Through the Jungle of Vietnam Books
Over the past few decades, much has been written about Vietnam, though many of the books are not particularly helpful in gaining an understanding. Most accounts of the war there illuminate only parts of what went on. Moreover, ideological blinders often cloud analysis. At the other extreme, most neutral scholarly histories of Vietnam, while presenting important facts, lack any framework to make sense of what occurred. All together, however, this welter of books provides ample foundation from which to forge an understanding of Vietnam.
What especially distinguishes the good from the bad among these works is a keen sense of Vietnam's culture and history and of its place in prewar international politics. Three key facts emerge from this history. First, there existed in Vietnam a strong nationalist independence movement that was distinct from the communist independence movement; indeed, the nationalist forces were actually anticommunist. Second, U.S. policy in Vietnam thoroughly misunderstood this distinction. Third, U.S. intervention in Vietnam can ultimately be blamed for the outcome of the war—a communist Vietnam.
Prelude to War
In the several decades before World War II, the Soviet Union, Japan, and China were the three key powers in the Far East. China, the weakest of the three, was the target of the foreign-policy designs of the others, as well as of the United States: the Soviet Union sought a communist China; Japan, faced with stiff tariffs imposed by the United States and Europe, sought a market for its goods; the United States wanted to open China to American exports.
In all this jockeying for power in Asia, Vietnam figured prominently. Two of the most valuable studies of U.S. intervention in World War II, Charles Beard's President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War (1948) and Charles Callan Tansill's Back Door to War (1952), both indicate the very large number of references to Vietnam in U.S. foreign-policy documents for 1941, the year in which the United States and Japan eventually went to war. Both historians recount how President Roosevelt was using Vietnam's Haiphong harbor to supply China with economic and military aid in its fight against Japan. Trying to force China to negotiate, Japan occupied Haiphong to interdict the American military supplies. When strong procommunist influences in the Roosevelt White House demanded that Japan reopen Haiphong harbor to American military aid, it undercut State Department attempts to reach an agreement with Japan on Southeast Asian issues.
American failure to resolve its conflicts with Japan was to have far-reaching consequences. Japan diverted troops confronting the Soviet Union in Siberia to Southeast Asia. This, in turn, enabled Stalin to move Soviet troops out of the Far East; supplied with massive U.S. economic and military aid, these troops essentially saved Stalin's terror state. Likewise, the U.S.-Japan war that commenced on December 7, 1941, opened the way for communist victories in China, Korea, and Vietnam.
Upon the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist Chinese army was to occupy northern Vietnam and Britain's Indian army southern Vietnam. The British restored French control in the south, but the Chinese army slowly looted through northern Vietnam. Its slow progress gave communist leader Ho Chi Minh time to consolidate his forces in the north. The U.S. military, which had worked closely with the communists in Southeast Asia during World War II, supported the newly established procommunist government there.
Support of Ho Chi Minh by American intelligence forces has not gone unnoticed in accounts of the Vietnam war. Major Archimedes Patti, a U.S. intelligence officer in Vietnam during this time, offers the most complete treatment in Why Vietnam? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). Patti recounts and defends the U.S. support for Ho Chi Minh against the Chinese, the French, and also the Vietnamese nationalists. He argues, correctly, that had this support continued, we would have had no Vietnam war. But he overlooks another alternative—that the nationalist, rather than communist, independence forces might have prevailed in the absence of U.S. involvement.
Other authors who have noted the U.S. support of Ho include Ellen Hammer in The Struggle for Indochina (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954), David Marr in Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and John T. McAlister in Vietnam: The Origins of Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1969). Like Patti, these writers think Ho's eventual victory was inevitable, and they are distinctly unsympathetic to the anticommunist forces. They incorrectly portray the anticommunists as closely tied to the French and later American forces and hence erroneously describe them as opponents of Vietnamese independence.
The Neglected Peasant
Although these historical analyses provide useful information about America's role in Vietnam, none really understands the dynamics of the various nationalist forces nor of Vietnam's peasant society. For this purpose, the best book is Samuel Popkin's The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).
Many leftist social historians, keen to find collectivist traditional societies from which they can argue that socialism ought naturally to spring, have created the myth of the "village moral economy," in which the traditional Vietnamese village is portrayed as a sort of large, communal family. Popkin challenges this romantic notion and shows that peasants, including Vietnam's, have traditionally been profit maximizers who pursue individual gain provided state intervention, especially in the form of taxation, does not distort or ruin markets. The tax policies of the French colonial state in the 19th and early 20th centuries caused class stratification in Vietnam and prevented peasants from taking advantage of widening opportunities for free-market agriculture, especially through international trade.
The French had come to Vietnam in the mid-19th century in defense of Christian missionaries under attack from local mandarins, the elite civil service. For this effort, the French demanded and received from the Vietnamese emperor the southern third of Vietnam, Cochinchina (the Mekong Delta). In 1885 the northern and central provinces of Tonkin and Annam were made protectorates of France. While Cochinchina was ruled directly by French colonial officials, Tonkin and Annam were ruled indirectly by the French through the emperor and the local mandarins. Throughout Vietnam, however, taxes levied by the French were extraordinarily heavy compared to other colonies.
Into the mid-20th century, the heavy tax load caused more and more peasants to lose their land or fear its loss. Yet even as the problem became evident in the 1930s, French academic researchers proposed even greater state controls over the traditional village economy. A Vietnamese assistant to those researchers, explains Popkin, "became convinced that drastic change, both economic and political, was needed to improve the lot of the peasantry. His name was Vo Nguyen Giap." In 1940 Giap, a University of Hanoi historian, became the military leader of the communist forces who would defeat first the French and then the Americans in Vietnam.
Giap, and Vietnam's communist revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, were products of northern Vietnam's mandarin culture. Ho's father had been a lower mandarin, teaching in a village school. Early in the 20th century the French had sought with only partial success to abolish the centuries-old village school system taught by mandarins and replace it with a government educational system centralized in the major cities.
Ho's father had been one of the leaders of a private-education movement against the French, and this gave Ho his initial political education before he went to France during World War I. Later, Ho and Giap took advantage of the crisis of the villages caused by French taxation and meddling with traditional institutions, forming the peasants into a base of political support for the Vietminh nationalist movement.
Though none is a good as Popkin's, several other books discuss the Vietnamese peasants in relationship both to French colonial rule and to the Vietnam war. They include Gerald Chaliand's The Peasants of North Vietnam (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969) and Jean Lacouture's Vietnam: Between Two Truces (New York: Random House, 1966), both journalistic in style. Two more scholarly accounts are David Marr's Vietnamese Anticolonialism: 1885–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) and John T. McAlister and Paul Mus's The Vietnamese and Their Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).
The work of another academic, Bernard Fall, further complements Popkin's. During the '60s, Fall was the leading academic expert on Vietnam. (He was eventually killed there while doing research.) He was not caught up in the ideological fervor that undergirded the analysis of so many of his contemporaries and, like Popkin, he understood the plight of the Vietnamese peasants. His two key books are Political and Military Analysis (New York: Praeger, 1963) and Vietnam Witness: 1953–1966 (New York: Praeger, 1966).
Deeper and Deeper in Vietnam
The picture that emerges from these works is of a peasant population whose discontent the communists were able to exploit in some areas. After the various nationalist forces initiated a war of independence against the French in 1947, the Vietminh communists were able to win peasant support in the north and central parts of Vietnam. The United States became actively involved in 1950 partly in reaction to a communist victory in China. Communist forces had gained total control in China in October 1949 and in January 1950 sought the Chinese seat at the United Nations. The United States vetoed the move but, not wishing to be isolated, agreed that if France voted against the communists as well, the United States would recognize the French-supported Vietnamese government and provide military support.
Thus, the United States recognized as the government of Vietnam the French-supported Bao Dai, while China recognized Ho Chi Minh. Meanwhile, the Korean war was under way.
One of the ironies of this history is that even as the United States was providing vast amounts of aid to the French in Vietnam, it was also, through the Korean war, lending unintended aid to the Vietnamese communists. For when U.S. army and marine forces were driven from the Yalu boundary of communist China, huge quantities of American weapons fell into Chinese communist hands, subsequently to be turned over to Giap's Vietminh forces. Moreover, heavy support for the French from 1950 to 1954 had the same result: it brought in sophisticated American weaponry that was captured in large quantities by the Vietminh. Well supplied with U.S. arms, they ultimately won the northern half of Vietnam.
At the Geneva Peace Conference on Korea and Vietnam in June–July 1954, Vietnam was thus divided in half. In the complex diplomacy, the negotiators recognized that the Vietminh had won in the north and the anticommunists in the south. At that point, the U.S. government entered Vietnam to replace the French and in 10 years turned an anticommunist victory in the south into the threat of anticommunist defeat that eventually brought 500,000 American troops to Vietnam in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off a defeat.
How did American experts snatch defeat for the anticommunists from the jaws of victory? The role of Democrats, over the better judgment of noninterventionist Republicans, is an important part of the story.
In his last speech before his death in 1953, the great American anti-interventionist Robert Taft implored American policymakers not to involve the United States further in Vietnam. "We are so outnumbered in fighting a land war on the Continent of Asia," he warned, "that it would bring about complete exhaustion even if we were able to win." The strongest defense for America, he argued, was a sound monetary system and a free-market economy based on low taxation. A strong American economy would attract a protective shield of countries who wanted to benefit from close association.
The first Republican administration in 20 years, Eisenhower's, was led by men who shared Taft's views, especially Defense Secretary "Engine Charlie" Wilson and Treasury Secretary George Humphreys. They believed that the best way to protect the United States and its economy was to maintain an inexpensive, well-trained military force that could not intervene abroad. But the Democrats attacked the Eisenhower policy as unheroic.
When there was clamor to send American forces to help the French in Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration backed up its strategic objections with the reality that the army was not designed to interfere in such destructive campaigns. However, with American economic aid dominating the newly created South Vietnam, Democrats took a strong role in selecting Ngo Dien Diem as South Vietnam's leader. Senators Mike Mansfield, John F. Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey pressured Washington to support Diem. The State Department, the foreign-aid gang, the CIA, and other "progressive forces" created by the New Deal followed suit.
Support for Diem rested on the assumption that his government could effectively oppose the communists. Actually, however, there was hardly a communist left in 1955 when Diem, backed by the CIA, took over South Vietnam—local southern Vietnamese had massacred them.
In the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam two religious sects, the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai, had emerged and gained millions of adherents. The Hoa Hao was a reformed Buddhist group, the Cao Dai a synthesis of many different religious concepts. Their adherents tended to be peasant nationalists opposed to the French. Together with the sects' organized militias, the local peasants totally eliminated the communists from Cochinchina. In addition, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai—along with a third Mekong group, the Binh Xuyen, a syndicate that protected Chinese merchants' rice shipments—helped break dependence on the feudal landlords and channeled peasant resources into the creation of new rural societies. Again, Popkin provides an excellent explanation.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party and the CIA did not appreciate the pivotal role of these intermediate, nongovernmental institutions in combatting the communists. They read the absence of an American-style social democracy and welfare state as a sign that communism had established a foothold. Especially because the sect militias were not heavily or expensively armed, the American progressives could not believe they could be effective against the communists. Instead, the CIA brought in teams from Michigan State University—the same people who have so dubiously remade American cities for the last generation—to teach public administration and police science.
In 1955, with the support of American military aid and tens of millions of dollars in bribes, Diem destroyed the militias of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen, who fled into the marshes as guerrillas. Diem erroneously referred to his peasant opponents as communists and gave them the name Vietcong. In Vietcong Memoir (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), Truong Nhu Tang (former Vietcong minister of justice), with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, explains that "Diem's armed enemies had for the most part only been mauled, not destroyed. Elements of the defeated sect armies went underground, licking their wounds and looking for allies. Gradually they began to link up with groups of former (northern communist) Vietminh fighters.…The core of a guerrilla army was already in the making.
The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam at the time, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, recommended replacing Diem for undercutting the major anticommunist forces. The only result was Collins's recall, under Democratic establishment pressure.
Conservative author Hilaire du Berrier provides the best explanation of the role that the United States played in undermining the anticommunist nationalists in Vietnam in the mid-1950s in his Background to Betrayal: The Tragedy of Vietnam (Boston: Western Islands, 1965). In The United States in Vietnam (New York: Delta, 1967), George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis corroborate Berrier's description of the nationalist forces fighting Diem as largely noncommunist and understand the role the United States played in destroying them.
In a more recent work, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Knopf, 1986), Kahin provides important analysis of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, especially regarding the eventual overthrow of Diem and the sending of U.S. troops in great numbers into Vietnam. Kahin notes that the Vietnamese generals who overthrew Diem in November 1963 saw the Vietcong as "preponderantly noncommunist in membership and heavily dependent upon the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, along with other elements that had also rallied to its standard primarily because it had been the only effective channel of opposition to Diem." Indeed, the new government, having overthrown Diem and had him murdered, actually rallied many Hoa Hao and Cao Dai from the Vietcong.
But the Johnson administration did not like the anti-Diem generals' reconciliation policy and engineered a second coup to restore the pro-Diem generals to power in 1966. These generals pressed for American troops to help crush the opposition, and this led to the Gulf of Tonkin Affair, discussed in detail by Joseph C. Goulden in Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality (New York: Rand-McNally, 1969).
Again, U.S. policy had helped to create the conditions for communist victory. By early 1966 the provisional government of anti-Diem military leaders had been making headway against communists in South Vietnam. When the pro-Diem military faction sought to oust them, local Buddhist communities rose up in their support and seized control of Danang and Hue. After several months, Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam at the time, had full aid and air transportation provided to the pro-Diem forces in Saigon. A bitter battle, conducted against the recommendations of the U.S. Marine commanders in the area, drove the Buddhist army into the jungle, where it became the nucleus of the Vietcong forces that conquered Danang and Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
One of the reasons for the Vietnamese communists' success was their attention to Ho Chi Minh's injunction not to mention Marxism to the peasants. The communists translated socialism into the Vietnamese word that means restoration of traditional village values. Thus the communists looked increasingly attractive as Diem, and then the Americans, destroyed the traditional villages—Diem with "agroville projects" that relocated peasants from their villages to fortified compounds, and the American military with their movements throughout the country.
Despite all the firepower of American weapons, the political destruction created by the American government and its allies left an open field for the communists to exploit. American foreign aid helped destroy the Vietnamese economy; American political and military intervention destroyed Vietnam's social system and its intermediate institutions.
Gradually, a confluence of forces led to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Again, the role of the Republicans is interesting.
One of the earliest recognitions of the pitfalls of U.S. military intervention came from the Senate Republican Policy Committee. Their report, published in The War in Vietnam: The Text of the Controversial Republican White Paper (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1967), pointed to the origin of guerrilla conflict in Diem's attack on the villages after 1956 and detailed the escalation of U.S. involvement under Kennedy and Johnson and their rejection of French leader Charles de Gaulle's August 1963 call for peace and neutralization of Vietnam.
Republican opposition to the Vietnam war was followed by the formation of Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace. Another factor in the build-up toward withdrawal was a demand by de Gaulle in 1967 that the international monetary system return to a gold standard. This created a major crisis for the Johnson administration, which had been trying to pay for the war by printing money rather than upset the electorate by increasing taxes. Then, early in 1968 the Tet Offensive hastened Johnson's consultation with a council of elder statesmen who insisted that the United States withdraw from the war.
Having destroyed anticommunist forces in Vietnam and sparked major turmoil in the United States, the Johnson administration, and later the Nixon administration, withdrew painfully slowly from Vietnam. The consequences for the South Vietnamese of the communist victory that followed soon after are well documented in such books as The Vietnamese Gulag, by Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986) and Vietnam Under Communism, 1975–1982 (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1983), by Nguyen Van Canh. Valuable for their on-the-spot accounts of events in Vietnam following the communist victory, these two books do not, however, shed insight about why that victory occurred.
Indeed, few if any of the many books on Vietnam provide a complete picture of the war. Leftist accounts, while they frequently depict accurately the U.S. role in undermining Vietnam's peasant society, seldom recognize the anticommunist nationalist forces. In contrast, conservative accounts such as John Lukacs's A New History of the Cold War (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966) and du Berrier's Background to Betrayal point to the adverse effects of early U.S. intervention on the anticommunist nationalists. But, except for the Republican Policy Committee report, most conservative analysts defend military intervention in the later years of the war. And only Popkin's excellent book accurately describes Vietnam's peasants.
The definitive anti-interventionist account of Vietnam remains to be written. No one has shown how Vietnam's strong indigenous anticommunist nationalists might have withstood communist insurgency had the United States not destroyed them.
This is not mere speculation. Thailand's experience serves as an important model. The Thai government, without substantial U.S. involvement, was able to completely defeat communist insurgents in the 1970s. As Maurice Tanner showed in an article in REASON in July 1986, the market system rather than military firepower won the conflict. And Charles Murray revealed another aspect of the story in an article in the Atlantic in November 1984: after Thailand terminated close relations with the United States, strong indigenous forces held the communists at bay by pursuing a nationalist pro-Thai policy. Clearly, that policy was an anticommunist policy, but it was also at times an anti-American policy in the short run. Today Thailand thrives, in stark contrast to its communist neighbor Vietnam.
Leonard Liggio is a historian and the president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Through the Jungle of Vietnam Books".