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The Never-Ending War

Ex-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach said testily to retired General W.Y. Smith, who was entreating him to explain which of Hanoi’s policies had been about a neutral solution, “Why bother? The time has passed. Even if in the end we all agree on something, what difference will it make? It will make no difference. I have finished.” (This statement may have reflected two realities: that Hanoi disagreed with the National Liberation Front over offering “neutrality” as a solution for South Vietnam, and that neutrality probably would not have lasted long anyway.)

The historian and diplomat Luu Doan Huynh condemned the insistence of the visiting Americans that the US had no French-style imperialist designs on Vietnam. “But really, your bullets are the killers of our people. We see that this is America’s gift to Vietnam—allowing the French to kill our people…. So how can we conclude that you are not our enemy?… But please try to understand me when I say: Blood speaks with a terrible voice!

Chester Cooper, a CIA veteran whose career reaches back to the 1954 Geneva negotiations on Indochina and the author of an intelligent book, The Lost Crusade: America in Vietnam, written in 1970, provided an antidote to Mr. McNamara’s optimism at the meetings with the North Vietnamese. Following a Vietnamese charge that US peace initiatives were covers for escalating the war, he burst out, “I am beginning to think that not only did we not understand each other. I’m beginning to think that we did not want to understand each other.” The retired journalist and diplomat Luu Van Loi responded: “…As for our reaction—the psychology of our reaction—all of these points, all of these proposals, all of these initiatives, all of these intermediaries—all of these efforts foundered, and could not be taken with total seriousness, because of the bombing.”

Most blunt and remorseless of all, as he has always shown himself, was General Giap, the victor at Dienbienphu and over the Americans in many battles. He rejected Mr. McNamara’s use of the word “tragedy.” “Maybe it was a tragedy for you…. You wanted to replace the French; you failed; men died; so yes, it was tragic, because they died for a bad cause. But for us, the war was a noble sacrifice…. So I agree that you missed opportunities and that you need to draw lessons. But us? I think we would do nothing different, under the circumstances.” I am reminded of Giap’s encounter after the war with the CBS reporter Morley Safer in Hanoi. When Mr. Safer told the general that a crippled North Vietnamese veteran admitted to him that, in view of the suffering it caused, the war may not have been worth it, Giap made “a movement of the back of [his] hand across [his] face…as one would discourage a pesky gnat.”7

At various points in McNamara’s report the Vietnamese say how little they knew about their adversaries, even the French (hence Mr. McNamara’s regrets that they had not been readers of The New York Times). They admit that at Geneva in 1954 they let the Chinese and the Russians talk them into a two-year pause before elections to unify the entire country—which the US and Diem ensured never took place. They admit, too, that they were exhausted by the war with the French between 1947 and 1954, and needed peace.


What they do not speak about is the National Liberation Front. It is a mark of the Hanoi-centered viewpoint of McNamara’s book that there is only one veteran of the National Liberation Front on the Vietnamese side—Nguyen Thi Binh, the NLF’s best- known international figure throughout most of the war. She is mentioned in the index but says not a word in any of the book’s many verbatim exchanges, and no one refers to her. In all their talk of history, which they insist the Americans fail to understand, the Vietnamese themselves pass over the years of disagreement between the Lao Dong, the Vietnamese Communist Party, based in Hanoi, and the Southerners who were left largely on their own from 1954, after Geneva. The exhausted Communist army withdrew to the North and the Southerners were given instructions to oppose Diem by political means and in a united front with non-Communists. It was this front that Diem began destroying with American encouragement.

This is the background to Robert Brigham’s admirable Guerrilla Diplomacy. Professor Brigham is also a joint author of Argument Without End, and while that book sketches the differences in the interests of Northerners and Southerners in the 1950s, it omits, unlike Brigham’s own book, their essentially irreconcilable quarrels. These were always the same: before 1959, they disagreed on how Diem and the Americans should be resisted and, in the last years of the war, on whether there should be negotiations. Those arguments help to explain the confusion about “the missed signals,” or the signals from Hanoi which were changed after the first transmissions. In fact Professor Brigham’s sources told him that Hanoi sent signals to the US about possible negotiations which the NLF opposed. The NLF, as Mr. Brigham shows, sometimes sent its own conflicting signals.

The facts of the struggle between Ngo Dinh Diem and the dissident South Vietnamese he was determined to exterminate in the years after the North-South division of the country in 1954 were well known to the Americans supporting Diem; they had, after all, brought him to Saigon from his American exile in 1954 to head Washington’s creation: the South Vietnamese government. (Diem, a genuine nationalist, had earlier turned down an offer of high office from Ho Chi Minh.) In the 1960s Mr. McNamara could have read this history in the book by Professors George McT. Kahin of Cornell and John Lewis of Stanford,8 as well as in the work of others, and listened to some of the more skeptical officials in the State Department and the National Security Council. Instead Mr. McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson convinced themselves that they were defending the South—an American-created entity—against an invasion ordered by Hanoi. Scholars like George Kahin were dismissed as antiwar academics.

What even those antiwar academics did not understand fully, however, was the extent of the splits inside the enemy camp. In 1986 Truong Nhu Tang, one of the non-Communist founders of the NLF who also represented it abroad before defecting to the United States, published Journal of a Vietcong. In it he made a fundamental point: “…The actual relationship between North Vietnam’s government and the Southern revolution was both more complex and more direct than Westerners like to believe—more complex than Johnson and the now-departed Richard Nixon thought, and more direct than many antiwar figures believed.”9

Complex is also the word used by Professor Brigham to describe the relationship between the NLF and the Lao Dong. He is one of the first Western specialists to use documents available only in Hanoi and to interview veterans of the Party and of the NLF without the intention of scoring political points. His book is a highly professional work of history, well written, and in my opinion reliable. It will disturb the former US officials for whom the NLF was simply a tool of the North. It will also upset those of us who opposed the war and visited the offices of the NLF and North Vietnam abroad where we were assured that the NLF was virtually independent. Its alliance with Hanoi, we were then told, was a purely comradely one, created because the Americans and their puppet government in Saigon were too much for the Southerners to handle on their own.

Professor Brigham shows that the Front did indeed have its roots in the South, but that the Lao Dong, the Communist Party, which was controlled by Hanoi, was always central in its ultimate leadership. Both the Chinese and the Russians, keen to avoid a dramatic confrontation with the Americans, had urged a political struggle. But by 1959, after Diem’s “unprecedented purges,” as Brigham puts it, the Hanoi Politburo resolved that “the time has come to push the armed struggle against the enemy.” In 1960, at a meeting in the southern jungle near Cambodia, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam was proclaimed. By 1961, harried by Diem’s counterinsurgency, which was mistakenly modeled on British strategy in Malaya, the NLF was assassinating local officials and harassing Diem’s soldiers. During the time of most of this violence in the countryside much of the rural population, apart from Catholics and members of Southern sects such as the Cao Dai, tended to side with the NLF. This was widely accepted by journalists in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and was certainly my experience in 1965 and 1967.

While this was going on in 1961, American officials such as John K. Galbraith, Chester Bowles, and Averell Harriman urged Kennedy to press Diem to reform rather than make war; but Kennedy, McNamara says, believed the US was in danger from international Communist ambitions and was in any event fascinated by counter-insurgency, although he said of the Vietnamese, “It’s their war.” Unaware of Kennedy’s willingness to go it alone in Vietnam, both the NLF and Hanoi hoped that an international campaign calling for a “neutral” solution would bring pressure to bear on the US. But once the Americans were fully involved, it was the NLF that opposed any negotiations until the US had pulled out its troops; the Lao Dong, fearing the destruction of the North’s economy, considered negotiations if the bombing stopped.

Professor Brigham concludes that the Lao Dong’s Political Bureau had fashioned the Party’s negotiating position and the NLF had no ultimate independent course of action. But the NLF’s envoys abroad, especially in France, continued to press for US withdrawal to be succeeded by negotiations. A Lao Dong veteran told Professor Brigham, “We had to watch the NLF carefully in those days. We were not sure what they would say on one day that we had to undo the next.”

Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese war veteran and the author of one of Vietnam’s most famous novels, The Sorrow of War,10 says that the Northern soldiers were warned to give no credit at all to the NLF’s contribution to the final victory. As soon as the war ended, the NLF was shoved aside. “I guess we were naive,” said one non-Communist member of the NLF. “We always believed there would be a place for us in a new government of reconciliation.” Brigham suggests, following the analysis of William Duiker, that the Northerners imposed their regime on the South because so many Southerners had been killed and there were very few able officials to start reconstruction. I am more convinced by another of Mr. Duiker’s explanations: that the North feared that NLF veterans might create “obstacles.” This is also the view of the North Vietnamese who appear in Henry Kamm’s excellent book Dragon Ascending, discussed below.

  1. 7

    Quoted from Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam (Random House, 1990); see also my review, “The War that Will Not End,” in The New York Review, August 16, 1990, p. 32.

  2. 8

    Kahin and Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, especially Chapter 5, “The Origins of the Civil War.” A much fuller account can be found in Professor Kahin’s Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (Knopf, 1986), Chapters 3 and 4.

  3. 9

    Journal of a Vietcong (London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), p. 254.

  4. 10

    Pantheon, 1995; see my review, “No Trumpets, No Drums,” The New York Review, September 21, 1995. Wayne Karlin, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, and coauthor of The Other Side of Heaven: Post-war fiction by Vietnamese and American Authors, has provided a highly useful survey of contemporary Vietnamese fiction in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 23, 2000. Mr. Karlin’s main point is that much of the most incisive writing about the war is by nondissident writers, who are often as frank as the dissidents who are comparatively well-known in the West.

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