The Vietnam War, the Two Lost Chances for Peace, the “Vietnam Syndrome” – Yet Now a Neocon Resurrection

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The following is an excerpt from John Pedler’s A Word Before Leaving in which he shares what, worldwide, many in diplomacy have come privately to believe. Hence the book is warmly endorsed by Sir Christopher Tickell, GCMG, one of the UK’s outstanding diplomats. John Pedler, a former British diplomat, served in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between the French War and the American war, where he was a war correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.

After Korea, Stalin’s Soviet Union wanted to exploit the situation in Indochina, again avoiding committing its own troops, but using as proxies (like the Koreans before) the Vietnamese rebels struggling against the return of France to its Indochina possessions.

The Chinese had accepted the Japanese surrender in the north of Vietnam and the British General Gracey had taken the Japanese surrender in the south of Vietnam and so controlled that as well as Cambodia and all but two provinces of Laos which had been taken over by the North Vietnamese or their supporters. After World War II, French Indochina therefore became divided similarly to Austria and Korea.

The Paix Manquée – Vietnam’s Lost Peace

What happened to Vietnam at the end of World War II was a heart-rending tragedy. Jean Sainteny, the French officer parachuted into Hanoi by France in 1945, found Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues – French speakers and steeped in French culture – ready to accept a self-governing relationship within the French Union (largely as a counter to China – Vietnam’s historic enemy). Sainteny successfully negotiated with Ho Chi Minh a self-governing solution for Vietnam within the French Union: the Agreement of 6 March 1946 (“Histoire d’une Paix Manquée,” “The History of a Lost Peace” – Jean Sainteny).

But General de Gaulle refused to meet Ho Chi Minh when he went to France to formalise this arrangement. The situation then deteriorated and war broke out after Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu (ironically, he had been Sainteny’s boss) bombarded Haiphong, the port for Hanoi. The Viet Minh (Free Vietnam) withdrew into the countryside. The United States – which had cooperated with Ho Chi Minh during World War II – was by then in “Cold War mode” and abandoned the Viet Minh to favour France. But the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the Geneva accords that year arranged for the North to be governed by the communists and the South to be “independent.”

So the French war with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh could readily have been avoided a) if it had not been for France’s understandable desire to recover its colonies in Indochina after the humiliation of its defeat in 1940, b) if the West had understood that the Vietnamese (who had been pushed out of part of what is now south China by the encroaching Han race) had around a millennia of enmity with successive Chinese dynasties. That made Vietnam a natural partner in countering Chinese expansion in South East Asia, and certainly not a partner in the spread of communism to Australia as the so called “domino theory” had it.

The opportunity for the US too, to avoid a war

After De Gaulle’s France had lost its war with Ho’s Viet Minh and withdrawn from Indochina after the Geneva Conference in 1954, there was another chance for negotiations with the new North Vietnam. While any arrangement for Vietnam to remain in the French Union was no longer possible, Ho Chi Minh and his closest colleagues – including General Giap (the mastermind behind the American defeat but who was another French speaking Francophile) – were seeking true independence, not subservience to Russia, let alone China. The Vietnamese leaders had no desire to fight the Americans as Sino/Soviet stooges. And their idea of communism, deeply influenced by French-style Marxism, was far different from Stalin’s or Mao’s. There was real space for negotiation.

But the very word “communism,” (even “socialism”) was by that time taboo in the US. This ideological McCarthyite hang-up was disastrous because Stalin had just died (1953) and it was not clear how Soviet policy would change under Nikita Khruschev. Indeed, just a year after the French withdrawal from Indochina, Khruschev made his 1956 “secret speech” denouncing Stalin (which was known immediately to Western intelligence and very soon to the world) and from then on Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated. This led Mao to denounce Khruschev in 1961. In a word, hardly was the French withdrawal complete than Western intelligence was aware that the Communist China/USSR “bloc” was far from monolithic.

The American war

The French defeat and the aftermath of the 1954 Geneva Conference should have caused the United States to consider its options very carefully and at least find out if there was any desire on Ho Chi Minh’s part for a negotiation. There is nearly always basis for negotiation if both states share the same enemy – in this case, China. There was plenty of time to look into that before concluding that there was no option except to found a separate state of South Vietnam recreating the division between north and south that had resulted from the Japanese surrender being taken by China in the north and by Britain in the south.

But following a hasty American-organised referendum in 1955, South Vietnam did become a separate state – though crucially not in the eyes of the North. And the US backed for the presidency Ngo Dinh Diem, an extreme anti-communist Catholic who had spent much time as an émigré in the US. So the scene was set for conflict.

In October/November 1963, President Kennedy was considering the withdrawal of American Military assistance to South Vietnam because of rising resistance to the misrule of Ngo Dinh Diem. Then Diem was assassinated on 2 November with CIA connivance and Kennedy himself was assassinated on 22 November. There followed the Tonkin Bay Incidents on 2 and 4 April 1964, the second of which never took place, and President Johnson, badly advised by the “Cold Warriors,” opted for massive military involvement in the South and war with the North. (I was Foreign Office desk officer for Taiwan when Johnson, as Vice President, visited Taipeh. Our Consul General there reported that Johnson had showed himself to be a foreign policy ignoramus, brilliant though he certainly was about America’s internal politics which was why Kennedy had chosen him).

The war went badly for the US from the outset. The US response took violence to an all but unprecedented extreme involving mass killings of civilians not only in Vietnam but in Laos and Cambodia. I was in Vietnam twice during the American war and was nearly killed myself. I was appalled by the total disregard for human life. Success was measured by body counts – the more killed, the better the US was doing! Everyone knows the Americans lost some 60,000 combatants, few bother about Vietnamese losses both civilian and military. The total dead appear to have been of the order of 2.5 million out of a population of 27m – nearly one in ten, without counting wounded.

The US bombed Cambodia with nearly 3m tons of bombs – more than it dropped in the whole of World War II. Little Cambodia is the most heavily bombed country in the world. This massive bombing created equally massive unreasoning hatred which effectively brought the Khmer Rouge to power with their even less regard for human life. The resultant Khmer Rouge “autogenocide” killed, it is estimated, around 2m Cambodians out of a then population (1970) of 7 million. I served in Cambodia for two years before the American war. Just two of my many friends and official contacts survived, and they were both in France at the time.

As everyone knows, after 12 year,s North Vietnam, with the massive indirect support of both China and the Soviet Union, defeated the Americans. Saigon fell in 1975 in humiliating conditions for the US.

This defeat led to the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” inhibiting further military intervention anywhere in the world by the United States. So heavy did the memory of Vietnam weigh that in 1991 President George H. W. Bush only obtained Senate approval by a vote of 52 to 47 to end Iraq’s aggressive occupation of Kuwait.

Then the Soviet Union suffered its defeat in Afghanistan?

The Soviet Union did not learn the lesson of “Vietnam” – that even a super-power can be defeated where indigenous people are fighting for their independence and for their way of life. In 1979, barely four years after the fall of Saigon, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan after a “Cold War” attempt to bring communism to this obscurantist Muslim country. The Soviets too, had a disregard for their opponents’ lives similar to the US: there were around a million Afghan casualties. The US supported the largely Muslim resistance, famously aiding Osama Bin Laden. The Soviet Union, defeated, withdrew from Afghanistan ten years later in 1989. Where the US had only suffered “the Vietnam syndrome,” the defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan set in train the events which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union so ending the “Cold War.”

Some consequences of the Cold War

The apparent victor was the United States. But the extremes to which both sides had gone in the “Cold War” to forward their interests or to prevent the other from gaining advantage have led to much that we have to live with today. We are further than ever from the, at least superficially, peaceful world pre-1929, let alone pre-1914. Europe’s “double suicide” (the two World Wars), unleashed a chain of violence that has left practically nowhere untouched.

Take Latin America – the United States’ sphere of influence. The conflict with the Soviet Union’s extreme form of “communism” and communism, even socialism elsewhere, resulted in an equally extreme reaction typified by McCarthyism. Fearing pro-Soviet take-overs, the US came to rely on neo-fascist dictators throughout Latin America. (In Chile, President Nixon used the CIA to overthrow Marxist socialist but anti-communist President Salvador Allende in 1973: the resultant heartless dictatorship of neo-fascist General Pinochet lasted until 1990.)

In many places calls for much needed reform were repressed as being dangerously left wing, so great was the fear that they might provide an opening for Soviet style Communism to infiltrate. Take Korea and Taiwan, and Thailand and the Philippines – it was many years before their anti-communist dictators gave way to more democratic governments. Take the Middle East – here there was a struggle between the Soviets and the West to influence dictatorial rulers which Egypt’s President Nasser exploited – for example turning to the USSR to subsidise the Aswan Dam so provoking the Americans to join in a kind of “Cold War” auction as the US and the USSR bid for influence. Western reliance on these same rulers continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union until the recent so-called “Arab Spring.” As in Latin America, this Western support for far right rulers led to mounting unrest and to deep anti-Western feeling, partly accounting for the “terrorism” poisoning our world today.

This Cold War mind-set persists today, particularly in the US where “socialism” is still a “dirty word” used to denigrate anyone considered “leftie,” even supporters of a European style “welfare state.” The laissez-faire capitalism upheld as the US’s political ideal during the conflict with the Soviet Union lives on, inhibiting efforts to reduce the widening gap between rich and poor so necessary today. “Cold War” confrontation remains the knee-jerk reaction of the US to any opposition – making negotiations in the search for cooperation all the more difficult. After keeping their heads down during President Obama’s first term the, CIA and the Neo-conservatives are now back in “Cold War” mode – notably in the Ukraine.