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The Legacy Of The Vietnam War

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As current leader of the hawks, George Bush promised that the conflict in the Persian Gulf would not be another Vietnam War, that the U.S. would not fight with one hand tied behind its back, failing because of a lack of will. This interpretation of defeat is dubious, but it also begs the question of why the U.S. fought in Vietnam at all. Many who campaigned to "support the troops" in the Persian Gulf tried topre-empt discussions of the war's ultímate purpose and insinuated that doubt and disagreement could kill American soldiers as readily as Iraqi artillery. Yet one of the most crucial lessons of the Vietnam War was the need to ask such fundamental questions not relying on the President for answers. Since the legacy of the Vietnam War is still up for grabs, it is important to understand that the United States' role in the conflict was unjust and irnmoral and that this was the case long before the massive deploy ment of American troops in the mid-1960s. It is impossible to understand the meaning of the war, and its outcome, unless we begin to explore Vietnamese perspectives with a sense of history. In Sept. 1945, Vietnam declared its independence after decades of struggling to expel foreign aggressors - first the French, who began their conquest in the 1850s, then the Japanese, who invaded during World War II. For most Vietnamese, French colonialism meant a degrading lack of control over their lives. Colonial powers sought profit, and the French extracted riches through faetones and mines, rubber plantations, and increased rice production for export. The Vietnamese provided the labor, eaming scant wages in factories, dying in droves on rubber plantations, and watching landlords claim enormous shares of their rice harvests. The Viet Minh (Front for the Independence of Vietnam), founded by Communist Ho Chi Minh in 194 1 , led the successful Vietnamese independence movement by opposing both French and Japanese rule. The Viet Minh was a broad-based organization that secured the allegiance of vast numbers of Vietnamese citizens in 1944 by seizing rice stocks destined for Japanese troops. Until then, 2 mili ion Vietnamese had died oí starvation because their rice was taken from them. By the end of WWII the relationship between the Viet Minh and the U.S. seemed positive. The Viet Minh had assisted the U.S. during the war by gathering intelligence about Japanese forces and rescuing downed airmen. As he addressed the crowd at the 1945 independence celebration, Ho Chi Minh borrowed phrases from Thomas Jefferson ' s Declaration of Independence. The people cheered and saluted an American plane flying overhead. WWII had been fought, the U.S. had claimed, so that all people would have the right to determine their own form of government. The Vietnamese celebrated the fruits of that victory and anticipated further Allied support. Within a year, however, the U.S. firmly supported France in its effort to reimpose colonial rule over Vietnam. This American position grew less out of a fear of advancing communism in Asia, than from the hope of securing French opposition to the Soviet Union in the emerging Cold War in Europe. So the U.S. condoned France's aggression in Vietnam. The irony was not lost on Ho Chi Minh, who wrote numerous letters to President Harry Truman, pleading for assistance and noting the numerous investment opportunities in Vietnam for American businesses. Truman never responded. The U.S. eventually contributed money as well as approval to the French colonial war. By 1954 the U.S. had spent $2.6 billion to fight the Vietnamese and was paying 80% of the war bill for the French. By the late 1940s and 1950s, U.S . policy makers interpreted the Vietnamese independence movement as a [l]n the proceas ofliberatlng Kuwait, the war will libérate the American people front the ghosts of Vietnam, f rom the humlllatlon that began to melt away on Jan. 16. The sons and daughters of the vanquished In Vietnam are now engaged In an act of natlonal redemption. Col. David Hackworth (Newsweek, Feb. 1991) communist insurgency conceived in Moscow and supported by the Soviets and the Chinese Communists. If left unchecked, the U.S . held, all of Southeast Asia would become communist as the dominóes feil toward Europe and North America. The U.S. position was wrong. The Viet Minh's anti-colonial goal required no inspiration from Moscow. Most Vietnamese had opposed French rule since the Soviet Union even existed. The Soviet Union was devastated after WWII and provided little material aid to the Vietnamese insurgents until the 1960s. Furthermore, the Viet Minh's appeal in the Vietnamese country side was based on its land reform program , not communist theory. While the colonizers tried to subdue the population with force, the Viet Minh recruited thousands of loyal followers by granting land to rice farmers who had seen too much of their erop go to the French or to French-backed landlords. Having first, and unsuccessfully appealed to the U.S. for aid, the Viet Minh accepted weapons from Communist China beginning in 1950; but relations between Vietnam and China remained strained, as they had been for centuries. Despite American assistance to the French, the Viet Minh won the war because the majority of the Vietnamese people supported their own independence movement. Desperately seeking to deny the Vietnamese their victory, the U.S . arranged in 1954 to temporarily divide Vietnam in two - henee the origin of "North Vietnam" and "South Vietnam" - with the understanding that the nation would be reunited by elections to be held within two years. The Viet Minh consented, but the elections were never held. The U.S., which had replaced France as the dominant foreign presence in Vietnam, refused to allow elections because of the overwhelming popularity of Ho Chi Minh and the unpopularity of the U.S.-supported candidate Ngo Dinh Diem. The U.S.-backed Diem govemment in South Vietnam was a disaster. Intending to créate a model nation that would stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia, the U.S. supported a dictator who managed to aliénate almost every Vietnamese citizen outside of his immediate family by imprisoning or executing critics and political opponents. The Catholic Diem interfered with the religious affairs of the nations' Buddhist majority. He imposed outside leaders on villages that had traditionally decided such things for themselves. Diem had considerable backing, but it was almost entirely from the U.S. His opponents multiplied until even the U.S. consented to his assassination in 1963. Throughout these years the Vietnamese independence movement, still led by Ho Chi Minh, struggled to rid the country of foreign domination. Confounding American officials, the independence movement continued toearn far greater allegiance throughout the country, including "South Vietnam," than did the U.S.supportedgovemment. The massiveU.S. military assault on Vietnam, beginning in 1965, was a bizarre, extremely violent attempt to make history conform to the fantasies of American leaders. During the current debate over the legacy of the Vietnam War, it is important to bear in mind some painful truths. Never was the U. S. defendingfreedomanddemocracy.orpromoting the right of self-determination, in Vietnam. Neither did Gis die to defend any fundamental rights of American citizenship. According to the "domino theory," every revolution involving communists was Soviet-instigated and ultimately threatened U.S. freedom; but such rigid an ti-comm unism could not explain the dynamics of the Vietnamese independence movement and the tenacity of its resistance to the U.S. war effort. Not only was the American role in Vietnam immoral, it showed little restraint. Three times as many tons of explosives were dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam (including the South) as were dropped in all of World War II. In addition, napalm and other defoliants destroyed an estimated 50% of Vietnam 's forests. Over 2 million Vietnamese were killed compared to 58,000 Americans. What kind of "victory" couldevengreaterannihilationhaveproduced? The U.S. did not lose because it fought with one hand tied behind its back. The U.S. lost because its program for Vietnam - corrupt dictatorship, massive bombing, death, and destruction - was extremely impopular with the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese citizens. It is understandable that most Americans focus on the actual experiences of American combat forces when trying to make sense of the Vietnam War. American Gis are our roost numerous, immediate, and powerful link with the conflict, and they have every right to interpret their own experiences both in the war and upon their return. But no amount of empathy with Vietnam veterans can transform America' s role in the war into a noble cause. Once again, the U.S. has jumped, guns blazing, into a región with a complex history about which most Americans know little. Strictly speaking, the Gulf War could not be "another Vietnam." In history, culture, political context, and terrain, Iraq and Kuwait are different from Vietnam. But it is doubtful that in the Gulf that the American military "triumph" with its massive destruction and upheaval in the región wiü produce the peace, respect for the U.S., and feelings of restored American omnipotence that war advocates appear to desire.


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