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.