What went wrong in Vietnam?

A diplomat, who served in Saigon 50 years ago, asks, ‘Have we learned any lessons?’

 The opening statement in the Burns-Novick TV documentary series is accurate. The U.S. was overconfident, its policy was based on a fateful misunderstanding of the Vietnam conflict and the U.S. found it easier to muddle on than to face the truth that it was unwinnable.

This 10-episode story of the Vietnam War shown recently on public television is a masterpiece. There is no other way to describe how well Burns and Novick wove the disparate pieces of this tale into a tapestry that everyone could both understand and be horrified by. The breathtaking scenes of the countryside were haunting. There beauty and horror were one. The words and fears of our presidents, the biting truths told by the American and Vietnamese soldiers, especially from the North as well as from civilians, were eye-opening and also heartbreaking. The video series is a fine portrayal of a complex struggle, capturing both the inhumanity and humanity of the Vietnam war.

This series brings back to me a flood of memories. I was there from 1964 through mid-1967 as economic counselor to three different ambassadors, in charge of all U.S. economic policy for Vietnam, mostly preventing runaway inflation. I met weekly with the ambassador’s leadership team, including General William Westmoreland, during those four perilous years.

As stated in the video, the overarching failure in Vietnam was that the U.S. viewed the struggle through the wrong lens, seeing it as a key part of the Cold War rather than as the Vietnamese struggle for freedom. The sound of falling dominos – which I fully believed in then – completely drowned out the drumbeat of anticolonialism, which drove the war from the time the French returned right through the American presence. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist always. Trying to win such a war with a government viewed as corrupt and seen as a “colonialist American puppet” was futile.

Yet would it have been possible politically for an American president during those days of fears of communism to give up the “anti-communist” battle in Southeast Asia? Given stinging charges hurled during election campaigns in those days that the president was soft on communism, it became nearly impossible for the president to “cut and run.” Could LBJ or Nixon have finessed our way out of Vietnam? Yes. But it would have taken both courage and statesmanship. It is hard to recall now how pervasive then was the fear that communism would take over the world.

Nevertheless, the U.S. decision to stay in Vietnam and to send more troops represented a moral failure. During 1965 and 1966, there was plentiful evidence that the South Vietnamese leadership was neither capable of nor committed to winning the war. And the North was committed. The U.S. had become the crutch of the South Vietnamese military. Yet knowing this, and even though they believed that we could not win, LBJ and Nixon and McNamara sent in thousands of American men to be killed. These are hard words, but they are true. It was easier to bungle on than face the political music of getting out.

Over the years it was always a new technology or use of power that was the bright new hope for victory. I recall vividly the times General Westmoreland would announce to our weekly meetings: tracked armored personnel carriers have arrived that can go through rice fields; then tanks; then bombing of the North’s supply trails; then close-in air support; then the arrival of the 1st Cav completely air mobile, able to hit the enemy anywhere, anytime; then sensors on the Ho Chi Minh trail so we could bomb troops and supplies coming south and cut off resupply; next B-52 bombers and, finally, the mining of Haiphong harbor.

In the minds of our leaders, I believe that the expectation of salvation through technology and power was a mind trap. This “means of victory” diverted American leadership from focusing on the military and political challenge of fighting an enemy which was nowhere and everywhere, as well as the fatal weakness in the South Vietnamese government itself. We did not understand what the rural population felt. Instead, we used what we understood and had available: technology and power. Yet, top political officers at the U.S. Embassy, such as Phillip Habib, knew that the war was primarily political, that the “most nationalist” and determined government would win. Clearly, the South Vietnamese government of weak, corrupt and quarrelling generals, hardly any of whom had nationalist credentials, bore no resemblance whatsoever to a George Washington fighting the British. Not that the Vietcong and North were nice guys. They were brutal and ruthless to their own people and troops as well as tough, courageous and dedicated fighters. Most important, they carried aloft the nationalist flag, not the colonialist flag.

Furthermore, the U.S. government was not truthful with the American people. News of battles and the Tonkin Gulf incident were manipulated while bombings and attacks on the North and Laos were kept secret. Refugees were streaming to the cities from the countryside. Our government said this proves that the people support and trust the government. The people are “voting with their feet.” In fact the peasants were fleeing from “free fire zones” the U.S. established. The people were told to flee their ancestral villages because shells would be raining down on anything that moves in the zone of free fire.

Such wanton use of power showed a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the struggle. Indeed, it backfired terribly. Most of the villagers who were driven out became sworn enemies of the government and gladly supported and hid the Vietcong who came later to the cities for the Tet offensive. This is another illustration of how the U.S. sought to substitute power and technology in place of understanding of the anticolonial nature of the war. Heedless of the fact that this wanton use of technology created thousands of recruits for the Vietcong, the U.S. fired millions of shells into what had become a wasteland.

A final comment touches on an age-old reality of power. Leaders are naturally committed to their strategy and the more so as things go awry. And as they do leaders cling ever more tightly to their strategy as correct and suppress contrary information. John Paul Vann, the magnificent American patriot and courageous colonel who so well understood the political struggle of the countryside, told me several times that his briefings of top Washington visitors were often snuffed out: “Sorry we are out of time.” The blatant corruption by South Vietnamese military officials in the provinces, which he reported, was overlooked in Saigon as not important. Yes, there was whitewashing going on. And it was the intrepid and patriotic reporters like Neil Sheehan, Joe Galsworthy, Malcom Brown and David Halberstam who were telling the truth.

One painful legacy of the Vietnam War is that it destroyed many people’s trust in their government. Indeed, government could hide and misrepresent the truth. What was then a tiny tear in the fabric of our culture has now become a chasm, thanks to the Republican mantra that the government is the enemy and the Democrats’ failure to deal honestly and effectively with wage stagnation, jobs, globalization and financial chicanery.

What is our hope going forward? Our hope must be that these 58,000 did not die in vain, that we have learned vital lessons because of this sorrow of lives lost, both ours and the millions of Vietnamese.

However, haunting questions remain.  Are we morally culpable for using sledgehammers such as B-52s to kill military and civilians invisible miles below?  Is it somehow OK to use Agent Orange to destroy and poison the environment and napalm to maim civilians and soldiers we cannot see, or leave generational sickness behind us because of these toxins along with mutilation of rural people years later from unexploded munitions in innocent looking rice fields?  These questions we have not confronted even to this day.

Roy Wehrle was economic counselor in the U.S. Embassy and assistant director of the U.S. Aid
Mission to Vietnam from 1964 to mid-1967.

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