Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Fall of Saigon

The Lines are Drawn

In the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, defeated the French forces occupying Vietnam and controlled the north.  At the 1954 Geneva Conference, it was decided that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel and democratically elect its own leaders. There would be a first election, conducted separately in North Vietnam and South Vietnam, and a general election to determine the Prime Minister of a united Vietnam. The Viet Nimh, led by Ho, complied and withdrew from conquered territories.  Ho won handily in the first election (source). 
A poster celebrating victory over the French

The French had warned that Ngo Dinh Diem was “not only incapable but mad.” He was nonetheless favored by the U.S. because he presented himself as pro-Western, a capitalist, and a staunch anti-communist. In the first election, he ran against the French colonial puppet Bao Dai. Diem’s ballots were red and Dai’s were green. Voters were instructed at the polling stations to put the red ballots in the ballot box and throw out the green ballots. A few who disobeyed were followed outside the polling station and badly beaten (source). 

Despite being warned not to make such an implausible claim, Diem announced that he had won the first election with 98.2% of the vote. He quickly set about building the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (AVRN). Privately, President Eisenhower expressed the concern that, if the second election were held, Ho would win 80% of the popular vote. 

The North Vietnamese government reminded Diem that a General Election for the whole of the country was due in July, 1956. Diem refused to accept this and instead began arresting his opponents. In a short period of time, approximately 100,000 people were put in prison camps. Communists and socialists were his main targets but journalists, trade-unionists and leaders of religious groups were also arrested. Even children found writing anti-Diem messages on walls were put in prison (source).
A Rich Man’s War

The Vietnam War was called, by its detractors, a “rich man’s war.” This characterization is apt for a number of reasons.  Lower income voters were more likely to oppose the war than upper income voters (Harmon, 2010). Secondly, college-age youth had a better chance of avoiding the draft if they were from upper income families: they took advantage of college deferments and preferential stateside deployments.  Thus, lower income voters were more likely than upper income voters to suffer the loss of sons and brothers in the war. 

Wealthy and politically influential families could avoid combat duty

The Vietnam War could be aptly described as a “rich man’s war” for other reasons as well. As Martin Luther King pointed out, one of the casualties of the war was Lyndon B. Johnson’s ambitious anti-poverty program, the “Great Society.” 

This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor -- white and Negro -- bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.

Initially, the public supported the war in Vietnam. Americans were fervently anti-communist, and the war was presented to the public as an ideological struggle against communism. Later, when Richard Nixon claimed,"If we don't fight the Viet Cong in the jungles of Indochina, we will have to fight them on the beaches of California," many Americans believed him, even though the Viet Cong did not have a navy.  The so-called “domino theory” held that, if Chinese, Russian, or homegrown communism took hold in Vietnam, it would spread to other countries in the region. 

In public addresses, the president and members of Congress emphasized the moral imperative of supporting “democracy” against communist subversion. Behind closed doors, greater emphasis was placed on the strategic and economic aspects of international Cold War rivalry.  This is revealed in the Pentagon Papers, a set of classified documents that had been leaked to the press bit by bit starting in 1971.  

In these documents, there is a discussion of the “extensive American and British investments” in Indonesia that might be endangered if communism were to spread throughout Southeast Asia.  As noted in the Pentagon Papers, “Southeast Asia, especially Malaya and Indonesia, is the principal world source of natural rubber and tin. Access to these materials by the Western Powers and their denial to the Soviet Bloc is important at all times and particularly in the event of global war.”  This case was pressed by groups such as The International Tin Study Group and the National Rubber Bureau.
Daniel Ellsberg was instrumental in making the Pentagon Papers public.

Elsewhere in the Pentagon Papers, it is written, “Indonesia is a secondary source of petroleum whose importance would be enhanced by the denial to the Western Powers of petroleum sources in the Middle East.” In 1956, the Western Powers (notably, the U.S., Great Britain, and France) were alarmed about the risk of losing access to the vital Suez Canal, and wanted a contingency plan.
It is also noted in the Pentagon Papers that Malaya, one of the “dominoes” that might fall if Vietnam falls, “is the largest net dollar earner for the United Kingdom, and its loss would seriously aggravate the economic problems facing the U.K.” The U.S. was also concerned about Japan: disruptions in the import of rice and other goods from its Southeast Asian neighbors would make country even more dependent on U.S. economic aid. 

Incongruously mixed in with the papers, one may find unexpectedly sympathetic portrayals of the enemy in the north. 

Ho [Chi Minh] ... was quick to appreciate how his country was being robbed [and] kept in economic penury ... While the French took cut rubber or rice or whatever else they wanted and sold it in the world market at a high profit, the Vietnamese lived under a system in which only human labor and not money, in any international sense, counted; goods were in effect bartered for subsistence.
In time, the goal of the U.S. was to ease France out of Vietnam, and assert its own influence over the country’s economy and development. However, Ho Chi Minh did not want Vietnam to be the colony of any foreign power. He sought independence for his country.

Diem the Tyrant

During the early 1950s, Diem visited America and, a devout Catholic, made friends with the influential Cardinal Frances Spellman and Senator John F. Kennedy. In a country that was 70% Buddhist and only 10% Catholic, Diem would furl the Vatican Flag on public occasions. Under French rule, Vietnamese who became Catholic were rewarded. “Catholics had always held a privileged position in Vietnam. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and most of the officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics (source).” Diem would continue the practice of favoritism toward Catholics.

His closest advisor was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, “an opium-addicted neo-Nazi who lived alongside Diem in the presidential mansion (source).” By 1956, 

Diem’s government had taken shape. Though it presented itself to the world as a developing democracy, in reality it was anti-democratic, autocratic, corrupt and nepotistic. There was a ‘representative’ National Assembly, though rigged elections meant it did little more than rubber-stamp Diem’s own policies. Freedom of the press was curtailed; writing or protesting against the government often produced a prison sentence, or worse (source).
He consolidated power by siding with the large plantation owners whose lands had been confiscated by the Viet Nimh. They supplied him with funds to bribe officials and pay the salaries of private soldiers. 

Diem demonstrated his anti-communism by hunting down suspected communists throughout the south. Thousands of suspected communists were rounded up, deported, tortured, thrown in prison or executed (source). In 1959, he passed a law stating that falling under suspicion of being Viet Nimh would be punishable with death. 

On May 8th, 1963, Buddhists assembled in the city of Hue to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. Police were sent to disperse the crowd, and ended up killing one woman and eight children. As a protest against these murders and the campaign of discrimination against Buddhist Vietnamese, monks volunteered to immolate themselves. A photographer managed to capture one such monk, who calmly doused himself in gasoline and lit a match. An eyewitness reported, “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him (source).”

Diem’s response was to declare that he’d clap his hands each time a Buddhist chose those action, and offer free gasoline. At that moment, John F. Kennedy realized that the reunification of Vietnam would be impossible. 

Thich Quang Duc
Unresponsive to Western calls to moderate his actions, Diem retaliated against the Buddhists' protests by brutalizing and arresting thousands of Buddhist monks. Once arrested, many would never be seen again. But 1963 would be his last year in power. When he was assassinated, people rushed into the streets of Saigon and celebrated.   

Diem’s tyrannical rule succeeded in creating galvanizing South Vietnamese opposition to the government and to American intervention. Men and women joined the National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF, also known as the Viet Cong, engaged in rigorous military training and built well-concealed and extensive underground bases.  
Men and women fought together in combat
The Viet Cong were very effective as guerilla soldiers. They had popular support. Their opponents, AVRN soldiers, weren’t particularly motivated to fight or risk being killed. They received support from the Viet Nimh in the north. Although American troops were being deployed in ever increasing numbers to support South Vietnam, the Americans had difficulty detecting the Viet Cong’s movements in the thick jungles of Vietnam. If pressed, the Viet Cong slipped past the border into Cambodia.

Frustrated by the difficulties of waging jungle warfare with an enemy that knew the terrain intimately, the American military resorted to increasingly drastic measures. They deployed Agent Orange, a defoliant, to clear the jungles. This substance, produced by Dow Chemical, contained dioxin and caused horrific birth defects in Vietnamese children. The military also deployed napalm, which could set broad swaths of jungle on fire in an instant. The weapon was indiscriminate, and killed and maimed an unknown number of non-combatants. 

Children fleeing a napalm attach. Many were seriously burned.
Diem realized that the Viet Cong were receiving food and material support from villagers. In response, he instituted what he called “agrivilles,” or the forcible resettlement of villagers into communities where they could be kept behind barbed wire fences and prevented from having any contact with the Viet Cong.  The scheme was later taken up by the Americans, who called them “strategic hamlets.”   

The strategic hamlets were moderately effective at keeping villagers separated from small 3 to 5 person bands of marauding Viet Cong – at least, during the day. After dark, Viet Cong bands were able to approach the villages as frightened AVRN soldiers hunkered down in their distant barracks. Villagers were given radios to contact the AVRN, but they wouldn’t come in time. Villagers were offered guns that they could use to defend themselves, but many refused. They knew that the Viet Cong desperately needed weapons, and would be willing to kill villagers to take their guns away from them. 

In many instances, these strategic hamlets were set up near the border with Cambodia. This turned out to be a disastrous decision: even if the hamlets could fend off small bands of Viet Cong, there were entire battalions camped just across the border inside Cambodia. They’d sweep in and overwhelm the hamlets (source). 

A U.S. Marine, Lieutenant Colonel William R. Corson, observed the situation and conceded that the U.S. puppet regime in South Vietnam was fit only to “to loot, collect back taxes, reinstall landlords, and conduct reprisals against the people (source).”

The Fall of Saigon

The purpose of this essay is not to provide a comprehensive account of the war in Vietnam. Instead, it is meant to present evidence in support of the argument that the people of South Vietnam faced an untenable situation. Even if they supported the South Vietnamese government, they risked being imprisoned, tortured, or killed if they fell under the suspicion of supporting the NLF. They were forced to live in strategic hamlets – de facto concentration camps -- where there wasn’t enough land to farm. They lived in fear of Viet Cong raids. Many innocent civilians became “collateral damage” in U.S. strikes against the enemy. Because the Vietnamese people could not choose safety, because they could not choose a government that actually cared about protecting their lives and liberties, they no longer had anything to lose. They became implacable enemies, and powerful enough in their resolve that they were eventually able to defeat a force of over 500,000 well-equipped American soldiers. They lost approximately 4 million lives in the process. 

Over 58,000 American service members lost their lives in Vietnam


In the early 1960s, only a minority of Americans spoke up in opposition to the war. In time, most Americans were convinced that the war must be ended as quickly as possible. Energetic and massive protest marches helped goad the government to comply with the will of the people. And it seemed, for a while, that the people of the United States had been so chastened by the horror of this war that they would never tolerate another imperialistic military adventure overseas.

Yet, as the years wore on, the burden of guilt began to weigh heavily, and Americans wanted to feel proud and powerful again. The people woke up one morning to discover that Grenada had been successfully invaded and at little cost, and began to take small steps toward rediscovering their martial fervor. The people went to sleep, and unconscious, dreamt of violence.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, China went to war against its erstwhile ally, and the Vietnamese, despite their war-weariness, successfully drove off the attack. China returned, several years later. In Bac Ninh, a city 40 kilometers north of Hanoi, there was once large rice fields, but "they have been replaced by multinational companies and their local subcontractors (source)."

Samsung's Bac Ninh-based factory is its largest in the world, with 9,600 workers. Canon employs 8,500 workers, and Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, employs 5,600.The most popular destinations for these giant firms are Bac Ninh and, ironically enough, Ho Chi Minh City.

A Nike production facility in Vietnam.

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