Thursday, September 28, 2017


The cartoon above is wrong in one respect: the National Liberation Front (aka, the Viet Cong) and the North Vietnamese knew what they were fighting for: national independence and ridding the country of foreign troops.

But the cartoon is right in that the US attack on and invasion of Vietnam went on for an extraordinarily long time. But the first phase of that war---when the Vietnamese fought the French who were trying to reconquer their former colony---lasted from 1946 to 1954, until France could no longer support the effort politically or economically.

If you measure the US war in Vietnam from the Geneva Accords in 1954/1956 to the withdrawal of US troops in 1973, it lasted 19 years---or 21 years if you see April, 1975, as the end as per those dramatic photos of people evacuated from rooftops in Saigon by helicopter.

It was an agonizing thing to watch, a slow motion mugging of a small nation by the world's most powerful country. As the war dragged on under Nixon, it made people crazy, which led to the Weatherman movement.

Germany is still coming to grips with World War II, but the US still hasn't really faced the evil it did in Vietnam. Germany killed six million Jews. How many Vietnamese did the US kill? One million, two million? How many thousands of acres were poisoned with Agent Orange? 

After Dien Bien Phu, the ultimate military defeat for the French, came the Geneva Conference in 1954 that temporarily divided Vietnam between North and South, with a 1956 election scheduled to unify the country. That election never happened, since both the US and the government of South Vietnam knew that Ho Chi Minh would win.

Michael Herr writes about the origins of the catastrophe:

You couldn't find two people who agreed about when it began, how could you pick the day when it began going off?  Mission intellectuals like 1954 as the reference date; if you saw as far back as World War II and the Japanese occupation you were practically a historical visionary. "Realists" said that for us it began in 1961, and the common run of Mission flack insisted on 1965, post-Tonkin Resolution, as though all the killing that had gone before wasn't really war. 

Anyway, you couldn't use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along, the turnaround point where it would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter; might just as well lay it on the proto-Gringos who found New England woods too raw and empty for their peace and filled them up with their own imported devils. 

Maybe it was already over for us in Indochina when Alden Pyle's body washed up under the bridge at Dakao, his lungs full of mud; maybe it caved in with Dien Bien Phu. But the first happened in a novel, and while the second happened on the ground it happened to the French, and Washington gave it no more substance than if Graham Greene had made it up too.

This is what's surprising. LBJ, JFK, and Nixon were all in Congress in the 1950s when the French were fighting the Viet Minh. Apparently they weren't paying attention and didn't take the lesson. It's a stupidity as shocking as the brutality of the war itself.

Burns and Novick don't make it clear that the US never really accepted the Geneva Accords, how US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles walked out of the Geneva conference in a huff before it was over. That's probably when the US war in Vietnam really began, though we were already giving the French money to continue the fight until we took it over after Dien Bien Phu.

Burns/Novick also fuzz up the US relationship with South Vietnam, implying that the US, full of good intentions, was somehow sucked into its massive commitment by the negligence and incompetence of the government of South Vietnam, which after all was essentially our client state.

That lets the United States off the hook. Hard to believe that deploying napalm, agent orange, free fire zones---where everything was killed, even water buffaloes---creating "strategic hamlets," and launching search and destroy missions that mostly destroyed villages, showed any real concern for the people of Vietnam. And it was all justified by stupidity like the domino theory, the sort of thing C.Wright Mills called "crackpot realism."

James Fallows on the series: 

It is remarkable in interleaving the accounts of participants from opposite sides of the same battle—the Americans and South Vietnamese, but also the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong—all describing what they were afraid of, what their plans were, how they reckoned victory and defeat in struggles for control of a particular hill or hamlet. 

It offers abundant evidence of battlefield bravery and sacrifice on all sides—but precious few examples of political courage or foresight, especially in the United States. It’s hard to say whether Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon comes off worse for the combination of strategic misjudgment and flat-out dishonesty in management of the war.

[Rob's comment later: The distinction Fallows makes between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese is a toxic intellectual distinction that makes understanding the war impossible. Vietnam was always one country that the US helped divide, which is an important reality that has to be acknowledged. The US simply re-branded a French colonial war as an anti-communist war.]

Yes, the recorded conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about preventing the collapse of the regime in South Vietnam until after the 1972 elections are shocking even from those two famous cynics.

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