R. J. Del Vecchio: Lessons of Viet Nam ... By Whose Judgment?

Roundup: Talking About History

[R. J. Del Vecchio is a veteran activist and long-time student of the conflict in SE Asia, starting prior to joining the Marines and serving in the 1st Marine Division in 1968. He has been making presentations on the war as a guest lecturer at colleges and high schools since 1996, is active in several veteran’s organizations, and was a speaker at the 2004 Boston Conference on the Myths of Viet Nam. He is a co-author of “Whitewash/Blackwash: Myths of the Viet Nam War”, a teacher’s aid booklet commissioned at the Boston Conference.]

In a recent HNN posting of a lecture given to the American Historical Association in Philadelphia (Was Anything Learned from Vietnam? 1/9/06, by Dr. Carolyn Eisenberg), a passionate presentation was made on the relationship between the war in Iraq and our experience in Viet Nam over three decades ago. One might expect such inputs to be based on reasonably sound grounds of historical fact, or at least arguable grounds, but this is not the case, and a response from a more objective point of view is required.

First, it should be noted that whether or not the US should have invaded Iraq, and how sound the initial policies implemented after the fall of Baghdad may have been, are indeed very arguable matters. The effectiveness of the later strategies employed by the US and the interim Iraqi government are also arguable. What is hardly arguable is that the sudden abandonment of Iraq to the forces of chaos, tribal and sectarian warfare, and the influence of foreign jihadists would be disastrous for both the Iraqis and the stability of the Middle East. But that is not the topic of this presentation.

Many statements of implied “fact” were made about Viet Nam in the lecture that are anywhere from highly debatable to demonstrably incorrect. In the second paragraph it was claimed that the war was a “cynical invocation of democracy and freedom [for the purpose of] American domination and support for dictatorship” and that “the vast American ‘war machine’ [rained] unimaginable suffering on foreign civilians whom it was claiming to save”.

Apparently neither the doctrine of Containment which was the US response to the communist expansionism that began shortly after WW2 nor John Kennedy’s pledge to fight every foe in the defense of liberty have been considered in regard to possible reasons for US involvement in Viet Nam; and at the same time, a compelling US drive to dominate a small country whose main export was Natural Rubber (for which Malaysia was and is a much greater source) and the assumption that Diem was nothing more than a dictator (like Saddam Hussein?) are assumed. The documented 58,000+ kidnappings and assassinations committed by the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam (Guenter Lewy, America in Viet Nam), and the deaths of many thousands of North Vietnamese during the “land reform” enforced by the communists in their half of the country (see Fall, The Two Viet Nams, and Huyen, Vision Accomplished?) are unnoticed, but an alleged rain of suffering deliberately inflicted on innocents by US forces is posited.

The pattern of very strong inherent bias in regard to Viet Nam is continued throughout the rest of the article. However, analysis of just a few statements made about Viet Nam from an historical point of view is preferable to a point-by-point dissection of the entire article.

“’Vietnamization’…. had been tried and failed” An interesting claim, but then how was it that in 1972 after all US main force units were gone, when the North Vietnamese Army invaded the South with several divisions totaling 200,000 men, complete with tanks, antiaircraft missiles, and better artillery than the US had left to the ARVN, that the South Vietnamese fought a horrific series of pitched battles over a period of months that resulted in only 60% of the NVA surviving to retreat back North, minus almost all their tanks and artillery? (Douglas Pike, Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and Thi, Autopsy- The Death of South Viet Nam)

“when the peace agreement was virtually signed, Nixon ordered the infamous Christmas bombings. Anguished military officials wondered why he was jeopardizing more US pilots and wasting the planes when everything was settled” There is simply no evidence to support these claims.

Indeed, the facts of the North Vietnamese delegation’s stalling and intransigence in regard to actually signing the agreement which had begun that Fall (preceded, of course, by their famous prolonged arguments over the shape of the negotiating table) were very well known at the time, and have long since been written about in detail. For example, while Dr. Kissinger had made an announcement in early October that agreement was near at hand, a series of obstacles then arose. By November 23rd Le Duc Tho had reneged on previous points of agreement, and in December 10-13, the North Vietnamese made a total of 33 demands for changes in the terms of the agreement. (See Kalb and Kalb, Kissinger, Hung and Schecter, The Palace File, and Diem and Chanoff, The Jaws of History)

The negotiations then broke down completely and the North Vietnamese left the table. President Nixon then sent Hanoi a message demanding negotiations start anew, in 72 hours, or Hanoi would have to face the consequences. The three days passed with no response from Hanoi. (Kissinger, also Davidson, Viet Nam at War) With no other options for motivating the communists to resume negotiations, Nixon called in Adm. Tom Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and instructed him to conduct whatever strategic bombing campaign was needed to impress Hanoi enough to get them back to Paris to conclude an agreement.

It would be difficult to impossible to find any of the alleged “anguished military officials”, but many of the high ranking officers (e.g. General “Buck” Shuler) are still alive to testify that they were only anguished about not having been able to bring effective strategic bombing into play much earlier in the war. The bombing campaign (Linebacker II) lasted eleven days, ending on December 30th, and by January 8th Le Duc Tho was back in Paris, negotiations resumed, and were concluded by the 27th of the month.

“In Richard Nixon’s first term of office, close to 20,000 Americans died, approximately 1-2 million Southeast Asians” A fascinating use of statistics. On the one hand, we are led to conclude that Nixon was somehow personally responsible for the deaths of some of the Americans involved in the war, the initiation of which did not involve him, and from which he frantically tried to extricate US troops; yet on the other hand, is he also to be held responsible for the nearly 2 million Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders were trained and equipped by Hanoi? And the at least 60,000 South Vietnamese executed by the communists after the fall of Saigon as well, or the over 80,000 more who died in the “re-education” camps that sprang up across Viet Nam once the North had all power? (Todd, Cruel April)

A call to any Americans to take part in the national debate about Iraq is very well and good, and one might well make the case that historians have a special role to play in that debate. However, if such a claim is to be made, its legitimacy depends very much on those historians employing professional knowledge and objectivity rather than personal bias and psuedohistory.