Not every email this trip will be on the war. I’ll write a good few of the kind l’ve been sending for years to convey some of the colour of where I am and what befalls. But my infatuation with Vietnam, which began decades before I thought to set foot here, owes much to that war. I was fifteen in spring ‘68, when Lyndon Baines Johnson – low on charisma, fundamentally decent and aware he owed his job to a man who’d lain patiently in wait on a November afternoon in Dallas – leaned into the world’s screens to come as close as senior politicians ever do to voicing despair. With regard to Vietnam he personally, and America at large, had run out of ideas. I recall verbatim his opening words that day because for the next week I tormented my brothers with execrable renditions of his accent: “I now call on the United Nations and Soviet Union to … blah de blah …” Did I understand a word of it? No, but a seed was planted and this is one of its fruits …
With cavalier if not philistine disregard for the complexities I’ll focus on one fact alone. For millennia, Vietnam has fended off, on the whole with surprising success though with a century or two every now and then of darker days, the expansionism of her more powerful northern neighbour. According to the needs of the hour she stood up to China and Mongolia – every city has streets named after such heroes of old as the Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao – or, eastern style, bent into the wind on pain of being smashed by the whirlwind.
This sheds light on an embedded trait I’ve come to love and admire in a people for the most part born decades after America’s defeat: an appealing amalgam of gentleness and steel.
Late 19th century
France, having long succeeded Portugal as dominant European power, formalises the fact (1868) and combines (1888) Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam within “Indochina”. French rule is grim and summarily repressive of resistance.
Ho Chi Minh, back from Moscow, forms the Viet Communist Party and is soon de facto leader of a broader nationalist movement, the Viet Minh.
A striking aspect of 20th century resistance to colonialism (and to a lesser degree nazi rule in Europe) is the leading role of marx-leninist parties. The ‘vanguard’ model does beget ruthlessness but to see this as sufficient explanation misses the mark – witness the ferocity of the wrong-side-of-history Kuomintang in China – and usually reflects vested interests. We should bear this in mind when asking why America, against its better judgment and having learned nothing in Korea, could have sleep-walked into its most traumatising war ever. In my last email I spoke of idiocy. I stand by the remark but it’s not the full picture. In a real sense, America’s involvement was choiceless.
“You wore blue, they wore grey”, says Humph to Ingrid. Germany takes France; its ally takes Indochina. Echoing Vichy France, it suits Japan to keep the old administration in place as junior partner. “We suffer a double yoke of imperialism”, says Ho Chi Minh.
WW2 in general
Seeing the Viet Minh as the best local bet, Washingon backs Ho (“my enemy’s enemy …”) with small arms and limited financing against Japan.
Post Hiroshima and Japan’s surrender, Britain, France and Holland think to walk back into their pre-war colonies for business as usual. Initially the US is hostile – though Truman ignores Ho’s appeals for help – but cold war, incubating domino theory and Britain’s experiences of Malayan communist insurgents make Washington increasingly sceptical of Ho’s nationalist colours.
Three things harden this emerging view in Washington. One, Stalin gets the Bomb. (Somebody has to pay, and strapping the Rosenbergs to the chair at Sing Sing could never be more than small change in the reckoning.) Two, with the Kuomintang driven off the mainland to Formosa (Taiwan), Mao’s communists take over China. Three, NATO is formed, making France a key ally against Moscow: again, “my enemy’s enemy”. Uncle Sam holds nose and swallows Enlightenment principles. He’ll be doing plenty more of that in the decades to come.
The following year sees America facing – and realising how badly it has underestimated – battle hardened Chinese troops in Korea. Taking up the presidency in 1953, Truman finds it expeditious to discover that “the French soldier killed in Indo-China, the British soldier in Malaya, the American life given in Korea” are all sacrifices in a struggle of “freedom pitted against slavery; lightness against dark.”
Logistical support to France does not, however, extend to military support; even when France requests US airstrikes to aid troops beleaguered by a foe she too has badly underestimated. Several things undermine France’s ability to crush the Viet Minh. One is arms and cash from Moscow and, just as important, advice from Chinese veterans of conflicts in similar terrain and political circumstances. Another is France’s ‘fifth column’ in the shape of Western Europe’s strongest communist party. A third is that, unlike Britain in Malaya, France was unprepared – Algeria being too different in too many ways to offer lessons for Indochina – for the war she was now fighting. Most crucial, though, is the fact – and America really should have been taking notes – that she was up against an enemy whose less individualistic culture, and millennia of holding China at bay, had engendered both national pride and a preparedness to absorb high casualties.
(On that last, one of many ways White House and Pentagon – two decades on and aided by media less supine but every bit as gullible as those of today – routinely misled the American public on the war’s progress was by claiming victory in battles where, as was almost always the case given US technological superiority, its body count was lower than that of its enemy.)
A string of spectacular Viet Minh victories – culminating in 3,000 French troops killed and 10,000 taken prisoner at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – leads two months later to the Geneva Conference that partitions Vietnam. Ho’s communists in Hanoi rule north of the 17th Parallel while first the French then a corrupt US puppet rule the south. The official story? This is a holding arrangement pending a 1956 referendum. The truth? Nobody believes it will happen, for the simple reason Ho would win. Both sides prepare for civil war.
One crucial aspect of the north’s preparations is the infiltration of cadres south of the 17th – underground activists priming the Viet Cong to fight South Vietnam then America from within. Another is the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, whereby arms and personnel are smuggled south. As much midnight express style metaphor as fixed physical entity, the Trail – destined to drag Laos and, with horrific consequences, Cambodia into the war – needs its own dedicated post.
Mid 50s to early 60s
Truman passes the ball to Eisenhower, Eisenhower to JFK. America, gripped by McCarthyism and domino theory, watches with mounting unease as its kleptocratic client in Saigon leaves the South receptive to Ho. Nor is it just a war of ideas. Depending on how you view this, the north’s soldiers are either waging low level war against a sovereign neighbour or heroically seeking to restore a territorial integrity severed at Geneva by, yet again, distant powers.
Military advisors pile into Saigon under Kennedy but, with an American public still recovering from Korea, boots on the ground are not yet an option. (As with Shock and Awe and dodgy dossier, forty years on, a casus belli will, when the time comes, be fabricated in the shape of the Tonkin Incident.) But the die is cast. Washington’s mannichaen view of a global red threat means that, come what may, America is tied to Vietnam and cannot walk away. It will fall to Johnson to do the deed and ensure he is remembered neither for a modest but hard won shift of wealth toward the poor, nor the first steps to dismantle American apartheid. Instead he’ll be remembered for the campus ditty: L-B, L-B-J; how many kids did you bomb today?