Vietnam December 2002 to January 2003
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (12/7/1941), the North Korean attack on the South (6/25/1950), the attack on Fort Sumter (4/10/1861), the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine (2/15/1898), represent the specific triggers which caused the U.S. Government to go to war. Every American has seen the newsreel of President Roosevelt declaring: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The Vietnamese War stands as an exception: there was no specific trigger even though the Gulf of Tonkin incident was devised for that purpose. Few Americans can describe the steps that led the U.S. Government to war or who should be held responsible for getting us into the “Vietnamese war”. Since the Vietnamese refer to that war as the “American war”, this paper will adopt the neutral term “the war” to refer to that conflict.
This paper will explore some of the characteristics of Vietnamese culture and history to show that it was obvious in advance that the U.S. Government would not win the war and even more surprisingly to show that it was unlikely that communism would succeed in Vietnam. Since the U.S. Government’s stated purpose was to stop Vietnam from becoming a communist country, this means that its miscalculation was even worse than generally realized. This paper will argue that the Vietnamese would have outgrown communism because it was alien to their culture and way of life.
The observation that U.S. Government would be unable to win the war is not a new, original or even controversial thesis. Here are three quotes from David Lamb’s insightful book Vietnam, Now: Charles de Gaulle warned President Kennedy in 1962: “I predict that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire.” … Undersecretary of State George Ball told Kennedy if he went ahead with plans to up the U.S. ante from a commitment of “assistance” to South Vietnam to one of “limited partnership” it would mean “within five years, we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.” Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, warned Kennedy, “South Vietnam could become quicksand for us… It is not an American war.”
In fact, President Kennedy rejected Ball’s advice and upped the ante in Vietnam. He increased the number of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam from about 200 advisors to about 17,000 troops at the time of his assassination. President Johnson dramatically increased that number to about 560,000 and fully Americanized the war. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had supported the French government with aid amounting to 80% of the cost of the French reconquest of Vietnam from the end of WWII to their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. President Eisenhower with his military experience was extremely careful to avoid involvement in a land war in Asia. He did not provide air cover for the French at Dien Bien Phu and he limited U.S. forces in Vietnam to advisory roles.
Interestingly the first U.S. President that Ho Chi Minh was involved with was President Wilson. Ho Chi Minh prepared a petition to give to President Wilson based on his famous “self determination of peoples” principle at the Paris peace conference in 1919 to urge that principle be applied to Vietnam. Whether Wilson ever saw this petition or not, it’s impossible to construct a serious argument ascribing the blame for getting the U.S. Government involved in Vietnam to him. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson bear the primary responsibility for the U.S. involvement in the war.
John F. Kennedy was elected with less than the majority of the popular vote in 1960 in an election tainted with voting fraud. He was the first Catholic and the youngest man elected President. His presidency started filled with hope because of his charisma and his pledge to get the “country moving again”, but quickly stumbled. In April 1961, just three months after his inauguration, he authorized the invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration, but reneged on his pledge of air support at the last moment dooming the invasion to failure. The U.S. Government wanted to be rid of Castro, but it did not want to be seen as doing so. Air cover by the U.S. Air Force would have exposed the U.S. Government’s hand.
The Soviet leader Khrushchev saw this waffling as weakness and put up the Berlin wall in August 1961, four months after the Bay of Pigs disaster. President Kennedy’s response was to increase the number of U.S. advisors in Vietnam. Vietnam became a kind of pawn in the struggle between Kennedy and Khrushchev. After Kennedy forced Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba in 1962, he continued to increase the number and expand the role of U.S. troops in Vietnam to show Khrushchev his determination to contain Communism.
On the political front, President Diem of South Vietnam, a militant Catholic, alienated the Buddhist majority in his country to the extent that they martyred themselves in a horrific way by pouring gasoline on themselves and setting themselves on fire. His sister-in-law Madame Nhu, displaying arrogant contempt like Marie Antoinette, referred to them as “barbecue”. President Diem became such a political liability that the U.S. Government either instigated or supported his ouster to get a government in South Vietnam that could win the war. President Diem was assassinated just 11 days before President Kennedy.
The mess in Vietnam would accelerate under Johnson who adopted a guns and butter program featuring Great Society programs for liberals and a vigorous expansion of the war in Vietnam for conservatives. Johnson was elected President in 1964 in a landslide, but decided not to run in 1968 when the disaster of his Vietnamese policy became manifest.
The recapitulation of history is to provide context to allow us to understand the root cause of the failure of the U.S. Government. It made decisions about Vietnam as part of the worldwide struggle against Communism and for other reasons instead of focusing on Vietnam itself. This was the root cause of the disaster. Let’s briefly examine Vietnamese history to see how obvious it was that any war against Vietnam would be lost.
Vietnam is a long, narrow country with 1900 miles of shoreline on the South China Sea in Southeast Asia just south of China. Because of its geographic position, it has been exposed to most of the world’s religions and civilizations over the centuries. Its long shoreline makes it easy to invade. During its 2000-year history, Vietnam has defeated every foreign invader including: the Chinese, the Mongols, the Khmers, the Japanese, the French and the U.S. In all of these struggles, the Vietnamese strong suit was patience. Victory meant outlasting the enemy. It took 1000 years to expel China!
Vietnam was temporarily divided north and south into two countries at the time of the French defeat in 1954 with the plan for reunification after a nationwide vote in 1956. However, the South Vietnamese President Diem refused to allow the vote fearing that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh. This admission by President Diem was prima fascia evidence that the South would never defeat the North in a struggle for hearts and minds. How could such an obvious point be ignored?
Let’s consider Ho Chi Minh. Although he was the founder of the Communist Party in Vietnam, he was first and foremost a passionate nationalist. He spent 30 years abroad, understood the rest of the world and was greatly influenced by Thomas Jefferson and the American struggle for independence. He devoted his entire life to reuniting his country. It’s rare to see a leader with such a purity of motive. He never married. Like George Washington, who was also childless, he was the “father of his country”. His countrymen referred to him affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Ho Chi Minh lived modestly in a simple house refusing all of the trappings of power. He was basically a nationalistic leader like Gandhi whose moral force defeated the British Empire. How can such a purity of motive and depth of purpose be defeated?
Let’s compare the value proposition offered to the people of Vietnam by the U.S. Government and by Ho Chi Minh. The goal of the U.S. Government was status quo ante, i.e., to defeat communists in the South maintaining the artificial division of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh offered the reunification of Vietnam free of foreign domination. The U.S. Government always saw the war in Vietnam thru the lens of the communist threat and the domino theory. Ho Chi Minh saw it as a struggle for national independence. Nationalism trumps communism.
Even at the level of military strategy, the U.S. Government approach was fatally flawed. According to Lamb: “As far as I could tell, America’s military leadership never had the vaguest idea who the Vietnamese of the North were, what motivated them, or what the limits of their endurance were.” For example, when you visit Cu Chi and see the complex of more than 250 kilometers of tunnels where Vietnamese soldiers willingly lived like ants without proper food or medical supplies in claustrophobic conditions, you realize at the individual level the fundamental differences in motivation between the two sides. The U.S. Government used a conscripted army with many soldiers never clear why they were in Vietnam. They couldn’t understand if fighting communism was so important why were they sent to the other side of the globeinstead of just 90 miles to fight in Cuba. The Vietnamese were fighting for their country.
The political strategy of the U.S. Government refused to allow a military invasion of North Vietnam because of the danger of confronting China. With Russia supplying arms to North Vietnam, and the U.S. unable to stop the flow of arms into the South, it was just a matter of time before the U.S. people forced the U.S. Government out of the endless and unwinnable war. More U.S. troops were killed in the war during the Nixon administration while it tried to achieve “peace with honor” than under Kennedy and Johnson combined. This demonstrates anew the ancient maxim that it is easier to start a war than stop one.
Another point that is difficult to fathom is how the U.S. Government could ignore the lessons from the American Revolution, which was the first guerilla war in modern history. It was fought successfully against a distant country that was the dominant military and economic power of its day.
So on the basis of history, moral force, value proposition, political strategy and military tactics, it was clear that the U.S. Government was never going to win in Vietnam as the critics at the time explained. What was the human cost of the miscalculation or more precisely the lack of calculation? Three million Vietnamese lost their lives along with 58,000 Americans. One Vietnamese in ten was killed or wounded.
Let’s turn our attention to Vietnamese culture to see how incompatible it is with communism. First observe how dominant market thinking is. Vietnam is 80% agrarian. Farmers have been bringing their goods to sell in free markets for centuries. People want to own homes close to the markets for convenience in daily shopping.
In addition, people in Vietnam want to own homes on busy streets in order to have a family business on the ground floor. I don’t know the number of people in Vietnam who own small businesses, but it appears to be a larger percentage than in the United States. These businesses remain open until late at night to attract as much business as possible. Free market thinking is indigenous to Vietnamese culture. And since the communist government instituted pro-capitalist reforms in the Doi Moi program in 1992, everyone in Vietnam wants to become rich.
Vietnamese philosophical and religious thinking is based on a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and ancestor worship. Ancestor worship may be the most important ingredient in the culture. Farmers are sometimes buried in the middle of one of their rice paddies keeping them close to the family. Vietnamese like to live in multigenerational houses. There are always grandmothers to baby sit and there are adults to care for elderly parents. People are self-sufficient having little need of the services that government provides.
Until recently some of the most poorly paid positions in Vietnam were teachers, doctors and lawyers. This is an outgrowth of a self-sufficient agrarian economy. What a contrast to Cuba where Castro was a lawyer and Che Guevara was a doctor. Communist revolutions elsewhere generally benefited from universities where Marxist teaching helped to establish in intellectual circles the concept that communism was the wave of the future. Even today, the Vietnamese under communism receive fewer government services than the people in the United States do. For example, other than government employees, Vietnamese today do not get free medical treatment.
Furthermore, according to Lamb “the Vietnamese were largely distrustful of and unconcerned with anyone outside their immediate circle of family and friends”. This is not the raw material one wants to use to build a communist country. Is there anything in the Vietnamese culture that would lead anyone to the conclusion that Vietnam would be an active participant spreading communism to other countries? Perhaps the U.S. Government in 1961 couldn’t conceive that communism would ultimately fail of its own contradictions, and thus never considered that over time communism would be rejected in Vietnam because of the lack of a cultural fit. Asking the right questions is the key to successful policy.
What is the situation in Vietnam today? Surprisingly the most favored tourists are Americans and the U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere as if it were an official currency. The Vietnamese are very optimistic people focused on the future, but still it was a surprise to me that I did not see any evidence of anti-Americanism in a two-week visit covering all parts of the country given the tremendous losses they suffered during the war.
Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Vietnam, but limited to 150cc. You see whole families on motorbikes 3 or even 4 people are common sights. In Hanoi, a city with 3,000,000 people, there are 1,000,000 motorbikes. In Saigon with 7,000,000 there are 2,500,000 motorbikes. There are many uncontrolled intersections in Saigon where two four-lane streets meet and traffic sorts itself out in an amazing display of interactive, real-time self-organization. Societies with such self-organizing characteristics are a poor match to government solutions. These motorbikes are a symbol of a distributed and independent transportation system that is the opposite of typical communist societies that pride themselves on good public transportation. There are relatively few buses in either Hanoi or Saigon.
The other ubiquitous sight in Vietnam is construction. It is just everywhere. Since the government established the pro-capitalistic Doi Moi policy, the creation of wealth, starting from a low base, has exploded with new home and business construction on a vast scale. This needs to be seen first hand to understand how profound the creation of wealth is. The growth in GNP in Vietnam was 7% in 2002 and is expected to be 11% in Saigon in 2003.
Still Vietnam is not yet a free country and much of the heavy industry is still controlled by the government. One of the perverse advantages to visiting an authoritarian country without freedom of the press is that what is printed in the press represents government policy. Please read the following from a front page article in the Viet Nam News newspaper on December 22, 2002:
Here we see evidence of “communist” government policies that read more like an editorial in the Wall Street Journal: systematic elimination of tariffs so domestic enterprises have to face competition from a global market economy, elimination of subsidies to state-owned industries, allowing state industries to fail, honoring the law of [economic] evolution and emphasis on the need for speed in [market] reforms. This is completely astonishing! Perhaps by winning the war, suffering for over a decade with Russian-style communism, when Vietnam, one of the top rice exporting countries, had to import rice, Vietnam may appreciate the free market even more than if the U.S. Government had somehow won the war and imposed it on them!
Finally, we may want to contrast the world’s remaining communist countries: China and Vietnam on the one hand with Cuba and North Korea on the other. Both China and Vietnam are authoritarian countries moving rapidly toward market economies. North Korea is the first communist monarchy whose rigid communist policies have resulted in mass starvation. Cuba is a communist country ruled for 44 years by one leader, Fidel Castro, who has impoverished Cuba where the average monthly wage is only $14.
While political leaders and even political structures may be changed rapidly, fundamental cultural values change very slowly. It’s clear that the U.S. Government never understood the tenacity of the Vietnamese people’s desire to reunite their country free of foreign domination. They never understood that Ho Chi Minh was first, last and always a nationalist. They evaded Ho’s clear-eyed prediction that he would beat them because victory meant just outlasting the enemy.
Even more sadly, the U.S. Government failed to realize that saving Vietnam from communism was unnecessary! Vietnamese culture with its core elements of free markets, ancestor worship and self-sufficiency would never be compatible with communism. In its hubris the U.S. Government couldn’t imagine that things could come out right without the U.S. Government intervening. Think of the irony: Uncle Ho modeled his Declaration of Independence on America’s, lived with a modesty that Jefferson would have admired, adopted guerrilla tactics from the U.S. Revolution yet all the U.S. Government saw was a communist to be stopped.
Today Vietnam is on a positive path and it should have a bright future.