(For earlier pieces in the series, see the right sidebar under “A mind is a difficult thing to change.”)
No, this isn’t the long-promised Part 4C, the post in the “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series in which I plan to discuss general changes in political/psychological beliefs wrought by the Vietnam War era, changes in the ways many people viewed our government, military, and the press. That post is still on the way, but it turns out that I need to break it down into parts. So this is the first part, which deals with a narrow and more focused question.
Once again, I don’t have statistics or research to back me up. I’m simply using my own remembered experiences, and the experiences of those around me, as a springboard for ideas about what might have been going on in people’s minds and hearts, particularly liberals growing up in those tumultuous times (and, since those days were the heyday of liberalism, a large percentage of those growing up in those times were liberals). I’m trying to be as honest as I can, and some of what I have to say isn’t pretty or noble. The following is not offered as an excuse; rather, it is an attempt at explanation.
What continues to confound me is how many people who were staunchly against the Vietnam War still have not confronted the brutal reality of what our leaving that conflict wrought. The death camps, the millions of refugees who barely made it out alive, the horrors perpetrated on the people by Ho Chi Minh [sic; see this] once he was victorious…
I’d like to try to tackle the difficult question implicit in Dean Esmay’s comment, which, as I see it, is, “Where were you in the mid- to late-70s, oh bleeding-heart Vietnam War protesters? Didn’t the terrible aftermath of the Vietnam War convince you that you had been wrong to work so hard for US withdrawal? And, if so, why not?”
I think this is an excellent, although difficult, question (perhaps all excellent questions are difficult?) I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer–the situation is extremely complex–but this post is my attempt at a response.
Difficulty of facing unintended consequences
The first reason many who were antiwar during the Vietnam era have not really faced up to the negative consequences of their actions for the people of South Vietnam is that it is ordinarily incredibly difficult–for human beings of any stripe, whether liberal or conservative–to admit to an error of that magnitude. It is human nature that most people will do almost anything to avoid doing so. How many people can tolerate the terrible irony of having (in most cases, with the best of intentions) inadvertently, and with great naivete, caused the very thing they were desperately trying to prevent–the further suffering of the Vietnamese people? To acknowledge the situation of the South Vietnamese people who were left behind to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese Communists would be to acknowledge an almost unbearable situation–one in which, like Romeo, whose best friend Mercutio was killed as a result of Romeo’s efforts to stop the fighting (Mercutio: I was hurt under your arm. Romeo: I thought all for the best.), the very thing they had tried to prevent would have occurred as a result of their activism.
Of course, the suffering of the Vietnamese people was not the only concern of those of us who had turned against the war. There was self-interest involved, also. In part 4B I described the weariness and cynicism people had come to feel, over time, about the conduct of what seemed to be an endless war. One of the main goals of the movement against the war was to ensure that no more Americans would have to fight and die in what was perceived (again, rightly or wrongly, but honestly) as a hopeless cause. Who, in the famous words of John Kerry, would want to be the last man to die for a mistake? The answer is: no one, if he indeed was convinced it was a mistake. The protesters were also successful in a related goal, that of ending the draft, which was repealed in 1973, the same year as the US withdrawal from Vietnam.
“It was inevitable”
As I said, it is astoundingly difficult to face up to the unintended negative consequences of actions that were thought to be “for the best.” Fortunately for those who supported the pullout, they didn’t have to face those consequences. There were many ways out of that dilemma. The best way out (and this was one that I took, and that I honestly believed at the time to be true) was that, if someone was firmly convinced (as I was at the time) that South Vietnam would have fallen to the Communists no matter what we had done, then all consequences– however horrific–are seen as inevitable, and therefore unavoidable. They are not seen as a result of the American abandonment of the South Vietnamese, they are seen as a consequence of the failed war itself, and then there is no need to take responsibility for them or feel guilty about them. Rather, one can comfort him/herself with the small solace that, as bad as the results were, things would have been even worse had we continued in a misguided and doomed effort. Even more people would have died, only to reach the same endpoint.
Notice I am not saying the antiwar advocates were correct in their assessment of the inevitability of a Communist takeover of the South. I am merely saying that, at the time, most of us sincerely believed it; and the press, as well as the majority of public figures, were overwhelmingly projecting this opinion in their analyses of the situation. So, given this set of facts, it is understandable that, although most antiwar activists regretted the horrors that followed the American withdrawal, they didn’t see any reason to relate them to their own antiwar efforts.
So, were we correct in thinking the outcome to have been inevitable? I certainly thought so then; I no longer think so today. My change of opinion is based on reading I’ve done on the subject in recent years, post-9/11, and especially around the time of the buildup to the Iraq war. We can argue over this issue ad infinitum (and ad nauseum), but the truth is that no one knows the answer for sure. The important point is that, for those who do still believe it today, it removes a burden of remorse that they would otherwise carry, the burden they would be taking on if they were to accept that they had been mistaken.
There were other approaches to dealing with the problem. One was to simply ignore it. That wasn’t as hard as one might think. After the American involvement was over, my recollection is that the news of Vietnam started to drop off the front pages and the evening news. Now that our own lives and the lives of our loved ones weren’t on the line via the draft, the whole story of the suffering Vietnam people could be allowed to recede into the background and join all the other sad tales of suffering around the globe, becoming part of that vast wail of humanity that we must somehow block out in order to have some joy in our own lives. The effort that a person would have had to have made at the time to learn more about what was happening in Vietnam after the withdrawal, once it no longer was front page in-your-face news, was one that not many people were likely to make. Remember, again, how long the war had been, and how much news we had assimilated over the years; how many hopes dashed, how many fears felt and horrors viewed. People were only too happy to have Vietnam recede into the background after all those terrible years of concern.
Is this callous? Yes. Is it admirable? No. But it’s also a normal and self-preservative fact of human nature. And, because of the concomitant “it was inevitable” idea, it’s easy to see why there seemed to be no point in dwelling any longer on what could not be helped.
Another way some people (a much smaller number) dealt with it all was to see the stories of what was going on in Vietnam after we withdrew as an exaggeration or a lie. These people felt that the situation wasn’t really all that bad; that the Vietnamese people, as John Kerry had famously stated, didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. To those who believed this, they felt it was just a tiny proportion of the South Vietnamese people who were suffering; and that most people didn’t care what form of government they had, they were just happy to see peace at least.
Then there was that minority on the very far left who believed Ho and the Communists to be heroes. Sure, they said, there was a little suffering going on in South Vietnam when the Communists took over, but it was just on the part of the people who had been our capitalist imperialist lackeys. And it was all OK, anyway, because, in the end, the society that was being built would be a better one. After all, when making an omelet, you have to break some eggs, right? The numbers who felt this way were small–but they existed, and they still exist. To them, there was, and is, nothing to rationalize or explain. To them, the fall of Saigon was not a fall at all; it was an ascension.
So, we have a wide variety of reactions, explanations, and rationalizations, some more acceptable than others. As I said previously, I personally have come to believe that there was at least a fair chance that Vietnamization might have worked, had we not pulled the financial rug out from under the ARVN. I also believe that, by the time the decision to cut funding was made, most of us were so demoralized, so weary of a lengthy process of killing that seemed interminable and endless, so confused about what the Vietnamese people themselves wanted, and so uncertain of what the outcome would be, that we simply were tired. We wanted out, and we were going to get out, and so we did. I personally feel a deep and terrible sense of regret about what happened, and about my own inability to see what was happening more clearly.
Here is an article I came across the other day, on the fall of South Vietnam. Please read the whole thing, although it’s long. I’m not a historian, and I’m sure there are people who will question the story detailed in this article. But, if it is true (and I have found as yet no reason to doubt it), it is beyond chilling. I want to draw your attention in particular to the phrase “little-known battle;” by the time the events described here were occurring (1975), few in the US were paying much attention, because we no longer had much of a military presence in Vietnam. The events described were a violation of the Paris Peace Accords by the North Vietnamese, who were emboldened by the fact that they knew the US had lost the will to do fight, or to assist the South Vietnamese in fighting.
The little-known battle for Phuoc Long was one of the most decisive battles of the war, for it marked the U.S. abandonment of its erstwhile ally to its fate. Le Duan’s “resolution” had been all too correct. In the face of this flagrant violation of the Paris Accords–and it was deliberately designed to be flagrant so as to clearly test U.S. resolve–President Gerald Ford pusillanimously limited his response to diplomatic notes. North Vietnam had received the green light for the conquest of South Vietnam.
From the same article, here is an exchange between the author, whose task it was to negotiate the terms of the American withdrawal with the North Vietnamese, and a North Vietnamese colonel. Read it and weep.
“You know you never beat us on the battlefield,” I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.
“That may be so,” he said, “but it is also irrelevant.”
Lessons learned from Vietnam: all that is necessary to win a war against the US is to turn domestic public opinion against it, even if you are militarily outclassed, even if you are defeated in every battle. It’s a lesson that was not lost on our current opponents. In a sense, our recent task in Iraq has been to reverse that perception, to finally learn the lesson of what happened so long ago and far away.
Vietnam and Iraq are very different countries, and these are very different wars, but there is one thing that is a constant–the paramount importance of the battle for public opinion in the United States. Oddly enough, even some of the players have been the same: John Kerry, for instance.
So, in closing, here is John Kerry, speaking on the topic of what will happen in South Vietnam after we withdraw. It is taken from the transcript of his debate with the very young and skinny John O’Neill, which took place on the June 30, 1971 Dick Cavett show. I offer it as a good example of the mindset that lulled some of us into believing all would be well.
MR. CAVETT: No one has said that there’ll be a bloodbath if we pull out, which is a cliche we used to hear a lot. Does either of you still think there would be a –
MR. O’NEILL: I think if we pull out prematurely before a viable South Vietnamese government is established, that the record of the North Vietnamese in the past and the record of the Viet Cong in the area I served in at Operation [unintelligible] clearly indicates that’s precisely what would happen in that country.
MR. CAVETT: That’s a guess, of course.
MR. KERRY: I –
MR. O’NEILL: I’d say that their record at Thua, at Daq Son [phonetic spelling], at a lot of other places, pretty clearly indicate that’s precisely what would happen. Obviously, in Thua, we’ve discovered, how many, 5,700 graves so far, at Daq Son four or five hundred.
MR. KERRY: The true fact of the matter is, Dick, that there’s absolutely no guarantee that there would be a bloodbath. There’s no guarantee that there wouldn’t. One has to, obviously, conjecture on this. However, I think the arguments clearly indicate that there probably wouldn’t be. First of all, if you read back historically, in 1950 the French made statements – there was a speech made by, I think it was General LeClerc, that if they pulled out, France pulled out, then there would be a bloodbath. That wasn’t a bloodbath. The same for Algeria. There hasn’t been. I think that it’s really kind of a baiting argument. There is no interest on the part of the North Vietnamese to try to massacre the people once people have agreed to withdraw.
Many people listened to this debate and heard what they wanted to hear, which is that it would be better if we pulled out, better for everyone. To the best of my recollection, I was one of those people. I didn’t like Kerry, even then–something about his air of slightly bored, unctuous superiority rubbed me the wrong way–but O’Neill seemed foolishly and naively optimistic. At the time, it seemed that the world-weary, war-weary Kerry was the winner of the debate. Now it’s he (and, by implication,we) who sounds like the naive fool.
[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part 4C, go here.]