By Tony Walther
(copyright 2008)
Two magazines: National Geographic, October 1961, and The Economist, April 26-May 2, 2008 edition. Both have stories about Vietnam.
It was spelled as two words back in 1961, Viet Nam. At that time the nation had been partitioned into North Viet Nam, with communist rule, and South Viet Nam, with a pro-western government.
The story line in the National Geographic back in 1961 was about a beautiful nation, South Viet Nam, undergoing a modern transformation while fighting off a vicious communist insurgency in the countryside in which Viet Cong guerillas whacked off the heads of local villagers that did not go their way.
And the story in the recent issue of The Economist tells of a unified Vietnam that has become an economic miracle and powerhouse in Southeast Asia. It still has a communist government, there since they took over the south back in 1975 and made it into one nation, Vietnam. But as China, it has introduced western style free market reforms into its economy. Vietnam did that in the late 1980s, not long after the Chinese. The reason for the move in both countries was because the communist system was an economic disaster.
So the two magazines provide a kind of before and after view. But of course the real story is what happened in the middle.
Back in 1961, few Americans had ever heard of Viet Nam. They may have had some recognition that there was some place called Indo China (that’s what it was listed as on the old globe we had in our home when I was a kid).
Through the centuries, the Vietnamese had fought off the Chinese, and the French had colonized the area in the 19th Century, the Japanese occupied it during World War II, and the French came back after the war. They finally kicked out the French in 1954, after which the nation was divided in two.
President Eisenhower was the first on record as suggesting a domino theory in which he said that if we let South Viet Nam fall all the other nations in the region would fall to the communists too, like a row of dominoes. We sent military advisers there to help out the South Vietnamese.But really, not many people here in the USA thought much about it.
John Kennedy was elected president, partly on the grounds that he would strengthen our defenses against communist aggression. “We will fight any foe…” and so on.
After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, became president and was handed what he would later refer to as the Vietnam tar baby. You just couldn’t let the thing loose. “We can’t win this thing,” he told one of his cronies in a taped phone conversation. He then lamented that he would be damned if he pulled out of Vietnam and damned if he stayed. He apparently didn’t want to go through the who lost China thing, ala 1949.
What really got us involved, though, was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And really that incident was a non-deadly form of 9/11, but the results were eerily similar, in that in both instances we were plunged into wars with seemingly little results and no end.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was really two incidents, in both of which North Vietnamese ships allegedly fired upon our ships on the open seas. What really happened is up to interpretation. Some accounts now say we fired first and some say the second incident may have never really happened.
But our domino theory made us predisposed to find some pretext to act. So we did. There was debate at the time on whether we should get involved in a “land war in Southeast Asia.” We had a hard time beating the Japanese at that game. But we had the resources, a protection that geography then afforded us, and ultimately, we had the bomb.
The 9/11 attack was used as a pretext to go to war in the Middle East, something George W. Bush had been itching to do since he first became president. Nearly 3000 people were killed at the World Trade Center in New York, more than in the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941. And just as neocon policy wonks had anticipated, such an act by the Islamic terrorists, amounted to a new Pearl Harbor in the minds of many citizens.
While 9/11 was pulled off by Saudi Arabians (apparently not acting for their government) and led by Osama Bin Laden, who hid in Afghanistan, the Bush administration successfully morphed the whole thing into a dispute with Iraq. Bush simply called it all a “war on terror.” So we are now fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and eyeing Iran.
The Tonkin incident was used as a pretext to go to all out war with communist aggression in South Viet Nam.
So for nearly a decade after that we fought a war we could not or would not win. Some sixty thousand dead American soldiers and thousands wounded, thousands maimed for life.
We had the lessons of the French before us who could not win a war against guerrillas who struck from the bushes, and often at night, and often unseen. They would hit and run and often couldn’t be found. When we tried to fight it like a conventional war and, say, take a hill, we’d secure it, no enemy after that, so we’d abandon it. It was not a war of territory (although we did also fight regular uniformed North Vietnamese forces in the south). We were trying to win the hearts and minds of people, many of whom did not even want our help or at least were afraid to be seen getting it. We ignored the lessons of the French, perhaps thinking America is invincible.
There was the famous quote from an American officer who said, “we had to burn the village to save it.”
And there was the My Lai Massacre in which American soldiers weary from getting hit in ambush from a virtually unseen enemy, apparently suffered from some type of mass hysteria and wiped out nearly a whole village, killing hundreds of old men, women, and babies. You don’t win the hearts and minds of people that way. The communist Viet Cong did things just as bad, and many times over. But in other instances they came to the rescue of villagers suffering from corrupt local leaders. The Vietnamese peasants also suffered from corruption of the south’s central government. The poor Vietnamese were caught in the crossfire (and doesn’t that sound something like Iraq?).
All through this, it was charged time and again that the South Vietnamese Army did not do their part in the fighting (sounds like Iraq), although, of course, their casualties were high too. They tended to let the U.S. stay out front. The U.S. decided early on in the war to take the lead, not trusting the job to the Vietnamese.
While we were trying to save South Viet Nam from communist tyranny, we wound up backing tyrannical and undemocratic leaders of that nation.
As the casualties mounted and the realization dawned on the majority of the public that we were not making headway there, public support (our nation was hotly divided throughout the war) waned. It all came to a head in the Tet Offensive of 1968 when the enemy proved it could hit us right in the heart of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Sure they were beaten back. But they made their point.
It was downhill after that. Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president on the promise he had a secret plan to end the war. That secret was really that we would essentially surrender. In 1973, we gave up. In 1975, the communists overran the south and renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, after the father of their revolution.
It was an ugly defeat for us. Desperate South Vietnamese who had cooperated with us hung onto the skids of helicopters as they lifted off the roof the American embassy, with the enemy at the gates.
For the next decade or so, it was hell for the Vietnamese, especially for those who had not been communists. There were re-education camps, deaths, and starvation, with the economic and human disaster the communist system brought.
But the communists adapted. The Vietnamese people adapted. Today they still have a communist government, but a nearly free market economy. And there is some sign that they could move toward democracy in the future.
So are there lessons here? Could there be some parallels to what is going on in the Middle East? Some of the factors are different and although it is said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, it is also said, history never really repeats itself.
Now, John McCain predicts we can win the current war by 2013. We kept being assured by the government and the military that we were winning in Vietnam. There was “light at the end of the tunnel” (actually that was the headlamp of a freight train coming at us).
I don’t know. I just remember the refrain from that 60s folk song, “when will they ever learn?”

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