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A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

A check is needed within the government, always there alongside the military. The US must have a real foreign service and a real diplomatic service. A Kitchen Cabinet, together with predominantly amateur, untrained ambassadors, is a recipe for blundering and inconsistency and is a danger to the world. A State Department that offers a career and the opportunity of a decisive influence on policy is necessary so that young men of ability can be recruited from the universities. The State Department has become a shadow. A real State Department, properly manned, would be in a position to counterbalance the military effectively and would make it possible to reduce the CIA to a reasonable size.

There are obviously more fundamental needs, though an Englishman is not well qualified to speak about them. The American involvement in the war in Indochina was prolonged after 1968 principally for electoral reasons: it seemed politically disastrous to withdraw. Democracy, pressed so far, can destroy the human race for the sake of someone not losing an election. Respect for human rights and for liberal values ought always to prevail over the claims of democracy; at the very least, the international decencies need professional guardians, however recruited.

I have of course been assuming that there will be no change in the social composition of the ruling groups in the US. Within this framework, I think the strengthening of the State Department is the best that can be done immediately: the universities should be called in to help. I know that Americans distrust elites in political matters and that I am being undemocratic. But the Pentagon Papers showed a frightening illiteracy, and both the lives of Cambodian villagers and Angkor Wat were put at risk, or worse, partly because of this illiteracy: one cause of the unnecessary war, among others.

John K. Fairbank

Many “lessons” are being drawn from Vietnam, most of them profoundly culture-bound. Ignorant of Buddhism, rice culture, peasant life, and Vietnamese history and values generally, we sent our men and machines to Saigon. Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.

Ignorance of local languages, traditions, loyalties, and reactions leaves the cultural stranger prey to his own preconceptions, hopes, and fears, ready to be cozened by the local English-speakers and manipulated for their private ends. It puts him out of touch with reality. “The enemy is hurting,” it used to be said in Washington, “and so he will negotiate.” But Hanoi never seemed to get the message. Lesson one: do not intervene when culture-blind.

Our successful interventions have been within our own Atlantic culture area—notably World War I and World War II in Europe, “just” wars to defend “democracy” and “freedom.” Our interventions in China against Japan, later in Korea, and finally in Vietnam took us into strange territory, the age-old Chinese culture area of East Asia. Lacking common roots, we imposed on East Asian situations the stereotypes we brought from home, supporting “Free China” against Japan’s invasion and subsequently looking for “democratic” leaders in our sense of elected representatives of the people. But Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, Ngo Dinh Diem invariably disappointed us by proving less Jeffersonian than out-of-date Confucian and, even less forgivably, losing power.

After a century of contact with Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese we had many common bonds from trade, missionary work, medicine, education, student exchanges, diplomacy, and tourism back and forth between our countries. But with Vietnam no such background had accumulated. It was for us part of France, not open to American contact or enterprise. Until 1945 even the people there were known to us not as Vietnamese but as Annamites, from the old Chinese name, Annam, “the pacified south.” The root cause of our Vietnam failure was thus the profound American cultural ignorance of Vietnamese history, values, problems, and motives when we originally went to the aid of the French in Vietnam after World War II. The worst evil of such ignorance was that it left Vietnam faceless and speechless, an almost meaningless object to be manipulated by us for our power-politics purposes.

Thus cultural ignorance leads on to imperialistic exploitation, not for gain but for seemingly worthy aims of international security. This amounts to disregarding the interests of the local people as they see them in their cultural terms and imposing upon their situation our view of the world as seen in our cultural terms. To call this arrogant is of course an understatement. Arrogant or not, it is a recipe for disaster. Lesson two: Our values are not those of everyone. In a multi-cultural world we must pursue more vigorously the understanding of other cultures. We may even get a cultural perspective on ourselves.

Another lesson of Vietnam is to revise the history of the “loss of China,” which was in fact not a loss but a lucky escape. When General Marshall returned from his unsuccessful mediation of 1946 and became secretary of state in 1947, he was able to forestall our intervening in the Chinese civil war in what might have become a super-Vietnam, in spades, doubled and vulnerable. Granted that we “lost” China in our national sentiments where “China” had been peculiarly enshrined, the main fact after 1949 was that we had escaped from fighting the Chinese communist-led revolution, that amalgam of nationalistic sentiment and communist doctrine that has since remade China. The lesson of our “loss” of China was simple: do not intervene against patriotic revolutions, no matter what they call themselves.

The lesson derived by the American political leadership came from closer to home—namely, that a “loss” of a foreign country could be disastrous for the party in power. This dubious proposition, which overlooked most of the facts in the situation, was accepted as a lesson of history and served as a motivation for our Vietnam intervention. Seldom has history been worse understood. Even after the Chinese fought us to a standstill in Korea despite their inferior firepower, we persisted in regarding our exit from China as having been a loss rather than a boon.

From this record one obvious conclusion is that we should try to avoid engraving a “lesson of Vietnam” on our minds, since the last time around is seldom similar to the next crisis. It is one thing to avoid intervening in civil war in the vast areas of the agrarian-bureaucratic societies of mainland East Asia. It may be quite another thing to maintain security arrangements among the islands and peninsulas of the trading world in the western Pacific. Power politics will not go away. The lessons of history are never simple. Whoever thinks he sees one should probably keep on with his reading.

Noam Chomsky

The US government was defeated in Indochina, but only bruised at home. No outside power will compel us to face the record honestly or to offer reparations. On the contrary, efforts will be devoted to obscuring the history of the war and the domestic resistance to it. There are some simple facts that we should try to save as the custodians of history set to work.

In its essence, the Indochina war was a war waged by the US and such local forces as it could organize against the rural population of South Vietnam. Regarding the Geneva Accords of 1954 as a “disaster,” Washington at once undertook a program of subversion throughout the region to undermine the political arrangements. A murderous repression in South Vietnam led to the renewal of resistance. Kennedy involved US forces in counterinsurgency, bombing, and “population control.” By 1964 it was obvious that there was no political base for US intervention. In January 1965, General Khanh was moving toward an alliance with anti-American Buddhists and had entered into negotiations with the NLF. He was removed as the systematic bombardment of South Vietnam began, at triple the level of the more publicized bombing of the North. The full-scale US invasion followed, with consequences that are well known. The civilian societies of Laos and then Cambodia were savagely attacked in a war that was at first “secret” thanks to the self-censorship of the press.

In January 1973 Nixon and Kissinger were compelled to accept the peace proposals they had sought to modify after the November 1972 elections. As in 1954, the acceptance was purely formal. The Paris Agreements recognized two equivalent parties in South Vietnam, the PRG and the GVN, and established a basis for political reconciliation. The US was enjoined not to impose any political tendency or personality on South Vietnam. But Nixon and Kissinger announced at once that in defiance of the scrap of paper signed in Paris, they would recognize the GVN as the sole legitimate government, its constitutional structure—which outlawed the other party—intact and unchanged.

In violation of the agreements, Thieu intensified political repression and launched a series of military actions. By mid-1974, US officials were optimistically reporting the success achieved by the Thieu regime, with its vast advantage in firepower, in conquering PRG territory where, they alleged, a North Vietnamese buildup was underway. As before, the whole rotten structure collapsed from within as soon as the “enemy” was so ungracious as to respond, and this time Washington itself had collapsed to the point where it could no longer send in bombers.

The American war was criminal in two major respects. Like the Dominican intervention and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, it was a case of aggression, conscious and premeditated. In 1954, the National Security Council stated that the US reserved the right to use force “to defeat local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack,” i.e., in violation of “the supreme law of the land.” The US acted on this doctrine. Furthermore, the conduct of the war was an indescribable atrocity. The US goal was to eradicate the revolutionary nationalist forces which, US officials estimated, enjoyed the support of half the population. The method, inevitably, was to destroy the rural society. While the war of annihilation partially succeeded in this aim, the US was never able to create a workable system out of the wreckage.

Opposition to the war at home made full-scale mobilization impossible and placed some constraints on the brutality of the war planners. By 1971, two-thirds of the US population opposed the war as immoral and called for the withdrawal of American troops. But the articulate intelligentsia generally opposed the war, if at all, on “pragmatic”—i.e., entirely unprincipled—grounds. Some objected to its horror; more objected to the failure of American arms and the incredible cost. Few were willing to question the fundamental principle that the US has the right to resort to force to manage international affairs. Throughout this period, there was a negative correlation between educational level and opposition to the war, specifically, principled opposition. (The correlation was obscured by the fact that the more articulate and visible elements in the peace movement were drawn disproportionately from privileged social groups.)

The gulf that opened between much of the population and the nation’s ideologists must be closed if US might is to be readily available for global management. Therefore, a propaganda battle is already being waged to ensure that all questions of principle are excluded from debate (“avoid recriminations”). Furthermore, the historical record must be revised, and it will be necessary to pretend that “responsible” political groups acting “within the system” sought to end the war, but were blocked in their efforts by the peace movement. People cannot be permitted to remember that the effective direct action of spontaneous movements—both in the United States and among the conscripted army in the field—that were out of the control of their “natural leaders” in fact played the primary role in constraining the war makers.

The US government was unable to subdue the forces of revolutionary nationalism in Indochina, but the American people are a less resilient enemy. If the apologists for state violence succeed in reversing their ideological defeats of the past years, the stage will be set for a renewal of armed intervention in the case of “local subversion or rebellion” that threatens to extricate some region from the US-dominated global system. A prestigious study group twenty years ago identified the primary threat of “communism” as the economic transformation of the communist powers “in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West.” The American effort to contain this threat in Indochina was blunted, but the struggle will doubtless continue elsewhere. Its issue will be affected, if not determined, by the outcome of the ideological conflict over “the lessons of Vietnam.”

J. M. Cameron

Outside the United States there is some gloomy joy over the way in which the Vietnam war ended. David’s slaying of Goliath is always a good story and a heart-warming spectacle. Those of us who know and like the United States and its people are sad and anxious.

My mind goes back over the whole period, from the decision, under Eisenhower, to take no notice of the Geneva agreements, through the earliest military intervention under JFK, through the terrible Johnson years, and then the long and bloody, and futile, effort of the Nixon regime to get the soldiers out of Vietnam without loss of face. Only for a brief moment, during the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, did it seem likely that, outside the antiwar circles, people in general might come to believe that the question was one of morality and not of military and political calculation.

My memories are a confusion, though some things stick out. There are the words of Cardinal Spellman on Christmas Eve 1966 in Vietnam: “Anything less than victory is inconceivable.” These words were spoken in a sermon at Mass, for Catholics the great sign of God’s love for the entire human family. When Spellman got to Manila on December 28, he was asked if his remark had been intended to deny the possibility of a negotiated peace (something Vatican diplomacy was then trying to bring about). His reply was memorable: “Total victory means peace.”

Well, many days and many lives, many maimings and many betrayals later, a kind of peace has come. The B-52s from Thailand will fly no longer and Thailand will soon rid itself of their obscene presence. The Claymore mine—a flying bolt from this could kill a man more than a hundred yards from the explosion—invented by the Americans and copied by the Viet Cong, will explode no more. The poisoned fields and woods will begin to regenerate themselves year by year. All this will happen under the hard rule of the communists and the NLF. The bitterness secreted in the years of war with the French and the Americans and their Vietnamese allies will continue to prompt acts of terror and counterterror.

I remember the time when, to innocents such as myself, it looked just possible that Eugene McCarthy would be the Democrats’ antiwar candidate. Instead we had the intervention of Bobby Kennedy, seeking to reap where McCarthy had plowed and sown, then his assassination; and then Humphrey’s steering his way between the Scylla of Yes and the Charybdis of No.

To my mind the lesson of the war is not that it turned out to be a mistake, an error, the mistake and the error being shown by the failure of American arms. It was a vicious and immoral war in which the means employed bore no proportion to the (variously and often incoherently stated) objectives of the war. It is often said by the apologists of the Pentagon that the war was fought with restraint. Of course, it was. North Vietnam wasn’t bombed back into the Stone Age in Curtis Le May fashion. But the reasoning behind the talk of restraint is curious. If a superpower does not use nuclear bombs or if it doesn’t use conventional weapons to bring about the total destruction of civilian lives and property it is said to be exercising restraint. The corruption of the mind and heart represented by such an argument is the worst consequence of the war for the United States. The McCarthy candidacy, the burning of draft cards, all the campaigns of the peace movement, the Calley trial, these and many other happenings will have been fruitful if the shocking nature of this argument is perceived. (Compare: we only abort, sterilize, and so on in the cases of one out of every four teen-age mothers on welfare. What restraint!)

War is a moral question and the lesson of history is that governments can’t be trusted to think of it in such terms. Stephen Decatur’s often misquoted maxim is interesting. “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” If this is turned into the doctrine that loyalty to the duly constituted government of one’s country is the supreme moral imperative, the consequences are—as we have seen—very evil. “Putting Vietnam behind us” is not a wise prescription so long as there are influential men who continue to congratulate themselves on their high-minded “restraint” in the period of maximum American intervention in Indochina.

Geoffrey Barraclough

The decision to liquidate the entanglement in Vietnam may have marked, in President Ford’s words, the end of one chapter. It also marked the beginning of another. What matters now is not the antecedents but the sequel. As a historian, Kissinger is well aware of the old adage: reculer pour mieux sauter, and there is a good deal of evidence that what we are witnessing is not a revulsion against imperialism but a reappraisal of America’s imperial mission in terms better suited to the present constellation of world forces.

Nearly thirty years ago, enunciating the misguided policies which led with ironic logic to the sorry outcome in Vietnam, George Kennan spoke of “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Can it be that all that has happened is that the geographical and political focus, which appeared in 1954 to have shifted to Southeast Asia, has shifted away again? If one main reason, back in 1969, for the initial decision to run down American commitments in Vietnam was the realization that the United States was overextended, and that the entanglement in Southeast Asia was impairing its ability to defend its interests elsewhere, can it be that what we are witnessing now is a redeployment of forces enabling the United States to intervene more effectively in areas—say the Middle East—where it has more vital interests to defend?

I raise these questions not to answer them, but because of the danger of mistaking a change of direction for a fundamental break with the past. A corporation with an unprofitable subsidiary may wind it up and put it in liquidation, but it does not go out of business; it concentrates on its profitable operations. All we know at present is that, as late as April 12, when he was well aware of the imminent outcome of the fighting for Saigon, Kissinger spoke of his determination “to conduct a strong foreign policy” and “re-establish American leadership.” This does not sound like the leopard changing its spots.

In terms of power politics (which are the only politics Kissinger understands) the decision to get out of Vietnam was a wise one—provided always it does not mean getting in somewhere else. That is to say, there was never a serious American interest involved, and it is likely, now that the whole entanglement is over, that Indochina, far from entering an anti-American communist camp, will land safely in a neutralist stance, which may not do the United States any good (once again, in terms of crude power politics) but certainly will do it no harm.

The trouble is that imperialism is a many-headed monster, and if one head is chopped off, as Thieu’s has been, another is apt to sprout. If the Vietnam commitment has been wound up, it is not because the nature of imperialism has changed, but because the world we live in is different from the world of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Power may be transient, but its nature remains the same though, like the chameleon, it may change its color. That is why, though withdrawal from Vietnam may end one imperialist chapter, it may just as easily mark the beginning of another.

Many years ago Dean Acheson got himself into bad odor when he said that “Britain has lost an empire, but not yet found a role.” At the risk of incurring similar bad odor, I would say that Acheson’s dictum applies no less forcefully to the United States today. The liquidation of the Vietnam adventure provides an opportunity for reappraisal of the United States’ role in the world; but there is little evidence, so far, that the opportunity has been taken, and a lot of evidence that it is being botched. If the object is still, in Kissinger’s words, “to re-establish American leadership” in the world, the lesson of Vietnam has not been learned; for the one thing that is certain is that the world repudiates American leadership—or that of any other country, including Soviet Russia.

No one threatens a United States which looks after its own concerns; but a United States which throws its weight around and tries to make the world an “American world” is in for trouble, as Vietnam should have shown. Happily, if Ford and Kissinger do not realize this, the American people—far more concerned with the depression and unemployment, which were the price of Vietnam, than with the display of American power—seem to do so; and that at least provides a hope for the future.

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