The first episode of Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam came on last night. I was pretty fascinated at details of the history, but not too surprised at the general outline. I wasn’t around when the war began, but became aware of it in the early sixties, when it began alarming a number of adults around me.

By now I think it’s generally accepted that Vietnam was a bad mistake for our country to make, which didn’t stop us from making it again. One of the talking heads in the movie says that it was part of the end of colonialism, which in retrospect seems pretty obvious, but at the time was confused with the problem of Communism, about which there was a wave of paranoia. The movie quotes a letter Ho Chi Minh sent to President Eisenhower, saying that the Vietnamese wanted the same things Americans did, and that he shouldn’t take the Communist aspect of Vietnam’s politics too seriously.

It’s curious that Eisenhower’s diary is quoted as saying he didn’t believe a war could be won in that theater, but he assisted the French, who were trying to get their colony back, anyway. First he sent supplies, then helped pay for the war, eventually up to 80% of the cost. After the battle of Dien Bien Phu the French left entirely, and the USA stayed on.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is an example of how the Vietnamese were underestimated by their Western opponents. The French commander, says the movie, set the battle up on purpose to destroy the North Vietnamese army (Vietnam had separated into north and south at this time), but the commander set up the base in a valley, and apparently didn’t even try to keep the Vietnamese from taking a superior position in the surrounding hills. The army managed to put numerous artillery pieces in place and camouflage them. By the end of the battle, the French had lost 8,000 out of 11,000 troops, and the commander had committed suicide. The Vietnamese had lost three times that number, but realized they could beat anyone trying to reconquer their country.

The situations aren’t exactly parallel, but that battle reminds me of what the Russians did to beat the Germans in World War II. It wasn’t just that the USSR was a huge country, and inhospitable, but that the Russians were willing to suffer immense numbers of casualties to win. Besides Vietnam being a small country, the situation differed in the Vietnamese fighting a primarily guerrilla war, though that was also an important part of the war in Russia. But the Russians fought many more conventional battles than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese only committed to conventional fighting when they were sure they could win.

John F. Kennedy was in Vietnam in 1951 and didn’t buy the story the French were peddling about their ability to subdue the rebels. He told constituents later that unless the USA could convince the people there that we were as interested in justice and their independence as they, we wouldn’t be able to prevail against them. At some point, he changed his mind, and the first episode didn’t clearly explain why.

Ho Chi Minh was portrayed in the first episode as being determined, but relatively moderate. Others in the politburo were more radical, ruthlessly purging opponents, even people who had fought with the Viet Minh. Burns points out, though, that they were no more brutal than the French.

In the 1950s, when the USA became involved in the war, there was considerable paranoia about Communism, and it’s quite true that Communists often didn’t behave very nicely. Our country entered the war to try to make sure that Communism didn’t spread further into Southeast Asia from China. We had already fought in Korea (where China assisted the North Koreans at great cost), and were unable to salvage more than a draw. So there was some legitimate concern, but there was also not enough thought about an important question: why would any country be attracted to Communism?

It took over in Russia because the Czarist government became ineffective. It wasn’t what most probably wanted, but the Bolsheviks managed to impose themselves.

In China it was because of ineffective government too, as well as a legacy of colonialism. Foreigners, including the USA, had been meddling in the affairs of the country, and few people liked that. In Vietnam it was very simply colonialism: the French had invaded the country and put the natives to work without much respect for their wishes or abilities. Since our country too has a history of being a colony and rebelling so we could manage our own affairs, it’s a question why we couldn’t understand and assist another country who wanted exactly the same thing as we. A question, but not a very mysterious one.

Burns gives us a clue in the first episode, in which he has a clip of Richard Nixon trying to explain the domino theory. China is just to the north of the countries of the peninsula, North Vietnam has a Communist government, there’s concern about Laos and Cambodia too, and if they fall, Malaya, with its tin and rubber would be at risk. Nixon may not have meant to say it, but that gives the game away: we want raw materials and cheap labor from those countries, and it’s more convenient for them to be dominated by a Western nation.

Vietnam was divided into north and south largely because Russia and China didn’t want to fight anyone at that time. Without the backing of those countries, Vietnam couldn’t fight, so Ho Chi Minh had to agree to the division. The French and whoever didn’t like the Communists had to leave the north, and the Viet Minh were to leave the south. Ngo Dinh Diem, who was from the north, became the president of the south. Like Ho Chi Minh, he hated the French, but he also hated the Communists, who had put him in prison and killed two of his relatives by burying them alive. When he took over he became adept at maneuvering the USA, which knew that if a promised election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win. Because Ho was a Communist, our country was stuck with Diem, and we wanted to set up a “legitimate” government in the south, and not have Communists dominate the whole country. But the South Vietnamese weren’t happy with that. There were radicals left there to oppose the Diem government, and they were being badly treated, so the North decided to do everything they could to help get rid of Diem.

That’s about where the first episode stopped. The USA in the mid to late fifties has been supplying the South Vietnamese army and sending military advisers there, but hasn’t yet begun sending troops in any number. Burns points out that the advisers are getting the South Vietnamese army ready for conventional warfare, but that North Vietnam has no interest in fighting a conventional war.

I was reminded of a newsletter I used to receive in my early teens. I don’t recall the name or author of it, but I remember him drawing (not with great facility) cartoons of Jesus looking sad. He also pointed out that the United States has been more inclined to support dictatorships than democracies in its history, in contrast to our own history and stated ideals. Vietnam was the first war in which those practices came back to bite us. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.


Liberals vs Fascists


It was between 25 and 30 years ago that one of my acquaintances told me he thought Adolph Hitler was a liberal. I was totally taken aback, and didn’t say anything because I didn’t know WHAT to say. Now I think that opinion comes from propaganda, but a lot of people would disagree.

What can be pointed to as liberal in what Hitler did? Innovation in propaganda? Even if that’s valid, he was greatly influenced in that department by American advertising. What else is there?

Many people blame most of the bad things that happened in the past century or so on liberalism. I disagree. Of course liberals are as guilty of failing to live up to their ideals as anyone, and I think that failure is probably responsible for much dislike, but I subscribe to psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich’s view of the political spectrum: that it relates to sexual health, and that there are both conservative and liberal extremists whose behavior is very similar, and whom Reich considered to be sexually unhealthy.

His view was that since sex is a very sensitive subject for most people, children are often trained to repress sexual feelings. Repression isn’t just a mental or emotional thing, but is manifested physically in chronically clenched muscles which physically hold sexual feelings in. Nobody can totally repress such feelings, but when their muscles are chronically tight in large parts of the body the sexual feelings that are able to escape have some sadism to them. Sexually repressed people are those who foment the most violence, Reich thought, and devised methods of treatment to help people feel more comfortable with their sexuality.

One of these methods was to manually loosen the muscles of various parts of the body. He had some notable success with those methods, as did Dr. Ellsworth Baker, one of his students. Unfortunately, publicity about his methods was often negative, so few if any practice his treatment now.

In the last few decades it’s become popular in some circles to blame liberals for all extremism, which isn’t exactly an objective view. It has been liberals who have worked for civil rights of all kinds, and rarely conservatives. The people who lynched black people in the 19th and 20th century weren’t liberals. They were people using violence to prevent another group claiming its rights. Conservatism is usually defending the status quo, or trying to return us to a golden age. Liberals (at their best) work for a golden age in the future. Their version doesn’t usually include violence–unless it’s by extremists.

Communism as practiced in Russia (and later elsewhere) was certainly extreme. Many people identify it with socialism; actually, it was only the most extreme form of socialism. After all, socialism can’t be THAT bad. It has worked very well for wealthy people, as witness the bail-outs of the banks and other industries after the 2008 recession. In other words, from the conservative point of view, if Robin Hood takes from the poor and gives to the rich, that’s fine. It’s only the opposite that’s evil.

We’re seeing this distorted view lately with the “alt-left” being blamed for the violence at Charlottesville and other places. As one of my Facebook friends told me, when people come to protests carrying baseball bats and dressed in protective gear, they’re obviously looking for violence. I pointed out to him that this included the right-wingers who had also shown up for the protest, at least in Charlottesville.

This raises a question: do conservatives believe in the right to defend one’s self? For everybody? Or only for some? There was already some question whether conservatives would be comfortable with black people openly carrying guns as some whites do. I haven’t viewed any videos of the Charlottesville protests, and haven’t read anything much about other such recent events, but one article quoted people from Charlottesville who attended without weapons or other protection and were conducting themselves nonviolently as giving credit to “alt-left” people who stood with them as preventing them from being killed or badly hurt. Of course the right-wing propaganda makers portray them as starting the trouble, but the nonviolent protesters there deny that. Considering also that when people speak of terrorists in this country they usually mean Muslims, even though right-wingers have allegedly committed more terrorist attacks, I get the distinct impression that violence by one end of the political spectrum is considered perfectly fine, while violence by the other is to be condemned.

There’s plenty more propaganda like that. One article says an antifa organization advertised for protesters, especially young women. I hope that’s not true, but whether or not, it suggests that lefties are less sincere than righties. Though I don’t see being sincerely violent and racist as being a particularly good thing.

Another says that antifa are organized and have plans for a revolution. The irony of this one is being put out by As if THEY aren’t organized and calling for some kind of revolution.

I hear now that antifa is now officially considered a “gang”, at least in California, where they (or some of them) have allegedly indulged in violence and looting. I HOPE this means that only violent antifa members will be prosecuted, and that right-wing violence will also be stringently policed. Propagandists are trying to prevent the latter, though.

But if the antifa, “alt-left”, or anyone else tries to keep neoNazis, white supremacists, or anyone else from speaking their minds, as they have the constitutional right to do, they’ll be playing right into the hands of the right-wing bigots who would gladly do the same to them. That’s a rather foolish strategy, possibly being pursued by people unable to predict long-term consequences.

There are a lot of us who don’t like fascism, and want to do what we can to prevent it at a time when it seems a large minority (including some in high office) want to encourage it. But to be effective, we have to be smart. Fighting them violently will only turn us into the equivalent of them, which propagandists are already trying to say we are. Let’s behave better than that.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was effective in large part because they planned carefully and were STRICTLY nonviolent. That meant their protesters often got maimed or killed, but it made clear who they were and who their tormentors were. Maybe that’s what we liberals (and especially WHITE liberals) need to do.