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The Ghosts of Vietnam Should Haunt Us – But Don’t
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It was 1967. The war in Vietnam was raging.

I was 24 years old, just out of graduate school in New York City. Cambridge University had accepted me to do a doctorate history.

But no. In a burst of youthful patriotism, I concluded it was every citizen’s duty to join the armed forces in wartime. So I enlisted as an infantry officer candidate in the US Army and was packed off to basic training.

Life can only be understood in retrospect. With the wisdom of hindsight, most people consider the 20-year long Vietnam War a terrible mistake, even a crime. But at the time, US military involvement in Indochina appeared to make sense. It certainly did to me. I was proud to wear my nation’s uniform.

General Douglas MacArthur warned Americans ‘never fight a land war in Asia.” He had presided over the bloody stalemate in Korea a decade earlier and knew the fighting power and tenacity of Asian soldiers.

But that is exactly what the Kennedy administration foolishly did. At the time, US power was at its zenith. Washington was gripped by post-war arrogance and hubris. No nation, not even the Soviet Union, could withstand US military power – or so it was thought.

There was also a very compelling geopolitical reason. At the time – the later 1960’s – it appeared certain that the Soviets and Red China were working together to dominate all of Indochina. South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were under particular threat. Indonesia, with a powerful communist party, Malaysia and Thailand were also deemed vulnerable.

“If we don’t make a military stand in SE Asia,” was the consensus, “the Reds will take the entire region.” So it looked in 1967. So we hear again today. Just replace “Reds” by al-Qaida or ISIS.

But the basic western premise back then – as now – was dead wrong. In one of history’s biggest intelligence failures, we failed to see the seismic split between the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, one so profound that the two super-powers almost went to war over their contested Manchurian borders in 1968-1969. Just as our intelligence services also missed the impending collapse of the Soviet Union three decades later.

Had the US been aware of the violent tensions between Moscow and Beijing, it would likely have avoided expanding the Vietnam War, or just left it to its own devices.

Instead, the US and its allies waged a long struggle against the Vietcong local guerillas and the battle-hardened North Vietnamese Army that had defeated some of France’s finest soldiers a decade earlier. President Lyndon Johnson drove the US deeper into the war by staging the phony Gulf of Tonkin naval incident.

It did not take long for US troops in South Vietnam to realize the war was a pointless bloodbath. Without the 24/7 support of US airpower, the American army and marines in Vietnam would not have been able to hold out. Today, without US airpower, American forces would be driven from Afghanistan. The current US-installed governments in Kabul and Baghdad have no more popular support or authority than had the corrupt South Vietnamese regime in Saigon.

Amazingly, American generals, every bit as stupid as their French counterparts at Dien Bien Phu, managed to get themselves surrounded in the Khe San valley. They were only saved from a second Dien Bien Phu disaster only by waves of US B-52 heavy bombers.

By the January, 1968 Tet offensive, it was clear to many of us in uniform that the war was lost (I was stateside at the time). The US won almost every battle thanks to air power, but it lost both the military momentum in the war, the strategic direction and the political struggle. America’s South Vietnamese allies often fought bravely but their political leaders were hopeless. Young Americans turned against the war and, after sniffing the wind, so did media.

Over 550,000 US troops, backed by South Koreans, Australians and a similar number of South Vietnamese troops could not defeat the Communist irregulars and regulars. In the US Army in Vietnam, only 10% of the troops were in fighting rifle units. The rest were in logistical support. All tail and no teeth, as we used to say. Cooks, bakers, delivery-men and clerks do not win wars.

In the end, it was the regular North Vietnamese Army supported by T-34/54 tanks and the excellent Soviet 130mm guns that brought victory. The NVA’s tanks rolled into Saigon on 30 April, erasing the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were heedless of casualties and fought like tigers. Some military experts called them ‘the finest light infantry in the world.’

In one of America’s most humiliating events, US military and government personnel bugged out of Vietnam, abandoning their local allies and girlfriends to the Communists.

Much of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were ravaged by US bombing and toxic chemical defoliation. In the process, some 250,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded; 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. At least three million Communist soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly by US air power.

As I look back, it’s very painful to realize that the war was, to paraphrase the wicked Tallyrand, “worse than a crime, a mistake.”

The red hordes did not swamp Indochina nor did they march on Cleveland. Our side committed as many crimes as our enemies. The CIA-run Phoenix program, for example, “liquidated” up to 41,000 communist cadres. Our “counter-terrorism” campaign today in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia follows the same pattern.

After Vietnam, no more youthful patriotism for me. What really shocked me about Vietnam was that we came out of it looking no better than the Soviets. It was a pointless war, in the wrong place, against an unnecessary enemy, waged, in part, by reluctant soldiers stoned on pot and heroin.

ORDER IT NOW

Today, the US and united Vietnam have $36 billion in bilateral trade and warm commercial and diplomatic relations. Vietnam is becoming an important ally for the US against China. One wonders how the US can enjoy fruitful relations with Communist Vietnam while until recently shunning Communist Cuba.

Alas, we seem to have forgotten everything about Vietnam and learned nothing. We prop up squalid puppet regimes or brutal dictators because they do our bidding. The new bogeyman is Iran instead of China, but the song remains the same.

(Republished from EricMargolis.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History • Tags: Vietnam War 
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  1. Jim says:

    It has been well said that the great lesson of history is that humans do not learn from history.

  2. The rest were in logistical support. All tail and no teeth, as we used to say. Cooks, bakers, delivery-men and clerks do not win wars

    As a matter of fact they do some amazing things, like play a real role in preventing the fall of the ‘Plantation’ or II Field Force headquarters (and other areas of Long Binh, such as the 199th Brigade’s Camp Frenzel-Jones) during 68 Tet offensive .. “clerks, cooks, drivers, and mechanics” and other “rear elements” were mobilized to the perimeter as riflemen:

    http://signal439.tripod.com/redcatcher199lib/tet.html

    And this kind of pissed me off:

    By the January, 1968 Tet offensive, it was clear to many of us in uniform that the war was lost (I was stateside at the time). The US won almost every battle thanks to air power, but it lost both the military momentum in the war, the strategic direction and the political struggle. America’s South Vietnamese allies often fought bravely but their political leaders were hopeless. Young Americans turned against the war and, after sniffing the wind, so did media

    Yes, there are elements of truth in this scenario but it’s a skewed perspective .. I served with the 199th Infantry Brigade (assigned to Headquarters Aviation) post 68 Tet and know a bit of the history and it was easy to find online; it was the 7th Infantry of the 199th Brigade broke the back of the offensive (twice) in Saigon because the ARVN wasn’t up to the job:

    The South Vietnamese, for political reasons, requested that American troops be withdrawn. They wanted to prove to the world that they were strong enough to win back their own capital without any more help from their American partners.

    The 7th infantrymen, dirty, tired and red-eyed, piled aboard helicopters and flew back to Binh Chanh, where they resumed their patrol routine. For several days, they humped through the paddy country and took fire from stray VC who had managed to escape Saigon.

    Try as they might, though, the South Vietnamese could not quite administer the coup de grace at Cholon. The stubborn VC, augmented by a few NVA, were hanging in there, killing many ARVN soldiers. The Cotton Balers got the call to return. On February 10, the entire 3rd Battalion boarded helicopters at Binh Chanh and flew back to Cholon.

    http://www.historynet.com/tet-offensive-7th-infantry-regiment-in-saigon.htm

    It does to note here, the ARVN collapsed during the ill-conceived Laos invasion of 1971, a combination of superior northern intelligence (they were ready) and loss of all discipline (panic) on the ARVN part during the heavier engagements. I was still in country and one of my former pilot’s (Hiya ‘Doc’ Young, if you stumble across this) choppers were taken down twice in the American emergency evacuation of the BADLY beaten ARVN remnant forces:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/vietnam2-laos.htm

    Noting John McCain’s daddy was no better a strategic planner than his kid was a pilot or politician (piss poor.)

    There’s more issues I take with this article, a more or less ‘chickenish hawk’ perspective, and this next is highly ill informed:

    The CIA-run Phoenix program, for example, “liquidated” up to 41,000 communist cadres

    In fact this program liquidated tens of thousands of civilians who had the bad luck to be located in Viet Cong controlled territory, a sort of ‘eliminate the VC rice tax base’ (farmers) that was patently criminal. My post Vietnam experience filling a Special Forces intelligence slot cast some little inside perspective on the Phoenix scheme, nothing quite like rubbing elbows in training with SF Vietnam veterans who were not precisely proud of the organization’s legacy in support of CIA operations.

    Mr Eric Margolis, you weren’t there and I’ll let it go at that (until next time)

  3. “According to Weiner, even the agency’s early successes were failures in disguise. The CIA helped overthrow the government of Iran in 1953 and that of Guatemala in 1954, but the acts would later be seen as blows to the United States’ moral standing and its strategic goals. The agency proved to be no better at straightforward espionage. It had failed to predict the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in 1949 and the invasion of Korea by the communist Chinese in 1950. In the latter case, the CIA rejected the observations of its own agents on the ground, but military arrogance was at work as well. The leader of the allied forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, heatedly rejected any hint from intelligence agents that the Chinese would enter the fray, leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of American soldiers.”
    http://www.enotes.com/topics/legacy-ashes

    Without the NSA technoligical edge the USA would be gone.

    • Replies: @Ronald Thomas West
  4. @rustbeltreader

    Without the NSA technoligical edge the USA would be gone

    The edge is going to be gone soon, as sensitive information is no longer going to be accessible to electronic intercept. The USA is already struggling with this in relation to Russia:

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/11/russia-reverts-paper-nsa-leaks

    Old fashioned spy craft, something the USA, with rare exceptions, was never in the top tier of excellence, performance wise, has since become considerably degraded. Today’s CIA senior management is incredibly incompetent, middle management less experienced and competent feet on the ground too often non-existent for want of sufficiently gifted persons with necessary cultural skills and appearance (body language and more.) It’s pretty hard to train an American not to stand out like a sore thumb, a result of ‘public relations’, ‘advertising’ and general corporate propaganda having largely homogenized society into a shallow social construct.

    The NSA cover having been blown will have impacted the USA electronic intercept capability worldwide. Somehow I doubt the powers that be would ever accept they brought this down on themselves.

  5. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Ronald. You miss the point entirely.

    The Vietnam War was a pointless and immoral war that did tremendous harm to both Vietnam and the US, and we still haven’t learned out lesson.

    If you want to make this about you because it hurts your ego that the rice patty soldiers would not be defeated, or that as a logistics soldier you feel you have not been given enough credit let it go.

    I’ll let it go at that (until next time).

  6. “Anonymous” = Cowardice

    Sure it was immoral but certainly not pointless. There was a lot of money to be made, that’s how immorality is very precisely not pointless. Meanwhile I expect the total miss (lie?) having to do with Phoenix has been well corrected. BTW Margolis found a way out, apparently because he took exception to:

    all the men in my unit were functionally illiterate hillbillies from the Ozarks

    http://www.bigeye.com/fc092305.htm

    Yeah, the little people are just too much for the pompous ass Margolis. I give them credit.

  7. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factor"] says:

    But had US won, South Vietnam would likely have developed into a vibrant capitalist economy like Taiwan and South Korea. There would have been no boat people fiasco. And no killing fields in Cambodia.

    On the other hand, Vietnam would still be divided like Korea.

    To the extent that Vietnamese communist leaders were homegrown and intelligent men, they had more right to rule Vietnam than the Kim clan(installed by Stalin after Roosevelt handed half of Korea to USSR) did over Korea, I guess.

    Btw, I don’t believe that US didn’t know about the Sino-Soviet split until much later.
    It has escalated into open ideological battle by the early 60s. Mao and Khrushchev hated one another and publicly said as much.

    The fact is USSR was seen as the main player in the Cold War, so US responded to any communist movement backed by the Soviets. Esp in Latin america.

    China really didn’t matter.

    As for Indonesia, it came close to falling into communist hands in 1965, but the generals prevailed over the communists supplied by Beijing.

    At any rate, the stakes in Korean War and Vietnam War were similar.

    So, why is one remembered worse than the other?

    It has nothing to do with right or wrong.

    It’s just that US lost and anything lost seems bad.

    • Replies: @Jim
  8. Priss Factor [AKA "The Priss Factor"] says:

    Couldn’t one argue that EVERY American War was based on some bogus lie?

    Even the Revolutionary War of Independence was bogus if one thinks about it. The British motherland was more than generous with the colonialists.

    And US provoked war with Mexico to take over the territories.

    And etc.

    BUT the thing is Americans won and gained great stuff from the victories.

    So, it’s really about win or lose.

    In the end, Vietnam War was bad because… US lost.

    But then… US won the peace as Vietnam decided to follow the economic model of US satellites in the region and develop close ties with US than with Russia or China.

    • Replies: @Hibernian
  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Priss.

    That is a very generic way to look at war, even though there is truth to what you say.

    The winners of war always get to frame the war in their preferred way, but each war has its own narrative that matters.

    The Vietnam War was so damaging all around because it revealed a lot about the US. After WW2 Americans thought we were a force of good for the world and we’re morally superior.

    The Vietnam War proved otherwise. Killing and raping civilians, lying our way to war via the Gulf of Tonkin, seeing the elites get out of fighting ala George Bush, etc. Americans should have realized right then that the whole American good guy narrative was a lie, but we obviously havent.

    If the US had not gone to war with Vietnam and killed so many Vietnamese and poisoned their land via Agent Orange Vietnam could very well resemble China economically. It is happening now anyway.

    This kind of thinking “Americans know what’s best for your country” is the while point of this article. We don’t know what’s best for other people’s and often times our motives are merely naked self interest. It’s just that it needs to be presented to the peasantry in a pleasant package that makes people feel good about raping and killing civilians.

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Ronald.

    Anonymous just means that we don’t live in a free society and I don’t have conventional views that shill for the government. Got that Ronald Thomas?

    I don’t exactly get what you are saying. Sure the war was immoral. But it was pointless since we didn’t get anything from it, since from the very beginning we were not being true to our ideals and instead was just looking to exploit other peoples.

    You sound like some angry Vietnam War vet who probably spent the entire war serving gruel in the cafeteria, yet is still angry because the rice paddy warriors prevented you from coming home to flowers and parades.

    Get over it.

    • Replies: @Ronald Thomas West
  11. @Anonymous

    Anonymous just means that we don’t live in a free society and I don’t have conventional views that shill for the government

    No, ‘anonymous’ just means you’re a coward that refuses to put themselves on the line.

    What I did in Vietnam was mostly drive a jeep, carry dispatches, and work airfield security. None of that takes away from the Chickenish nature of Margolis, who more obviously is the person you describe, considering he found a way out of going to Vietnam despite his belief in the war at that time, or your own ad hominem approach. Glad I could get under your skin.

    If you can’t see the point of war is making money hand over fist for a criminal-sociopath corporate class, that’s your problem but other people read here and follow the links:

    http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2014/05/26/counterfeit-coin/

    Meanwhile here is a good link for people who’d like a more accurate view of the Phoenix program misrepresented by Margolis:

    https://www.lewrockwell.com/2013/08/brandon-smith/the-cias-phoenix-assassination-program/

    ^

    • Replies: @John Jeremiah Smith
  12. Kiza says:

    This is where I stopped reading: “With the wisdom of hindsight, most people consider the 20-year long Vietnam War a terrible mistake, even a crime.” This character Margolis does not deserve attention.

    • Replies: @Johnny
  13. Jim says:
    @Priss Factor

    It’s true that the notion of a “good war” is extremally naive. Actual wars involve an enormous amount of brutality on all sides. The victors customarily sanitize the accounts of their role. Most Americans do not know the truth about say World War II or the Korean War.

    This is not to say that Americans are uniquely brutal in war. War brings out the worst in all of humanity.

  14. @Ronald Thomas West

    No, ‘anonymous’ just means you’re a coward that refuses to put themselves on the line.

    You exhibit a very high degree of smug pusillanimity with that statement.

    Vietnam was STUPID. It was a stupid waste of men and resources. The American people paid a high price and got nothing in return.

    It was STUPID. From beginning to end, a colossal waste of national pride, national resource, and for the love of Gawd, national integrity.

    But, you thought it was a good idea. So now we know. You’re a dumbfuck.

    • Replies: @Ronald Thomas West
  15. @John Jeremiah Smith

    But, you thought it [Vietnam] was a good idea. So now we know. You’re a dumbfuck

    Humn, I don’t know how you square that with what I’d actually said…

    If you can’t see the point of war is making money hand over fist for a criminal-sociopath corporate class, that’s your problem but other people read here and follow the links:

    http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2014/05/26/counterfeit-coin/

    …together with other clear statements of mine at odds with your claim but your behavior & style (and that of ‘anonymous’) and can be read up on at ‘the gentlemen’s guide to forum spies’ at:

    http://cryptome.org/2012/07/gent-forum-spies.htm

    and here is a collection of links to articles exposing internet trolls:

    http://ronaldthomaswest.com/2014/04/18/military-sock-puppets-nsa-trolls-cia-shills/

    ^

  16. Johnny says:
    @Kiza

    The war in Vietnam never seemed like a good idea, in 1967 or earlier. I opposed it before that, and Margolis should have, too.
    The “understanding things in hindsight only” remark needs to be changed to “mea culpa” for volunteering to help the slaughter.
    Shame.

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Lol.

    Throwing the towel in and just gonna call me troll?

    Take your ball and go home then.

    Yeah we are both in agreement the war was corrupt. But your smug attitude towards the war reeks of ego. What you think you saw of the war behind the gates of the base doesn’t mean much to me. Your experience as a jeep guy delivering coffee to some general and your enormous ego as a Vietnam Vet doesn’t mean much to me.

    Of course I must be some paid government shill since I am calling out the great Ronald Thomas, the Jeep driver from Vietnam the government is afraid of. Lol

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  18. moi says:

    To the world’s major religions, add Americanism.

  19. I am reminded of the rather long joke about an imagined UN telephone poll in many countries which failed in different countries because of failure to understand particular words. For the US it was “other countries”. No one in these comments has been able to get away from the damage done to America and the incompetence and worse of America’s Vietnam War policy and practice. (Of course war is the greatest socialist activity). Ask the Singaporeans though, and other East and South East Asians. They would scoff at the argument that the falling out of Mao and Kruschev (and his successors) would have done much to protect those still poor, weak and vulnerable countries from Communism, internal and external without the US being heavily engaged in the region proving it was willing to use force. By 1975 the threat had been largely seen off apart from Indo China.

    It was by the way, as Jerry Pournelle pointed out to me, not a case of the United States being defeated which led to the fall of South Vietnam and the betrayal of so many Vietnamese allies and dependants by the US. It was the refusal of Congress to sanction further assistance for South Vietnam. Betrayal by a Democrat controlled Congress in short.

  20. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Anonymous

    I run across “Ronalds” all the time and really can’t stand them anymore now than I could when I was at war. You always find these guys hanging out on Forums or even at Veteran events. Still got a cap with the unit and whatnot on it I bet, gotta wear the patches somehow, probably a member of Veterans for Peace too. Proud to have served and a REFM all the way home. Still thinks if only HE could have been in charge or in the fight that the war would somehow have been won. These guys all have an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, every single one of them. Probably marches in parades too. Gotta play dress up and get that attention. I could smell this REMF from the first comment. Spending his life reminding everyone that he is a VET, dang near every REMF I know does this. Some kind of messed up guilt complex or something. If I had a dollar for every Ronald I’d be a rich man. LOOK at ME , Look at me, etc etc etc.

    Did he even notice that Eric said that we won every single battle? Seems like he missed that point completely to me. That was the key point if you ask me. We can win every battle with the air power we have, so what? How many Forking times do you take the same dang hill before you realize it’s not worth taking if you can’t hold it?

    Here is a simple fact for everyone to understand. Each soldier fights his own war and comes home with his own idea of what was what. Ronald being a REMF came back with the opinion that if only we had been let lose to really kick their backsides we would have won. Well what would we have won? Nothing, not a dang thing. There was nothing there for us to win. We all got Punked big time and it would have made no difference if we had been able to instal our own puppet and somehow managed to keep them in power.

    There was no such thing as winning, there never was.

    • Replies: @Carlton Meyer
  21. @Anonymous

    He didn’t say we won every battle. There were many losses, read about Ripcord and Kham Duc and Battle of 2 July. Great article, except this:

    “Had the US been aware of the violent tensions between Moscow and Beijing, it would likely have avoided expanding the Vietnam War, or just left it to its own devices.”

    The war was mostly a business, that Nixon ended, so they ousted him. Any casual reader of Asian history knows that Vietnam and China have always been wary of each other, and Vietnam is China’s thorn to the south. Yet our war machine always needs a place to dispose of new equipment, and Vietnam was a trillion dollar sale.

    • Replies: @Wizard of Oz
  22. @Carlton Meyer

    Were you around at the time and did you acquire some evidence that convinced you that the Vietnam War for America was about business and that business got rid of Nixon? With respect that all seems very implausible despite other Presidents not being as informed and wary, perhaps, about the “military industrial complex” as Eisenhower. The Cold Warriors round Kennedy didn’t have much obvious motivation than fear of the Soviet Union – which had after all attempted to place and keep missiles in Cuba. Johnson was faced with an existing entanglement and it is hard to see where business applied pressure on him or his advisers. Nixon’s Watergate problem was surely what mustered the votes in Congress to bring him down and it is hard to see where business (and if it was business, which businesses? And were there not opposing businesses?) came into that plot. And what stupid businesses they would have been because they achieved a situation where the Democrat controlled Congress wouldn’t spend money on aircraft or weapons to help the South Vietnamese.

    On reflection, I think you have no basis for your assertions and I’m inclined to ask from which bar you picked it up.

  23. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    He had presided over the bloody stalemate in Korea a decade earlier and knew the fighting power and tenacity of Asian soldiers.

    This would be the same Korean War where it was not unheard-of for Western battalions to engage and defeat whole Chinese/North Korean divisions, yes?

  24. jvc says:

    Like many accounts of the Vietnam war, this skips from the 1968 Tet offensive directly to the North Vietnamese rolling into Saigon in 1975. Fact is, there was a lot of military progress in 1968-1973 — the North didn’t sign a cease fire out of charity. Everyone knew the cease-fire depended on the US willingness to resume bombing. But then came Watergate and the 1974 elections and voila, the Democratic congress stopped air operations and wouldn’t even send ammunition to our allies. So they proved themselves to be “right” about the war by deliberately losing it.
    Having said that, the time to fish or cut bait was around 1966 – when even Bobby Kennedy and the NYT were all in favor, let’s recall.

  25. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    While Mr Margolis’ post goes a little way to acknowledge the appalling crimes of the United States and its allies in Vietnam, I am frankly appalled at the dismissive statement that ” Our side committed as many crimes as our enemies. “- this is blatantly untrue. At least 3.8 million Vietnamese died (mostly civilians ) As a New Zealander I am deeply conscious that our nation was complicit in massive and horrendous war-crimes in Vietnam and Korea.

    The cause was not, as Mr Margolis would like us to believe, because we made some intelligence mistakes- the cause was blatant racism and a belief that the white man had and has a right to anything he chooses to take by whatever force necessary

    Only when the United States and countries like my own acknowledge those appalling crimes- and fully compensate for those mass-murders in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Syria etc….and suspend the cynical manipulation and resourcing of others to create “terrorists”, – may we possibly have a chance of peace on this planet

  26. Hibernian says:
    @Priss Factor

    “The British motherland was more than generous with the colonialists.”

    That’s colonists, not colonialists. Maybe a Freudian slip. The big boys back in London were colonialists.

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