Vietnam: An American Military Failure

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Vietnam: An American Military Failure

Sam O’Brien

American involvement in Vietnam could be dated back to October 1945, two months after the end of World War II. Twelve American Merchant Marines vessels transported some thirteen thousand French troops to Saigon to engage the North Vietnamese in a struggle for Cochin China or what is today known as Vietnam.1 The French had occupied the region of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam since the late 19th Century as a colony named French Indochina. The Vietnamese nationalist group Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi formed in 1941, or Viet Minh for short, led by Nguyen Tat Thanh (better known under his most popular pseudonym Ho Chi Minh) began to grow in strength and numbers as the World War came to a close.2 The Viet Minh rallied in great numbers following the fall of the Japanese in World War II, massing in Hanoi, Saigon, and Hue to declare Vietnamese Independence from French Colonial rule. Ho Chi Minh himself invoked the American Declaration of Independence in a rally of approximately 500,000 people in Hanoi on September 2, 1945, “ ‘All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens.3

Ho Chi Minh in many ways did not seem like a communist leader, but more so a leader bent upon nationalism and Vietnamese Independence. Ho Chi Minh addresses national Vietnamese concerns in a speech made to the 18th Congress of the French Socialist Party, at Tours, December 1920:

You have all known French Imperialism entered Indo-China half a century ago. In its selfish interests, it conquered our country with bayonets. Since then we have not only been oppressed and exploited shamelessly, but also tortured and poisoned pitilessly….In Indo-China the colonialists find all ways and means to force us to smoke opium and drink alcohol to poison and beset us. Thousands of Vietnamese have been led to a slow death and massacred to protect other people’s interests. Comrades, such is the treatment inflicted upon more than twenty million Vietnamese, that is more than half the population of France. And they are said to be under French Protection!4

As an outside reader, I do not see any mention of Ho’s Communist ideological bent; this is a fiery condemnation of a French Colonial power that had been both abusive and oppressive. A power that Ho Chi Minh is calling for an end to, which ultimately led to armed conflict and rebellion some twenty five years later. It is true in the speech he goes on the make mention of “comrades” and the “Socialist Party”, but almost after the fact. He is obviously primarily concerned with Vietnamese Independence first and foremost, communism or socialism second. Vietnam was a militaristic feudal society that largely resisted colonialism till the 19th Century when French forces arrived to protect Catholic converts in the region. Many historians view Vietnam succumbing to a form of religious imperialism after many unsuccessful attempts of countries attempting to impose themselves militarily or economically.5 Ho’s background is one of revolutionary roots as well. His father a respected scholar refused to learn the French language as an insult against the colonial power, participated in the Scholar’s Revolt of 1885, and was stymied and dismissed by the French.6 This led

Ho Chi Minh later appealed to President Truman on February 16th 1946 for Vietnamese Independence based upon American treatment of the Philippines. Ho wrote three letters to the United States, all appealing to the American ideals of liberty and self determination of a people to rule within their own sovereign country. Ho received no response from the American Government.7 Ho initially appealed to the French following failed communications with the Americans. Here to he was unsuccessful and the war between the Viet Minh and France began in earnest in Northern Vietnam in December of 1946. The war at this time had already begun in the South of the country in 1945.8 Ho Chi Minh fought the French in a war that lasted from 1945 to 1954 with the Viet Minh victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Vietnamese independence was a nationalistic movement, first fought against the French and later against the Americans over a thirty year period beginning in 1945. To view Vietnam as a war to check communism and the Soviet Union was fundamentally incorrect. Ho Chi Minh may have been a communist with aid form both China and the Soviet Union, but he was a puppet of neither government, and his intention was not to spread communism but liberate his country from foreign colonial powers9. Vietnam was also a prolonged American war that lasted for over ten years officially, and the idea that public support would endure for that entire period was misguided.10 It didn’t, protestors took to the streets in cities and college campuses throughout the nation. Vietnam proved to be one of America’s most unpopular wars, and really ushered in a new era of military vulnerability. Before the Vietnam War, America had not lost a major military conflict. Vietnam proved to be a watershed moment in American history. Vietnam was the first war to receive almost nightly news coverage over a sustained period of several years, and many Americans during this time in the 1960’s viewed television as their main source of news coverage.11 Following the Vietnam War military planners in subsequent wars have limited the media’s presence and coverage of war, creating limited media coverage. Many critics of the Media’s coverage of the Vietnam War, attacked the media for fueling the anti-war movement at home, reporting on bombings in Laos and Cambodia that curtailed American military efforts there, and distorted the facts on the ground causing widespread negative publicity.12

1 Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, (Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), 1-2.

2 Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, 2-10.

3 Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works (Hanoi, 1960-1962), Vol. 3, pp. 17-21.

4 Woddis, Jack, ed.1969. Ho Chi Minh Selected Articles and Speeches 1920-1967, (London: Lawrence & Wishart LTD), 13-14.

5 Halberstam, David. Ho ( New York: Random House, 1971) 7-10.

6 Halberstam, David. Ho ( New York: Random House, 1971) 18-20.

7 Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, 14-15.

8 Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990, 14-15.

9 Herring, George c. “Vietnam, American Foreign Policy, and the Uses of History” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 90, Vol. 66, Issue 1, p.5

10 Herring, George c. “Vietnam, American Foreign Policy, and the Uses of History” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 90, Vol. 66, Issue 1, p.7

11 Susan l. Carruthers, The Media At War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 108-109.

12 Carruthers, The Media At War, 110-112.

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