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Lessons of Vietnam.

The end of April marked the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the final withdrawal of all U.S. forces from South Vietnam. It was and is a time for stock-taking which indeed has been much in evidence in the media, both print and electronic, these past few weeks. What lessons have been learned? What is their relevance to the present situation and the many signs of a praidly maturing crisis in U.S. global policy?

To provide a setting for discussion of these and related questions, we print elow a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Vietnam war by Jayne Werner, a research associate at Columbia's Southern Asian Institute. This is needed for two main reasons: first, because many Americans, especially in the younger generation, know nothing about the history of the war; and second, because most of what the others have been told is false. If you fall into either of these categories, or if (as we found to be true of ourselves when we began again to think seriously about these questions) you have forgotten much of what you once knew, you would probably be well advised to turn to Dr. Werner's summary history before rather than after considering the analysis which follows.

Thirteen years ago, in June 1972, at a crucial turning point in the war, we published a 15-page Review of the Month organized around a then recently published book Swords and Ploughshares by General Maxwell Taylor, whom we described as having been "for many yeas at the very center of the events which led up to the present [spring 1972] crisis." Taylor, we reasoned, displayed in an exemplary fashion the "thought processes of those responsible for making U.S. policy," providing valuable insights into "their preconceptions and prejudices; their aims, ambitions, hopes; how they think they can get what they want: what is, or is likely to be, their reaction to failure." Readers' responses indicated that the method worked well, making possible the blending of generalizations and specific incidents into a useful and enlightening narrative. The method of course is not one that can be invoked at will: the right witness must be available at the right time. As it happens, however, the tenth anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam has provided us with another example of self-revelation by an actor long at the center of events, one that overlaps with Maxwell Taylor's and then goes on to deal with the last years of the war and to draw certain conclusions about the present and the future. In the following we focus on Richard Nixon's new book, No More Vietnams, evidently timed to benefit from the spate of publicity called forth by the anniversary.

On the eve of the Geneva Conference of 1954 which marked the final defeat of the French effort to reimpose colonial rule on Indo-China after the Second World War, we published in this space (June 1954) a lengthy analysis of the historical background under the title "What Every American Should Know about Indo-China." The conclusion reached then, under the heading "Which Way America?", can serve as a useful introduction to the renewed discussion and debate provoked by the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

The American people, by and large, are against colonialism and aggression and believe in the right of every country to manage its own affairs free from outside interference.

Rarely have these simple principles been so clearly and grossly violated as in present United States policy toward Indo-China.

To the extent that we support France--and we are already paying about four fifths of the cost of the French military effort in Indo-China--we support both colonialism and aggression. To the extent that we support Bao Dai, we claim the right to tell the Vietnamese people who should rule them. And if we send American forces into Indo-China, as Dulles and other high government spokesmen have repeatedly threatened to do in the last two months, we shall be guilty of aggression ourselves.

There is no way to avoid these conclusions about our policy and no extenuating circumstances to excuse it. The facts, as we hope the foregoing recital has shown to the satisfaction of even the most skeptical, are clear and unambiguous.

What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to take the position that anti-Communism justifies anything, including colonialism, interference in the affairs of other countries, and aggression? That way, let us be perfectly clear about it, lies war and more war leading ultimately to full-scale national disaster.

Or are we going to call a halt to the degrading and ruinous policy our leaders have been pursuing and begin to find our way back to a course based on the principles on which this country was founded, the principles of national independence and respect for the rights of others?

As far as our leaders are concerned, the answer to the first of these questions has been unambiguous and emphatic. Every U.S. administration in the intervening three decades has taken the position that anti-Communism does in fact justify anything. The French had been trying for nine years to reimpose their rule over the whole of Indo-China. After their defeat at Dienbienphu and their expulsion, ratified and legalized by the Geneva Conference, the United States illegally and without a shred of historical justification stepped into their place, established a neocolonial puppet regime in Saigon, and poured in tens of billions of dollars and ultimately over a half million troops in an effort to keep this artificial creation alive. We shall return to the second question later on. First, let us see how Richard Nixon attempts to justify U.S. policies in Vietnam and his own role in planning and carrying them out.

In his chapter entitled "How the Vietnam War Began," Nixon presents a garbled and tendentious account of the situation in Indo-China at the end of the Second World War. Independence for the colonies of the Western powers, he proclaims, was inevitable:

Nationalism was fermenting beneath the surface in all of them. It was not a question of whether movements for independence would arise, for they already had, but rather whether they would win power by peaceful or violent means and whether they would be controlled by true nationalists or by Communists who would impose a new colonialism far more oppressive than any that had come before. (p. 24)

Notice how cleverly this sets the stage for the argument that follows. The French had to go, but the real issue remained: would they be replaced by "true nationalists" or by the far-worse Communists? The question was particularly acute in Vietnam. As Nixon explains:

France's principal enemy was the Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh. During World War II, Ho had taken carefully calculated steps to position himself to strike for power afterward. At the war's end, his opportunity came. Through ruthless and adroit infighting, he had eliminated his nationalist rivals as significant military forces. When the sudden surrender of Japan produced a vacuum of political power in Vietnam, Ho moved quickly to exploit it. In 1945 he seized power in northern Vietnam and declared the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (p. 26)

Next comes a truly astonishing distortion of history, neatly packaged in a single sentence: "In 1945, when the French returned, they easily reestablished their control in southern Vietnam and extended their rule to northern Vietnam through the March 6, 1946, agreement with the Viet Minh." (p. 26) What actually happened is something else again.

First, the French return to the south would have been impossible without the connivance and assistance of the British who had been empowered by the Potsdam Conference (July 1945) to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in the south of Vietnam while the Chinese were assigned the same role in the north. The British refused to have anything to do with Ho Chi Minh's government, claiming (absurdly) that it was a Japanese puppet; released French troops from Japanese interment and gave them arms; disarmed the Viet Minh; and signed an agreement with Paris turning control over to the French. General LeClerc, named commander of an expeditionary force by DeGaulle, brought in fresh troops and proceeded to "pacify" the area. So much for the easy reestablishment of French control in the south.

Second, what Nixon calls the March 6, 1946, agreement with the Viet Minh had nothing to do with ceding control in the north to France. Instead, it was what seemed at the time to be, and was generally interpreted as, an enormous concession by the French to the Vietnamese: they recognized the new Republic. Here is the text of the agreement signed by Sainteny, the representative of France, and Ho Chi Minh on March 6, 1946:

1. The government of France recognizes the Republic of Vietnam as a free state having its government and its parliament, its army and its finances, forming part of the Indo-Chinese federation and of the French Union. Regarding the reunion of the three "Ky" [Cochin China in the south, Annam in the center, and Tonkin in the north], the French government agrees to be bound by the decision of the peoples consulted by referendum.

2. The government of Vietnam agrees to receive in a friendly fashion the French army when, in accordance with international agreements, it comes to relieve the Chinese troops.

3. The foregoing stipulations will become effective immediately. Directly after the exchange of signatures, each of the high contracting parties will take all necessary measures to bring about a cease fire on the battlefields, to maintain their troops in their respective positions, and to create a climate favorable to the immediate opening of friendly and frank negotiations. These negotiations will be related particularly to:

a. diplomatic relations of Vietnam with foreign states;

b. the future status of Vietnam;

c. French economic and cultural interests in Vietnam.

The "French Union" had not yet been legally defined at that time, but the italicized clause in the first paragraph--"having its government and its parliament, its army and its finances"--shows clearly enough that Ho Chi Minh believed he was being promised a wide and genuine degree of independence, approaching if not equaling that enjoyed by the British Dominions. In retrospect, of course, we know that the French had no intention of granting anything of the sort. They began almost immediately to sabotage the promised negotiations, to deprive the Vietnamese of vitally important customs revenues, and to extend the scope of their military control. This campaign of roll-back and suppression culminated with the massive air and naval bombardment of Haiphong on November 23rd, resulting in an estimated 20,000 civilian casualities.

After that it was war to the bitter end, which came at Dienbienphu in 1954. DeGaulle had boasted to an interviewer in January 1946, "We shall return to Indo-China because we are the stronger." It took the French nine more years to learn the truth. Meanwhile, they compiled one of the most disgraceful records of lies, deceptions, and broken promises in the whole disgraceful history of relations between the Western imperialist powers and their colonies and dependencies.

The Geneva Conference which concluded in July 1954 marked the effective end of France's role in Indo-China, and if its terms had been respected by the United States--which alone among the attending nations (the Chinese People's Republic, the Soviet Union, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, Britain, and the United States) refuse to sign the Final Declaration--it would have also marked the end of the Vietnam war and the definitive liberation of Vietnam as a unified nation.

What does Richard Nixon have to say about the Geneva Conference? Exactly two sentences, the most important sentences in the book because the validity of practically everything else stands or falls with them. Here they are: "The Geneva Conference of 1954 temporarily settled the question of who would be the successors to the French. Its declaration divided Vietnam into two countries: Communist North Vietnam and independent South Vietnam." (p. 32)

This is a barefaced lie. It should be compared with what the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS) wrote at the time of the Committee's founding in 1970:

In retrospect, the most important aspect of these [Geneva Conference] accords, signed in July 1954, was what they did not say. Specifically, they in no way partitioned Vietnam into two separate and independent nations. They were no more than a "cease-fire" accord between the two sides, and the seventeenth parallel only a "provisional military demarcation line" that "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary" (Articles 1 and 8; Article 6, final Declaration). This was only a means, in a war without clear-cut front lines, of separating the two sides. In a Final Declaration, endorsed by all the nations at the conference (except the United States) the temporary nature of the demarcation line was emphasized and it was specified that elections should be held in July 1956, under the supervision of the ICC [International Control Commission established by the accords] representatives. (CCAS, The Indochina Story, New York, 1970, pp. 20-21. Emphasis in original.)

Nixon was the vice president of the United States at the time of the Geneva conference. There is no way he could have avoided knowing what happened there and what the administration of which he was a part did to subvert the decisions of the Conference, to split Vietnam, and to lay the basis for two decades more of war in Indo-China. His whole account of how the war started, and hence what kind of a war it was, is thus not only false but deliberately dishonest. In sober truth, the war the United States fought in Vietnam was not a defensive war against Communist (or any other kind of) aggression, as Nixon repeats ad nauseamf nor was it a civil war, a belief he tries to attribute to some of its opponents: it was a war of aggression by the United States against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the internationally recognized, legitimate representative of all the Vietnamese people.

It is not surprising that Nixon, starting from a totally false conception of what the war was about (i.e., the independence of Vietnam), is unable to udnerstand its tortuous course in the years after 1954. To the vast majority of the Vietnamese, of course, the United States was seen as simply a new foreign occupier. In all such cases, as the whole history of imperialism demonstrates, the invader is able to enlist a body of local collaborators--exploiters of their own people, compradors, mercenaries, etc. Vietnam was no exception, though given the enormous and indeed unprecedented power and welath of the occupiers, it must be said that American success in this respect was a good deal less than might have been expected. It is true that the regime installed in Saigon by the Americans after the ceasefire and regroupment mandated by the Geneva accords was able, by the ruthless use of terror against a largely unprepared population, to establish control over most of the southern half of the country. But after these initial losses, the forces of resistance, recognizing that they had been deceived by the promises of the Geneva Conference, staged a comeback that steadily forged ahead beginning in 1958 and 1959.

The Americans originally believed it would be possible to establish a neocolonial regime in the south which, with massive U.S. material assistance and political support, would be able to sustain itself and thus guarantee continued Western domination over the vast economically rich and strategically important area of Southeast Asia which the older European colonial powers were no longer able to hold onto. From the moment they took charge after the Geneva Conference, the Americans pursued a course which Nixon later on, after the assumed the presidency in 1969, would label "Vietnamization," claiming it as his own brand-new brainchild. It was not new. It had been tried and failed in the 1950s and early 1960s. It would fail again in the 1970s. This is the key to an understanding of the war as well as to a refutation of Nixon's apologia for U.S. policy and his own role in the war's last phase.

Already under Kennedy the United States had found it necessary to send military personnel (some 16,000 of them) to bolster up the faltering Saigon regime. By 1965, the situation was desperate. The first experiment in Vietnamization had failed. The choice facing Johnson was to get out or escalate, and of course he escalated, dispatching more than half a million troops to Vietnam and initiating the regular bombing of North Vietnam.

Escalation, however, did not bring military victory. Its main consequence was quite different and, from the U.S. ruling-class point of view, fatally counterproductive. It gave an enormous impetus to the antiwar movement which from this time on became an increasingly important and ultimately decisive factor in shaping U.S. policy. This became evident after the Tet offensive is early 1968 which Nixon, ironically, considers to have been a military disaster for the Vietnamese. (pp. 88-93) It is worth quoting at some length what Nixon himself says about the political consequences of this great military victory for American arms:

The Tet Offensive shook the Johnson White House to its foundations. Serious doubts arose in the minds of many of his advisers about whether we could win in Vietnam. When Johnson consulted a group of former high officials he called the "wise men," all of whom had been strong supporters of our commitment in Vietnam, he found that six favored disengagement in some form, four advocated standing firm, and one straddled the fence. "If they had been so deeply influenced by the reports of the TEt Offensive," Johnson later wrote, "what must the average citizen in the country be thinking?" On March 31, President Johnson answered his own question by announcing that he would not seek reelection. (p. 93)

Such considerations were never again absent from the minds of those responsible for the conduct of U.S. policy, including Richard Nixon himself. Indeed, by the time the 1968 presidential election came around, Nixon reports" "Whatever the merits of our cause and whatever our chances of winning the war, it was no longer a question of whether the next President would withdraw our troops but of how they would leave and what they would leave behind." (P. 96)

You may, and indeed should, be surprised to learn that the foregoing quotation is the last sentence before a chapter entitled "How We won the War." If you believe him, he was already convinced when he was elected in 1968 that American troops would have to be withdrawn during his presidency, and in fact he began to make gesture in that direction as part of his "Vietnamization" program, proclaimed soon after he took office. This must be seen in the light of the fact that the withdrawal of U.S. force from Vietnam had always been the war aim of Ho Chi Minh and remained that of hi successors after he died in September 1969. Were they finally forced to give up this aim and accept the division of Vietnam, which had just as consistently been the war aim of the United States and its South Vietnamese puppet?

The purpose of Nixon's "How We Won War" chapter as to convince readers that this is in fact exactly what happened. His first term in office, in addition to efforts to build up the South Vietnamese forces, was marked by a steady succession of U.S. military moves, including heavy bombings of both military and civilian targets in Vietnam, mining Haiphong harbor, invasion of Cambodia, and continued saturation bombing of that country, and finally the so-called Christams bombing of the Hanoi-Haiphong area in December 1972. Most of the chapter is taken up with a rambling and disjointed account of these and other matters, some related, some not. The one thing tht is not dealt with is how we won the war--for the simple reason that is reality nothing of the kind happened.

How, then, does Nixon seek to create the illusion of winning the war? The answer is, by bald assertion. The chapter begins with the following statement:

On January 27, 1973, when Secretary of State William Rogers signed the Paris peace agreements, we had won the war in Vietnam. We had obtained the one politicial goal for which we had fought the war: The South Vietnamese people would have the right to determine their own political future. (P. 97)

This is pretty much what Nixon and his associates claimed at the time. It was not true then and repeating it does not make it true now. The reality is that the agreements signed in January were in all essentials identical to those that Nixon himself had accepted in October and repudiated in December. The December bombings were one last desperate effort to get Hanoi to back down and recognize the division of Vietnam. It failed, absolutely and totally. Chapter 1, Article 1 of the January 27th agreements states simply and clearl: "The Untied States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of Vietnam as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreement on Vietnam." What remained to be settled was which government, that of Hanoi or that of Saigon, would emerge as the true representative of the Vietnamese nation.

This, in a sense, is the subject of Nixon's next chapter "How We Lost the Peace." It is a sorry performance--arrogant, brutual, unfeeling, self-serving, showing no sign of having learned anything from the bitter experiences of the previous two decades. Its message is simple and need nto detain us for long. We lost the peace, i.e., we failed to prevent the victory two years later of Hanoi over Saigon, because the U.S. Congress, obviously reflecting the mood of the American people, refused to give Nixon a mandate to continue waging the war in much the same way as it had been waged throughout his first term--by sending unlimited military supplies to the Saigon government and by indiscriminate bombing of military and civilian targetss throughout Vietnam. This was of course a recipe not for winning the peace but for extending the war into an indefinite future. It was just this prospect that had forced Nixon to sign the Paris agreements. That he now, 12 years later, puts it forward in the guise of a peace formula shows either bottomless cynicism or infinite contempt for the intelligence of his readers--or, more likely, both.

Nixon's last chapter is entitled "Third World War." It contains a preachy mixture of, on the one hand, standard ruling-class ideology with all its shortsightedness, lack of historical vision, and wishful rhetoric; and on the other hand, shrewd insights derived from long experience in managing the affairs of the leading imperialist power and dealing with its (and the system's) adversaries. What is of interest of course is not Nixon's version of ruling-class ideology, which is on the level of a hack TV commentator's, but the insights that come from his practical experience.

Our starting point is Nixon's concept of "Third World War," an expression clearly intended to carry a double meaning. On the one hand it is war in the third world, and on the other hand it is part of what he sees as an ongoing worldwide struggle that has been in progress ever since the Second World War and likely to continue into the indefinite future. But Nixon has in mind much more than a mere description of a particular phase of this worldwide struggle, the ont that happens to have predominated during the period his book is concerned with. He is also saying, and he is very explicit about, it, that this is the only form the Third World War is ever likely to take. "The world," he writes, "has probably seen its last conventional war between major powers. In the end the world conflict will probably be decided by the outcome of unconventional, limited wars." (P. 225) Further:

In considering the possible threats to peace in the world, the least likely is that the Soviet Union would launch a nuclear strike with their SS-20 missiles on Western Europe. Apart from the risk of retaliation, a Europe in ruins is not an attractive military prize. As Michael Howard put it in The Causes of War, the Soviet Union is now a status quo power in Europe. (p. 213)

This reasoning obviously applies equally to a non-nuclear attack on Western Europe: status quo powers don't launch attacks on the status quo.

Finally, though Nixon is aware that a "conflict in the third world that involved the interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union could escalate into world war," he does not think it likely. A more realistic scenario that "while they will continue to proclaim their support for wars of national liberation, they will stop short of any action that oculd escalate into a suicidal world war." (p. 235)

These views are highly significant precisely because they flow from nixon's experience and are probably shared by the majority of the elder statemen, Republican and Democratic alike, who have been in charge of U.S. global policy since the end of the Second World War. They contracdict and undercut all the nonsense propagated, and to an unknown extent believed, by Reagan and his crowd in order to drum up support for their ultimately disastrous military and fiscal policies. This is not the context in which to discuss the real purpose of these policies; from our present point of view, it is enough to point out that the picture of the Soviet Union as an aggressive, expansionist totalitarian dictatorship, a sort of red carbon copy of Hitlerite Germany, is by no means universally believed by the U.S. ruling class. If even Richard Nixon, one of the extreme hawks of the Vietnam war, has a quite different view of Soviet ambitions and intentions, it would seem to follow that the potential for turning U.S. policy in the direction of a more live-and-let-live stance toward the Soviet Union is greater than pronouncements emanating from Washington these days would allow one to assume. As far as it goes, this is good news for the peace movement.

But it should not be supposed that Nixon's nonalarmist assessment of Soviet intentions implies any moderation of his hawkish views about wars of the Vietnam variety, a category which includes, as he repeatedly makes clear, any wars that threaten the status quo in the third world. On this subject Nixon fulminates a good deal--on the wickedness of the Communists (who are usually assumed to be manipulated by or acting somehow on behalf of the Soviets), the need to protect the freedom of weak countries and the human rights of their citizens (which he admits most of them don't have but believes they can hope for under our benign protection), plus most of the rest of the time-worn imperialist litany. But Nixon knows the score and is less reticent about revealing it than many of his class brothers and sisters:

We must be concerned with what happens in the Third World because of the enormous strategic and economic stakes involved. Two thirds of the world's people live in the developing countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Those countries have natural resources that are indispensable to the industrial countries of the West. United States with Third World countries last year was $175 billion--equal to our trade with Western Europe and Japan combined. (p. 213)

This, then, is what wars in the third world are about, and Nixon is in no doubt that it provides ample justification for U.S. intervention a la Vietnam not only when such wars break out but wherever they threaten. In a ringing peroration at the end of the book, Nixon proclaims;

Our defeat in Vietnam was only a temporary setback... It is vital that we learn the right lessons from that defeat. In Vietnam, we tried and failed in a just cause. "No more Vietnams" can mean that we will not try again. It should mean that we will not fail again. (p. 357)

If you were to conclude that, on Nixon's own showing, this is a recipe for an endless series of wars, you would be right. This, we submit, is the real lesson we--meaning now the American people, not the rulers of the Amerian empire--should learn from Vietnam and from Richard Nixon's attempt to justify his own inglorious role in that terrible, and basically unnecessary, tragedy. For us, "No more Vietnams" should mean, and we believe slowly but surely is coming to mean, no more wars to deny others the rights we as a nation claimed for ourselves more than two hundred years ago.
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Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jun 1, 1985
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