Hanoi’s War and the Cause of Gridlock in Washington


            HANOI’S WAR: An International History of Vietnam’s War for Peace by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen is the best book on the Vietnam War to be written in the last 25 years.  As she says in the introduction, there have been many, many books about the Vietnam War as seen from the American side, but few from the Vietnamese perspective.


            Dr. Nguyen was born in Vietnam but was brought to the United States as an infant.  She had family fighting on both sides of the war.  She grew up in Pennsylvania and has been given access to once secret archives of North Vietnam.  This book is essential for anyone trying to understand the Vietnam War.


            For beginners, Hanoi’s War claims that by the time of the American War, both Ho Chi Minh and General Giap had been marginalized.  The war was run by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, both of whom favored a big war strategy of General Offensive, General Uprising. Their plan for victory was to defeat the “puppet” government in the south by getting the people to rise up. The build-up in 1964, the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the 1972 Easter Offensive were all intended to accomplish this objective.  Essentially, American airpower thwarted this goal. Giap and Ho had favored continued guerilla war but lost the political battle in Hanoi.


            Basically, the big war proponents felt that the Vietnamese communists had already been cheated of victory twice, in 1945, when Ho allowed the French to return; and in 1954, when Ho agreed to the temporary partition of the country.  So, Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were wary of negotiations and determined to fight on until final victory.


            This is a great book that will change anyone’s mind about the Vietnam War.  Just the new facts alone, like the fact that both Ho Chi Minh and General Giap were not in Vietnam for the 1968 Tet Offensive , make this book worth reading. It is also available on an audio CD, so it can be listed to in the car, or can be borrowed and downloaded (actually, the book stays in the cloud) for free through libraries that have Hoopla.


            So, what does this have to do with gridlock in Washington?  When Barack Obama was elected he said about Vietnam, “We not going to refight old battles.”  But, without a general consensus about the past it is impossible to make policy for the future.  Unless we can agree on what happened, what were the mistakes and what were the successes, it is difficult to go forward in a rational way.


            It was pretty clear that slavery was the major issue from the War for Independence to the Civil War.  There is no disagreement.  The South lost and slavery was abolished in law, but not exactly in fact.  After the civil war industrialization and the progressive movement were the major issues that battled across the political stage.


            World War I marked the emergence of the United States as a global power and creditor nation.  Between the wars there was the depression and the debates over how to effectively address the global economic crisis.


            After World War II, the United States was the undisputed Master of the Universe, locked in a Cold War with the Communist Bloc.  Korea was a stalemate and Vietnam was a disaster.


            Until we answer the question of what happened in Vietnam, what went wrong and what went right, we can not have a coherent policy.  Did the US win the Vietnam War?  No.  Did it lose it?  Well, not really.


            Hanoi’s War suggested these lessons to me.  1. The massive military buildup in Vietnam was counterproductive.  The United States should have stayed with the advisory and military assistance role.  It had been received wisdom before Vietnam that the United States should not get involved in a land war in Asia.  How did that happen? One thing is clear, American complicity in the overthrow and murder of President Diem was the trigger for the big war, just as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the trigger for World War I, with equally unpredictable consequences.  It is the unpredictable consequences from violent acts of which we should all be afraid.


            In essence, Nixon’s diplomatic openings with the Soviet Union and China paid big dividends.  Essentially, Hanoi’s backers forced it to change strategy from defeating the South to get rid of the Americans, to negotiating an American exit first, before continuing the military struggle to victory.  If there was any winner of the Vietnam War, it was China (as is obvious today.)  China, with some Soviet assistance, combined with the heaviest bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, enabled Nixon to negotiate a face saving exit from Vietnam.


            Since Vietnam, our best presidents: Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, have favored the diplomatic route over the military.  The Bushes, on the other hand, have favored the military route over the diplomatic and political.  The results speak for themselves.


            The problem in Washington is that none of the decision-makers know anything about the Vietnam War.  It is politically unpalatable to say we “lost”, because America’s real philosophy is based on football, i.e. quitters never win and winners never quit.  So, there is a huge cohort, mostly in the Republican Party, that maintains that we really “won” the Vietnam War, or could have won it but were prevented from winning it by the politicians at home.  This scenario is frighteningly similar to Adolf Hitler’s analysis of the reasons Germany lost World War I. And name-calling Talk Radio hosts who either make up facts or present them so selectively as to constitute a distortion for partisan purposes are jeopardizing the security of the country by focusing the people’s attention on trivia instead of the serious issues that require deliberation.


            And like Hitler between the wars, the United States refuses to see itself as the aggressor, not only in Vietnam, but in many other interventions around the world.  Anyone who believes the invasion of Iraq was based on faulty intelligence has no intelligence of his or her own.  The record is clear that Bush and Cheney wanted to go to war with Iraq long before 9/11. Bush mentioned Iraq as the major foreign policy problem in the last debate of the 2000 campaign that took place just four days after the Cole bombing.  That makes the US the aggressor in Iraq.


            So, my point is that successful government policy, that, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most people hope results in peace and prosperity (although there are a few people who are always looking for a fight) depends on accurate understanding of the past, both its successes and failures.


            Vietnam, a highly complex situation, had plenty of wise moves and plenty of missteps by all the parties involved: the North and South Vietnamese, the Americans, the Soviets and the Chinese. 


            If we want to end the gridlock in Washington and move forward into a peaceful and prosperous future, we need to be tough enough to face the truth about the past.  When it comes to Vietnam, Hanoi’s War by Lien-Hang T. Nguyen is a great place to begin.


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