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
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.
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.