Vietnam: The War AND the Country, Part I
To many Americans, especially for those of us like myself who were born after the event, Vietnam is a War, not a country. It's the site of the longest and most controversial war we've ever fought, the one that shattered our national honor and pride and made a whole generation question our greatness and purpose as a nation. The Vietnam War changed America in so many profound ways that for me to encapsulate it in 1500 words causes my brain to short-circuit. But even more important to note is the way the war savagely destroyed a tiny country full of peasants. So why in the world did the United States, the richest, most powerful country on the planet, wage such an intense war against a backwater country in Southeast Asia? And why was it not able to succeed? To look at those questions in detail, I found out, is to do nothing less than re-examine our entire American identity.
Vietnam's history, of course, did not begin and end with the American War (as the Vietnamese call it). For over 2,000 years, the Vietnamese had been repelling and fighting against foreign invaders. Most of that time was spent trying to avoid being absorbed by their gigantic Chinese neighbor. From 1850 onwards, the French started to control what they now called Indochina, which included present-day Laos and Cambodia. Under French colonialism, Vietnamese land was stolen and given to French landowners and their Vietnamese cronies. Rice and rubber became profitable exports, but the conditions on these plantations and in the mines were rotten. There was a mortality rate of 30% on the rubber plantations.
While there were always revolts against the French, the most successful movement to drive them out began in the 1930s, under the leadership of Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. The Communist Party began a massive revolutionary effort dedicated to securing independence for Vietnam. During World War II, with France falling to Germany, Japan stepped in and colonized Vietnam. 2 million Vietnamese starved to death as rice was exported to feed the Japanese army. The US began to aid Ho Chi Minh's rebels because of their common Japanese enemy. When Ho issued his very own Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945, proclaiming Vietnam free of both monarchy and imperialistic rule for the first time in its history, US officers were on hand to witness the celebration. Ho quoted Thomas Jefferson's words that "All men are created equal" and went on to list the grievances the French had committed against the Vietnamese people. His parting warning to would-be colonizers was: "The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty." As America and France were to find out, he wasn't kidding.
After WWII had ended, France moved to reclaim its Asian colonies. The United States, while sympathetic to its former ally's independent aspirations, began to become consumed by the Cold War. The US needed France as a friend in Europe. From 1946-1954, France engaged in a brutal war with Ho's Viet Minh troops. But France, devastated by WWII, needed help from the US and got it. By 1954, when the French suffered their catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the US was financing 80% of the war for the French. Ho wrote eight letters to President Truman pleading that the US respect the Vietnamese's quest for self-determination. All were ignored. (This information stuns me.) Ho Chi Minh, our hated enemy, was the one trying to avoid war with the West.
Later, the US deliberately thwarted free elections in Vietnam because they knew that Ho was going to win and Vietnam, like China, would turn Communist. The US helped to install a handpicked and corrupt dictator in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. He was so threatening that Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest Diem's rule. In 1963, with the backing of the US government, Diem was assassinated by his own generals. Despite all the promises to not send in ground troops, President Lyndon Johnson by 1965 felt he had no other alternative. The "domino theory" that saw the world as being threatened by Communist expansion led the US to believe it had to defend South Vietnam from the "aggressive" North Vietnam or else all of Asia would be lost to "Red Communists."
For a bunch of 19 and 20 year-old men, the "domino theory," Communism, and Vietnam were alien concepts. But when the government came calling, they all signed up for battle. David Carter of the Floyd County Vietnam Veterans Association said, "I was brought up in the tradition of God and country and thought it was my duty to fight." Scott Camil was fresh out of high school when he volunteered. Girls were impressed by medals and uniforms, so he wanted to join those cool-looking Marines. "I think I also wanted to find out if I was really a man, to see if I was actually a brave person or not," he said. When the military started drafting people, Terry DeMott went along because, "I believed everything my government told me. I thought they knew better than I did so if needed to fight, I would go." A disproportionate percentage of Americans in Vietnam were from poor families and minorities while those more well-off sought to avoid duty.
Right when David arrived in Vietnam, "You found out real quick that it wasn't about God, country, mama and apple pie. It was survival and taking care of each other." Scott remembered that in his third week in Vietnam, the Viet Cong (US name for the Communist army) overran his group and five people died. Among them was a fellow Floridian named John. "When I saw him laying there dead, I realized that I was in major sh- here. There were people in this country whose job it was to kill me. No second chances. I made the decision then to be as ruthless as I could. I would kill any Vietnamese who I came into contact with. It wasn't about ideology, it was about survival."
Survival, indeed. And for what? The truths I've learned about this war have had a profound affect on me. In Part II of this dispatch, I look at the national and global legacies the Vietnam War left behind.
Please email me at:
Links to Other Dispatches
Rebecca – Bayonets and pencils just don’t mix
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 2
Stephanie – A personal account: Cambodia’s civil war
Jennifer – When the going gets rough, the tough go underground
Nick – Bucking the draft
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Jennifer – Students united can never be divided
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq