THE VIET NAM WAR REVISITED:
A VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
(Lt.-Gen. Lam Quang Thi, ARVN)
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is indeed a great privilege for me to be invited to speak at this important symposium and to relate to you the so-called "South Vietnamese experience" and to tell our side of the story.
Ladies and gentlemen, in the next few days, on April 30, the Vietnamese communities all over the world will commemorate the 27th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I would like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to ARVN and allied soldiers who had fougth and died for a cause we believed to be just and sacred.
The first part of my presentation today will be devoted to an analysis of the causes of the fall of South Viet Nam. In the latter part of my presentaion, I will attempt to put the Viet Nam War in its proper historical perspective in light of the recent unraveling of the international communist system.
As I have related in my recent book, The Twenty-Five Year Century, a few years ago, I was invited to deliver a speech about the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) at a general convention organized by the Association of Vietnamese Communities Overseas in Dallas, Texas. I began my address with a quote from Victor Hugo: "Ce siecle avait deux ans!" (This century had two years!). For the French poet, a great admirer of Napoleon, the 19th century indeed could only be remembered by its first two years where two treaties with Austria and England re-established peace in Europe and confirmed French supremacy on the European continent. "As for me", I went on, "if I could borrow from the French great poet, I would say that, for a great number of young men of my generation, this 20th century had only 25 years. In fact, from a period of exactly a quarter of a century, from 1950 to 1975, which covered our entire military careers, we participated in the birth of the Vietnamese National Army in 1950, we grew up a
Causes of the fall of South Viet Nam.
What are then the causes of the downfall of South Viet Nam? Many American historians, politicians and soldiers have already written on this subject and have offered a variety of reasons. Some authors, for example, believed that corruption was one of them. Corruption exists in every country; it is a question of degree. Viet Nam is no exception. However, corruption in Viet Nam was insignificant, compared to the corruption in developing nations under more authoritarian regimes. In South Korea, for instance, two former presidents, a few years ago, have been indicted for establishing illegal secret funds amounting to many hundred millions of dollars. Yet South Korea didn't fall to Communism; on the contrary, it has become a democracy with a vibrant economy.
Some authors argued that poor leadership in ARVN was one of the main causes of the fall of South Viet Nam. As you know, in every organization, there are good and bad people. ARVN is no exception; but the great majority of our senior officers are battle-hardened veterans of both the Indochina and the Viet Nam wars. And let me tell you this: when General Duong Van Minh ordered the surrender of ARVN units still fighting in Saigon and in Military Region IV, five ARVN generals committed suicide rather than surrender to the enemy. By committing suicide, they have displayed the highest level of the Confucian concept of a military leader, and thus deserved the respect and admiration of our nation.
In a final analysis, the main causes of the fall of South Viet Nam, in my opinion, can be reduced to two: 1) the lack of a clear U.S. Viet Nam policy; and 2) the hostile U.S. media during the Viet Nam War. This resulted in a growing anti-war movement in the United States and the ultimate cutoff of military asistance to our country.
U.S. Policy in Viet Nam.
It is no secret that after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the partition of Viet Nam along the 17th parallel, the U.S. decided to "contain" communist expansion in South East Asia by supporting a non-communist government in South Viet Nam. For example, a National Security Action Memorandum (ASAM) dated May 11, 1961, and approved by President Kennedy, clearly stated that: "The U.S. objective was to prevent communist domination of South Viet Nam." This policy of containment is more bluntly defined in a memorandum dated January 27, 1965, from Mr. John T. McNaughton, Assistant Secretary of Defense and head of the Pentagon's Office of International Security Affairs, to Mr. Robert McNamara. To justify the airwar against North Viet Nam, McNaughton stated that the U.S. objective in South Viet Nam was "not to help a friend but to contain China."
There is nothing wrong with this policy of containment, which has been used with success in Europe. In Viet Nam, however, the mission was not clearly defined and the strategies used to implement the policy, as a result, lacked clarity and focus.
First, the U.S. adopted what was called the strategy of "graduated response" developed by General Maxwell Taylor as described in his book The Uncertain Trumpet. This strategy, governed basically by the concept of "flexibility", allowed the U.S. to respond in kind to communist aggression without necessarily resorting to nuclear warfare. This flexibility should have provided the U.S. with the option "to proceed or not, to escalate or not, and to quicken the pace or not." This strategy of "graduated response" is what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called a policy of "one more step" and corresponds to his "quagmire model" in which the U.S. is more and more lured into the war "not after due and deliberate considerations, but through a series of small decisions." Big decisions are indeed tough to make and politicians feel more confortable with small decisions, with making "one more step" - each new step always promising the success which the previous step had also promised but had failed to deliver.
One step led to the other. This "one more step" policy resulted in an increase of U.S. servicemen from 25,000 in 1964 to 429,000 in 1966. The total U.S. troops reached 549,000 men in 1968 at the peak of the Viet Nam War.
When the first U.S. Marine units landed in Danang in March 1965, their mission was only to defend the airbase under the "enclave" concept, which called for the American troops to protect populated areas and important logistical installations in the coastal areas. In order to prevent attacks by commando teams or mortars, the U.S. troops had to patrol a few miles outside the perimeter of defense. Later, the American forces were allowed to operate 50 miles outside the enclaves to rescue ARVN units under heavy attacks from the enemy.
The American ground troops were allowed to conduct offensive operations anywhere in South Viet Nam after June 9, 1965. General Westmoreland's concept of "search and destroy", sometimes called "big unit" warfare, replaced the old concept of enclaves. The objective of this new strategy was to inflict defeat on the enemy, rather than to deny him victory. The battle of Pleime in the Highlands where the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division defeated one NVA division in heavy engagements was a good example of this concept.
However, despite all the exotic names given to the changing strategies, the basic flaw of the U.S. policy, as I have mentioned earlier, was the lack of clarity of mission. Commenting on the events in Lebanon and Grenada, Mr. James Schlesinger, former Secreary of Defense under President Gerald Ford, had this to say, "When military power is applied, it should meet the test of 'clarity of mission and efficiency'; that was the case of Grenada, but it clearly was not the case in Lebanon." In my opinion, that was certainly not the case in Viet Nam.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that the U.S. had no choice but to adopt one of the following alternatives: 1) To carry the war to North Viet Nam and aim at the destruction of Hanoi's will to fight; 2) To support the government of South Viet Nam in fighting a long and protracted war in the South.
The first alternative would have allowed for a quick conclusion to the war. It might have required more than 549,000 men that the U.S. provided at the peak of the war. Although there war a risk of intervention by Russia and China, this eventuality was highly unlikely given the animosity between these two countries and given the fact that the destruction of Hanoi's war-making machine would not constitute a direct threat to their security. This alternative was favored by U.S. generals who did not believe in the policy of "status quo" and who, on the contrary, believed that in a war, "there is no substitute for victory." "Had President Johnson changed our strategy", wrote General Westmoreland, "and taken advantage of the enemy's weakness to enable me to carry out the operations we had planned over the previous two years in Laos, Cambodia and north of the DMZ, along with intensified bombing and the mining of Hai Phong Harbor, the North Vietnamese doubtlessly would have broken."
Unfortunately, we did not have the will to adopt the first alternative. I still strongly believe, however, that the second alternative (To support the government of South Viet Nam to fight a protracted war in the South) could have been successfully inplemented in conjunction with an intensive and timely Vietnamization program.
Henry Brandon wrote in An Anatomy of An Error that he does not "subscribe to the idea that the war was lost at home. It is closer to the truth to say that the U.S. failed militarily because the American forces did not train and equip the South Vietnamese adequately until 1967-68." He was wrong on his first proposition, but was absolutely right on the second, because a growing anti-war movement in the U.S. and failure to train and equip a strong Vietnamese army in the 1950's were without any doubt two major causes of the Viet Nam disaster. Vietnamization should be, in Dr. Kissenger's own words. "a serious strategy designed to achieve an honorable peace," and should not be merely "an alibi for an American collapse."
U.S. Media and the Viet Nam War.
It is common knowledge that the U.S. media, for one reason or another, was hostile to the Viet Nam War. The war was presented from the most unfavorable angles with the media sensationalizing the news and even distorting the truth if necessary, to achieve its anti-war objectives. I strongly believe that the U.S. media played a major role in the final downfall of South Viet Nam. Some headlines of editorials after the Christmas bombings in December 1972 quoted by Dr. Kissenger in The White House Years clearly show the extent of U.S. media hostility for the Viet Nam War and its inclination for sensationalism: "New Madness in Viet Nam" (St. Louis Post Dispatch, December 19); "The Rain of Death Continues" (Boston Globe, December 20); "Terror From the Skies" (New York Times, December 26); "Terror Bombing in the Name of Peace" (Washington Post, December 28); "Beyond All Reasons" (Los Angeles Times, December 28).
A Vietnamese journalist who was sympathetic to the communist cause during the war and who escaped to Paris after the fall of South Viet Nam had this to say: "A physician who makes an error kills his patient; a general who makes an error kills his division; a journalist who makes an error kills an entire country." And this was exactly what happened in Viet Nam. General Vo Nguyen Giap stated in a French television broadcast that his most important guerilla during the war was the American press. This was indeed a tragic compliment!"
The U.S. media coverage of the Tet Offensive was a classic case of irresponsible reporting. Not satified with re-running day after day the devastating sequence of the execution of a Viet Cong near An Quang pagoda by an Associated Press correspondent under the title "Pictures of an Execution," NBC went into great detail to make these pictures more dramatic to the American public. The following passage from Peter Braestrup's Big Story describing the NBC "Special" on Viet Nam broadcast March 10, 1968, with Frank McGee as anchorman, is particularly illustrative:
"Just how far this show was willing to go was pointed up in the execution footage. When the sequence first appeared on the Huntley-Brinkley nightly news strip, producer Shad Northshield ordered an upcut between the first and second feeds of the half-hour because the victim's head in the early take (just off the satellite) was seen to bleed slightly as it hits the pavement. On the McGee hour, viewers saw the entire take with an enermous pool of blood forming as the officer lay dying in the street.
"McGee's closing words impressed after an hour to challenge a viewer's immunity to two years of cameo fire footage. "Now there are limits to the destruction Viet Nam can absord. There are so many buildings and so many people and many buildings lie in rubble and too many of the people lie dead.
"Laying aside all other arguments, and there are a great many more, the time is at hand when we must decide it's futile to destroy Viet Nam in order to save it."
The last sentence was a quote from an American advisor in Ben Tre province who, in response to questions from reporters about the destruction of the city during the Tet Offensive, made this unfortunate remark which has since become the delight of journalists and anti-war activists.
When I analyzed the U.S. broadcasts and printed material during the Viet Nam War, I noticed that the U.S. media seemed to follow an interesting set of unwritten rules:
1. When comparing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese with the Allied Forces, praise the first and criticize the latter.
2. When comparing the U.S. forces with ARVN, praise the first and criticize the latter.
3. When reporting on ARVN or GVN, use the following epithets and, if possible, in the same order: a) corruption; b) repression; c) inefficiency.
My Lai, for instance, received ample coverage while VC atrocities (such as the mass execution of more than 4,000 civilians around Hue) were hardly mentioned. The Viet Cong was often depicted as a highly motivated fighting man while the U.S. soldier was plagued with drug and other discipline problems. In the contrast between a Viet Cong and an ARVN soldier, the former was depicted (in a Newsweek article) as a "lion", while the latter was called a "rabbit."
American television during the Tet Offensive reported only the fighting of the U.S. Marines to capture the Citadel of Hue in I Corps. Yet, ARVN had 11 battalions participating in that battle (versus 3 U.S. battalions) and suffered 384 killed among the 500 KIAs suffered by all Allied Forces in Hue. According to Peter Braestrup, the following statements was made by Mr. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, to a New Jersey delegation on February 10, 1968: "With very few exceptions, South Viet Nam troops fought with courage and persistence. Their records in the last 12 days should lay to rest once and for all the myth that South Viet Nam troops won't fight." This was never mentioned by the U.S. correspondents when they reported on Mr. Rusk's speech. Braestrup also reported that Ambassador Komer, in a press conference relative to the effects of the Tet Offensive on the pacification program, stated that only 35 out of 51 ARVN battalions had come back to the pacification areas, this statement was quickly Ms. Jeanne Kirpatrick, the late U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in her book Dictatorship and Double Standards, explained this hostile attitude of the U.S. media toward the Viet Nam War by the fact that there appeared in the 1960's on the American political scene a new class of politicians who wanted to impose on developing nations an abstract and idealistic political structure that did not take into consideration the political realities in these countries. And when these politicians - whom Ms. Kirpatrick called "neo-rationalists"- saw that the political realities in the developing countries did not fit into their preconceived political models, they became frustrated and worked toward the overthrow of anti-communist regimes in these countries.
I don't want to get into these socio-philosophical discourses, but suffice to say that this kind of "advocacy journalism" which characterized the U.S. media in the Viet Nam War was, without doubt, one of the major causes of the downfall of South Viet Nam.
The Army of the Republic of Viet Nam.
According to some American authors, the unsatisfactory performance of ARVN was one of the causes of the Viet Nam disaster. Let me spend a few minutes here, if I may, to dispel once and for all the myth that ARVN troops won't fight.
In 1968, the VC violated the Tet's annual three-day truce to launch an all-out attack on our cities and town. Although we were caught off-guard, our troops rallied and evicted the enemy from our cities under heavy street combats, destroying almost half of its war-making potential.
In the spring of 1972, taking advantage of the disengagement of U.S. troops under the Vietnamization program, Hanoi launched an all-out assault on three fronts: Quang Tri in MRI, Kontoum in MRII, and Binh Long province in MRIII. According to the communists' plan, if these offensives proved successful, Hanoi would use these new bases as a springboard for the final conquest of South Viet Nam.
With U.S. air support, our army had beaten back, against all odds, North Viet Nam's elite divisions supported by armored and artillery regiments. In particular, the battle of An Loc, the capital city of Binh Long, was a compelling story of ARVN's determination and courage in face of superior enemy. ARVN, at the peak of the batle, had only 6,350 men while NVA's attacking force consisted of three divisions supported by tank and artillery regiments, totalling about 18,000 men. We had no tanks and all our artillery guns had been destroyed by enemy rocket and artillery fires. Yet we beat back all NVA's ferocious assaults and stood our grounds after two months of bloody fighting.
General Paul Vannuxem, a French hero of the Indochina War, wrote after a visit to the liberated city of An Loc: "An Loc became a symbol, a symbol of the determination of the Army and of the people to stand at all costs in face of the enemy. It was the Verdun of Viet Nam, where Viet Nam had received as in baptism the consecration of her will."
Historical perspective of the Viet Nam War
Now, let us try to put the Viet Nam War in its proper historical perspective in light of the collapse of Communism in Europe. "The communist system's insoluble dilemma," wrote Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski in The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century (1989), "is that economic success can only purchased at the cost of political stability, while political stability can only be sustained at the cost of economic failure."
Thus, if Marxism-Leninism is bound to crack under the pressures of its internal contradictions, then does it mean that the Indochina and Viet Nam Wars had no impact whatsoever on the course of human history?
Rather than trying to provide an answer to the above question, I think a parallel could be drawn here with the American Civil War. If we assume, in fact, that democracy and human rights are the irreversible trends of history, then does it mean that the costly American Civil War to abolish slavery was an unecessary undertaking? Whatever the answer to these questions, one can take solace in the belief that, as depicted in the myth of Sisyphus, even in their most futile endeavors, human sufferings have their intrinsic grandeur and, from time to time in the course of human history, the denizens of certain nations, les peuples martyrs, have been called upon to bear the burden and to suffer for the advancement of the human race. I think Viet Nam is such a nation.
In a final analysis, I believe that, after all, the Viet Nam War has bought time for Viet Nam's neighboring nations, such as Thailand, the Phillipines, Malaysia and Indonesia, to sucessfully develop their economies and effectively strenghten their defense against communist expansion in this part of the world. More importantly, it is also my conviction that the Viet Nam War has bought time for the Free World to mutter other means to win the Cold War and to bring down the international communist empire as we knew it.
Freedom and Democracy for Viet Nam.
As I have related in my book The Twenty-Five Year Century, twenty-seven years after the war, Hanoi is facing an insoluble economic and political dilemma. In the view of Viet Nam watchers, the Communists may have won the war, but they have lost the peace. A character in Duong Thu Huong's award-winning novel Nhung Thien Dang Mu (The Blind Paradises), fittingly describes Vietnam Communist rulers as "people who have spent almost their entire life designing a paradise on earth, but their limited experience has not allowed them to understand the nature of this paradise nor the road leading to it..." The novel, by Viet Nam's best known post-war writer, was published in Hanoi in 1988, during the regime's period of cultural liberation.
Today, after sixteen years of Doi Moi (or "renovation"), a mixture of free market capitalism and command economy, Viet Nam remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of around US $350 and more like $70 in rural areas. In recent years, anger over high taxes, rampant corruption, and a widening gap between the cities and rural areas have triggered protests and popular uprisings in some of the most impoverished provinces in the Red River Delta. A worsening economy will likely trigger further unrest and possible social upheavals.
In today's global economy, emerging nations need to provide an environment of fair competition and safe investment if they want to attract the foreign capital necessary for economic growth. This requires the institution of the rule of law, the eradication of corruption and bureaucracy and, most of all, the dissolution of government-subsidized state enterprises. In other words, in an age where innovation and pluralism have become interdependent, economic reform, to succeed, must be implemented concurrently with political liberalisation. But for authoritatian regimes, political reform means the erosion of the government's grip on power and its ultimate demise.
On the geopolitical front, Viet Nam, sadly, is caught in the middle of a concerted U.S. effort to contain China, which has emerged as the new Asian threat. Despite the Western powers's professed commitment to active cooperation with Russia and "constructive engagement" with China, the post-World War II policy of "containment" remains a popular ploy. And Viet Nam has, once again, become a pawn in this global political chess game.
"History is an eternal recommencement," wrote a French historian. This is painfully true for Viet Nam. Containment, in fact, means establishing relations with surrounding countries and Viet Nam is not only China's neighbor but also its traditional enemy. Thus, Viet Nam has remained its strategic value in U.S. eyes as a counter-balance to the ever-greater threat of Chinese expansionism.
If the unsually warm reception given to U.S. government officials in recent years is any indication, Viet Nam appears only too willing to accomodate its new role as the outpost for a new version of containment in which one Communist country is used as a shield against another. In essence, Viet Nam will become the battlefield for a new Cold War against its wartime Communist ally.
The dilemma for Viet Nam today is that it needs the presence of its former enemy on its soil to help counter its former ally's expansionism, knowing full well that the consequent influx of new ideas, technology and money will accelerate a democratization process that could ultimately bring down its corrupt and unpopular regime. In conclusion, I would like to quote the following passage from the epilogue of my book,"Only by implementing genuine economic and democratic reform can Viet Nam resolve its polical-economic dilemma and break the 'eternal recommencement' of a history of wars and human tragedies, which has plagued it for so long."
Lam Quang Thi