[Marxism] Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 23 06:59:55 MDT 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 14 · 18 July 2019
Terror Was Absolute
by Chris Mullin

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75 by Max Hastings
Collins, 722 pp, £9.99, May, ISBN 978 0 00 813301 6

The Chinese occupied Vietnam for the best part of a thousand years, up 
to the tenth century. They attacked it again in 1979. The Mongols 
launched three invasions in the 13th century. The French colonised the 
country in the 1850s along with its neighbours Laos and Cambodia. Then 
the Japanese invaded in 1940, and allowed the French pro-Vichy colonial 
regime to remain. Roosevelt had been sympathetic to the idea of granting 
independence to Vietnam once the war was over, but died before he could 
take action. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the British 
and the Dutch, anxious to reclaim their own colonial possessions, 
supported the return of French rule. Since the French were too weak to 
reoccupy their slice of Indochina immediately, the Great Powers decided 
that the country should be temporarily garrisoned by the Chinese and 
British armies. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang took the North and the 
British under General Gracey occupied the South. In a little known and 
not very creditable episode, Gracey’s men released the Japanese soldiers 
and used them to hold down the locals until the French returned.

I once asked Vietnam’s foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach why, after his 
country was attacked by the Khmer Rouge, it had not taken its case to 
the UN instead of invading Cambodia late in 1978. ‘We do not have such a 
high regard for the UN as you do,’ he replied.

‘How so?’

‘Because during the last forty years we have been invaded by four of the 
five permanent members of the Security Council.’

This is far from the first history of the Vietnam War, but the range of 
available sources has widened over the years and Max Hastings has made 
expert use of them. There is no shortage of memoirs and official papers 
that shed light on the war from every conceivable American angle. The 
Vietnamese experience is harder to document, not least because of the 
secretive and authoritarian nature of the current Hanoi regime. ‘In 
modern Vietnam,’ Hastings writes, ‘the legitimacy of its autocratic 
government derives solely from its victory in 1975. Thus, no stain is 
permitted to besmirch that narrative: few survivors feel able to speak 
freely about what took place. This opacity has been amazingly successful 
in defining the terms in which Western as well as Asian writers address 
the war.’ He goes on to argue that ‘in conducting its war effort, the 
Northern politburo enjoyed significant advantages. Its principals were 
content to pay an awesome price in human life, secure from media or 
electoral embarrassments. They could suffer repeated failures on the 
battlefield without risking absolute defeat, because the US had set its 
face against invading the North.’

What does Hastings think would have happened if the US had invaded the 
North? They had enough trouble keeping the South under control without 
taking on another great chunk of implacably hostile, inhospitable 
terrain. (Much of the North was flattened anyway, even without a US 
invasion.) And while he is largely right about the received narrative of 
the war, there is a growing number of memoirs written by Vietnamese who 
now live abroad. Duong Van Mai Elliott’s The Sacred Willow (1999), about 
the last four generations of her family, much quoted by Hastings, is 
among the best. There has also been a trickle of accounts from the 
Communist side. Truong Nhu Tang’s Journal of a Viet Cong, published in 
1986, was the first account by a senior dissenter. Hanoi’s official 
history of the war, published in 2002, is surprisingly revealing about 
the tensions and disagreements at the highest levels of the Vietnamese 

Hastings makes good use of all these and more. Curiously, though, he 
neglects the memoirs of Colonel Bui Tin. Bui Tin is famous in Vietnam. 
He was the man who, in the absence of a more senior officer, accepted 
the surrender of the Southern government at the presidential palace in 
Saigon on 30 April 1975, after North Vietnamese tanks had crashed 
through its gates. Subsequently he became deputy editor of Nhan Dan, the 
Vietnamese Communist Party’s official newspaper. He was an eyewitness to 
many of the key events in the country’s post-1945 history and was on 
close terms with senior members of Hanoi’s ruling elite. In September 
1990, disillusioned by the corruption and incompetence of the 
government, he went into exile in Paris. His memoir, Following Ho Chi 
Minh (1994), as well as a series of interviews he gave to the BBC World 
Service, are the best inside account of political life in the North. He 
remained in Paris, available for interview, until his death in August 
2018. And yet he is nowhere quoted. The other surprising absence is 
Truong Chinh, the ruthless old Stalinist principally responsible for the 
brutal Chinese-style land reform carried out in the early 1950s. He 
rates only one passing mention.

Although Hastings reported from Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 
1970s, he wisely keeps his own experience out of it: ‘My understanding 
was so meagre, my perceptions so callow.’ His assertions are mainly (but 
not always) well sourced. His judgments are on the whole balanced. ‘The 
merits of rival causes are never absolute,’ he says, ‘only simpletons of 
the political right and left dare to suggest that in Vietnam either side 
possessed a monopoly of virtue.’ This is true enough, though the massive 
disparities in firepower together with the fact the Americans had no 
business being there in the first place means that they and their 
leaders must bear primary responsibility for the catastrophe.

There were moments when history could have taken a different course. In 
1945, before the return of the French, the Viet Minh’s Communist leader, 
Ho Chi Minh, went out of his way to establish good relations with the US 
but was rebuffed. He even wrote part of the Declaration of Independence 
– the paragraph that includes ‘all men are created equal’ – into the 
Vietnamese constitution when he declared the country’s independence in 
September 1945. In 1954, following the final defeat of the French at 
Dien Bien Phu, it was agreed at the Geneva Conference that the country 
would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, pending elections 
which were to be held within two years and would reunify Vietnam. The 
Americans refused to sign and immediately set about establishing a 
client regime in the South. The elections were never held. ‘I have never 
talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese 
affairs,’ Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs (not quoted by Hastings), ‘who 
did not agree that, had elections been held at the time of the fighting, 
possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the 
Communist Ho Chi Minh.’

He was being disingenuous. There was little or no fighting in the three 
years after Geneva. Only when it became clear that there weren’t going 
to be any elections did Southern guerrillas who had taken refuge in 
North Vietnam begin quietly to return. The Americans, Hastings says, 
‘entirely misjudged the attitudes of Moscow and Beijing, supposing their 
leaderships guilty of fomenting the rising insurgency. Instead, until 
1959 resistance to the Saigon regime was spontaneous and locally 
generated. For some time thereafter, it received only North Vietnamese 
rather than foreign support.’

Almost nothing was as it seemed at the time. The Vietnamese Communists 
weren’t puppets of Russia and China. Far from wanting a proxy war with 
the US, the Russians and Chinese, well aware of their vulnerability, 
were anxious to avoid it. The Chinese in particular didn’t want a repeat 
of what had happened in Korea. In Geneva, both urged restraint on the 
Viet Minh, which felt that its victory over the French entitled it to 
take control of the entire country. The North Vietnamese, for their 
part, far from encouraging Southern exiles to infiltrate the South in 
the late 1950s, did their best to discourage them, despite the sabotage 
of the Geneva agreement by the US and its allies. And despite their 
public pronouncements to the contrary, every American leader from 
Kennedy onwards knew, even as they escalated the war, that Vietnam was a 
doomed cause. As early as 1964 John McNaughton, a Pentagon official, had 
written a memo that US objectives in Indochina were ‘70 per cent avoid a 
humiliating defeat … 20 per cent to keep South Vietnam (and the adjacent 
territory) from Chinese hands – 10 per cent to permit the people of 
South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life’. ‘The entire 
strategy was founded on false premises,’ Hastings writes.

He also makes clear that, contrary to Communist propaganda at the time, 
the war was not a series of glorious victories, but was marked by 
terrible suffering, horrendous casualty figures and strategic blunders, 
most of which can be attributed to Le Duan, the party’s reckless general 
secretary. He was the driving force behind the 1968 Tet Offensive, which 
virtually wiped out their Southern allies, the Viet Cong (or National 
Liberation Front). He was also responsible for the unsuccessful 1972 
offensive, which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The 
Northern army had no air power at its disposal and no helicopters to 
evacuate casualties to well-equipped hospitals. Jungle clinics offered 
only the most basic treatment and the walking wounded faced a long trek 
home through the forests of eastern Laos, often under heavy US 
bombardment. Frank accounts of life on the North Vietnamese side are 
hard to come by, but Hastings has unearthed a few, including the 
testimony of an 18-year-old soldier, wounded at Quang Tri during the 
1972 offensive, who joined a column of wounded marching home:

We looked a terrible sight, a defeated army. We sang songs as we went, 
but they were very sad songs. At that time we felt the war must go on 
for ever, and that we could not possibly win. We kept meeting drafts of 
new recruits going the other way and we felt even sorrier for them. We 
said to each other: ‘If those kids knew what they were heading for, they 
would turn round and run home.’

And here is a North Vietnamese colonel, who was also at Quang Tri:

Perhaps because the phrase ‘the Revolution only attacks’ had been so 
deeply etched into our mindset, anyone who suggested adopting a 
defensive posture was likely to be accused of ‘negativist ideological 
thoughts’ … The rainy season caused countless difficulties. Trenches 
were forever filled with water and mud. Even when we bailed out bunkers, 
within a few hours they flooded again … No matter how hard transport 
personnel worked, supplies were insufficient. Our soldiers … were 
hungry, cold, filthy and sick.

By the end of the war the supply of young men from Northern villages was 
beginning to dry up. When Saigon eventually fell, its inhabitants were 
surprised by the extreme youth of some of their conquerors. Interviewed 
after the war, one veteran of the Northern army remembered that his 
parents didn’t dare celebrate his return for fear of upsetting their 
neighbours, all of whom had lost sons. One woman from the poorest part 
of central Vietnam, now glorified as a ‘heroic mother’, is said to have 
lost all 11 children and grandchildren.

It is impossible to convey the scale of the violence unleashed on the 
rice farmers whose villages became battlegrounds, though Hastings does 
his best:

In August 1967 Operation Benton, which almost nobody has heard of, was a 
brigade-strength search-and-destroy directed against an NVA [North 
Vietnamese Army] regiment. During its course some ten thousand 
Vietnamese in Quang Tin province south of Danang lost their homes. In an 
area six miles by 13, 282 tons of bombs and 116 tons of napalm were 
dropped; a thousand rockets, 132,820 20 mm rounds, 119,350 7.62 mm 
cartridges and 8488 shells were fired. An enemy body count of 397 was 
announced, 640 civilians evacuated to refugee camps … Such a fortnight’s 
work may be deemed representative.

This is Truong Nhu Tang’s description of being on the receiving end of a 
B-52 attack:

The concussive whump whump whump came closer and closer … Then, the 
cataclysm walked onto us, everyone hugged the earth – some screaming 
quietly, others struggling to suppress surges of violent trembling. 
Around us the ground heaved spasmodically, and we were engulfed … From a 
thousand yards away the sonic roar of the explosion tore eardrums, 
leaving many victims permanently deaf, while the shockwaves knocked some 
senseless. A bomb within five hundred yards collapsed the walls of an 
unreinforced bunker, burying alive those cowering within … terror was 
absolute. One lost control of bodily functions.

Hastings devotes only a single short chapter to what happened after the 
war, as the Communists rapidly squandered the enormous local and 
international goodwill engendered by their triumph. They treated the 
South as though it were an occupied country: several hundred thousand 
soldiers and officials from the defeated regime were sent to 
re-education camps, where they languished for years, many dying from 
malaria and malnutrition. The Southern regime had been entirely 
dependent on US aid, which ceased overnight in April 1975. The postwar 
years were always going to be difficult, but they were made much worse 
by the new state’s economic policies. Property was confiscated, 
businesses shut down. For a while even trade between provinces was 
banned; farmers were forced into co-operatives and obliged to sell all 
their produce to the state at artificially low prices, resulting in a 
collapse of rice production. Even the simplest transaction required 
bribery. Before long just about all productive activity had come to a 
halt and thousands had fled the country in small boats.

The Americans refused to recognise a reunified Vietnam or to accept any 
responsibility for the mess they had left behind, not least the many 
thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance that littered the 
countryside. Instead they imposed economic sanctions, further 
impoverishing the people they claimed they had been trying to save. The 
US government also allowed the myth to take hold that there were still 
American prisoners being held in Vietnamese prison camps. They knew this 
was untrue, but it proved a useful stick with which to beat their 
enemies. When Vietnam occupied Cambodia in 1978, US (and British) 
intelligence agencies conspired with China and Thailand to keep the 
Khmer Rouge alive in order to damage Vietnam.

Years passed before word of the economic disaster over which they had 
presided reached the old men in the Vietnamese politburo. ‘Our 
stupidity’ was the phrase one of them used when I discussed the period 
with him in 1991. Since then, though Vietnam remains an autocratic 
one-party state, the Communists have relaxed their grip. It could be 
argued that the war merely delayed the advent of market forces by a 
generation – the very opposite of what the Americans thought they were 

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