Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University
The Vietnam War and the Tragedy of Containment
by Michael O'Malley
The story of the Vietnam war given here is one many historians would recognize and agree with. But some of you may have grown up with different versions. You should feel free to disagree with this account. But remember, historical arguments must be based on evidence.
Under President Harry Truman, the United States had established a foreign policy doctrine called "containment." Originated by George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and other diplomats and policy advisors, the policy of "containment" aimed not to fight an all out war with the communist Soviet Union, but rather to confine communism and the Soviet Union to their existing boundaries. This doctrine led directly to the Vietnam war. "Containment" was based on several premises:
- That the Soviet Union was always expansionist--the Soviet Union, "animated by a new fanatic faith," was determined "to impose its absolute authority on the rest of the world."
- That any new communist governments would inevitably be part of Soviet "empire"--in the doctrine of "containment" there could be no such thing as a "nonaligned nation." No nation could be neutral. It must be either part of the Soviet empire or what we would probably then have to call the "American empire."
- That communism, and the Soviet Union, must be contained. The doctrine of containment argued that all-out war should be avoided, but the US should pledge itself to stopping any new communist governments, or preventing any existing communist governments from expanding.
There was clearly a simplistic, "us vs. them" mentality at work. The general premise of "containment" was that there could be no communist government which was not a tool of Moscow--all communist governments were part of the Soviet domain.
Was this a realistic assessment? The Soviet Union had certainly acted in an expansionist way in the past. And officially, the Soviet Union was committed to the worldwide spread of communism. With a new nuclear capability and a vast army, the Soviet Union appeared to be--and often declared itself--a dangerous potential enemy of the United States. For example, in 1959 Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, in debate with Richard Nixon in Moscow, had threatened "we will bury you!" It would be wrong to underestimate the force of the Soviet Union as an enemy.
What's much more relevant here is the assumption that all nations must be aligned with either the US or the USSR, and that there could be no communist nation which was not also a pawn of the Soviets. China was also a communist nation after 1948, but this had failed to override thousands of years of enmity between Russia and China, two very different cultures with a long history of struggle over their borders. By the 50s, the Chinese were as anxious about the Russians as they were about the US. The United States feared the global spread of communism, but the doctrine of containment made it difficult to see nations as distinct, as places with different cultures, different problems, different histories. In this respect we can see Vietnam as an example of containment's failure.
Vietnam is a beautiful, highly varied country with a very long history of struggle for independence. For thousands of years, the Vietnamese had fought to preserve their distinct language and culture against invaders--repelling first the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and then finally the US. Few arguments about the Vietnam war, concluded the writer Nguyen Ba Chung, "take into account all aspects of Vietnam's two thousand year history of hard-fought existence. And that, I believe, is the essence of the Vietnam tragedy."
Vietnam had been a colony of France since the 19th century. French influence had been most pronounced in the South of Vietnam, especially in Saigon. But well before W.W.II Vietnamese nationalists lead by Ho Chi Minh had fought and agitated for the withdrawal of the French and for Vietnamese independence.
Ho Chi Minh had been educated in Paris and in the Soviet Union. He was an avowed communist, but also a believer in western style democracy and the American virtues of free speech. At heart he was a nationalist land reformer, primarily concerned with restoring Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Under colonial rule, land typically belongs to foreigners--to the colonizers. The profits from farming go disproportionally into the hands of foreign rulers, and native people are generally reduced to working as laborers for the colonial government. To nationalists--that is, people with a strong sense of their "nation" or culture--colonialism is inherently unfair and exploitative. Communist revolutionaries like Ho Chi Mihn typically focused on land reform--on getting control of land away from foreign corporations and investors and back into the hands of the local people
In Cuba, for example, the bulk of the nation's real estate had been in the hands of foreign investors since the Spanish Amerian war. Fidel Castro focused his revolutionary campaign on this issue of land. Castro had been educated at Columbia University in New York, where he had pitched on the baseball team. He initially looked to the US as an ally, but soon came to suspect that the US government was likely to favor the interests of the old colonial regime he had helped to overthrow
During W.W.II, the French were expelled from Vietnam by Japan, which occupied Vietnam for most of the war, until the US victory. Ho Chi Mihn and his allies assisted US army intelligence in the war against the Japanese. Ho Chi Mihn was regarded very highly by US military personnel for his commitment to freedom and liberty and for his pro-American attitudes. Ho saw, or claimed to see, the US as an anti-colonial power which would be willing to help his people gain permanent independence. At end of W.W.II, Ho Chi Mihn was strongest in the Northern part of Vietnam, which was poorer but also less "colonized." After the Japanese were defeated, speaking from the northern city of Hanoi, Ho Chi Mihn declared Vietnamese independent of French rule. At a ceremony declaring this independence, Ho quoted Thomas Jefferson while the Star Spangled Banner played and American planes flew overhead. The new Vietnamese constitution drafted by Ho was based on and strongly resembled the US Constitution. Ho declared he looked forward to intimate and friendly relations with the US. He offered the US naval bases and promised that Vietnam "will be a fertile field for American capital and enterprise"
Ho Chi Mihn was a communist, but he was also a practical politician, interested in what was best for Vietnam. He was friendly to the US, admired much of American politics, and preferred the US to the Soviets as an ally.
Remember, the doctrine of "containment," which came together in the late 1940s, did not recognize this position--you could not be a communist and an ally of the US. A communist could only be a satellite of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, there was growing concern about Ho's communist affiliations. Truman was politically vulnerable to charges, from the extreme anti-Communist right, that his administration was "soft" on communism. More importantly, Washington felt increasing pressure from France, under General Charles DeGaulle, for restoration of its colonial empire. In W.W.II DeGaulle had been a leader of the resistance to the Nazis, and in the the 40s and 50s he was dedicated to restoring France's old glory as a world power. But the Communist Party in France was extremely strong--communists had been even more active in the resistance than DeGaulle. The US feared that communists would gain power in France, and DeGaulle's political forces argued that only the restoration of the old French empire could they stave off a communist electoral victory in France.
Ho Chi Mihn was gradually abandoned for these two reasons--fear of communist influence in Asia, and fear of communist influence in France. The facts of Ho Chi Mihn's popular support ignored were ignored, and by 1951, the US was backing the French army's return to Vietnam.
The French launched a war against the "Viet Minh," Ho Chi Mihn's forces in the northern part of Vietnam. Ho realized how a small, less industrialized country must fight against stronger enemy. "If ever the tiger [Viet Minh] pauses, the elephant [France] will impale him on his mighty tusks. But the tiger will not pause, and the elephant will die of exhaustion and loss of blood." Ho Chi Mihn's forces would attack and retreat, harass, and then melt away. The French did very badly--by 1952, the US was paying 1/3 the cost of France's effort to restore itself as a colonial power. In 1954, the French decided to make their last stand, at the fortified garrison of Dien Bien Phu in the North. They lost after a 56 day siege, and were forced to give up on controlling Vietnam, especially the North.
As the situation stood in 1954, Ho Chi Mihn had widespread support everywhere in Vietnam, but was strongest in the North. He had largely renounced the US as an ally, or at least had become extremely suspicious. He eventually announced the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) dedicated to a free and independent Vietnam.
By treaty--the Geneva Accords of 1954--Vietnam was divided in half at the17th parallel, and the French agreed to withdraw. The treaty specified that free elections would be held to decide the country's fate. But before these elections could be held, a pro-American government was proclaimed in the South. The new South Vietnamese government refused to hold elections, recognizing that Ho Chi Minh would probably win. Leaders of the new South Vietnamese government pronounced themselves ant-communist, insuring US support, and they begin to ask for aid and protection from attacks by the communist North. Despite the apparent unpopularity of the South Vietnamese government with its own people, the US diplomatically recognized the new nation of South Vietnam. By 1955, the US was backing South Vietnam with military advisors and a yearly average of 200 million dollars in aid.
The government of South Vietnam was led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem and his closest staff were Catholics, in a predominantly Buddhist country. Catholicism in Vietnam was mostly a legacy of the French and connected the Diem regime to the old colonizers. His government was highly unstable, and lost what little popular support it had as it began a series of repressive measures designed to attack communists. In a protest against these measures that shocked the world, Bhuddist monks committed public suicide by setting themselves on fire. The northern rebels appeared to be gaining strength. Ngyuyen Ba Chung recalled:
The Buddhist uprising against Ngo Dinh Diem raised the first doubt in my mind about South Vietnam. It didn't make sense that a country of about 80% Buddhists, with a religious history stretching to the first century, had a Catholic president who had no faith in his Buddhist brethren. It perhaps made sense when the French created Ordinance #10 which legally recognized Christianity, but not Buddhism, as a religion. The French were, after all, well aware of the potential power of a Buddhist challenge. But it made absolutely no sense at all when either out of arrogance or the most incredible political ineptitude, Ngo Dinh Diem kept that Ordinance in effect for the 9 years he was in power. There was something deeply wrong in the make-up of South Vietnam.
President John F. Kennedy, recognizing the instability of the Diem regime in 1961, increased the supply of weapons, and sent 15,000 American soldiers into Vietnam. But by 1963, the US was edging away from Diem. Kennedy recognized the volatility of the situation and drafted plans for withdrawal from Vietnam. These plans were never adopted, and might never have been adopted. In 1963 Kennedy was assassinated and Diem driven from office with help--or at least calculated inaction from--the CIA. A new pro US government was established.
Back in the US Lyndon Johnson, the new President, was also under fire from anti-Communists. A life long New Dealer, he eventually embarked on the most ambitious program of federal spending in history, called "The Great Society" program. Johnson was a personally crude man, vulgar in his manners, but with an extremely keen set of political instincts. He needed to protect his flank, and the best way to do so seemed to be the old tactic of proving you were tough on communism. Johnson was also a long-time anti-communist himself, and he regarded Vietnam as the place where the US must take a stand on doctrine of containment.
By this time, proponents of "containment" were also talking about "the Domino Theory." Hardly a theory at all, since it had little or no intellectual content, the "domino theory" argued that if one nation (Vietnam) fell to the communists, neighboring nations would fall as well--like dominos. This absurd argument perpetuated the tendency, deeply rooted in the doctrine of containment, to see other nations as having no history, no past, no culture that mattered. They were simply dominos in a row, to be knocked down or picked up by the world's two largest powers.
In 1964, Johnson got the excuse he needed to step up US involvement in the war. Historian Robert Brigham writes:
In August 1964, in response to American and GVN espionage along its coast, the DRV launched a local and controlled attack against the C. Turner Joy and the U.S.S. Maddox, two American ships on call in the Gulf of Tonkin. The first of these attacks occurred on August 2, 1964. A second attack was supposed to have taken place on August 4, although Vo Nguyen Giap, the DRV's leading military figure at the time, and Johnson's Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara have recently concluded that no second attack ever took place.
Johnson made a nationally televised address, deliberately distorting the facts and inflating the case. Congress granted him sweeping military powers under "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution." Vietnam became an "undeclared war" carried out by the executive branch at its discretion. Thereafter US involvement steadily increased.
Why did we plunge into a war to support a regime--S. South Vietnam--that we had created and that had demonstrated little or no capacity to earn popular support?
- Containment--necessity of maintaining worldwide "balance of power" between US and the Soviet Union.
- "Domino theory"--again, a "theory" which shows no awareness of the history, culture and politics of other nations.
- Something else, something harder to quantify--a belief in the special mission and destiny of America. Kennedy advisor McGeorge Bundy believed, as he'd learned from his predecessors in the State Department, "that in the final analysis, the United States was the locomotive at the head of mankind, and the rest of the world the caboose." He assumed that American culture was always superior and would be preferred. It's difficult to underestimate the force of this assumption in the early 1960s.
- Similarly, an assumption that given America's technological superiority and wealth, the war would end soon. One journalist touring an American aircraft carrier wrote, "They just ought to show this ship to the Viet Cong--that would make them give up." Marine Lieutenant Philip Caputo recalled, in his book Rumors of War: "when we marched into the rice paddies [in 65] we carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit conviction that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten." Johnson himself called Vietnam "a raggedy-ass fourth-rate country." It seemed hard to believe a nation of people living, in rural areas at least, in grass huts, could defeat the world's most technologically advanced society
- Fear of losing face, of international humiliation.
In actually fighting the war, the US military undertook little revision of traditional strategy because US superiority seemed so overwhelming. It did attempt to fight what it called a "limited war," one that would impose few demands on Civilians in the US. To keep US casualties down, the US initiated massive bombing--more bombs were dropped on Vietnam in one year (1967) than in all of World War II. Civilian casualties were estimated at 1000 a week in heavy bombing--a figure kept secret from the American public. The US introduced the use of defoliants, most famously napalm, a form of jellied gasoline. One bomber group's slogan was "only you can prevent forests." During the war about 1/2 of Vietnam's rain forests were destroyed.
The bombing was so effective that by 1967, all major military targets had been destroyed. There were 500,000 troops stationed in Vietnam, and we were spending 2 billion dollars a month--yet there was no evidence the North Vietnamese were weakening. In fact, the bombings, the destruction of fields and crops, only increased support for the NLF--the National Liberation force, called the "Viet Cong" by Americans.
The bombings, conducted from the air on distant targets, had an awful kind of coldness to them. One Doonesbury cartoon of the period showed a North Vietnamese soldier hiding in a rice paddy as plane fly overhead. He shakes his fist at the plane, and denounces the "heartless air pirates," asking "when will you leave my poor country alone?" The last panel switches to the plane, and the two pilots. One says to the other "hey--did you hear the Mets took two the other day?" The point being that many American soldiers never saw the enemy as human, becasue of the technological and cultural gap between the two worlds.
A pronounced element of racial contempt characterized the American military effort. Asked if bombings killed civilians, one sergeant laughed and replied "What does it matter? They're all Vietnamese."
The war was tough on American GIs for several reasons. The South Vietnamese regime was unable to build extensive popular support. Ordinary people living in South Vietnam were often supporters of the NLF. So the war was fought not against a clearly defined enemy, but against an amorphous, shifting enemy that was literally everywhere. American bombings, and the slash and burn approach to ground operations US forces often took, made ordinary Vietnamese in the countryside hostile to Americans--acts of sabotage were common, as were hidden bombs, sniper attacks, and booby traps. It became difficult for Americans to tell North and South Vietnamese people apart, and after a while they stopped caring.
The Army wanted proof of enemy casualties--high "kill ratios"--to present to Washington. Philip Caputo recalled: "If it's dead and its Vietnamese, it's Viet Cong, was the rule of thumb" in compiling casualty statistics.
But contempt mixed with amazement at what the Vietnamese--living, in many places, still in grass huts, wearing what looked like pajamas to Americans--managed to do.
Their major roads were destroyed, but supplies moved instead through the jungles, carried by human caravans at night, or through networks of tunnels. "Caucasians," one general told the press, "cannot really imagine what ant labor can do." His comment reflects one of the main reasons war continued--the belief that the Vietnamese were a slightly lesser people. General William Westmorland claimed that: "Human life is cheap to the Asian. They don't feel the same way about death that we do." This statement was used in a famous anti war film, Hearts and Minds, and juxtaposed against film footage of a Vietnamese woman, desperate with grief, trying to throw herself into her husband's grave. Brigham argues that "while some naive and simple-minded critics have claimed that the Communist Party, and Vietnamese in general, did not have the same regard for life and therefore were willing to sustain more losses in a protracted war, the Party understood that it had an ideological commitment to victory from large segments of the Vietnamese population."
The US government consistently lied to the public about casualty rates, both US and Vietnamese casualties, and about the North Vietnamese ability to fight--constantly claiming that there was "light at the end of the tunnel."
In 1968 North Vietnam launched a major counterattack which began on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. This massive offensive against US and the South stunned Americans, who fell back and allowed the North Vietnamese to capture most of Saigon and even the US embassy for a few days. The US counterattacked, eventually driving the VC back and regaining most of the conquered territory. Military historians regard the Tet offensive as a defeat for North Vietnam. But widespread TV coverage of the counteroffensive only increased growing public opposition to the war, which in many people's eyes had become a crisis.
As Robert McNamara, Johnson's Secretary of Defense, wrote, "the picture of the world's greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1000 civilians a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submissionŠis not a pretty one." That's putting it mildly. The Vietnam war and the draft galvanized opposition at home, uniting people and movements who otherwise might have had nothing in common. By the late 1960s, mainstream journals and newspapers begin denouncing the war.
The war destroyed Johnson's presidency. He might have been remembered for the most ambitious social welfare program ever undertaken, but instead he was driven from office by war and the fierce protests it evoked. He declined to run for a second term.
It is often argued that lack of public support doomed the Vietnam war effort. In this line of reasoning, public protests against the war undermined troop morale and the military's ability to fight effectively. I would argue that this is wrong. It is true that opposition to Vietnam was intense by the late sixities. And that opposition was closely linked to the radical cultural politics of the sixties--to rock and soul music, to hippies and the alledged drug culture, and to the general critiques of "the establishment." Most of you have probably seen a famous picture of a Vietnam war protestor placing flowers in the barrels of soldier's guns. This picture can serve to symbolize the clash of two distinct worlds: the technological, regimented, uniform world of the "military industrial complex," and the free, unstructed and anti-establshment approach of the hippies. Instead of being treated as heros, this argument goes, the soldiers were treated like the enemy when they returned home. You may even have heard that returning soldiers were spat on by protesters.
There is no historical evidence that this ever occurred. The American public had deeply mixed feelings about the war. And the fact that college students were exempt from the draft added to the gap, and the resentment, between student protestors and the soldiers and their families. Veterans often resented the fact that they served while others--often the more wealthy and priviledged--protested on college campuses. And opponents of the war had come to consider it, by the late sixties, as not just a misguided policy but an outright evil. They sometimes regarded soldiers as complicit in this evil. The revelations of the My Lai massacre (see below) only strengthened this opinion. Vietnam dramatized class divisions, and divisions of political opinion, that Americans had not wanted to confront. Individual veterans may feel, and indeed may be right to feel, that their service to the nation went unappreciated. Students should be careful to sort out popular folklore--like the story that veterans were spat on--from historical fact.
The morale of troops in Vietnam was often quite low. The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was only 19. Again, draft deferments were available to those in college--if you were in college, you were exempted from the draft. As a result, the war was fought mostly by the children of the poor and less advantaged--and they knew it. Racial divisions emerges--see the recollections of Michael Rodriguez. 1/3 of US troops were estimated to be drug addicted.
The Vietnam war was often a horrendous experience for Americans. The soldiers lacked a clear sense of what the war was about--why are we here? In the field--"in country" there seemed to be no secure places--the enemy was everywhere. It seemed to some like a moral quagmire.
Lack of public support for the war intensified as evidence of the full awfulness of the war effort mounted. In March of 1968 an American unit was patrolling the village of My Lai in Central Vietnam. They had suffered recent losses, were frustrated by their inability to find the enemy and anxious for revenge. They rounded up unarmed women, children, and elderly civilians, raped the women, then opened fire. The killed over 300 Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children: Private Paul Meadlo recalled:
We huddled them up. We made them squat down—I poured about four clips [several hundred bullets] into the group... the mothers were hugging their children; well we kept right on firing. They was waving their arms and begging... I still dream about it. About the women and children in my sleep. Some days, some nights, I can't even sleep.
Under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, the soldiers of Charlie Company took a break for lunch, then went back to killing and burning. They were finally stopped by two American two soldiers from an airborne helicopter division, who threatened to turn their helicopter's guns on them if they shot another woman or child. The Army did its best to cover the incident up. The two men who stopped the massacre were threatened, and the Australian newspaper which published the first stories was sued. Eventually, thanks to the efforts of journalist Seymour Hersch, the story became public news. In a trial that captured national attention, Calley was court-martialed and sentenced to three years. (The two men who stopped the massacre were given medals by the army in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre.) By the time of the My Lai incident, public protest against the war was exceeding protest on just about any issue since the Civil War.
Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968, claimed to have a secret plan for ending the conflict. But in fact he offered little new except the invasion of neighboring Cambodia by US troops in 1970. The invasion revived student protest, and in a famous incident four students were killed at Kent State University in Ohio, when Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed protesters.
In reaction to renewed protests, Nixon began withdrawing US troops, and arming the South Vietnamese army more heavily. This policy he described as the "vietnamization" of the war effort. US troops were reduced from 540,000 in 1968 to 60,000 by 1972.
To compensate for the loss of these troops, Nixon greatly stepped up bombing, especially the secret, undisclosed bombing of Cambodia.
Meanwhile, proof of the US government's deliberate campaign of "misinformation" and deception was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in the "Pentagon Papers." Historian Stanley Schultz writes:
The Pentagon Papers were a classified study of the Vietnam War carried out by the Department of Defense. Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department official, believed that the public had the right to know the secret details of the Vietnam War, so he released copies of the study to the New York Times and Washington Post. The first of the Pentagon Papers was the lead story in the Times on June 13, 1971. Nixon challenged this in the Supreme Court, which, however, upheld the right of the newspapers to publish the documents.
Nixon reacted in what for him was a typical fashion. Schultz writes again:
In response to the Pentagon Papers incident, the "Plumbers" were formed, among them G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt, and some Cuban dissident recruits. The "Plumbers," in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg, broke into his psychiatrist's office in search of damaging information on him. John Ehrlichmann had approved the burglary "if done under your assurance that it is not traceable."
The White House "plumbers" were a covert organization Nixon's aides put together to carry out "dirty tricks." Their exploits ended when their break-in of the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington was discovered.
By 1972, the evidence was clear: the American public would no longer support the war in any form. Nixon and his National Security advisor Kissinger negotiated what they called "peace with honor," in fact simply a recognition of defeat. In December of 1972, Nixon ordered the "Christmas bombing" of Cambodia and North Vietnamese cities. One month later, he halted the he bombing, and on January 27, 1973, peace was declared.
It was the United States' first clear loss in a war, leaving 58,000 American dead. It had cost 140 billion dollars.
After an embarrassingly brief period, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Americans were treated to humiliating scenes of the evacuation of the US embassy by helicopter, and later attempts by Vietnamese who had been supporters of the US to flee their country by any means.
The newly united Vietnamese government was at first quite repressive and brutal, especially towards those perceived as supporters of the US.
But the domino theory was disproved--communist governments in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China do not act as one. After a period of brutal fighting, most have abandoned communism. Vietnam, remarkably, is now enthusiastically pro capitalist, and has become what Ho Chi Mihn promised it would be in the 1950s: a "fertile field for US investment."
Americans will sometimes argue that "we could have won ifŠ" For example, Ronald Reagan regularly insisted that the US would have won if the government had made a wholesale commitment instead of a limited war. In the first Rambo movie Sylvester Stallone (who dodged the draft in the 1960s by moving to Switzerland) asks "this time do we get to win?"
The answer has to be "won what?" The US might easily have bombed Vietnam "back to the stone age," as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater put it. What sort of victory would that be? To preside over a blasted empty landscape and millions of dead civilians? Should the US have waged a more intensive war, and slaughtered millions to suppress a nationalist revolution for independence? Then the US would have ruled tyrannically over a country most of whose residents hated it and everything it stood for. What sort of victory would have been possible?
The Vietnam war was misguided from the start. It demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of power. Most of the major architects of the containment policy that lead to Vietnam--George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, Robert MacNamara--have unequivocally admitted they were wrong about the Vietnam war. "Containment" was a flawed policy, flawed by its indifference to the history of Southeast Asia. Its leaders' obsession with "communism" led the US deeper and deeper into a tragedy. They believed in America's mission, and in the automatic superiority of everything America did. They were wrong, and so was the war.