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9-08-2015, 22:46


Nowhere was human suffering greater in Asia than during the 1960s and 1970s in the lands of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Vietnam War was a fratricidal conflict between the Vietnamese people. It also marked the climax of the Cold War in Asia, which hugely increased the suffering of the indigenous peoples. Because American leaders believed that far more was at stake than just the future of South Vietnam, that the security of the non-communist world was being tested here in the jungles and rice-swamps of Asia, they first supplied money and arms and eventually half a million combat troops in an attempt to help one side in the Vietnamese Civil War defeat the other. But America’s Western allies saw it differently, so there was never the unity displayed during the Korean War. France and Britain gave advice but sent no troops. In Asia, Australia was the most enthusiastic supporter and, with New Zealand, despatched several thousand men; other small token allies that sent some troops were Thailand and the Philippines. The Russians and Chinese gave aid and arms to the communists to support their fight but were careful to keep out of combat themselves. The Chinese communists did not want America on their southern frontier; they had already fought in North Korea to keep the enemy from their northern Manchurian border. It suited the Russians, on the other hand, to see America quagmired in south-east Asia, far away from regions bordering on the Soviet Union. The ordinary people, mostly peasants in Vietnam, followed their leaders either through conviction or because they had no choice, conscripted and coerced into rival armies or units of irregular combatants. In Vietnam resistance was punished by death. Only in a Western democracy was public protest possible. Most young Americans accepted their call-up, but there were tens of thousands who did not view the Vietnam conflict as necessary or just and avoided the draft. In the US the war became increasingly unacceptable after 1968, with its heavy losses of American life. With the progressive US disengagement on land, the Vietnamese were left to fight to the finish. The communist forces were the stronger, and they would have won the war between the Vietnamese with less loss of life and destruction had the US not intervened. The Johnson administration failed to grasp the true nature of the conflict it was facing. The Vietnam War was also a tragedy for the US, for the parents of the 58,200 men killed, for the wives who saw husbands returned in bodybags, for the more than 300,000 wounded servicemen whose scars were not only physical. It was a war fought by 19-year-old American conscripts in rice-fields and jungles. The enemy was everywhere and not necessarily recognisable by his uniform. There was nothing to distinguish the Vietcong fighter from unarmed peasants, men, women and even children. In fear of their own lives, the US troops shot first, at anyone who ran away from them or who even looked suspicious; atrocities were committed, villages burnt, innocent and guilty killed. The Americans’ South Vietnamese allies had even less regard for the lives of those of their fellow countrymen who were assisting the Vietcong and Vietminh. It was a brutalising war even by the standards of the twentieth century. The losses the Americans suffered were small in comparison with those of the Vietnamese people. The scale of death, crippling injury and destruction in Vietnam was so great it is difficult for Westerners to grasp how any people could have tenaciously gone on fighting. That was the prime error made by the American generals, who with superior weapons thought they were fighting a war of attrition. Since America’s goal was not to win a total victory but ‘only’ to force the North Vietnamese communists to abandon their efforts to occupy the central and southern regions of Vietnam, it seemed to any Westerner that a point would be reached when the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam would accept that the price of extending their rule over the centre and south was too high in human lives and material destruction. The cruelties of the Vietnam conflict plumbed the depths of human conduct – prisoners were tortured by both sides, and in practice the Geneva Convention on warfare counted for nothing. The communist atrocities were largely hidden from Western eyes. The freedom of the press in the West, however, ensured that some idea of the barbarities committed by the South Vietnamese army, and of the effects of American warfare, reached every sitting room. Two images especially etched themselves on the public eye: the execution of a Vietcong suspect, shot in the head by the chief of police in a street in Hue; and the spectacle of a naked Vietnamese girl, burnt by napalm dropped from the air and running screaming towards the camera. The land war in the southern and central regions of Vietnam that formed the Republic of Vietnam was fought in rice-fields and jungle. The Americans ‘punished’ North Vietnam by starting in March 1965 a bombing offensive, codenamed Rolling Thunder, intended to batter its population into the Stone Age. More bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than the Americans had dropped during the whole of the Second World War. The continuation of a war against such odds, it was believed in Washington, made no rational sense. Vietnam was pitted with bomb craters; large areas of jungle were defoliated by a chemical, ‘agent orange’, in an attempt to reveal communist hide-outs. The land was poisoned and so were its people. Rational? Ho Chi-minh and his North Vietnamese Politburo were not ‘rational’ when measured by Western moral standards. Ho Chiminh and General Vo Nguyen Giap were ready to press into the fight as many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese as might be needed to overwhelm the Americans and the South Vietnamese army. ‘Body counts’ of Vietnamese did not matter to them. Vietnamese fertility was high. The only ‘body counts’ that mattered were those of the Americans, who sooner or later would have to abandon a war being fought in a far-away country, a war whose outcome was no possible threat to US security. Whether the war lasted ten years or forty, Ho Chi-minh knew that the Americans would not fight for ever. The communists did not have to defeat US forces in the field. This they could not do. But, provided they continued to inflict casualties and just prevented the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies from winning, the US would in the end leave Vietnam. It was a war of attrition. The American people’s threshold of acceptable losses, in an Asian war fought on ideological grounds, was much lower than their enemy’s. For the Vietminh it was a fight to the end to free the south from American imperialism. The death of Ho Chiminh in September 1969 altered nothing – his policies continued to be ruthlessly pursued by his comrades in arms. The price in blood the Vietnamese paid for their victory was terrible. Vietnam has issued figures starkly revealing the carnage: 1.1 million combatants were killed, 600,000 wounded; the ARVN (the army of the southern Republic) suffered nearly 250,000 killed and 600,000 wounded; 2 million civilians were killed and 2 million injured; thus total casualties reached a staggering 6.5 million, about one in every seven Vietnamese. If the same proportions were applied to the population of the US in 1976, 6 million combatants would have been killed, with total civilian and military casualties amounting to 30 million. Such statistics bring home to the West the extent of Vietnamese suffering as a result of the war. The so-called lessons of history are often at their most dangerous when they are used to justify the adoption of specific policies. The failure of the attempts to appease Hitler in the 1930s was resurrected in circumstances after 1945 that were very different. The assumption was made that all dictators behave in exactly the same way, that their ambitions are always limitless and that concessions feed their appetites. There was no need, therefore, to differentiate or even to study the situation in the area of conflict. It did not matter whether the crisis was occurring in Europe, for instance in divided Berlin, or in Asia in divided Vietnam. The Cold War wonderfully simplified everything in what was perceived as a global struggle against expanding communism. From Washington’s standpoint, the real enemy was in Beijing and Moscow. Here the strings were supposed to be pulled, with the smaller communist countries as mere puppets with no will of their own. There can be no denying Russia’s and China’s influence in Vietnam, but it was not always decisive. The critical decisions were taken in Hanoi. Moreover, the US could not carry the war to China or Russia without the danger of nuclear exchange. So there was no choice but to fight conventional wars against smaller communist states that were apparently being pushed forward into aggression against the free world. Ho Chi-minh transformed North Vietnam into a rigid communist state by stages. Until the fighting with the French began, from 1946 to 1949 he played down communism under the slogan ‘Fatherland all’. Having secured much of the countryside by 1950, a new phase began under a fresh slogan, ‘the anti-imperialist fight and the anti-feudal fight are of equal importance’. The ‘land reform’ from 1953 to 1956 was modelled on Mao’s example and ruthlessly eliminated the landlord class, anyone connected with them, and all ‘reactionary elements’. The wave of terror took many lives, and after the 1954 Geneva Conference there was a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the North to the South. Some of the Vietnamese people were motivated by powerful ideological or religious beliefs. But the majority of the poor peasants would not have chosen to be ruled harshly by the Communist Party in the North or by the succession of corrupt governments in the South. As for the minority – the professionals, the well-off, the army officers, the politicians – they looked after their own interests or supported what they regarded as the lesser evil. Vietnam in contemporary history is the product not of what the mass of its people have chosen, but of half a century of power struggles among the Vietnamese leadership elites within a Cold War framework. The Geneva Accord had divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. In the southern Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem established an increasingly autocratic and nepotistic regime, distributing posts to his brothers and relations. He was supported by the large landowners, which necessarily limited the scope of agrarian reforms. His regime uprooted millions of peasants and forced them into ‘strategic hamlets’ to cut their ties with the Vietcong. The peasants, who wanted only to get on with their own hard lives, were terrorised in turn by Vietcong guerrillas and Ngo Dinh Diem’s security forces. Some were attracted by the communist promise to distribute land to the peasants, but most were just afraid for their lives if they did not comply with whoever was able to exert the greater pressure at any one time. The peasants did not feel any loyalty towards the Diem regime. Internal demands for reform were stifled, coup attempts suppressed. When Buddhists set fire to themselves to attract attention to their grievances, the world was aghast, but Diem remained confident that the US had no alternative but to support his anti-communist government. For all Diem’s military efforts and those of the American advisers to ‘pacify’ the countryside, the Vietcong remained a powerful insurgent force in the jungles and rice-paddies, despite their heavy losses, concentrating on the killing of South Vietnamese government officials. In 1960, Ho Chi-minh had formed a National Liberation Front, to coordinate the fight in the North and the South and to try to control the Vietcong, but although they needed the supplies from the North, which were passing through the jungle down the Ho Chi-minh trail just inside the border, the Vietcong maintained a separate political identity. In Washington the creation of the National Liberation Front confirmed the mistaken belief that the conflict was in reality with communist North Vietnam, that there was no separate, internal South Vietnamese struggle. But, faced with Diem’s embarrassing autocracy and corruption, disenchantment had set in. Attacks on Buddhist temples organised by Diem’s brothers and protest riots in the streets in August 1963 were the last straw, and Washington withdrew its support from Diem and his family coterie. A coup by disgruntled generals was in the making. Henry Cabot Lodge, recently arrived as US ambassador in Saigon, had foreknowledge of it, and his contacts with the generals encouraged them in the belief that Diem’s overthrow would be welcome in Washington. On 1 November 1963 the officers went into action and ousted Diem, who fled from the presidential palace. What the Americans had not anticipated was Diem’s murder the following day. The junta of feuding army and air force officers governed South Vietnam incompetently. American pressure ensured that some sort of elections were held, but in the war-torn conditions of the republic the military ensured that they retained control. The Vietcong and Vietminh were getting stronger and gaining support among the peasants by means of terror, indoctrination and persuasion. Confidence in the corrupt South Vietnamese regime was waning. In the summer of 1965 the Americanisation of the war began. Within three years more than half a million young American combatants were fighting in Vietnam, and thousands had died. American generals more or less took over the war. In 1967, by counting all the communists they killed in hundreds of skirmishes in rice-fields and forests and in attacks on villages by day which supplied the Vietcong by night, they thought they were surely winning the war. But these missions to seek out and kill the enemy did not bring the conflict to an end. American tactics proved of no avail in the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. A helicopter gunship was not as effective as tens of thousands of Vietcong and Vietminh, each armed with a rifle and able to live on a daily bowl of rice. It was impossible to kill them all. Casualties would be replaced with new recruits, increases in American combat troops with increased numbers of Vietminh. The Vietcong controlled much of the southern countryside. After a decade of these tactics the communists planned a devastating blow. The Tet offensive, launched in January 1968 by the Vietcong and Vietminh against the towns of South Vietnam, was designed as an all-out effort to impress on the Americans that the Vietcong were far stronger than they had supposed. It caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese completely by surprise, because Tet was the national New Year holiday period, during which a truce had always been observed, and because the towns of South Vietnam had hitherto been thought secure against the largely rural Vietcong. In preparation for Tet, the North Vietnamese had endeavoured to draw US troops from the towns by a diversionary attack on a northern US base at Khesan. Then, on 31 January, scores of Vietnamese towns were assaulted by some 70,000 Vietcong and Vietminh, who created widespread destruction and even penetrated the heavily fortified US Embassy compound in Saigon. The carnage was worst in the ancient city of Hue in central Vietnam: there the Vietcong overwhelmed the South Vietnamese garrison and during their three-week occupation massacred 3,000 people and buried them in hastily dug mass graves. Before American and South Vietnamese troops regained control, the Tet offensive had caused them 6,000 combat deaths. Thousands more Vietnamese civilians died, caught up in the fighting. For the Vietcong, the casualties amounted to a devastating 50,000. As a fighting force they never recovered. The weakening of the Vietcong was not unwelcome in Hanoi. Indeed, in a sense Tet was a double victory for the North Vietnamese: it undermined American confidence that the war would ever be won and it prevented the independent communists in the South from being able to challenge the northern communist regime. The Vietminh henceforth played the major military role and so gained the upper hand in determining the future of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were certainly encouraged by the growing protest movement against the war in the US and by their success in undermining the authority of the South Vietnamese regime. They calculated that an American withdrawal would be hastened if they showed a readiness to talk peace while continuing to inflict heavy casualties on Americans in Vietnam: a point would be reached when American public opinion would force the administration to accept the communist peace terms in all essentials. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamisation played into their hands as they negotiated interminably in Paris. Their prime aim was to reach an agreement that would get the US out but would leave them able to continue the war within the country until final victory. So they resolutely rejected any proposal put forward by Henry Kissinger, America’s chief negotiator in Paris, which required both North Vietnamese forces and the Americans to withdraw from the South. American bombing caused grievous losses but, making use of widely dispersed factories and with supplies of arms from China and Russia, the communist leadership in Hanoi was prepared to continue waging war for years to come. In January 1973 a ceasefire was finally agreed. The Americans would withdraw from Vietnam within sixty days and the settlement would be left to the Vietnamese. But the ceasefire was not a prelude to peace. The North Vietnamese soon resumed the conflict and, despite massive supplies of American arms, the badly led South Vietnamese army crumbled completely. The Watergate scandal had removed Nixon in August 1974, and his successor President Ford knew only too well that the American people would not sanction a renewed US involvement in the war. As the North Vietnamese army thrust south, millions of refugees fled in terror towards Saigon, but the capital itself fell on 30 April 1957 as the last Americans and accompanying Vietnamese were lifted from an American safe house in a frenzied evacuation, seventy helicopters carrying 1,000 people to safety on the US warships lying offshore. But hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese officers and civil servants who had been loyal to the American-backed South Vietnamese regime were left behind to face the rigours of ‘re-education’ by their new masters. They were taken to camps, where some spent months and others years, a Vietnamese Gulag. The communists now applied their Marxist, centrally directed economic policies in the south and imposed a one-party state. They set out to abolish capitalism and collectivise land, with disastrous results. The people suffered once again from the corruption of officials and the incompetence of the administration. During the 1980s more market-oriented economic policies were introduced, permitting entrepreneurs, especially in the south, to run small factories and services for profit. Within the top echelon of the party there was a constant struggle between the reformers, the pragmatists who wanted to follow China’s example, and the party ideologues, who believed that these experiments weakened Marxism– Leninism. The conflict was principally about the correct economic policies in order to raise Vietnam’s low standards of living, which in bad years led to widespread malnutrition. But there was no thought of turning the one-party state into a multi-party democracy. Economic liberalisation won the upper hand in the second half of the 1980s, but bad state management of the economy led to hyperinflation checked periodically by austerity measures. Attempts to attract foreign investment had little success. With the outbreak of revolution in Eastern Europe and Soviet perestroika, Vietnam’s political control tightened once more in 1989 and 1990. Vietnam remains one of the poorest countries in the world, barely able to feed its rapidly expanding population, which reached 66 million in 1989. One major reason for Vietnam’s poverty besides communist mismanagement is the great amount still spent on defence: its army is over 1 million strong. Since 1975, Vietnam has lived in regional isolation. Only the Soviet Union provided aid, which rapidly decreased after 1985 (Russia gave no aid in the early 1990s). The US maintained a trade embargo. The failure to account for US servicemen missing during the war is one stumbling-block to improved relations with the US, though some American aid has been given. Relations with its northern neighbour reached their nadir when Vietnam invaded and occupied most of Kampuchea in December 1978 and expelled the Chinese-backed Pol Pot regime. The Vietnamese-installed government was ostracised by the international community and Vietnam was condemned. The Chinese mounted an armed attack across the Vietnamese border in February 1979, but withdrew three weeks later in March having, as Beijing put it, ‘taught’ the Vietnamese a ‘lesson’. Thereafter in the 1980s the Chinese maintained a threatening posture on Vietnam’s northern border with occasional armed clashes, but relations have become much less tense since Vietnam withdrew from Kampuchea in 1989. The constant stream of refugees from south Vietnam by sea (the ‘boat people’) and overland to Thailand, Malaya and Hong Kong also aggravated Vietnam’s neighbours. The US accepted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and, more recently, numbers of ‘Amerasians’, the mixed children of US servicemen and Vietnamese. Vietnam remained isolated until the early 1990s, and no large-scale international aid or capital investment had reached it. A people who had suffered so much deserved a better fate, and there were increasing signs that the US felt it had a moral responsibility to help. By the mid-1990s Vietnam’s isolation from the West was ended: in 1994 the US lifted its trade embargo and a year later normalised relations. Vietnam continued to be ruled by an elderly Marxist Politburo, veterans of the war, like the party general secretary Do Muoi, aged eighty in 1996. The door was nevertheless opened slightly to Western ‘capitalist’ investment. With 80 per cent of the people living in the countryside, the limited impact made itself felt principally in the cities. The cultural attraction of the West, however, proved strong for the younger generation born since the war. Tension is inevitable. Given the regulation and bureaucracy of the regime and their opposition to the imports of Western culture, the new millennium was reached before Vietnam had the opportunity to emerge from its backward economic state. Western influence could not be kept out. Vietnam became a popular tourist destination early in the twenty-first century. What is extraordinary is the friendliness the Western visitors now encounter. The absence of hatred bodes better for the future.