Why the bastards wouldn’t stand and fight

Murray Sayle

  • China and the Vietnam Wars 1950-75 by Qiang Zhai
    North Carolina, 304 pp, US $49.95, April 2000, ISBN 0 8078 4842 5
  • None so Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam by George Allen
    Ivan Dee, 296 pp, US $27.50, October 2001, ISBN 1 56663 387 7
  • No Peace, No Honour: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam by Larry Berman
    Free Press, 334 pp, US $27.50, November 2001, ISBN 0 684 84968 2

A spectre is haunting America: the spectre of anti-Communism. In a word, Vietnam. Only three weeks into the bombing war in Afghanistan, the dreaded word ‘quagmire’ headed a New York Times piece by the Vietnam-era commentator R.W. Apple Jr, pointing out the ‘many echoes’ between the new conflict and the war America tries hard to forget. A rash of articles erupted, explaining how different they really were: Vietnam hot and green, Afghanistan cold and arid, the Taliban had no nearby sanctuary like China or North Vietnam, militant Islam lacks the patriotic strand in revolutionary Marxism, and so on. That Vietnam ended long ago does not explain these hasty disclaimers: World War Two, now recalled with treacly nostalgia, ended even further back. But it ended in a blaze of pure glory: the enemy governments either collapsed or signed a dictated peace, so all the sacrifices had been worthwhile. The end in Vietnam was more enigmatic. Either the world’s strongest military and economic power was defeated by a Third World country with less than a fifth of America’s population – a military miracle – or, even more shameful, the US abandoned a small ally it had solemnly sworn to defend. ‘If we are driven from the field in Vietnam,’ President Johnson had pledged in July 1965, ‘then no nation can ever have the same confidence in American promises or American protection. We will stand in Vietnam.’ Uncomfortable precedents indeed for America’s allies in a new open-ended crusade against another ill-defined conspiracy, whose tentacles reach into the United States itself: the selective war on global terrorism.

What really happened in Vietnam? Despite more than a thousand books and endless finger-pointing and breast-beating by the major American participants, no satisfactory account of what transpired there has yet appeared. Missing pieces of the puzzle, long hidden in the US archives, are now being declassified. Even more to the point, the key role of Mao’s China in arming and guiding the thirty-year struggle has only now been clarified by the researches of Qiang Zhai, a China-born American scholar, in the archives of provincial branches of the Chinese Communist Party. Taken together, they tell us what we need to know. Afghanistan is the son of Vietnam, a half-brother for Desert Storm, the grandson of Korea. America’s first three major appearances in its unsought and still unaccustomed role of global superpower show a strong family resemblance. ‘History,’ as Mark Twain noted, ‘doesn’t often repeat itself; but it rhymes.’

I first saw Vietnam in November 1966, on assignment from the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times. I arrived in Saigon with a letter from my editor I could easily have written myself, and a hazy idea of what to expect of this astonishing war. ‘It’s not as unfair as you think,’ advised an experienced French colleague. Accreditation took a few minutes from South Vietnam and, separately, from the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, whose boss, General William Westmoreland, had the Shakespearean sounding title of COMUSMACV. (In the flesh, Westy came over more as a hard-driving business executive.) On one busy day in the flourishing Saigon black market I bought an American fatigue uniform, boots, jungle hat and pistol belt (but no pistol), stocked up on anti-malaria tablets, and mastered the basic vocabulary of the war: ‘in country’ as opposed to ‘The World’; ‘VC’, ‘Charlie’, or even, respectfully, ‘Sir Charles’, as stubbornly opposed to ‘friendlies’, subdivided into US, ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and ‘Free World’ – South Koreans, Thais, Filipinos, Australians, New Zealanders and, keeping low profiles somewhere, 30 each from Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan and Franco’s Spain. All risked being ‘greased’, ‘wasted’ or ‘zapped’ (including us – 68 journalists were to die in Indochina before 1975), failing which, as their one-year tours ended, they became ‘short timers’, considered the unluckiest stage, before boarding the Freedom Bird for The World and home. Charlie, in contrast, was in for the duration. That same afternoon I booked at the military section of Tan Son Nhut airport, Aerial Port Nine, for the ominously named War Zone C, where Attleboro, the war’s biggest operation to date, was under way. In those naive days the propaganda pay-off from names like Enduring Freedom was unknown, or spurned as unmilitary: Attleboro is a quiet town in Massachusetts.

Sharp at 6 a.m. I was airborne for War Zone C (‘no shows’, it was said, were listed on a giant computer in Washington and never flew by US Army helicopter again), following the winding Saigon River. Twenty minutes later door gunners on either side cocked their weapons as our helicopter dived to just above treetop height. I glimpsed scrub, dug-up dirt roads, palm-thatched huts, fleeing chickens – the First World overflying the Third. The door gunners opened up, hammering away at I knew not what. As far as I could tell, on that occasion anyway, no one fired back. The colonel in the seat beside me twisted round to yell in my ear: ‘Been in the Zone before, son? No? Well, you’re in it now!’ We landed in a clearing where scores of Vietnamese villagers squatted listlessly, waiting for something to happen. More kept arriving in businesslike twin-rotor Chinook helicopters clutching babies, cooking pots and bundles of belongings. Other helicopters brought grey, mud-spattered water buffaloes, which were led to wallows the size of swimming-pools being excavated near the riverbank by American soldiers with bulldozers. Both people and livestock were coming, I was told, from a village called Ben Suc, a long-time VC stronghold which had just been taken by the US 1st/26th Infantry, airlifted into action in sixty helicopters. The people were leaving because their village was to be burned down.

The day passed in a blur, jump-cutting from scene to scene. I watched armoured bulldozers, ‘Rome Ploughs’, rooting up neat vegetable gardens. The name, I guessed, must be a reference to Carthage; later I learned they were made in Rome, Georgia. Ignorant in those distant days about booby-traps, I wandered into a deserted hut with a trench, perhaps a foot deep, dug under a rickety bamboo bed. A rifle pit? Hardly, given its position – more likely a simple bomb shelter for the owner and his family. On the beaten earth floor was a sickle for harvesting rice, its handle work-polished and shiny. I was pondering the family’s political views when a First Division corporal came by, motioned me out, sloshed gasoline from an olive-drab jerrican on the house and lit it with a Zippo cigarette lighter. (Hence, ‘zippo raids’.) I watched, open-mouthed, as combat engineers clambered down rope ladders from helicopters hovering over thick scrub, felled the trees with chainsaws, and in a few minutes cleared a serviceable landing zone. (The 7.5-ton BLU-82 cluster bombs, just coming in, risked no US casualties. Nicknamed ‘daisy-cutters’ in Vietnam, they cut down trees; later, in treeless Afghanistan, Afghans.) The US engineers, tall and trim, really looked like ‘freedom’s athletes’, as Walt Whitman called their Civil War forebears, an army of film stars. Other American soldiers were clambering, pistol in one fist, flashlight in the other, into sinister-looking tunnels uncovered by the bulldozers. More tunnels, apparently empty, were being filled with some explosive or poisonous gas from portable generators and blown up, leaving hollows zigzagging over the broken ground.

Here and there were captured enemy, or ‘suspects’ at least, wiry young men in sandals and shabby black work-clothes (or uniforms?), some wounded and bandaged, others sullenly unhurt, their arms tied tightly behind their backs. The ones I saw were being guarded, not by Americans, but by brown-skinned ARVN soldiers, men of their own size and race, incongruous in alien boots and uniforms. From one of these groups an American officer, recognising me as a correspondent (I had a camera, a bush hat and carried no weapon), introduced himself as an adviser and said: ‘Don’t forget to write about the ARVN! It’s their war, too!’ I said I would, and indeed did, prophetically: ‘It is on these little men in their oversize American helmets that the future of South Vietnam will ultimately depend.’ As a battle, Attleboro was more of a hunt than a fight; but it seemed to be going according to plan.

After a dizzying day I spent the night with the headquarters company of the First Engineer Battalion of the First Division, US Army. It was, I suppose, inevitable that I should fall in with engineers; they were literally leaving their mark on Vietnam, carving out in the Zone forest the shape (visible only from the air, by friendlies) of a gigantic ‘1’, the insignia of the division, with a crenellated castle, the badge of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Deep in the Zone, the engineers had made themselves a perimeter with barbed wire and, every few feet, Claymore mines marked with war’s mindless simplifications: ‘This Side towards Enemy’ and, on the back, ‘This Side towards Friendly’. I thought of the marching camps set up every night by the Roman legions but, where the eagles would have stood guard, the Stars and Stripes and the battalion standard flew instead. Embroidered in red and gold, the standard bore, like War Zone C itself, the crest of the First Engineers. From its staff dangled a skein of campaign streamers, blue and grey, with names like a skirl of fifes: Antietam, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Appomattox. Other ribbons remembered Vera Cruz, Manila, St Mihiel, the Argonne, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy and many more. The battalion dates from 1846 and the campaign which expelled Mexico from Texas, and has been in the thick of every American war since. I was in the presence of history, America’s military elite of elites.

Nearby, in a hospitable half-circle of upturned ammunition boxes, I was invited to join the officers for combat rations, coffee and conversation. We talked of many things: the progress of the war; the current operation, designed to make War Zone C for ever unusable for guerrilla bases against Saigon; a correspondent’s compensation (‘You guys don’t get extra pay for coming out here? You must be nuts!’); why the British were not in Vietnam, why the Australians were; the Barrack Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling (the colonel was reading them); and then, with the sudden tropical night and the first mosquitoes, the talk got around, as it usually did, to what the war might be about.

‘Do people out in The World understand what we are doing here?’

‘Frankly, colonel, no.’

‘Munich!’ declaimed the colonel. ‘There’ll be no Munich here, no appeasement. We’ll fight it out as long as it takes!’

The talk took the then familiar lines: the Communist conspiracy directed by Moscow and aiming at world domination, the need to make a stand somewhere. Cattily, I thought to ask what America had done about the first Munich, but refrained. Then and later I noticed how much the reasoning behind the war rested on analogies: hydraulic (‘stemming the Red tide in Asia’, as a US admiral put it); mechanistic (the ‘domino theory’ advanced by President Eisenhower, although there had already been talk of dominoes falling to Hitler in 1938); even gravitational (the ‘generally downward thrust of Asian Communism’ detected by the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies). That Communism was somehow involved in the war was not news, but out of politeness I wrote ‘Munich?’ in my notebook. Already shopworn by 1966, the Munich analogy never dies. It puts Hitler on the other side.

Attleboro produced impressive statistics. In 18 days the engineers and fifteen thousand other friendlies had cleared four square miles of forest, blown up 2500 bunkers and tunnels, evacuated 5987 inhabitants and burned every ‘structure’ standing above ground, for the loss of 72 Americans and 11 ARVN. What had taken the Vietminh and then the Vietcong 20 years to build had been destroyed in ten days, rolled over and pulverised by the Green Machine. Losses inflicted on the North Vietnamese/VC (the non-committal term normally used to avoid rehashing the arguments about who was local VC and who was an infiltrator from North Vietnam, one of the things the war was about) were claimed to be 750 killed, 280 prisoners, 512 VC suspects detained, 540 ‘rallied to the just national cause’ or, less ringingly, drafted on the spot into the ARVN. The American losses were already troubling Washington: more than 8400 Americans had already died when I arrived in 1966; another 11,153 were to die the next year; eventually, more than 57,000 were to be wasted.

I saw Americans making war as they do better than anyone: another March through Georgia, war as negative engineering; and that’s what I wrote. But I had also glimpsed another, much older tradition: war by secret society, ambush and assassination, waged by pledged zealots burrowed among the people and in the earth itself; the resistance against interlopers, Chinese, French and now American, that had gone on in Vietnam for a thousand years, and would go on for many more, with the agonies of treason and betrayal, loyalty and revenge familiar from the history of any small nationality that has somehow survived next to a powerful neighbour. Much older, in fact, than any Munich.

At the end of a baffling few days I took the puzzled journalist’s way out and described what I had seen, without comment. My private opinions were those of most reporters new to Vietnam: this was like no war we had ever covered, or even read about – if it was war at all, and not an armed demolition job. But I shared the perceptions of the time: there must be some higher intelligence, some plan directing all the furious energy; and, even if the design was less than perfect, the plan must succeed, so great was the gap between the visible might of the United States and the puny potential of the all but invisible guerrillas. In the long haul, both these perceptions were to prove wrong.

It has always been hard to see in the colourless Ho Chi Minh and his bookish general Vo Nguyen Giap the towering military geniuses of their reputations, but there is no doubt about their patriotism. The third child of a civil servant in Hanoi who was dismissed for his nationalist views, Ho inherited his father’s dislike of French colonial rule and in 1911, aged 21, worked his passage to Britain and a job in the kitchen of the Carlton Club, devoting his spare time to independence struggles, Ireland’s included. As a laundryman in Paris in 1920, he co-founded the French Communist Party, and in 1923 went as its delegate to the Communist International in Moscow. In late 1924 he was sent to the Comintern headquarters for Asia in Canton. In and out of Chinese and British jails, he steadily built up a corps of like-minded Vietnamese, one a history teacher fascinated by Napoleon, Vo Nguyen Giap. In May 1941 at Chingshi in South China they founded the League for the Independence of Vietnam, Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or for short, Vietminh. (Vietcong, ‘Vietnamese Communist’, was a dismissive label invented in Saigon that the VC themselves never used.) On 25 August 1945, in the confusion after the defeat of Japan, Ho and his group proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or DRV, in a mountain village between Hanoi and the Chinese border. Sporadic fighting soon broke out with the returning French, who, time-warped in 1940, still saw their empire as the mark of a great power, an opinion shared by the French Communist Party. Ho’s isolated DRV remnant had few friends.

Here Zhai makes the first of many illuminating disclosures. In China’s civil war – between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists – Moscow, rejecting Mao’s rural-based revolution as an un-Marxist heresy, had backed Chiang, to whom Stalin turned over the weapons left by the defeated Japanese fleeing Manchuria. In 1946, some units of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army, hard-pressed by Chiang’s troops, took temporary refuge in Kim Il Sung’s newly independent North Korea, and in the same year, when Communist forces in Southern China were hunted by Chiang Kai-shek’s 46th and 64th Armies, Mao asked the Vietminh to let his beleaguered First Regiment cross into the nearby Vietminh-held enclave, to relative safety. Ho Chi Minh complied, giving the Chinese sanctuary, food and medicine. In return the PLA supplied training, advisers and even unit commanders to the still amateurish Vietminh forces. This aid continued and burgeoned until 1949, when the newly established People’s Republic of China finally arrived on the Vietnamese border. Mao sent the DRV a Chinese military advisory group of 281 officers selected from the PLA’s Field Armies. The Chinese even set up a military academy in Yunnan specifically to train Vietminh officers and NCOs in Mao’s new methods of revolutionary war.

China’s decisive interventions in the subsequent Korean and Vietnam Wars may, Zhai thinks, have been partly inspired by ‘revolutionary solidarity’, honour among Marxists (Mao had an intermittent streak of sentimentality), but more important was the Chairman’s world-view, which shapes East Asia even now. For Mao, as for many Marxists, the Other that opposed his movement was Imperialism, seen not as a set of fractious nations with conflicts of their own, but as a conspiracy of monsters in human form that derived its power from the corrupt and unjust world order that had humiliated Mother China. Believing that he had unlocked the secrets of peasant revolution, Mao equated China’s security and future prosperity at home with the development of similar anti-imperialist insurgencies and social revolutions abroad. Since the United States, after the victory of 1945 the world’s dominant naval, nuclear, economic and therefore cultural power, had (unavailingly) backed Chiang Kai-shek, it was self-evidently the heart of the imperialist conspiracy, the ‘Great Shaitan’ (the Tempter) in the terminology of later zealots – a thesis confirmed for Mao in the autumn of 1950, when General Douglas MacArthur, at the head of a mostly American army, invaded North Korea, proclaiming his intention of destroying the regime of Mao’s friend-in-need, Kim Il Sung. After a clear warning Mao threw 300,000 PLA into the Korean fighting, out-generalled and routed MacArthur, and drove his shattered American armies back to the South, where after more hard combat the front stabilised roughly on the line that separates the two Koreas to this day. The defeat cost MacArthur his command, and Mao half a million dead, including one of his sons. Thereafter, his advisers and combat troops already in the northern regions of Vietnam openly wore PLA uniforms, signalling Mao’s intention of intervening there, too, if the ‘imperialists’ came too close to China’s southern border.

Mao’s Manichaean world vision soon generated its Hegelian antithesis, the Communist World Conspiracy. In the fearful (from an American viewpoint) summer of 1950, with the nuclear-armed Soviets hostile, China ‘lost’ and India neutral, the only reliable toehold left to the US on the Asian mainland was the port of Pusan in South Korea, then besieged by North Korea. The Allied victory of 1945 had brought the surprised US to Britain’s position of a half-century earlier – the offshore island controlling the seas and commerce of the world, and thus, too, the thankless role of lightning-rod for all who dislike the world the way it is. But Britain is only offshore from Europe, and British security thus required no more than keeping Europeans divided among themselves: only would-be unifiers of Europe like Napoleon, Kaiser Bill and Hitler had to be resisted. North America is (well) offshore from the Euro-Asian landmass – Halford Mackinder’s ‘World Island’ – and America’s long-term security therefore requires keeping the World Island, its only possible adversary, divided into mutually hostile camps. Holding the western end after 1949 was Nato, a role it still maintains; but further east things looked grim. Non-negotiable geography makes China the natural Asian ally of the United States against Russia, another perpetual lure being China’s one-fifth of humanity as potential customers. But China had fallen to Communism in 1949, the year the Soviet Union broke America’s nuclear monopoly, and the following year (and partly as a consequence) Kim Il Sung had invaded South Korea. At that grim moment only a handful of British, French and Italians (Germany was still disarmed), back-stopped by America, stood, it seemed, between the legions of Moscow and the dominion of the world.

Americans are readily alarmed, sometimes even panicked. John Foster Dulles, who worked for Truman and then became Secretary of State to Eisenhower, with a single-mindedness matching Mao’s lashed together a ring-fence around China, designed to contain the eastern end of the presumed Sino-Soviet monolith as Nato contained the western end. The components of this substitute China were South Korea, Japan in the lucrative rear-support role it still enjoys (Korea was ‘a gift from the gods’, the Japanese PM Shigeru Yoshida said), the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, involved according to the terms of a treaty intended to contain Japan, and whatever might emerge from the leisurely war the French were waging against Ho Chi Minh’s DRV. The clash of these rival world visions, each unwilling, after Korea, either to coexist or fight the other directly, gave Vietnam a quarter-century of war – and, incidentally, explained our nagging suspicion in Saigon that the real battle was far away from Vietnam’s desolated, defoliated, Rome-ploughed fields.

Sharing Mao’s view of Vietnam’s new geopolitical importance, the US in its year of disaster, 1950, sent two officers to Saigon to inspect the French war against the Vietminh. Schooled by Mao’s advisers, the Vietminh had built a three-tier army: peasant part-timers, guerrillas by night and farmers by day; stronger, more mobile units able to attack French outposts; and a ‘main force’ of trained regulars, never to be committed until victory was guaranteed, which it rarely was, by superior numbers and a favourable tactical situation. This structure gave the Vietminh effective control of the countryside, especially by night, and forced the French to disperse their troops to guard roads, bridges and the outskirts of cities, which might never be attacked. Pursued, the Vietminh donned farmers’ clothes, if not already wearing them, and melted into areas like War Zone C, which had been anti-French at least since the 1930s, the result of inflexible taxation by Paris of farmers ruined by the Great Depression. Loath to send conscripts to a distant colonial war, the French held the cities with a scratch collection of Algerians, Senegalese, Tunisians and Foreign Legionnaires – mostly Germans – supplemented by Indochinese volunteers, all under French regular officers. The French did not fight for ‘victory’ over the Vietminh; they sought a military posture from which to negotiate an ‘honourable settlement’ to include Vietnam’s continued membership of the French Union, a pale copy of the British Commonwealth which has since faded into history. The Vietminh, armed with weapons captured from the French and homemade substitutes, had no chance of taking the cities, or the French of pacifying the countryside. Result: strategic stalemate.

Americans are impatient people, intolerant of stalemates. But Napoleon’s heirs were not about to take lessons from Davy Crockett’s, so the counterpart of the Chinese advisers with the Vietminh was a US Military Assistance Advisory Group in Saigon, its role restricted to supplying the French with arms and ever-increasing subsidies (by 1954 the US was paying for 80 per cent of the French war). Inevitably, American agents, posing as aid workers and agricultural experts, arrived to lead the building of a notional new anti-Communist nation. Documentation of these murky activities is predictably scarce, but we have Graham Greene’s fictional account, The Quiet American, originally published in 1955, the insights in which still bite. Greene’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who smokes opium, keeps a teenage Vietnamese mistress named Phuong and sounds like Greene himself, is befriended by Alden Pyle, a quiet young American who is trying to build a Third Force, neither Communist nor colonialist, around an opportunistic rogue named General Thé, following the blueprint of York Harding, a vicious caricature of a pompous American academic with a naive theory. Like his wartime boss, Kim Philby, Greene was both fascinated and irritated by America, an ambivalence that envenoms his portrait of Pyle. ‘He had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world,’ Fowler recalls. ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’ Fowler, who sympathises with the French, nevertheless betrays Pyle to the Vietminh, and thus regains the affections of the innocently mercenary Phuong, but their relationship is poisoned by guilt over the death of Pyle whom, despite everything, Fowler considers a friend. I used to reread Greene every time I went to Saigon and his book is still the best about America in Vietnam, and its miscalculations.

Now, however, we have some documentation on America’s semi-clandestine role in what was supposed to be a French war from an impeccable source – the CIA. George Allen worked on Indochina from 1949 to 1975, by far the longest involvement of any American, a fly on the wall at the decisions of a quarter-century. Allen is a real-life quiet American who saw his job as answering the questions he was asked, without offering policy proposals. Dutiful reticence has galled down the years, and now, via a small publisher, he tells us what he knows. His account, married to Zhai’s researches on the Chinese side, completes the story, beginning with the truth about Dien Bien Phu, the pivotal battle of the French war. It was a Chinese victory and an American defeat, prefiguring much to come.

Compartmentalisation – who is cleared to know what in the Byzantine Washington hierarchy – has produced many American disasters, from Pearl Harbor on, with Vietnam no exception. That the Chinese were training and arming the Vietminh was well known to Allen and his CIA colleagues, who had it from A-1 (very reliable) French sources. Mao was just as well informed of French and American plans, passed on by comrades in Paris. Official Washington, however, scoffed at the idea of Chinese involvement. As late as 1952 General Francis Brink, chief of the Saigon advisory group, assured a Washington meeting that he ‘knew the Chinaman just about as well as anybody’ and that he had ‘never known a Chinaman to give anybody anything’. Brink, a fossilised Old China Hand, was not cleared to assess A-1 information, and hinted that the French had made it up to get more US aid.

Dien Bien Phu was not originally intended to win Vietnam for the French, much less lose it. As Allen reported, French enthusiasm for a war to hold their colony waned as the Americans pushed for independence for the anti-Communist Vietnam that would result; for this barren cause, France was losing a class of officers from St Cyr every year. A cartoon in the Figaro had an American in a flashy car ordering ‘Fill ‘er up with French blood!’ General Henri Navarre, on the spot, proposed more pacification of Vietminh strongholds in the South. US General John ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel instead drew up his own plan for a mobile force to attack the Vietminh in the North. With no great enthusiasm Navarre went along with it. Informed of what O’Daniel called the ‘Navarre Plan’ to win the war, Congress approved a further $385 million to pay for it. Part of the Navarre Plan was the occupation of a fortified camp near a market town in the North-West of Vietnam on the road to Laos, from which operations could be mounted against the Vietminh rear. To Navarre this held no risk: Dien Bien Phu is in a broad valley, flat enough for an airstrip, and the French had the advantage of armour, firepower, mobility and air supremacy, the winning combination in a conventional modern war.

This was the blunder which, Zhai tells us, General Wei Guoqing, Chinese ‘adviser’ to the Vietminh, had patiently been waiting for. Giap, the titular Vietnamese commander, wanted to attack the French in the Red River delta, a plan with no hope of success. Wei overruled Giap with the support of Mao himself. The new plan, endorsed by the Chinese Central Military Commission, called on Giap to commit his long-husbanded strategic reserve, the 308th and 316th Vietminh divisions, to an all-or-nothing siege of Dien Bien Phu. The Chinese supplied captured American cannon, light anti-aircraft guns, an army of labourers, a thousand trucks and, most important, the updated 17th-century siege tactics they had perfected in Korea. Navarre believed, correctly, that the Vietminh didn’t have the gunnery skills to lob shells from batteries behind the distant mountains. Instead, Giap adopted a Chinese plan to tunnel through mountain-tops, fire over open sights at the French camp, and then drag the guns back into their tunnels. To cross the open ground around the fortress, the Vietminh dug two hundred miles of trenches, siting anti-aircraft guns in the forward saps, gradually choking the French airstrip and forcing supply drops from ever greater altitudes, which inevitably scattered them among the Vietminh. On the eve of the final attack reinforcements armed with non-recoiling cannon and multi-tube rocket-launchers arrived from China. Dien Bien Phu’s garrison of 12,000 capitulated on 7 May 1954. The following day, an international conference on Indochina opened in Geneva.

While the Geneva talks dawdled, Pierre Mendès-France was elected Prime Minister of France, promising a settlement by 20 July. Meeting privately in Berne, Mendès-France told Mao’s Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, that France was anxious to withdraw but wanted to seem to do so ‘gracefully’. Encouraged by Mendès-France’s deadline, Zhou conferred with Ho Chi Minh in South China and recommended a temporary partition of Vietnam between a Communist North and a non-Communist South, to be agreed ‘without haggling’ by the DRV. North Vietnam, where the Vietminh were strongest, went to Ho’s Communists, while the South was placed under the control of a French-backed regime. According to Zhai, Zhou told Ho that ‘after French withdrawal, the whole of Vietnam will be yours.’ The Geneva Final Declaration of 21 July 1954 called for elections in July 1956, supervised by Canada, India and Poland, to reunite the country. ‘Some people in the DRV (North Vietnam) hoped to reunify the whole of Vietnam at one stroke,’ Zhai notes,

but Ho Chi Minh must have realised that without Chinese and Soviet assistance he could not have defeated the French and achieved the position he now had. He could not afford to resist the pressure of his two Communist allies. On the other hand, the VWP leader [Ho] no doubt had every reason to believe, as did Zhou Enlai and Molotov, that all Vietnam would be his in two years.

Had the promised elections been held, ‘Uncle Ho’, it is generally agreed, would have won against any obscure anti-Communist opponent; no other was likely to be available.

But the Final Declaration, like all the other Geneva documents, went unsigned, and the US and the Republic of Vietnam – the future South Vietnam – declared that they were not bound by it. By the time Ho’s DRV had occupied Hanoi, the French, under American pressure, had appointed Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Roman Catholic, to head the Saigon Government. Once a colonial civil servant, Diem had spent the years of the French war in Washington. To the surprise of the three Communist allies, the aloof Diem managed to establish a functioning government in Saigon, his power base the 150,000 troops and 850,000 civilians, mostly Catholics, brought from the North in US Navy transports – ‘Christ has gone south’ was the reported slogan – plus the urban middle class and the remnants of the French colonial army and administration. Some 90,000 Vietminh sympathisers went north in Soviet-bloc ships, leaving areas long under their control leaderless. Busy consolidating, both halves of Vietnam enjoyed a few years of relative calm, punctured by round-ups of Communists in the South and some trials and executions of small landlords and non-Communists in the North. ‘President Diem’s Democratic One-Man Rule’, was the enthusiastic heading that the Reader’s Digest put on one of its articles.

In January 1959, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Workers’ (Communist) Party authorised the resumption of a ‘people’s war’ in South Vietnam, although it made no specific plans. The following year the Chinese leadership agreed to give their support, essential to any renewal of armed insurgency in the South. In December 1960, at Hanoi’s direction, Southern opponents of Diem, led by Communists but including other dissidents, launched the clandestine National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF). China immediately recognised it. Twenty years of war for, as Ho saw it, national unification, and, as Mao saw it, against US-led imperialism, had resumed after an uneasy lull. Why did it last so long, and end as it did? The explanations, Zhai argues, are to be found in the competing claims of Moscow and Beijing to be the only authentic heirs of Marx and Lenin.

All revolutions have historically faced crisis as the generation that made the revolution passes from the scene, leaving its successors to deliver the fruits, if any. This happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev came to power, preaching ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the US-led West and a switch of domestic priorities away from heavy industry to private consumption. Mao, the dedicated first-generation revolutionary, would have none of it. Around this time he launched the Great Leap Forward, an attempt at using the mass-mobilisation methods of his revolutionary past to generate economic growth with backyard steel furnaces, dams built with shovels and baskets, and similar romantic projects. Guerrilla economics have failed in Cuba, in North Korea down to the present day, and most notably in China itself, where some twenty to thirty million died in the resulting Mao-made famine. Balanced economic progress, we are slowly learning, calls for a modicum of democracy and market feedback, so that the output of producers can be matched to the needs and preferences of consumers. But revolutionaries get their legitimacy from victory, not votes. Fuming at Khrushchev’s ‘betrayal’ of Marx, Mao sought to stop China falling away from the faith. By the mid-1960s he was ready to launch the Cultural Revolution, a bid to block bureaucratic backsliding for ever by smashing the Chinese Communist Party itself. His weapons would be mass-mobilised young farmers and students, the homicidal Red Guards. ‘The countryside of the world surrounds the cities,’ Mao taught: the Cultural Revolution emerged from this view of the world, and the Soviet Union was one of the world’s cities. Near to hand was a shining exemplar of Mao’s rural revolution, the NLF’s renewed guerrilla war in South Vietnam.

Meanwhile President Diem’s one-man democratic rule was in trouble. Led by remnants of the Vietminh, the NLF had effectively taken over rural South Vietnam, using the simple weapons of ‘people’s war’: ‘punji pits’ with excrement-smeared, boot-piercing bamboo stakes; ‘piano-keyed’ roads laboriously sabotaged with alternating holes and hillocks, impossible to repair; and the murder of hostile village officials. This style of war requires only minimal weapons, and the NLF made do with sporting rifles, homemade grenades and American small arms captured from Government troops, with modest Chinese supplements. It was (and still is) a difficult style of war to report, but Americans at home were starting to ask what was going on in Vietnam, after a Buddhist bonze, protesting against Diem’s persecution of his religion, set himself on fire in Saigon, an incident dismissed by Diem’s acidulous sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, as ‘barbecued monk’. In one of his last decisions John Kennedy assented to a coup to overthrow Diem, although there is no evidence that he foresaw the murder of Diem and his relatives. Diem was killed on 2 November 1963. On 22 November Kennedy himself was assassinated. He had spoken of withdrawing from Vietnam, but there is no hard evidence that he planned to do so. At JFK’s death there were 16,000 Americans ‘in country’.

‘If it was impossible to win with Diem, it was impossible to win without him,’ Allen notes sourly. No democrat, Diem at least had credentials as a nationalist. His successor, General Duong Van (‘Big’) Minh, lasted 12 weeks. Twenty changes of government followed, before one of the original plotters, Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu, stabilised the Saigon regime with himself as President. In the confusion the NLF, in a replay of the French war, edged ever closer to the cities. Lyndon Johnson, sharing Kennedy’s simplistic view of Asian history, and fearing that he might betray Kennedy’s legacy by ‘losing’ Vietnam as the Democratic Party had supposedly also ‘lost’ China, immediately began sending more US troops to Vietnam, hoping to force a peace acceptable enough to be passed off as the elusive ‘victory’.

Ever since America’s own civil war a fault has been opening in its system of government, steadily through the last century, faster in recent months. Recognising the dangers of uncontrolled war, the US Constitution gives the power to make war to Congress, but the Founding Fathers had in mind the formally declared wars of the 18th century. The Fathers also made the President the US Commander-in-Chief, and this, combined with the claimed need for secrecy, unwittingly empowered Presidents to bypass Congress and conduct war, declared or undeclared as they chose, often for domestic political ends. The most startling case pre-Vietnam was the atomic bomb, about which Congress knew nothing until Harry Truman decided to use it without Congressional approval. Lyndon Johnson, eager to force a favourable settlement in Vietnam, stretched the principle even further, which in turn has cleared the way for George W. Bush to widen the constitutional gap opened for him. The problem is not new. The Senate of ancient Rome, another republic with imperial entanglements, entrusted war-making to a commander-in-chief, the imperator or emperor, whose office became all-powerful, hereditary, and its holder a living god.

Intervening in what was still largely a civil war, Lyndon Johnson had no clear enemy to declare war on, and no desire to do so. An opportunistic way out surfaced in the summer of 1964. On 31 July, just after midnight, four South Vietnamese gunboats raced out of the sea-mist and lobbed shells at two small islands, Hon Me and Hon Nieu, off the shore of North Vietnam at the southern lip of the Gulf of Tonkin. This covert harassment, code-named 34-A, had been going on for six months. On 2 August, the destroyer USS Maddox, quietly gathering intelligence, came over the horizon. Assuming some connection – actually, there was none – three North Korean torpedo boats, coming out to investigate, exchanged fire with Maddox. One boat was sunk and both sides withdrew. On 4 August, another attack, never substantiated, was supposedly made on Maddox and a sister-ship, USS Turner Joy, in a fierce storm. On 5 August, 64 US Navy aircraft bombed Vinh, north of the demarcation line between the two Vietnams – the first of eight years of increasingly heavy raids.

On 7 August, the US Congress passed by 504-2 a resolution authorising Johnson to take ‘all necessary measures’ to ‘repel any armed attack’ against US forces in South-East Asia – in effect, a blank cheque to wage war. ‘We believed that with a show of strength’ the South Vietnamese would win the war, Senator William Fulbright later recalled, ‘and that was the way it was sold to us – it was never sold as a declaration of war. Johnson had no background in foreign relations, and I think that Texans – and he especially – had a way of feeling that they could do anything. He believed that with the primitive society the Vietnamese had, they couldn’t possibly prevail against the United States with its unlimited power.’ Johnson, Fulbright said, could not understand the ‘restraints’ that such power demanded: ‘this was much too subtle for Johnson.’ The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was not rescinded until 1970. (The resolution empowering George W. Bush to make war in Afghanistan and elsewhere passed Congress even more overwhelmingly, by 518-1.)

China reacted instantly to the first direct American attack on its North Vietnamese protégé. Mao cancelled a plan to inspect the Yellow River on horseback, telling Wang Dongxing, commander of his bodyguard: ‘war is coming and I have to reconsider my activities.’ Thinking that a Korean-style intervention might be imminent, China put troops on the border with Vietnam on combat readiness, and sent 15 Mig-15 and Mig-17 jet fighters to protect Hanoi, promising to train pilots. A leadership group headed by Luo Ruiqing was set up to rush war supplies to North Vietnam, which in turn enabled Hanoi to equip and send North Vietnamese regulars to stiffen the Vietminh – by now known by the US as ‘Vietcong’ – fighting in the South. Zhai cites figures from Chinese provincial Party sources illustrating Mao’s energetic reaction to Johnson’s escalation of the war: in 1965, China sent the DRV four times as many light automatic weapons as it had the previous year, enough for 15 new divisions, four times as many artillery pieces, five times the number of shells, three times the field telephones, five times the radios. Back in China, Mao launched a huge Third Front project to provide alternative production bases in case America attacked its big cities, possibly with nuclear weapons. His violent response met a counter-response: on 1 March 1965, briefed that South Vietnam was within weeks of collapse, Johnson’s Administration stopped claiming that its air attacks on North Vietnam were reprisals for specific Communist assaults on Americans in South Vietnam – ‘little Alamos’, Johnson called them – and began the continuous bombing of military targets in the DRV. A week later, two battalions of US Marines landed in Danang in northern South Vietnam, TV cameras whirring. Two stubborn men, equally ignorant about the outside world, were locked in combat, not with each other, but with ogres of their own invention. Even as the allies of Mao’s demonised imperialism grew increasingly restive about ‘Johnson’s war’, with arch-imperialist Britain conspicuously refusing to join, the supposed Communist World Conspiracy was visibly disintegrating. Both sides, had they paused to reflect, had already achieved their original, messianic aims.

Johnson’s election strategy for 1964 was to present himself as a frustrated pacifist and his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, as an implacable warmonger. This had some basis in fact: Johnson had inherited ‘that bitch of a war’ and was far more interested in the Great Society, his enlightened domestic programme. He therefore sought a decisive outcome before the next election, due in 1968, but one that would preserve South Vietnam in some form – the one solution unacceptable both to the patriot Ho and the strategist of revolution Mao. ‘Our American people, when we get into a contest of any kind, whether it’s in a war or an election or in a football game, want it decided and decided quickly, and get in or get out,’ he told a TV audience. Westmoreland and Johnson’s Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, devised ‘search and destroy’, the industrial-scale strategy I first saw in War Zone C. The idea was to force the civilian population out of areas sympathetic to the NLF and send them to new locations controlled by Saigon, thus wrecking the insurgents’ vital village infrastructure. Even with a quarter of a million Americans ‘in country’, Westmoreland didn’t have nearly enough troops to prevent the displaced villagers filtering back; hence the Rome-ploughing of crops and, when they grew again, the defoliation and the declaration of ‘free fire zones’ which could be indiscriminately bombed, napalmed or shot up from the air. Even so, the US took casualties: 5008 were killed in 1966. To quantify the relative losses of both sides, the macabre ‘body count’ was begun: 15,000 NLF deaths were supposedly confirmed in the same year by an American ‘boot on the body’. Unaudited, the body counts were predictably padded with civilian deaths: ‘If they’re dead they’re VC,’ a GI once explained to me, with a soldier’s cynicism. But the plan had a fatal flaw. Given a secure base, the guerrilla commander can arrange his battles and retreats to keep his casualties within tolerable limits. ‘Why won’t the bastards stand and fight?’ American officers used to fume, unaware of the basic premise of irregular war: the side that cannot be totally eliminated must sooner or later win. ‘How are we going to get rid of all the Communists here?’ an officer asked me. ‘We can’t even get them out of Berkeley.’

‘Search and destroy’ was Vietnam’s first memorable contribution to television’s new style of war reporting. Real battlefields look empty, as both sides prudently take cover. Most of what is presented as combat footage combines montages of guns being fired with soldiers looking soldierly far from harm’s way. TV crews in Vietnam rarely had the good luck to record an ambush, survive it, and then ship film. Search and destroy, however, was eminently filmable, and just about risk-free. Burning villages and stoic evacuees were soon the dominant images of the war, appalling some viewers, and confirming for others the endless claims by COMUSMACV spokespersons in Saigon of progress made in the war, the ever-receding ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.

But brute force can sometimes succeed, at least temporarily, or no one would use it. Early in 1968 the Hanoi leadership – fearing that Johnson might be re-elected, watching the NLF’s network fast disappearing in the South, and seeing clear signs that Sino-Soviet relations had taken a decisive turn towards rupture, with Mao tilting towards the United States as a potential counterbalance against the Soviets – decided to gamble on an ‘offensive and uprising’ against the cities of South Vietnam: the Tet offensive, which began on 31 January 1968, coinciding with the lunar New Year holiday, which was normally a cease-fire. Some 84,000 guerrillas, mostly Southern Vietcong, sneaked into Danang, Hué and other cities, and for a few hours occupied the grounds of the US Embassy in Saigon. The cities’ defences held, there was no general uprising, and a good half of the attackers were killed or captured. Worse, from the NLF’s viewpoint, its regular units were severely hit and would never fully recover, while its political infrastructure in the towns and countryside broke cover, with heavy losses. In conventional military terms, Tet was a disaster for the NLF.

Tet also mightily displeased Mao, according to Zhai, because it flew in the face of the Maoist doctrine of protracted peasant-based war in favour of the by then rather moth-eaten Marxist identification of the urban proletariat as the bearers of revolution – thus, in Mao’s eyes, ideologically aligning the Vietnamese with the Soviet Union. According to Zhai’s figures, China’s shipments of arms to Vietnam in 1969 were barely half those of 1968, although this was also because warring factions of Red Guards were looting weapons from the trains to conduct internecine battles – another reason for Hanoi to distrust its Chinese ally and look to the Soviet Union. Decisively, only Moscow could supply the sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons needed to defend Hanoi if American bombing intensified.

But Tet, a disaster for Hanoi on the ground, was a stunning psychological victory over the United States – America’s own version of Dien Bien Phu. As Time magazine conceded, Tet ‘was undoubtedly a tour de force: the spectacle of an enemy force dispersed and unseen, everywhere hunted unremittingly, suddenly materialising to strike simultaneously in a hundred places throughout the country’. After Tet, no optimistic forecast from Saigon was ever taken seriously again. For the first time, some cities in South Vietnam itself were bombed, in an attempt to get the interlopers out and Vietnam off the TV news as quickly as possible. In Hué, the ancient capital, five thousand infiltrators shed peasant mufti to reveal North Vietnamese uniforms. The city was shelled and bombed in a month of house-to-house fighting by US Marines, the historic citadel was razed and 5800 civilians killed, either by American bombs or Communist executions. In all, 2500 Americans died and half a million South Vietnamese became refugees.

Two weeks into Tet, Johnson faced his biggest decision. Elated that the enemy had shown his face, Westmoreland wanted 200,000 more men for hot pursuit into Laos and Cambodia, meaning more call-ups of young Americans at home. Johnson vacillated until his new Defence Secretary, Clark Clifford, after consulting retired generals, bureaucrats and other ‘wise men’, advised Johnson that the US could not win at any reasonable cost. On 31 March 1968 Johnson announced that he would limit the air war in North Vietnam, freeze troop levels, and seek a negotiated peace. In May, peace talks opened in Paris. At this point there were 535,000 US troops in Vietnam, only 100,000 of them combat soldiers, and 19,000 had died, less than half the eventual total. The talks went on for another five years, while American casualties steadily mounted, although pitched battles had all but ceased.

Why these losses? In the long years of escalation the US High Command, seeking to keep up morale, had bodily transported a generous slice of America to Vietnam, a First World archipelago set down in a Third World landscape. Hot turkey dinners were flown to the troops, wholesome girl volunteers from home (‘donut dollies’) consoled them with coffee, cookies and Scrabble. An American ran the Saigon Zoo, another the ice-cream barge in the Saigon River supplying 13 flavours, including pistachio. Huge (by Vietnamese standards) quantities of TVs, stereos and air-conditioners were imported, and soon fed a brisk black market. The puritanical Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths recorded this cheerful materialism in his classic Vietnam Inc.* These opulent Little Americas were soon surrounded by bars, brothels and laundries, ample cover for infiltrators with explosives and wire-cutters. For the first time the vulnerability of a high-tech society to suicidal saboteurs was exposed for all the world to see, if only we had looked.

Two who drew the inevitable conclusions were the incoming President, Richard Nixon, elected on a promise of ‘peace with honour’ reminiscent of Mendès-France, and his devious National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger. Both had impeccable anti-Communist credentials, both had travelled widely (Nixon as Pepsi-Cola’s lawyer), and both grasped that there was no Communist monolith needing to be contained. In March 1969 there was heavy fighting on a disputed island in the Ussuri River in Mongolia, where Chinese troops ambushed a Soviet patrol; 400 Sino-Soviet border clashes followed in that year alone. The same year Nixon lifted trade and travel restrictions on China which had been in place since the Korean War. Beijing’s public statements, made by ultra-leftists more Maoist than Mao, still accused the US and the Soviet Union of collaborating to subjugate the world; but, Zhai records, in September 1969 four Chinese marshals advised Mao to unfreeze relations with the US to achieve ‘strategic effects’. Nixon ended the Navy patrols in the Taiwan Strait and announced the withdrawal of 25,000 US combat troops from Vietnam, beginning the ‘Vietnamisation’ of the war, and thus reducing whatever anxiety their presence might still have caused China. Through Pakistan and Romania, Nixon informed Mao that the US was interested in dialogue. While the two powers, despite their ideological blustering, reached for each other’s hands in the dark, Vietnam was drifting into a new and not-so-Cold War between its main Communist backers, China and the Soviet Union. Here the ultra-realist Kissinger saw an opening to gain by diplomacy what the US could not win on the battlefield. The obstacle was the ‘peace with honour’ for which Americans had overwhelmingly voted – as who wouldn’t, if only it had been attainable. In practice this meant an agreement that both the US and the North Vietnamese would sign, and to which the South Vietnamese would assent – for only the little men in oversized American helmets could maintain whatever American honour would be left in Vietnam after the GIs withdrew.

In their first three years the Paris talks produced only demands from both sides for capitulation, disguised by a choice of fig-leaves. The art and artifices of war did not, however, stagnate. It was in Vietnam’s final phase that the future wars of the 21st century began to take shape. The helicopter gunship was developed ‘in country’ by American ingenuity, B-52s first flew in anger, the smart bomb was tested, the cluster bomb and the fuel-air bomb, designed to asphyxiate entrenched enemy troops, given their first trials. Targeted assassination, another feature of modern war, took on high-tech trimmings. Guerrillas have, of course, long gone in for killing suspected opponents, as Irish history attests. In Vietnam the Vietcong lived among the people, often as members of traditional village councils. William Colby, a Saigon hand since 1959 and later chief of the CIA, developed the Phoenix programme to root them out. Shown Polaroid photographs, informers pointed to Communist sympathisers. The squads sent to detain them were South Vietnamese and were led, not by American soldiers, but by civilians designated ‘CIA sub-contractors’ – have-gun-will-travel types who declined to discuss their previous lines of work. Reporters were barred from these expeditions, but as a Phoenix sub-contractor explained to me, ‘we’re not going to take Charlie in without a fight. We aim to shoot first.’ By these methods, US deaths were reduced from 14,592 in 1968 to 9414 in 1969, and fell steadily thereafter. In 1970 the Thieu regime in Saigon staged a bicycle race, unmolested, from the Demilitarised Zone in the north to Ca Mau in the far south. The only way to get US casualties to zero and the war off TV screens, it was clear, was to get US troops out of Vietnam altogether. For this risky concession Thieu had a price, which the US hastened to pay.

On 30 April 1970 American troops led an incursion into the border regions of Cambodia adjoining South Vietnam, the closest barely sixty miles from Saigon. It was no secret that the area had for years been used to regroup Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops and infiltrate military supplies, with the tacit consent of the Cambodian Premier, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. I had seen them there with my own eyes. The Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), said to be located somewhere in this region, was, according to Nixon, ‘the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam’, suggesting to American viewers back home rows of deep bunkers bristling with radio aerials. In fact, we found nothing of the sort. The VC/NVA melted away as our helicopters landed, with hardly a shot fired. Some arms were found, but no infrastructure; the US soldiers I was with imaginatively reported farmers’ barns as ‘enemy rice caches’ and a rustic schoolroom as ‘VC briefing and indoctrination centre’. The Americans withdrew after ten days, the South Vietnamese a few weeks later, whereupon infiltration and arms smuggling directed from ever-moving jungle camps resumed as before. Both Allen and Professor Larry Berman of the University of California, who has minutely reviewed the record, confirm that the US High Command entertained little hope of finding COSVN: the incursion had been undertaken to mollify Thieu and show he had US support. Four days after the incursion, trigger-happy National Guardsmen used live ammunition to disperse a student protest at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four demonstrators, two of them women. The body count had come home. The students had no first-hand knowledge of Vietnam, but a yawning logical hole in Vietnamisation was obvious for anyone to see. If a vital American interest was at stake, why leave it to Vietnamese conscripts to defend? And if there was no vital American interest, why were Americans dying there at all? The following year, 1971, South Vietnamese crossed the border into Laos, hoping to cut the Ho Chi Minh supply trail with only US intelligence, logistical and air support, but again little was achieved (and the innovative British photographer Larry Burrows died in a burning helicopter).

President Nixon was up for re-election at the end of 1972. According to Zhai, the COSVN propaganda chief, Nguyen Van Linh, directed that ‘we must ruin the credibility of Nixon and his protégé Thieu, just as we did for Johnson in 1968 . . . If possible we mean to destroy Nixon’s chances for re-election.’ In late March 1972 North Vietnam launched a direct frontal assault across the DMZ into South Vietnam. At that time only 6000 US combat soldiers remained in Vietnam and none was involved in the ensuing bloodbath, but American air power struck the invaders with the full panoply of new weapons – B-52 strikes, smart bombs, cluster munitions and so on – guided by electronic and aerial intelligence. The South Vietnamese lost 25,000 men, the North Vietnamese 100,000, four-fifths of the attacking force. South Vietnam held, but its northern province, Quang Tri, was lost and never recaptured.

This engagement, the prototype of battles thirty years on, taught military lessons that still hold good. The supply lines of guerrillas cannot be permanently cut by bombing or ground incursions if the guerrilla is determined enough to restore them, meaning that, in suitable terrain, an irregular force can impose perpetual war on a much stronger opponent, and may eventually win; the only reliable way for a First World army to avoid politically risky casualties altogether is to have someone else do the ground fighting, and perform the even riskier garrison duties afterwards; no regular army can concentrate enough force for a successful attack on strong defences, or hold them against ground attack, if its opponent can call on high-tech air power. These principles decided the end-game in Vietnam, and have set the pattern for all America’s subsequent wars, Afghanistan included.

The failed Northern spring offensive of 1972 sharpened Mao’s dilemma. He had recently advised the North Vietnamese to postpone the liberation of South Vietnam, fearing for his developing détente with the Americans. In February 1972 Mao had welcomed Nixon and Kissinger to Beijing. ‘It really is a Great Wall!’ Nixon exclaimed on visiting a nearby tourist attraction. ‘Nixon’s decision to normalise relations with Beijing nullified the hitherto basic rationale of the Vietnam War, namely to contain and isolate Communist China,’ Zhai writes. ‘The new great power triangle of Beijing, Washington and Moscow had replaced the Vietnam War in dominating the international system.’ Fearful that Hanoi might go over to Moscow, thus tightening the new Soviet encirclement of China, Mao stepped up arms shipments to the DRV, including 220 tanks in 1972, another 120 tanks and more than a thousand trucks in 1973. Nevertheless, Hanoi, fearing betrayal by both its Communist backers, grudgingly agreed in October 1972 to a cease-fire in South Vietnam, the return of some four hundred American prisoners, and a role for the US protégé Nguyen Van Thieu in a new interim government in Saigon.

It was Thieu’s turn to dig in his heels. He demanded that all North Vietnamese troops leave South Vietnam when the Americans did, and that Quang Tri province be returned to the South. The Paris talks stalled on what was, in effect, the real question: was South Vietnam to survive? On 7 November, Nixon, campaigning on the assurance that ‘peace was at hand,’ carried 49 of 50 states against George McGovern, who proposed a unilateral American withdrawal conceding victory to Hanoi. On 18 December, B-52s and US Navy fighter-bombers began the most intensive attacks of the whole war on Hanoi, allegedly aimed at military targets, very broadly interpreted. ‘I want the people of Hanoi to hear the bombs,’ Admiral Thomas Moorer ordered. Hanoi responded with surface-to-air defences that were reportedly stronger than Moscow’s. In two weeks of almost non-stop bombing (Christmas Day sentimentally excepted) 15 B-52s were shot down, and 31 surviving airmen joined US POWs in the grimly named ‘Hanoi Hilton’. The aim of the ‘Christmas bombing’ was to convince both Hanoi and Saigon that the US would use massive air power to force, and then to enforce, a peace agreement. Thieu was given a written promise to this effect by Kissinger, with the carrot of more military aid in return for his co-operation. If he refused, he was told, American aid would be cut off. Reluctantly Thieu agreed.

On 23 January 1973 Kissinger and the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, initialled a cease-fire agreement in Paris. More than a billion dollars of US military aid was rushed to Saigon before the cut-off date, 12 weeks away; no North Vietnamese left South Vietnam. Nixon hailed ‘peace with honour’. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which Duc refused. The last days before the cease-fire saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war, as both sides jockeyed for future advantage. Don Kirk of the Chicago Tribune and I were shelled in the cemetery of a village that had declared for the VC, by South Vietnamese who knew perfectly well who we were: the Western press was being blamed for the American sell-out. On 1 April 1973 the last American POWs were released and the formal US military presence in Vietnam ended, after 13 years. Some of the bloodiest battles lay ahead, but Americans back home had lost interest: they saw only Vietnamese fighting other Vietnamese, in a private quarrel no longer important to the United States.

Richard Nixon, in particular, was trapped in a different quagmire, one of his own making: Watergate, or Machiavelli Meets Monty Python. Suspecting that the anti-war movement and even the Left of the Democratic Party were riddled with Communists, Nixon ordered a comic-opera cast of unworldly fantasists, the White House Plumbers Unit, to search for leaks. But the Plumbers were caught breaking into Democratic campaign headquarters in a Washington hotel, the Watergate. An earlier break-in at the office of the psychoanalyst treating Daniel Ellsberg – who had leaked a Pentagon-ordered study of the war – for an attack of writer’s block, found only that Lewis Fielding was a strict Freudian who took no notes on his patients’ activities after the age of five. Nixon finally resigned on 9 August 1974 in order to avoid impeachment, the first American President to do so. A month later his chosen successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him, in a coy phrase, for ‘any crimes he may have committed’ in office. By rescinding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1970, Congress had reclaimed from the White House the control of warlike activities, which after the ‘peace’ of 1973 it would no longer authorise. America was out of Vietnam for good.

Meanwhile the North Vietnamese profited from the turmoil in Washington and restored the Ho Chi Minh trail as a part-paved highway, complete with rest barracks and a petrol pipeline linked to a similar one from China. At the end of 1974, North Vietnamese regular troops infiltrated Phuoc Long province, close to Saigon, and three weeks later took the provincial capital. America did not respond to this flagrant violation of the Paris agreement, and South Vietnamese counter-attacks had little effect. The North Vietnamese, flush with Chinese and Soviet arms, prepared for the final offensive of the war – this time more subtly than they had done for the crude frontal assault of 1972. On 11 March 1975 a North Vietnamese tank army, with minimal assistance from surviving local Vietcong, took Ban Me Thuot, capital of a tranquil tea-growing province in the Central Highlands, and thrust towards Danang, splitting South Vietnam in two. Thieu still had an army of 660,000, more than twice the attacking force, but his troops were strung out trying to hold everything, and predictably held nothing. Refugees choked the roads, blocking reinforcements, officers fought to get aboard the last planes headed for Saigon – panicked flight later claimed by Hanoi as an ‘uprising’. On 21 April, Thieu resigned and left the country. Nine days later, the North Vietnamese entered Saigon and a Chinese-made tank burst through the gates of what had been the Presidential palace. Not a single American shot was fired, bomb dropped, or computer consulted to stop them. In the United States, the fall of its abandoned ally was greeted with stony silence.

The outcome for America was, however, far brighter than the gloomy prediction of a quarter-century earlier, when Communism was seen as a terrifying, nuclear-armed world conspiracy to turn American cities into Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, and America was fearful and angry in a way that it would not be again until 11 September 2001. Mao died the following year, and revolutionary Maoism with him. His last act was to cut off all Chinese aid to the Vietnamese; it was lavished instead on his new protégé, the ruthless Pol Pot, whom Mao saw as the reincarnation of his own revolutionary youth, as Stalin had once seen his in Mao. The Soviets leapt into the breach and claimed their reward, the use of the giant naval base the Americans had built at Cam Ranh Bay, a move threatening not America but China. Relations went from bad to worse, and by 1979 China and Vietnam were at war. Roundly defeated with the aid of enormous stocks of new weapons left behind by the Americans, China hastened to modernise its Army. The same year it began its long march away from Mao’s failed guerrilla economics, a retreat culminating in its entry into the ultra-capitalist World Trade Organisation in December last year and its ‘strategic partnership’ with the US over Afghanistan. Mao must have spun in his now neglected Beijing mausoleum. America had, in effect, traded tiny South Vietnam for mighty China – hardly a diplomatic, much less a military, defeat. The Soviets, for their part, emboldened by their new protégé’s victory in 1975, blundered into their own quagmire in Afghanistan. In Vietnam they are remembered as stingy, arrogant and old-fashioned, and although a few Russian advisers remained until 2000, they left only bad memories on both sides, and had zero cultural impact.

Vietnam tried guerrilla economics too – failed – tried Soviet collectivism, failed again, and now, as the revolutionary generation passes from the scene, is hesitantly following China into the US-dominated world trading system. Hanoi now has a real Hilton, and Saigon (still officially Ho Chi Minh City, a name fated to join Leningrad and Stalingrad in the dustbin of history) its own Kentucky Fried Chicken: Colonel Sanders’s beaming replica stands where USMACV’s giant computers once spat out the names of VC suspects. US dollars are Vietnam’s currency of choice – but crisp new ones, not the grubby hoards left from 1973. Hanoi won its unification, but only of Vietnam, not of all Indochina, as Ho had once hoped. The infectious popular culture of the Americans has conquered united Vietnam, as everywhere else, so in a way South Vietnam is finally winning, too. Where was the fork in the road for America, the turning point sought in all those thousands of books and articles? In truth, there was no fork in the road. In Vietnam, the United States pursued its interests, as it perceived them, throughout; and as its perceptions changed, so did its allegiances, as any great power’s would. The rest was rhetoric.

What political lessons can we learn from this tangle? First, great powers are fickle, and only care about themselves, not their small allies of opportunity, the Generals Thieu and Thé of the present and future. Then again, there is no such thing as a trustworthy surrogate: they have wills of their own, aims that may coincide with their protectors’ only in the short term, and an alarming ability to drag great powers into their quarrels and to change sides when the dollars dry up. For this reason, the Gulf War was only a half-brother to Vietnam. Saudi Arabia was unwilling to fight for America’s oil supplies, and Kuwait’s unwarlike mini-army had been eliminated, so America and its few active allies had no choice but to engage Saddam Hussein’s soldiers on the ground. General Colin Powell, a two-tour Vietnam veteran, patiently assembled a force of half a million over months, swung the B-52 sledgehammer freely, and managed to keep American casualties to the low hundreds, mostly from ‘friendly fire’, before any anti-war movement could form. But, having no one but Americans for the job, he refrained from occupying Iraq, and with even more serious consequences, had to station an American oil-guard on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, thus outraging pious Muslims and such former American allies of convenience as Osama bin Laden.

I spent my last day in Saigon, shells falling on the outskirts of the terrified city, writing a piece beginning: ‘We always knew that something like this might be at the end of the tunnel.’ My story filed (the Post Office was still open and the staff had a bag for tips), I dropped in for a last Bière 33 at the Pink Panther, a smoky bar nearby. As I came in, a South Vietnamese captain, both drunk and understandably angry – he must have taken me for an American – stood, threw a glass of beer, then the glass, then reached unsteadily for his pistol. Whoever had won the war, he had certainly lost, along with the three million or so Vietnamese dead on both sides. Prudently I left, but I thought of him when I paid my respects at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the least military war memorial I have ever seen. It crouches in a hollow, a V of black polished marble slabs incised with the names of more than 58,000 Americans, with nothing to show that they had been soldiers, or the cause for which they had died. It looks as though they had been caught up in some vast, meaningless accident; as, in truth, like the angry captain in Saigon, like three million Vietnamese, like the dead journalists, like Afghan and American civilians, they most surely had been.