Americans have not learnt the lessons of Vietnam

Times have changed, but Washington still trigger-happy

By Mahir Ali (Flashback)

Published: Wed 29 Apr 2015, 11:30 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 11:17 PM

Forty years after the liberation of Saigon, Vietnam continues to be disputed territory, at least in the metaphorical sense.

April 30, 1975, was a turning point in world history, albeit not exactly an unexpected one. Most of the American troops that had begun pouring in 10 years earlier had by then mostly left, in the wake of the 1973 Paris peace accords.

The Nixon administration had signed those accords in the belief, or at least the hope, that South Vietnamese government forces, with American support, would be able to continue resisting the North. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. It ought to have been plain by then where the sympathies of much of the South’s population lay.

In fact, this had become clear a couple of decades earlier, after the Vietnamese resistance inflicted a decisive defeat on French occupying forces and a conference in Geneva decided to temporarily divide the country pending a vote scheduled for 1956. That election never occurred because, as the US eventually acknowledged, an estimated 80 per cent of voters were expected to endorse Ho Chi Minh’s party.

It was another decade or so before American troops began pouring in to keep the country divided, based on the notion that if communism succeeded in Vietnam, its appeal would become inexorable in neighbouring nations and eventually across the rest of Asia.

Did the strategy work? In the short run, clearly not. By 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president, based in part on his promise of ending the war and securing “peace with honour”, it had already become clear that the war was unwinnable. Ho Chi Minh had prophetically told the Americans: “You will kill 10 of our men and we will kill one of yours, but in the end it will be you who tire of it.”

The Tet offensive and revelations about the My Lai massacre (which, it has since become clear, was not so much an aberration as part of a genocidal pattern) fed into a burgeoning antiwar movement in the US, led by the young — the cohort likeliest to be conscripted into a military force many of them considered criminal — but steadily attracting the sympathy of older generations.

Domestic activism in the US, fuelled to a large extent by moral indignation and repulsion, undoubtedly served as a crucial factor in bringing the conflict to an end. The contention, though, that the war was essentially lost on the home front remains disputable. Inexorable Vietnamese resistance was of paramount significance in determining the outcome.

It is unfair, though, that the antiwar movement has become something of a no-go zone in received versions of the recent past. As Jon Weiner points out in The Nation, “This year, on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the war, instead of saying ‘thank you’ to the vets, we should say ‘we’re sorry’. We’re sorry you were sent to fight in an unjust and futile war; we’re sorry you were lied to; we’re sorry you lost comrades, and years of your own lives, and that you suffered the aftereffects for many more years … On the other hand, we might say ‘thank you’ to the people who worked to end the war—and ask them to tell us about their experiences.”

As Martin Woollacott recently recalled in The Guardian, “Vietnam had been a political, military, and moral cockpit for years. The war was so much at the centre of everybody’s consciousness that it sometimes seemed as if all that was wrong with the world and all that might be made right in it was here.”

The “Vietnam syndrome”, meanwhile, became something of an albatross for the US, at least until the Reagan-Bush era, when military interventions abroad — beginning with Grenada and Panama, and moving on to Iraq — again became “respectable” enterprises. The indirect intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s was explicitly intended to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam of its own — payback for Soviet support to Hanoi through much of the Indochinese war.

In the present day it is claimed by some that, notwithstanding the military outcome in 1975, the US eventually won, given that Vietnam ultimately abandoned its socialist ideals and embraced neoliberal capitalism — despite remaining, in the same way as China, a one-party state where the ruling Communists exercise total political control. Relations between the US and Vietnam have meanwhile developed steadily to the extent that Washington now sees Hanoi as an ally in resisting the growth of Chinese influence in Asia.

Let us not forget, however, that although Vietnamese resistance against the French and the Americans was propelled to some extent by communist ideals, at a very basic level the underlying principle of the struggle was all about Vietnam exercising the right to choose its own destiny, without foreign interference.

The Americans had no right to be there in the first place. The fact that they were driven out continues to resonate in this day and age. Times have changed, but the US ignores the lessons of Vietnam at its peril.


Mahir Ali is a writer based in Sydney.

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