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Archive for the ‘Vietnam War’ Category

The Vietnam War and Communist Aggression

In Book Review, History, Vietnam War on July 3, 2015 at 5:03 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on April 30th 2015, 4:34 pm

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War and the day that South Vietnam came under tyrannical Communist rule. That event precipitated hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese to flee the country, often on rickety boats. According to United Nations estimates (Associated Press: June 23, 1979 and July 6, 1979), between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea. It is not true that those who left did so purely for economic reasons. Many were expelled from the country as undesirables or encouraged to leave as they were deemed to belong to the wrong social group. Others fled fearing for their lives as a result of communist massacres as reprisals for the Vietnam War. “Revolutionary violence” was used by the Communists to unify the country.

When it comes to the war itself, it is also not true that it was America’s responsibility. In a detailed study, with the use of Vietnamese archival sources now available, Pierre Asselin (Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954–1965, [University of California Press, 2013]) has demonstrated that culpability for the war rests with the North Vietnamese Communists. Below I copy a small section from his introduction (p.3).:

Whether of moderate or militant inclination, DRVN [Communist North Vietnamese] leaders never wanted military confrontation with the United States. It is therefore paradoxical that the eventual conflict between Hanoi and Washington—the Vietnam War—was precipitated by the outcome of a Central Committee meeting that convened in late 1963. Until then, Hanoi’s cautiousness had precluded the introduction of American combat forces and a wider war, which seemed avertable for the immediate future. However, the final resolution adopted at the conclusion of the meeting, which called for unrestricted military struggle in the South and comprehensive commitment of the North to that struggle, proved to be a seminal development in the coming of the Vietnam War, producing as it did a drastic escalation of the ongoing insurgency below the seventeenth parallel [Dividing line between North and South Vietnam] in 1964. In light of that development, it is not unreasonable to consider the deployment of American combat forces to South Vietnam in massive numbers the following year as a response to— and not the source of—the onset of ‘big war’ on the Indochinese peninsula.


Vietnam and the Trotskyists

In Trotskyism, Vietnam War on June 27, 2013 at 6:03 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on  June 26th 2013, 12:00 pm

From a history book:

Vietnamese Communists who adhered to the Communism of Leon Trotsky, the Soviet luminary who a few years earlier had been murdered with an ice-pick on orders from his archrival Joseph Stalin, were shown no more mercy than the others. For Ho [Chi Minh] and the other Viet Minh leaders, Stalin was the supreme leader of the world revolution, while Trotsky was a dangerous heretic. The Viet Minh killed some Trotskyites right away, often by tying several people together and throwing them into a river to drown slowly. In 1946, the Viet Minh apprehended Nguyen Ta Thu Thau, the most gifted Trotskyite leader and writer, at the train station in Quang Ngai, then took him to a sandy beach, gave him a mock trial,and put a bullet through his head.


Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, (Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.18.

From the memoirs of a leading Trotskyist:

22 October 1967

It was a nice Sunday. No rain and not too cold. We had expected a few thousand people at most, given that none of the established groups such as CND or various front organizations of the Communist Party had supported our call. When I arrived in Trafalgar Square for the rally, I saw a much larger crowd which had virtually filled the square. A number of us spoke and then, carrying NLF [ National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong] flags and placards proclaiming ‘Victory for Vietnam’, ‘Victory to the NLF’, we began the march to Grosvenor Square.


Tariq Ali, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, (Verso, 2005), p.233.

Campus Opposition to the Vietnam War

In Book Review, Vietnam War on June 18, 2013 at 11:14 AM

What does one do when one wants to write a book on a subject where so much has already been written? The answer is find something on the subject that hasn’t been written about in so much detail and publish a book on that. This seems to have been the strategy for Marc Jason Gilbert in the book he edited: The Vietnam War on Campus: Other Voices, More Distant Drums, (Praeger, 2001). There are only so many ways one might be interested in reading what Mark Rudd and the students of Columbia University got up to with their occupation of college buildings as part of their protest about what they perceived as their university’s complicity in the Vietnam War, or what happened at the Days of Rage in Chicago. Even though I am way too young to have been there and I live in a different country, after reading a number of accounts I can almost place myself in the middle of the action. Presumably in part, if not in whole, because these places are the most exciting to read about, they are the areas where authors have focused.

But what happened away from the elite universities?  What were the activities in opposition to the war in sections of the student movement that were not radically left-wing, at backwater universities or in high schools?  This is what Gilbert’s book focuses upon and for that, it is a useful addition to books on the Vietnam antiwar movement. The thirteen chapters are of varying quality but the first two are certainly worthwhile. These are by John Andrew and Jonathan Schoenwald respectively, and they deal with the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and the burgeoning libertarian movement. The YAF was very much pro the war and anti-Communist, but increasingly became to oppose the draft, whereas the Society for Individual Liberty (SIL)  opposed both the war and the draft.

One thing that surprised me when reading through this book was how small the campus demonstrations against the Vietnam war actually were. Not being part of this generation but hearing about it second or third hand one might have the sense that the antiwar activity was all-consuming for a very substantial proportion of the student movement. This was not the case. Clyde Brown and Gayle K. Pluta Brown have a chapter dealing with the opposition to the war at Iowa State University that at the time had 21,000 students. As the authors comment, “No significant mass protest had been generated against the Vietnam War at Iowa State University before October 1969.”  When they did commence, the largest rally against the war mentioned “drew three thousand people to central campus.” It is not entirely clear whether all of those who attended were students, and even if they were, it is still a small proportion of the student body. The authors mention another march where “Fifty to seventy-five students participated.” This is so small that it is insignificant.  The antiwar activity at Ball State University is interesting because of how puny it actually was. Writing about this institution Anthony O. Edmonds and Joel Shrock conclude:

[The students]  were local, parochial, ambitious, Midwestern, middle-class, White kids who went to college to make mom and dad proud and find a career. With hardly a red-diaper baby among them, it was a very tough audience for the few anti-war advocates around. Although one Ball State student managed to toss a tomato toward Richard Nixon during inaugural festivities in 1969, that is not the real Ball State. On October 17, 1969, apparently jocked-out residents of Beeman Hall, a women’s dorm at Ball State, started a petition supporting President Nixon’s Vietnam War policy. It read in part: “We must exercise an intelligent degree of faith and trust in our national leader.” By the time it reached the White House, it had over three thousand signatures. This was the “telltale heart” of the heart of the country.

Marc Jason Gilbert’s has his own chapter on antiwar activity at University High School in Los Angeles. As the author admits, this was hardy a typical American high school. The student body contained those who “were children of UCLA faculty and many were second or third-generation Jewish or Asian Americans striving to live up to their parents’ high standards and even higher expectations.” By the mid-1960s “such was the level of academic excellence that even the football team’s linemen went to prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard University.” Given this background it is not surprising that the school had its own radical alternative student newspaper, The Red Tide, that was printed off campus or that a sophomore launched a court case against the Los Angeles Unified School District when the school authorities tried to stifle its distribution at the school. I shall conclude this post with two anecdotes  Gilbert mentions about this school when setting the scene prior to the Vietnam War. I found them both amusing:

So distant was the school from later standards of political correctness that even though a large percentage of its students were Jewish, no one raised a voice in protest over the school’s alma mater, which was set to the music of “Deutschland uber Alles.”

At the climax of the Cuban debacle… many …students were asked to wait at the end of the school day for their parents to pick them up. The school authorities explained that nuclear war was expected to begin before they could get home, and the school system preferred that the children not be incinerated in the school system’s buses.

On Hobsbawm, Hitchens, and Double Standards

In Hitchens, Vietnam War on November 11, 2012 at 7:33 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place at October 4th 2012, 1:39 am

When Christopher Hitchens died, this blog published panegyrics. This was not the case when Eric Hobsbawn died. Alan A of this blog determined that Hobsbawm was “wicked” (subsequently changed) and wrote a post largely consisting of an extract of a review of one of Hobsbawm’s books by Hitchens.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that comments below posts are not viewable one week after a post goes up. In this instance, it is a shame as an interesting debate occurred between some of this blog’s regular commentators from both below and above the line. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi suggested that there were double standards at play between the treatment by this blog of Hobsbawm and its treatment of Hitchens. In my opinion, Aymenn’s complaint is justified.

He accurately quoted Christopher Hitchens as saying in 2004:

The media cliche about the war is that it‘s like Vietnam. The Vietnamese were a very civilized foe and if they had had weapons of mass destruction, for example, wouldn‘t have used them and didn‘t target civilians, did use women as fighters and organizers, were not torturers and mass murderers and so forth.

In a dispute, another regular commentator, declared that Hitchens was mentioning “facts.”

This is simply not true. The North Vietnamese Communists and the Viet Cong certainly did use torture. Guenter Lewy (America in Vietnam [Oxford University Press, 1978], pp.337-8) discusses the treatment of American prisoners :

The most frequent mode of torture was to put a prisoner into ropes – arms tied tightly behind the back and head and shoulders forced down until the mouth practically touched the feet. As a result of constricted circulation, after a while the pain became so excruciating that the prisoner was prepared to do anything his captors demanded….. Col Kenneth North told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that according to statistics kept by the prisoner organization, approximately 95 percent of the men in the North Vietnamese prisons were tortured.

As regards mass murderers, one can consider what happened at Hue early 1968 when, in the course of 26 days:

some 5,800 civilians were killed or abducted; most of the missing are considered dead…. mass graves were discovered gradually during the following 18 months and yielded some 2,800 bodies. The lack of visible wounds on a large number of these victims, who included two Catholic priests, indicated that they had been buried alive.

Source: Ibid., p.274.

Commenting on terror killings, Lewy adds (p.277):

The killing of noncombatants through VC terror, on the other hand, was systematic and intentional, in violation of the most basic principles of humanitarian conduct in time of war forbidding deliberate attacks on the civilian population.

Mass murders by Vietnamese Communists had occurred even before the Second IndoChina War had begun. Communist policy in the Soviet Union and China had led to millions of deaths as a result of Stalin’s collectivization and Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward. Michael Lind (Vietnam the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict [Free Press, 1999], p.152) explains what happened in Vietnam:

Collectivization began on March 2, 1953 with the promulgation of a “Population Classification Decree” that divided the subjects of the Hanoi dictatorship into five categories from “landlord” to “agricultural worker.” Somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 Vietnamese were summarily executed for being of the wrong class category; many more were imprisoned in the Vietnamese Gulag.

After the war, many Vietnamese were so scared as to what the Communists would do that they left the country in rickety boats. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 1 million people fled Vietnam in the aftermath of the the 1975 communist takeover of which some 400,000 died at sea.

Source: Associated Press, June 23, 1979.

Those fleeing had good cause to be worried. According to Doan Van Toai, after the fall of Saigon, the whole of the county was turned into a “Vietnamese Gulag” with food rations dependent on whether the Communist Party bosses were obeyed. And then, after hard days at work in rice fields, free time was restricted as peasants had to attend indoctrination lessons. (Source: Human Events, March 17, 1979.) And in terms of deaths etc, Human Events (August 27, 1977) reported one former elected Communist government official estimated by 1977 that

between 50,000 and 100,000 people had been slaughtered outright; that there are another 200,000 or more in the “re-education” camps; an additional 200,000-300,000 who have been processed through these camps, released, but kept under the equivalent of house arrest; and perhaps one million or more sent to “new economic areas” to perform forced labour.

And so it goes on.

Michael Lind (Vietnam The Necessary War, [Free Press, 1999], p.156) comments:

members of the Western left who minimised or made excuses for the North Vietnamese Land reform terror were apologists for state-sponsored genocide

There does indeed seem to be a double standard.

The Picture Worth One Thousand Words

In From the Vaults, Vietnam War on June 8, 2012 at 6:00 AM

When one considers the Vietnam War, one can examine the actions of major participants such as  Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, Lyndon B. Johnson, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, of military leaders and tacticians such as Generals Giap and Westmoreland and debate the rights and wrongs of those actions, but one should never lose sight of the fact that in war, people are killed and injured.

The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph below was taken by Nick Ut forty years ago today. It remains one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War.

vietnam napalm girl

We now know that the naked girl in the picture, running with her skin burning due to napalm dropped from a South Vietnamese Skyraider plane, was nine year old was Kim Phuc. As well as the photograph, ITN shot film showing what had occurred just before and after this photograph. It can clearly be seen in this video that large parts of Kim Phuc’s skin was severely burnt. Fortunately her face was unharmed.

Kim Phuc survived the attack and now, 49 years old, lives in Toronto with her husband. She has told her story many times. On Saturday, the Guardian published an Associated Press news report containing more information on the “napalm girl” and how that famous photograph has affected her life. It is worth reading.

Hat Tip: Ian Leslie via John Rentoul.

Nonsense on the Vietnam War

In Commentator, Vietnam War on June 3, 2012 at 8:14 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on May 31st 2012, 9:15 am

On The Commentator blog, James Boys has an article which ostensibly attacks President Obama’s statement that would put the commencement of the Vietnam War in 1962, a year when John F Kennedy (JFK) was President. In practice, the article presents a severe distortion of the reality. Boys tries to suggest a substantial difference of view between JFK and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), of American involvement in Vietnam.

Specifically, Boys states:

Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported back from Vietnam that One thousand troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1963, and that the United States would be able to withdraw all military personnel by the end of 1965.”

This plan was outlined in the Top Secret national Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11th, 1963. This was the order to start the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. “It’s their war,” President Kennedy stated “they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.” This stance was a serious deviation from the cold war policies of the past, and many speculated that it would be indicative of Kennedy’s second term….

John F. Kennedy had never been an advocate of fighting a land war in Asia, agreeing with General Douglas McArthur that to do so would be futile.” Lyndon Johnson however saw the situation in a different light….To Kennedy, Vietnam had been a distant war, and one to be avoided. To Lyndon Johnson, it was almost personal.

One of Johnson’s first acts as President was to sign National Security Action Memorandum 273, reversing Kennedy’s withdrawal policy….

The image that Boys wishes to leave readers is clear: had JFK not been assassinated, there would have been no ground troops and the horrors of the US decisions for war can be laid fairly at the feet of LBJ.

While it is true that according to NSAM 263 that “The President [JFK] approved the military recommendations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the [McNamara-Taylor] report,” he also “directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.” It can be also noted when looking at the McNamara-Taylor report that the withdrawal of troops was due to be “In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions” and “without impairment of the war effort.”

Fredrik Logevall, in his analysis of the situation, (Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, [University of California Press, 1999], pp.69-74), argued that the withdrawal of 1,000 troops was “primarily a device to put pressure on [South Vietnamese leader] Diem,” only designed to be a “token” withdrawal and that “nothing in the voluminous internal record for 1962 and 1963” suggested otherwise. Logevall is explicit, “When judged together, the McNamara-Taylor report, NSAM 263, and the accompanying documents all demonstrate clearly that the one-thousand-man withdrawal signalled no lessening of the American commitment to South Vietnam.”

Boys quotes Kennedy as saying, “It’s their war. They’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.” While he does not provide his source, these were part of Kennedy’s remarks to Walter Cronkite in a television interview on September 2, 1963.  This interview has been uploaded in full to YouTube. The relevant quote used by Boys can be seen between sections 14:00 and 14:04. What Boys has missed out are Kennedy’s further comments. I quote below the section between 16:41 and 17:07:

. . in the final analysis it is the people and the Government [of South Vietnam] itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear. But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle even though it is far away.

By missing out this section where Kennedy makes it clear that he does not think America should withdraw from Vietnam, Boys has presented a distorted picture of Kennedy’s views.

Boys suggests that LBJ’s NSAM 273 (signed on November 26, 1963, a few days after Kennedy was assassinated) was a reversal of Kennedy’s withdrawal policy. This is false. NSAM 273 clearly states:

The objectives of the United States with respect to the withdrawal of U. S. military personnel remain as stated in the White House statement of October 2, 1963.

But more importantly, a very similar draft of this document, was prepared on November 21, 1963. The document refers to the President, who, on that date, was JFK as he was not assassinated until the following day. Consequently, while NSAM 273 was signed with a reference where LBJ was President, that was mainly because JFK has been assassinated. Had the assassination not occurred then NSAM 273 would have been JFK’s document. LBJ’s policy in Vietnam commencing with NSAM 273 was not therefore a reversal of JFK’s policies, but a continuation of them.

This nonsense of Boys is more suited to a film by Oliver Stone and the babble of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists than to a discussion on historical reality. It is a great shame that The Commentator published it.