The Giant and the Pissant: A Fairy Tale

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 1, 2006 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi / Ho Chi Minh City

Many American visitors to Vietnam are astonished to discover that the Vietnamese hold no grudge against them or the United States for aiding and then prosecuting a war that resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and the disfiguration and ostracism of their country.  At first this seemed to prove the basic nobility of the Vietnamese, and that there was something arrogant or youthfully green about the American willingness to believe that their war was somehow more special than the countless prior wars of Vietnamese independence.

But I also wondered if the Americans were not rushing to conclusions.  "Well," they seemed to say, "the Vietnamese have forgiven us; why can't we forgive ourselves?"  It then occurred to me that perhaps the Vietnamese had once again duped the credulous Americans, who so often - and, in a way, admirably -- seem incapable of taking words at anything but their face value.  In their book The Ugly American, authors William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick noted that Asians "intuitively" tell their listeners what they think they want to hear:  a racist generalization, to be sure, but not altogether implausible.  With the collapse of their benefactor the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese were more than ever in need of American aid and recognition.  What better way to get it than to affect amnesia of a war whose methodology has been compared to genocide?

Following the 11th of September, some sourpusses proposed that the atrocity was a direct result of the excesses of American foreign policy.  They were thinking in karmic terms.  Other critics rejoined that the Vietnamese, say, who suffered the brunt of those excesses, would never dream of avenging themselves in such a cruel and indiscriminate way.  And they probably wouldn't.  But to say so carried a sinister implication: that the Vietnamese were somehow more convenient.  Who would not prefer such superhumanly resilient and forgiving enemies to those more prone to resentment and revenge?  If only, they seemed to say, everybody would take an unprovoked pummeling with the muted grace of Vietnam. 

I will never forget Dan Rather's head informing me that September 11th had kicked, by God, the "Vietnam syndrome".  George Bush the Elder had incanted the same thing after the (First?) Persian Gulf War.  From this I conclude that imminent war may be a reliable treatment, but clearly it is not a cure.

One has just cause to be cynical, I think, perusing once again the history of that dire conflict, this time in the form of Vietnam: A History by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow.  And lest the title mislead you, this is a history of the Vietnam War; only 80 of its approximately 700 pages concern Vietnam before its war against the French, which culminated in the epochal Vietnamese defeat of French forces at Dienbienphu in 1954, a defeat from which the Americans failed to draw the obvious lesson:  avoid fighting Asians on their own turf.  Charles de Gaulle, who originally supported the return of the French to Indochina following World War II, would later oppose the American intervention as futile.  And de Gaulle was an opponent of appeasement, that threadbare phrase, if ever there was one.

Karnow's book is told from a decidedly American viewpoint, but it is free from the whiff of ideology detectable in similar works by Frances Fitzgerald or Gabriel Kolko.  Karnow is an "insider": his history brims with interviews of key players on both sides of the conflict.  Among other distinctions, he would be placed on Nixon's notorious list of enemies.  Surely Karnow would take issue with the recent appointment of Henry Kissinger to lead the "independent commission" investigating September 11th:  the same Kissinger, he writes, that acquired "a talent for duplicity" not to mention a penchant for secrecy.

Perhaps the single most telling and terrifying attribute of Karnow's history is the regularity with which American officials, privately convinced that victory was impossible, publicly trumpeted the war's continued progress.  The disorder was positively bipolar.  Upon grim pessimism and remorse was slathered the upbeat statistic and the smiling face.  The "Vietnam syndrome" was not so much a reluctance to use military force; it was the quite natural reluctance to believe a government so consistently deceitful.

But Karnow often notes a seemingly opposed phenomenon:  the tendency of Americans to blindly support their President in times of apparent crisis.  Thus, if a President wants blind support, he must produce a new crisis on a regular basis.  Perhaps the most ludicrous example of such scaremongering was Lyndon Johnson's claim that Communists would soon turn up in Waikiki, evidently to collectivize the beachcombers and ban fruity alcoholic drinks.

Karnow recounts in detail the decision-making that led to the 1963 assassination of the Diem brothers, who had become, as Karnow puts it, puppets who pull their own strings.  The coup had Washington backing, although apparently President Kennedy was furious and dismayed to hear the news.  But he had little time to fret:  his own assassination followed close upon.  Anyway, the Diem murders give the lie to the prevalent idea that the United States is newly and shamefacedly considering the assassination of inconvenient dictators.  But the chaos that followed Diem's ouster should give one pause; also the fact that then-VP Johnson had publicly compared Diem to Churchill two years before Diem in very un-Churchill fashion was riddled with bullets and repeatedly stabbed.  How times change.  Meanwhile, in private, LBJ called Vietnam a "damn little pissant country"; Kissinger called it "fourth-rate".  Sticks and stones.

Say what you will about LBJ's fondness for prefacing his private remarks with the word "shit", Karnow paints him as a tragic figure, trying to erect the Great Society back home without appearing "soft" (how familiar the word sounds!) on Communism in Vietnam.  One is also inclined to feel sorry for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was transformed from an ecstatic booster, with his maps and charts tied to his wrists like mittens, into a puddle of lugubrious tears.  Literally.  Karnow, quoting Harry McPherson, relates how McNamara began his 1968 farewell:  "He reeled off the familiar statistics - how we had dropped more bombs on Vietnam than in all of Europe during World War II.  Then his voice broke, and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility, the crushing futility, of the air war." 

The Americans were slow to realize that it was not 1944 anymore and that they were fighting not industrialized Germany or Japan but a peasant nation with very little worth blowing up.  "The American investment in the bombing," concludes Karnow, "was thus wildly disproportionate to the destruction it inflicted.... By late 1967, the United States had imposed some $300 million in damage on North Vietnam - but at a loss to the American air force of more than seven hundred aircraft valued at approximately $900 million."  Yet the bombing would continue on and off for eight more years.  In the meantime McNamara would argue that "the virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people" (a.k.a. "genocide") was the only way that bombing could rid the South of Communists.

Having seen his predecessors fail to defeat Vietnam with insults and crying, Nixon tried invading Cambodia, in 1970.  To justify this illegal and baffling step, he offered the American people the following words, banally calculated to appeal to their vanity:  "If...the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions," etc.  In the same breath Nixon mentions totalitarianism (too many laws) and anarchy (too few laws); presumably freedom exists only in a Goldilocks state where the number of laws is "just right".  But how would the Communists and the Nixon administration have fit into his harebrained scheme?  In his sadly premature 1945 declaration of independence, Ho Chi Minh repeated almost verbatim Jefferson's words asserting the equality of mankind and their right to live, be free, and get happy; Nixon instead preferred the rhetoric of, say, Il Duce:  "when the President does it," said Nixon, "that means it is not illegal."

But really "totalitarianism" and "anarchy" are just scare words, with little more semantic content than the word "Boo!"  And, of course, they worked.  Karnow notes that "a large proportion" of Americans supported the Cambodia invasion.  Only "opinion leaders" cried foul.

Political assassinations have always been part of the toolkit of American foreign policy.  So too has the now suddenly barbaric and unwieldy utensil known as the "pre-emptive invasion."  The first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam on March 8, 1965.  By the end of 1968, there were 540,000.  That is an invasion.  And it was pre-emptive in the sense that it was meant to prevent the Red hordes from storming Waikiki - via, presumably, a bridge of fallen dominoes.  Although in the Korean War Americans had been fighting directly with Chinese troops, in Vietnam they were fighting only against Chinese and Russian weapons held by Vietnamese who, thanks all the same, were through with foreign domination - by anybody.  In 1979, they would once again expel the Chinese, with no help from the United States, which was by then Communist China's wary bedfellow.

Arguably the reason the Vietnam War went on for so long and to no point was simple, stupid pride.  "I will not," declared Nixon, "be the first president of the United States to lose a war."  And Nixon was right, but for the wrong reasons.  Truman and Eisenhower hadn't won the Korean War; and with Nixon disgraced by Watergate, it would fall to Ford to declare the Vietnam War "finished" in April 1975, though less than a month later - in the so-called Mayaguez incident - he would order the bombing of Cambodia and oversee the needless sacrifice of 38 US Marines, whose names are the last entries on the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington.  The incident depended in part on Kissinger's primeval desire for the United States to appear "ferocious".

It was a war, writes Karnow, that "nobody won."  Not even the Vietnamese, who are excellent at defending their country but mediocre at administering it.  The post-war utopia has been a disappointment.  But consider one alternative:  a hostile, heavily armed, and starving North Vietnam, with tens of thousands of American boys taking the sun in the vicinity of Khe Sanh.  In airports I occasionally encounter such boys, but headed for Korea.  They have hearts of gold, brains of a somewhat more malleable metal, worried girlfriends and moms back home.  Same old story.  The South Koreans, I am told, are grateful for their presence, except for the odd, flag-burning crank.  But then, Korea had been invaded by two Communist behemoths; Vietnam was invaded by the US.

I'd like to close with the candid testimony of one William Ehrhart, described by Karnow as a former marine sergeant.  It recounts a "routine" mission intended to win hearts and minds away from the Vietcong.  Feel free to make substitutions for "Vietcong" as suits your fancy:

"We would go through a village before dawn, rousting everybody out of bed and kicking down doors and dragging them out if they didn't move fast enough.  They all had underground bunkers inside their huts to protect themselves against bombing and shelling.  But to us the bunkers were Vietcong hiding places, and we'd blow them up with dynamite - and blow up the huts too.  If we spotted rice lying around, we'd confiscate it to keep them from giving it to the Vietcong....[I]f they weren't pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left."

- The End -

Review of Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History, Penguin Books, 1997.

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