Small nations, take heed

Andrew Bacevich

  • Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam by Lien-Hang Nguyen
    North Carolina, 444 pp, £29.95, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 8078 3551 7

Does the Cold War date from 1946 when Winston Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain speech? Or had it begun decades earlier, when Churchill sought through armed intervention to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution in its cradle? Did the conflict that Washington calls the Persian Gulf War end on 28 February 1991 when George H.W. Bush declared a unilateral ceasefire? Or did that ceasefire signify little more than a pause in a conflict with Iraq that would, in the end, persist for another twenty years? The answers to these questions not only determine the duration of those two events, but also shape their meaning.

The ‘war for peace’ that Lien-Hang Nguyen describes begins late in the summer of 1945 and concludes in January 1973. Nguyen is a refugee from Vietnam – her family fled when she was an infant – who teaches history at the University of Kentucky. She briskly recounts French efforts to restore colonial rule over all of Indochina at the end of the Second World War, and the fierce resistance they met. By 1954, France was ready to concede failure. Yet for the Vietnamese, the French defeat yielded only a partial victory: the Geneva Accords resulted in the division of Vietnam and set the stage for the second phase of the struggle.

Nguyen devotes far more attention to this second phase – the American phase –than she does to the first. As the United States displaces France as the principal obstacle to full Vietnamese independence, the narrative becomes increasingly detailed. By 1968, three years of increasingly intense but inconclusive combat had persuaded Washington and Hanoi to begin ‘peace talks’. From this point on, the detail in Hanoi’s War becomes positively granular, as Nguyen traces the complex negotiations leading up to the initialling of the Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam in January 1973. For Nguyen, this marks the culmination of the ‘war for peace’: the agreement effectively brought down the curtain on US efforts to create in southern Vietnam an independent, anti-communist state.

As Nguyen notes almost as an afterthought, the war itself didn’t actually end at that time. Indeed, it resumed almost immediately, only concluding – at least in its intramural phase – when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon a little more than two years later and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) ceased to exist. Given this denouement, Nguyen implicitly judges the ‘war for peace’ a failure: events did not accord with the expectations contained in the text that the chief negotiators Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho had signed in Paris.

Yet the ‘war for peace’ did not in fact end in failure, if only because peace was never the objective. None of the protagonists actually sought peace, at least not in the commonly accepted sense of the term. Of course, all the parties involved – not only the principal belligerents but also China and the Soviet Union – spoke of desiring peace. But when it came to Vietnam, American presidents – Kennedy, Johnson and, above all, Nixon – used ‘peace’ as a codeword. Correctly decrypted, it meant the cessation of hostilities on terms favourable to US interests and to their own political fortunes. North Vietnamese leaders such as Le Duan, first secretary of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party (VWP), and Le Duc Tho, his able lieutenant, understood peace in exactly the same terms. (Forget about Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap: Nguyen argues persuasively that Le Duan and Le Duc Tho gained complete control of North Vietnamese policy by 1960, and kept it. Ho was a figurehead, Giap a has-been.)

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