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Vietnam: The Lessons of War

On the long thin coast of Vietnam,” wrote John K. Fairbank in the last issue of this paper, “we are sleeping in the same bed the French slept in even though we dream different dreams.”

The dreams of course are very different but so are the beds and the dreamers themselves. Let us compare them and see when the end of the night may come.

Nothing could be more valuable for American leaders at the moment than a close examination of the disastrous errors made by the French in Indo-China from 1945 to 1956. To know the faults of a friend may not cure one’s own, but from France’s experience America might well learn something of what has gone so dreadfully wrong in Vietnam today.

The French had three great dreams for Indo-China and each led them into a different and more ugly phase of the war. At first, in 1946, they clung briefly to the dream of re-establishing their prewar empire in Indo-China. Indeed, for one hopeful moment they seemed to be on the verge of a promising new colonial policy: General Leclerc, sent out to “reconquer” the territory, decided instead to negotiate with the Vietnam revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. Leclerc recognized Ho’s Vietnam as a “free state,” connected with France, but controlling its own diplomacy, army, and finances. This was the first agreement made between a European colonial power and the Asian revolution—and one of the shortest-lived and saddest in retrospect. For within weeks the intrigues of colonialists in Saigon and Paris and extremists among the Vietminh and its nationalist allies succeeded in scraping it. The way was now open for France to plunge into full-scale colonial war. But it soon became clear to everybody that this would have been a hopeless venture, doomed from the start by the half-ruined state of France, the lack of an air force and navy, and the disapproval of the Russians and Americans.

At this point the French conceived their second Indo-Chinese dream which led them into a second war, lasting from 1948 to 1951. Now they would transform their colonial struggle into a Civil War. Against Ho’s Vietminh they would set in opposition the “independent” Emperor Bao Dai, encouraging him to cultivate his own anti-Communist but nationalist leadership—a policy described by the distinguished scholar Paul Mus as “nationalist counter fire.”

Perhaps it might have succeeded if the nationalists had been given a chance to make it work. But their power and prestige and autonomy were always limited. While Vietnamese and French troops died courageously, Bao Dai pre-occupied himself with tiger hunting, his ministers with profiteering. The Vietminh methodically liquidated Bao Dai’s officials, dominated the countryside, and organized its soldiers into divisions soon after the Chinese Communists arrived on the Northern Frontier in 1950.

After this decisive event and the outbreak of the Korean War, France dreamed once again of transforming the nature of the war in Vietnam, this time into an international conflict with Communism. In September 1951 General de Lattre arrived in Washington to argue that France, faced with Vietminh subversion supported by Communist China, now needed and deserved to have its risks shared. He was given both credits and weapons. But later, in 1954, on the eve of Dien Bien Phu, the French government demanded far more: It requested that several hundred American bombers be ordered to attack the enemy from Manila. To these requests Washington finally responded that “Indo-china does not fall within the perimeter of the area vital to the defense of the United States.”

WE CAN NOW admire the wisdom which led President Eisenhower to reject both the agitated appeals of the French and the advice of Admiral Radford and Vice President Nixon, both of whom recommended intervention. But we may well ask why a country not considered of “vital importance” to American interests in 1954 became so in 1965. The Communist camp, after all, is no longer a monolithic force able to exert unified global pressures as had been the case in 1954. In Korea, moreover, Chinese had recently been fighting American soldiers, something they have since refrained from doing; and missile strategy has meanwhile diminished the importance of local airforce bases. One can only conclude that the diplomatic views of American leaders have hardened during these years. In the light of Mr. Rusk’s performance the diplomacy of John Foster Dulles must be reconsidered and credited with an admirable flexibility.

Thus France launched three wars in Indo-China and lost them all. Its allies having refused to provoke a brutal extension of the war in order to avoid a local defeat, France’s dream of an International anti-Communist “crusade” collapsed at Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954. General Giap destroyed France’s main combat force; the Vietminh controlled two-thirds of Vietnam; and neither Hanoi nor Saigon were protected from attack.

Ho Chi Minh had offered negotiations six months before this débacle and had been ignored. Now Moscow and Peking were agreeable to an international détente and Washington seemed prepared to accept the consequences of its failure to intervene. Thus at the Geneva conference table in 1954 the Western powers benefited from a certain complicity on the part of Molotov and Chou En-lai: The West succeeded in wresting from the victors half the territory and the larger part of the material wealth of Vietnam. Ho agreed to fall back to the north in exchange for a promise that elections preparing the way for unification would be held in 1956—elections that he had no doubt of winning.

A great deal of confusion surrounds this Geneva settlement. It must be emphasized that the only texts signed at Geneva were the armistice agreements between the French and the Vietminh. No one at all signed the “final declaration” of the conference—both the United States and South Vietnam had reservations about it—and it carried only the force of suggestion. But apart from the North Vietnamese, the French were the only nation that formally guaranteed to carry out the Geneva accords that provided both for partition at the 17th parallel and for elections.

And now France committed a new error (its last?), dreaming this time that it might finally leave Vietnam and forget it altogether. Diem, now installed as dictator in the South, wanted the French to quit his country as soon as possible. This was not only because certain French interests were intriguing against him—something that helped strengthen his position as a nationalist leader—but also because the French Army was the only force that could compel him to hold elections in 1956. In the event, the French quickly yielded and the last of their army departed in April 1956.

The consequences of this final French error were, and remain, enormous. Diem was now free to declare himself free of all the Geneva obligations and soon did so with American encouragement. The South could now be reorganized as an anti-Communist bastion, from which a reconquest of the North could eventually be launched. The Diem government in fact soon created a Committee for the Liberation of North Vietnam, which, beginning in 1958, parachuted agents into the North, notably into areas such as Vinh, where Ho’s agrarian reform had provoked violent peasant uprisings. But meanwhile the North, considering itself cheated by Saigon and Washington (with France’s cooperation), began preparation to exploit the political and social discontent in the South to establish a base for subversive operations. And Hanoi was to show itself far more adept at this political game than Saigon.

COULD the French have resolved this Vietnam problem? In fact, they were confronted by two immensely volatile forces whose demands would have shaken any Western government, as they are shaking the United States today. First, the demands of a people thirsting to overthrow colonialism and to recover their national identity, their freedom of maneuver, and their unity. But also the demands of a revolutionary group, supported by one of the great power blocs, which claims the right to impose its authority on the entire nation in the name of a Communist doctrine highly suspect to the majority: a group, nonetheless, whose heroism, discipline, and ruthlessly effective methods seem to assure its success.

It is the deep and constant intermingling of these two forces which have made the Vietnam problem seem so hopeless and defeating to the West. How can a Western government successfully sponsor an independent “nationalist counter fire” when the strongest feelings of many Vietnamese have been invested for many years in the local civil war; and when one finds among those who have rallied to the Vietminh, and then the Lao Dong and the NLF, a great many patriots, drawn to the organization because they believe it to be the hope of Vietnamese nationalism, capable of defeating colonialism and Western domination.

Perhaps it might have been possible for the French to disassociate the nationalist inspiration in Vietnam from the Communist organization. But to do this would have been very difficult. For to gain the confidence of the nationalists I believe that French aid to Vietnam would have had to meet three extremely demanding conditions: that the donor of the aid would have no right to intervene directly in the government; that the aid would be given to the most worthy leaders; and that it would not lead to the creation of oligarchies of profiteers and a climate of corruption.

By all these standards the French failed. If they ever had a chance to survive the Asian revolution, they lost it, basically, because they were unwilling to alter their patronizing colonialist attitudes and deal with Asians with some sense of mutual respect or cooperation. For the most part they preferred instead to appoint and then control the manageable, the incompetent, and the operators, many of whom made fortunes out of the corrupt French aid program.

Opposed in Vietnam, then, were a coherent, principled, and implacable revolutionary movement of militants organized in the villages—the country’s fundamental social and economic unit—inspired by an evident nationalism and posing as defenders of stern justice and equality; on the other hand, a regime obviously supported and controlled by foreign powers, partly composed of former colonial officials, disdainful of peasant claims, tolerant of a social order where the influential and successful were frantically engaged in profiteering—preparing for the arrival of the inevitable catastrophe. The only possible result was a catastrophe on the scale of Dien Bien Phu.

HOW RELEVANT is the French experience to Vietnam today? Certainly the American situation is different in important respects, but really how different? For example, the United States has no colonial past in Vietnam, no strictly imperialist drive for economic gain. But its objectives are, curiously, both more altruistic and more imperious than those of its predecessor. After all, a country seeking colonial profits is quite capable of making a compromise to preserve at least some of its endangered wealth. But what of a country that supposes itself to be defending a selfless principle? In fact, the United States does seem to have several fairly concrete motives: e.g., to prove to certain nations that it is faithful to its alliances; to show the underdeveloped peoples of the Southern Hemisphere how costly it can be to chose “Marxism-Leninism.” There would seem to be sufficient elements of calculated self-interest here to make realistic bargaining possible—on the basis of spheres of influence, for example.

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