Vietnam: the lesson not learned

Greg Cusack
Max Hastings offers us a multitude of perspectives and insights gleaned from interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses and participants on both sides.
Greg Cusack
Vietnam: the lesson not learned

A United States honor guard member attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, USA, on March 29, 2016. 

The “truth” about the Vietnam war — how and why we became involved, what actually happened, and what we have learned from it — has been debated for almost 50 years. Fittingly, Max Hastings’ hefty book (895 pages) offers no conveniently packaged “answers.” Rather, he offers us a multitude of perspectives and insights gleaned from interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses and participants on both sides.

His account’s breadth recalls Thucydides’ epic Greek tragedy, “The History of the Peloponnesian War” for, just as in that ancient and long-lasting war between Athens and Sparta, hubris (overwhelming arrogance), ignorance, and the mistake of equating preserving one’s honor with the refusal to change course also caused first the French, and then the Americans, to sink ever deeper in a long war that, in the end, yielded neither honor nor glory.

Hastings, a British journalist who has spent a considerable time covering America affairs, presents a comprehensive portrait of Vietnam’s tumultuous struggle for independence from colonial rule from the end of the Second World War to the conclusion of its war with the United States. But because he includes numerous anecdotes from those who fought against each other during these violent years his is more than a conventional history of events. In his pages countless, and heretofore mostly unknown, people come alive as, through him, they tell us of their struggle to survive, whether they were civilians or members of the military, or lived in the North or the South.

During the 1960s, I was in my 20s when the United States deepened its involvement in Vietnam. Although I had been called up for military service in 1966, I was ultimately rejected because of my extreme near-sightedness. Many buddies and classmates did go, however, and some did not return. And many lucky enough to return were nonetheless damaged by what we now understand to be post-traumatic stress disorder. My sister’s late husband was one of them.

I witnessed firsthand how that war changed vital aspects of this country forever as politicians used deceit and pretense to mislead and manipulate public opinion, bitter divisions arose among the citizenry involving the most basic questions of patriotism and loyalty, a spineless Congress failed to confront or curb growing executive power, and the seeds of distrust of authority that are still coming to fruition were first sown.

As has happened repeatedly in the United States’ relations with peoples from Asia and the Middle East, American intelligence agencies proved woefully inadequate in understanding the history, culture, and motives of the Vietnamese people. Not only were there few Americans in either the foreign service or the state department who spoke their language, but the US viewed events through the distorting lens of its rigid conviction that the North was primarily motivated not by a desire for independence but, rather, by the intent to “impose communism” throughout southeast Asia.

In marked contrast, the North’s more accurate reading of American motives and tactics, as well as of the political and military weaknesses of the South’s government, consistently gave them strategic advantage.

By the mid-60s, even though it had become apparent to American leaders that the Saigon government did not enjoy significant support outside the capital, and that entire portions of rural areas openly sympathized with the Viet Cong whom they saw as liberators, this did not cause American officials to reassess the wisdom of the war but, incredibly, to expand it!

Lost opportunities

Although President Kennedy and his successor Johnson had cabinet members and advisers widely believed to be among the “best and brightest” of all citizens, repeated misunderstandings, wishful thinking, and a wish to avoid seeming “weak” all played a role in creating a form of blindness that allowed the war to go on. Ever-growing numbers of troops became necessary if we were to “win,” but then their mounting casualties became reasons why we “couldn’t just leave” and admit it was all a costly mistake.

Thucydides would have understood this all intimately.

None of this was inevitable. Indeed, if only ...

• US President Woodrow Wilson had listened to Ho Chi Minh make his case for independence from the French at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 marking the end of World War I, the future course of Vietnam might have changed dramatically.

• Following the close of the even more devastating Second World War, when a grievously weakened France struggled to hold on to its far-flung colonial possessions, the United States had refused to provide any aid to the French.

• After the costly battle of Dien Biem Phu in 1954, where the French defenders were first isolated, and then overwhelmed by Vietnamese forces, the US had accepted the results of the subsequent Geneva peace convention as an acceptable resolution — which mandated a countrywide free election in 1956 to determine the future leadership of all of Vietnam — Americans would have cut the fateful tether.

• President John Kennedy had escaped assassination in 1963, it is possible, maybe even likely, that he would have begun a drawdown of American involvement. (Months before his murder, he had told close aids that he doubted the wisdom of pursuing that struggle, and that “after” he had won re-election in 1964 right-wing criticism would no longer defer him from moving to get out of Vietnam).

• His successor, Lyndon Johnson, had followed his own instincts about the wisdom of staying in Vietnam and resisted efforts to continue, let alone expand, the war.

• Richard Nixon, seeking the presidency in 1968, had not falsely promised the North Vietnamese that they would receive more favorable peace terms from him after he was elected, a cessation of hostilities might have occurred consequent to President Johnson’s feverish efforts.

Hastings’ book does not allow anyone the comfort of finding any over-arching “truth” about that war, save, perhaps, that all wars are brutal and accomplish little that could not have been achieved through wise foresight and patient negotiations.

After the US withdrawal of its last troops from Vietnam, it at first seemed possible that some difficult lessons might been learned if Americans had the courage to examine the how and why of our involvement. Unfortunately, however, this hard work was quickly abandoned. Instead, similar to how many of the German people, after their defeat in the First World War, developed the myth of being “stabbed in the back” by traitorous or, at the least, weak-kneed personnel to “explain” its otherwise inexplicable loss, many Americans concluded that the problem with the Vietnam war was not that we entered it but, rather, that our resolve weakened and that we did not do all that we could have to win it.

One wonders: Does this mean some believe we should have used the ultimate weapon of nuclear bombs, too? War has a way of reducing all morality and ethics to dust.

Since the root causes behind our decision to commit forces to Vietnam were not examined, it is hardly surprising that a similar arrogance, unintelligence, and empty bravado manifested itself again with the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing of substance had been learned after all.

Are we truly incapable of learning anything from our past mistakes?

Greg Cusack is a retired US statesman.

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