Culture clash and communication failure by Nguyen Ngoc Linh
Since the fall of Saigon, I have had 35 years to think about what went wrong. Even before that fateful April 1975, I had had 10 years of government service to witness the mistakes of American and Vietnamese leaders responsible for managing the war.
From the very beginning of America's commitment in Vietnam, there was a huge gap of understanding between Americans and Vietnamese that led from one misunderstanding to another about each other's intentions, good will, expectations and much else.
Indeed, Americans, with their gung-ho, can-do, task-oriented attitude, had the tendency to take control in their partnership with the Vietnamese, even at the risk of stepping on our toes. The Vietnamese, proud of their Confucian traditions and steeped in a millennial historical consciousness, resisted and even ignored advice from pushy American advisers and condescending commanding generals.
The understanding gap led to fateful decisions on the American side, such as encouraging the Vietnamese generals to stage a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother-adviser, which ended tragically in their deaths. This marked the beginning of the end of South Vietnam in its fight against the invaders from the North.
Once President Johnson decided to send combat troops to help South Vietnam, the American generals quickly took charge of the war. They fought a conventional war against communist insurgents who at first fought the only way Vietnamese knew how against a superior enemy, as guerrillas - disappearing only to reappear when the superior force moves on. The fact that the war often was directed from the White House only added another layer of intervention, which tied the hands of generals in the field.
While the communist invaders and the local Viet Cong insurgents could roam all over the South, the American and South Vietnamese sides were not allowed to go north to bring the war to where it would hurt. For a long time, they were not even allowed to go into Cambodia, where the North Vietnamese withdrew whenever they needed rest and recuperation.
Even after President Nixon went to China and met with Mao Zedong, the Americans were still leery of Chinese intervention should our side take the fight to North Vietnam. Thanks to documents recently declassified, the Associated Press' Calvin Woodward reported in 2006 that Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser, told Prime Minister Chou En-lai something to the effect that "in my view, after peace is restored, the political orientation of what comes afterward is of no concern to the U.S." and that "if we can live with a communist government in China, we ought to be able to accept it in Indochina." This practically amounted to giving assurance that the United States would not engage in Vietnam after a communist victory.
At the height of its engagement, the U.S. had a half-million troops in Vietnam. It had been suggested that had the Americans deployed those men on our side of the 17th parallel from the Ben Hai River all the way into Laos and then mined the port of Hai Phong, interdicting war supplies to the communists, they could have choked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, leaving it to the South Vietnamese armed forces to take care of the guerrilla insurgents in the South - something we could have handled without much difficulty. In fact, the Ho Chi Minh Trail could have been cut off with far fewer troops. One study done at the time even suggested 60,000 could have done the job.
With such a strategy, the U.S. would not have lost more than 58,000 killed in action and untold numbers of wounded, and the antiwar movement never would have had enough wind in its sail to pressure Congress to cut off all assistance to the South, leaving it defenseless.
The greatest irony of the Vietnam War was that when tired of the conflict, President Nixon thought of Vietnamization as a way to put the whole burden on the South Vietnamese army. The word Vietnamization implies that during the entire 10 years of massive American intervention, the only ones fighting were the Americans, while the million or so Vietnamese troops and militia were sitting on their behinds watching the show.
Slow going on the path toward democracy by Baoky N. Vu
As the United States continues its dual tasks of nation-building and fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, foreign-policy observers have often noted the parallels between the current efforts in Afghanistan to that of the Vietnam War. In this post-Cold War setting of multiple spheres of influence, what is unquestionable is the essential role of American involvement; more important, is how it should be localized to the conditions on the ground. Undoubtedly, this will have an enormous impact on the outcome of our involvement in Afghanistan, and Vietnam for that matter.
The last day of April every year is often referred to as "Black April" by the overseas Vietnamese diaspora, a black mark to commemorate the loss of our homeland of South Vietnam to the invading North Vietnamese Communists in 1975. Personally, it marks that fateful day in 1975 when, as my mother took us to view the nightly cartoon shows at a U.S. base camp on Guam, I witnessed the strained looks of disbelief and despair on the faces of the adults milling about after hearing the announcement over the public-address system that South Vietnam had surrendered.
Thirty-five years later, we are witnesses to another invasion in Vietnam, one this time not of ideology and armies, but of foreign conglomerates. But at the same time that Vietnam has been the beneficiary of the maxim "a rising tide lifts all boats," I, as an American now of Vietnamese birth, can only imagine what Vietnam would be like today if unchained from the communist dogma that rewards the few at the expense of the many. The country that David Halberstam 40 years ago labeled "one of five or six countries that is truly vital to U.S. strategic interests" often finds itself today on various lists of leading human rights violators. Instead of leading innovations, Vietnam remains a hopeless follower, always looking northward for ideological legitimacy in the new millennium.
The biggest similarity between the two wars is in the conduct of unconventional warfare, where the rule of the game is that there are no rules. Our nation's military leaders have done a good job of executing this, compared with our experience four decades ago. From Gen. David H. Petraeus to Gen. Stanley A. McCrystal on down to the local commanders, they have gone to great lengths to remind us that brute force alone will not bring "victory." In fact, in this Internet age, psychological warfare is perhaps even more important than guns and ammunition.
Professor Andrew Wiest, in his book "Vietnam's Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN," was correct to point out that the oft-maligned South Vietnamese army's biggest failing was not one of personnel and effort, but of strategy and concept. He said simply that despite President Nixon's attempts at "Vietnamization," South Vietnam's military was never trained to be "Vietnamese enough."
The current administration has also learned its lesson and wisely, although ambivalently, followed the Bush administration in refraining from announcing a hard timetable for its expanded task in Afghanistan. This was in sharp contrast to the initial flaw in providing a withdrawal schedule for forces in Iraq, a decision that while politically popular here at home, was geopolitically unwise. Given the recent suicide bombings in Iraq, we now clearly see the lack of prudence in the decision. Since when did terrorists kill and maim with timetables?
The second major similarity relates to the concept of victory and how it is defined by the modern nation-state versus rogue regimes. Even if we do execute the Afghanistan military mission with greater success, how do we actually "win" against an enemy who will stop short of nothing to achieve its "victory," including carrying out wanton acts of terrorism against the innocent or just waiting until we leave to continue their destruction? That is exactly what happened in South Vietnam, as American forces began their withdrawal in late 1973. For us to succeed, we have to determine how the enemy defines "victory," for in unconventional warfare, victory is still a zero-sum game.
In the case of U.S. interests in both Afghanistan and Vietnam today, the pressures of globalization have often usurped the promotion of certain aspects of our national interests; more specifically, human rights and liberalization should not be mutually exclusive from the promotion of U.S. national interests. However, from Vietnam to China, American policymakers are putting profits over people in this new dawn, ensuring short-term success, but also likely long-term failure. We are at risk of losing the "hearts and minds" of the common man - those who are apathetic to authoritarian dogma but confused about America's ideals and purpose.
In Vietnam, where leading intellectuals and the emerging youth are being arbitrarily detained and imprisoned, Vietnam apologists are constantly singing the excuse that if the United States does not appease the Vietnamese regime, then Hanoi will be pushed closer to the Chinese. This is naive thinking, for as anyone who was born in Asia should know, there is no greater hatred for the Chinese than from the Vietnamese.
I am hopeful that the United States will finally get it right in moving Vietnam on the proper path toward a more open society, just as it is attempting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It may not be easy, but it is not impossible. We have to find the influencers outside of the Communist Party hierarchy and support them. Resources from the National Endowment for Democracy and the like can be used to help develop civil institutions and promote citizen-media bloggers. It is a testament to the uniqueness of America's role in the world when young activists in Saigon and Hanoi, and throughout the world for that matter, are risking their lives just to get their hands on a copy of Gene Sharp's tome "From Dictatorship to Democracy."
Guilt and Death, North and South by Phan Thanh Hao
AT noon on April 30, 1975, when news that the liberation forces had captured Saigon spread to the North, we thought: “The war has ended. Now happiness will immediately arrive.” All of us, the youth volunteers of Hanoi who were digging a big lake in the suburbs, were allowed to go home, and the next day was May Day, a holiday.
I was so thrilled to head home and enjoy my afternoon off. National flags were flying everywhere. Young people cheered and chanted, “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!”
But then the image of a friend who had been in the North Vietnamese special forces appeared in my mind. He had been among 1,000 soldiers who had gone out to fight together, and one of only four who returned. Their mission had been to ambush dangerous Saigonese agents — and sometimes Americans.
Soon after his return, he and I sat together on a pile of straw, and he told me a war story. He and his group had happened upon some Americans, who started shooting. My friend and his comrades had been ordered to avoid capture, even at the cost of their lives, so they tried to escape. The Americans were drunk, but chased after them. When one American was about to jump on one of our soldiers, my friend stabbed the man from behind and he fell, mortally wounded.
My friend turned him over on the ground and saw his young and handsome face. “Mama,” the man said before dying — the same word so many of our own soldiers uttered before they died. My friend’s heart tightened and, from then on, he said, he could never forget the American’s cry.
No one could understand why my friend later decided to return to battle. I’m told that he was killed somewhere in the jungle. Only years afterward did I come to believe that after hearing the plea of the dying American, he had felt guilty about living. But why did I think of him that day, at that moment, among the cheers?
Saigon’s Fall, 35 Years Later by Dinh Linh
DEPENDING on which side you were on, Saigon either fell on April 30, 1975, or it was liberated. Inside Vietnam, the day is marked as Liberation Day — but outside, among the Vietnamese refugees, it is called Deep Resentment Day. (The resentment is not just over losing a war, but also a country.)
On April 21, 1975, I was 11 and living in Saigon. I turned on the television and saw our president, Nguyen Van Thieu. He had a high forehead, a sign of intelligence, and long ears, indicating longevity. He had a round face with a well-defined jaw — the face of a leader — unlike his main rival, Nguyen Cao Ky, who resembled a cricket with a mustache. Thieu said, “At the time of the peace agreement the United States agreed to replace equipment on a one-by-one basis, but the United States did not keep its word. Is an American’s word reliable these days?”
Growing up in Saigon, I did not witness the war, only its apparatus: tanks, jeeps, jets. I often heard the rhythmic, out-of-breath phuoc phuoc phuoc of chopper blades rotating overhead. As it did for many Americans, the war came to me mainly through the news media. Open a newspaper and you would see Vietcong corpses lying in disarray. Turn on the radio and you could hear how our side was winning. Saigon theaters even showed American movies of World War II. Saigonese could sit in air-conditioning and watch expensively staged war scenes.
We considered the VC little more than a nightmare, a rumor, a bogeyman for scaring children. Once, in Saigon’s Phu Lam neighborhood, I saw four blindfolded men standing on a military truck, but there was no way to tell if they were really VC. If someone took a bad photo, you said, “You look just like a VC!” Only after April 30, 1975, did Saigonese realize there were plenty of VC among them.
Before the government fell, my father arranged for me and my brother to flee the country with a Chinese family. He sent his secretary along to take care of us. This secretary was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, her face round and puffy. Sister Ha, as I called her, would later become my stepmother.
Before I left, my father gave me $2,000, saying, “Two thousand bucks should last you a year.” American bills, I noticed, were less colorful than Vietnamese ones, though longer and crisper. After sewing the money into the hem of my blue shorts, made of rayon and extremely hot, my grandmother advised, “Whatever you do, don’t take these shorts off.”
Before boarding the plane, I stayed at an American compound for four days. On the evening of April 27, I got on a C-130 to fly to Guam. Sitting next to Sister Ha, I watched a kid eat raw instant noodles. When the plane landed, it was pitch dark. No one knew a thing about Guam; we knew only that we had left Vietnam behind.