Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, there are some key points that need to be made if we are ever to come to grips with the legacy of that conflict for the United States.
1. The crucial decisions that led to American involvement were not made by the Kennedy or Johnson administrations but by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and they were, in my judgment, terrible blunders.
In 1945, President Truman decided that the U.S. would not support Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese independence movement against the French effort to re-establish control of its Indo-China colony. This was in spite of the fact that Ho and his Viet Minh had been American allies in the war against Japan, and Ho had modeled his Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on ours, in a clear bid for American support.
But instead of supporting Vietnamese independence, the United States government became the chief supporter and financier of a misguided French effort to turn back the clock and to restore its colonial power over Asians. This policy might have made sense in the 19th century, but it was doomed to fail in the era after World War II, when colonies all over the world were rising and gaining independence from their European oppressors. It was especially appalling for the United States, which originated in an anti-colonial rebellion, to take this position.
This policy met its inevitable doom when the French admitted defeat in 1954.
The Eisenhower administration then had an easy chance to extricate the United States from this morass by supporting the international effort to end the war with the Geneva Accords of 1954, which provided for free elections to unify Vietnam under its own government in 1956.
If our government had accepted this solution, the war would have ended and Vietnam would have been free of foreign control and independent. But instead, the U.S. (essentially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) moved to prevent these elections from taking place and began to build an alternative government in Saigon to oppose Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Thus, not only did we take sides in what would be a civil war thousands of miles away (which would be bad enough); we literally created one of the sides in that civil war!
This was almost surely a recipe for failure, and is, I contend, one of the greatest blunders committed by any government in the history of the world, much less our own.
2. The reason that our government embarked upon this policy was largely because of the inordinate fear in the 1950s of the spread of communism, particularly after Mao Tse-Tung’s forces took control of China in 1949. Under the “Domino theory” subscribed to by Eisenhower and Dulles, if we allowed another country to fall to communism, others would surely follow until all of Asia was under the communist banner.
This theory was based upon a total ignorance of history and reality. The reality was that there was never any monolithic communist movement centered in Moscow or Beijing which controlled or directed the actions of communists around the world, and that nationalism or local interests always trumped ideology.
Anyone who took any time to study the history of the Vietnamese people could have easily found out about the ancient hostility between them and China, and could have quickly determined that the best way to contain China would be to have a free and independent Vietnam! This, of course, was verified almost as soon as Vietnam was independent; in 1979, they went to war against — surprise — China!
3. When Lyndon Johnson decided that, rather than being accused of “losing Vietnam,” he would send American ground troops to win the war against North Vietnam (even though he had his own real doubts about whether this policy would succeed), he committed an error of criminal proportions. In the course of what the Vietnamese call the “American War,” the United States would:
a. drop more than four million tons of bombs on Vietnam, making it the most-bombed country in history — more than we dropped in World War II!
b. through bombings and resettlement policy, create somewhere around 10 million refugees in a country of 20 million people;
c. through bombings and tactics like “free-fire zones,” kill close to four million people, about two million of them civilians;
d. drop about 20 million gallons of herbicides on South Vietnam (the part of the country we were trying to “save”), exposing as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese — as well as our own soldiers — to substances like Agent Orange, which is still causing untold suffering;
e. leave behind incredible amounts of unexploded ordinance, which, according to the best estimates, has killed about 40,000 and maimed 65,000 people since the war ended.
4. Despite all of this, The Vietnamese people do not seem to hate us!
Whenever veterans — or any Americans — visit Vietnam, which they have been doing in significant numbers since the restoration of diplomatic relations 20 years ago, they find the Vietnamese people to be quite welcoming and friendly. I seriously doubt, if the shoe were on the other foot, that the American people could be as forgiving.
I honor and respect all the veterans and heroes of the Vietnam War; they answered their country’s call just like those of our other wars, and deserve their place alongside them. What I do not honor or respect are the leaders of the government who sent them into a war that should have never been fought at all.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Pritchett of Dover has taught American history since 1969, locally in the Capital School District, Delaware State University and currently at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.