A Debacle That Could Have Been Avoided

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Library of Congress
Nguyen Ai Quoc (before he took the name Ho Chi Minh) at the Congress of the French Socialist Party, Tours, December 29, 1920

On September 3 of this year, an alarming headline ran across six columns of the “World” section of The Times of London: “US Suspends Police Training After Big Rise in Green-on-Blue Attacks.” The dateline was Afghanistan and the peg was that forty-five coalition troops had been killed by Afghan soldiers and police already this year, compared with thirty-five for all of 2011. The number has since risen to fifty-one and joint US–Afghan patrols have been canceled.

I remembered American soldiers in Vietnam wishing that either the Vietcong or Hanoi’s regulars were on their side rather than the Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam (ARVN). They were notorious for knowing about upcoming ambushes and melting away just before they were sprung, or standing back on sentry duty to allow enemy soldiers to infiltrate American camps where they caused havoc before disappearing into the night. Already in 1954, early in the Eisenhower administration, Walter Robertson, the hard-line assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, admitted to C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times, “If only Ho Chi Minh were on our side we could do something about the situation. But unfortunately he is the enemy.”

From the early 1960s, American soldiers in Vietnam knew the truth about the situation in which over 58,000 of them were to die. Apart from a few who deserted or shot themselves badly enough to be invalided home, they had little choice. As Fredrik Logevall’s book Embers of War makes admirably clear, the choices were made by American presidents from Truman to Nixon who knew that Washington had determined, often for domestic American reasons, to back a corrupt and incompetent Vietnamese side, after having paid most of the bills for the French until their collapse in the mid-1950s. By that time, most Vietnamese despised the French.

In 1963, now no longer president, Dwight Eisenhower would write:

I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs, who did not agree that had an election been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than [the French- appointed ex-emperor] Chief of State Bao Dai.

Since it was Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who ensured that no free elections took place in Vietnam, they bear a heavy responsibility for the American deaths, and for the millions of Vietnamese who died in the American–Vietnamese war before it ended.

Fredrik Logevall teaches history at Cornell and his earlier book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam,1 showed him to be a considerable authority on Vietnam. Now the eight-hundred-plus pages of his Embers of War provide the most comprehensive account available of the French …

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  1. 1

    University of California Press, 1999; see my review in these pages, May 25, 2000.