Friday, December 20, 2013

Far from Vietnam

The defeat  marked a severe setback for America, one that affected the psyche of   its  society.  There  was  a  growing feeling that the war was a blunder.  That impression  coupled with the Watergate scandal   led   to   President   Nixon's  resignation. Isolationist forces were strengthened   at   home   and   the   US  government was cautioned about any such   involvement    in    future.    The   victory   of   Ho   Chi   Minh   and   his  associates boosted the morale of the Communist world ~SUBRATA MUKHERJEE
The protracted war in Vietnam, which ended in 1973, was one of the most defining events in the last three decades of the 20th century. This is evident from a sequence in Satyajit Ray’s film Pratidwandi (Adversary) made in 1970. In reply to a query as to what was the most important event of the last decade, the answer  was the ‘war in Vietnam’. This was followed by a counter-query, ‘Not man reaching the moon’? The reply ~  ‘No, the progress in the field of science would have made that possible. The war in Vietnam brings to surface many new dimensions’. Are you a Communist was the retort, to which the reply was, “One need not be a Communist to admire Vietnam”.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. One major contribution of the Eisenhower administration was the domino theory ~ “If there is a line of dominos standing on end close to one another and one is pushed over, it will knock over the next in the line”. This supplemented the Containment theory by which if one nation in a regional setting is taken over by Communism, its spill-over effect would affect its neighbours. On the basis of this doctrine, he supported the South Vietnamese government and though it violated the earlier agreement of holding an election for the whole of Vietnam, the Eisenhower administration continued to support the Vietnamese regime and increased military and economic aid to the Diem regime, which successfully convinced the US policy-makers that the Communists were behind all the mischief. Both Kennedy and Johnson followed this line of action and enhanced economic and military aid to South Vietnam.
This policy was defended on the ground that intervention was essential to protect the independence of the people of South Vietnam. But the actual reason was to keep the country outside the Communist bloc as a continuation of the Containment policy. This was the situation when America changed the course of its policy, aware that the Vietcong (the name of the guerrillas) were receiving substantial assistance from North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh defended the policy because of South Vietnam’s refusal to agree to the earlier agreement to hold elections.
John F Kennedy, who was the US President from 1961 to 1963, proposed an anti-guerrilla campaign to create ‘safe villages’ in which local peasants were moved to fortified areas in order to isolate the Vietcong. He had sent 16,000 advisors, helicopters and other military hardware. This policy came a cropper  as the Vietcong consisted predominantly of peasants and had no problem in successfully carrying out their mission inside the villages. By 1964, the Vietcong and the NLF controlled roughly 40 per cent of South Vietnamese villages and enjoyed the support of the local people. Johnson (1963-69) assumed that the Vietcong was controlled and directed by Ho Chi Minh and ordered bombing of supplies. Over the next seven years, North Vietnam was heavily bombed, indeed  more than all the bombs that were dropped in Germany during the Second World War. In addition, more than half a million US troops were sent to South Vietnam. But even such massive deployment could not stop the advance of the Vietcong. By February 1968, the Vietcong controlled 80 per cent of all towns and villages in  South Vietnam. However, many of these areas were recovered by the US-assisted South Vietnamese troops; yet public opinion in the USA was building up against the war and there was an increasing demand to withdraw from Vietnam. Johnson rejected the demand of withdrawal but suspended bombing of North Vietnam in March 1968.
Nixon (1969-74) was convinced about the need for a new approach as increased US presence became untenable. Early in 1969, there were half a million US soldiers, 50,000 South Koreans and 75,000 South Vietnamese against 450,000 Vietcong and approximately 70,000 North Vietnamese troops. In this situation, Nixon introduced the new concept called ‘Vietnamization’, by which the USA would re-arm and train the South Vietnamese army to take care of defence,  allowing gradual withdrawal of US troops. This led to the reduction of US troops to half by mid-1971. Nixon resumed heavy bombing of North Vietnam again along with the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Kampuchea. But this did not change the ground reality and by the end of 1972, the Vietcong effectively controlled the entire western half of the country. Nixon was under tremendous pressure both at home and abroad to withdraw.
Several factors led to the demand for withdrawal ~ the revulsion caused by the massive bombing of North Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea; the extensive use of chemicals to destroy jungle foliage and of inflammable napalm jelly which burnt people alive; the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians; and the brutal killings of captured Vietcong soldiers and civilians which were highlighted by the media throughout the world. A ceasefire was agreed in January 1973 and this process  was facilitated by the Russians and the Chinese who were helping Vietcong but were also looking for a way out. The agreement stipulated that all US troops would leave Vietnam and both North and South Vietnam would respect the border along the 17th parallel. But the Vietcong continued the war. And without the support of the US troops, the Saigon regime collapsed and South Vietnamese defence proved to be no match for Vietcong.
In 1975, Saigon was occupied by the North Vietnamese army and Vietcong, leading to the unity of the nation and freedom from foreign occupation first from the French and then from the USA. Eisenhower’s domino effect proved to be correct;  along with the establishment of a Communist government in united Vietnam, Communist governments were installed in Laos and Kampuchea in the same year. The containment theory failed in South-east Asia.
There were several reasons for the debacle ~ Vietcong and NLP had massive popular support; the Vietcong were fighting in an area of which they had complete knowledge and intensive links with the hinterland. They were experts in guerrilla warfare; the US military could not stop the supplies to it from North Vietnam; and  the moral plank of the South Vietnamese position was weak as it did not hold the promised elections, fearing that the Communists would win any such election.
The defeat  marked a severe setback for America, one that affected the psyche of  its society. There was a growing feeling that the war was a blunder.   That impression  coupled with the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation. Isolationist forces were strengthened at home and the US government was cautioned about any such involvement in future. The victory of Ho Chi Minh and his associates boosted the morale of the Communist world. However, both the Russian and the Chinese leaderships were restrained in their reaction. Both wanted to reduce international tension, which facilitated the process of détente. A shift from the policy of containment became the cornerstone of US foreign policy from the 1970s till the collapse of Communism in the 1990s.
The writer is retired Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi
The Statesman 19 December 2013

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