It was 1967. The war in Vietnam was raging.
I was 24 years old, just out of graduate school in New York City. Cambridge University had accepted me to do a doctorate history.
But no. In a burst of youthful patriotism, I concluded it was every citizen’s duty to join the armed forces in wartime. So I enlisted as an infantry officer candidate in the US Army and was packed off to basic training.
Life can only be understood in retrospect. With the wisdom of hindsight, most people consider the 20-year long Vietnam War a terrible mistake, even a crime. But at the time, US military involvement in Indochina appeared to make sense. It certainly did to me. I was proud to wear my nation’s uniform.
General Douglas MacArthur warned Americans ‘never fight a land war in Asia.” He had presided over the bloody stalemate in Korea a decade earlier and knew the fighting power and tenacity of Asian soldiers.
But that is exactly what the Kennedy administration foolishly did. At the time, US power was at its zenith. Washington was gripped by post-war arrogance and hubris. No nation, not even the Soviet Union, could withstand US military power – or so it was thought.
There was also a very compelling geopolitical reason. At the time – the later 1960’s – it appeared certain that the Soviets and Red China were working together to dominate all of Indochina. South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were under particular threat. Indonesia, with a powerful communist party, Malaysia and Thailand were also deemed vulnerable.
“If we don’t make a military stand in SE Asia,” was the consensus, “the Reds will take the entire region.” So it looked in 1967. So we hear again today. Just replace “Reds” by al-Qaida or ISIS.
But the basic western premise back then – as now – was dead wrong. In one of history’s biggest intelligence failures, we failed to see the seismic split between the Soviet Union and Mao’s China, one so profound that the two super-powers almost went to war over their contested Manchurian borders in 1968-1969. Just as our intelligence services also missed the impending collapse of the Soviet Union three decades later.
Had the US been aware of the violent tensions between Moscow and Beijing, it would likely have avoided expanding the Vietnam War, or just left it to its own devices.
Instead, the US and its allies waged a long struggle against the Vietcong local guerillas and the battle-hardened North Vietnamese Army that had defeated some of France’s finest soldiers a decade earlier. President Lyndon Johnson drove the US deeper into the war by staging the phony Gulf of Tonkin naval incident.
It did not take long for US troops in South Vietnam to realize the war was a pointless bloodbath. Without the 24/7 support of US airpower, the American army and marines in Vietnam would not have been able to hold out. Today, without US airpower, American forces would be driven from Afghanistan. The current US-installed governments in Kabul and Baghdad have no more popular support or authority than had the corrupt South Vietnamese regime in Saigon.
Amazingly, American generals, every bit as stupid as their French counterparts at Dien Bien Phu, managed to get themselves surrounded in the Khe San valley. They were only saved from a second Dien Bien Phu disaster only by waves of US B-52 heavy bombers.
By the January, 1968 Tet offensive, it was clear to many of us in uniform that the war was lost (I was stateside at the time). The US won almost every battle thanks to air power, but it lost both the military momentum in the war, the strategic direction and the political struggle. America’s South Vietnamese allies often fought bravely but their political leaders were hopeless. Young Americans turned against the war and, after sniffing the wind, so did media.
Over 550,000 US troops, backed by South Koreans, Australians and a similar number of South Vietnamese troops could not defeat the Communist irregulars and regulars. In the US Army in Vietnam, only 10% of the troops were in fighting rifle units. The rest were in logistical support. All tail and no teeth, as we used to say. Cooks, bakers, delivery-men and clerks do not win wars.
In the end, it was the regular North Vietnamese Army supported by T-34/54 tanks and the excellent Soviet 130mm guns that brought victory. The NVA’s tanks rolled into Saigon on 30 April, erasing the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were heedless of casualties and fought like tigers. Some military experts called them ‘the finest light infantry in the world.’
In one of America’s most humiliating events, US military and government personnel bugged out of Vietnam, abandoning their local allies and girlfriends to the Communists.
Much of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were ravaged by US bombing and toxic chemical defoliation. In the process, some 250,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded; 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died. At least three million Communist soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were killed, mostly by US air power.
As I look back, it’s very painful to realize that the war was, to paraphrase the wicked Tallyrand, “worse than a crime, a mistake.”
The red hordes did not swamp Indochina nor did they march on Cleveland. Our side committed as many crimes as our enemies. The CIA-run Phoenix program, for example, “liquidated” up to 41,000 communist cadres. Our “counter-terrorism” campaign today in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia follows the same pattern.
After Vietnam, no more youthful patriotism for me. What really shocked me about Vietnam was that we came out of it looking no better than the Soviets. It was a pointless war, in the wrong place, against an unnecessary enemy, waged, in part, by reluctant soldiers stoned on pot and heroin.
Today, the US and united Vietnam have $36 billion in bilateral trade and warm commercial and diplomatic relations. Vietnam is becoming an important ally for the US against China. One wonders how the US can enjoy fruitful relations with Communist Vietnam while until recently shunning Communist Cuba.
Alas, we seem to have forgotten everything about Vietnam and learned nothing. We prop up squalid puppet regimes or brutal dictators because they do our bidding. The new bogeyman is Iran instead of China, but the song remains the same.