1960s >> 1967 >> no-752-april-1967

Vietnam: A Tragedy?

The word tragedy is firmly linked to the name of Vietnam, so that it is almost impossible to hear one without the other. Everyone seems agreed that the war there is regrettable and unnecessary but nobody seems able to stop it.

Harold Wilson mournfully tells us that the only thing needed for the success of his recent joint peace move with Kosygin was a gesture of trust from one side or the other. U Thant, when he was talking last year about resigning the Secretaryship of UNO, bemoaned “. . . the tragic error of relying on force and military means in a deceptive pursuit of peace,” and the United States Ambassador to UNO, Arthur Goldberg, readily agreed — “We . . . do not believe that force and military means are good arbiters of international dispute.” Which was all very well, were it not for the fact that the USA was busily using just those means at the time.

The anti-war lobby in the United States take heart from the many prominent politicians who are critics of America’s policy, and especially from Senator Robert Kennedy, who keeps popping up with schemes to end the bombing of the North and to start peace talks with Hanoi. Some American observers think this is all part of a Kennedy campaign for the Presidency in 1972 and perhaps they are right; way back when he was Attorney General in the government which was running the Vietnam war he took a different attitude: “We are going to win in Vietnam. We will remain until we do.”

Vietnam has been suffering for a long time. An article in the Manchester Guardian (20.4.54) opened with the words, “The prolonged tragedy now being played out in lndo-China is neither simple nor morally clear cut.” At that time, of course, it was the French who were fighting to keep their hold on the place, with the same sense of hopelessness as the Americans now experience. In the introduction to Jules Roy’s The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Neil Sheehan compares the two situations:

  Nine years alter the disaster at Dienbienphu had ended more than eighty years of French rule in lndo-China much remained unchanged. The French generals and diplomats had departed . . . But they had been followed by American generals and diplomats who suffered, or were about to suffer, the same fate for similar reasons.

Vietnam is not unique in being regaided as an accident, a tragic mistake. But if it is, why is this apparent only to journalists, to protesters and to ambitious, out of office politicians? Why is it that the men in government, whoever they are, make so many such mistakes, so consistently? Why is the world apparently so accident-prone? To answer, these questions we can do worse than consider Vietnam, and why it has added its name to capitalism’s long list of “tragedies”.

The French first appeared in any force on the lndo-China scene in 1771, when their soldiers helped Gia Long, heir to the King of Cochin China, put down the Tay Son Rebellion. This was followed in 1787 by a treaty between Gia Long and Louis XVI, the negotiations for which were helped along by the Almighty in the person of the Bishop of Adran, Pigneau de Behaine.

Cochin China was taken into French protectorate in 1867 and Tonking and Annam (the coastal province) in 1884. The Annamese gave the French a certain amount of trouble. In 1873 Paris had to send a military force when the merchant Jean Dupuis ran into opposition to his efforts to open the Red River to commerce and in 1882 another expedition, and later a war, was employed to break Annam’s political links with China.

By the twentieth century the dust had settled and lndo-China was firmly under French control. The French military and civil authorities ran the same sort of paternal repression which later came under the spotlight in Algeria. lndo-China was an outlet for investment; trade and commerce was mainly in the hands of the Europeans — especially, of course, the French — and the Chinese. In 1922, between 250* and 300* million francs were invested in private French industries there. The French parliament granted the privilege of issuing currency notes to the Bank of lndo-China, which was itself a profitable source of investment for French capital.

lndo-China had some valuable raw materials. About a million tons of anthracite came each year from the mines at Hongay and Dongtrien, supplying the industry which was developing in the Red River delta. There were about 62,500 acres of rubber plantations, as well as some zinc and phosphates.

The colony was also a market for French industry. There was a reciprocal duty-free arrangement with France but this worked to the advantage of the French. Indo-China’s main export was rice, whereas France sent it manufactured goods. In 1925, for example, 53 per cent of lndo-China’s imports came from France; in money terms this came to 760* million francs, while trade in the opposite direction amounted to 612 million francs. (*All currency amounts in these two paragraphs are at 1925 values.)

lndo-China, then, made a cosy picture of colonialism, typical of its time. But inevitably there grew up a nationalist movement, preaching that there was little hope of the country shaking off its agricultural economy and developing its industries under French rule, and arguing that the resources and the workers of lndo-China should be exploited by a native ruling class.

This propaganda had its appeal; while the French soldiers and merchants and their ladies were lording it and trying to forget their workaday worries in the cabarets and bars in Saigon and Hanoi, the nationalist movement was gathering strength. In particular a strange, slight man with a ragged goatee beard was travelling and talking. He visited many European countries, including Moscow and London, where he is said to have been a kitchen boy at the Carlton Hotel. He was, of course, at some time in prison. His name was Ho Chi Minh.

The Second World War gave the nationalists their chance. The Japanese, in their lunge down to Singapore, occupied lndo-China and ran the country with the help of the Vichy French authorities under the Emperor Bao Dai. The nationalists carried on an underground struggle and in 1941, at a congress in China convened by Ho Chi Minh, the organisation known as the Vietminh was formed. At the time this was purely an independence movement, although the Communists were prominent in it. Its name is an abbreviation of the Vietnamese for League for the Independence of Vietnam. But the fact that the Vietminh was fighting the Japanese meant that the Allies gave it their support — with the result later recorded in the appropriate volume of the Official History of the Second World War.


   . . . there were few countries in which the British and their Allies did not also seek to raise the forces of nationalism against the Japanese . . .
In fact all parties, friend and foe alike, were vigorously engaged in whipping up nationalist enthusiasm.
It was hardly a matter for surprise, therefore, that when the Allies re-entered Burma, Indonesia and Indo-China, they found a nationalism that was a very different force from that which they had known before the war. (British Military Administration in the Far East, 1943-46).


In March 1945 the Japanese interned the French authorities in Indo-China. In August the Vietminh took over and declared the country an independent republic; Bao Dai became Ho Chi Minh’s political adviser. The Vietnamese nationalists suffered the usual dissensions and into this confused situation, in September, the first British occupation troops arrived at Saigon. With some help from the Japanese army they carried out their mission to “restore order” and shortly afterwards a French force finished the job in a short, brutal action.


The Vietminh, however, was not beaten. There followed a number of complicated conferences, at one of which the French actually agreed to recognise “the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” as a “Free state within the Indo-Chinese Federation” which sounded like surrender, except that nobody was sure exactly what it meant and Paris was not going to help make it any clearer. On both sides, there were those who would now be known as hawks; French admiral D’Argenlieu impatiently wondered why “. . . when France has such a fine expeditionary force in Indo-China her leaders should prefer to negotiate.”


He need not have worried. In a few months matters were brought to a head by a dispute over Customs control. A French cruiser bombarded Haiphong, killing about six thousand Vietnamese. In December 1946 the Vietminh in turn attacked, massacring French civilians in Hanoi, Vietnam’s first peace time war had started.


For eight long years this dragged on, with the French steadily losing and finally suffering a decisive defeat at Dun Bien Phu. This was part of the painful recognition forced upon the French ruling class after the war, that they were no longer a world power of any consequence. France had not been able to fight the war against the once despised Vietminh alone; in 1950 they asked for American aid and from then on the United States bore the war’s financial burden, contributing to France an annual average of $500 million. But even this could not prevent Dien Bien Phu and the French went to Geneva in 1954 virtually suing for peace.


In July 1954 the Geneva Agreement, which was going to bring peace to Vietnam, (Anthony Eden, as he then was, got a knighthood for his part in it) was signed. In reality, it was just another of capitalism’s sour jokes, designed to redraw the battle lines and to give each side a breather before the next round.


The Agreement divided Vietnam roughly at the Seventeenth Parallel. North of this line went to the Vietminh; south of it to the nationalists who had fought for the French in the war and who proceeded to set up a series of American supported puppet governments. The Agreement laid it down that elections were to be held in Vietnam in July 1956 — “In order to ensure that sufficient progress in the restoration of peace has been made . . .” The elections did not, of course, happen.


The Agreement prohibited the introduction into Vietnam of “. . . troop reinforcements . . . additional military personnel . . . new military bases . . . reinforcements in the form of all types of arms, munitions, and other war material . . .” But in November that year the American General (he was officially “Ambassador”) Collins arrived at Saigon declaring “I have come to Vietnam to bring every possible aid to the government of Diem and to his government only.” Collins also announced that a United States Military Mission (officially “advisers”) would instruct the Vietnamese army.


This signalled the fact that the Americans had openly taken over from the French. This time it was against the guerillas — the Vietcong — who were continuing the war by gnawing away at South Vietnam and who by 1961 held about a quarter of the countryside. There is no reason to doubt the American conviction that the guerillas were receiving aid from North Vietnam. Just like their French predecessors, the Americans found the enemy tough, well trained and armed. But this time there would be no surrender and so began the process known under the typically ugly name of escalation.


Almost desperately, the Americans have tried to stem the flood with more and more troops and with increasingly ferocious bombardment; from the air with high explosive, rockets and napalm and now from the sea with shellfire. They have pushed the bombing line further and further north until Hanoi itself is under fire. Each step has been excused with the argument that earlier, less ruthless measures have failed. But the Vietcong are still gnawing.
The United States, then, are in the same sort of trap as the French. Washington is pumping tens of millions of dollars into Vietnam, as well as their men. There are now 415,000 American troops there, compared with 215,000 a year ago. The Pentagon recently estimated that 100,000 of these may well be killed during this year.


This massive effort has not had the results expected of it. In May 1962, US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara said “Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war.” But in January this year he testified to a Senate committee that “The bombing of North Vietnam has not reduced and will not significantly reduce the level of infiltration to the South.” (Guardian 21/2/67).


So what can Washington do? Present policy seems to be based on the reasoning that to admit defeat will also surrender Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to a hostile power. It would open the gateway into Malaya and thence into the very heart of America’s sphere of control in South East Asia. For Johnson, Vietnam is just as much a sticking point in a long process of retreat as Suez was for Eden in 1956.


This interpretation need not be correct. China is an old enemy of Vietnam and, to get its valuable resources — its anthracite, phosphates, chromite — would doubtless be prepared to repeat the invasions of the fifteenth century. Perhaps the Vietnamese will end up fighting them once more; not the only irony of the situation is that peace with America might make Ho Chi Minh one of Washington’s staunchest allies.


And if there is not peace? U Thant has forecast a “prolonged and bloody conflict” and this seems to be the likeliest outcome of the immediate future. The Americans will step up their effort, the fighting and the bombardment will become more intense. Perhaps it will go a stage higher in escalation, and bring in nuclear weapons. The official propagandists, will tell us that this is all being done to save humanity — an assurance which will not be readily accepted by the people who suffer under the bullets and the blasts and the unimaginable horrors of napalm.


Vietnam is not a tragedy. Nor is it a mistake, those who say that it is, whether they protest or not, are trying to excuse the inexcusable. They are trying to prove that capitalism’s wars need not happen — that they are the result of wrong judgments or moral lapses. The whole point of this pretence is that, if we accept it, we also accept that wars can be prevented simply by finding cleverer, or more morally sensitive, leaders. There is then no need to get rid of capitalism.


The melancholy history of capitalism, of its World Wars and of its smaller conflicts like Korea, Algeria and Vietnam, provides the evidence which exposes this pretence. There is small hope for the world, while society regards its problems as tragedies. Capitalism is full of international conflicts. When has it made a comedy of them?