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What Were We Thinking in Vietnam?

September 29, 2016

What occurred in the minds of the U.S. Government to pursue a path of aggression in what we call the "Vietnam War" and what the Vietnamese refer to as the "American War?" Obviously, there was no understanding of the history of a country that had been at war and in conflict for over two thousand years. During that period of time, the Vietnamese generally prevailed despite overwhelming odds against much stronger powers due to their tenacity and willingness to sacrifice all for their independence.

The French chose to reclaim their former colony following the defeat of the Japanese in WW II. Pleas for an independent Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman outlining a proposed governmental framework based loosely upon our own Declaration of Independence went unanswered. The French prevailed and, then, in 1954 a force of mercenaries of the French was defeated at Dien Bien Phu, and Vietnam was divided into two countries. North Vietnam sought reunification with a corrupt South Vietnam through a guerilla war fought by the Viet Cong. After a few years of military failures by South Vietnam, the United States was drawn into a conflict they knew nothing about. Once again pleas from Ho Chi Minh were not heeded by President Johnson.

What is so special about the Vietnamese people? They are tenacious, strong and will sacrifice most anything for their national identity. As we were recently in Cuu Chi, Vietnam, the author picked up a compilation of photographs taken in Cuu Chi from 1968 to 1975 by photographer Duong Thanh Phong which illustrate the Vietnamese willingness to sacrifice, all including their children for their national cause.

The image below is the cover of the photo book showing adolescent girls making Molotov cocktails to be used as weapons.

Younger girls sharpened bamboo spears to make booby traps for U.S. soldiers who sought to invade Cuu Chi, a hotbed of Viet Cong activity only 12 kilometers from Saigon.

In fact, there was an entire squad of lady Viet Cong.

Older ladies made land mines from unexploded B-52 ordinance that had been dropped on the Cuu Chi tunnels.

Young boys also gave a hand by salvaging parts from disabled U.S. tanks to serve as steel support beams in their maze of tunnels.

Teenage boys also featured prominently in the fighting as their older family members perished over the years.

The primitive nature of the Viet Cong supply distribution is illustrated by their use of bicycles to transport rice.

It is interesting to see a Frenchman pin a distinguished service medal on a Viet Cong member of the cadre. The Frenchman bears a strong resemblance to a high level French official in the Party with whom the author and two Vietnamese friends spent an unusual evening in his Hanoi apartment many years later.

At the end of the day, it is difficult to fathom the true devotion and reverence the Vietnamese held for Ho Chi Minh. "Uncle Ho" passed away in 1969 at age 79 which was six years prior to the reunification of his country.

So, where did we go wrong? We failed to understand the history of the country and the people we would face in combat. It is interesting that the head of CIA Covert Operations in the mid-to-late seventies majored in Chinese history. Perhaps we should have sought the advice of a Vietnamese history major in 1968.

The author recently had dinner in London with a Vietnamese who said he did not think Ho Chi Minh was a communist at all but merely a Vietnamese patriot who sought that path to receive support from the Soviet Union in order to gain independence. Ho Chi Minh said as much himself, "It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me." The resourcefulness and tenacity of the Vietnamese people mirrored that of their leader.



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