Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
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An essay on the Vietnam war

The Soviet secret services - although so enormous as to amount to a really new dimension in the very idea of spying - were not often brilliant or successful. The reason is that they worked on Communist premises, and those premises were wrong; when, indeed, they were not just the detritus of ignorant pre-revolutionary prejudices preserved in amber in the insulated and paranoid environment of the top Soviet echelons. Take, for instance, their relationship with the Vatican. Ion Pacepa tells the story of an effort to locate "secret documents" in the Vatican, using Romanian agents disguised as priests, that lasted for a decade and ended up with Andropov himself - the head of the KGB - admitting that if they had known before what they knew then (in 1972), they would not have bothered. Why was that effort a complete failure? Because it was based on then Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev's ancient anti-clerical peasant prejudices: he thought that "these priests will do anything for a kopeck", that they were all in it for the money, and that therefore money had to be both the language to talk to them in and the motivation to pursue. Khruschev was the last Soviet leader to have been an adult before the revolution, and carried into office the petrified and reinforced attitudes of a cantankerous peasant which had drawn him to the revolutionary forces in the first place. Obviously, someone who has this kind of notion of the Vatican will not even be able to locate its sins and crimes, let alone its real reasons for action. As a result, large resources and many trained operatives were kept pursuing figments of Khrschev's imagination to no purpose at all, even after Khruschev himself had fallen.

(A side effect of this campaign had rather more success. It was as a part of the Soviet campaign against the Vatican that German writer Rolf Hochhuth wrote his infamous play "The Vicar", which inaugurated the misrepresentation of Pius XII as "Hitler's Pope". This was successful, not because Hochhuth or his employers had gained a better understanding of the Vatican, but because his Western public were as ignorant as he was, and took his lies at face value. Indeed, in the shadow of Humanae Vitae, perhaps they were eager to. Hochhuth tried it again with another play, defaming, this time, Winston Churchill; that was a complete and resounding failure, since the public was rather better informed, and from then on his usefulness to the Soviet Union was over.)

That being the case, I think it would be rather too much to assume that the colossal and bloody trap into which America blundered in Vietnam had been conceived from the start by the Soviets. It would suggest a long-term cleverness and insight into American and Western society that the crew in Moscow did not often show elsewhere. On the other hand, it achieved strategic goals that had been at the forefront of Soviet thinking since the late twenties, and gave them a long-term strategic advantage that dwarfed the issue of the single region in which the war was fought. Certainly the enemy made use of it to achieve these goals, and did so, alas, brilliantly. But the Soviets, in my view, simply took advantage - perhaps even with an incredulous pleasure - of American blunders and misunderstandings. What I want to argue is that the American leaders were faced with the same problem as the strategists of all sides during World War One: the sudden appearance of a largely new way of fighting war and politics that demanded new ways of thinking. And unlike Field-marshal Foch and Field-marshal Diaz, they failed to get there.

Before 1963, Vietnam was nothing but one of a number of Third World chessboards where West and East were playing their more or less bloodstained pawns. A few years earlier, the British had successfully broken the back of a fairly similar Communist insurrection in Malaya; in 1968, on the other hand, they were forced out of their colony of Aden by a popular Arab uprising with Soviet support. That sort of thing went on all the time, and while the various victories and defeats seemed important at the time - and perhaps were - none of them had any really serious effect on the balance of powers. Indeed, such an effect was almost impossible. The two great powers had both shown that they were not disposed to seriously interfere in each other's spheres of essential interest and risk a world war. In 1948, Stalin had left the Greek Communists to be destroyed by royalist forces backed by the Western Allies (and by popular hatred of Communist violence); in 1956, Eisenhower had returned the compliment, allowing the Soviets to recover by brute force a country they had comprehensively lost, Hungary. The two major post-war changes in the strategic picture - the fall of China in 1949 and of Cuba in 1960 - had actually come as unwelcome surprises to Moscow; both had been carried out by local leaders pretty much on their own, and without any Moscow control. They had, however, certainly done nothing to deny the widespread suspicion that Communism just might be the wave of the future. But even Cuba had not been allowed to alter the strategic relationship between the powers: faced with the choice between a humiliating withdrawal and risking war, Khrushchev had cosen withdrawal.

America might have let Vietnam go with little serious disadvantage. As it turned out - after the expenditure of monstrous amounts of capital and 55,000 American lives, let alone untold hundreds of thousands Vietnamese and allies - the effect on the actual balance of powers was close to zero. All that the Vietnamese Communists managed to achieve was a war between comrades with their even more bloodthirsty neighbours in Cambodia, and the establishment of a folklorically backward Communist tyranny occasionally visited by Asian or European tourists in search of vanished flavours. The argument that the defence of Vietnam prevented a "domino effect" spreading as far as Singapore and beyond is moot at best, especially since the war in fact spread to and ruined the neighbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos. All the time, the tiger economies of the Asiatic rim, and the more distant giants, Japan and India, kept growing at the same time as they gained a firmer hold on the methods and values of democratic politics.

But whether or not it was necessary for America to fight "a land war in Asia", what is certain is that it was fought by the worst methods possible and in the worst way. As I said, the two great powers were committed not to risk a world war. This created a strategic stalemate, clearly illustrated by the overall fiasco of the Korean war, where, after years of savage fighting and bloodletting on both sides, the end result was pretty much what had been there at the beginning - one Communist tyranny in the north, one military tyranny in the south. We, half a century later, can see that the eventual advantage was with the West: just by preserving a Western ally in the south, the foundations were laid for a state that was to develop not only into a genuine and rumbustious democracy, but also into a major economic power. But what should have been clear to everyone even at the time - when one could not tell that Synghman Rhee's tyranny in the south was any better or more promising than Kim Il-Sung's in the north - was that to deploy vast armies in a situation where nobody dared go for all-out war was a complete waste of time and resources. Russia and Red China were not going to let go of North Korea and expose China's northern frontier and Russia's Pacific harbours to Western threats; and America was not going to let go of South Korea and bring the enemy within sight of Japan. Stalemate.

The deployment of vast American forces in Vietnam ten years after Korea shows that the American top brass simply had not drawn the right lessons from Korea. They were still living in the world of the two world wars, in which prevalence of industrial power had guaranteed victory after long slogging matches; but such a war, by definition, was no longer possible. To defang Communist aggression, the USA should have invaded North Vietnam; but to do so would inevitably have drawn China and possibly Russia into the war - something no American wanted. The result was to place hundreds of thousands of American conscripts in the situation of a baited bear, tied to a pole and under assault by many smaller beasts. It is commonly said that the Americans won the battle of the Tet offensive (early 1968) only to have it stolen from them by defeatist news reporting; but even if that were true, in a deeper sense the Tet was a Pyrrhic victory. The Americans may have annihilated the forces of the Viet Cong (the Communist front alliance that included Catholic, Buddhist and other nationalist parties leagued against the Saigon government and its American backers), but Moscow and Hanoi could keep the war going by the simple expedient of sending the regular North Vietnamese Army to fill the gaps. Beat one wave of Communist soldiers, and another would take its place. At one point, the Americans found that a whole Chinese division was fighting in Vietnam - and had to keep it secret, because to take open cognizance of it would have been to declare war upon China.

This created a sense of hopelessness among the American forces. Apart from complaints against biased and treacherous pacifists, nothing is more common among Vietnam vets than the sense that they were never allowed to use their strength fully. The baited bear, fully conscious that he was potentially much stronger than the dogs snapping at him, nonetheless could never reach hard enough and far enough to put an end to his own suffering. American troops went to Vietnam to become a target. The Soviets were bleeding America without losing one soldier of their own, for the expenditure of cheap and abundant Vietnamese and Chinese lives.

And now we have to take into consideration the larger strategic issues of the cold war. The core of the power of the West - and the ultimate reason why the Soviets, in spite of winning nearly every battle of the Cold War, eventually lost the war - was the West's overwhelming industrial and financial superiority. This superiority was not something granted and inevitable. When America was forced into the war on December 7, 1941, she had been subjected to twelve years of one of the most savage and debilitating depressions in history. When the war ended, all of Europe, formerly the economic centre of the world, was penniless and starving, because the Germans had not only devastated whole nations, but stolen every bit of capital and produce they could lay their hands on, to finance their war. In 1945, nobody had any particular reason to believe that the Western allies would necessarily prevail economically against Russia: to the contrary, the sequel of economic and political disasters that had marked Western experience since 1914 definitely suggested that the Western system had some fundamental fault that condemned it to violence and economic stagnation. To make matters worse, in 1946 the disastrously wrong-headed American demand that Britain should float the pound - possibly determined by the Soviet agent Harry Dexter White - devastated what was left of the British economy, leaving the world's largest empire as a bankrupt entity in urgent need of American help merely to eat. Even before the Marshall Plan, individual Americans were helping Britain to the extent of one hundred pounds of the time per head of British population; it was the generosity of individual Americans, in the face of the criminal folly of their own Treasury, that saved Britain, and possibly the rest of the West, from final collapse.

The Marshall Plan that followed certainly offered valuable relief to a devastated West. But what really guaranteed the years of runaway growth that followed was the system that had been put in place, even before the end of the war, at the economic conference at Bretton Woods. The Bretton Woods system of joint free trade (within limits) and fixed money exchanges (within limits) was the cradle within which western Europe and Japan exploded from post-war misery into literally unprecedented prosperity, while America kept rising above them all like a sun at the centre of its planetary system. It also represented the peak of American prestige in the world; I am just old enough to remember a time when people in Europe and elsewhere really wanted to be more like Americans, when America seemed like the ultimate model both in civic freedom and in economic prosperity. America not only prospered directly from the rise of allied economies, but also developed investments in those economies to such an extent that a leading French politician wrote a best-selling book about "the American challenge", arguing that American investments in Europe were themselves an interest large enough to be comparable to the whole American AND to the whole west European economies.

It is enough to damn the Vietnam war, to say that it caused the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. The enormous, crushing espenditure America invested in the preservation of this corner of Asia (on top of the equally vast but rather more justifiable expenditure to send a man on the Moon, which I discussed elsewhere) forced President Nixon to float the dollar, with immediate and disastrous results for his allies. It was on this occasion that Nixon delivered himself of the elegant opinion that he "didn't give a fuck about the lira", apparently forgetting that the prosperity of America in the previous decades had been inextricably bound with that of her allies (remember "the American challenge"). Worse still, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the fall of the dollar led to grave economic problems for the oil-exporting countries, which, added to the shock of the Yom Kippur war, led them to force the price of oil to astronomic levels by a ruthless cartel action. This resulted in the disastrous inflation that was the ugly and peculiar characteristic of the seventies.

If the atrocious stumble of the Western economies and the brutal separation between oil exporters and importers were the only advantage that the Soviets had gained from Vietnam, they could well be pleased with themselves. But the economic aspect was only one part of the ruinous impact of the war on the West's internal relationships and external prestige, and, indeed, of America's own social cohesion.

America's commanders had been too succesful in both world wars. In the first, they had essentially been latecomers to the success achieved by rivers of English, French, Italian and Russian blood - and the blood of a few lesser nations; Belgium, Serbia, Romania, Portugal. In the second, they struck the final blow to a Germany that was already losing the war against an overwhelmingly more powerful and better organized Russia, and in turn overwhelmed a weaker Japan by sheer force of numbers. Even so, they took the wrong lesson from these wars. The most significant and decisive victory of the war against Japan, the battle of Midway, had been achieved when America was hugely inferior in men and means, and by the use of brilliant deception and audacious use of the battle ground. The victory in France was mostly the result of British planning and of espionage deception, forcing the enemy to concentrate around Calais while all the time the attack was meant to strike Normandy. Both had been the result of careful planning, the use of deception and reading the enemy's mind, and adapting the action to the terrain. Even more important, they had been actions aimed at the chief enemies, intended to engage and destroy its main forces, and so had been the whole campaign. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the prospect of engaging the chief enemy was nil, the prospects for strategic deception small - it was the American forces that were exposed to the enemy, not the reverse - and the opportunities for the enemy to deceive America vast. Nonetheless, America went into Vietnam as though it were fighting World War Two - or rather, its somewhat altered memories of World War Two. She fought as if just piling resources upon resources and men upon men could guarantee victory.

As a result, the world was treated to the picture of an overwhelming giant battering at a dwarf. The air bombardments, the napalm, the attempt to destroy the "Ho Chi Minh path" by burning the forests where it was supposed to lie, the vast number of civilians injured and killed, were a disastrous advertisement for American military power. The Soviet Union had been trying since the late nineteen-twenties to alter the international image of America from the benevolent, prosperous and progressive democracy to that of a brutal, bigoted, violent, imperialist giant with no brain; and for forty years their attempts had drawn a blank except for the minds of already committed Communist supporters. In the early sixties, the prestige of America was at its zenith; and in a few years, these damning and dreadful pictures achieved exactly what forty years of Soviet propaganda had failed. There were subsidiary reasons, in particular the civil-rights crisis; just by trying to finally lance this evil in its own body, America exposed it for the whole world to see. But the bad effect of TV images of Ku Klux Klan crowds and murders would never have been so pronounced if they had not gone along with the horrors of Vietnam.

Equally disastrous was to send to Vietnam, year after year, the conscripts of a drafted army. That was the main reason why every American ally, with the single exception of Australia, refused to support America in Vietnam; they knew all too well that you simply do not send conscripts to distant colonial wars. Conscripts are for home defence, and for wars in which the very existence of the nation is endangered; and in such wars, they will as a rule perform better than professionals. No professional army could possibly have survived the blows that the British suffered at the Somme, or the French at Verdun, or re-formed and fought again after being broken on the field as the Italians did after Caporetto; and on the other side, no professional army could have fought for five years while on the edge of starvation and against overwhelming opposition, as the Germans and Austrians did. But when the government, for whatever reason, needs a war to be fought in a distant country - a war on which important issues may rest, but which does not threaten the whole nation - then you employ professionals. That was why the British Army had for almost the whole of its history been professional, and that was why the French had created the Foreign Legion. But Americans insisted on shovelling their own civilian conscript children, year after year, into the hell of Vietnam, into that very place where America stood at bay like a baited bear, to be everlastingly under attack without ever being able to really reply. The American commanders expected that the crusading spirit that had led two generations of American conscripts to fight, and fight well, across four continents, could be kept going for a campaign in a distant country which had no importance to the average American, and under conditions that guaranteed that victory could not be won. The results ought to have been foreseen. Americans can in fact be congratulated on keeping their crusading spirit, in spite of all conditions, going for five years; but by 1968, the realization that the immense effort could look forward to no certain success was eating away at the national spirit. And still the most enormous efforts and expenses were ahead of the nation, rather than behind.

If the result of shovelling ordinary American kids to Vietnam was bad for America itself, that was nothing compared with what the war did to her alliances. Vietnam lies like a black stain across the path of the Western alliance. Until about 1965, America was nearly stainless in western eyes; from 1968 onwards, the words "imperialism", "police brutality", "militarism", clang to her like tar. Her prestige never recovered from the way she fought this war. And the Soviets never had to do a thing to bring this about: the collapse in American prestige that had been one of their strategic goals since the days of Sacco and Vanzetti fell into their laps like a ripe pear.

I can see my conservative American friends bristle at all these assertions. Well, this is not about America's moral character. As I said, Americans are, if anything, to be complimented for keeping up the will to fight, in such a hopeless situation, for so long. But the monstrous expenditure that broke the Bretton Woods system, the multiplication of effort in default of any achievable strategic objective, the abuse of conscripted youth in a distant war that mattered little to them, are the hallmarks of a colossal and culpable strategic error. By the time the Americans tried to "vietnamize" the conflict, it was far too late; the seeds of economic crisis and dislike between allies had been sowed. Since then, America's allies have looked on any use of American armed power, however justified, with concern and prejudice; a damage that has long outlasted the enemy who hoped to profit from it.

I would say more. A superstitious overvaluation of American strength, a groundless belief that America can achieve anything and do so by sheer power alone, is the common feature of several American strategic mistakes, before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. One could even go as far back as FD Roosevelt's foolish and doomed attempt to replace Charles de Gaulle as leader of France; that already embodied the absurd belief that America could simply take on herself to choose and reject who was going to be the leader of an allied country. De Gaulle first, and the French nation later, made short work of that folly; but it throws an ugly shadow on subsequent events. The last few years in Iraq have been blighted by the complete lack of a political plan for reconstruction; as though, once Saddam had been ejected, America needed to do no more than speak, and a democratic government would spring fully equipped from the ground. This is simply another manifestation of the same superstition. Power simply cannot do those things.

What first appeared in Vietnam was a new kind of war, one in which the issue was no longer overwhelming power but obstinate endurance. The war in Vietnam could not be won; but it could have been, at a much smaller price than was paid, prolonged for decades, till the North Vietnamese themselves lost the will and possibly the ability to keep sending troops to their deaths south. That is the kind of war that is right now being fought in Afghanistan, where the issue is not whether the West can muster the resources to go on, but whether we have the resolution to just keep going for decades. The American commanders in the sixties simply had never conceived of such a thing, and their reaction was, in practice, denial. One of the words that came out of Vietnam and went around the world - with a very bad overtone - was "escalation": if one ton of bombs did not stop the guerrillas, next time you poured ten tons, and if that did not work, fifty tons. That is evidently a symptom of imaginative impotence, of being unable to cope with facts on the ground. And that was how America came to break the Bretton Woods system, sabotage her own alliance system, and blacken her good name - for no good reason. Vietnam, with due respect to the unfortunate and courageous conscripts sent there to pay for their leaders' errors, was simply the worst strategic mistake in American history; one for which the whole world is still paying today.
Tags: american politics, history, human folly, vietnam war, war
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