Clark D. Neher


Vietnam War

  1. History of American Involvement
  1. Early American involvement.
    1. Vietnam shaped by 1,000 years of direct control by China. Extraordinary capacity of the Vietnamese to retain the essential nature of their culture.
      1. French colonialism in 1800s. French colonial rule: to exploit natural resources and open up new markets; to "civilize and Christianize" Vietnamese.
      1. Japanese interregnum. With Japanese defeat, French returned to fill a vacuum. Vietminh was the nationalist Vietnamese group which had seized control of most of the villages and cities throughout the North, where President Ho Chi Minh announced formation of the Provisional Democratic Republic, under a Declaration of Independence copied from U.S.A.
      1. In 1945, U.S. OSS supporting Ho Chi Minh against return of French. Ho viewed as nationalist.
      1. Europe became more important priority; concern about communist movements in France and rest of Europe. Concern about communist movements everywhere (Korea, East Europe). U.S. supported 80% of French war costs in Indochina. McCarthyism.
      1. French lost at Dienbienphu in 1954
      1. Geneva Conference: (PRC, USSR, Great Britain, US, Laos, Cambodia) Vietminh negotiated for the Vietnamese. Cease-fire between French and Vietminh. Partition line drawn at 17th parallel. Temporary measure. Elections to follow in 1956. U.S. and SV reneged.
        U.S. support for Ngo Dinh Diem; rise of South Vietnam. Diem: anti communist, catholic. Diem consolidated power, increasingly oppressive.
        View the 1954 Geneva Peace Accords and other documents of the Vietnam War by clicking here.
      1. Rise of NLF (Vietcong). NLF included peasants, workers, intellectuals, Buddhists, mountain minorities. At first no northern involvement, but northerners infiltrated the insurgency movement until eventually, the North dominated. Fought against Diem's land policy. Diem attempted to control village councils. Offended peasants who held to tradition that "the power of the Emperor stops at the village gate."
      1. Rise of Buddhist dissidents. 1963 self immolations.
    1. Kennedy sent Green Berets: 16,000 advisors. Agreed to a coup in 1963 against Diem. Rise of military generals.
      1. JFK under pressure from Bay of Pigs disaster. Could not be seen as soft on Communism.
      1. Three weeks after Diem's assassination, Kennedy killed.
    1. August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident: President empowered to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression. Blank check.
      1. LBJ landslide election on a platform that Goldwater was a warmonger. American boys should not fight in Asian wars. Began massive bombing campaigns and escalation of military forces. Each escalation made the next inevitable so as not to make the former one meaningless. American credibility became the major rationale for the war.
      1. By 1966, 200,000 American troops. Bombing campaign.
      1. Tet: January 1968. 36 of 44 provincial capitals hit. Military loss for NV; psychological victory for NV. One of every 12 SV became a refugee.

U.S. took over the war from the South Vietnamese. Americans making every decision about the war and about internal Vietnamese policy. Took over budgeting.

      1. American troops did not lose a major battle.


    1. Rise of anti-war movement. By 1967 500,000 troops. War deadlocked.
            LBJ steps down in 1968.
    1. Nixon
      1. Secret plan to end the war. 5 more years of war, and more Americans lost their lives in the Nixon years than had been killed during the Johnson era.
      1. Intervention in Cambodia: April 1970 following year of secret bombing of Cambodia to end Ho Chi Minh trail. NV had intervened into Cambodia and was training Cambodian communists: KR. Sihanouk overthrown in March 1970. Chaos. "If when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism, and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world." Kent State.

However, the enemy's headquarters were not hit and not found, the sanctuaries were not "knocked out".

    1. Vietnamization. Enlarge SV army, bomb north, withdraw U.S. troops. Pentagon papers. Decent interval.
    1. Paris Peace Accords in September 1972: Lee Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger. NV troops permitted to remain in SV after a cease fire signed. "Peace is at Hand." Nixon wins election over Mc Govern. Thieu resisted accords. Massive raids on Hanoi in December 1972 (Christmas Bombing)

Renewed cease fire agreement, essentially the same as 1972.

Kissinger and Tho receive Nobel Peace Prize. Tho refused the prize.

    1. SV collapses in Spring 1975. Congress refuses more aid.


  1. American culture and intervention in Vietnam
    1. American ignorance about Vietnam
      1. Too few scholars
      1. Inscrutable Asians. Vietnamese seemed a part of another world, a past century.
      1. Disdain about cultural differences
        1. View of Vietnamese with less regard for human life. "Gooks".
        2. Men holding hands; eating food with hands.
        3. Vietnamese deference, hierarchy, indirect confrontation, nationalistic, family-ancestor.
    1. American beliefs about themselves
      1. America as a moral example. U.S. is the City on the Hill, the Chosen People. Defenders of Freedom. (Miss Saigon: "God, how could I do wrong. I'm an American!")
      1. WWI To save the world for democracy
      1. Technological superiority
  1. Vietnamese views of Americans

Loud, primitive (care for elderly, irreverence, toilet habits),  feet smelly, materialist, ugly, irreverent, friendly.

  1. Vietnamese culture
    1. Shaped by Chinese Confucianist culture. Universal harmony prevails when men act according to the universal moral order. The way to ensure this order is through the fulfillment of obligations: that of the son to the father, that of the pupil to his master, subject to his ruler. Confucianism is essentially conservative, although a ruler could lose his Mandate of Heaven if the cosmos were not in order. Merit principle. In reality, however, the emperor was surrounded by sycophants, frequently isolated and unresponsive to the needs of society.
    1. Culture of poverty
      1. different time value; rhythms of the seasons; agriculture
      1. patron-client interactions. Hierarchical, vertical, reciprocal. Personalism.
      1. Animism; ancestor worship. Importance of burial sites.
  1. Perceptions of the War
    1. U.S. Policy Makers
      1. Self-determination and freedom of SV. General: We had to destroy the country to save it.
      1. Anti-communism. SV became a testing ground for Communist wars of national liberation.
      1. Domino
      1. Containment of China and USSR. Johnson: The Central lesson of our time is that the appetite for aggression is never satisfied. We must say in SEA, "Hither shalt thou come and no further." (1965)
      1. U.S. Commitment and Prestige (Four presidents)
      1. Strategic interests in the Pacific
      1. Munich syndrome (stop aggression early or stop it later at a higher price)
      1. Presidential power
      1. Inadvertent small-steps


    1. Anti-War Groups
      1. U.S. aggression against a civil conflict
      1. U.S. racism
      1. Need for domestic reform
      1. disproportionate use of force (11 million refugees; 1 million Vietnamese dead; 58 thousand U.S. dead)
        1. 2,200,000 drafted; 8,700,000 enlisted; 500,000 evaded; 58,000 died; 300,000 injured. PTSD. Drugs.
      1. Economic decline for U.S.
      1. loss of allied support
      1. Moral arguments (My Lai)
      1. expansion of War - Cambodia and Laos
      1. S.V. government: corrupt, elitist, dictatorial
      1. NLF and NV = idealistic reformers


    1. North Vietnam and NLF
      1. Anti-imperialist - pro independence Struggle
      1. Nationalism
      1. Socialism
      1. Unite Vietnam


    1. U.S. Military
      1. Air strikes, bombings, conventional warfare
      1. Vietnamization


    1. South Vietnamese Peasant
      1. Desire to grow rice
      1. Survival
      1. Anti-communist discipline and oppression
      1. suspicious of arrogant NV


  1. Why Defeat for SV and USA?
    1. Corruption of the SV Army
      1. Decision to abandon strategic positions
      1. Artificiality of the SV political system. Incompetency of the Thieu regime. Power was never institutionalized.
      1. Nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese. SV seen as a lackey of U.S.
      1. Tenacity of the NV and guerrillas.
      1. Organization of NLF. Discipline of NV military.
      1. Political cohesion of political groups in the North. Party-state elite dominated everything. No allowance for dissidents. Ho Chi Minh the symbol of nationalist Vietnam.
      1. Anti-war demonstrators undermined will.
      1. U.S. refusal to use "all means" necessary
      1. U.S. did not know how to fight a guerrilla war.


  1.   Contemporary Vietnam
    1. Vietnamese occupation of Laos and Cambodia drained resources.
    1. Economic stagnation; increased poverty as a result of command economy decisions; inability of entrepreneurial spirit to flourish.

Nationalization of industries; confiscation of land; exodus of traders and business types.

    1. About 16% of the population of V were killed or wounded during the war; 57% homeless; 1 million orphans. Reconstruction from the war period undermined growth.
    1. Natural disasters: floods, droughts, typhoons.
    1. Continuing exodus of refugees. First waves: officials of the SV government. Second exodus: Chinese ancestry; third wave: "boat people"
    1. Boycott by U.S.
    1. Political oppression. Reeducation camps. Human rights violations.
  1.   Lessons to be learned
    1. U.S. cannot intervene in protracted wars.
    1. Most so-called reformers are future totalitarians.


Return to main Crossroads page