This week marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. In anticipation of that anniversary, I have been reading the Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War by Philip Jennings. It is a good work of history, putting the Vietnam War in the context of the ideological struggles of the 20th Century and decisively exposing the myths and major mistakes of that war.
Some of the more egregious errors Jennings lays bare are the following:
- The Eisenhower administration’s failure to come to the aid of the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 resulted in the strengthening of the Communist insurgency and ultimate secession of North Vietnam. That set the stage for the next 20 years of war between North and South.
- The Kennedy administration had a firm commitment to an American presence in Vietnam and there is little doubt that Kennedy, had he lived, would have undertaken much the same strategy of U.S. troop deployments and escalation as did his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson
- The decision of the Kennedy administration to facilitate the removal of prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the putative strong men of South Vietnam in 1963, was a mistake of incalculable proportions, leaving a power vacuum that no other leader in the South was able to fill. South Vietnam had a succession of nine leaders between 1963 and the fall of Saigon. North Vietnam had only one.
- Many of the most famous photos of the war – and the ones that arguably turned the American public decisively against it – had back stories that were never reported. For instance, the photo taken during the Tet Offensive in Saigon of a North Vietnamese inflitrator being summarily executed on the street by a South Vietnamese colonel, followed in the wake of the murder of a South Vietnamese politician and his six children. The photographer, who had a close relationship with the colonel and regarded him as an outstanding officer and individual, deeply regretted the image and the way it was used to convey South Vietnamese brutality.
- Famous U.S. reporters in the conflict, David Halberstram, Stanley Karnow, Neill Sheehan and the Australian, Peter Arnett – all of whom wrote best selling books about the conflict, leapt at stories of disaster on the American and ARVN front as providing good copy and rarely reported advances and successes in the campaign. They generally dismissed reports from the military as ” cover- your -ass” propaganda and used any opportunity they could to highlight the folly of Americas involvement in South East Asia.
- The Tet Offensive, decried by the press as a signal defeat for South Vietnam, was actually nothing of the sort. The North Vietnamese lost 75,000 to 85,000 of the of the 150,000 troops they had thrown into the campaign and held on to not a single South Vietnamese city. Yet Walter Cronkite’s special report, aired on CBS News on February 27, 1968 concluding that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies had no alternative but to sue for peace with honor, was used as evidence of a defeat, leading to Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election and the subsequent growth of the anti-war movement.
- The war prosecuted by the Nixon campaign between 1969 and 1973 brought great victories for the South but these were not reported nor given credence by the media. In fact in the books written by Halberstram, Sheehan and Karnow, only a relatively few pages is devoted to these latter years of the war. The campaign actually improved for the South as U.S. troops pulled out. The situation in the North had become so desperate by the summer of 1973 that they had no option but to negotiate a truce.
- It was a failure of American resolve and steadfast commitment to an ally that ultimately brought an end to South Vietnam. When the North broke its agreements under the Paris Peace Treaty of 1973, and invaded again in 1975, the Democratic controlled Congress has no stomach for any further engagement in the conflict and refused to provide aerial support to the retreating ARVN. Such support, claims Jennings, could have forestalled the collapse that ensued and forced the Viet Cong back across the border.
- By war’s end, the Vietnamese had been fighting foreign involvement or occupation (primarily by the French, Chinese, Japanese, British, and American governments) for 116 years. But far worse was to befall the people of Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched a brutal campaign of repression.
- The U.S. fought a limited defensive war in Vietnam and did not commit itself to total war – which might shock many who list American depredations as among the things that turned them against the conflict.
The absence of military strength can often be compensated by the presence of political will. In Vietnam, the United States had the military strength and power to overwhelm the Viet Cong. What it lacked was the commitment of its civilian leaders. That is a lesson the present administration should take to heart as it works out how to achieve ultimate victory in Afghanistan and Iraq.