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books Vietnam: Terror Was Absolute

Decades after the US retreat from Vietnam, the causes of the war and the outcome are still controversial if not murky, its lessons still not understood by US foreign policy makers. A comprehensive new book aims to clear away much of the detritus.

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US troops move South Vietnam suspects across a stream, October 1966., Photograph: Bettmann Archive // The Guardian

The Chinese occupied Vietnam for the best part of a thousand years, up to the tenth century. They attacked it again in 1979. The Mongols launched three invasions in the 13th century. The French colonised the country in the 1850s along with its neighbours Laos and Cambodia. Then the Japanese invaded in 1940, and allowed the French pro-Vichy colonial regime to remain. Roosevelt had been sympathetic to the idea of granting independence to Vietnam once the war was over, but died before he could take action. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the British and the Dutch, anxious to reclaim their own colonial possessions, supported the return of French rule. Since the French were too weak to reoccupy their slice of Indochina immediately, the Great Powers decided that the country should be temporarily garrisoned by the Chinese and British armies. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang took the North and the British under General Gracey occupied the South. In a little known and not very creditable episode, Gracey’s men released the Japanese soldiers and used them to hold down the locals until the French returned.

I once asked Vietnam’s foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach why, after his country was attacked by the Khmer Rouge, it had not taken its case to the UN instead of invading Cambodia late in 1978. ‘We do not have such a high regard for the UN as you do,’ he replied.

‘How so?’

‘Because during the last forty years we have been invaded by four of the five permanent members of the Security Council.’

 

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75
By Max Hastings
HarperCollins Publishers; 722 pages
Hardcover:  $37.50
October 20, 2018
ISBN: 978 0 00 813301 6

 


HarperCollins Publishers

This is far from the first history of the Vietnam War, but the range of available sources has widened over the years and Max Hastings has made expert use of them. There is no shortage of memoirs and official papers that shed light on the war from every conceivable American angle. The Vietnamese experience is harder to document, not least because of the secretive and authoritarian nature of the current Hanoi regime. ‘In modern Vietnam,’ Hastings writes, ‘the legitimacy of its autocratic government derives solely from its victory in 1975. Thus, no stain is permitted to besmirch that narrative: few survivors feel able to speak freely about what took place. This opacity has been amazingly successful in defining the terms in which Western as well as Asian writers address the war.’ He goes on to argue that ‘in conducting its war effort, the Northern politburo enjoyed significant advantages. Its principals were content to pay an awesome price in human life, secure from media or electoral embarrassments. They could suffer repeated failures on the battlefield without risking absolute defeat, because the US had set its face against invading the North.’

What does Hastings think would have happened if the US had invaded the North? They had enough trouble keeping the South under control without taking on another great chunk of implacably hostile, inhospitable terrain. (Much of the North was flattened anyway, even without a US invasion.) And while he is largely right about the received narrative of the war, there is a growing number of memoirs written by Vietnamese who now live abroad. Duong Van Mai Elliott’s The Sacred Willow (1999), about the last four generations of her family, much quoted by Hastings, is among the best. There has also been a trickle of accounts from the Communist side. Truong Nhu Tang’s Journal of a Viet Cong, published in 1986, was the first account by a senior dissenter. Hanoi’s official history of the war, published in 2002, is surprisingly revealing about the tensions and disagreements at the highest levels of the Vietnamese leadership.

Hastings makes good use of all these and more. Curiously, though, he neglects the memoirs of Colonel Bui Tin. Bui Tin is famous in Vietnam. He was the man who, in the absence of a more senior officer, accepted the surrender of the Southern government at the presidential palace in Saigon on 30 April 1975, after North Vietnamese tanks had crashed through its gates. Subsequently he became deputy editor of Nhan Dan, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s official newspaper. He was an eyewitness to many of the key events in the country’s post-1945 history and was on close terms with senior members of Hanoi’s ruling elite. In September 1990, disillusioned by the corruption and incompetence of the government, he went into exile in Paris. His memoir, Following Ho Chi Minh (1994), as well as a series of interviews he gave to the BBC World Service, are the best inside account of political life in the North. He remained in Paris, available for interview, until his death in August 2018. And yet he is nowhere quoted. The other surprising absence is Truong Chinh, the ruthless old Stalinist principally responsible for the brutal Chinese-style land reform carried out in the early 1950s. He rates only one passing mention.

Although Hastings reported from Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he wisely keeps his own experience out of it: ‘My understanding was so meagre, my perceptions so callow.’ His assertions are mainly (but not always) well sourced. His judgments are on the whole balanced. ‘The merits of rival causes are never absolute,’ he says, ‘only simpletons of the political right and left dare to suggest that in Vietnam either side possessed a monopoly of virtue.’ This is true enough, though the massive disparities in firepower together with the fact the Americans had no business being there in the first place means that they and their leaders must bear primary responsibility for the catastrophe.

There were moments when history could have taken a different course. In 1945, before the return of the French, the Viet Minh’s Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, went out of his way to establish good relations with the US but was rebuffed. He even wrote part of the Declaration of Independence – the paragraph that includes ‘all men are created equal’ – into the Vietnamese constitution when he declared the country’s independence in September 1945. In 1954, following the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, it was agreed at the Geneva Conference that the country would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, pending elections which were to be held within two years and would reunify Vietnam. The Americans refused to sign and immediately set about establishing a client regime in the South. The elections were never held. ‘I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs,’ Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs (not quoted by Hastings), ‘who did not agree that, had elections been held at the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh.’

He was being disingenuous. There was little or no fighting in the three years after Geneva. Only when it became clear that there weren’t going to be any elections did Southern guerrillas who had taken refuge in North Vietnam begin quietly to return. The Americans, Hastings says, ‘entirely misjudged the attitudes of Moscow and Beijing, supposing their leaderships guilty of fomenting the rising insurgency. Instead, until 1959 resistance to the Saigon regime was spontaneous and locally generated. For some time thereafter, it received only North Vietnamese rather than foreign support.’

Almost nothing was as it seemed at the time. The Vietnamese Communists weren’t puppets of Russia and China. Far from wanting a proxy war with the US, the Russians and Chinese, well aware of their vulnerability, were anxious to avoid it. The Chinese in particular didn’t want a repeat of what had happened in Korea. In Geneva, both urged restraint on the Viet Minh, which felt that its victory over the French entitled it to take control of the entire country. The North Vietnamese, for their part, far from encouraging Southern exiles to infiltrate the South in the late 1950s, did their best to discourage them, despite the sabotage of the Geneva agreement by the US and its allies. And despite their public pronouncements to the contrary, every American leader from Kennedy onwards knew, even as they escalated the war, that Vietnam was a doomed cause. As early as 1964 John McNaughton, a Pentagon official, had written a memo that US objectives in Indochina were ‘70 per cent avoid a humiliating defeat … 20 per cent to keep South Vietnam (and the adjacent territory) from Chinese hands – 10 per cent to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life’. ‘The entire strategy was founded on false premises,’ Hastings writes.

He also makes clear that, contrary to Communist propaganda at the time, the war was not a series of glorious victories, but was marked by terrible suffering, horrendous casualty figures and strategic blunders, most of which can be attributed to Le Duan, the party’s reckless general secretary. He was the driving force behind the 1968 Tet Offensive, which virtually wiped out their Southern allies, the Viet Cong (or National Liberation Front). He was also responsible for the unsuccessful 1972 offensive, which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The Northern army had no air power at its disposal and no helicopters to evacuate casualties to well-equipped hospitals. Jungle clinics offered only the most basic treatment and the walking wounded faced a long trek home through the forests of eastern Laos, often under heavy US bombardment. Frank accounts of life on the North Vietnamese side are hard to come by, but Hastings has unearthed a few, including the testimony of an 18-year-old soldier, wounded at Quang Tri during the 1972 offensive, who joined a column of wounded marching home:

We looked a terrible sight, a defeated army. We sang songs as we went, but they were very sad songs. At that time we felt the war must go on for ever, and that we could not possibly win. We kept meeting drafts of new recruits going the other way and we felt even sorrier for them. We said to each other: ‘If those kids knew what they were heading for, they would turn round and run home.’

And here is a North Vietnamese colonel, who was also at Quang Tri:

Perhaps because the phrase ‘the Revolution only attacks’ had been so deeply etched into our mindset, anyone who suggested adopting a defensive posture was likely to be accused of ‘negativist ideological thoughts’ … The rainy season caused countless difficulties. Trenches were forever filled with water and mud. Even when we bailed out bunkers, within a few hours they flooded again … No matter how hard transport personnel worked, supplies were insufficient. Our soldiers … were hungry, cold, filthy and sick.

By the end of the war the supply of young men from Northern villages was beginning to dry up. When Saigon eventually fell, its inhabitants were surprised by the extreme youth of some of their conquerors. Interviewed after the war, one veteran of the Northern army remembered that his parents didn’t dare celebrate his return for fear of upsetting their neighbours, all of whom had lost sons. One woman from the poorest part of central Vietnam, now glorified as a ‘heroic mother’, is said to have lost all 11 children and grandchildren.

It is impossible to convey the scale of the violence unleashed on the rice farmers whose villages became battlegrounds, though Hastings does his best:

In August 1967 Operation Benton, which almost nobody has heard of, was a brigade-strength search-and-destroy directed against an NVA [North Vietnamese Army] regiment. During its course some ten thousand Vietnamese in Quang Tin province south of Danang lost their homes. In an area six miles by 13, 282 tons of bombs and 116 tons of napalm were dropped; a thousand rockets, 132,820 20 mm rounds, 119,350 7.62 mm cartridges and 8488 shells were fired. An enemy body count of 397 was announced, 640 civilians evacuated to refugee camps … Such a fortnight’s work may be deemed representative.

This is Truong Nhu Tang’s description of being on the receiving end of a B-52 attack:

The concussive whump whump whump came closer and closer … Then, the cataclysm walked onto us, everyone hugged the earth – some screaming quietly, others struggling to suppress surges of violent trembling. Around us the ground heaved spasmodically, and we were engulfed … From a thousand yards away the sonic roar of the explosion tore eardrums, leaving many victims permanently deaf, while the shockwaves knocked some senseless. A bomb within five hundred yards collapsed the walls of an unreinforced bunker, burying alive those cowering within … terror was absolute. One lost control of bodily functions.

Hastings devotes only a single short chapter to what happened after the war, as the Communists rapidly squandered the enormous local and international goodwill engendered by their triumph. They treated the South as though it were an occupied country: several hundred thousand soldiers and officials from the defeated regime were sent to re-education camps, where they languished for years, many dying from malaria and malnutrition. The Southern regime had been entirely dependent on US aid, which ceased overnight in April 1975. The postwar years were always going to be difficult, but they were made much worse by the new state’s economic policies. Property was confiscated, businesses shut down. For a while even trade between provinces was banned; farmers were forced into co-operatives and obliged to sell all their produce to the state at artificially low prices, resulting in a collapse of rice production. Even the simplest transaction required bribery. Before long just about all productive activity had come to a halt and thousands had fled the country in small boats.

The Americans refused to recognise a reunified Vietnam or to accept any responsibility for the mess they had left behind, not least the many thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance that littered the countryside. Instead they imposed economic sanctions, further impoverishing the people they claimed they had been trying to save. The US government also allowed the myth to take hold that there were still American prisoners being held in Vietnamese prison camps. They knew this was untrue, but it proved a useful stick with which to beat their enemies. When Vietnam occupied Cambodia in 1978, US (and British) intelligence agencies conspired with China and Thailand to keep the Khmer Rouge alive in order to damage Vietnam.

Years passed before word of the economic disaster over which they had presided reached the old men in the Vietnamese politburo. ‘Our stupidity’ was the phrase one of them used when I discussed the period with him in 1991. Since then, though Vietnam remains an autocratic one-party state, the Communists have relaxed their grip. It could be argued that the war merely delayed the advent of market forces by a generation – the very opposite of what the Americans thought they were doing.
 

Book author Max Hastings is the author of 26 books, most about conflict, and between 1986 and 2002 served as editor-in-chief of the UK's Daily Telegraph, then editor of the Evening Standard. Recent books include All Hell Let Loose, Catastrophe and The Secret War.

[ Essayist Chris Mullin reported from Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s. A former Labour MP and minister, he served in Parliament from 1987 to 2010. In the 1980s, Chris Mullin led a campaign that resulted in the release of the Birmingham Six, victims of a miscarriage of justice. He is the author of Error of Judgment: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings, as well as The Friends of Harry Perkins, a sequel to his novel A Very British Coup. Additional work of his at the LRB is available HERE]