Vietnamese Civil War
From Hobson's Choice
Known in Vietnam as the "American War," and in the USA as the "Vietnam War," this conflict raged from 1955 to 1975. It began soon after Vietnam, newly liberated from French colonial rule, was partitioned by an agreement among the foreign ministers of France, the Soviet Union, and China. Shortly afterward, the US government became directly involved in managing the creation of the new Republic of Vietnam (RoVn), while the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) prepared for war to liberate the south.
The terms of the partition agreement included elections for a unity government by 1956; instead, the South Vietnamese state, recognizing the certainty of defeat by the Vietnamese Communist Party, reneged on the agreement. Soon after a coalition of different political movements in southern Vietnam organized the National Liberation Front (NLF), which was to have opposed the government's plan to remain in power with the unification forces excluded from participation. Since an inevitable outcome of the NLF's political agenda would have been unification under the Communist government in the North, the CIA and the RoVn regime of Pres. Ngo Dinh Diem regarded the NLF as "objectively Communist." They drove the NLF underground, causing it to merge with violent resistance to the RoVn/
When the violence intensified in the RoVn, and US involvement became both more obvious and more debilitating, the South Vietnamese Army overthrew Pres. Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu (2 Nov 1963). Both men were killed in the coup, but the new junta was soon after replaced by another, and then another. The US military became directly involved in combat after March 1965, and continued to escalate until 1970. As the US military campaign stretched into Cambodia, political opposition to the war became overpowering to US Pres. Richard M. Nixon. Well aware of the fact that the US-backed government in South Vietnam had no power to survive, he prolonged the conflict anyway in order to pressure the North Vietnamese to create a face-saving transition. In March 1973, after eight years and almost 60,000 US soldiers killed, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. The war between the two states of Vietnam persisted until the RoVn collapsed, 30 April 1975.
The Vietnamese Civil War was part of a larger conflict known as the Second Indochina War (1955-1975). It arose as a result of the settlement ending the First Indochina War (1946-1954); the French government, reluctant to accept defeat in Vietnam, simply negotiated an enclave for non-Communist Vietnamese in the south. Two years later, merger of the newly established DRV and the rump of Vietnam would be carried out through elections.
Vietnam had, under French rule, been divided into three sectors: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina (from north to south); the Trinh emperors had conquered the southernmost region, Cochinchina, in 1689 (from Cambodia). In 1859, the French navy occupied Cochinchina, and in 1861 annexed it. For the first time in history, the three regions would have a political significance. In the 1880's, the French established a protectorate over the rest of Vietnam, and brought the monarchy under their control. Vietnam was swiftly taken over for the cultivation of rubber and opium.
Militancy arose among the Vietnamese with the development of gang labor and industrial processing of rubber. There was also the experience of Vietnamese sent to Europe in World War I. However, there was a concurrent rise of radical nationalism among the large cohort of semi-traditionally educated Vietnamese intellectuals. Typically the higher-ranking leaders of the Vietnamese liberation struggle were from the central provinces, including Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh); they were highly educated and spent a lot of time in exile. In other cases, there were the numerous industrial workers in the port cities of Haiphong and Saigon, who were already angry at their treatment, but now understood (thanks to the War) that their colonial oppressors were not superior to themselves.
When World War II broke out in Europe, East Asia was considered to be entirely secure for Western hegemony. The collapse of the French state in June-July 1940 came as a shock to those in the region who had lived for decades under the illusion of European omnipotence. Within a few months, the Vichy government in Indochina came under attack from Thailand; the Franco-Thai War was an upset victory for the new Thai Air Force. The peace settlement was arbitrated by Japan. The Japanese went to war with the United States and the United Kingdom a few months later, in December 1941, while their demands on the French authorities to support the war effort became onerous. In March of 1945, Vietnam was one of the last pockets of Japanese control; the Japanese ousted the Vichy rulers, who now were politically isolated from the metropole anyway, and controlled Indochina directly until they were defeated by the Viet Minh in August 1945.
With the partition of Vietnam into two wholly artificial sectors, the problem arose of the legal status of the non-DRV sector. The French had not made any provisions for any government of Vietnam besides that of Ho Chi Minh's DRV; yet in July 1949 they had recognized a Vietnamese state whose "chief" was the Emperor Bao Dai, a playboy and schemer living in Cannes. The state was forgotten soon after it was created; it had existed solely as a figleaf for continued French control until the summer of '54, when it simply became a "project for US Secretary of State John F. Dulles. Under Dulles' advisement, the nothing was transformed into a praetorian state under the personal control of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic civil servant whom some French negotiators dismissed as "mad." His brother Ngo Dinh Nhu was a talented conspirator who used US aid chiefly to prop up his deeply unpopular regime. The Ngo family's religion was significant not in itself, but because the religion was a minority religion and yet under the Ngo clan, was virtually a state religion. As a result, South Vietnam had an extremely antagonistic state that efficiently provoked the religious majority, while the elites were the actual target of the purges and state espionage; the Communist associations flourished in the South partly because they were, in fact, representatives of the legitimate government of Vietnam (since 2 Sep 1945) and in any event had an ideology that was directly relevant to the misery of the peasants and workers.
The involvement of the USA in Vietnam began on the eve of the First Indochina War, but was ambivalent and indirect owing to the lack of US intelligence sources on Southeast Asia, the diplomatic risks of alienating France over nonessential issues, and the embarrassment over repeated confirmations of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as the sole legitimate government in Vietnam. The US government had informally recognized the DRV on 2 Dec 1945; then the French government had created the "Associated" State of Vietnam in July 1949, only to dis-acknowledge it in favor of the DRV as its interlocutor in Geneva. The role of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and opponents of the Civil Rights Movement, however, created intense pressure on the Republican administration of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower to appear tough, and that included assiduously cultivating the nonentity in Saigon.
At the time, US leadership was genuinely and impressively well-educated; however,this education was wholly devoted to a conservative view of European history. For example, the lessons learned by study of European diplomacy between World War I and II was almost wholly devoted to the need to "manfully" confront states seeking to alter the status quo; all such states were assumed to be identical to Hitler's Third Reich, as if the single odious feature of Nazi Germany were its hostility to the Versailles Treaty. From such a point of view, Ho Chi Minh--resisting the rape and partition of his country--was exactly the same as Adolf Hitler, despite the incongruity of the comparison. Rhetoric of the era (in the USA) constantly likened the Communists in Vietnam to the Nazis; the fact that the "Republic" of Vietnam was an occupation of an already-liberated country was seldom mentioned. The strong parallels between Vietnam and Korea sprang readily to the Usonian mind, despite their superficiality. Analysis of the Korean Civil War likewise relegated the entire polity of North Korea to a single conniving dictator; the lack of intellectual curiosity about the composition of adversary societies was a grievous problem not merely of the Usonian public, but of policymakers as well.
With the ouster and murder of the Ngo family in 2 November 1963, and the assassination of US Pres. John F. Kennedy (3 weeks later), both the US and the RoVn governments were in flux. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was deeply alarmed at the prospect of being perceived as soft on Communism not only by the Republicans (who were gradually taking over the south) but also by Robert Kennedy (brother of the slain president and attorney general). Johnson was oddly motivated to crush what he believed was an Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, so that he could silence his critics on the right; while he needed to make his actions seem necessary and prudent to everyone else. This byzantine need of Johnson's led to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in which a non-event was billed as an attack on the USS Maddox by the North Vietnamese navy.
The United States Congress did not declare war on North Vietnam, lacking as it did a causus belli congruent with the provocation (even if we accepted the official account of the event). Moreover, too many aspects of the supposed basis for US military action would not have survived international scrutiny (which a declaration of war would have necessitated, under the UN charter). For example, even if one accepted the absurd claim that South Vietnam was a sovereign nation defended by the US, the conflict with the NLF was "another" civil war whose combatants were mostly from the provinces in which they fought..
Typically accounts of wars identify periods of success and failure by the belligerents. In the case of the US participation in the war, there were two tracks of performance, political and military.
While the US intervention in the Vietnamese Civil War (VCW) was one of the deadliest miscarriages of state policy ever, and contributed to the deaths of millions, it nonetheless has its defenders.
The Vietnam War as a Racist Outrage
Part of the singular nature of the VCW was that it was fought during the Civil Rights Movement; while racist social relations between Whites and Blacks were under intense pressure to change (and did), White racism against East Asians tended to be unchallenged (see Asians in the United States & Racism against Asians). Even as late as March 2000, presidential candidate and Arizona senator John McCain felt entirely comfortable referring to Vietnamese as "gooks." In attempting to explain the behavior of mostly White US officers and personnel in the theater, it is necessary to mention that many perceived the war in terms of a race war for which there was no moderating political sphere, while such a sphere did exist for toxic Black-White relations. The US military was plagued with racial tensions, which erupts many times between Whites and Blacks, and this definitely influenced policy decisions towards the Vietnamese. Warfare is necessarily a succession of barbarisms and atrocities. The Second World War in Europe included combat between ethnically similar Allied and Axis armies, who were unscrupulous in their use of cruelty against each other. It's not realistic to claim that racism determines the degree of savagery with which war is waged, since the material conditions of the theater are much more important. However, policy choices made by the US government towards East Asian nations clearly reflected a conviction of racial superiority and the insignificance of Asian life.
Needless to say, the allegation that White racism led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese is an explosive one; in combination with US government participation in other colonial wars that led to huge death tolls, it could be construed as placing the USA on the same footing as the Third Reich, where racism also led to the deaths of millions (see Holocaust, Holocaust Denial).
The Vietnam War as Struggle against Totalitarianism
The second reason why US participation in the VCW enjoys continued ex post facto defense is that it was indeed fought to contain a totalitarian ideology. The VCW was a major battle of the Cold War that involved hundreds of thousands of military personnel from other nations around the world, such as Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and the Communist Bloc. The Vietnamese were regarded as passive victims of Soviet or "Red Chinese" intelligence agents, despite the very modest numbers of actual Soviet or Chinese personnel in North Vietnam. Communism was equated with the worst excesses of Stalinism or Maoism, and is today, despite the diverse character of Communist regimes.
A common theme of this is that "Democratic Kampuchea" [sic], the Khmer Rouge (WPK) state created in Cambodia in 1975, was identical with the rest of the Southeast Asian Communists, including those in North Vietnam. However, the PAVN and the WPK were merely allies against the United States military (rather like the USSR and the Western Allies in World War II); there was no common organization to which the two groups belonged, and the only thing they had in common was that their military adversary was the US government. After that commonality was removed, the two "allies" went to war with each other, and after the SRV defeated the Pol Pot regime, the CIA supported Pol Pot's faction of the WPK as an insurgency in northwest Cambodia. This has never stopped the political right in the USA from blaming the antiwar movement there for the atrocities of the KR.
The mythology of the Cold War tends to be so aggressive because of the crimes it must cover up. In order to defeat allegedly Communist [influenced] governments in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, apologists had to insist that even moderate criticism of capitalism was identical to Stalinism; and that all Communist states would necessarily behave the same way. The huge number of people murdered to defend imperialist capitalism meant, in effect, that any criticism of this immense body count required a mythology that the murdered deserved to die, and they deserved to die for having abetted Stalinism. But having devised the only possible rationale for such mass murder, the Cold Warriors tended to stimulate even more killing, since allowing populist governments to govern in the Third World meant capitulation to the Stalinists. US nationals became accustomed to public debates about "foreign policy" that completely ignored even the pretension of respect for other nations and their self determination.
In the case of the Vietnamese Civil War, the concept of imperialist capitalism was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the revolutionary government of North Vietnam was understood to be totalitarian (although it had in fact come to power through parliamentary means). Legally, the French and US governments violated their own agreements and treaties by partitioning Vietnam, and then maintaining the fiction of the two states; the Republic of Vietnam had no legal status, since the French simple abandoned the pretension of an "associated" state (which had no government at all) and negotiated directly with the DRV, while the US government never recognized the DRV (which did). It had to create a government in the southern zone of Vietnam from the remains of the French colonial authorities. In reality, it was Ngo Dinh Diem (first as premier, later as president) who seized power through armed force and mass terror. Hence, the DRV was pushed into the path of Jacobinist totalitarianism by the colonial ambitions of France and the United States.
The Vietnam War as Defense of a Friendly Ally
The "Vietnam War" was sold to US nationals as a defensive war by the government of the RoVn, in which the US government provided "assistance." Embellishments include the extreme effectiveness and volume of Soviet and Chinese assistance, which led some Usonian conservatives to suppose that the DRV was merely a Sino-Soviet "beachhead" for the ultimate conquest of South Asia. Hence, this was not a civil war, but a war among nations. Even among cynical Western observers, it was referred to a "proxy war" between the USSR and the USA.
However, the US government had merely inherited an occupation from France; there was nothing "organic" or Vietnamese about the RoVn, aside from its name and location. It was in effect an US version of Louis Napoleon's "Empire of Mexico." Ngo Dinh Diem was put into power by the CIA as a matter of public record, and succeeded by US-trained generals. The DRV was the sole legal authority in Vietnam. Even inside South Vietnam, the "insurgents" were fighting to restore the legitimate authority repressed by the French in October 1945; they were mostly natives of the provinces in which they fought, although the Tet Offensive severely weakened the NLF. Nevertheless, guerrilla tactics in South Vietnam were used by convinced natives, not infiltrators. And while assistance from Communist bloc nations was considerable, it certainly was not comparable to what the ARVN was receiving from the USA. At the time, the two allies of the DRV were constantly on the brink of war, a fact well-known to journalists. In fact, those journalists who operated in the area were well aware of the fact that the major Communist powers were not especially anxious to pursue confrontation with the USA to the utmost. The reason was that internal struggles within the Communist parties of the USSR and China meant that leaders interested in exploiting Usonian strategic vulnerabilities as fully as Khrushchev had in 1962 could wind up losing their jobs (as Khrushchev had in 1964). China was unable to mount any serious foreign military adventure in the mid-1960's because its internal communications were utterly dilapidated; in 1979, after several years of rapid reconstruction of its roads, it was still unable to mount an effective invasion of Vietnam, and was defeated by its southern neighbor.
The war in Vietnam was barely a civil war; those Vietnamese who colluded with the West did so for a large number of reasons, chief of which appears to have been birth into a class of people whose entire world rested on the artificial economy of Western intervention. This assertion is based on my own lifetime of friendships with Vietnamese who sided with the USA during the War. A large number of Vietnamese who fled to the USA after the War did so because they dreaded retribution by the new regime, and because they were essentially Vietnamese-speaking Usonians. Nothing in this essay ought to be construed as derogatory or hostile to them. Certainly the arrival of Vietnamese in the USA has been of great benefit to the latter.
While the war was a catastrophe for the United States in many ways, it was a vastly greater one for the Vietnamese. The dead and wounded of the US were soldiers (mostly conscripts, mostly poor or lower middle class); but perhaps as many as three million Vietnamese were killed, and as many maimed: of these, probably 600,000 were soldiers of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), another 225,000 were soldiers of the ARVN, some were NLF, and a frankly unknown number of Vietnamese civilians were killed by searches and bombing attacks. After the war, the government of Vietnam reported that over five million people were killed in the conflict. Other estimates are far lower.
Much neglected was the impact the war had on the survivors; even if we adhere to the lower estimates of >2 million total killed by the war (or its "American Phase," 1965-1973), we are still faced with the immense hardship of Vietnamese agriculture in shambles, civil services in collapse, and decades of egregious misrule by military juntas propped up by the US intervention. The Saigon regime veered towards totalitarianism in its desperation to rub out the Communists; Western forces on Vietnamese soil arbitrarily massacred civilians for their presumed political affinities. After the war, the new regime had to struggle both against an inherited terror of the formal government, and against their own invasive character. Militarily, the north of Vietnam had conquered the south; this was an inescapable fact. So was the fact that the south had been purged of politically reliable people (as far as the new rulers were concerned) and the fact that the regime was now totalitarian meant that now effort would be made to compromise with any autochthonous political movements in the south.
So while Vietnam was liberated from foreign domination, it now faced a new struggle for economic recovery, bereavement, and freedom internally.
- ↑ The French seem to have been the first to use these place names to describe specific regions of Vietnam. Annam was an old name for the polity of Vietnam; Tonkin was a geographical term associated with the Red River Delta.
- ↑ Nhung Tuyet Tran & Anthony Reid, editors; [p://books.google.com/books?id=Ex_Hy0sv4T0C Viet Nam: Borderless Histories] Univ of Wisconsin Press (2006). See specifically Kimloan Hill, "Strangers in a Foreign Land." According to this essay, 43,000 Vietnamese served in military units in Europe during the War. Alternatively, see William J. Duiker, Ho Chi MinhHyperion (2000), "The Fiery Stallion" which explains some of the dynamics that mobilized Vietnamese society for rebellion.
- ↑ Stanley Karnow, Penguin BooksVietnam: a History Penguin Books (1997), pp.170-180. Karnow mentions that, in the spring of '49 the French colonial authorities hunted Bao Dai down and compelled him to return to Vietnam to serve as chief of the wholly imaginary "Associated" State of Vietnam.
- ↑ Some of the information about Ngo Dinh Nhu is extremely lurid. Nhu held no official position but was controlled a powerful secret organization with clandestine cells whose job was to spy on citizens and soldiers in South Vietnam. He used the special forces mainly to eliminate rivals who might oust him, which of course alienated the powerful landlords who dominated South Vietnam's officer corps.
- ↑ Johnson's personal rivalry with the Kennedy brothers is Usonian lore, and is mentioned in virtually every serious history of the period; one very relevant source is Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65, Simon & Schuster (1998), p.244-245. Initially, Robert Kennedy's anti-Communist credentials were six-nine gold because of his personal ties to Joseph McCarthy and his own father, Joseph P. Kennedy. The switch to his new role as progressive icon would occur when J. Edgar Hoover, FBI chief and primary persecutor of real or alleged Communists in the USA, switched allegiance to the new president.
- ↑ This is not an option for the serious scholar: see Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume I—Vietnam, 1964, "U.S. Reaction To Events in the Gulf of Tonkin, August 1-10"; or see "The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, 40 Years Later" and linked documents, National Security Archive, George Washington University. The records may be said to offer the most charitable possible interpretation of the known facts, at least as far as US government officials are concerned.
- ↑ This claim requires documentation, but the author has read Pentagon studies of the NLF ("Viet Cong") attesting to this. It seems pretty obvious: in rural Vietnam of the early 1960's, someone from another province would be easy to detect for informants from the ARVN, and movement of personnel was difficult. Mostly NLF weapons were improvised or captured.
- ↑ Sen. John McCain told reporters, "I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." Later, McCain said he was referring only to his prison guards while he was a POW in North Vietnam. See "John McCain's racist remark very troubling," Seattle Post Intelligencer (2 March 2000) and Katie Hong's explanation of why McCain's defense of his use of the term "gook" is no defense at all.
- ↑ From the vast amount of literature on this, see Norman Nakamura, "The Nature of G.I. Racism [During the Vietnam War]" (1970); or this transcript from "Race Relations in the Vietnam War"; hosted by Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque (USN, Ret.), courtesy of the Center for Defense Information (1992).
- ↑ See, for example, "Storm Warnings," Time (11 Dec 1972): article is about the race riot on the USS Kitty Hawk while at sea. Note that all of the seamen courtmartialed were Black.
- ↑ Both the Cambodian and the Vietnamese revolutionaries claimed to be Communist, but this is inevitable: no group favoring independence in Southeast Asia could have avoided being anti-capitalist, since the capital accumulated during colonial rule was the foundation of it. Most of the capitalists were foreign rulers. Decades later, when there was a significant cohort of domestic capitalists, and the Western powers had given up hope of recovering their lost "investments" in Southeast Asia, then there could be something like ASEAN.
- ↑ Note the distinction between coming to power "democratically" (which implies an organized opposition capable of contesting the victor) and "parliamentary means" (which implies that the victor came to power without violating the political rights of the governed, or of any opposition). In northern Vietnam c.1945, there was no meaningful opposition to the Viet Minh because the Japanese had eliminated any; in the south, it was the opposition, not the Viet Minh, who took up arms against a popular political movement. For an account of the 1945 transition to power, see the Library of Congress Country Study for Vietnam "The General Uprising and Independence"; the United States recognizes Vietnam as an independent state within the French Union in 1950.
- ↑ On paper, the "Associated" State of Vietnam (consisting of the entire country of Vietnam) had Emperor Bao Dai as "chief of state"; he had no more detailed title than this because, until 1955, there was no plan for him to ever lead a representative government (he was living in Europe anyway). I use quotation marks for "Associated" State because the French, having declared it in June 1949, essentially forgot all about it. They did not negotiate with it in Geneva, and the whole idea of a state without a government is pretty silly. See
- ↑ Library of Congress Country Study for Vietnam "The Aftermath of Geneva"; Stanley Karnow, Penguin BooksVietnam: a History Penguin Books (1997), p.218ff. Neither Karnow nor the Library of Congress have much at all to say about the early history of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
- ↑ Full disclosure: I was born after Tet Offensive, and this was the version of the story I "learned." It's possible I absorbed the story this way since it reconciled my notions of fairness with US actions in the War.
- ↑ According to Tariq Ali, Soviet assistance to North Vietnam was less than that supplied to India and Egypt. See Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties Verso (2005), p.179.
- ↑ The most detailed breakdown of casualties I could find was "Casualties - US vs NVA/VC," which groups NLF and PAVN casualties together. This is a fairly basic polemical position by apologists for the intervention: the NLF was merely an infiltration of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
- ↑ "Casualties - US vs NVA/VC", near the end of the page:
The Hanoi government revealed on April 4 that the true civilian casualties of the Vietnam War were 2,000,000 in the north, and 2,000,000 in the south. Military casualties were 1.1 million killed and 600,000 wounded in 21 years of war. These figures were deliberately falsified during the war by the North Vietnamese Communists to avoid demoralizing the population.This implies that a little over one eighth of the population was killed. The figure was published in the Agence Presse France 3 April 1995.
- ↑ Matthew White's website has a list of estimates (here), including those of Guenter Lewy (America in Vietnam, 1978), which implies that only 65,000 Vietnamese civilians in the north were killed by US bombing missions, while 340,000 were killed in the south; in addition to this, perhaps 200,000 civilians were killed when Western/SVA forces mistook them for NLF guerrillas. White's discussion of common mistakes made when reporting death tolls is well worth reading.
- Robert Buzzanco, Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life (complete text online) Blackwell Publishers (1999)
- William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh, Hyperion (2000)
- Stanley Karnow, Penguin BooksVietnam: a History Penguin Books (1997)
- Library of Congress, Country Study for Vietnam (1987)
- "Another Vietnam: Pictures from the Vietnam War," exhibit of the International Center of Photography
- The History Place: United States in Vietnam 1945-1975
- National Security Archive-George Washington University
- Mt Holyoke University: Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy
- US Army War College: Vietnam Studies
- Vets with a Mission
Superb historical resource on Vietnamese conflict
- The Vietnam Center and Archive