December 15, 2012

Two clear thoughts on Vietnam

From the time I first heard of it as a child I was befuddled by the war in Vietnam.  With my head full of World War I and World War II histories, just the language of the war was maddeningly obtuse, from the unfamiliar place names ("Plain of Jars"), to bafflegab like "Vietnamization" and "hearts and minds."  Even the comic books looked weird.

Postmortems written in the aftermath, by people working overtime to salvage their reputations or build new ones based on simplistic narratives, did further mischief.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see two clear and clarifying thoughts from Frederik Logevall's fine (premium*) review of Hanoi's War in Foreign Affairs -

  1. Time and again, U.S. economic reports complained that South Vietnamese authorities were unable to collect taxes outside of a few urban areas and that the government was therefore unlikely to survive long without being propped up by Washington.  The Communists, meanwhile, continued to collect taxes, replenish food supplies, and draft soldiers; in other words, they did all the things that a government controlling its territory ought to be able to do.
  2. Indeed, Washington's involvement was part of the problem, for it presented the noncommunist nationalists in the South with an impossible dilemma:  they couldn't win without the United States, and they couldn't win with it.  Massive U.S. assistance was essential to defeating the insurgency yet killed any chance of gaining broad public backing.
Of the latter Bui Diem, who served for a time as South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S., wrote:
Caught in the middle of these powerful forces, [noncommunist] Vietnamese nationalists found themselves in a succession of precarious situations.  In most cases they were forced to choose among unpalatable alternatives; often, indeed, they saw no choice at all.  With their survival at stake they were forced to take refuge in a series of uneasy and uncomfortable compromises that little by little eroded their legitimacy.
Legitimacy.  As our leadership pivots, ending current engagements and committing to new ones, that word is worth keeping uppermost our minds.

* Foreign Affairs is $2.99 / month on Kindle, highly recommended.


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