History of the Vietnam War: Lessons not always learned
NCVA leaders Nguyen Ngoc Bich, Hoang Duc Nha and Bui Diem. (NCVA photos courtesy of Chu Thich.)
By JACKIE BONG-WRIGHT
At the Army Navy Club in Washington, speaking to a group convened to reassess the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 35 years after the Vietnam War, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had some rhetorical “What if” questions for the 150 participants.
“What if President Roosevelt had lived, and we had not supported the French return to Vietnam? What if we had known more about the rift between the Soviet Union and China? What if President Diem had not been assassinated? What if President Nixon had not been involved in the Watergate scandal?” But for the vagaries of history, matters might have turned out very differently.
Five other key speakers and 10 panelists, both Vietnamese and American, analyzed the battles they saw as turning points of the Vietnam War.
The Tet offensive; the battles of Hue, An Loc and Quang Tri; the Army of South Vietnam; the Paris Peace Accords, and lessons learned were dissected in the panel discussions. The panelists’ clear intent was to restore the reputation of the South Vietnamese armed forces.
The 1968 Tet Offensive: The first speaker, Dr. Erik Villard, a historian, said that a true civil war took place in South Vietnam between the Vietnamese nationalists in the South and the invading Communists from the North. He described the famous 1968 Tet Offensive, conveying the scope and complexity of the Viet Cong’s plan and the desperate, but ultimately successful, South Vietnamese and allied counterthrust. Tragically for South Vietnam, he said, the victory at Tet was seen by the world as a defeat.
Former Police Chief Col. Tran Minh Cong added that 50 percent of the ARVN troops were on holiday leave when the Communists struck. He ordered his police battalion to retake the Presidential Palace in Saigon, while other units joined forces to regain most of the outposts, which had been occupied by Viet Cong troops.
Time Magazine reported, “ARVN bore the brunt of the early fighting with bravery and elan, performing better than almost anyone would have expected.” To which the late Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker added, “The government did not fall apart. On the contrary, it reacted strongly, quickly and decisively. It set about the task of recovery with great energy.”
And yet, the American media decried the Tet Offensive as the “beginning of the end of the Vietnam War,” Col. Cong Tran complained.
Prof. Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a scholar and professor at George Mason University, recounted how, during the Tet offensive, the imperial city of Hue was the only place the Communists managed to set up a civilian authority. They went on a rampage, killing thousands of southern “enemies of the Revolution” during a 25-day occupation in February 1968.
“They killed indiscriminately around 6,000 men in academia and business, women, older people and even infants, giving a chilling preview of Communist rule. Thousands of Vietnamese, considered “American lackeys,” were tortured, killed and even buried alive by the Vietcong People’s Court, composed of young Communist cadres and villagers, selected at random.
The “Hue Massacre,” said Prof. Bich, was the equivalent of the “killing fields” under Cambodia’s Pol Pot or the Holocaust of WWII.
The conference echoed the views of other experts. Lewis Sorley, Vietnam war historian and a faculty member at West Point and the Army War College, said last year at Texas Tech University that such distorted views extended from wholesale defamation of the South Vietnamese and their conduct throughout a long and difficult struggle to Jane Fonda’s infamous claim that repatriated American prisoners of war who reported systematic abuse and torture by their captors were “liars” and “hypocrites.”
The 1972 Easter Offensive: The three-month siege of An Loc province in April of 1972 was also misinterpreted by the American media. “It resulted in a horrendous loss by both sides,” Dr. James Willbanks told the audience, “but at the end of the bloody fighting, the valiant South Vietnamese retained control of the city.”
Col. Phan Van Huan, Commander of the 81st Airborne Rangers, and his Deputy, LTC Nguyen Lan, recounted how they pushed back the Northern troops and blocked a direct North Vietnamese thrust toward Saigon, putting up a strong defense in the face of vastly superior enemy numbers. They held out against a sustained North Vietnamese attack, turning back three separate assaults.
The battle of Quang Tri was discussed by Col. Pham Van Chung, Captain Nguyen Viet, and Dale Andrade, a historian and author of three books on the Vietnam War. They reported that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) 308th Division, and two independent regiments moved south across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) while their 304th Division rolled out of Laos from the west. They overran a network of small South Vietnamese bases guarding Highway 9 and then moved into the Quang Tri Valley.
The Hanoi leadership’s goal was “to gain decisive victory in 1972, and to force the U.S. imperialists to negotiate an end to the war from a position of defeat.” The South Vietnamese units splintered and retreated, ceding ground. But Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, one of South Vietnam’s best officers, was placed in command and slowly recaptured southern Quang Tri and its capital.
The NVA suffered more than 100,000 casualties – half of their forces, including 40,000 troops killed, and lost half its tanks and heavy artillery. As a result, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, was eased out as NVA commander. The result was not reported accurately by the American media.
Lessons Learned or Not?
Many believe that Americans know very little about the war in Vietnam, although it ended three decades ago. In his article “History Proves Vietnam Victors Wrong” in the Wall Street Journal, in April of 2000, Sen. James Webb identified the media, academia, and Hollywood as groups that “have a large stake in having the war remembered as both unnecessary and unwinnable.”
Thousands of articles, books, military reports, battle studies, and memoirs about the 10-year war continue to remain unchallenged or accepted as facts with no in-depth analysis among most historians. The late Douglas Pike, a political scientist who wrote extensively on Vietnam, commented on “those who were casually trashed by the ignorant commercial television reporters and the academic left-wingers bent on some ideological mission.”
George Veith, a writer on Vietnam who is now completing Black April: The Defeat of South Vietnam-1975, spoke of the myths about the fall of South Vietnam.
Veith said that Hanoi expected the government of Vietnam (GVN) to collapse once the U.S. withdrew in 1972. But it didn’t, and the ARVN actually grew stronger, as proved by the battles of An Loc and Quang Tri. Then, from 1973 until March 1975, the AVRN inflicted defeats on the NVA, provoking the dismissal of Vo Nguyen Giap. Veith was convinced that the ARVN was not the weak and cowardly army portrayed in the U.S. media.
Viewing the Nixon resignation as an indication that the U.S. was abandoning the South, the politburo in Hanoi decided to “liberate” the South within the two-year period 1975-1976, launching large-scale attacks.
They violated the Paris Peace Accords’ ceasefire agreement they had signed with the U.S. and South Vietnam. When the U.S. army withdrew in 1972 and the Congress cut off military and economic aid to the South in March 1974, Veith said, “ Given the country’s geographic disadvantages, the ARVN couldn’t stop a simultaneous, country-wide offensive without U.S. air power.“
Was corruption also the cause of the fall of Vietnam? Sorley cited CIA’s Tom Polgar, who argued that “the country could have survived with a corrupt government, just as the Philippines, or South Korea, or Thailand, or anywhere. In any county where you do not pay your civil service adequately, you can expect corruption. It’s a way of life.” Col. William LeGro, U.S. Defense Attache in Vietnam, agreed, “Corruption was not the cause of the collapse. The reduction to almost zero of U.S. support was the cause. We did a terrible thing to the south Vietnamese.”
Former Ambassador to Washington Bui Diem (1973 to 1975), one of the organizers of the conference, deplored the cut-off of aid by the U.S. Congress. “I could not help but rage at the unfairness of the bill for military aid which was defeated in Congress. The real issue in my mind was the kind of lives that millions of South Vietnamese would have to endure once this Congress had made its choice.”
Sorley again. “In Vietnam, perhaps 65,000 people were executed by their self-proclaimed liberators. As many as 250,000 more died in the brutal “re-education” camps. Two million were driven from their homeland and formed a new Vietnamese diaspora.” A quarter of a million boat people perished at sea.
Hoang Duc Nha, former Minister of Information and Open Arms in South Vietnam, was he wind-up speaker. He said that the Vietnam war tended to be seen here through an American prism that distorted why the Communists won and the nationalists lost. He reminded the audience that, while South Vietnam was in harm’s way, the government was also racing to build the nation a democracy with a sound economic system, based on the rule of law, an unheard-of effort by a country at war.
Furthermore, even in the face of continued warfare, the government also implemented a three-pronged growth strategy driven by agricultural development, labor intensive industry, and exploitation of natural resources. In 1974, he noted, oil was found off the coast of South Vietnam. Yet, Vietnam got scant recognition for these achievements.
Dr. Rufus Phillips, author of the recent and highly acclaimed book, Why Vietnam Matters, offered his own insights in a paper prepared for the conference. He quoted Gen. Maxwell Taylor’s reply to the question of why we failed in Vietnam? This former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam said toward the end of his life, “We didn’t understand the enemy, our South Vietnamese allies or even ourselves. We didn’t understand how to fight that kind of war until it was too late. For too long, top policy makers in Washington and our top leaders on the ground, with egos inflated by meritorious careers in their endeavors, had a low tolerance for different views based on first-hand experience.”
In the end, Dr. Phillips had this advice: “There was a vital need for us, as Americans, to understand you, the people we were trying to help, and not to impose made-in-America solutions, but to work as cohorts, even as brothers, to help you develop your own solutions. These were lessons not always learned.”
Jackie Bong-Wright is a member of the Board of Directors of NCVA, and lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
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