As I noted earlier, one of the unfortunate outcomes of World War II, viewed as a war of detainder, was that many important parts of the world were divided into Communist and non-Communist spheres of influence. Vietnam was one of these nations, with the north assigned to the Soviet Union and the south to the allies, specifically France. The Viet Minh – short for the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” – had fought the Japanese occupiers with assistance from the US and China, and after the war the same Viet Minh fought to drive out the French. The First Indochina War began in 1945 with modest guerrilla actions against French occupation troops and concluded in 1954 with the disastrous French defeat at Dienbienphu.
After the French withdrawal and the seizure of power in the south by Ngo Dinh Diem, Vietnam became two countries: North Vietnam, run by Ho Chi Min, and South Vietnam, run by Diem. The US substituted itself for the French, determined to prevent a takeover by the Communist north.(1) The real worry, in fact, was not just South Vietnam falling, but all of Southeast Asia going Communist – Cambodia, Laos, parts of Thailand, the countries that had originally been French Indochina.
Following the partition of the country, one million people left the north and moved to the south. Diem, a corrupt but subtle and competent man, would eventually be assassinated in a US-sanctioned coup, of which Ho Chi Min said, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” But this was merely the first of many stupidities the Americans would commit, both politically and militarily.
Politically, the US intervened in Vietnam without knowing anything at all of Vietnamese history. Just for starters, Vietnam and China had been mortal enemies for nearly 2,000 years and most Vietnamese hated and feared China more than the US. China conquered Vietnam and governed it for more than a thousand years, from roughly 100 BC to roughly 1000 AD. Vietnam earned its freedom from China the same way America earned its freedom from England, via a revolutionary war culminating in the Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Bach Dang River in 939. But Vietnam would eventually be subjugated again during the Ming Dynasty.
US policymakers, however, knew nothing of this. Their understanding of Communism had been cast in stone by watching the brutal subjugation of Eastern Europe after World War II and they viewed Communism as one solid block, a monolith. The mindset in Washington was that Communism had to be stopped everywhere, every time.
Militarily, the US Army stubbornly believed, for a decade, that it was fighting a conventional foe using conventional tactics, when in fact it was fighting a guerrilla insurgency. William Westmoreland and his sub-commanders had cut their teeth on World War II and Korea, and they simply could not understand war in any other way.(2) American grunts were, as a result, sent out on thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of so-called “search and destroy” missions that found nothing and destroyed nothing. Meanwhile, American casualties piled up, fueling anti-war sentiment back home. All this was especially regrettable because the US Marine Corps knew all about fighting – and winning – guerrilla wars, having fought scores of them over the years.(3) The Marines had actually published (in 1940) The Small Wars Manual, which instructed commanders on exactly how to proceed.(4)
The results were predictable – the US “never lost a battle” but somehow lost the war. The combination of political blockheadedness and military imbecility eventually led to virulent anti-war sentiment in the US, reaching fever pitch in early 1968 with the Tet Offensive. Over a period of several weeks 100,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops attacked dozens of US and South Vietnam installations. The results were catastrophic for Hanoi. Nearly 45,000 of these troops were killed, not a single installation was conquered and held, and, worst of all, the southern population did not arise and join the revolution, as Hanoi firmly expected, but instead fought hard against it. The faction in Hanoi that had backed the offensive was disgraced and isolated. In the long annuls of human warfare a combatant has rarely suffered such a complete debacle.
But that’s not how it played out in the US. The anti-war press – that is, the mainstream media – treated Tet as a Communist victory, as yet another obvious reason why the war was lost and the US needed to get out. Granted that journalistic standards of ethical reporting are notoriously low, but this was appalling. In early March of ’68, a virtual unknown named Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, and later that month LBJ announced he wouldn’t run for reelection, essentially tossing the Presidency to the Republicans. Richard Nixon was elected, claiming he had a “secret plan” to end the war. We’ll see how that worked out next week.
(1) Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a superb but profoundly anti-American novel, took as its subject this period of American involvement in Vietnam. The movie version, written and directed by the usually reliable Joseph L. Mankiewicz (see, e.g., All about Eve and Three Wives and a Letter), flip-flopped Greene’s message approximately 180 degrees, partly because of the lingering effects of McCarthyism. A furious (and leftwing) Greene called the movie a “propaganda film for America.”
(2) Technically, there were modest attempts to hit the enemy where it hurt, including the marines’ remarkably successful Combined Action Patrols (CAPs), in which GI’s lived side-by-side with Vietnamese in their villages and patrolled at night, denying the VC sanctuary. As far as can be ascertained, no CAP village was ever captured by the VC. Unfortunately, the CAP program never included more than about 2,500 marines, out of more than 540,000 US soldiers in Vietnam. See Francis J. “Bing” West’s extraordinary The Village for an almost hour-by-hour account of one marine CAP, which lost half its members but never lost its village.
(3) As brilliantly laid out in Max Boot’s Savage Wars, cited earlier in this series of posts.
(4) You can read the Manual yourself – since Westmoreland couldn’t be bothered – at http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/FMFRP%2012-15%20%20Small%20Wars%20Manual.pdf. Some of the advice is very un-US Marine-like: “[C]ourtesy, friendliness, justice and firmness should be exhibited. *** [T]olerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the … population.” Amazing, really. When I was in the army what we thought about the marines was this: “The marines piss you off and piss you and piss you off, and then one day they show up and save your ass.”
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 6
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