As noted in my last post, Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the War in Vietnam. Nixon was as good as his word, although his plan wasn’t much different than LBJ’s had been: the old carrot-and-stick approach. Nixon offered open-end negotiations that would lead to a US troop pullout, provided that Hanoi agreed to a long cease fire that would allow South Vietnam to stand on its own feet. Nixon bombed North Vietnam, both the harbor at Haiphong – Hanoi’s only window to the outside world (“outside world” meaning mainly the USSR) – and areas inside the North Vietnamese border, where enemy troops were hiding. Initial talks led nowhere, however, so Nixon upped the ante, expanding the war into Cambodia.
When US troops entered Cambodia on April 30, 1970, it was a military no-brainer – Hanoi had been using the Ho Chi Minh Trail for years to resupply its troops. Politically, though, the move was explosive. I had the misfortune to be finishing my first year of law school at the time, and all of Harvard University simply shut down. Professors refused to profess and administrators refused to administer. We were just entering the reading period, after which we would all take five 4-hour exams. Not knowing what to do, the Law School told us all to go home – our exams would be mailed to us and we would take them on the honor system. Unfortunately for your humble blogger, I wasn’t going home – I’d been drafted and was headed to boot camp. But, whatever.(1)
Eventually, a peace treaty was signed and the US honored its part of the bargain, with US military operations ceasing in 1973. However, the South Vietnamese military proved surprisingly effective at pushing the weakened Viet Cong fighters back. Fearing that South Vietnam, even without US assistance, might soon be too strong to defeat, Hanoi abrogated the peace treaty, ignored the cease fire and invaded. In April 1975 the world was treated to the humiliating sight of the last American choppers lifting off from the US Embassy grounds in Saigon while desperate South Vietnamese clung to the struts. Saigon fell the next day.
Nearly, one million South Vietnamese immediately voted with their feet, desperately fleeing the country by sea. These “boat people” produced one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of all time, with somewhere between 20% and 70% of them dying before reaching safety. Another one million South Vietnamese would leave by other means, and a further one million were sent to “reeducation camps” by their new Hanoi masters (where 165,000 would die). Between 100,000 and 200,000 South Vietnamese were simply murdered.
South Vietnam should have served as the economic engine of the now-united country (the north being mainly agrarian), but collectivist policies imposed by Hanoi destroyed the southern economy. Between 1975 and 1986 the Vietnamese economy actually shrank. Conditions were so bad that in 1986 even the Party General Secretary, Communist ideologue Le Duan, admitted that his collectivist policies had utterly failed. Free market innovations and privatization policies (known as “Doi Moi,” or renovation) were introduced by reformers led by Nguyen Van Linh(2) – modeled on Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China – and almost immediately Vietnam became one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
When the American troops came home in 1973 they were spat upon – literally spat upon – called “fascists,” their jobs and scholarships given to draft dodgers. Between abandoning our allies in South Vietnam, the callous idiocy of our military and political leaders, the deep divisions in the country that never really healed,(3) the schism that opened up between the civilian and military world,(4) and the appalling treatment of returning veterans, the War in Vietnam was certainly an utter nightmare in conventional terms. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more repellent period in American history. The McCarthy Era might be a candidate, but even the McCarthyites never aimed their venom at men who fought and died for their country.
But of course we’re not interested in conventional thinking in these blogs. Next week we’ll take a look at Vietnam through its role as a war of detainder.
(1) As far as I know, and I’ve looked hard, I was the only Harvard Law student during the entire Vietnam Era who was drafted into the army in the middle of school. Certainly other students ended up serving in the military, especially as officers in the JAG Corps, but 0.01% seems a little on the low side for draftees, given that roughly 80% of the boys in my (working class) high school served.
(2) Linh, at age 71, was the leader of the reformist Young Turk faction in Hanoi.
(3) Just for the record, I was a conventional thinker in those days and opposed the war from the time I first focused on it in late 1966 until the day I entered the army, when such niceties had to be put aside. I participated in the March on the Pentagon in 1967 (memorialized in Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night), helped “liberate” an administration building at Dartmouth in 1968, and was a founding vice president of Students for a Democratic Society at the college, albeit before SDS became impossibly radicalized.
(4) It took more than 40 years for ROTC to return to the smuggest, most ideologically-challenged of America’s universities (i.e., the Ivies). The freedom to treat the American military shamefully is, of course, paid for by the lives of the American military.
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 7
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