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The War That Will Not End

He does not mention heavy bombing attacks in the South, although they were undoubtedly terrifying; the B-52s flew too high to be heard and the bombs exploded without the slightest advance warning. “Nothing the guerrillas had to endure compared with the stark terrorization of the B-52 bombardments,…an experience of undiluted psychological terror, into which we were plunged, day after day for years on end,” wrote Truong Nhu Tang, the National Liberation Front’s minister of justice (who has now become a critic of the Communist regime).10 Safer’s interpreter friend Hong tells him that “nothing can prepare you for [the B-52s]…. After the B-52 raids you go around and gather up the bits, the pieces of the bodies, and you try to bury them.” But terrible though the bombings were, Truong Nhu Tang says, owing to Soviet intelligence relayed from trawlers in the South China Sea, not a single important military or civilian front leader was killed by the bombing.

In his memoir About Face, Colonel David H. Hackworth, who was famous for being one of the most freewheeling and pugnacious infantry officers of the war, recalls watching while a North Vietnamese bunker was showered with 250-pound bombs. Soon afterward Hackworth found himself still pinned down by North Vietnamese fire.

It was a bolt from the sky. We were all being told—even the President was being told—that our combat power, unleashed on the enemy, would either blast him back to the Stone Age or make him give up…. The fortified positions were manned by hardcore mothers who didn’t give up even after their eardrums had burst from the concussion of our bombs and blood was pouring out of their noses…. All it did was make the enemy hate us even more, and become that much more determined.11

Mark Clodfelter, of the Air Force Academy, provides a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the bombing in The Limits of Air Power. On April 10, 1988, Clodfelter notes, Richard Nixon told NBC that if he had bombed and mined North Vietnam as heavily in 1969 as he had in 1972, “I think we would’ve ended the war in 1969 rather than in 1973.” This, says Clodfelter, is a widely held view in the Air Force, which in any event has always believed in strategic bombing.

Clodfelter compares LBJ’s bombing of the North between 1965 and 1968, called Rolling Thunder, with Nixon’s Linebacker I and II of mid and late 1972. The reason that Linebacker “worked”—that is to say it forced the North Vietnamese to make some concessions in Paris—Clodfelter says, was that Nixon had tacitly been given freedom to bomb by Moscow and Peking, with whom he was now dealing, and because he had only two aims: to leave Vietnam but not let Hanoi take over at once, and to convince President Nguyen Van Thieu that if Hanoi resumed fighting the United States would as well. In addition, since by 1972 Hanoi had invaded the South in division strength, with its armed units out in the open, American bombers could damage their enemies badly.

During the Johnson administration air force commanders and the Joint Chiefs conceived of Vietnam as a place suitable for conventional strategic bombing, while LBJ, terrified of bringing in the Chinese or enraging the Russians, and anxious not to lose congressional support for the Great Society, could never decide whether the bombing should be all-out. Within the White House, where at the famous Tuesday lunches LBJ and a few cronies chose the targets themselves, it was supposed, but not known, that bombing would stop the infiltration from the North—which in fact became extensive only after Tet 1968, when the Southern guerrillas, failing to inspire a “general uprising,” had been shattered by American and South Vietnamese attacks. Clodfelter says, “This perception [that bombing would ‘work’] was more a mood than a belief, resulting from frustration more than conviction.” Even after it was demonstrated to be useless, one Air Force general doggedly insisted that “the bombing of the North must have some influence in measuring the course of the war in the South against the costs in the North.”

The Joint Chiefs advised the President that wiping out the North’s petroleum supplies would require 416 aircraft sorties and cost forty-four dead civilians, and it would bring the enemy to the conference table. The Defense Intelligence Agency, however, pointed out that the North’s oil reserves were huge while only small quantities were required for its combat needs. The CIA also warned that bombing Haiphong would have little effect on the southern war where the daily supply needs for petroleum were only twelve tons, and that “amount would continue to move by one means or another.” A later analysis, code-named Jason, concluded that “North Vietnam…presents a difficult and unrewarding target system for air attack.” This shook Defense Secretary McNamara so badly, says Clodfelter, that he advised LBJ to “end the struggle through diplomatic rather than military force,” thus abandoning what had been called Option C, which was intended to demonstrate that “the U.S. was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied, and hurt the enemy badly.”12

Johnson, despite what was said of him at the time, feared that much larger civilian casualties would bring the Chinese and Russians into the war and cause international condemnation; and so he refused to adopt option C.

Clodfelter then draws conclusions: the CIA estimated that by 1967 147,000 tons of bombs caused 29,600 civilian casualties. He compares this favorably with the 147,000 tons dropped on Japan in the last six months of World War II, which killed 330,000 civilians. Out of a civilian population of 18 million North Vietnamese, Clodfelter estimates, 52,000 were killed by bombing; he might have noted that this estimate roughly approximates the number of Americans killed during the entire war.

Clodfelter writes that some Washington planners, who were not military men, were willing to cause horrendous suffering. Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton (the originator of the “good doctor” image), for instance, suggested destroying locks and dams, which would not drown people but would cause “wide-spread starvation unless food is provided, which we could offer to do ‘at the conference table.’ ” James C. Thomson remembered an assistant secretary of state’s vision of successful bombing: “It seems to me that our orchestration should be mainly violins, but with periodic touches of brass.”13

In any event, it was all useless. Clodfelter points out that even though Hanoi’s forces were indeed badly damaged by the Linebacker bombings, which apparently drove the North Vietnamese back to the Paris negotiations, the Americans began withdrawing their ground forces, and by the time the North Vietnamese attacked again in 1975, quickly smashing their way to Saigon, Nixon had left the White House in disgrace and could not keep his promise to retaliate. Clodfelter retreats into a Nixonian fantasy, however, when he implies that if it were not for the Watergate scandal, South Vietnam would have been impervious to the North. But Congress, much of the public, and much of the business community were sick of the war before Nixon got in trouble and it seems highly unrealistic to believe they would have been willing to support a permanent US commitment to bombing and fighting the North Vietnamese. Rusk was disappointed that violent pressure didn’t work, Colby that the accomplishments of the Phoenix program were subordinated to the military’s obsession with higher body counts, and DeForest that his “wiring diagrams” showing the inner workings of the enemy’s organization came too late to be of use. Safer thinks everyone lost, and quotes his traveling companion, Hung: “Think about it…after all that war, we haven’t been able to change you and you haven’t been able to change us.”


But of course much has changed. Hanoi won the war, and partly because of the war and the American embargo, but also because of its own ineptitude, it now governs one of the poorest countries in Asia, from which hundreds of thousands of its citizens have fled. Some Vietnamese, like Truong Nhu Thang, who helped found the NLF, and one of his cofounders, the remarkable woman doctor Duong Quyinh Hoa, who stayed in Saigon, where she spoke to Safer, feel betrayed by Hanoi—although their nationalist feelings remain strong. Although communism is everywhere on the defensive, the US continues its embargo of Vietnam—which may now end, as Washington and Hanoi negotiate on Cambodia—while Hanoi, like Peking, denounces the Eastern Europeans for betraying socialism.

Gabriel Kolko, Hanoi’s best-known scholar-admirer abroad, says in his voluminously documented and hagiographic Anatomy of a War that the Communist “Party’s genius was its ability to survive and adapt to the most incredible challenges.” This is so, as is his statement that the Party was “able to rally vast numbers…due to the corrosive impact of wars on the traditional order,” and to “absorb better-educated revolutionaries of bourgeois origin.14

But is it true that the Vietnamese Communists, “the Revolution” as Kolko apotheosizes them, provided a political, organizational, and technical response “valuable to revolutionary forces everywhere”? And is it still so, if it were ever true, that “the critical role of the individual” remains fundamental to Vietnamese communism? Finally, if as Kolko says “the effort to master one’s environment and world is integral to the nature and extent of rationality in modern life,” does Hanoi permit such an effort?

I suggest that the answer to all of the above is no. For his revealing book Tears Before Rain Larry Engelmann, professor of History at San Jose State, interviewed more than two hundred people, Americans and Vietnamese, about their experiences during the last days of the fall of Saigon in 1975. Some of the Vietnamese are “the victors,” and their uniform statements about the inevitability of their success, their lack of bitterness toward the United States and about the US responsibility to help rebuild Vietnam may be partially true but they sound rehearsed. The conversation between Morley Safer and Colonel Bui Tin, who accepted “Big Minh’s” surrender, contrasts with what the colonel apparently felt constrained to say to Engelmann.

Where Engelmann’s book becomes valuable is in the interviews with the Vietnamese, many of them boat people, who often at great peril have made their way to the United States. Most of them feel unhappy in their new country, often dream of returning to Vietnam, and feel guilty about having fled. One, who was raped on the journey, wishes she had never left. Another says that if she were still in Vietnam she would probably be married and her hair would not be white. But in America, nonetheless, she says, “nobody has the big fear…. I enjoy that too.” Another refugee was the son of a Catholic South Vietnamese colonel, who underwent nine years of “re-education” after the Communist victory. Because of his father’s past, one of the sons was not permitted to enter medical school although he had the highest score in the entrance examinations. “They looked at his background and simply threw his score out.”

In another collection of interviews with fourteen Vietnamese now living in the United States, the anthropologist James Freeman, who is also at San Jose State, says of his subjects, “Most of these people saw themselves as victimized and betrayed by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” The cost of their flight has been heavy: even if they appear successful in the United States, like Engelmann’s subjects, many of them feel lonely and unwelcome. They dream of harmonious and cooperative families, Freeman says, and a country where they could “feel at ease…. Such an environment exists neither in contemporary Communist Vietnam nor in America.”

What they were fleeing is the anxious, dreary life so familiar to those who have experience of the “people’s democracies,” which has little in common with what Gabriel Kolko saw during his six trips to North Vietnam. “This was the most terrible aspect of the Communist government,” an ex-school teacher tells Freeman. “We could not talk together, because every time they would ask, “What did you talk about? Was it against the government…. I could not trust anybody, even my wife or children, for inadvertently they might say something that could incriminate us.”

Particularly damaging to Vietnam, where the leaders remain committed to the kind of authoritarian rule found nowadays only in North Korea, Albania, and, ironically, in China, Hanoi’s archadversary, is the recent report of Amnesty International. Published in February 1990, while Amnesty was also preparing its recent indictment of human rights violations in China, this sixty-six-page document is based on the visit to Vietnam of an Amnesty team in May 1989. The team concentrated on traditional Amnesty concerns:

—The detention without trial of people associated with the Saigon regime. Thousands—Hanoi admits to 40,000—of these were detained without trial in 1975. Many were released only after years of harsh treatment. More than one hundred are still in jail.

—The detention without charge or trial of alleged opponents of the present government. These include Buddhist and Christian priests, writers, ethnic Chinese, students, lawyers, and those attempting to flee Vietnam without permission.

—What Amnesty calls “prisoners of conscience,” who are in prison without having had a fair trial.

—Torture and ill-treatment of people in police custody or detention.

—The use of the death penalty.

A prisoner of particular concern to Amnesty is Nguyen Chi Thien, “a writer and poet who has spent more than half his life in detention.” First arrested in Hanoi in 1958, he was repeatedly freed and rearrested until 1979 when he was detained for writing a collection of poems called Flowers from Hell.

Also detained are monks from the An Quang pagoda, charged with “working against the revolution” and similar crimes. As Amnesty points out, throughout the Sixties An Quang monks were in the forefront of demonstrations against the government in Saigon. I remember passing through a police cordon to visit the then abbot, Tich Tri Quang, who was strongly opposed to the war, and was later persecuted by the victors.

The case of the three Tran brothers, who were arrested in 1984, is a particularly telling one. Their father, Tran Van Tuyen, a famous human rights lawyer, was harassed by the Saigon government for defending political prisoners. He died in a Communist re-education camp in 1976. The Tran brothers were accused of various “anti-government activities,” including sending information to foreign human rights groups, collecting information about dead Americans and writing about re-education camps. They were treated harshly in prison, and two “were reported to have been held in total darkness before their trial.” One brother may have been released last year.

In an appeal similar to those it constantly makes to Peking, Amnesty calls for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience and the review of the cases of all political prisoners; it cautions the Communist regime against bringing criminal charges against them now, after their many years in prison. Amnesty argues that expressions of dissent, or attempts to leave Vietnam, should not be deemed “crimes against national security.” The practice of condemning prisoners in the newspapers before their trials take place should be stopped. Amnesty has many other concerns, but at least Vietnam, unlike China, permitted the organization to make an investigation, and Amnesty notes some improvement in the regime’s human rights record.

In April 1989, a well-known journalist, Nguyen Manh Tuan, whose writings are banned in several provinces but who has escaped from prison or “re-education,” told a foreign journalist,

The party always says that a human being is the most precious thing. But both law and human beings were tortured extremely cruelly.

As much as any other, the statement describes the Vietnam experience since World War II.

July 19, 1990


Heroin, Laos, & the CIA November 22, 1990

Endless War November 8, 1990

  1. 10

    Truong Nhu Tang, Journal of a Vietcong (Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 167.

  2. 11

    Colonel David H. Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior (Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 504–505.

  3. 12

    The Pentagon Papers (Beacon Press, 1971), vol. III, p. 601, quoted in Ellsberg, Papers on the War, p.90.

  4. 13

    James C. Thomson, “How Could Vietnam Happen,” p. 206.

  5. 14

    Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, The United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (Pantheon, 1985), p. 551.

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