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By Mark C. Jensen


The Montréal Review, February 2019



By 1995, the liveliest bar in Saigon was “Apocalypse Now.”

            With admirable economy, the bar’s owners managed a gentle dig at America’s infamous military defeat by giving a nod to its ongoing cultural dominance, trivializing both by using the iconic movie name to sell alcohol.  If anyone could fully appreciate the wicked ironies of war, even those of victory, he or she would be southern Vietnamese.

            Great, ostentatious - - even its making-of documentary, Hearts of Darkness, makes best movie lists - - Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was only the first among equals.  By my authoritative count, at least six other outstanding Vietnam war movies came out of Hollywood within a dozen years of war’s end. Almost all are stories about anti-heroes:  men placed in morally difficult situations by a distant or misguided higher authority, men who sometimes behave badly for reasons that we (the audience) nevertheless understand.  Their alternatives look worse.  Parallels with the larger American experience in Vietnam were not hard to see.

The big-screen images, though fictional, also resonated with audiences by reviving wartime feelings of anger and frustration, a sort of gallows nostalgia.  We remember how it was for us.  That’s fine; no one wants to repeat the experience.

But neither the movies, nor the still-echoing political recriminations of the 1960s and 1970s, tell us much about how the tragedy arose, or how it might have been avoided.


Vietnam in Hollywood

The movies really were great, though. 

First, and in some ways the most influential, was Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). Nominally set in the Korean War, but shot in a tropical setting and released at the peak of domestic unhappiness with Vietnam, M*A*S*H tells the “story” of capable, smart-ass Ivy League surgeons getting laid and breaking rules made by their slow-witted bureaucratic superiors.  (Its theme and tone echo earlier antiwar satires, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.)  The only thing resembling a plot involves a suicidal surgeon who recovers after a night in the sack with an empathetic but rather easily manipulated nurse.  Altman lets us in on the joke: the acting credits - - for the likes of Donald Sutherland, Eliot Gould and Sally Kellerman - - are announced over the army camp loudspeaker. The film’s cynicism is salvaged only by its sense of humor, and by our identification with the wise guys who know the whole game is pointless.

            One might have thought that this edgy, arty film would have a narrow audience.  To the contrary.  Its TV sequel, a half-hour sitcom complete with the movie’s intentionally cloying theme song, “Suicide is Painless,” ranked among the most popular series over its eleven yearrun, from 1972 to 1983.  The era of the popular anti-hero had begun.

            The first major Vietnam movie released after war’s end was Coming Home (1978).  In this formally conventional love triangle, a gung-ho military officer, his stateside wife and a paraplegic war veteran (Bruce Dern, Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt) each wrestle with the moral and ethical issues of this war, reflected in personal damage (physical disability, infidelity, alcoholism).  Because the characters do begin to come to terms with their trauma and anger, Coming Home has a redemptive quality absent in the other films, and absent in America itself.

That same year, The Deer Hunter told a much larger and more troubling story.   The film begins with a long establishing sequence about the lives and aspirations of young blue-collar guys of Slavic descent in mountainous western Pennsylvania.   It then abruptly jumps to the boys “in country,” fighting heroically, being injured and captured by the enemy.  Eventually the survivors return to Pennsylvania, their lives’ possibilities much reduced.  Although criticized for its factual liberties (the crucial scenes of Russian roulette in NVA prison camps were metaphors at best), the film was the first to portray the war’s effects on individuals without political predispositions.  It is nevertheless clear by the end that the strongest survivor (Robert DeNiro) started out as the deadliest hunter.  

Famously late, overbudget and even further from historical reality, Apocalypse Now (1979) follows a hardened young officer (Martin Sheen) on a secret mission far upriver, beyond where the Army is authorized to go.  His imperious superiors have ordered him to relieve Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue and set himself up as absolute ruler of the local montagnard population, “with extreme prejudice.”  During this violent odyssey, loosely paralleling Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the younger officer realizes that the Army’s mission itself has corrupted Kurtz and will corrupt him as well.  “The horror, the horror,” whispers the dying Kurtz.  It’s an accusation as well as a warning. 

The last films backgrounded character and plot for hyper-realism.  Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) put the audience on the ground, slogging through the jungle right behind the unlucky soldier “walking point” that day.  There is a storyline, left unresolved, in which a fresh private (Charlie Sheen, of all people) to choose between the methods of the platoon’s two charismatic leaders; one (Willem Dafoe) tries to do war the “right way,” agonizing over life and death decisions, while the other (Tom Berenger) does whatever he thinks necessary to survive.   But the film’s biggest star was its cinematography: I remember emerging from the theater shaken from the primitive mines exploding at close range and tracer bullets whizzing past me.  There was no time for judicious reflection on those trails.

In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Stanley Kubrick juxtaposed two stories connected by one character, Joker (Matthew Modine), and implicitly by cause-and-effect.  The first features R. Lee Ermey as a Marine training instructor, a veritable Shakespeare of verbal abuse, who succeeds in making his recruits into killing machines but drives the weakest of them to a murder-suicide.  The second finds Joker, a Stars and Stripes reporter, assigned to write a feel-good piece about a mission to retake an ancient capital city, building by building; it, too, ends with lives pointlessly wasted.  The audience gets breathtakingly little with which to identify, much less empathize.  The hoodlums of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange have shaved and joined the US Army.

What can we conclude from this remarkable string of movies?  Vietnam, certainly, was a potent setting for American tragedy and satire.  It drew some of the most important director/auteurs of the era, their careers well established, to take great formal and financial risks on stories that substantially overlapped and competed for the same audience.  They cast established stars like Sutherland, Gould, Fonda, DeNiro and Brando, and launched many careers: Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Charlie Sheen, Dafoe, Berenger, and Modine. (To say nothing of TV’s Alan Alda, who may not even have been acting.) They won Oscars.  The Deer Hunter and Platoon were Best Pictures; Fonda, Voigt and Walken won acting awards. Apocalypse Now, largely passed over by a Vietnam-weary Academy, appears on almost everyone’s GOAT list.  Even with their grim stories and unlikeable characters, they were commercially successful.  Much of the American public wanted or needed to see these films. 

We had a lot to work through.  During the period of direct US military intervention, 1965-73, Vietnam was by far the biggest domestic political issue.  Unlike the Cold War, of which it was a peripheral part, Vietnam was domestically divisive and not susceptible to consensus solutions. Yet the films don’t seek to answer the question of where things went off the rails.  The official decisions that put the characters in difficult situations take place offscreen; audience familiarity is largely assumed.

Instead, the films succeed by personalizing the tragedy and the hubris, and acknowledging the impossibility of the situation the soldiers found themselves in.  In Apocalypse Now, for example, the protagonist can either follow his orders to murder the mutinous, corrupted Kurtz (thereby following in Kurtz’ footsteps) or acquiesce in Kurtz’ brutal regime.  The young soldier of Platoon sees his paths as those of brutality or of unreasonable, unknowable risk.  The surgeons of M*A*S*H may act like frat boys, but only after sewing up unspeakable wounds.  Even the gung-ho officer in Coming Home is in the end a victim of circumstances beyond his control.

This is a crucial point of all of these films:  it was not the ordinary soldiers’ fault.  Whether due to enemy brutality or incompetent leadership, no one could have succeeded in those situations and no one could come out undamaged.  By extension, the war itself was, for America, an ugly, wasteful exercise with no redeeming value.  The films instead valorize their charismatic anti-heroes.  But these characters may make it a little too easy to break rules:  not every situation poses a choice between behaving badly and behaving worse.  From there, it’s a short path to Rambo - - and to My Lai and Abu Ghraib.  Anti-heroes don’t relieve us of the duty to agonize over life and death decisions.

Still, there is a seventh: The Killing Fields (1984).  An American reporter and his translator decide to stay when the Khmers Rouges take control of Cambodia.  Armed teenaged soldiers rule the streets of Phnom Penh while Maoist leaders proclaim the Year Zero.  The sobered journalists get the hell out.  The movie, based on a true story, follows the capture, “re-education” and escape of the Cambodian translator, including his unforgettable passage through a rice paddy littered with hundreds of skulls.  The horror, indeed. But it doesn’t fit the model of the other films.  There’s a hero, for one thing.  And a fully realized Asian character, played by Hiang Ngor, in an Oscar winning role. 


Questions of Perspective

Movies may especially color the memories of Americans too young to have served in or debated Vietnam - - anyone born after about 1955.  I turned eighteen in 1975, fortunate not to have faced the agonizing choices of young men just a few years older, who could be drafted, much less the traumatic experiences of those who did serve.   At the time, one could hardly find a middle ground between those who believed the US should persevere and support the troops on the official mission, and those who turned against this particular war as impracticable or immoral. 

These debates continue as history, and turn on unanswerable questions:

  • Was Vietnam of strategic importance in the Cold War?
  • Were the South Vietnamese governments of President Diem and his successors effective and worthy allies?
  • Should the US have declared and fought an unlimited war against North Vietnam?
  • Could a more intelligent counterinsurgency strategy, similar to that practiced by General Abrams after 1968 (as troop levels declined), have led to a different result?

These issues, important as they are, focus on the US portion of a multinational humanitarian disaster.  The names of over 58,000 American dead are inscribed in polished black granite on the hauntingly beautiful Vietnam memorial in Washington.   The long wall gradually descends from street level and re-emerges some 400 feet later, the names and distance at once personalizing and reflecting the magnitude of the loss.

In addition, on the order of 3.5 million Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, died on both sides of the conflicts of 1945-1979.  We will never know the exact number, much less the names, of these casualties, about 10% of the entire Vietnamese population of the time.  In raw numbers, this is roughly fifty times the US figure, ten times the American losses in World War II, five times those of the US Civil War.  The Khmer Rouges also killed perhaps 2 million of their fellow Cambodians.  All these lives, and many others, were sacrificed in conflicts that everyone, somehow, lost:  the French, Americans, Cambodians, Vietnamese non-communists and, eventually, Vietnamese communists as well.

Of course, no one wanted this to happen.  Discussing his very dark and very funny novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen remembered that he was tempted to focus blame on the Americans - - and he does include a wicked send-up of Coppola - - but he wrote a more interesting story instead.

Everybody in this book, especially our [Vietnamese] protagonist, is guilty of some kind of terrible behavior.  For me, the ability to acknowledge that we are all both human and inhuman at the same time is really critical because that acknowledgement characterizes dominant culture.  For example, in American movies about the Vietnam War, Americans want to be on screen regardless of whether they have to be villains or antiheroes.  It’s much better to be able to do that than to be the virtuous human extra in the margins. . . . Being able to present a narrator who’s both human and inhuman was my way of challenging our subordination in dominant culture.                             

But if all sides behaved badly, the historical problem is less about who is to blame than how such circumstances arose.  Could this tragedy have been averted?  To address that question, we must acknowledge that people believed they had good reasons for acting as they did at the time.  We might have done no better.


Arms and Race

            “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  Mao’s epigram is unprincipled, brutal and pragmatic.  And, possibly, his takeaway from the prior century of European involvement in East Asia.   Colonialism did not just trigger the Vietnam conflicts; it was a living memory in every Vietnamese family.  The more educated knew it as a bitter lesson repeated over and over in East Asia. 

            It’s repetition that matters here, not nationalities.  Americans thought of themselves as reformers, but by the mid-twentieth century it didn’t matter which flag flew over one’s battleship.

The British had led the way. In response to Lord Macartney's 1793 trade mission to Beijing, the Qing dynasty Emperor Qianlong had written:  "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures."  This was not a farsighted policy, to be sure, but in the short run it greatly advantaged China, which could demand silver in exchange for Chinese silks and porcelain. The need to pay in silver created a huge balance of payments problem for European importers. 

Opium was Britain's substitute.  Imported from colonial India, deliveries of opium skyrocketed from 4000 chests per year in 1800 to 40,000 in the late 1830s (at about 150 pounds/chest).  When the Chinese government took serious countermeasures, destroying half a year's trade at Canton, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston responded decisively with modern warships.  The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing gave the British five treaty ports, the then-barren island of Hong Kong, monetary reparations and a "most favored nation" entitlement to any favors later granted to others, of whom there were many, including the US.  This and later humiliations ended only after World War II.  The next leader of a unified, sovereign China would be Mao Zedong in 1949.   

            With this example in mind, US Admiral Matthew Perry sailed a black battleship into Edo (Tokyo) harbor in 1854, which persuaded the astute Japanese to open their ports to trade.  The British used superior firepower to suppress the Indian “Mutiny” in 1857. The Dutch colonized Indonesia; the Spanish and then the US controlled the Philippines.  Japanese elites replaced the isolationist shogunate with the Meiji emperor in 1868, in order to industrialize on a European model.  Japan’s modernized military soon defeated its much larger neighbors China (1894-5) and Russia (1904-5), and annexed Korea as a virtual colony (1910).

Meanwhile, the French government first officially entered Indochina in 1858, to protect Christian missionaries and “settlers.”  Like other outnumbered colonizers, they did not hesitate to use superior firepower.  After French forces defeated Nguyen defenders in a one-sided battle at Thuan An in 1883, the diplomat Jules Harmand minced no words in proposing the Treaty of Hue, making Tonkin (northern Vietnam) a French protectorate:

Now, here is a fact which is quite certain; you are at our mercy.  We have the power to seize and destroy your capital and to cause you all to die of starvation.  You have to choose between war and peace.  We do not wish to conquer you, but you must accept our protectorate.  For your people it is a guarantee of peace and prosperity; it is also the only chance of survival for your government and your Court.  We give you forty-eight hours to accept or reject, in their entirety and without discussion, the terms which in our magnanimity we offer you. We are convinced there is nothing in them dishonorable to you, and, if carried out with sincerity on both sides, they will bring happiness to the people of Vietnam.  if you reject them, you must expect the greatest evils.  Imagine the most frightful things conceivable, and you will still fall short of the truth.   The Dynasty, its Princes and its Court will have pronounced sentence on themselves.  The name of Vietnam will no longer exist in history. (Quoted in “Vietnam: A New History” Christopher Goscha (Perseus, 2016).)

            As in British-controlled India, French governance left important positive legacies, especially in industry, infrastructure and education.  Both Ho Chi Minh and Diem Ngo Dinh benefitted from education in French-founded schools.  But such benefits came with a price.  The tiny French population, just forty-five thousand in the early 1940s, could hardly have ruled this region alone.  They relied heavily on local allies, including a powerful minority of converted Catholics who were resented by many others.  A British India hand, circa 1907, recognized similarities.  “[L]ike ourselves . . . the French have gone forward with the Bible in one hand and the Gatling gun in the other, and if the native did not accept one he got the other.”

            Americans behaved differently, somewhat.  Perry had “opened” Japan without actually firing his cannons; US Secretary of State John Hay helped to end the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in China in 1901 and Teddy Roosevelt had mediated the end of the Russo-Japanese war (1906).  The US had also kicked the Spanish out of the Philippines in 1898 but, deciding that Filipinos were unable to govern themselves, used brutal counterinsurgency methods to suppress their independence movement. 

            Real disappointment with America started after World War I.  Hoping to prevent future conflict, President Wilson had advanced his Fourteen Points, including the principle of self-determination.  Citing this principle, would-be regional leaders from around the globe came to Paris in 1919 to plead their cases for independence (and favorable border-drawing).            

In one of their most consequential mistakes, the ill-prepared Big Four (the US, Britain, France and Italy) awarded Germany’s “treaty” possessions in the Shandong peninsula to Japan, despite China’s eloquent and well-grounded appeal for restoration of its historic province.  The decision reflected the triumph of power over principle on at least two levels.  First, the Japanese had “aided” the Allies by occupying Germany’s undefended Asian holdings early in the war, and forced the Chinese government into a secret treaty acknowledging Japanese rights in Shandong.  The Big Four thus effectively ratified Japan’s military power play. Second, Japan had proposed a racial equality clause that seemed entirely consistent with the Fourteen Points.  Britain vetoed it, to placate immigration-fearing Australia and New Zealand, which had contributed vitally to Britain’s war effort.  (US leaders breathed a silent sigh of relief.) That veto gave Japan leverage to threaten to walk out if it had been denied Shandong as well.  These decisions revealed European and American priorities hidden behind the Fourteen Points:  color first, followed by military might.

Demonstrations erupted after this news reached China, on May 4, 1919.  The nationalist Guomindang party and the nascent Chinese communist party rallied together under the flag of the May 4 Movement until their split in 1927.

A second mistake was of omission.  A young Indochinese leader in Paris wrote Wilson several times, in English, to ask for a meeting to discuss independence.  Wilson ignored his letters.  Only the communists, Ho Chi Minh would decide, really meant to do away with imperialism. 

Ho was wrong, but only about the communists.


Creating Vietnam

In his recent history, Christopher Goscha emphasizes that the country we now know as Vietnam had existed in its present form for just 44 years before 1975, all but six months of which were in the early 1800s.  For almost two thousand years, the region was split among rival principalities.  The northern region was often a tributary of China; the south loosely connected with Thailand or even India by ships plying the Spice Route.  This history reminds me of the Balkans, where small independent states were so often overwhelmed in the back and forth among the Habsburgs, Ottomans and Russians.

The French colonial administration divided the region as well, into five colonies: Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, including Saigon), Annam (central Vietnam, including Hue), Tonkin (northern Vietnam, the Red River region including Hanoi and Haiphong), Laos and Cambodia.  In addition, the ethnically diverse groups the French called “montagnards,” continued to maintain separate identities in mountainous border region of north and central Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.   This configuration even continued through World War II, because Japan allowed the Nazi-allied French Vichy government to remain in Indochina.  Only after France’s liberation did the Japanese army occupy Indochina in March 1945.  In the vacuum created by Japan’s surrender, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Hanoi on September 2, 1945.

  It was an audacious move.  Ho was practically inventing a new country.  And we have to give him credit:  though communism would be discredited, Ho’s vision of the country motivated millions to make great sacrifices, and it is that country that abides today.  Ho was a giant figure of the 20th century. Much more cosmopolitan than Stalin or Mao, Ho (a nom de guerre) was educated in a French lycée in Hanoi, spoke at least Vietnamese, French, English, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and Russian, traveled to Paris, London, New York, Moscow, Bangkok and much of China, founded communist parties in several countries and, finally, inspired his followers to complete the country’s unification.  As perhaps the only communist leader ever to publicly walk back his own policies - - the ill-fated land reforms of the 1950s - - he might even have approved his successors’ abandonment of failed Soviet-style economic planning.

            But it would be a mistake to romanticize Ho’s movement, as some Westerners later did, largely in frustration over US policies.  Ho had always expected to use force to expel the French and “unite” Vietnam’s historically distinct regions.  Ho’s Viet Minh party also knew they would face resistance from Vietnamese Catholics and others who had thrived under the French.   There would have been a civil war in any circumstances.

            Besides, Ho was a real communist.  He likely chose communism for pragmatic reasons - - it offered a critique of colonialism that he needed - - but he had assembled the regional Indochinese communist party in 1931 and had deep connections in the Soviet Union and with Chinese communists from long before their triumph of 1949.  Like Lenin and Mao, he leveraged the political potential of communism to greater effect than its economic principles: its insistence on orthodoxy and conformity, its requirement of mass organization and group action.  These counted as powerful weapons for a movement that often made do with purloined French muskets.  

            At the outset, the impoverished new “country” had to be concerned with both France and republican China (the Guomindang), which asserted traditional proprietary interests.  Since Ho, like the Pope, commanded no divisions, he made a provisional deal with the French in late 1945, simply because he thought they would be easier to defeat.  He famously (perhaps apocryphally) explained:  “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” 

For all these reasons, war was inevitable in 1945.  But the war that actually ensued, with the loss of three and half million lives, would have been unimaginable. 


Thirty Years of Bad Decisions

The tragedies told in American films, set at the peak of US involvement but late in the longer war, raise this question above all others:  Could “the horror” have been averted?

I don’t think so.  I mean that the people of the time, knowing what they knew and under the pressures they faced, followed a logic from which almost no one dissented in a timely way. 

Tragedy was inevitable for two broad reasons.  First, as noted, war on some scale was expected in Vietnam.  Ho planned for an anti-colonial war from the outset, and that certainly included fighting with the French and French-allied Vietnamese.  The DRV would in time become a garrison state, a modern Sparta whose principal purpose was war.  The South, while more open, was highly factionalized and could only be held together by a military dictatorship and Cold War-inspired financing.  The great powers’ weapons made the conflagration much more deadly, but the building was already on fire.  

Second, US policy - - decisive in establishing and maintaining South Vietnam  - - was always driven by events outside of Vietnam.  This would be true of many superpower relationships in the Third World.  Vietnam just happened to be the place where the outcome was in play.  And it was there that American leaders made an unerring string of bad decisions over 30 years.

Decision A:  Supporting the French (1945-54)

At the end of World War II, as throughout its history, the US officially disfavored outright colonialism.  Often enough the US had pursued its own quasi-colonial projects, in Central America and Hawaii for example.  But it had never participated in the scramble for Africa and, as we have seen, acted to moderate colonial practices in Asia.  Most recently, it had recognized Philippine independence after World War II, giving up its only substantial holding outside the Caribbean. (It wasn’t a partisan issue, either.  Republican icon Douglas MacArthur was a firm supporter of Philippine independence; Eisenhower would thoroughly humiliate the French and British in their plot to retake control of the Suez Canal in 1956.)

Vietnam did not get that treatment.  The reasons for this are complex and objectively understandable, but they had nothing at all to do with Vietnam.  France was a crucial but shaky ally in holding off Soviet expansion in Europe.  The French government had barely, and with understandable reluctance, joined in Anglo-American plans to reopen trade with their recent enemies in western Germany.  Dignity required all French parties - - even the French Communists - - to insist upon maintaining France’s overseas empire and its mission civilisatrice.

That would explain US neutrality, but would hardly have justified financing that reached 80% of French war expenses by 1954.  Mao’s victory in 1949, however, and North Korea’s invasion of South Korea nine months later, suddenly brought the Cold War to Asia.  These events also gave US Republicans a rhetorical cudgel for years to come: “who lost China?”

We can only speculate about opportunities that may have been lost during the “French war” in Vietnam, if the US had not financed the French.  Non-communist, anti-colonialist Vietnamese leaders might have had a better chance to organize in the South.  If Ho had needed less Soviet and Chinese aid, he might have followed a neutralist path like Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia.  (Tito could take an independent line, to Stalin’s everlasting irritation, because he’d achieved wartime victories and political leadership without Soviet assistance.)  Moreover, neutrality became a desirable policy for many third world leaders in the 50s.

These scenarios are hypothetical; my point is that US policy never gave them a chance.  Given the political fallout over China and a hot war in Korea, paying French war expenses was a relatively low-cost, low-profile decision.  A no-brainer, if you will.

Decision B:  Foregoing Diplomacy (1954-59) 

Having just concluded a painful and expensive stalemate in Korea, the Cold War powers pressured the Vietnam combatants to negotiate a truce at Geneva in 1954.  French forces had just suffered an embarrassing defeat in the highlands at Dien Bien Phu, leaving them in a poor bargaining position.  Ho, under pressure from his allies, reluctantly accepted partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, coupled with an international promise to hold nationwide elections within two years.  

For the next several years, the two weak Vietnamese half-states focused on consolidating their internal political support, often violently.  During this period, before the mass casualties, population displacements and environmental destruction, serious opportunities may have been missed.  Not so much because South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, to the Eisenhower administration’s great relief, rejected the national elections called for in Geneva.  Diem was simply concerned that the far better-known Ho would have won.  But it’s hard to imagine that any election held in that split country would have been free, fair or widely acknowledged.

The international situation, however, offered possibilities.  Soon after Stalin’s death, the US, China and Soviet Union worked out a truce in Korea, and the Soviet Union and China pressured Ho to accept partition.  The two Vietnams looked inward, rather than on projecting power across the border.   Most important, Soviet leader Khrushchev announced a reformist path in 1956.  As late as 1957, the Soviets proposed that both Vietnamese states be admitted to the United Nations, that is, to give global recognition to the split-country compromise as in Germany and Korea.  This could only mean that Khrushchev would have pressured Ho to accept the legitimacy of the Republic of Vietnam - - a deal that Nixon and Kissinger would not come close to achieving in the much different circumstances of 1972.  Ho would have had a hard time resisting Soviet persuasion; he needed modern Soviet weapons with a US-supplied enemy on his southern border.

Although we can see Khrushchev’s offer as a missed opportunity, recognition was never remotely likely to be US policy at the time.  Again, this had little to do with Vietnam.  The US had not recognized Communist China, so the implications of recognizing North Vietnam would have been profound.  And the Eisenhower administration presumably felt that US support for South Vietnam would make a diplomatic solution unnecessary.

Decision C:  Deposing Diem; No Backup Plan (1959-63)

Ngo Dinh Diem returned from exile in 1954, with the symbolically important blessing of hereditary emperor (and European dilettante) Bao Dai, to lead the Republic of Vietnam.  Catholic, well educated and free of communist association, Diem proved willing to act decisively, and often harshly, to impose order on a diverse and fragmented population.  Americans raved.  Diem was a “tough miracle man” with a “deep religious heart” (Life magazine, 1957), and “the Winston Churchill of Asia” (Vice President Johnson, 1961).  Many observers came to disagree, regarding Diem as an isolated ruler who expected Confucian devotion from his subjects.  He ignored constitutional principles and ruled through his brothers and his fashionable, outspoken sister-in-law (inevitably dubbed the “Dragon Lady” in the Western press).  

The miracle did not last.  When surviving southern Vietnamese communists reorganized as the National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong” to Americans), war flared up in the South after 1959.  Over several years, ARVN increasingly disappointed US military “advisers.”  In 1963, Buddhists across the country mounted dramatic protests against his rule.  The US ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and other officials hinted, winked and nudged some of his generals toward the November 1, 1963 coup. 

While Diem’s removal is generally seen as a mistake due to the ensuing chaos it caused, I had not thought of Diem himself as a major loss until I read Triumph Forsaken. The historian Mark Moyar contends that Diem’s single-party approach to internal security was both appropriate for wartime and critical to retaining political support among a population that prized strength.  He calls Diem’s removal “one of the worst debacles in the history of American foreign relations.”

I wouldn’t go quite that far.  If Diem’s political support required enforced loyalty, and if some Buddhist protesters were communists, Americans were entitled to question his leadership methods and popular support.  But I take Moyar’s points that:  with US aid, Diem retained significant support in the army and the population at large; much of the beleaguered population was likely to accept any leader who could provide some genuine security; and it was unrealistic (if not hypocritical) for Americans to expect Diem to behave like a liberal parliamentarian in the midst of a civil war.  In the circumstances, authorizing a military coup against Diem was at once the least democratic and most destabilizing course imaginable.  

Moyar blames the American reversal mainly on Lodge, a prominent Republican whom Kennedy sent to Vietnam for the cynical purposes of sidelining his presidential candidacy in 1964 and neutralizing Vietnam as a campaign issue.  By all accounts, Lodge was the crucial advocate for regime change but, as Moyar also points out, Kennedy and his advisers botched several chances to derail the operation, if that was what they meant to do.  “Never do business on a weekend,” Kennedy advisor McGeorge Bundy remarked at one point, rather pathetically.  Kennedy privately expressed shock over Diem’s gangland-style murder the night of the coup, but it was a little late.

As in Macbeth, the murder of a flawed ruler only led to worse.  Diem may have failed to develop popular support, indeed he seems to have found such activities beside the point, but no one else had any plausible claim to legitimacy.  Worse, neither the plotters nor the Kennedy foreign policy team planned for the day after.  The vacuum then pulled the military - - the only institution with the power and resources to govern - - into a two-year scramble for domestic power.  Battlefield results did not improve.  Eventually, two younger officers, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, assumed the presidency and vice presidency.  Thieu and Ky held together a fragile coalition within the military at the cost of tolerating widespread corruption.

No South Vietnamese government ever escaped its lack of popular support, or its resulting dependency on US arms and money.

Decision D:  Stunted Development (1955-1973)

While the US leadership spoke of winning the “hearts and minds” of Vietnamese civilians, it was military spending that changed South Vietnamese society.  It was like the casinos arriving in tiny Las Vegas. Michigan State researcher Robert Scigliano reported that the US paid for all of South Vietnam’s military spending and about 60% of its government budget over the period 1954-61 - - well before the Johnson-era escalation.  The prioritization of this aid was stark: 78% went into the military budget; of the remaining 22%, 40% was spent on transportation.  A twenty-mile highway from Saigon to Bien Hoa, “to take care of heavy military traffic,” cost more than US aid for all development programs for the entire seven year period.  He concluded that “the greatest beneficiaries have been the urban dwellers, especially the small middle and upper classes.  . . .  American aid . . . has also led the Vietnamese government to depend on a foreign power instead of its own people for support.”

Like “Dutch disease,” named after the puzzling side effects of the discovery of oil in the Netherlands, this sudden source of wealth distorted incentives.  In her 1971 book “Fire in the Lake,” Frances FitzGerald observed:

The effect is a curious one.  The United States has no direct economic interest in Vietnam.  Over the years of the war it has not taken money out of Vietnam, but has put large amounts in.  And yet it has produced much the same effects as the most exploitative of colonial regimes.  The reason is that the overwhelming proportion of American funds has gone not into agricultural or industrial development but into the creation of services for the Americans.

Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times correspondent, gave this example:  To provide non-combat personnel with a reminder of home, the Army built some 40 ice cream factories in South Vietnam, a formerly self-sufficient rice-producing region.  Needless to say, the cream had to be imported.

The lure of dollars and the perils of the countryside led to what Samuel Huntington labeled “forced draft urbanization,” decimating village life and increasing the population of Saigon from 500,000 in 1939 to 1.7 million at the end of the French war in 1954 to four million in 1975.  “The American war only completed the process the Diem regime had begun, moving peasants out of the villages and into the refugee camps and the cities, the real strategic hamlets of the war,” wrote FitzGerald.

It also resulted in massive corruption in the South Vietnamese government and military.  Sheehan observed that “[c]orruption guaranteed incompetence in office, high or low.” 

Inflation had undermined salaries during the Diem years, and corruption negated any incentive to increase them to realistic levels. . . Even if [an officer] took only what he needed and kept his wife under control, he still had to permit corruption to go on around him, and he often had to embezzle money for payoff demands by his superiors.  If he insisted on honesty to the point of refusing others access to corruption, he became an outsider and was pushed from office. 

Traditional work could not compete. Young women, in particular, could make far more money as hostesses and/or as prostitutes in the cities than their families could in growing rice.  Many American servicemen, other than the unfortunate minority of grunts in active combat, found their status suddenly inflated in what Sheehan called the “sexual cornucopia of an American’s Vietnam.”  FitzGerald captured this scene:

Before entering Saigon, the military traffic from Tan Son Nhut airfield slows in a choking blanket of its own exhaust.  Where it crawls along to the narrow bridge in a frenzy of bicycles, pedicabs and tri-Lambrettas, two piles of garbage mark the entrance to a new quarter of the city.  Every evening a girl on spindle heels picks her way over the barrier of rotting fruit and onto the sidewalk.  Triumphant, she smiles at the boys who lounge at the soft-drink stand, and with a toss of her long earrings, climbs into a waiting Buick. 


This was perhaps the truly unavoidable error. For those who gave it any thought, the displacement of Vietnam’s social and economic structure was likely viewed as a mildly unpleasant side effect of the far more important war against Communism.  But it’s hard to imagine any effective US intervention that would not have had at least a similar impact.  Would a Cold War US president take the chance that an underfinanced mission might fail?  

Decision E:  Entry  (1964-65) 

Lyndon Johnson deserves just about every bit of the criticism he has received over Vietnam.  Except for this one, possibly decisive thing:  his August 1964 decision to enter the war officially, under the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.   That, any contemporary American politician would have done. 

Why?  Because of China and Korea.  Because of Cold War machismo, a/k/a “credibility.”  Because of Barry Goldwater.  

Everybody understood the dynamics.  If Vietnam went down on a Democratic president’s watch, the Republicans would roll out another “who lost China?” campaign.  Jack Kennedy had had to run to the right of Richard Nixon in 1960.  Goldwater was already going even further right as he accepted the 1964 GOP nomination.  To be sure, containment of communism was a genuine bipartisan priority, and for good reason, but it could be used to justify almost any expense or program.

Lest this sound too theoretical, remember, the Senate vote on Tonkin was 88-2.  The House was unanimous.  Johnson won the 1964 election in a landslide.  The most prominent Tonkin dissenter, the famed parliamentarian Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, was defeated in his re-election bid in 1968, even as a majority of the country had come around to opposing the war.  Too preoccupied with Vietnam, his Republican opponent, Bob Packwood, argued.

Americans never truly agreed among themselves about goals and priorities.   The short-lived consensus for intervention in 1964 was about halting communist aggression - - to stop the fall of “dominos” wherever we could.  But the public was not asked, and did not agree, to “bear any burden,” in Kennedy’s words, to do so in Vietnam, and felt little affection for what became a highly corrupt military dictatorship in the South. 

This is not to absolve Johnson of his many errors.  The shooting in the Tonkin Gulf incident was hyped - - arguably provoked - - and used as an excuse for a previously drafted congressional resolution; Johnson used the resolution as though it was a declaration of war, which it plainly was not. Rather than brace American voters for a long slog, Johnson, like his predecessors, disguised as much of the cost in men and material as possible.  If Johnson had asked for a massive commitment up front, objections would surely have emerged long before half a million US troops were stationed there.  His failure to do so only raised the emotional stakes as the bad news dripped out.  In truth, both political sides were right to feel betrayed, just not by each other.  Little wonder that the great American films would later show their protagonists trying to follow a mission they scarcely understood.

Johnson’s mistakes brought down his presidency.  But the decision to enter?  Johnson shares responsibility with the vast majority of Americans, circa 1964.

Decision F:  War of Attrition; War of Press Releases (1965-1968) 

As protests against the war mounted, Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously proposed that the US simply declare victory - - that it had achieved its objectives - - and bring the troops home.  What makes this comment especially painful, in retrospect, is that General William Westmoreland had been so busy declaring victory every week in the form of “body counts” and in press conferences describing progress in “phases,” right up until the Tet offensive in January 1968.

Given massive advantages in resources and technology, Westmoreland pursued a strategy of attrition, seeking large battles with the enemy and reducing their numbers.  Unfortunately, this frequently put his soldiers in very dangerous and unfavorable situations, and resulted in highly inflated “body counts” as US troops could not reliably distinguish dead Viet Cong guerillas from dead civilians. In 1967, Westmoreland nearly admitted to futility.  Requesting another troop increase, he explained to President Johnson that the current 470,000 would result in “a ‘meatgrinder’ where we would kill large numbers of the enemy but in the end do little better than hold our own, with the shortage of troops still restricting [US forces] to a fire brigade technique – chasing after enemy main force units when and where it could find them.”  In November 1967, Westmoreland nevertheless told home audiences that “the ranks of the Vietcong are thinning steadily,” and that “we have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.”

Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition - - to kill so many enemy soldiers that they run out of replacements - - made little sense in a defensive civil war.  Rather than security for the South Vietnamese people, he sought out set-piece battles in which he could use overwhelming force, and frequently retreated once the battle ended.  These tactics also undermined American efforts to seek local support.  He strove for large numbers of casualties, with little regard for which Vietnamese were killed or displaced.

Some military strategists argued for a more targeted, civilian-sensitive approach, most famously John Paul Vann, the charismatic – and deeply flawed – veteran officer profiled by Sheehan in A Bright Shining Lie.  Later historians argue that better execution (much, much better) might have changed the outcome of the war, meaning (I think) that South Vietnam could have been saved.  In Triumph Forsaken, Mark Moyar contends that the Diem regime was having success and could have persevered with its approach to securing safe havens.  In A Better War, Lewis Sorley argues that the post-Tet (1968) anti-insurgency strategy of Westmoreland’s successor Creighton Abrams did succeed for several years and was undermined by collapsing political support at home.  These revisionist theories are necessarily speculative, and leave some vital issues unaddressed.  Still, much of what they say is persuasive:  this disaster had many fathers.  The voices advocating different strategies simply did not prevail in the American establishment of the time. 

As Britain learned after World War I, a war of attrition should only ever be a last resort for a democracy.  The arithmetic of X enemy soldiers for every Y Americans guaranteed a lot of American casualties, even if the ratio was 10:1, and voters (much less draft aged young men) could never have supported this indefinitely.  Westy built his own short window for success.

Tet closed the window.  The allegedly “thinning” Vietcong, supported by North Vietnamese regular divisions, launched attacks throughout South Vietnam in January 1968.  Even the US embassy in Saigon was seized for several hours.  The attacks eventually failed, with crippling losses to the Vietcong, but the damage to the credibility of US leadership was even greater.

Decision G:  Strategic Bombing (1965-1973) 

In a memorable outburst, Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s threatened to “bomb them back into the Stone Age.”  The genial Ronald Reagan backed him up with a homey metaphor:  “We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.”

The US began the strategic bombing of North Vietnam (as distinguished from battlefield air support) in early 1965, even before the first Marines landed on the beach at Pleiku.  A Pentagon historian summarized the discussion of the initial bombing strategy: “[T]here was no dearth of reasons for striking the North.  Indeed, one almost has the impression that there were more reasons than were required.  But in the end, the decision to go ahead with the strikes seems to have resulted as much from the lack of alternative proposals as from any compelling logic in their favor.”

The US never gave up trying to use bombing as leverage for a favorable political settlement.  Though the strikes did aim to disable industrial and military resources, they were never effective in cutting off supplies or in discouraging the DRV.   The nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses reported to the Pentagon that “As of July 1966 the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam (NVN) has had no measureable impact on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations in the South . . .”  Even Walt Rostow, a notable hawk in the Johnson administration, was left to backpedal in a May 1967 memo:

We have never held the view that bombing could stop infiltration [of South Vietnam].  We have never held the view that bombing of the Hanoi-Haiphong area alone would lead them to abandon the effort in the South.  We have never held the view that bombing Hanoi-Haiphong would directly cut back infiltration.  We have held the view that the degree of military and civilian cost felt in the North and the diversion of resources to deal with our bombing could contribute marginally – and perhaps significantly – to the timing of a decision to end the war. 

   Without smart bombs or GPS targeting, more tons of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than during the entirety of World War II.  Napalm and Agent Orange, chemical weapons by any reasonable definition, were freely used as defoliants and against jungle-based enemy units.  It didn’t work; the North Vietnamese worked around supply interruptions and dug an extraordinary number of tunnels and bunkers.  Worse, civilian casualties - - estimated by the CIA at 80% of all North Vietnam bombing casualties as of January 1967 - - reinforced North Vietnam’s anti-American agenda.  This is no surprise to us today, as we see from the reaction to incidents of merely negligent mistargeting of drone strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The Nixon administration doubled down on the tactic, apparently feeling that it had few other options after having committed to massive and politically popular troop withdrawals. 

The bombing campaigns, conceived without defined goals, continued long past knowledge of their military ineffectiveness, and frankly justified on the grounds of terror (especially at the end), were little more than a politically cheap way of inflicting misery.   Once their ineffectiveness had become clear, the targeting of urban areas certainly violated international conventions.

When he announced the first atomic bombing in August 1945, President Truman issued a statement that called Hiroshima “an important Japanese army base”. This was wildly inaccurate; Hiroshima was a city of 350,000.  Later defenders of the action pointed instead to the strategic impact of the A-bomb, arguing that it shortened World War II, which was a declared war against a nation that had directly attacked the US.  The strategic bombers of Vietnam had no such rationalizations.



            The American war in Vietnam ended not with a bang.  Pursuing his 1968 promise to achieve peace with honor, Nixon drew down troop levels and finally ended American involvement with the 1973 peace treaty - - one that the South Vietnamese government swallowed with bitterness because it didn’t obligate the DRV troops to withdraw to the north. In the wake of Nixon’s 1974 resignation, North Vietnamese troops stormed southward and took Saigon on April 30, 1975.  Weeks before, the Khmers Rouges had taken Phnom Penh.

Perhaps Ho Chi Minh and his partisans were lucky in drawing such myopic opponents.  For the war’s final irony is that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, having turned itself into a garrison state and evicted the French and Americans, could not govern effectively. 

Following the early Soviet model, the unified Vietnamese government conducted reprisals, killing many and enrolling large numbers of southerners in “re-education” programs.  It expropriated private land and businesses and implemented a planned economy, with disastrous effect.  Per capita annual income remained very low, around $200.  And, in a final twist, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to depose the Chinese-allied Khmer Rouges in 1978-9, then fought a successful rearguard action against a hapless Chinese invasion, insistently isolating itself when it desperately needed economic development and international alliances. 

In the mid 1980s, a former American soldier described the streets of Hanoi at night:

There were few street lights and they were very dim.  The city was dark, and in the middle of the block where the lights did not reach, it was black.  This made walking difficult because of the disrepair of the streets. . . . But even so, the bicycles streamed by in multitudes.  They had no lights; like phantoms they glided out of the darkness to silently brush by and disappear back into the darkness.

By 1986, like China and Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, Vietnam had to switch course, allowing private ownership and profit-making, and forming diplomatic alliances.  The economic reforms, known as “doi moi” (renovation), led to a period of rapid expansion from a very low base.  The US recognized Vietnam in 1995.  In the 2000s, at least until the US’s recent withdrawal from Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, Vietnam began to see the US as its best hope of avoiding domination by China.  And per capita income has continued to rise rapidly, to about $6900 per year in 2017.

Within a year after the volcanic explosion blew two thousand feet off the top of Mount St. Helens, plants were found growing in the ash and pumice-covered landscape.

For its inheritors, the war’s lesson may simply be that somebody opened a bar in Ho Chi Minh City, and named it after an American war movie.


Mark C. Jensen is an attorney and writer who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.  He holds an AB in Mathematics from Dartmouth College and a JD from Duke University School of Law, and is of counsel with Nutter, McLennen & Fish of Boston.  He recently completed a memoir entitled “QoL: Memories of an Intrepid Traveler.


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