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Sol Sanders Archive
Friday, August 17, 2007

Authors of disastrous Vietnam policy have still not been called to account

Long ago some dead, white, French, man said it right: all historical analogies are odious.

Although the water in the stream may look the same, it is never there twice.

Events may seem to be the same, but when analyzed, they turn out often not only to be superficially different, but created by quite different forces.

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To refuse to accept that, is to refuse the scientific method which is the basis of modern civilization – and the target of the Islamofascists who are trying with every conceivable weapon to tear that [our]world apart and turn us back to the darkest hours of humanity.

Nevertheless, finally, George W. Bush and this Administration got it right when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that if America withdrew from Iraq without securing the peace through victory, it would bring on another catastrophe like Vietnam. And the millions of words written and spoken to the contrary notwithstanding, so often by people who had little real experience with or knowledge of that war, the American retreat was a catastrophe.

It was, of course, death and imprisonment for the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Lao, who had suffered in the war and in the Communist bloodbath afterwards. But it was an unremitting tragedy for the 55,000 Americans killed and their families who saw them die in vain. The victory of the Vietnamese Communists – who still misgovern a country nearing 100 million people through corruption and repression largely through misguided U.S. support – sent a shiver through the American intellectual world and castrated U.S. policy for a decade.

When history is written by the victors – and ultimately it would have to be the upholders of the war against the Moslem nihilists if there is to be history in the acceptable form Herodotus invented – it would have to show how, in an indirect way, even this reactionary attempt to put the world back into a preindustrial gloom was in part a product of “Vietnam” through the long passivity and failure of American leadership in an always troubled world.

Many of those of us who went through the Vietnam experience have waited long years to see an American leader who would acknowledge the truth: that is, that it was Washington policy that created the catastrophe.

Yes, the Vietnicks would argue, because of the mistaken American engagement in the first place.

That would be an argument which those future historians will have to deal with. But it is far more complicated one than most of the bizarre scribbling that passes for comment on “Vietnam”.

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, then a young officer with the Southeast Asia Command [SEAC] joint headquarters in then Colombo, Ceylon, says he wrote a memo asking for guidance, after the Cairo Conference, announcing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had pledged that the U.S. would, in effect, oppose the reinstitution of European colonial rule in Asia after World War II. Rusk said he asked specifically about French Indochina. He never got an answer.

Thus one of those little strands of history began to fall into place. Washington, intent on rebuilding Western Europe after the incredible destruction of the war, not the least the French Republic, turned a blind eye to Paris’ early postwar efforts in Indochina to maintain their “presence” on “the balcony of the Pacific”. [In 1950-51, I was one of less than half a dozen Americans resident in Hanoi.]

One of the early memos of the Free French to their underground sympathizers throughout the Francophone lands had warned that when the war would be over, the Americans would have been victorious, and the Pacific would have become their “mare nostrum”, the equivalent of Rome’s control of the Mediterranean. Therefore, it said, those forces which would be anti-U.S. must be encouraged against “the rising nationalist bourgeoisie” in Vietnam who would be “the natural ally” of the Americans.

That’s was why for 16 months, the French – with the Communists still in Gen. Charles DeGaulle’s government – negotiated with Ho Chi Minh and armed the Communists while they murdered nationalist leaders in Hanoi and Tonkin [northern Vietnam]. [President Ngo Dinh Diem’s elder brother, considered the politician of the family, was one of those martyrs]. [As for the possibilities of Ho Chi Minh’s supposed “nationalist” sympathies, when some of us arranged in 1946 for his emissary to be sent to talk to Truman’s White House, his Paris “embassy” replied cease and desist. So much for Ho’s “Titoism”.]

Fast forward, after the French made concessions, slowly, painfully, bitchily, to the growing nationalist spirit and demands – now largely in the hands of the Communists – Washington slipped into a supporting role. But Paris’ concessions never came fast enough or with enough grace.

When an American ambassador to Saigon on a return visit to Washington made a speech suggesting that Paris had given the Vietnamese the equivalence of “dominion status” in the British Empire, the head of his political section in Saigon leaked a denial with substantiation to The New York Times pointing out that simply was not the case. The officer was sent into purgatory until Jackie Kennedy discovered him as her escort officer a decade later and he blossomed into a career ambassador to climb the rungs in that notorious self-important bureaucracy or all bureaucracies, the U.S. Foreign Service.

These are, of course, the little threads of history that make the great decisions.

But Bush did not quite complete the circle in his speech the other day.

American policy – based in no small part on a media campaign directed by young well-intentioned men and women who did not know the country nor its history – destroyed the credibility of Diem. His murder at the hands of the Americans destroyed the most important rallying figure the nationalists had against the expert campaigns of the Soviet agitprop from Moscow [Pravda, “Truth” [sic] to Bombay [Blitz] to San Francisco [Liberation News Agency] – to the American media. The chaos that followed led to growing American casualties and disgust with the whole effort.

And, again, American leadership made the war in Vietnam a prisoner to grander – if mistaken – dreams of “détente” with the Soviet Union, an acceptance of the inevitability of a continuing tyranny in Moscow and its domination over eastern and central Europe. Old warhorse Averill Harriman – and one of his lickspittles – had connived to produce the coup against Diem. The world faced the constant threat of a nuclear holocaust between the Soviets and the U.S., the concept went, and the only way to avoid it was to come to terms with Moscow – step by step, ideologically and by regions. Hadn’t the Cuban missile crisis proved that? Both the U.S. and the Soviets wanted to keep the Chinese Communists out of Southeast Asia and the way to block that would be a Moscow-oriented reunited and vital Vietnam. What stood in the way, was an anti-Communist government in Saigon, the doubledomed thinking went.

That was one conspiracy that worked out, more or less as planned, in the short-term – but at the cost of American honor and U.S. and world equanimity for a generation.

Again, as our old, white, French man has said, the comparison is odious. Iraq is not Vietnam.

Yes, all wars in the end are settled politically. But selling out friends and American honor in a withdrawal which would only feed the insane frenzy of this enemy which fights not for turf and power but for liquidation of its non-conforming enemies in an obscure and not a peaceful faith, would produce another catastrophe just as the cutoff of funds and support for a model little army [but totally dependent on American logistics] did in Vietnam in 1973.

The scenes of Americans scurrying off the roof of the Saigon Embassy in helicopters was an empowerment worldwide for all the forces of darkness for a generation.

Imagine something similar to those photographs on today’s worldwide TV, satellite radio, and internet networks!

That was really what Bush was warning against if defeat and retreat is accepted in Iraq.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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