On April 30, 2015, the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Robert F. Turner published an op ed piece in The Wall Street Journal that purports to dispel myths about the war, but instead perpetuates myths, ignores quite a bit of history, and endorses a relatively recent claim that the Vietnam War was not really a war we lost, but a successful battle within a larger Cold War.
Turner should know better, if not from his own experience then from whatever preparation he has done to teach about the war at the University of Virginia, although the op ed piece suggests that he is more polemicist than scholar. I hope that he conducts his seminars with more scholarly humility and openness to nuance, alternative opinion, and complexity than this op ed demonstrates.
Invasion or civil war?
Turner writes that the United States engaged in the war because by ratifying the UN Charter and creating SEATO, we pledged to oppose armed international aggression.
The UN Charter does not authorize, let alone require, individual nations to send armies when they think an act of aggression has occurred. Law school professors know this, but they don’t have to mention in op ed pieces.
The Robert F. Turner Doctrine
Thank goodness Robert Turner has never been president, if he thinks America has pledged to send troops to oppose every instance of international aggression. We would be at war with Russia over Crimea and over Ukraine, in addition to our current wars and other military operations.
According to this implicit Robert F. Turner Doctrine, the United States would have had to enter every war in the Middle East after 1945, fighting for Israel in most of those wars, but fighting against Israel when it invaded Lebanon. We would have fought with Iran against the 1980 Iraq invasion, rather than covertly helping Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fight Iran, as we actually did.
The Vietnam War did not start with international aggression
Well, it wasn’t international once the French left. For the Vietnam War to be a case of international aggression, one would have to believe that what we called North Vietnam and South Vietnam were separate, sovereign countries. But they were not. North Vietnam fought its war to reunify one country, not to annex a second country.
Similarly, some ardent nationalists in the south wanted to reunify the country by invading and conquering the north, which was not a practical possibility but is more evidence against seeing North Vietnam and South Vietnam as separate countries.
Was sending men and material into the south aggression? Yes, of course, as were the covert missions the US sponsored against North Vietnam.
I do not agree with Oliver Stone’s and Marilyn Young’s thesis that the United States “invaded” Vietnam. I assume that most people in Washington at the time sincerely thought of South Vietnam as a separate country with every right to invite our support. Washington supported South Vietnam’s de facto secession, having less devotion to national cohesion than it does in Ukraine now, or did in America in 1861.
But knowing what we know now, North Vietnam initiated a civil war, it did not invade a separate country. Well, yes, true, North Vietnam and the United States did send troops into Laos and Cambodia, and the US bombed both countries, which probably qualifies as international aggression.
The reunification that never happened
To believe that there were two separate nations, one must ignore the fact that the division into two entities was meant to be a temporary separation of military forces pending a unification election in 1956. Robert F. Turner ignores that fact.
Hanoi expected to win that election. According to Dwight Eisenhower, the CIA reported that Ho Chi Minh would sweep to victory had the election been allowed, even without rigging.
Why allow an election you will lose?
Apparently not even a cabal of Karl Rove, Kathleen Harris, Diebolt, and the United States Supreme Court could have prevented that victory by communists.
So the US did not allow that election to happen, as surely Turner knows, choosing instead to back Emperor Bao Dai and then Ngo Dinh Diem in the south. How ironic, then, that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution proclaims that the forthcoming US military operations in Southeast Asia were exclusively about assuring self-determination.
How the communists responded
From Hanoi’s point of view, their costly victory over the French colonialist occupiers should have meant that Viet Nam would be run by Vietnamese, namely themselves, of course, no opposition allowed. The refusal by the Vietnamese allies of the French in the south to cooperate in such an election meant, to Hanoi, that half of Viet Nam would yet again be subjugated by a foreign power, this time the more robust United States.
Their choices were to accept national division, like that in Korea and in Germany, or to go again to war. Like the Washington government in 1861, they chose war over division.
But they were not in a hurry to fight again, being a poor country — or half country — whose war preparation depended largely on convincing the USSR and China to begin sending military equipment and other support.
I’m sure that depending on foreign powers rankled the North Vietnamese leadership, especially depending on China, long an antagonist. But fighting a US-backed South Vietnam required a lot of help.
Robert Turner does not mention dates
The reunification election did not happen as intended in 1956, and the North began military operations in 1959, arguably in 1960. Thus Hanoi’s decision to send troops south came three years — three years! –after the election was to be held, at a time when the south had already become essentially a client state for the United States, utterly dependent on American aid. For three years it had been obvious that there would be no reunification election, three years during which both sides ruthlessly suppressed internal opposition to solidify their dictatorships.
Did Hanoi act in haste?
Some historians have in fact suggested that North Vietnam reluctantly sent forces south earlier than it thought best because of pressure from communists in the south, who had nearly exhausted their patience awaiting orders from Hanoi to begin armed struggle against the Diem regime. Their patience was running out because of Diem’s repression — they might all be killed or imprisoned before even getting started.
Hanoi, in this interpretation, began infiltrating and fighting earlier than planned out of fear that the southern communists would begin fighting on their own, becoming in actuality the independent movement that both they and Hanoi pretended it was all along.
Hanoi justified its decision to infiltrate troops into the south on the grounds that a puppet regime was once again subordinating Vietnamese interests to those of a foreign power, not that it admitted its infiltration right away, of course. Governments never tell the whole truth.
Robert Turner might not agree with their rationale, but it is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.
Who lost Viet Nam?
In the absurd tradition of demanding to know “who lost China” when Mao triumphed, as if nothing could happen abroad unless Washington somehow allowed it or caused it, Robert Turner writes that South Vietnam lost the war because of two decisive factors, neither happening in Vietnam: the micromanaging “incompetence” of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, and a deluded peace movement that naively accepted Hanoi propaganda.
Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were the commanders-in-chief for the last six war years, but apparently neither was incompetent enough to merit Turner’s criticism, even though the military situation worsened during their presidencies.
If I had to come up with “two decisive factors” they would be about the regimes in Hanoi and Saigon. The United States did not “lose” Viet Nam to the communists. The communists won the war against the regime we backed. Some Vietnamese won the war, and some Vietnamese lost the war.
My own reading of history is that the two primary factors in our losing were (1) the communists were willing to make and demand of others any sacrifice for victory, completely unwilling to give up no matter how long it took, while (2) the corrupt regimes we supported alienated the populace and constructed a military hierarchy with too many officers whose first goal was to prevent or conduct coups, and to accumulate wealth, not to fight the communists.
The peace movement
Turner says that “protesters” forced Congress to stop funding combat operations. His simplistic thinking gives the peace movement far too much credit, although I know that some people in the peace movement are happy to accept that credit. Turner should reread the contemporary statements of Congressional representatives of both parties who declined to keep funding the war, statements which make it clear that everyone knew the war was lost, even the hawks in Congress.
Once peace talks were announced in 1968, quite a few people in the peace movement lost interest in ending the war, just as quite a few military personnel lost interest in fighting and dying in it.
At the Dong Tam base in the Mekong Delta where I was when the peace talks were made known, some guys started packing their duffle bags, expecting to go home the next day. Not being sent home right away did not help their morale and boost their fighting spirit.
And once the draft was ended in 1973, two years before the end of the war, the peace movement actually shrank and lost influence. Quite a few people who had opposed the war while they or someone they loved might get drafted lost interest once the draft was ended, and with it their own stake.
But when a war is lost, what is more appealing than the stabbed-in-the-back thesis?
Not everyone who opposed the war was a protester
More important than the shrinking peace movement was grim reality, known with far more insider detail by Washington than by protesters.
Turner chooses to ignore the blunt truth that more and more establishment figures in Washington and the military came to understand that the war was a mistake, the war could not be won, the war was degrading our military, the war was draining our treasury, and the war was damaging our national image and influence.
Sounds a lot like our War on Terror.
An increasing number of significant government and military insiders saw the hopelessness of our South Vietnam ally government (every bit as hopeless, uncooperative and counterproductive as our recent pals Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai).
Insider opposition to sending troops began at least as early as 1963. Anyone who doubts this should reread The Pentagon Papers, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers: A Documentary Collection.
Clark Clifford was Secretary of Defense, not a protester, when he said of 1968 “I was convinced that the military course we were pursuing was not only endless, but hopeless.”
You can’t get more hawkish than Gen. Curtis LeMay, but even he in 1964 opposed sending American ground troops to Vietnam.
Some other Turner spin
Turner says millions lost their lives after the fall of Saigon, but he includes mass Khmer Rouge killings in Cambodia. Perhaps Turner wanted American troops to fight the Khmer Rouge at the same time we were fighting the North Vietnamese, given our “pledge” and the sweeping Congressional authorization in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Ironically, the North Vietnamese eventually ended the Khmer Rouge regime without our help, after we left.
Like Turner I sympathize deeply with the plight of the boat people. The new Vietnamese government was at fault for the conditions that sent so many to sea, and the United States and other countries were at fault for not properly caring for the boat people who survived their time at sea.
Turner says that Ho Chi Minh was not a nationalist, because he was a communist, as if one could not be both. It might be time for Turner to refresh his understanding of why Venn diagrams exist. His simplification is uncomfortably like the idea I recently read that an American “cannot be both a patriot and a Democrat,” or Libertarian, or Independent, or Green.
It is clear to me that Ho Chi Minh was first a patriot and nationalist, committed to ending French imperial control of Viet Nam, no matter how many Vietnamese died in the process. Like George Bush in 2001, but with greater humility, Ho Chi Minh in effect endorsed the ends-justifying-the-means phrase, “Whatever it takes.”
When as a young man Ho Chi Minh looked for political philosophies that could help him free his country from France, the only strong condemnation of imperialism he found was in Lenin’s writing. The only country loudly claiming to oppose western occupation and exploitation of colonies like Vietnam was the USSR.
Did official North Vietnamese proclamations praise a communist China? Of course, as political expedience, since China was providing essential military support. Turner ignores the hundreds of years of deep enmity between China and Viet Nam, including the border war they fought in 1979. Their current conflict over the Spratly Islands is just the latest in a thousand years of antagonisms between Viet Nam and China.
Turner also ignores the ambiguities and conflicting opinions about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, including the erroneous reports sent to Washington by the Navy in the initial confusion, and the fact that the American ships were supporting covert action against North Vietnam at the time of the incident.
Two Turner myths
Turner wants his readers to believe two myths that serve his call for less opposition to a president’s sending our troops here and there.
He says that “Congress snatched defeat from jaws of victory,” as if there had been any hope of a South Vietnamese victory. There was none. He is quiet about the role of Republican legislators and a Republican president in the vanishing support for the war.
Then he says that the war “bought time for Thailand and Indonesia,” preventing the dominoes from falling. That claim fits the neoconservatives’ revisionist idea that the Vietnam War was not a war, actually, but a battle within a war (the Cold War). So we didn’t lose a war after all, sort of.
Many Vietnam War veterans find it shameful to think that we were the first Americans to lose a war, and that some of our comrades sacrificed their lives in a lost and unnecessary war. Perhaps Turner is one of those veterans who is more comfortable with a revisionist interpretation that denies that the lost war was actually a lost war.
McNamara finally figured it out and Turner should pay attention
Anyone interested in the lessons of the Viet Nam War should carefully read what Robert McNamara identified in his In Retrospect (1995) as causing the failure of our intervention. It wasn’t protesters.
Richard Turner’s reason for wanting us to believe his myths
Turner says he wants to counteract “a reflexive hostility . . . to the use of U.S. military power anywhere in the world” that he says weakens America.
“Anywhere in the world?” Only a very small portion of the population is opposed to any military involvement abroad, period, but Turner‘s argument seems more reasonable if the only alternative is a straw-man extreme position.
“Reflexive hostility?” I’d say it is a reflective, not reflexive, belief that some wars are necessary and others are not, and we should think about this before deciding on war.
Many Americans probably have a prudent, common sense, quiet hostility to their government’s starting unnecessary, costly, counter-productive wars, especially when started with no definition of victory, no exit strategy, no plans for the day after victory or defeat, no sense of history and cultural complexity, no respect for inconvenient intelligence, and no awareness of the law of unintended consequences.
That is how Japan went to war against the US and allies in December, 1941, and it is not a model to be emulated.
I would like to read Robert Turner’s explanation of our fine victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his explanation for their aftermaths — the Sunni uprising, the dispersion of al-Qaeda to several nations on several continents, the creation of ISIS, the reprisal terror attacks in the west by lone-wolf self-styled jihadists, the crippling sectarian division of Iraq, Iran’s increased influence in Iraq, our many wounded veterans, the record-setting poppy crops in Afghanistan, and the $3-$6 trillion ultimate cost with its side-effect sequestration limitations on rebuilding our military.
Richard Turner wants Americans to be more happy about military operations “all over the world,” as if we and our elected careerists in Congress have not already abandoned war-making decisions to an imperial president of either party.
The anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War should remind us instead that America should never embark on a war that is not both necessary and legal. And when have we seen one of those wars recently?