The American War
"Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations
to explain why."
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for Presidents
Kennedy and Johnson
I want to talk a bit about the war here, but don't want the whole narrative
focused on it, so I decided to put everything I have to say in this separate
page. If you don't want to read about it, just move on.
Fair warning: This page is not easy reading, or all that
pleasant either. I debated with myself long and hard about whether I even wanted
to include it. The war is long over, and it's high time to move on. Very little
of my visit had anything other than a remote connection to the war, and most of
the things that ultimately moved me were completely unrelated to it. Most of the
Vietnamese people give it very little thought at all. In the end though, I
believe I have learned a few things of some value through a lot of study and
thought, and I feel an obligation to try to pass on a tiny bit of what I learned
in the hopes that it may have a small effect the next time such an event comes
up. It does not matter if you agree or disagree with me. What is important is
that average people on the street think about what our leaders are saying and
doing, and make an effort to keep them on the right track. If you're "right
track" is different from mine, that's good. That's how democracy works.
In a nutshell, my opinion is that the war was 100% wrong from beginning to
end. The U.S. had no moral, legal, or ethical right to be involved in Southeast
Asia in the first place. Even if you are willing to concede that communism had
to be stopped, and stopping it was worth any price; the execution of the war was
done so poorly that there was never the slightest chance of winning. Not only
that, the decision makers that got us into the war were warned in advance that
they wouldn't win by people who had been there. I've studied it long enough to
be convinced I understand what drove otherwise intelligent and capable men to
make completely irrational decisions.
I don't want this to be taken as a blanket criticism of American, Australian
and Korean Servicemen and women that served here. Most of them had no real
choice in the matter, no idea what the war was about, and were systematically
lied to for the entire process by the American Government, and the U.S.
I'd like to explain my conclusions and the lessons I believe I've learned
from a study of history, because it is important to understand history's
mistakes if you don't want to repeat them.
Effects of The War
Here is the net result of the war:
- The American part of the war lasted for 20 years (1955-75), with
American, Australian and Korean troops fighting in large numbers for
almost 10 years (1965-75 more or less). For 8 years before that, America's
biggest recipient of foreign aid was France, and France was using all of
that aid to try to regain control of the region. By 1954, the U.S. was
supplying 80% of the cost of the French effort in Vietnam. That means that
either through financing or direct fighting, America was involved in
trying to control the region for almost 30 years. Keep in mind that
America's combat effort in World War II lasted less than 5 years, and all
of WWII lasted less than 10 years.
- 3-5 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were killed, and 4
million injured (exact numbers are unknown and somewhat controversial.
The smallest estimate I've seen is 2 million). That's a death rate of more
than 550 people every day for the entire 20 years of direct
involvement, and over 400 of those killed every day were non-combatants.
Over 70% of those killed were civilians who were not fighting, and had no
idea what the war was being fought over. Unfortunately, most Americans
also had no idea about what it was being fought over either. 60,000
Americans were killed and another 300,000 were wounded, not counting
people that died later from war related diseases or injuries. This means
there were 50-80 people killed for every American killed. At the time, the
total population of Vietnam was 30 million, so that means over 10% of the
population was killed and another 13% were injured. That would be
equivalent to the U.S. going to war today, and having the entire
population of California killed.
- The U.S. dropped 8 million tons of bombs over Vietnam, most of
which went on South Vietnam. Keep in mind that this was the
area we were theoretically trying to "protect" from communism.
To put that in perspective, the U.S. dropped a total of 2 million tons of
bombs in all of World War II. The U.S. dropped enough bombs on Laos to
make it the most bombed country in history (tons of bombs per thousand
people), and that was a country that wasn't even supposed to be in
involved. A fair number of Laotians are still killed by unexploded
ordnance from the war today, 30 years later.
- The U.S. sprayed 75 million Liters (20 million Gallons) of toxic
defoliants over crops, farms, forests and villages in South Vietnam
(remember, these were the guys we were "protecting"). Most of
this, including the infamous Agent Orange create Dioxin as a byproduct.
Dioxin is one of the most toxic chemical known to mankind. Five parts per
trillion are known to kill laboratory animals. Millions of acres of land
haven't fully recovered even today.
- America spent over $350 billion on the war effort. That's in
1960's dollars, so if we were to spend an equivalent amount of money today
it would be 1.9 trillion. Since the population at the time
was 30 million, that's $12,000 per person for the entire population
of the country, or $65,000 in today's dollars. That is more than enough
money to buy a new house for every person in the country (including
children). It's more than enough money to have built a new house and given
a farm tractor to every family in the country. It's more than enough money
to have handed every Vietnamese adult in the country a pile of cash
equivalent to ten or twenty years income. It's more than enough to have
taught every political leader above the level of Dog Catcher to speak
English, and sent them to Stanford for a Political Science degree, and the
war lasted plenty of time for that to have happened. It seems to me with
that kind of money and time, there has to be a more efficient way to fight
communism than terror bombing, forced relocation of the population,
assassination, covert operations and destruction of the environment.
- Over 6.5 million Americans were mobilized for the war, with over 3.5
million actually serving in Vietnam. Total troop strength reached 543,000,
and they used the output of 22,000 factories.
- The American Government and Military ran the longest continuous series of
lies and misinformation in American History for the war. Every single
journalist that I've ever read who wrote on Vietnam commented on it. It
was called the "Credibility Gap". The active journalists would
go out and cover some kind of battle or other event, watch it happen, and
then talk to the participants. Then they would go back to Saigon and hear
the military's version of it. The official version would be so different
from reality, that it would appear to be drug induced. This happened over
and over again. The military lied about nearly everything, from day one
right through to the end, and the American Government swallowed most of
the lies whole. A well known New York Times journalist called the American
press office in Saigon "The Lying Machine", because of it's
ability to take a set of negative reports, and put a positive spin on it.
The government was even worse, with nearly every member of every
administration from day one telling both the public and the congress lies,
half truths or nothing at all. Unfortunately, a lot of the media also
swallowed that too, so most Americans had no way to know how far out of
kilter things were. This established a pattern of lies and deceit that I
believe still permeates the military and government today, and in fact
it's worse in many ways. If you remember the Gulf War, you can see that
the press was given very little freedom in reporting what was happening
there. The military didn't like the fact that in Vietnam some of
the press exposed their lies and deceits, and since then they have made it
a point to clamp down hard on the press during wartime to make their
deceptions less likely to be pointed out.
- During the entire war, the American government made no effort whatsoever
to educate either the American public or the soldiers going to fight about
what Vietnam was all about, and why people should go there to fight and
die. I was in American public schools from before the first combat troops
landed until after the last ones left, and I don't recall a single hour of
class work that had anything whatsoever to teach about Vietnam. The only
people that got any education were students that had forward thinking
teachers that were willing to risk their careers to talk about it.
- The massive influx of American money and goods, along with the American
policy of intensive urbanization destroyed the Vietnamese economy. When
the Americans finally gave up and pulled out it was impossible to sustain
the economy because the infrastructure had been damaged by years of
warfare and the black market that sprung up from sloppy control of
American war materiel.
- America treated it's soldiers just about as badly as it treated the
communists. Veteran's hospitals were continually under-funded and
understaffed, the public treated returning veterans as pariahs, the
military stonewalled on every conceivable issue that it could from Agent
Orange to PTSD, and in general men and women that answered the call to
duty and served in horrific conditions were never given much of any
So how did America come to be involved in such a boondoggle? It takes a
while to get to the bottom of that question, but it is perfectly answerable and
I'll attempt to do so. In my opinion, the reasons basically boil down to this:
- American doesn't really have any moral principles when it comes to
foreign policy, other than trying to do what's best for America. This was
readily demonstrated long before Vietnam in the Philippines, China, Cuba
and lots of other places in the world. The French were in control of
Vietnam for the last hundred years before World War II, and they were
absolutely nasty and brutal colonial masters. After World War II, the
French wanted their colony back, and the U.S. spent 8 years trying to help
them before the American part of the war.
- The decision makers involved in all the steps leading up to the war were
shaped by their generation. World War II was the biggest mass of
destruction in human history, killing over 50 million people. It followed
right on the heals of World War I, which had fewer people involved but was
an even bigger bloodbath for those that were. The European part of World
War II was almost entirely driven by a system of political thought called
Fascism, along with a bunch of exceedingly stupid decisions made by the
allies at the end of World War I. Fascism was correctly seen as a cancer
of political thought. Most of the decision makers involved with Vietnam
lived through World War II, and saw Communism as just another form of
political cancer like Fascism, and thought it had to be stopped before it
got out of hand.
- Americans in the 50s were obsessed with Communism. You can probably
remember reading about the famous McCarthy "trials" and
blacklists of the 50s. One little known result of the entire Communist
purge fiasco of the time is that nearly every person in government service
that actually knew anything about Asia was branded a communist and drummed
out of the service. The policy makers ended up making lots of decisions
with no advisors around them that knew squat about Asia or communism.
- Every American president from Truman through Nixon was presented with a
set of unappealing choices in the region. Every president made a set of
choices from among the list of what was politically available to them.
Nearly every one of those choices limited the choices that could be made
at the next decision point, and also limited the choices that the next
president could make. Lyndon Johnson tends to get most of the blame for
the escalation of the war. He deserves his fair share of it, but I think
Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy should get their fair share of the blame,
which is considerable.
- American policy makers had no idea to what lengths people would go
to win. The basic strategy for all anti-communist wars of the time was
that if you killed enough communists, they would eventually either give up
or run out of supporters. That basic premise is what makes the whole
conduct of the war seem so strange. The U.S. would fight a huge battle to
take over hill 478, and then pull out the next day. This seems completely
strange, until you understand that the U.S. was just trying to kill people
in big numbers. Hill 478 wasn't important, but engaging the enemy and
killing a bunch of them was. The problem with this idea is that the
Vietnamese leaders were willing to pay a price that the Americans could
not believe they would be willing to pay. Most of the Vietnamese didn't
know how high the price was because the communists lied about it even more
than the Americans did, but they kept coming back for more.
Let me expand on each of those points.
I've made the assertion that America doesn't really have any moral principles
in foreign policy, and I think I can stand by that. Let me give just a few
examples. Some will demonstrate that things aren't any different now than
they've ever been.
- Most people don't know, but America's first war in the Pacific was fought
in the Philippines at the turn of the century. The U.S. fought a short war
with Spain to "liberate" Cuba and the Philippines. The U.S.
basically kicked Spain's ass, and at the end of the war "bought"
the Philippines. Various groups in the Philippines had been trying for
Independence from Spain for some time, and this seemed like a good time to
try it again. Since this is exactly what America did back in 1776 that
we're so proud of, you would think the American government would support
them. WRONG. The U.S. had no intention of granting them
independence, and sent troops there to fight a guerilla war that went on
for years and killed a whole bunch of people on both sides. They
ultimately took control of the Philippines and essentially turned it into
an American Colony. To be fair, I should point out that they were better
colonial masters than the Spanish had been before them, and ultimately did
grant independence, but they did NOT support the Philippines right to
independence unless it was under American terms.
- During the 20s and 30s, the U.S. Navy had river boats patrolling all over
the place in China. They were there ostensibly there to protect American
interests, which translates to American Money, but they also constantly
meddled in the politics of the region. Now if this doesn't sound so bad to
you, try to picture having the Chinese Navy patrolling the Mississippi
River to protect Chinese businesses in the region. How does it sound now?
- For about 100 years before World War II, the French controlled Vietnam
and they were absolutely nasty colonial masters. The did everything from
uprooting entire villages and working them to death in fields or
construction projects, to eliminating education (even reading and writing)
for nearly all Vietnamese, to hunting down and killing anyone that opposed
them. They frequently wiped out entire villages in reprisal for a minor
demonstration by a few.
- One good example is French conscription of 50,000 soldiers and
another 49,000 workers to fight in World War I. They also took
336,000 tons of food during a period of natural disaster induced
famine. To add insult to injury, the Vietnamese people were also
forced to loan the French a bunch of money to finance the war. That
meant that these people were essentially paying the costs to send
some of them to go fight and die, just to determine which particular
European country would get their chance to take advantage of them.
The French budgeted for Vietnam to produce 3.5 million tons of food,
and over 1 million soldiers for World War II. That's ten times what
they expected for WWI, and again, it's a bit tough to see what was
in it for the Vietnamese.
- Construction of the Hanoi-Yunnan Phu railway uprooted 100,000
people from their homes, and ultimately cost 25,000 lives. You can
bet they weren't French lives, either. This was not an isolated
incident, but business as usual for the French. The term used was
"requisitioning", and on a regular basis the French would
take entire communities from their homes to build construction
projects or plantations for French companies. These people were
basically worked to death under appalling conditions, as noted by
several French authors that witnessed it.
- Another good example is General Vo Nguyen Giap, who would later
become the senior commander of the North Vietnamese Army and one of
the few people besides Ho Chi Minh who's name might be recognized by
the average foreigner. In 1938 the French banned the communist
party, of which Giap was a member and prominent organizer. He
managed to escape to China, but his wife and sister-in-law were
captured. His sister-in-law was guillotined, and his wife was
sentenced to life in prison, where she died 3 years later. This is
for belonging to the communist party.
- The French set up monopolies on opium, salt and alcohol, and then
actively encouraged their use. Salt was commonly handled that way by
both the British and the French because it's required for survival,
and difficult to make in secret. Opium and alcohol were correctly
assessed to be things that would make a more docile population. When
active encouragement wasn't enough, the French made an alcohol
consumption requirement. Every village had to consume a certain
amount of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. No, I am not making
- Despite these excesses, France's management of their colonies and
protectorates was so bad that they weren't even profitable.
Privately held companies like Michelin and the French Land Bank were
making money hand over fist, but the cost of maintaining the empire
and building the infrastructure necessary to exploit it was big
enough that the average taxpayer was subsidizing the whole effort.
So the maintenance of empires in Asia and Africa was not only
immoral, but it wasn't even practical. It was just ego run amok on a
national scale, and one mechanism for the French power elite to take
money from average French citizens and give it to the rich and
- These very few examples are simply to show what kind of people our
"friends" were. Note that the British, Germans, Dutch,
Portuguese, Belgians, Germans and Americans all had colonies
throughout Asia, The Pacific and Africa. All of them were just as
bad as the French, and most of them weren't profitable either.
- When Harry Truman agreed to help the French try to take over
Vietnam after WWII, he knew about their history. He
explicitly said in a memo that the French had been in charge in
Vietnam for 100 years and the Vietnamese were worse off than before
the French came. Even knowing that, he agreed to help the French
take control again, in the vague hope that they would liberalize
their control somewhat.
- During the American War in Vietnam, the CIA and various other agencies of
the armed forces and the federal government ran HUGE and completely
illegal war operations in Laos and Cambodia. They started having trouble
funding the whole thing, since it was illegal and supposedly invisible so
they started running drugs in cargo planes to generate money. The amounts
of drugs that they ran is absolutely staggering, yet not a single person
was ever convicted of any drug related charges, and in fact not a single
person was ever even fired from their jobs because of it.
- In the 80s, the Reagan administration, through use of the CIA and various
branches of the military, used American taxpayer money to sell arms to
America's sworn enemies in the Middle East, and used the money to topple a
democratically elected government in Nicaragua. Of course, while they were
at it they generated some extra cash by running drugs as usual. All of the
facts of this case ultimately came to light, and for this particular
transgression he didn't even get his hand slapped. In fact, his VP George
Bush got elected President, and Reagan got to become Elder Statesman of
the Republican Party where he's still revered today.
- For most of the 1980s, Iraq and Iran had a long and bloody war that
killed hundreds of thousands. The U.S. and the French politely helped out
Iraq by selling Saddam Hussein lots of arms, apparently under the
assumption that anyone that was killing Iranians couldn't be all bad, or
possibly that anything that kept these two troublesome countries busy was
a good thing. When Hussein turned around and took over Kuwait, he
went from being our poster boy to public enemy number one. The U.S. went
to war and killed 100,000 Iraqi farm boys to kick him out and restore a hereditary
monarchy to the throne of Kuwait. Despite what anybody says, I don't
believe anyone in America would care one whit about who's in control of
Kuwait, except that Kuwait is in a strategic spot that could control the
oil supply that America consumes at more than double the rate of the
anyone else in the world. The Gulf War was about oil, and nothing else,
and all protestations to the contrary don't really take into account
anything else that's happened in the area in the last hundred years.
- In the former Yugoslavia, one bunch of people that have hated another
bunch of people for hundreds of years went on a killing rampage killing a
few hundred thousand of them. The U.S. and NATO tried to calm things down
by instituting an arms embargo that effectively disarmed all of the
Muslims in the area, without doing squat to disarm the predominantly
Christian Serbs. That naturally did exactly nothing to slow down the
killing, so the U.S. ultimately went to war over that one. Eventually, the
killing was slowed down a bit (it still goes on today but at a reduced
level), after the Serbs had accomplished all that they set out to
accomplish anyway. During the same period of time, something very similar
happened in Africa, except the number of dead were counted in the
millions. The U.S. did exactly nothing. I'm not saying that either set of
actions is right or wrong. However, it seems to me that if you have one
policy for White Europeans, and an entirely different policy for Black
Africans or Asians, you aren't being all that principled or consistent.
These are just a few examples, but I think you can get my drift. America
likes to talk the talk, but when it comes right down to it, we don't like to
walk the walk.
To add insult to injury, the definition of what's "best for
America" frequently comes down to what's best for the political aspirations
of the president. A lot of presidents decisions are frequently based on what's
happening with the upcoming election, and most presidents have a big enough ego
to justify nearly any action by saying it's more important for them to be in
charge and do what's right, than to allow their political enemies to be in
charge. Presidents will go to nearly any length to stay in power, and it's
fairly easy to see how a lot of earth-shattering decisions are made purely on
the basis of American electoral politics.
The one part of the war motivation that makes complete sense is the thinking
that Communism was something that had to be stopped. Americans went crazy over
anti-communism in the 50s, and most of the results were very bad. However, one
thing that you can't argue with is the fact that communism sucks as a form of
government, and from all outward signs it was every bit as bad as Fascism.
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union promptly started swallowing up
small countries in Eastern Europe at an alarming rate, and being swallowed up by
the Soviet Union was a horrific experience for those countries. Russia was doing
exactly what Nazi Germany had done before the war. At about the same time a
different bunch of communists took control of China. The communists seemed to be
swallowing up the globe at an alarming rate. Within a period of 15 years, an
area more than four times the size of the U.S. (Russia alone is double the size
of the U.S.), went over to communism. This included the first and third most
populous countries in the world (China, India, Russia are the top 3). The size
of the communist takeover was staggering, particularly since it seemed to be
repeating what happened with Fascism, and Communism openly said one of it's
principle aims was to make the entire world communist. Keep in mind, that
Germany is about the size of Wisconsin, and it ultimately took the deaths of
well over 20 million people to stop them.
The communists also proved to be every bit as mean, nasty and domineering as
the Fascists were. Stalin has managed to escape being branded as one of
history's worst villains only because he happened to live at the same time as
Hitler. Stalin was directly responsible for millions of deaths. The Russian
government of the World War II era was nearly indistinguishable from the Nazis.
The rhetoric that they used to justify their actions was entirely different, and
they picked entirely different groups of people to kill in large numbers, but if
you step back and look at what really went on, one had lots of reasons to become
alarmed. The same thing applied to the Chinese communists, and communism was
catching on at an alarming rate in lots of other places. Belligerence and open
hostility were in plentiful supply. During the Kennedy administration alone, we
came within inches of a shooting war with a nuclear armed adversary at least
twice. In addition to this, nuclear weapons had now been introduced to the
world, and the communists had them. War doctrine in the 50s included the use of
nuclear weapons, and in fact when president Kennedy appeared on the scene he
found that most of Eisenhower's war plans included the use of nuclear weapons in
Unfortunately, Americans wigged out completely over communism and started
looking under every rock for a communist. They went from a period of complete
indifference and isolationism before WWII, to a period where everyone that
didn't look and think the way they thought one should look and think was branded
a communist and a threat. They weren't worried just about external communists,
but seemed to think communists could take over here as well. This hysteria was
so widespread, that the very best way to win an election in the 50s was to be
more anti-communist than your opponent. McCarthy was the worst example of
political opportunism, but a lot of the congress owed their position to a rabid
stance on anti-communism.
This fear of communism was one of the most misguided thought processes in
American history, because it ignores one very basic but essential fact. The only
thing about the western democracies that really separates us from the communists
and other political systems of the world is our tolerance. The thing that makes
us strongest is the thing that appears to make us weakest. The fact that we
allow communists and other supposed enemies to live, work and put forth their
opinions makes America stronger, not weaker. The attempts to stamp out other
ways of thinking are in essence completely un-American. So the people that were
zealously guarding the "American Way Of Life", were actually in effect
tearing that way of life down because they don't understand the key
components of that way of life.
This is the most important lesson I have to convey in this little page,
because the same thing happens as we speak. Any time you hear extreme rhetoric
from either the right or the left, remember this lesson. Any time you hear a
right wing Republican talking about "Family Values" or proposing
"anti-flag burning" amendments; or any time you hear a left wing
Democrat branding all republicans as "Nazis" or "Puppets of Big
Business", keep this in mind. In most cases, anyone that takes an extreme
position is almost certainly wrong. The world requires balance, and the only way
to achieve balance is to let lots of different people with lots of different
ways of thinking have their say. Out of the dialog, you generally get some kind
of balance. Let anyone shut up some of the people, and things start down the
path to intolerance, and that path always has a bad ending. Democracy is not
easy. It takes calm and rational people, it takes tolerance, and it requires all
of us to understand other people's point of view and learn something from it.
The Slippery Slope
A slippery slope is something that once you step on it you start sliding
down, and the farther you slide, the faster you're going and the harder it is to
get off, and the worse the consequences of getting off. The only way to get out
of a slippery slope without injury is to not get on it in the first place, or
once on it get off as soon as possible. This war was a classic example of a
At the end of WWII, America was obsessed with rebuilding Europe and the other
areas that were destroyed by the war, as well as fighting communism. The
rebuilding was key, because the leaders of the time had finally learned a very
hard lesson. At the end of World War I, the allies forced Germany to sign the
Treaty of Versailles. This treaty made Germany accept all of the blame
for the war, and to take on a staggering debt to pay reparations to the U.S. and
the rest of Europe. This seems hard to believe, since just about all historians
agree that WWI was without question the fault of everyone involved. Whether the
treaty was right or wrong though, the reparations requirements for a country
that was a big pile of rubble created a lot of resentment. Imagine your whole
country being nearly destroyed, a very sizable percentage of your population
being dead, and being told you would be paying a large percentage of your meager
income for the next 50 years to compensate the people that just beat you for
their trouble. This treaty created the climate that allowed hate mongers like
Hitler and Mussolini to take power, and could be considered one of the most
compelling causes of WWII.
At the end of WWII, the allies finally understood that and came to the
conclusion that the way to make Germany and Japan less of a threat was to
rebuild them and turn them into trusted allies. In Europe, the biggest part of
this was called the Marshall Plan, which called for the allies, and particularly
the U.S. which got by relatively light in the war, to spend a huge amount of
money rebuilding the destroyed areas. Note that I said relatively light
in the war. We still lost half a million men in the war (ten times what we lost
in Vietnam), and that was considered light. Ironically, it turns out that the
best way to get a lot of help from the U.S. is to be beaten by them in a war.
The U.S. is a very gracious winner, but an extremely sore loser.
During the war, the Vietnamese were one of the very few groups anywhere in
the Pacific that put up any real resistance against the Japanese. The Japanese
whipped the French in Vietnam without breaking a sweat. Early in the war, they
took control of the country easily, but with the collaboration of the Vichy
French left the French in charge of the administration. Just before the end of
the war, the Japanese saw the writing on the wall, jailed or killed all of the
French administrators they could find, and declared Vietnam independent. During
all this time, the Vietnamese Communist Party under the leadership of Ho Chi
Minh built up a very popular and well organized group throughout Vietnam called
the Viet Minh. They worked with the OSS (precursor to the CIA) to fight the
Japanese in the mountains of Southern China, and also rescued downed American
airmen in the region. At the end of the war, the Viet Minh quickly took over the
north, and declared independence using some verbiage borrowed from the American
Declaration of Independence.
The French didn't think Vietnamese independence was such a good idea. They
didn't like it partly because it was obviously going to be communist because the
communists were the only ones that had any real political organization or
popular support, and partly because they wanted their colony back. They still
thought that they owned all the "French" properties in the country,
despite the fact that most had actually been built by Vietnamese people.
So, the French went to war to try to take the country back, and this is the
first place where the slippery slope really started for the Americans. The
French wanted to take their colony back as a "Free State Within The French
Union", whatever that means. At the time, the French were spinning their
actions as "trying to teach the Vietnamese how to govern themselves",
which I read "teach them how to not be communists". They managed to
convince Harry Truman that it was important for them to take control to slow
down communism's spread. Most leaders of the time put a lot of stock in
Eisenhower's "Domino Theory", which said that if Vietnam fell, then
Laos and Cambodia would be next, followed by Thailand and Burma, and on to the
rest of the region. Truman agreed and pushed through an aid package that was
used to finance the French military effort. Once that was done and the French
were committed to trying to take the place back, the U.S. kept increasing aid
until it covered over 80% of the French effort's costs, and a very sizable
percentage of the weapons being delivered to the French troops were directly
from the U.S. During this period, France was America's single biggest recipient
of foreign aid, and it was all being used in Vietnam.
In 1954, after eight years of fighting, the Viet Minh soundly whipped the
French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, basically by doing several things that
the French considered to be "impossible", such as moving heavy
artillery into mountainous regions using bicycles, farm animals and muscle
power. The French quickly collapsed, and the Viet Minh took effective control of
the North and a sizable portion of the south. A peace conference in Geneva split
the country at the 17th parallel, and that parallel was established as a
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The north was officially named North Vietnam, under
the temporary control of the communists. The south was officially named South
Vietnam, and was to remain under the control of the French until 1956 when free
elections would reunite the country under one popularly elected government. The
Viet Minh more or less abided by the Geneva agreement, and in fact
voluntarily gave up part of the country that they already controlled to make a
framework for the elections. The Viet Minh ruled in the north of Vietnam, while
the French maintained a puppet regime in the south, under Bao Dai, who was the
last of the hereditary kings of Vietnam.
In South Vietnam, the Americans pressured Bao Dai, to abdicate and appoint
Ngo Dien Diem as Prime Minister on his way out, and while they were at it
crafted a treaty that allowed the French to bug out of their responsibility for
maintaining order in the south and assuring free elections in 1956. Diem was an
odd choice at best. He was a Catholic coming to rule a predominantly Buddhist
country where religious tensions were already running high. He had been out of
the country for over 20 years. He had no experience at government whatsoever, no
political base, and was totally inept. He was supposed to remain in control
until the elections of 1956.
Between 1954 and 56, it became readily apparent that the communists would
easily win the election in 1956, since they were extremely popular and were in
fact the only ones with any effective political organization. It's not too hard
to see how they got converts. The communists engaged in a huge political
campaign, including a literacy campaign that taught thousands to read and write.
The communists had a political ideology that at least sounded like it made
sense, and all the Vietnamese people had ever seen of the western democracies
were the French and the Americans, both of whom treated them terribly and backed
out on their word at every chance. The other big reason the communists had a
strong political organization is that they were the only ones working at it. The
Americans were arrogant enough to think they could make political stability by
force. So right or wrong, the communists were picking up supporters left and
right, and would probably easily have won an election in 1956. Even if they
couldn't have won a true free and fair election, they controlled the north
absolutely and could have easily won an overall election even if the south voted
unanimously against them. On the other hand, the Diem regime in South Vietnam
was becoming increasingly unpopular because he was a power-hungry wacko. He went
out of his way to destroy basic freedoms and generally piss the population off.
Nearly all power was concentrated in the hands of his Catholic cronies because
they were the only people he trusted. Buddhists (the majority, remember), and
other religious groups were completely excluded from the power structure, and in
fact were systematically persecuted. In practice, the Diem regime wasn't much if
any better than the French had been. Arbitrary arrests, torture, execution
without trials and wiping out or relocating entire villages was common (as it
would be throughout the war).
The Diem regime blocked the elections of 1956, and the U.S. supported this
position. This means that the U.S. was a) backing a repressive and unpopular
regime, b) stopping an election because it wouldn't like the results, and c) directly
going contrary to an agreement that were involved in crafting. Once the U.S. had
done this, they had to stick with Diem because they had bet so much of their
credibility on his regime, and in the global superpower game credibility is
everything. When his regime was unable to even bring stability to the area, the
U.S. had to start increasing the aid in an effort to try to regain control. This
went on and on, and established a pattern that lasted until the end of the war.
After installing Diem, at every single decision point nobody stopped to
consider if what they were doing was right, or even likely to succeed. At ever
point, every leader chose to escalate.
- Eisenhower upped the ante in Vietnam considerably from what Truman had
allowed by increasing the number of "advisors", authorizing the
use of U.S. air forces, and increasing the shipments of money and arms
considerably. He also had a military doctrine for the region that included
the use of nuclear weapons.
- Kennedy upped the ante again, by big numbers. He and his advisors crafted
what was called the Special War Doctrine, which at least took
nuclear weapons off the table, but generated the framework for fighting
popular revolts or insurgencies (which word you use depends on your point
of view). His administration was also directly involved in the military
coup that toppled the Diem regime and started an endless succession of
ineffective leaders that were even worse than Diem. Some of Kennedy's
supporters like to think he would have pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam if
he hadn't been assassinated. One can hope; but to believe that, you would
have to assume he would make a complete policy reversal that turned every
previous decision on it's head. That seems unlikely to me.
- Johnson gets most of the heat for turning it into a "real" war.
He deserves his fair share of it, because he was the one that actually
started American troops going into there in large numbers. However, most
people don't realize that Eisenhower and Kennedy escalated the war
way beyond what Johnson could have stopped. His ego would not let him be
the "first American president to lose a war", and even if he'd
wanted to pull out it would have been political suicide, both for his
career and for the domestic agenda that started out being his most
During the Johnson years, the war escalated completely out of control.
Each escalation inevitably lead to another escalation, to the point where
Johnson threw in the towel after one term because he literally saw no way
out and no way to win.
It's ironic that Johnson did successfully do more for civil rights
in the U.S. than any other contemporary president. His Great Society
was one of the most sweeping and ambitious program ever put forth by any
president in our time, comparable in scope and long term effect to
Roosevelt's New Deal. He almost single handedly ram-rodded through voting
rights acts, civil rights acts and other key bits of legislation that
greatly affected the progress of civil rights for years to come. That's
what he really wanted to be known for, but his name will always be linked
with nothing but Vietnam.
- Nixon was a war-mongering anti-communist hawk from day one. He was openly
advocating use of massive force in Indochina as early as 1954. He never
had any intention of doing anything other than escalating the war right up
to the to the end. His only real concession was that he wanted to make a
serious effort to get the American soldiers out, and leave the South
Vietnamese soldiers to do all the fighting and dying with American money,
apparently unaware that it had been tried before unsuccessfully. He
escalated it in a big way. In the end though, he found out that he didn't
have any more options than his predecessors had, and there was no way to
win the war without making the whole country uninhabitable or accepting a
lot more American dead than the country would tolerate. He is the one that
finally found a way to quit while maintaining the fantasy that we hadn't
actually quit or lost. In the end though, it was finally the American
Congress that finally stopped the thing by cutting off funding.
The ultimate irony there is that Nixon killed hundreds of thousands of
people by ordering things that were clearly both illegal, immoral and
contrary to agreements the U.S. had explicitly made with other countries,
but he ultimately got pulled down by a botched burglary of some
unimportant papers from a political opponent. Life's funny that way.
I've mostly ostracized American presidents and their administrations here,
where I believe the vast majority of the blame lies, but let me say a bit about
the congress as well. They basically either fueled the fire with inflamed
anti-communist rhetoric, or rolled over and let the president do whatever he
wants. Neither interpretation makes them look very good. Our constitution
explicitly says that Congress has the power to declare war. With the Tonkin Gulf
Resolution, congress gave Lyndon Johnson enough authority to deploy six million
men to fight, and never did get around to declaring war. On top of that, they
kept on authorizing the expenditures necessary to keep it going, but never
lifted a finger to control it or to follow their constitutional responsibility.
Congress is supposed to be the deliberative and slow moving body that keeps a
bit of sanity on rashly acting executive branches. War is serious business, and
the U.S. is supposed to think long and hard before engaging in it, and this is
one of the mechanisms built into the constitution to help insure this. In this
case, the congress completely dropped the ball, and continued to drop it for
years and years. The best I can say about it is that it finally pulled the money
plug and brought the whole show to a halt, but that was obviously too little too
While I'm at it, let me lay the proper amount of responsibility on the
American Public. All of the leaders I mentioned above were elected in free and
fair elections. In the 50s and 60s, the public bought the anti-communist
rhetoric hook, line and sinker and being a fervent anti-communist was the one
sure way to win an election. It was even working for Reagan as late as the 80s.
The American public finally clued in and put pressure on to stop the war, but it
took a long long time for them to come around to it, and a very large percentage
never actually opposed the war on any grounds other than the fact that we
obviously couldn't win. There's a good lesson to learn there.
Unrealistic Expectations & Bad Assumptions
I've said that the U.S. had no idea to what lengths the Vietnamese would go
to win. I think the results speak for themselves, but there were a few baseline
assumptions that were never seriously questioned that should be explored.
- The main problem with the war from a policy perspective is that everyone
involved on this side always saw it as an insurgency from the north, or
the North taking over the South. Most writers still write about it that
way. It is quite true that the drive for communism came from the North,
and that all of the weapons, instructions, political ideology, money and
other supplies came from the north. However, you should keep in mind that
most of the fighting and dying was being done by South Vietnamese. People
frequently confuse who exactly the communists are, and the same thing
happened back then. The Viet Cong, which was the group that did most of
the active fighting with the Americans was a southern organization which
fought with southern soldiers on their own turf. The North Vietnamese army
was never used in South Vietnam in large numbers until after the Tet
Offensive in 1968, in which most of the Viet Cong were wiped out.
- The U.S.'s primary strategy consisted of two parts: 1) Move most of the
population off of their traditional land and force them into enclosed
environments where they could be "protected", and 2) Kill enough
communists and they will quit. Both of these were bad enough to start
with, because even if we won, the Vietnamese lost all hope of a normal
life. The even worse thing is that the same strategy was used over and
over for years on end, even though it never showed any progress of
any kind whatsoever. In this case, the U.S. was exactly like everyone in
World War I. You had a bunch of people using a strategy they were
committed to, and when it didn't work they just tried more of the same.
- The U.S. incorrectly assumed that given sufficient men, arms and tactics,
they could force their control on the people of Vietnam. During the war,
entire villages were rounded up and moved to "Strategic Hamlets"
to try to get the people into a place where they could be controlled more
easily. The same thing had been tried by the French before. In all cases,
the assumption was that the people were going to be cowed by the military
muscle being used, and go quietly to these new places. In reality, nobody
seemed to understand that all that did was make thousands of new recruits
for the communists, and gave the communists the best possible P.R. they
could get for their recruiting efforts.
- The administrations assumed that communism was one big homogenous block,
and that the Chinese, Russians and all the others were one group that had
to be fought as as a group. This was never true or even close to it. The
Russians and Chinese were constantly at each other's throats, and in fact
were competing with each other for their own brand of political dominance.
The other thing that bears mentioning is that there was never a coherant
strategy for winning the war, and it turned into a huge turf battle for the
agencies working there. The Army, Navy, Air Force, CIA, Marines and State
Department all spent inordinate amounts of time working to cross purposes. The
military made Vietnam the career vehicle of choice, and anyone that had to
advance in the military had to have some active duty there. Most people only
came into the country for a year, so they spent the first few months thrashing
around looking for the coffee machine, and the next six months undoing whatever
their predecessor had done to try to leave their own mark. All of this was
counterproductive. It was pointed out to the administrations repeatedly, with no
The Other Side Of The Story
After having said all that, you may feel like I'm a big communist supporter.
You would be wrong. The current communist government in Vietnam is nothing but a
dictatorship with a thin veneer of communist rhetoric and hypocrisy on top, and
it's a distinctly unhealthy government for the Vietnamese people. It was no
different during the war. Here are a few things worth thinking about.
- During the war, the communists were at least partially successful in
their recruiting because they were absolutely mean and nasty people, just
like the U.S. It was not uncommon at all for the Viet Cong to come to a
village and give them the choice that either a dozen men and women (women
fought too) would see the light and join up to throw out the imperialist
aggressors, or the whole village would be burned down and a lot of people
killed. A lot of villages had to walk a pretty fine line, because the ARVN
(South Vietnamese Army) would come along the next day saying pretty much
the same thing. Assassination of village elders or anyone that opposed the
VC, as well as random violence and other acts of terror was quite common.
Now don't take this to mean this was the only way they got recruits. They
had huge popular support as well, and in fact would never have been able
to win without it. If terror was the only weapon they had, they would have
been clearly outclassed by the Americans who had terror in abundance.
However they weren't afraid to use terror and intimidation or any other
tool in their toolbox to get recruits, supplies, money or assistance.
- The communists liked to portray themselves as a truly nationalist
movement, but in reality anyone that was simply for Vietnamese
independence but wasn't a communist was either marginalized or purged.
Once HCM and the communists had control of the North, they did not allow
any alternate viewpoints to exist, and anyone that didn't toe the
communist line was out. "Out" generally meant dead or in prison,
and the criteria for not being a communist frequently meant just siding
with the wrong people in a power struggle. The same thing is true today in
Vietnam's power circles. As recently as last year, very high ranking
officials that were heroes during the war were removed from office and
imprisoned because they publicly criticized the communist government and
- The communists consistently and repeatedly lied to the people they were
supposedly representing about the true cost of the war, along with a whole
host of other things. The communists underreported the number killed by
more than 50% for most of the war and went to huge lengths to hide their
dead both from the U.S. and the local population. They only recently
released what they say are the real numbers, and these could easily still
be underreported or exaggerated. There's no way to know. The U.S. military
did lie about nearly everything, but the one thing that was reported
fairly and accurately is the number of U.S. servicemen killed, wounded and
missing... that is unless you count the totally illegal war the U.S.
carried out in Laos which was completely hidden from everyone.
- The communist leaders were willing to use up people's lives by the
hundreds of thousands if that was what it took. A lot of the strategies
and tactics they used were deliberately designed to kill a whole bunch of
Vietnamese to get a few Americans, because they (correctly) calculated
that the Americans had a limit on the number of body bags they were
willing to ship home. A lot of other strategies they pursued weren't
deliberately calculated to have that result, but that's the result they
got and they kept using those tactics anyway. The communists are correctly
given credit for some brilliant guerilla tactics and strategies, but a lot
of their fighting consisted of not much more then old fashioned human wave
- During the Tet offensive of 1968, the communists either deliberately or
through abysmally bad planning (I lean toward the deliberately
explanation), allowed the Viet Cong that had carried the brunt of the
burden of fighting to be destroyed. One can make a good case that they did
this deliberately to remove the Viet Cong as a competitor for power.
- At the end of the war, the communists killed thousands of
"collaborators", put millions in "reeducation camps",
and made conditions bad enough to make millions leave using any means
available. If you remember the famous "boat people" of the early
80s, keep in mind that these were people willing to bet their lives on an
old, rickety, overloaded and extremely dangerous boat just to get away
from what was happening at home. The same things happened in Laos and
Cambodia. The communists targeted the very people that they needed the
most, and still don't realize it even today. Intellectuals, educators,
professionals, entrepreneurs and anyone with a free thought of their own
were targeted, and most of the targeted left if they could, and became
completely ineffective at helping the country rebuild if they stayed.
- I mentioned the huge American presence in Laos, which directly went
against the Geneva accord. I should also mention that the American
presence in Laos was dwarfed by the communist presence. Vietnam had entire
divisions active in Laos, and during the war they were every bit as active
in destabilizing the Laotian government as the U.S. was, and they were
also directly contravening an agreement that they had explicitly made.
- Immediately after the war, the communists tried to take over both Laos
and Cambodia, thus giving a big lie to the idea that they were just trying
to get the foreigners out. One could make at least something of a case
that intervention in Cambodia was required. The war destabilized the
government, which allowed the Khmer Rouge to take over, and they went on a
killing spree to end all killing sprees. 2-3 million Cambodians were
slaughtered by their own government, and Vietnam was sitting right next to
this time bomb. However, you can't make any real rationalization for
taking over Laos other than that they were just spreading communism. The
wars in Laos and Cambodia lasted for close to ten years, and seriously
drained money and talent out of a country that desperately needed both
more than ever. These wars also made them an international pariah, and
kept foreign investors, traders and aid away for a very long time (makes
you wonder why that didn't happen to the U.S.).
- During the same time frame, Vietnam also had a war with China (they have
been fighting China off and on for 2000 years), which severely hurt them
economically for years. This was at least partly triggered by thousands of
ethnic Chinese leaving Vietnam because of government policies directed
against them. The communists still have very racist policies, and have
clashes with ethnic minority tribes in the highlands even to this day. In
fact, we had to reroute part of my bike tour because of some kind of
trouble in the highlands that I could never get a straight answer on.
- At the end of the war, the communists went on a collectivism rampage,
seizing the inventories of retailers, confiscating land and eliminating
any incentive to produce. This promptly dropped rice production and nearly
all other economic activity through the floor. This caused an immediate
famine when nothing else had changed. So they had finally booted out the
foreign controllers, and showed themselves to be every bit as bad for the
average peasant as the French had been. They finally liberalized the
policy somewhat and the food crisis was abated, but that was just the
first step in a whole series of very badly thought out economic policies
that have left Vietnam as one of the poorest countries in the world, 25
years after the war. Contrast that with Germany whom we bombed halfway to
the stone age in WWII, which is now one of the richest countries in the
- The current communist government is widely regarded as one of the most
corrupt in the world, and that's saying something. Corruption permeates
the government at every single level from the traffic cop on the street to
the head of the communist party.
- The communist government has a terrible human rights record since the end
of the war. There are plenty of stories of people being jailed for ten or
twenty years, or being killed just for criticizing the government.
Criticism of the government is not allowed, or if it is allowed it's
allowed in a sporadic, spotty and unpredictable way so that nobody has any
real freedom of expression. The press is tightly controlled, and they are
even unsuccessfully trying to filter the Internet.
- For ten years after the end of the war, all Vietnamese citizens had to
get travel permits to go anywhere inside or outside of Vietnam. They don't
have to get travel permits to travel internally now, but it's very
difficult for Vietnamese to travel outside the country, even if they had
the money which most of them don't. Before getting an exit visa, they have
to go through an arduous interview process to see if they appear to be
trying to leave permanently. Their internal movements are still tracked,
and any time a Vietnamese checks into a hotel their ID number is recorded
and reported to the police. This means that to a great extent, the average
Vietnamese has just traded a foreign overbearing big brother for a local
- The communists then and now are even more hypocritical than the U.S.
government (if you can imagine that). They use the worn out myth of a
"workers party" to disguise the fact that all significant
political decisions are made by a bunch of old men that don't want to give
up any power of any kind. They'll ultimately lose like all the communists
are losing all over the world because it's not a viable political system
in the information age, but they aren't going down gracefully.
These are just a few examples, to make my point. People like contests or wars
to have a good guy and a bad guy. History rarely works out that way, because you
frequently find out you have two or more bad guys. In World War I, you had over
10 bad guys, and no real good guys at all (sorry guys, the U.S. wasn't a good
guy there either). Sometimes it's even difficult to tell who's the bad guy and
who's the really bad guy. That's the case here. The communists are not a
particularly good force for Vietnam, except for the fact that they got
the foreigners out, which counts for a lot and I think ultimately will be good
for the country.
A Contrary Viewpoint
This page has been a bit one sided, so let me say that there are serious
people that have studied the war more than I have that would fervently disagree
with me. I've given my perspective, so let me give you an overview of what the
other groups believe. There are quite a number of books coming out these days
that interpret the war much differently from the way I do. To be fair, I'm not
going to refute these. I'll simply give you the contrary viewpoints and let you
make up your own mind. At the bottom line the counter arguments come to this:
- America lost a battle in Vietnam, but the war with Communism was an
important war that had to be fought and we eventually won. The thinking
here is that the Cold War was a world war, and Vietnam was a place where
the great powers fought over who was going to dominate the world for the
next hundred years. Communism had to be fought, and Vietnam is the place
to fight it. The thinking is that Vietnam was chewing up communist
resources, and slowing down the spread of communism worldwide, plus
showing that we were serious about fighting communism and that without the
U.S. showing up as a credible threat, communism would have spread much
Adherents to this school of thought still believe Eisenhower's Domino
Theory, and basically are saying that the war delayed the fall of the
first domino long enough to get some of the others out of the way or
strengthened. As evidence, they point out that communism spread to
Cambodia and Laos, but no further. In particular, it didn't go to
Thailand, Burma, The Philippines or Indonesia. Indonesia is given as an
example, and it's claimed they threw the Soviets out in 1966, which they
would not have done without the American commitment in Vietnam.
Additional weight can be given to this argument by pointing out that
communism is collapsing all over the world, and the emergence of at what
at least appear to be democracies are increasing.
- Helping the South protect itself from the North and communism is a noble
and worthwhile thing to do. This school of thought believes that the
entire war was a Northern Communists trying to force their will on
Southerners, and that it was our moral obligation to help our allies or at
least give the southerners a fighting chance at self determination. This
argument holds that even though the regimes the U.S. supported in the
South were repressive dictatorships, that was the only viable way to build
political stability in the chaotic aftermath of World War II. If the U.S.
had won, the government in South Vietnam would ultimately have moved in
the direction of a free society.
- America had to escalate the war in order to defend it's credibility as a
superpower. This school of thought basically holds that the U.S. is
generally a good influence on the world, and the communists are generally
a bad influence. The good has to be strong in order to fight the bad, and
throwing in the towel in Vietnam would have signaled a weakness that would
have seriously undermined the U.S. ability to conduct foreign policy and
to fight communism worldwide.
- Vietnam was a Proxy War, and as such it may have prevented a much bigger
war. The idea here is that a small and limited war in Vietnam gave the
superpowers a way to compete in the cold war without turning it into World
- Vietnam was the catalyst that seriously broke up the unity of the
communist block. At the beginning of the cold war, Americans saw all
communists as one big group acting together. This viewpoint holds that
Vietnam helped cause a split between the Chinese communists and the
Russian communists, and that split ultimately lead to a victory in the
cold war (against Russia anyway. It seems to me like the Chinese
communists are alive and kicking).
- Vietnam was a very serious drain on the communist economies and
militaries, and that the war between capitalism and communism ultimately
came down to who's economies were stronger. The cold war was won (if we
actually did win it) by making Russia's economy collapse, and a large part
of this process was the cost for the communists of prosecuting the war in
Vietnam and trying to prepare for a bigger communist sweep throughout
Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The other part of this strategy was
engaging the Russians in an arms race that they couldn't win. There is at
least some merit to this line of thought, as that strategy did ultimately
make the Soviet economy collapse, and that is in fact what won the Cold
- The war was bad, but the consequences of failure were even worse than the
war was. This viewpoint holds that you have to stack up what happened in
the region after the U.S. left with what may have happened had we stayed.
For example, 2-3 million Cambodians were killed by the Pol Pot regime, and
had the U.S. stayed in place or achieved it's objectives in the region
this would never have happened. You can lump the communist reprisals
against the Vietnamese people into this category as well.
Common Myths About The War
The military knew how to win the war, but the civilian leaders wouldn't
listen to them.
False. First off, "the military" did not have a consensus about
how to prosecute the war. The Joint Chiefs Of Staff was a boiling hotbed of
inter-service rivalries, personal vendettas, and struggles for power and
budget. For those in the military that weren't caught up in this ego game,
there were serious disagreements about how to go about prosecuting the war,
or even if it was winnable at all.
On the other hand, there were no clearly defined objectives for the war. A
1974 survey of the generals involved found over 70% of them did not know what
their real long term objective in Vietnam was. So there was never any clear
global strategy form the civilian leaders, and the military never provided
the civilian leadership with a military strategy.
In the end, it was a failure of both.
America could have won the war if the military hadn't had their hands tied
behind their backs.
Again, false. The only three tools in the American Military Toolbox that
were never used were 1) Nuclear Weapons, 2) Good Judgment and 3) Common
Sense. For the most part, the military got everything it ever asked for form
the administrations and the congress, and continually failed to deliver the
promised results. The same can be said for the CIA, the State Department and
all of the others trying to prosecute the war.
The 1968 Tet Offensive was a major communist victory:
This one only partially true. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a major
failure. The NVA invested a huge amount of resources in it, and expected
great results. Within months though, the U.S. recaptured all the ground it
lost, and nearly wiped out the Viet Cong. From that point forward the war
became much less of a guerilla war against the Viet Cong, and more of a set
piece war with the North Vietnamese Army. One can make a pretty good case
that after the VC were wiped out at Tet, the war became the type of battle
that the U.S. actually could have won.
On the other hand, the Tet Offensive seems to have been a wake-up call for
both the administration and for American public opinion that these guys were
serious. Every president from Johnson forward had been giving steady progress
reports saying how the VC were nearly defeated, and having such a big event
come out of the blue brought this to the public's perceptions.
The fighting was all done by Vietnamese troops, and other communist
countries only supplied materiel:
Not true. At one time China had 170,000 troops in Vietnam, and Russian crews
routinely shot down American planes. One little known aspect of HCM's
leadership was that one of his main strengths was as a negotiator between the
Chinese and Russian communists, both of whom didn't like each other all that
much. He seems to have been quite good at playing them off against each other
to get what he wanted.
The Media Lost the War
Vietnam was the first war where the media had good real-time access to what
was going on. Censorship by the U.S. was pretty lax, and the media had a good
chance to report just about anything that they wanted. Some conclude that the
war was lost because the media was one-sided (anti-war) and that helped drive
public opinion against the war, which ultimately ended it. There are so many
things wrong with this theory it's hard to characterize them, and you
probably know most of them by now. The one thing that bears mentioning
though, is that the media then and today tends to follow public opinion, not
lead it. The most you could possibly lay blame on the media for was telling
it like it is, and for the most part they didn't even do that.
The average age of the American combat soldier was 19.
It appears to be closer to 23.
American soldiers were crazed, drug abusing, suicidal wackos.
They didn't fight as much as WWII soldiers
They committed suicide in large numbers after the war.
Drug use for soldiers appears to be about the same as it was for the general
population in the same age group. Suicide rates were elevated for the first
five years after the war, but decreased below the population average after
that. Helicopters increased mobility considerably, so GIs spent a lot
more days per year fighting than their WWII counterparts. They left sooner,
but fought more while in country.
Vietnam and America Today
After all that history, I fully expected to run into a lot of Vietnamese that
hated Americans. I was surprised to find that isn't the case at all as far as I
could tell, and in fact most of the Vietnamese I met seemed to love Americans. I
had any number of people that I ran into casually pull out a wallet and show me
some old ID card from when they worked for the Americans, or tell me about how
they worked for the Americans during the war. I ran into people that worked for
the Americans and had to spend time in "reeducation camps", but still
seem to like the U.S. I even had several conversations with people that were
directly involved in the war, and suffered terribly because of it, but never did
find anyone that would say anything bad to me about the American involvement.
For example, I talked to a woman at a rest stop who's husband died a year or two
after he came out of the "reeducation camp", apparently because he was
denied treatment because of his involvement with the Americans. She still to
this day doesn't really blame the Americans for that, and blames the Communists
Most of the Vietnamese people don't particularly like their government, and I
ran into a few that actively hate it. Most seem to just hope that it will stay
out of their way, or don't think much about it at all. They try to pay the
appropriate bribes to stay out of trouble and make a living, and don't think too
much about it beyond that. The standard of living is slowly going up, so they
aren't in too much of a hurry to change things.
One other thing to keep in mind is this: At the end of the war, the
population of Vietnam was around 30 million. Now, it's around 80 million. That
means that over 60 percent of the population wasn't even born before the
end of the war. Add in the years for growing up, and you would have
to conclude that somewhere over 70 percent of the population have no memories of
the war at all. To them, it's just one in a very long series of wars going back
2000 years, and it's not even the most recent. For most of the younger
Vietnamese people that I talked to, it was more or less like talking to the
average American about World War II, or today's high school kids about Vietnam.
It was just something that their parents did, and not all that relevant to
Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have been normalized, and Vietnam had
an official visit from President Clinton last year. I take that as a good sign
that the past is being put behind us where it belongs. I still think the U.S.
was a whining crybaby sore loser for way too long, but at least it's over now.
We need to learn the valuable lessons of the past, but not become so obsessed
with them that we don't pay attention to the present. We can't undo the past,
but we can change the future.
In the early 90s there was a lot of foreign investment going into Vietnam
from America, Europe, Japan and other places. The Asian Economic Crisis of the
late 90s chopped a lot of that off all over Asia, and particularly in Vietnam. A
lot of companies also pulled out because the corruption level is just too high
and unpredictable to stomach. Corporations generally don't mind corruption, but
they hate unpredictability. However, no matter how you slice it Vietnam is still
a country with a large, literate, well educated, dynamic, hard working and
energetic workforce that has a lot of room for economic growth. Some see Vietnam
and similar countries in Asia and Africa as kind of a "last frontier"
of economic growth. They're the kind of places where big things can happen (good
and bad), and both the Vietnamese people and foreign investors will tap that
huge store of talent sooner or later.
Here is my last thought on the government of
Vietnam. There's an old saying that I think applies, although I can't remember
country has the government it deserves".
I think this applies to Vietnam, and to America as well. Whether you like the
communists or not, there are 80 million Vietnamese, and only a few thousand
communist party officials, and only a few hundred at the top. There are no
foreign powers dictating how things are done, and there is absolutely nothing
stopping the Vietnamese people from changing out their government if they want a
new one. There are lots of examples they can see in history, and even some
bloodless ones. The rules of historical dynamics are being rewritten as we
speak. If you don't think so, read about the changes in South Africa over the
last 15 years.
I see Vietnam as a dynamic place, where the people are really just starting
to recover from nearly 50 years of almost continuous warfare, and they are
starting to figure out what their place is going to be in the modern world. I
really wish I'd come here five or ten years ago so I could see the changes. I've
talked to people that did so, and the changes are huge and very noticeable in
both big and small ways.
All in all, I personally think that 20 or 30 years down the road the
Vietnamese people will have figured out their place in the world, and that place
will be good.
Right after I finished this page, I ran across this comic in a newspaper in
Australia. I think it says it all:
Next - Final Thoughts on Vietnam