I never fought in Vietnam. By the time I was old enough to go, I held a high draft-lottery number and a student deferment, and was never called up. I do remember the war, though. Early on, when Kennedy sent in the advisers, I was in elementary school, and saw the pictures on TV and in Life magazine. When Johnson sent in half a million men, I was in junior high, and we argued about the war in class. When Nixon came to power I was in high school, and we debated it more. When the four protesters were killed at Kent State University, I was finishing my first year at the University of Washington in Seattle. My instructor in German cancelled classes and gave us all A’s so we could go protest. I stood aside, watching the protesters flood onto Interstate 5 and block traffic until the cops pushed them off the exit to what are now the offices of Amazon.
My sentiments on the Vietnam War, like those of most Americans, evolved. In 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed, its government appealing for help and the US Congress and President Ford offering none, I was as coldhearted as anyone. I thought, “To hell with Vietnam.” I had been reading about it, thinking about it, arguing about it since I was a kid. During that time 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what? In economists’ terms, the mountain of corpses was a “sunk cost” — and I was ready to watch the whole damn thing sink into the South China Sea.
I was living in Berkeley, California, when the South fell. I remember standing outside my apartment on May 1, 1975, taking photographs of a parade down Telegraph Avenue welcoming the Communist victory. “All Indochina Must Go Communist,” one banner said. Well, I hadn’t evolved that much. For me the fall of South Vietnam was a day for quiet sadness.
By 1975, 58,000 Americans, of whom nearly 18,000 were draftees, had been killed there, along with maybe a million Vietnamese, and for what?
As a kid in junior high, I had supported the war. Recall the geopolitical situation: Communists had eaten up a third of the world, with big bites in Eastern Europe in 1945–48, China in 1949, North Vietnam in 1954 and Cuba in 1959. They had been stopped in a few places — in Malaya, by the Brits — but once firmly established they had never been pushed back.The Cold War’s rules of engagement were that the Communists could contest our ground — what we called the Free World — but we dared not contest theirs. And the end of that road did not look good.
When I used that argument — and “domino theory” is not a good name for it — no one knew the Communist system was facing extinction. People knew it was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread.
All the old arguments came back as I was reading Max Hastings’ new book,Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. Hastings, an Englishman, is my favorite military historian; for years I have had his 1987 book, The Korean War, on my shelf, and I breezed through his 752-page Vietnam in a few days. In this book Hastings has undertaken to write the narrative of the war, and not all from the American side, but also in the voices of South and North Vietnam. Hastings reveals that there were arguments and worries on their side as well as ours. Many in the North hated the draft and did not want to trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to fight. Over the years, 200,000 Northerners deserted while in the South. The Northern soldiers also underwent far more privations than the Americans or their Southern allies, living on rice and water spinach (sold in Asian markets here as on choy) and often starving. On one occasion, Hastings says, they killed and ate an orangutan.
People knew communism was a poor system for satisfying private wants, but as a foundation for political power, it did seem to pass the Darwin test: it had survived and spread
Hastings analyzes the assumptions and the strategies of both sides. To the low-level Vietcong, the war was mostly about getting rid of Americans who looked and acted like the “long-nose” French, Vietnam’s late imperial overlords. The cadres tried to indoctrinate the VC in Marxism, but identity politics had the stronger pull.
Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side. For a military historian, Hastings makes a key admission when he says that fighting was less important than “the social and cultural contest between Hanoi and Saigon.”
In that contest, the North’s standard-bearer was “Uncle Ho,” the Gandhi-like figure of Ho Chi Minh, who had kicked out the imperialist French. In the South, a society that included landowners, merchants, and bureaucrats who had worked for the French and prayed in the same church as the French, one of the icons was Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. One observer said that Ky, an air force pilot with slick black hair and a pencil-thin moustache, looked like a saxophone player in a cheap Manila nightclub. Writes Hastings of Ky, “He was publicly affable, fluent, enthusiastic about all things American but the taste of Coca-Cola — and as remote as a Martian from the Vietnamese people.”
Strength of belief and feeling makes a difference in war, and in Vietnam the advantage went to the other side.
South Vietnam was a society rotten with corruption and ill-gotten wealth. “Again and again,” writes Hastings, “peasants were heard to say that whatever else was wrong with the communists, they were not getting rich.” History shows, though, that life is easier in a society in which some are wrongly rich than in one in which the rich are rounded up and shot, leaving everyone else poor. Hastings writes that when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon, the soldiers were amazed at how much stuff the people had.
The Vietcong were terrorists. They beheaded the village chieftains who opposed them, and sometimes buried them alive. The Americans were told to behave better than that, but with their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm they dispensed death wholesale. American soldiers, Hastings writes, went to war “wearing sunglasses, helmets, and body armor to give them the appearance of robots empowered to kill.” Back at base, “Army enlisted men took it for granted that Vietnamese would clean their boots and police their huts.” And also use the bar girls for sexual entertainment.
Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese still fought and died for their state, and also worked with the Americans. First-generation Vietnamese in my home state are fiercely loyal to the old Republic of Vietnam, and still fly the yellow flag with the three stripes. Apparently they were not a majority of their countrymen, else the conflict would have come out differently.
With their B-52s, high explosives, and napalm the Americans dispensed death wholesale.
As the Pentagon Papers showed, smart people in the US government saw early on that South Vietnam was ultimately not a viable cause. President Kennedy expressed his doubts, but he also believed deeply that his mission was to stop the Communists. “Nothing that came later was inevitable,” Hastings writes, “but everything derived from the fact that sixteen thousand men were in country because John F. Kennedy had put them there.”
Hastings doesn’t buy the theory propagated in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK that Kennedy was on the verge of backtracking when he was shot.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, sent half a million men to Vietnam because he didn’t want to be blamed for losing it, as Truman had been blamed for losing China. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat. For each of these US leaders, the concern was his country’s prestige (a Sixties word) and his own political standing. “An extraordinary fact about the decision making in Washington between 1961 and 1975,” Hastings observes, “was that Vietnamese were seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon it.”
Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were focused on the Chinese and the Russians, and assumed they were in charge in Hanoi as much as the Americans were in Saigon. Hastings says it was not so. The Russians and the Chinese were frustrated at the North Vietnamese aggressiveness, and repeatedly advised them to cool it. Within the North Vietnamese leadership, Ho often agreed with his foreign advisors, but Hastings says that policy was set not by Ho but by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, “though the world would not know this.”
Nixon saw that the war was lost, but he took four years to pull the troops out — an indecent interval in which thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died — because he didn’t want his name on an American defeat.
By Hastings’ account the Americans were not the only ones who made big mistakes on the battlefield. Militarily, the biggest Communist mistake was the Tet (Lunar New Year) offensive of 1968. Le Duan’s idea was to show the flag in all the Southern cities, spark an uprising among the people, and swamp the Southern government in one big wave. In the event, the South Vietnamese didn’t rise. In Saigon, the Vietcong breached the wall of the US embassy, and in Hue, North Vietnamese regulars occupied the town north of the Perfume River for several weeks and methodically executed all their enemies. But everywhere the Communists were driven back.
The Vietcong lost 50,000 dead in Tet and follow-on attacks, five times the combined US and South Vietnamese military deaths. Largely cleansed of Vietcong, the countryside was quieter in the following year, as the North Vietnamese Army built up forces to fill the void left by the defeated Southern guerrillas. Though Tet was a military defeat for the North, the US press played it as a Communist show of strength, thereby tipping the balance of opinion in America against the war. For the Communists, a military defeat became a political victory.
The journalists had played it the way it looked, and it hadn’t looked like a South Vietnamese victory. American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident, which was used in 1964 to justify the de facto US declaration of war. Of the two supposed attacks on the destroyer USS Maddox, Hastings writes, one wasn’t real and the other was “a brush at sea that could easily and should rightfully have been dismissed as trivial.”
For the Communists, the military defeat of the Tet Offensive became a political victory.
In the case of Tet, US journalists inadvertently helped the enemy, but generally the press gave Americans a more accurate picture of the war in South Vietnam than the government did. The press did a poor job of reporting the shortcomings of the North, but it wasn’t allowed to go there. In 1966, when I was arguing with my schoolmates for the war, I repeatedly heard them say that communism would be a bad system for us, but it was a better one for the Vietnamese. If Americans had good reporting from North Vietnam, I don’t think my schoolmates would have said things like that. We anti-communists were right about one thing: communism turned out to be just as bad as we said it was.
The question remains as to what, if anything, America should have done to stop the Communists in Vietnam. Hastings quotes CIA officer Rufus Phillips describing what America did: “We decided that we were going to win the war and then give the country back to the Vietnamese. That was the coup de grace to Vietnamese nationalism.” But if it was wrong to do that in Vietnam, it should have been wrong in Korea, and it worked there, at least well enough to preserve the Republic of Korea. It can be no surprise that Kennedy and Johnson would try a military solution again.
What was the difference? Hastings touches on this question only briefly, mentioning the obvious: Korea is a peninsula with a border just 160 miles long, while South Vietnam had a border with Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam more than 1,000 miles long, perforated in many spots by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the complex of corridors through which the Communists infiltrated the South with fighters and supplies. The warfare on the Korean peninsula was conventional, with front lines; in Vietnam it was a guerrilla contest while the Americans were there, becoming conventional only after they had decided to go. The physical climate was different, too. The Koreas were divided on the 38thparallel, about the latitude of San Francisco; the Vietnams were divided on the 17th parallel, about the latitude of Belize City. All of Vietnam is in the tropics, with attendant cloudbursts, humidity, bacteria, and bugs.
American journalists had learned to distrust their government’s statements about the war. They should have begun four years earlier by distrusting the Tonkin Gulf Incident.
And there were political differences. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of national independence; Kim Il Sung pretended to be one, but had a less inspiring story. Also, in Korea the old imperial masters were not long-nosed Caucasians but Japanese.
A penultimate thought. Hastings quotes without comment Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of capitalist Singapore, to the effect that if the Americans had not resisted the Communists in Vietnam, “We would have been gone.” Call this the “domino theory” if you like. It was a view I encountered in the early ’90s, when I worked in Hong Kong for Asiaweek magazine. Our founder and publisher, a Kiwi named Michael O’Neill, maintained that the American effort in Vietnam had stopped the Communists from pushing on to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, China had junked communist economics, and Vietnam, unless it wanted to remain poor, would have to do the same. And that, O’Neill argued, meant that the Americans had really won the Vietnam War, even if they didn’t know it.
Or maybe, I thought, we had lost the war but in the long run it didn’t matter — because the war wasn’t the decisive contest.
Twenty-one years after the war ended, I traveled to Vietnam with my wife and six-year-old son. In Danang I met a group of men who had fought for the South and suffered persecution from the victors. They weren’t bitter at the Americans, nor were the tour guys who drove us to Khe Sanh and were too young to remember. In the North, at Ha Long, I chatted up the proprietor of a tiny restaurant who said that during the war, when he had been a truck driver for a state-owned coalmine, he had lost his house to American bombing. I told him I was very sorry my countrymen destroyed his house.
He shrugged. “I have a better one now.”