251 Vietnam Revisited

When I began my college teaching career in January, 1966, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was beginning to evoke controversy.  But since I didn’t teach recent American history and had other compelling concerns I naively accepted the news as reported in Time Magazine and by Walter Cronkite on CBS.  Thus I first supported what I understood to be a just war defense of the people of South Vietnam; subsequently, accepting what was said about the Pentagon Papers and promoted by Cronkite et al., I came to believe it impossible to win the war and that we had been misled regarding the reasons we had entered it.  (Especially important in shaping my own views in those days was Sojourners Magazine, whose editor, Jim Wallis, claimed to provide an Evangelical appraisal on world affairs—something I now realize was deeply, if not deviously, flawed).  And when Saigon fell and South Vietnam was melded into the Communist orbit I effectively closed my mind to what seemed then to have been a sad and misguided American endeavor.  Older and wiser now, I have recently revisited the conflict with the assistance of sources suitably critical of the popular opinions established by the media 45 years ago.  

Uwe Siemon-Netto is a German journalist who spent five years covering the war in Vietnam.  Unlike most American correspondents, who stayed in the safety of Saigon, he spent much time in the countryside, where the war was waged, and developed meaningful relationships with a variety of individuals.  He talked with and knew not only the political and military elites but ordinary people (such as the boy Duc, for whom the book is named).  In his deeply moving memoir—Duc:  A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam (c. 2013)—he laments the many casualties of a conflict sadly won by the Communists in 1975.  He personally observed the “heinous atrocities the Communist committed as a matter of policy,” serving as “a witness to mass murder and carnage beside which transgressions against the rules of war perpetrated on the American and South Vietnamese side—clearly not as a matter of policy or strategy—appear pale in comparison” (p. xii).  As “a collection of personal sketches of what I saw, observed, lived through and reported in my Vietnam years,” Duc gives us an enlightening slice of a story we need to better understand a critical phase in our nation’s history.

One message Siemon-Netto makes clear:  ordinary Americans were misinformed by intellectually dishonest “apologists for the Hanoi regime, such as philosopher Noam Chomsky” and New Left leaders, personified by Jane Fonda, who denied demonstrable truths regarding such events as the Hue Massacre (where Communists ruthlessly slaughtered thousands of  innocent civilians) and the highly successful Tet Offensive, a decisive victory for both the American military and South Vietnamese government.  “More than half of the 80,000 Communist soldiers who participated in the Tet Offensive were killed; the Vietcong infrastructure was smashed.  This was a big military victory.  It was a hard-won victory for the allies, but a victory it was.  All things being equal, this should have been the Allied triumph bringing this war to a successful end.  We combat correspondents could testify to this, irrespective of the pacifist and defeatist spin opinion makers, ideologues and self-styled progressives in the United States and Europe put on this pivotal event” (p. 209).   

Indeed, as Peter Braestrup said:  “‘Rarely has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality.  Essentially, the dominant themes of the words and film from Vietnam . . . added up to a portrait of defeat for the allies.  Historians, on the contrary, have concluded that the Tet Offensive resulted in a severe military-political setback for Hanoi in the South’” (p. 140).  But on February 27, 1968, less than two months after the military triumph, “CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite, home from a flying visit to Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, pronounced sonorously before an audience of some 20 million viewers the Vietnam War unwinnable.  This flew in the face of everything many combat correspondents . . . had lived through at Tet” (p. 221).  “But Walter Cronkite’s opinion trumped reality, turning a military victory into a political defeat” (p. 221) and the antiwar movement would surge significantly with Senator Eugene McCarthy surfing the swell.  Soon President Lyndon Baines Johnson would acknowledge he had lost middle America along with Cronkite and abandon his re-election campaign.  

Communist leaders (such as Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who recently died in his 105th year), shrewdly manipulated mouthpieces such as Fonda, knowing quite well that the war would be won in America’s living rooms as well as the battlefields of Vietnam.  “‘During the latter half of the 15-year American involvement,’ wrote Robert Elegant, ‘the media became the primary battlefield.  Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies.  For the first time in modern history, the outcome of the war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen.  Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said . . . that American and south Vietnamese forces actually won the limited military struggle’” (p.113).  Wielding their pens to oppose the war, the “new journalists” employed their skills, less concerned with accurate writing than improving the world.  Rather than researching and reporting, they “followed a drift in journalism that became fashionable when the profession changed its character from a down-to-earth craft to another pseudo-academic ivory tower” (p. 74).   American journalists in Vietnam tended to “preach, pontificate and browbeat like the scribes of Joseph Goebbels propaganda ministry in Nazi Germany or of the Soviet agitprop service” (p. 74).  “The traditional journalists, the craftsmen, were still on the job in my time in Vietnam.  They had their stories published, albeit in many cases further and further in the back pages.  The limelight was reserved for the new journalists, the pundits, stars who opined rather than reported.  They flew in and out of Saigon on ‘special assignments’ and, clad in freshly pressed fatigues, pontificated before millions of television viewers, not on the basis of what they had experienced in the jungles and villages . . . but on the basis of the stereotypical antiwar ideology, they themselves were imposing on the American public square” (p. 75).   

Reading Duc, however, can help rectify the record regarding Vietnam.  Siemon-Netto’s  compelling concern for the people of Vietnam—as well as the American servicemen who sacrificed so much in that conflict—finds its voice in this memorable account.  

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Phillip E. Jennings served as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam and has written The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2010) to challenge some of the widely-embraced assumptions regarding the history of that conflict.  The author of comic novels as well as the CEO of Molecular Resonance Corporation, he writes not as an academic (though he’s consulted 300 books) or journalist but as a war veteran determined to expose falsehoods and defend the propriety of American’s involvement in Southeast Asia.  

After a quick overview of the labyrinthine developments leading to the division of Vietnam by the Geneva accord in 1954, he notes that the United States came to the aid of South Vietnam (as it had done in Korea in 1950) following North Vietnam’s 1959 decision to dispatch fighters to enlarge Ho Chi Minh’s communist dictatorship.  President John F. Kennedy, who strongly supported America’s commitment to the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the South’s military (the ARVN), approved increased military aid and involvement in the war.  Unfortunately, JFK’s ambassador (Henry Cabot Lodge) and two young journalists (Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam, who falsely claimed that 30 Buddhist monks had been killed by the government) orchestrated a process culminating in a military coup and the execution of Diem, the only man who conceivably could have effectively ruled and defended his country.  

Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, President Johnson decided to massively escalate America’s role in Vietnam.  His ill-focused and inept strategies, generally attuned to domestic politics rather than military developments, resulted in what often appeared an insoluble stalemate.  Nevertheless, “the situation in South Vietnam in 1967 was far from dire for the Americans and their allies” (p. 88).  Much had gone wrong, but not all was lost!  That was demonstrated in the 1968 Tet Offensive, wherein the Communists were decisively defeated.  Indeed, “Had the United States followed up on the destruction of the Viet Cong in the Tet Offensive by mining Haiphong Harbor and bombing Hanoi (as Nixon did in 1972), the war might have ended in 1968” (p. 103).  Even then, though the American media refused to report it, during the four most important years of the war (’68-’73) there was an “unheralded victory.”  

With the ’68 election of Richard Nixon as President, America’s strategies shifted—and so did the course of the war, during which South Vietnamese soldiers took “over the war on the ground, and pacified 90 percent of the countryside” (p. 105).  “Nixon was decisive where Kennedy waffled; and he was a tough-minded statesman while Johnson was an over-promoted congressional enforcer.  Nixon succeeded where his Democratic predecessors (and political opponents) failed” (p. 115).  He launched the Christmas bombing of military targets in Hanoi in 1972—next to the Tet Offensive the most successful American campaign.  Reeling under the assault, Ho Chi Minh began cooperating with the peace talks in Paris that promised to secure a future for South Vietnam.  

Tragically, Nixon’s successes unraveled amidst the Watergate scandal.  Emboldened Democrats, enjoying majorities in both houses of Congress, moved to curb the president’s powers and (following his resignation in 1974) curtail aid to South Vietnam.  In short order Laos and Cambodia, as well as South Vietnam, “were sacrificed to Communism” (p. 145).  

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One of the best analyses of the Vietnam War was published 30 years ago by Norman Podhoretz, entitled Why We Were in Viet Nam (New York:  Simon and Schuster, c. 1982, 1983).  It is simply structured to answer four questions:  Why we went in?  Why we stayed in?  Why we withdrew?  and Whose immorality?   

We entered the war under the guidance of President John F. Kennedy, who had declared, in a speech given in 1956 while still a senator from Massachusetts, “‘the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,’” an outpost of democracy which “‘would be threatened if the red tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam’” (p. 19).  Still more:  it was in America’s national interest to protect her representatives and investments in that region.  JFK was clearly committed to the Truman Doctrine of “containment” and thought South Vietnam worth defending.  Following this policy, Truman had involved the U.S. in the Korean War, and “as Guenter Lewy puts it in his authoritative history of the Vietnam War, ‘no serious discussion or questioning appears to have taken place of the importance of Southeast Asia to American security interests, of the correctness of the dire predictions regarding the consequences of the loss of the area’” (p. 34).  

Having gone into Vietnam under JFK, we stayed in because President Lyndon B. Johnson supported the Truman Doctrine and “‘made a solemn private vow’” to “devote himself to ‘seeing things through in Vietnam’” (p. 64).  He orchestrated the passage of the Golf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and deftly enlisted the support of Arkansas’s  J. William Fulbright and Idaho’s Frank Church—senators who later became some of his harshest critics.  Though promising during the ’64 electoral campaign to limit our involvement in Vietnam, LBJ dramatically expanded America’s involvement in the war, costing the nation considerable blood and treasure.  Professors, protesters, and politicians soon surfaced to denounce the effort, siding “with the enemy with complete impunity” (p. 85).  Skillfully infiltrating the “Movement,” hard core “communist groups worked on increasingly close terms with the non-Communist radicals who made up the ever-selling constituency of what had only recently become known as the New Left” (p. 89).  

Pro-Communist intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy and Noam Chomsky praised and supported North Vietnam, many of them making pilgrimages to Hanoi to bask in the limelight Ho Chi Minh provided.  To McCarthy Hanoi was a wonderful place, full of well-fed cheerful children and free of prostitutes and refuse.  So too in the countryside, she “‘saw no children with sores and scalp diseases  . . . .  no rotten teeth or wasted consumptive-looking frames’” (p. 93).  All was well in the workers’ paradise, whereas south of the border she found nothing but chaos and corruption.  Sadly enough, General Edward Landsdale lamented, Ho and his minions malevolently devastated Vietnam, yet our public intellectuals never sought to portray them as earlier writers had done with the Kaiser in WWI or Hitler in WWII.  “‘For some baffling reason, we accepted the self-portrait of Ho Chi Minh as a benevolent old “uncle” who was fond of children—and of other Politburo leaders as speakers for a people they did not permit to have opinions.  So we let their claims to leadership go unchallenged while their people suffered and died’” (p. 108).  

Determined to defend American’s effort in Vietnam, Podhoretz condemned the media for enlisting in the anti-war movement and deliberately misleading the public.  Given his illustrations and citations, no sympathetic reader could deny the fact that influential journalists and academics effectively supported North Vietnam and shaped public opinion to that end.  “Thus did the North Vietnamese go on fighting in the reasonably secure belief that even if they lost on the battlefield, American public opinion—like French public opinion before it—would force the United States to withdraw on terms that would eventually ensure the Communist conquest of the south” (p. 130).    

Consequently we withdrew from the war.  LBJ decided not to run for another presidential term in 1968 and Richard Nixon was elected promising to end the war, though he certainly wanted to save South Vietnam from Communism and following the Christmas bombing in 1972 stood poised to actually prevail in the struggle.  In the opinion of Sir Robert Thompson, one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the war:  “‘In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war.  It was over!  . . . They would have taken any terms’” (p. 156).  And, indeed, Ho Chi Minh’s representatives to the Paris Peace accords quickly signed on to the Nixon-Kissinger proposals.  But the antiwar movement in America despised any hint of victory!  Prominent Democrats, such as George McGovern and Howard Hughes, railed against the “immorality” of this nation’s support of South Vietnam and the collapse of the Nixon presidency brought to power anti-war ideologues who rapidly orchestrated the process of exiting Southeast Asia.    

Clearly distressed by this nation’s failure in Vietnam, Podhoretz addresses an important ethical question:  who was clearly wrong?  In retrospect, as we consider the millions who died in Vietnam and Cambodia as a result of Ho Chi Minh’s aggressions, as we calculate the atrocities wrought by the Communists, as we reflect on the radical shifts in American foreign policy under Jimmy Carter, it becomes clear to Podhoretz that we should have persevered in the war and spared the world from a series of catastrophes.  Despite the many failures of the U.S. military, including isolated atrocities such as My Lai, American soldiers they could hardly be accused of “war crimes,” whereas nothing short of “genocide” took place under Ho Chi Minh’s and Pol Pot’s direction.  

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For many years Bruch Herschensohn was an influential member of California’s Republican establishment, working for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  In 1992 he would have probably been elected the United States Senate had not his opponent, Barbara Boxer, issued a last-minute and utterly false smear asserting he habitually visited strip clubs.  Narrowly defeated, he turned to writing and lecturing in universities such as Claremont, Pepperdine, and Harvard.  Determined to rectify a slice of this nation’s historical record, so badly distorted by left-wing ideologues, he recently published An American Amnesia:  How the U.S. Congress Forced the Surrender of South Vietnam and Cambodia (New York:  Beaufort Books, c. 2010).  “Voluntary amnesia,” he asserts, “is a crime against history” (Kindle #2127), and we must at all costs avoid it.  The story he tells he fully understands as a participant, consulting the notes and clippings he made while serving as a speech writer to Richard Nixon.

The 1973 Paris Peace Accords, precipitated by the Christmas bombing a month earlier and negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, established two independent Vietnams.  But when President Nixon was forced from office, says North Vietnam’s Colonel Bui Tin, “‘we knew we would win’” (#828), and, defying the accords, within three years Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces had successfully invaded and conquered the South while Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia.  Sustained by enormous assistance from China and the Soviet Union, Communist forces prevailed while the United States Congress did everything possible (overriding President Gerald Ford’s repeated objections) to abandon and ignore Indochina.  Evaluating all this, Senator J. William Fulbright “announced that he was no more depressed than I would be about Arkansas losing a football game to Texas’” (#778).  

In this endeavor the Congress was aided and abetted by the media, typified by Sidney Schanberg (egregiously celebrated in the 1984 film The Killing Fields) who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his reporting on Cambodia.  According to him, “‘I have seen the Khmer Rouge and they are not killing anyone’” (#543).   “NBC’s Jack Perkins watched Saigon’s War Memorial being toppled into the street by North Vietnamese soldiers, and he said to his American television audience that the statue had been ‘an excess of what money and bad taste accomplish.  I don’t know if you call it the fall of Saigon or the liberation of Saigon’” (#759).  That “liberation” led quite quickly to renaming Saigon Ho Chi Minh City and the expulsion of many residents to the countryside, where “reeducation camps” imposed Ho’s ideology.  Ultimately millions of innocents were slain.  Amazingly, due to the agitation of anti-war protesters and the stratagems of the 94th Congress, more died in the year following Saigon’s fall “than during the preceding decade of war” (#857).  But the American media studiously ignored the genocide!  

America’s reaction to the war in Vietnam, says Herschensohn, had unintended consequences, revealed in incidents such as 9/11.    The 94th Congress not only refused to grant President Ford funds to defend Cambodia and South Vietnam but enacted policies to hamstring the CIA, leading to a series of intelligence failures around the world.  Under Jimmy Carter, America retreated everywhere—turning away from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Iran.  When the Ayatollah Khomeini seized control of Iran, Carter’s “Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, stated, ‘Khomeini will be somewhat of a Saint when we get over the panic’” (#2067).  A saint indeed!  And a murderous saint to boot!  

Thus Herschensohn warns:  “Because of congressional actions taken in the mid-1970s, the nation today faces risks to our survival, and risks to the very survival of civilization as we know it” (#2127).