Thursday, April 30, 2015

Vietnam: Good News, Bad News

The Vietnam War and its consequences don’t usually bring a soft nostalgic glow to American memories, so it's not something I find easy to write about. But I will write about it today as we take note of the fortieth anniversary of the victory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (aka North Vietnam) and the end of the American-Vietnam War.

About Vietnam there is both good and bad news. The good news is that we are now enjoying increasingly friendly relations with that beautiful country. More on that later.

                  Beautiful Country, Beautiful People
                           (Thanks Globalimages)

The bad news is mainly historical, but nevertheless is not entirely in the past. It actually comes in two parts:

Bad News, Part I – the war was entirely unnecessary. As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said in The Fog of War, after talking to North Vietnam’s victorious leaders, he concluded that Washington and Hanoi could each have had what they wanted without firing a shot at each other. Your bad, Secretary McNamara.

Bad News, Part II - there are latter day cold warriors and war mongers (like John McCain, George W. Bush and the late Ronald Reagan, for instance) who still believe the war was a worthy undertaking that we lost only because America lacked resolve.
This is rarefied bullshit, born of ignorance and self-delusion. Here’s why.

Point 1: Ho Chi Minh: Vietnam :: George Washington: USA

The first thing to know about that war is that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, had dedicated his entire life to one goal: the establishment of a united Vietnam, free of foreign domination. All the work he did, from his student days (around 1910) until his death in 1969 had this and only this goal in mind.

Because Ho Chi Minh had fought so hard to kick the French out of Vietnam - and actually succeeded in doing so - he became what many people called “Vietnam’s George Washington.” Republican Senator Thruston Morton was one who characterized Ho Chi Minh in these terms, emphasizing that he was a hero to the Vietnamese of both the North and the South.

After decades of rather brutal French domination, most Vietnamese, both north and south, were not ready to accept another foreign army in their country. There was a minority in the south who welcomed the U.S. military presence, because they were either hostile to Ho’s communism or because they were on the U.S. payroll. But the great majority of so-called South Vietnamese were against America's military intervention in their country. This meant that American forces were pitted against both the entire population of North Vietnam, and the majority of the South Vietnamese as well. A tragic consequence of this was that when U.S. soldiers and marines showed up in rural Vietnam they were expecting to be greeted as liberators - as their fathers had been in France. Instead, they were often faced with snipers and booby traps courtesy of the resentful peasantry.

Point 2: Some American Politicians Hate Elections that They’re Not Guaranteed to Win

Most Americans are not aware that an agreement was reached between France and Ho Chi Minh in 1954 that specified a Vietnamese election would be held in 1956 and that the polls would be watched by teams of pro-US, pro-Soviet and neutral observers. But the election did not take place because we squelched it. As Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoir, American experts had concluded that Ho Chi Minh would get about 80% of the vote – both north and south. That was unacceptable to us, so we, with our South Vietnamese allies, canceled the election and decided to settle things through the force of arms.

Point 3: Ho Chi Minh admired the U.S. and Tried to be “Asia’s Tito,” - A Communist Leader with Friendly Ties to the West; We Said No.

In fact, during the 1940s, we had helped arm Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas so they could join in the fight against the Japanese. After World War II, and with the rise of McCarthyism, our anti-communist hysteria ruled out any cooperation with Ho, despite his efforts to keep friendly relations going.

Point 4: War is Terror on a Big Budget

During the conflict, all sides (Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) were guilty of terror, torture and the murder of civilians. This is the face of war.

Point 5: Now We Can Be Friends – As Though the War Never Happened

The war that came about because we refused to let the Vietnamese elect Ho Chi Minh as their leader cost us about 150 billion dollars and over 58,000 lives. It also cost the Vietnamese around three million lives. But things are different now, and this is where the good news begins.

One fan of friendly ties with Vietnam is – surprise! - Senator John McCain, the former Navy pilot who was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, and whose experience as a POW in the “Hanoi Hilton” included torture. But from the Vietnamese point of view, McCain is like a celebrity whose presence in the notorious Hanoi prison amounts to a kind of “George Washington slept here” scenario. In the prison, which is now a tourist site, there are plaques recalling the presence of famous American POWs such as McCain and Congressman Pete Peterson of Florida. Peterson, by the way, eventually wound up serving as America’s first post-war Ambassador to Vietnam.

Furthermore there is a small monument to McCain’s downing in the heart of Hanoi. It includes a stylized image of the pilot holding his hands up amid what appears to be the wreckage of his downed Skyhawk.

Hanoi's Monument to the Downing of Lt. Commander John McCain's A-4 Skyhawk in 1967 (Thanks to Creativethink)

McCain’s celebrity makes him oddly popular in Vietnam today. In fact, in 2008, Vietnam was one of only a handful of countries worldwide where polls showed a preference for McCain over Obama.

This week, Al Jazeera ran a story on McDonald’s in Vietnam. What more telling symbol of how things have changed could we hope for?

Of course, part of the story is the same element that Americans failed to grasp back in 1945: Vietnam has a historical fear of China’s great power, and has hoped, since the early days of Ho Chi Minh’s administration, that friendly ties with America might help counter what they see as the China threat.

Secretary McNamara, of course, was dead right. We never needed to fight the good people of Vietnam. Now let’s get on with our lives in peace and, if Buddha smiles up on us, mutual prosperity.

                                  Young Vietnamese



For a quick cinematic look at the Vietnam conflict, I recommend Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth. Based on a Vietnamese woman’s memoir, it describes her experiences in growing up in a pro-Viet Cong village and eventually marrying a U.S. Marine (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and moving to California.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Abraham Lincoln and America's Great Switcheroo

Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, was assassinated 150 years ago this week. But commemorations of his untimely death might well provoke thoughts on another American tragedy: the veering of the Republican Party away from the principles with which he imbued it.

This transformation, so evident in the north-south switcheroo that Republicans and Democrats have undergone since 1865, is compellingly explored in Heather Cox Richardson’s recent book, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

Richardson brings to light an important part of the GOP’s birth through the story of Lincoln’s own family. Abraham’s father, Thomas Lincoln, actually left Kentucky in 1816 because wealthy interests were taking over the state and stifling the opportunities that Thomas, and others like him, had hoped to exploit.

Here’s the tale as she tells it:

Kentucky permitted slavery, and planters began to buy up great swaths of its rich land, putting pressure on small farmers like Lincoln, who could afford only poorer and poorer fields…Fights over land ownership flooded the courts, but only wealthy planters had enough money to hire lawyers to establish their deeds. Finally, unable to defend the title to his property, Thomas Lincoln had to leave Kentucky (page 3).

Thomas Lincoln was crushed, in other words, by the power of the slave-owning aristocracy.

Slavery was not only an abomination for enslaved people, it was also a device that allowed the wealthy to control state governments and courts, and use that control for their own benefit. It was in reaction against the slave-owning elite that the Republican Party was founded.

A powerful person who appears as a kind of villain in Richardson’s account is South Carolina Democrat, James Henry Hammond. Richardson describes Hammond as a “wealthy and well-connected slave owner with predatory sexual appetites, which ruined the lives of his white nieces as well as those of his slaves” (p. 15).

James Henry Hammond: Southern Conservative, ca. 1860

In 1858 Hammond gave a speech in the Senate in which he explained why poor people – both black and white – needed to be kept in their places.

According to Hammond, the lower ranks of American society were made up of losers, slow-witted drudges, whose lot was to follow the orders of their betters – the refined and civilized types such as himself. He didn’t specify that these drudges, or “mudsills,” as he called them, made up 47% of the population, but he did warn against the prospect of their influence. The South was better than the North, he specified, precisely because northern mudsills (mainly white) could vote, while the South, with its population of black mudsills, was in no danger of letting these undesirables have any say in the government.*

Hammond’s speech was influential, and, in fact, it provided what Richardson calls a “foil” against which the Republican Party set itself. Early Republican ideology said that America was populated by capable individuals, many of whom, though poor, could, when given the opportunity, and with government help, raise themselves to prosperity. That, in fact, was the essence of the early Republican ideology: give every citizen the opportunity and governmental support that would make the industry of each a guarantee of national well-being. And above all, don’t allow the aristocratic conservatism of the slave-holding class dominate the nation as a whole.

The conservatism of the southern Democrats of Hammond’s day is the very twin of modern GOP ideology, with its small government policies, favoritism for the rich, and relentless efforts to deny voting rights to the poor. In fact, Richardson highlights a number of cases in which the Republicans, once they had abandoned their founding principles, worked at suppressing the voting rights of poor people even in the nineteenth century.

It is actually surprising just how quickly the GOP abandoned its original principles. Lincoln was the only Republican president in the nineteenth century to effectively embrace them, and the only twentieth-century ones to do so were Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

What happened was that shortly after Lincoln’s death, and with the exceptions noted above, the Republicans shifted their focus toward favoritism for the rich – the very thing that their founding was supposed to oppose. Now, not only do GOP leaders sound like reincarnations of Southern Democrat James Henry Hammond (minus the sexual predation), but the entire white South, Hammond’s original base, has switched its loyalty to the Republicans.

Election of 1876: The Near Solid Democratic South

2012: The South Rises Again - Now in the Republican Camp

In the meantime, it is the Democrats, now entrenched in the north - Lincoln’s old territory - who fight on behalf of a higher minimum wage for workers, the right to universal health care, and the right to a safe retirement protected by Social Security. So the Democrats now embrace the ideology that Lincoln promoted: government action on behalf of ordinary citizens allowing them to attain economic security or even, in some cases, prosperity.

Next year’s election offers some interesting prospects, given that the GOP now argues that it wants to help ordinary citizens improve their lot. But these ordinary citizens are the very ones whose lives have been threatened by Republican support for the Citizens United case and its opposition to a livable minimum wage and to Social Security. From where I stand, it’s hard to see how Republicans can possibly help ordinary Americans as long as they continue to argue, contra Lincoln, that the government just needs to step away.


Richardson, Heather Cox. 2014. To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.  New York: Basic Books.

*Interestingly, conservative heroine, Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, makes a similar case about the unworthiness of ordinary American citizens. They are hopeless losers, her novel argues, whose lives would fall apart if the elites were to withdraw their leadership.