. So let me be just brief about it. And what happened is, our CIA waged a campaign in the north to terrorize the minority Catholic population; about 10 percent of Vietnam was Catholic, 90 percent were Buddhist, and they encouraged Catholics in the north to flee to the south; they said the, you know, the Catholics will be killed, they had all kinds of horror stories that were planted; again, well documented history. And then they put a Catholic in power–the U.S. put a Catholic in power, Ngo Dinh Diem; they recruited him, made him the president, the George Washington of his country. And Diem was presented to the American public as the George Washington of Vietnam; it was a propaganda point, ignoring the fact that Catholics were only 10 percent of the population and that he had been living in the United States in exile; a fantasy was developed around Ngo Dinh Diem. The relation to you personally, and this comes up in your movie, The General and Me, which I think people should watch because it covers this history quite well–your father was, actually worked with Ngo Dinh Diem. And he actually–
TAS: Absolutely. My father worked for Diem, and Madame Nhu took him over, because he was trained in America–my dad went to George Washington University–and wanted him, you know, as her personal press agent; he hated her. She was part of the problem.
RS: So you were, as I said, born somewhere around ‘56. But ‘56 is a critical year, ‘cause we, the United States decided to be party to preventing this election that the, Ho Chi Minh would have won. Again, well documented history; we install this fellow Ngo Dinh Diem in power, and we keep him in power, and he represents a minority of the country by any standard. And his religion, as I say, was a minority religion, but also he was a dictatorial figure and hardly building a popular base.
TAS: John F. Kennedy loved the fact that he was a Catholic. That helped.
RS: Yeah, that’s true. But also it was John F. Kennedy who ordered his, or his administration ordered Ngo Dinh Diem’s death at the end, and he–
TAS: They approved it, absolutely.
RS: Yeah. So–and that’s also in the Pentagon Papers. So it’s not, this is not suspect history; I just want to get to you story. So you, at that point, your father got a job with the U.S. Voice of America, right?
TAS: He quit the South Vietnamese government, and–this is what happened in 1963–and brought us over with the clothes on our backs. So we feel like we were the first refugees. I was the first Vietnamese in Virginia. And I was taunted, I was “chink,” “gook,” “Chinese cherry,” making references, you know, to all kinds of things that we can’t mention on the radio. And so I sought out Bruce Lee; I had to learn to defend myself. The kids took me and beat me up in school. And you know, it was during desegregation; I mean, there was a lot of trouble, and even in post-desegregation. But there were rumbles in the football game, and then the black kids looked to me–because I could go to the prom; I could be, you know, I mean, being Asian I wasn’t as ostracized as they were. So they picked to ostracize me, which I found fascinating. Because I fell in love with GIs when I was a little girl, going back and forth from Vietnam to Washington, D.C. Now we’re in Virginia, and we’re near Fort Myer. And I just thought, gorgeous, gorgeous–I had crushes on American soldiers. Because we were taught that they were there to save us. They were our saviors. They were like, you know, you go to church and you pray to Jesus Christ, and then you pray to these guys in blue, ‘cause they were going to save us from communism. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that it was a particular kind of communism, that we were nationalists. And we’re Vietnamese; why were we encouraged to kill one another? Why was there a civil war? In the Ken Burns series, Vietnam, you know, The Vietnam War, he had three or four witnesses who said, you know, it was a civil war. Well, says who? Do you go to the roots of involvement, to the–what made it a civil war? And this, you know–we can go to our graves for the next generation arguing about what really happened. Just read the history.
RS: But your movie has an important piece of this history. Because your father is a very good example that you discuss. He was somebody that was on the U.S. side, and he was, after he had his falling out with Diem–who, as I said before, represented a very distinct minority in the country–and in your movie you have very graphic imagery–
TAS: It took years and years to edit. I filmed–yes, a lot of graphic images.
RS: –and particularly of the Buddhist monks burning themselves and so forth–
TAS: That’s right.
RS: –in protest. So you had–yeah, it was not a civil war, because by any standard you basically, your base of support for Diem was less than 10 percent of the country, and he was quite alienated.
TAS: It was so political.
RS: And so the U.S. created this fiction of a George Washington.
TAS: Encouraged it.
RS: Your father, even though he was not Catholic–you were one of the rare Protestant families in Vietnam–your father ends up working for the Voice of America. So he’s on the U.S. side of this whole thing as you’re growing up.
RS: And then, so let’s get to your personal story. To survive in school and so forth, you get involved with the martial arts.
TAS: I met Master Bruce Lee, who was not the famous Bruce Lee in the movies. He was a very well-respected martial artist; he was coming to Virginia. And I was Tiana, karate princess, and I got to meet Bruce Lee; I was a teenager. He was my second teacher: my father, Bruce Lee, and General Giap. And my late husband, Sterling Silliphant, who won the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, he was my teacher; he encouraged me to go back. I never–I might have never gone back, because my brothers and sisters have not gone back to Vietnam. And we were ashamed. We were made to feel–my sister told everyone she was Japanese just to not get the taunts, and you know, the trouble in school.
RS: OK, so let’s go to Bruce Lee. You meet Bruce Lee–
TAS: So, well, Bruce said “Don’t turn your back on your people.” Bruce was very, very proud. He was proud that he was Chinese, and he was, by golly, going to be the biggest star in the world. And people said, “But you’re a Chinaman.” Which is like saying the n-word, “Chinaman”–he would get furious. So I had these amazing teachers who were very angry; Bruce was extremely angry, but he taught the Zen and the Sufi. And in his, in the practice of his martial arts, he was a master. But what Hollywood did to him, I mean, the racism goes beyond–I mean, it–I think it’s part of human nature. When we don’t have the information, when we don’t read the history, when we don’t know other people’s culture, we tend to, you know, put them down.
RS: [omission] We’re back with Tiana Silliphant, the director of The General and Me, a refugee originally from Vietnam. And she had the unique experience of having interviewed the legendary General Giap over a 25-year period.
TAS: Twenty-five-year period.
RS: And no one else that I know of has been able to do, was able to do that; he died when he was 102, in 2013.
RS: And this is the guy who defeated the French and he defeated the United States in Vietnam. He’s considered one of the great military geniuses of all time. And the movie is about that. So let me say, how did you get into filmmaking? Was it Bruce Lee who inspired you, or–?
TAS: I always wanted to be an actress. I was born to be an actress. And Bruce wanted to be an actor. And I was hassled, you know, in Virginia at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. So I–
RS: Hassled for being Vietnamese.
TAS: For being Vietnamese. For being–they didn’t even know, “Viepnamese,” “Viepmanese”–they didn’t know where Vietnam was; the teachers, the kids; they didn’t know. They just, I was a pariah because I came from this war. Everyone was watching the six o’clock news, and then being disgusted with what they saw. You know, wars today are being blacked out. We don’t see the body bags, we don’t see the fighting. This is the one thing our government did learn from Vietnam, is don’t let the public see what’s going on.
RS: So let’s talk about General Giap. He’s very important, and your film, which is coming out now, really provides a great insight. And I think a serious distortion in the Ken Burns film is he has a theory, which I think some people in the U.S. government propagated, that Ho Chi Minh and General Giap and Pham Van Dong, who was the prime minister–and full disclosure, I went to South Vietnam–not full disclosure, but I know something about the subject, I went there in 1964, ‘65; I also was in the north in the early seventies. I met Pham Van Dong, I met some of these people. And so, and as I say, I was both in the south and north; I was in Laos, I was in Cambodia quite a bit. And what bothered me in the Ken Burns film was the acceptance of this theory that somehow Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong and General Giap, the people who made this revolution, had lost control because Le Duan had somehow, one of the members of the Politburo who was supposed to be closer to the Chinese had somehow seized it, and now they were following a Chinese–
TAS: This is the new revelation in the Ken Burns series. The new revelation is that this member of the Politburo was aligned with China–and it’s true. Ho and Giap did not trust the Chinese. They were allies, they had to be; you know, Ho Chi Minh went to Paris to plead for his people, to negotiate for peace; no one listened to him. So–
RS: He worked in Paris. He actually worked in New York, also.
TAS: He was a pastry chef. He was in Boston–I was on a bus tour in Boston, and they said “Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh washed dishes right here.” He worked as a photoshopper, he fixed photographs; you know, by hand, back in the day. He traveled all over Africa, all over Southeast Asia; he didn’t come home until he was, you know, middle-aged to, you could say, get rid of slavery in Vietnam. I respect General Giap that he got rid of slavery. We were slaves to the French.
RS: I know, but we’re wandering from the story. The fact of the matter is, his people–
TAS: Well, it’s all in the film.
RS: I understand. But they did not lose power, and they actually had a great, they were running the country, as certainly Pham Van Dong and General Giap, they did not defer in any simplistic way to the Chinese; they were nationalists, and China represented–
TAS: No, they did not. But this man, Le Duan, was running the show.
RS: Right, but–
TAS: Behind the scenes. He was responsible for the Tet Offensive; General Giap disapproved the Tet Offensive. You see, there’s this fallacy–and you can see it on the internet, and it’s wrong, it’s factually wrong–that Giap was bloodthirsty; even Morley Safer said so, and we have it in The General and Me, in our film. Morley Safer said, you know, he was bloodthirsty, and some news guy said, you know–so he just threw a lot of bodies. In other words, the fallacy is General Giap didn’t care how many millions of Vietnamese died, he just wanted to win. And that is so, so untrue.
RS: The fact of the matter is, Giap, General Giap is somebody you capture in your film as a complex man of knowledge, and actually of humor. And so just tell us about him, because that’s sort of the most exciting thing about this film.
TAS: Yes, yes. Peter Arnett, you know, the Pulitzer award winner, Peter said, Tiana, this is absolutely amazing. He said, please get more, please let the personal stuff on this military genius. He said that it will last for the ages. And you know, because when you keep filming, you saw, everything you have to keep filming for 30 years–why so long? My father passed away, my husband passed away; you know, life happens, but I kept going back. And now I do feel that the forgiving nature of the Vietnamese people, which I found, I discovered embodied in Giap–there is no rancor in his entire family, and his children; they welcomed me like a daughter returning home, they made me feel at peace. And I’m not speaking for the Vietnamese government today; people ask me about, what about the Vietnamese government today? And that’s different. They do shut down internet sites if you’re against them, you know, and all of that. I was warned about, you know, these evil men, Fu Manchu beards, repressive, would eat you for breakfast. We all bought into this, and it was nothing like that. They were like my uncles–so I think, you know–people think that Ho Chi Minh was wiley when he called himself “uncle”–no. I have to call you–you’re older than me, Bob–I have to call you elder uncle when I meet you. That’s–
RS: Could you say that, Elder Uncle Bob?
TAS: [Laughs] Elder Uncle Bob. [Inaudible] Uncle–you are Elder Uncle. Everyone asks about age, because they have to know how to address you. This is in our culture. This is not communist propaganda. So the culture, he taught me his family, the welcome, the people. And he was never controlling. He just said, why don’t you go talk to people? He never said, OK, I have a list of people, you should go talk to them. He just said, go up the mountain.
RS: The irritation he shows in your film, The General and Me, which I think is really an important film–because it’s historic. I mean you, for over 25 years, interview this figure who is presented as totally enigmatic, and people can then say he was evil, or he was this or that–the fact is, he’s the guy who won for Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh was the great political leader. This is the guy who defeated the French. And I should point out, by the way, 80 percent of the cost of the French going back to Vietnam, their war, OK, between–
TAS: Yes, going back to Eisenhower.
RS: –1950 and ‘54, was paid by the United States.
TAS: That’s right.
RS: We supplied the French with a lot of military equipment and so forth. So they defeated the French–
TAS: So, Bob, we supported slavery. We supported oppression.
RS: OK, I got that, but I just want to explain–
TAS: Well, do our audience know that? Most people don’t even know the French were in Vietnam.
RS: OK. That may be, but we can only in a half hour get so much history here. What people should understand is that this General Giap, first of all, defeated the French, but the French were backed by the full might of the United States–its military equipment and financing and so forth. And then after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, he then, his army defeats the United States in this, you know, this is the most powerful country in the world being defeated by one of the poorest in the country, after the war with the embargo and everything they were the fifth–
TAS: Not just the country, Bob. The entire region. Laos, Cambodia–
RS: Yeah, yeah. Well, we have to talk about that just a bit. Because what you said earlier, and I think the power of your filmmaking, going back to your first one from Hollywood to this, remind us that people have history. And that history matters, it’s not only our own history. And what happened here is what we want to deny–and I think this is the weakness of the Burns film–we want to deny that this was an incredible, nationalist struggle that was successful. Whatever else you think, I mean, the fact is, there are a lot of questions can be raised about the American revolution, and you know, what happened and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, and you get it from General Giap, he said something very interesting which I think is true. He said, “This war did not have to happen.” This is a critical point that he makes over and over in your interviews, which by the way, as I said, go over 25 years. This is very rare footage, really, that we get–OK, you can’t–and he does show irritation at one point, not with you and whether you travel; he’s irritated with–
TAS: He showed irritation with Robert McNamara. [Laughs]
RS: No, but he showed irritation with the guy–
TAS: The clapperboard.
RS: Yeah, the clapperboard. You know, who are these filmmakers clapping–
TAS: Well, what’s so cute is, you know, if you think about it–maybe “cute” is the wrong word, but astonishing–is that this man had not been interviewed on film with a clapperboard, you know, with sound. It was fascinating. Well, he was refusing all interviews, so it was quite the coup.
RS: Right. So what happens in this very rare filming, over 25 years, of a critical figure that we have to understand if we want to understand what happened, certainly from a military point of view–what he says over and over, he says, look. We liked the Americans. We cooperated with the Americans in World War II.
TAS: They were allies.
RS: Yes, we were allies, we wanted to not have the French return; and even in the case, some respect for the French; after all, I can speak French, and I know the history, and so forth.
TAS: Julia Childs. Julia Childs was responsible for–she was, you know, a spy. Did you know this? Yeah!
RS: Yes, I know that because I watched your movie. And let me tell you, that is–I had heard this before, but that was, to me, the most startling thing–
TAS: [Laughs] Is that amazing?
RS: –about your film. So why don’t you explain. You’ve got an image of Julia Childs–
TAS: She was a spook. Julia Childs!
RS: –on television, with her chickens. “Ah, the chickens!” And everything, and you bring up this aspect of her past. OK, so you brought up Julia Childs. Talk about her intrusion into Vietnamese history.
TAS: Well, she had a different name. And this is told to us by Archimedes Patti, the senior officer of the OSS. And she was responsible for relaying this, you know. And she put it in the container, top secret, to be read–decades later, Archimedes Patti goes back, he goes to the archives, he said: None of it was ever opened. The way that Julia Childs–well, her spy name–the way that she wrapped them–and then I had her wrapping the chicken, the chickens–he said: It was the greatest tragedy. Because it was never read, never opened, her reports.
RS: So we should understand that this was really where history goes awry.
TAS: This is where the racism comes in. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, and this is where history goes awry. Because here you’ve got Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president of the United States, says he believes in self-determination; he doesn’t want the colonialists to come back, he’s very clear about that. The United States is very clear about that. We’re not fighting this war against the Japanese and against the Germans to restore the hold of England and France over large populations, and restore colonialism. We understand those days are over. Here is Major Patti, this incredibly brave American OSS–as I say, the OSS, for people who don’t know it, was the precursor to the CIA–he’s out there in the jungle, fighting against the Japanese with the Vietnamese, with Ho Chi Minh and General Giap–
TAS: And General Giap helped us against the Japanese. And this is how we rewarded them.
RS: Yes, he’s plotting their movements, their troop movements, he’s plotting their airplanes, he’s saving American pilots who are downed. And he sends these reports back saying, we should cooperate with these people after the war, because they are not our enemy, and you shouldn’t just blindly let the French come back. Right? And the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh, General Giap–their view was, oh, great. These Americans are going to back us. And then, much to their amazement–no! The French are brought back.
TAS: Yes. Many, many combat vets, colonels, Colonel David Hackworth, said: We were fighting on the wrong side. We should have been fighting with Giap’s troops. And a lot of the fighting grunts said that, too, in this TV series.
RS: OK. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. Thanks to my guest, actress and director Tiana Silliphant. And a quick favor from our podcast listeners. KCRW wants to know more about you, who you are and how you listen. So if you have three minutes to help us out, go to KCRW.com/survey, and thanks. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. I’m Robert Scheer. Thanks for listening.