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Opinions After the War

Many who had fought on the side of the Viet Cong or the Viet Minh continued to see it as having given their nation freedom from foreign domination. That had been primary in their struggle. But there were those who believed also that the war had been fought for socialism – a lesser number no doubt. And they were dismayed by Vietnam's move toward free enterprise and accommodation with the capitalistic global economy.

Some of the Vietnamese who had fought on the side of the Saigon regime (Saigon was now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and had fled to the United States saw themselves as having fought for freedom because they had fought against communism, and they described their loss of the war as a result of having been abandoned by the United States. Twenty years of US support, and eight years of intensive US military firepower, were not enough for them. The idea expressed by President Johnson in 1964 that it was a war that the Vietnamese rather than "American boys" had to win was not acceptable to them. Neither was President Nixon's "Vietnamization" of the war.

There were those in the United States who doubted. One of them was Hannah Arendt, who was to write:

"That 'Vietnamization' would not work could have surprised nobody; it was a public-relations slogan to excuse the evacuation of American troops ... What came as a surprise was the way [President] Thieu himself, without even consulting his protectors in Washington, managed to accelerate the disintegration of his government to such an extent that the victors [the Communist forces] were unable to fight and conquer; what they found, when they could make contact with an enemy who fled more rapidly than they could pursue him, was not an army in retreat but an unbelievable route of a mob of soldiers and civilians on a rampage of gigantic proportions."     (Responsibility and Judgment, p 258, edited by Jerome Kohn)

But there were also those in the US who continued to see the war as simply the North having invaded the South – as simply Communist expansion. They believed that those fighting on the side of the Saigon regime were stabbed in the back by a withdrawal of material support and by US television, journalists, demonstrations and weak-kneed politicians having supported a withdrawal of support. A few described help from the Soviet Union and China as having made the Communist victory possible – without comparing the level of that support to the support that the United States gave to Saigon for more than a decade.

It was not terribly different from France's withdrawal from Vietnam. Some French military men were upset as they left behind those Vietnamese they had promised never to abandon. Those in Vietnam who had supported the French were exposed to the hostilities of other Vietnamese, and many had swum to the French ships and begged to be taken aboard. The French watching this felt shame and that their Vietnamese allies had been betrayed.

Watching the US pull out of Vietnam in 1975, Americans were challenged to make a distinction between a minority who sided with the US and the majority who did not. They could have asked why the Saigon regime could not have performed more successfully and what was the high rate of desertion among those drafted into Saigon's army about? Regarding why the war was lost, one of Saigon's wartime prime ministers, Nguyen Kao Ky, took an exceptional position among Vietnamese veterans living in the United States. He saw the role of hearts and minds in Saigon's defeat. In his book, How We Lost the War in Vietnam, he described the US role in Vietnam as "misguided" and naive concerning the opinions of the common Vietnamese.

The US could have applied more firepower. It could have flattened and devastated the whole of Vietnam, conquering it as had Japan and Germany at the end of World War II. But would it have been the right thing to do? We did not fight the war for narcissistic pleasures.

There were those in the United States who continued to believe that the US should not have withdrawn from the war. And there were those who believed that the US made mistakes regarding Vietnam early in the Cold War. They believed that US support for the French there was a mistake and that the US getting involved with its won troops and more of its treasure were added mistakes, and that no amount of additional blood and treasure would have erased those mistakes.

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Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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