We have been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary on the Viet Nam war. It is painful to revisit this horrible story. However, the very first installment taught us a lot about the long history behind western involvement in that country. Fear of communism contaminated the viewpoint of the USA and caused our government to support the French, and later the Diem regime in Saigon. A civil and anti-colonial war became a proxy of the cold war between the US and the great Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. People believed the government, accepting as valid the anti-communist motivation. I recall hearing the results of a poll showing that 65% of Americans thought that people should not be allowed to protest against the war.
I well remember the phrase “the light at the end of the tunnel” being used to describe the outlook for the American side during the Viet Nam war, but did not know that it was used by the commanding French general there during the 1950s.
The documentary gave background on the origins of the war. The French had colonized Viet Nam in the 19th century. The people felt they were treated as inferiors and hated the colonial regime. The French were forced out after military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, leaving the Diem government to defend itself in the South. When the returning soldiers got off their ships in France, they were pelted with rocks by union workers. The parallel with what happened later to the Americans is clear – only the details differ. For example, as I recall, the reception of soldiers returning from Viet Nam in the USA was sometimes hostile, more often embarrassed or indifferent.
As early as 1965, South Viet Nam’s army appeared to be losing. This led to a massive buildup of American ground forces and increased bombing of North Viet Nam. As I recall, Americans used napalm to attack villages, Agent Orange to destroy crops and forests, destroyed villages to deny them to the enemy, and bombed neutral countries like Laos and Cambodia. They engaged enemy forces directly and stepped up the bombing of North Viet Nam. All the while the Americans professed, and tried to act upon, their good will toward a people that they viewed as fighting for freedom. But military actions were preponderant, under both Johnson and Nixon, cost countless lives, and prolonged the war, but did not prevent the final victory of the Hanoi government and the humiliation of our own.
It seems to me that America was handed a terrible lesson about foreign intervention in Viet Nam, but did not retain it. We are living today with the consequences of mistakes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Victory on our terms is unlikely in any of these countries. What did we learn from our failure in Viet Nam? Just to make sure no draftees get killed? To keep the number of our casualties below record levels? Rely more on smart bombs and drones?
At the close of his Presidency, George Washington advised his countrymen to avoid foreign entanglements. The decision to go to war is grave, and ending a war is much more difficult than starting one. We need at least to learn from our mistakes; either that or take Washington’s advice and just say no to foreign adventures.