Op-Eds by Jim
History Proves Vietnam Victors Wrong
April 28, 2000
by James Webb, The Wall Street Journal
“Vietnam should teach us an important lesson. Hanoi [is creating] a collectivist society . . . likely to produce greater welfare and security for its people than any local alternative ever offered, at a cost in freedom that affects a small elite.” Stanley Hoffman; The New Republic, May 3, 1975
“The greatest gift our country can give the Cambodian people is not guns but peace. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now.” Rep. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.); Congressional Record, March 12, 1975
“It is ironic that we are here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated.” Producer Bert Schneider; Academy Awards, April 8, 1975
History is an elusive chimera, shaped and recorded by the winning side. Nowhere in recent times has this proved more true than in the periodic commemorations of the Vietnam War, as we are seeing once again with the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
In Vietnam, the propaganda machines must work full time to convince an increasingly restless population that the communist war effort was uniquely nationalist and “pure,” and that the rigid disciplines that allowed Hanoi to prevail in war still have validity as the future threatens to pass them by.
Here at home, a quiet but intense debate has raged over our involvement, with the forum largely controlled by the media and academia, two of the most staunchly antiwar communities during the conflict (a third being Hollywood). All of these groups have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.
Simplistic, cartoonish mythologies accompany both the communist and antiwar versions of the war, no doubt bringing solace to those who were on the right side of its outcome. It is easier to understand why our former enemies persist in such notions than it is to comprehend why so many of our own best and brightest still cling to the illusion that allowing — or in some cases assisting — a Stalinist takeover in South Vietnam was an honorable enterprise. The communists paid a heavy price for this victory, and it is natural that they should continue to rejoice in it. What is not natural is that our own commentators, now provided with so much evidence to measure results, should abet the rewriting of history.
And yet these errors of omission and commission have prevailed so long that they have permeated public thought:
In order to justify the war as more of an inevitable reunification of the country than a communist takeover, scant mention is made of other nationalist parties inside Vietnam that the communists systematically eliminated beginning in the first days after World War II. The continuing focus on American and other “atrocities” (My Lai is a national monument) blurs the reality that assassinations were an essential part of the communist insurgency. According to the late Bernard Fall, communist terrorists killed an average of 11 government officials daily during the early 1960s — the equivalent in this country of an Oklahoma City bombing every day, for years. In a form of deliberate amnesia, commentators rarely mention that such policy-driven assassinations continued throughout the war, with thousands being executed in the city of Hue alone during the brief communist occupation in the 1968 Tet offensive.
In order to demean attempts to nurture a democracy in the south even as a war was being fought, the South Vietnamese are continually portrayed as corrupt “puppets” of the U.S. Communist leaders, meanwhile, are elevated to the now-familiar caricature of the selfless noble savage. Communist soldiers — who fought well but lost repeatedly — are reverentially referred to as wily guerrilla fighters who continually bested the inept, over equipped forces of the U.S. and South Vietnam. These misrepresentations persist despite Hanoi’s admission that more than 1.4 million of its soldiers died in the war, as opposed to 58,000 Americans and 245,000 South Vietnamese.
The American military is portrayed as an army of unwilling draftees with an overrepresentation of minorities. In reality, two-thirds of those who served — and 73% of those who died — were volunteers. With respect to minorities, African-Americans comprised 13.1% of the age group, 12.6% of the military and 12.2% of the casualties. In terms of attitude, the most comprehensive survey of those who fought in Vietnam (Harris, 1980) indicated that 91% of those who served were “glad they served their country,” 74% “enjoyed their time in the military,” and 89% agreed with the statement that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.”
The American antiwar movement, whose former members dominate the present administration as well as many of the media and academic filters through which the debate must pass, is benignly portrayed as a reactive force that mobilized only in response to a failed American strategy. In truth, many of its core leaders were dedicated to revolutionary change in America even before the Vietnam War started (the infamous Students for a Democratic Society was created by the Port Huron Statement in 1962). Many of them — including members of the influential Indochina Peace Campaign — continued to coordinate directly with Hanoi after the American military pullout in 1973.
Most retrospectives spend little time on what happened after the 1968 Tet offensive, with the implication that the war was lost by then. In reality, the Tet offensive was a massive military and political defeat for the communists, who had wrongly expected the South Vietnamese people to rise up and support the offensive. In addition, President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program that began in late 1969 enjoyed great success. Military critics of the war such as Col. David Hackworth, who had four years on the ground in Vietnam, still maintain that if South Vietnam had survived a few more years, the young leaders who had come of age on the battlefield under American tutelage would have been unbeatable.
While it is correct to say that the American people wearied of an ineffective national strategy as the war dragged on, they never ceased in their support for South Vietnam’s war effort. As late as September 1972, a Harris survey indicated overwhelming support for continued bombing of North Vietnam (55% to 32%) and for mining North Vietnamese harbors (64% to 22%). By a margin of 74% to 11%, those polled agreed that “it is important that South Vietnam not fall into the control of the communists.”
The 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which earned both the American and North Vietnamese negotiators the Nobel Peace Prize, are largely ignoped by present-day commentators. If we were to treat these accords as a binding international agreement between two still-existing governments, Hanoi would be held accountable for having taken South Vietnam by “other than peaceful means,” and for failing to uphold its promise of internationally supervised free elections.
The humiliating end result of the communists’ final offensive in early 1975 is usually placed on the shoulders of a supposedly incompetent South Vietnamese military. Little mention is made of the impact our “Watergate Congress” had on both its inception and success. This Congress was elected in November 1974, only months after Nixon’s resignation, and it was dominated by a fresh group of antiwar Democrats. One of the first actions of the new Congress was to vote down a supplemental appropriation for the beleaguered South Vietnamese that would have provided $800 million in military aid, including much-needed ammunition, spare parts and medical supplies.
This vote was a horrendous blow, in both emotional and practical terms, to the country that had trusted American judgment for more than a decade of intense conflict. It was also a clear indication that Washington was abandoning the South Vietnamese even as the North Vietnamese continued to enjoy the support of the Soviet Union, China and other Eastern bloc nations. The vote’s impact was hardly lost on North Vietnamese military planners, who began the final offensive only five weeks later, as the South Vietnamese were attempting to adjust their military defenses.
Finally, the aftermath of Saigon’s fall is rarely dealt with at all. A gruesome holocaust took place in Cambodia, the likes of which had not been seen since World War II. Two million Vietnamese fled their country — usually by boat — with untold thousands losing their lives in the process. This was the first such Diaspora in Vietnam’s long and frequently tragic history. Inside Vietnam a million of the South’s best young leaders were sent to re-education camps; more than 50,000 perished while imprisoned, and others remained captives for as long as 18 years. An apartheid system was put into place that punished those who had been loyal to the U.S., as well as their families, in matters of education, employment and housing. The Soviet Union made Vietnam a client state until its own demise, pumping billions of dollars into the country and keeping extensive naval and air bases at Cam Ranh Bay.
All that being said, the past decade has seen a gradual warming of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, and some might wonder whether those who persist in pointing out such inequities are simply lost in bitterness. But a correct historical context does matter, for three very important reasons:
First, if it didn’t matter, then those writing the history of the war from the antiwar perspective would not be ignoring such issues or relegating them to footnotes.
Second, history owes something to those who went to Vietnam, and to the judgment of those who believed the endeavor was worthwhile. We can still debate whether the war was worth its cost, but the evidence of the past 25 years clearly upholds the validity of our intentions.
This proposition may sound simple, but to advance it is to confront the great Gordian knot of the Vietnam era itself. Careers were made, and lifelong relationships founded, on the premise that the U.S. was not only wrong in Vietnam, but immoral and stupid. Many who marched against the war still keep their buttons and badges mounted on basement walls, just as World War II veterans once put up their campaign medals. What would we make of the protest music that thrilled so many hearts, of the exhilarating antiwar rallies, of the love-soaked, dope-hazed evenings in places like Woodstock, if there finally was a conclusion that the young men who marched off to the jungles for years of unrelenting blood and terror had indeed done the right thing?
Third, we must look to the future. The dreariness of the past 25 years and a miserably failed economy have crushed Vietnam, even as the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia have prospered. But the country’s geographic position and cultural strengths give it the potential to become, as David Halberstam wrote 35 years ago, “one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to United States interests.”
Such a new relationship can be built only upon honest foundations, with the full participation of those who believed in the validity of our war effort, and of the Vietnamese community in America. And honesty must cut both ways. To borrow Ho Chi Minh’s most famous slogan, the Vietnam War was pursued for doc lap va tu do, which means “independence and freedom.” Those who fought the communists must be able to admit that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers truly believed they were fighting for Vietnam’s independence from foreign domination.
Concurrently, Vietnam’s rulers must be able to admit that the Americans and South Vietnamese who opposed their effort truly believed they were fighting for freedom.
In that same vein, Vietnam will never mature as a nation if its leaders continue to steep themselves in victimology. A quarter century on, the Vietnamese government continues to blame its lack of economic progress on obstreperous outsiders and the destruction of the war. This conveniently ignores the reality that Germany, Japan and South Korea all suffered far worse destruction in wars and yet moved forward quite nicely in the years following war’s end. The Vietnamese government may argue that its recovery was slowed by the U.S. trade embargo, but its greatest problem is clearly from within. After the embargo was lifted six years ago, numerous international businesses flocked to Vietnam. Most soon left, chilled by evidence of corruption, bureaucratic stagnation and unenforceable contract laws.
In the coming years the “overseas Vietnamese” who were forced to flee their country will also play a much larger role, both here and in their direct involvement inside Vietnam. The Vietnamese community in this country, now one million strong, is steadily shifting from the struggle of making it in their new homeland to more aggressive political involvement. Since 1975 they have put the strength of their culture at work, transforming the landscape of places like Orange County, Calif., and sending droves of talented young scholars to top schools across the country. Many are prepared to do business in Vietnam. In an odd twist of history, they have already been a major factor in keeping Vietnam afloat, sending a steady stream of money to family members who remain behind that now amounts to tens of billions of dollars. They are examining more closely how the war was lost, including the debate inside this country, and they stand to have a greater impact on how the U.S. will manage its evolving relationship with their former homeland.
Vietnamese and Americans alike should realize that there is nothing to be gained by refighting the war, or by seeking a new struggle. The mutual interests of both countries are self-evident, in both economic and strategic terms. But strong relationships require mutual respect. And the bedrock of mutual respect is an honest rendering of the facts, rather than the simplistic propaganda in both countries that has thus far passed as history.