February 1, 2015

Vietnam in HD

Netflix is airing a History Channel series called "Vietnam in HD." The producers used enhanced film footage and live interviews to cover the Vietnam War from beginning to end. While the end of the Vietnam War was watched by millions of Americans on the nightly news, the beginning is still largely unfamiliar to most Americans. We were told we were there to fight Communism. We were told we were there to  preserve the freedom of the South Vietnamese. We were never really told why the North Vietnamese were there. To understand that, you need to go back to the period immediately before and after World War II.

France established colonial rule over Vietnam somewhere in the late 1880's to gain access to its rubber and rice. That lasted until World War II, when the Japanese drove the French from Indochina. In July 1945, the end was in sight and Allied Chiefs of Staff at the Potsdam Conference decided to temporarily partition Vietnam at the 16th parallel for the sake of post-war administrative simplicity. British forces were to take the surrender of Japanese forces in Saigon for the southern half of Indochina; Japanese troops in the northern half would surrender to the Chinese.

Following the surrender of Japan to Allied forces, Ho Chi Minh and his People's Congress formed a provisional government. Japan transferred all power to Ho's Vietminh, which seized the moment to assert its independence in a document that drew heavily on our own Declaration of Independence. It didn't take the French long to decide they wanted their colony back.

The British stood by while the French retook control over the southern part of Vietnam. (The first American casualty was on September 26, 1945, when American OSS chief, Major Peter Dewey, was killed in Saigon after being mistaken for a Frenchman during the fighting.) The French eventually worked out a deal with the Vietnminh, declaring Vietnam as a "free state" within the French Union. Ho Chi Minh was reappointed as president of North Vietnam.

Things started out well enough in 1946. Elections were held, the last of the Chinese troops withdrew, and the French recognized the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as a free state. But then the French pulled a switcheroo and declared the the formation of an independent Cochin-China within the Indochina Federation and the French Union. That started a war that lasted until the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. Both sides agreed to the Geneva Accords, which decreed a partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with elections to be held in 1956.Neither the United Sates nor the South Vietnam government agreed to sign the Accords.

The years 1955 and 1956 were marked by intense diplomatic maneuvering that increasingly involved the United States in the effort to shore up the government of South Vietnam. In July of 1955 the DRV signaled a desire to begin talks to set up the national unification election promised in the Geneva Accords. The government of South Vietnam said, hey, we never signed any agreement and besides, we don't think you guys in the north are ready for elections.

That didn't set too well with Ho Chi Minh and the other leaders in the north who remained committed to restoring the unified Vietnam they had been promised. Unlike the Middle East, which has barely progressed past tribalism, the Vietnamese in the north drew from a long Confucian tradition of an educated bureaucracy. These guys were highly trained and knew how to get things done. They ramped up their efforts to infiltrate Viet Minh troops from the north into the south and win the hearts and minds of the peasants in South Vietnam.

Unfortunately for the North Vietnamese, Washington had long ago conflated their regional war with two other wars, one hot and one cold. The Korean War drew the attention of President Truman to the region and to the threat posed by Communist China, who were seen as allies of North Vietnam, tragically ironic given the historically difficult relationship between the two countries. This was playing out in the broader context of the Cold War and the Domino Theory, which President Eisenhower first formulated in 1954.

The fact that South Vietnam was lead by Ngo Ding Diem, a staunch anti-Communist Catholic, gave the American government a figurehead to rally around. Eventually, Diem became unpopular due to his repression of the Buddhists and was assassinated in 1963 with the tacit blessing of the CIA and the Kennedy administration, but the doctrine of supporting South Vietnam was firmly in place.

Most folks can pick up the story from here. We got deeper and deeper into big Muddy under Kennedy and Johnson. Public opinion turned against the war, and the pressure grew to get out. After years of negotiations and withdrawals under  Nixon, the last American troops left in 1974. The end came in 1975. Thirty years after the first declaration of independence by Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam was  again united. By some estimates, over a million people on both sides died in a ten-year span from 1965 to 1975, including well over half a million Vietnamese civilians.

Every time I try to make sense of the events leading up to the end of French rule in 1954, I find myself wondering how the professionals in the State Department could not have felt the deep currents of history that would eventually drag us far out to sea. We still haven't figured it out. In the Middle East, we struggle to impose Western notions of democracy on tribes divided by ethnicity and religion, tribes that have been at war with each other for centuries. Our ability to impose a solution there is no greater than it was in Vietnam. Now as then, history will simply wait us out.

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