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.)

So the date that matters is 1975, not 1973. In 1975, ‘the leaders Le’ achieved the victory they had pursued with implacable determination for twenty years and the US experienced a humiliating defeat, even if its strategic impact was partly mitigated by the change in superpower relations that Nixon and Kissinger had engineered in their vain effort to secure ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam itself. By the 1970s, the perceived interests which in the 1950s and 1960s had made South-East Asia so important in Washington’s eyes – belief in a so-called domino theory, the need to take a stand against the juggernaut of monolithic Communism – had vanished. So the negotiations on which Nguyen lavishes such attention turned out to have little relevance except in creating the conditions for further military action, which sounded the death knell for South Vietnam.

Nixon and Le Duan make an interesting pairing. They shared many of the same strengths and weaknesses. Both devoted their lives to acquiring and exercising power. Both were ruthless in eliminating individuals or groups they perceived as threatening to their ambitions. Neither felt constrained by legal or moral considerations. Both possessed great confidence in their personal ability to wield power adroitly and successfully. In both that confidence was misplaced. Yet in the end, Le Duan prevailed, if only because his own miscalculations (unlike Nixon’s) fell just short of being fatal.

Domestic upheaval in the US, largely if not entirely related to the Vietnam War, enabled Nixon to claim the presidency in 1968, just as it had enabled Le Duan to gain supreme power in Hanoi roughly a decade before. Although the Geneva Accords had created the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the North, efforts by the VWP to create a functioning socialist state had not gone well. By the late 1950s, rising popular unrest posed a threat to the party’s authority while south of the 17th parallel, Ngo Dinh Diem’s RVN was rooting out the Communist cadres left behind after 1954 who, feeling forsaken by their northern brethren, were showing signs of restiveness.

These conditions, Nguyen writes, confronted Hanoi with a choice between ‘peaceful reunification through socialist development of the North and violent reunification through liberation struggle in the South’. Le Duan and Le Duc Tho sold the politburo on the proposition that ‘revolutionary war provided effective means to deflect attention from domestic problems.’ In so doing, they gained control over both party and state security apparatus. The workers and peasants would have to wait a bit longer for the promised benefits of socialism; armed struggle to liberate the South came first. With his pay-any-price rhetoric and his expansion of the US military’s advisory presence in South Vietnam, Kennedy became Le Duan’s unwitting helpmate. Not for the last time an American president came to the rescue of the VWP’s first secretary. JFK’s escalation of 1961, Nguyen writes, ‘served Le Duan’s campaign to galvanise the southern war effort’.

Le Duan moved quickly on several fronts. To enforce party discipline and stifle popular dissent before it could rear its head, he strengthened existing instruments of repression. He also cracked down on unhappy revolutionaries in the South: they would follow Hanoi’s orders, not question them. (Here too the Americans lent a hand, helping to remove Diem, who had become as much of an annoyance to Washington as to Hanoi.) Finally, to secure the material resources he needed to wage war, Le Duan pursued a ‘policy of equilibrium in the Sino-Soviet split’, taking care not to alienate either of the two major Communist powers while extracting the maximum support from each.

But all this was background to the war itself. Between 1946 and 1954, Ho and Giap had defeated the French by pursuing a strategy of ‘protracted struggle’ along the classic lines advocated by Mao Tse-tung. Le Duan lacked the patience for a gradualist approach. Intent on achieving a decisive political outcome through large-scale military action, he promoted a policy of ‘General Offensive and General Uprising’ (GO-GU, Nguyen calls it). Winning big battles in the countryside, Le Duan fervently believed, would trigger popular uprisings in the cities leading directly to the overthrow of the puppet regime in Saigon.

GO-GU implied ‘going for broke’. Nguyen aptly compares it to craps: place a big bet, roll the dice, see what happens. Le Duan first rolled the dice in 1964, intent on winning the war before US forces could intervene. He failed disastrously; the masses in the South refused to rise up. He rolled them again during the Tet holiday in 1968. Once more, he failed, and this time, there were many more casualties. Again, the popular uprising failed to materialise. Whether out of expedience or necessity, Le Duan used defeat as a rationale for ratcheting up even further the repression in the North. Still undeterred, he tossed the dice again in 1972, with similar results. Southerners stubbornly refused to rally to the revolution.

As a generalissimo, in other words, Le Duan proved a spectacular flop. What saved him was Nixon’s arrival in office in 1969, touting his ‘secret plan’ to win the Vietnam War. Like Le Duan, he had every confidence in his ability to transform stalemate into victory. Nixon believed that quietly threatening Hanoi with ‘irresistible military pressure’, combined with his personal reputation of being slightly unhinged, would be enough to bring the North Vietnamese leaders to heel. He expanded the scope of US operations, ordering, for example, the secret (and illegal) bombing of Laos. Le Duan either didn’t get Nixon’s message or was unimpressed. What may have had more effect was Nixon’s announced intention to reduce progressively the number of US forces in South Vietnam by arming the South Vietnamese, a programme grandly styled ‘Vietnamisation’ but chiefly designed ‘to placate public opinion at home’. On the one hand, it looked as if Nixon was expanding the war; on the other, as if he was contracting it. In any event, North Vietnam didn’t fold.

Denied outright victory, Nixon contrived a second gambit. For years, Le Duan had skilfully exploited the increasingly bitter Sino-Soviet rivalry, encouraging Moscow and Beijing to compete with each other in ‘rendering aid to the fraternal socialist cause’. Now Nixon sought to turn the tables. By tapping the mutual animosity of the two leading Communist nations, he hoped to create incentives for each to prioritise amicable relations with Washington over continued support for North Vietnam. By isolating Hanoi, Nixon might still wangle a victory of a kind.

To the Chinese, Nixon offered a rapprochement; to the Soviets, détente. What ensued was Nixon’s star turn as a global statesman: toasts with Mao and photo opportunities on the Great Wall; visits to Brezhnev’s dacha and strolls across Red Square. But to what degree did this dramatic turn in superpower diplomacy affect the course of events in Vietnam?

Images on television of his chief allies currying Washington’s favour spooked Le Duan, of that there can be no doubt. He feared abandonment. But the same images unnerved RVN President Nguyen Van Thieu as well. ‘America has been looking for a better mistress and now Nixon has discovered China,’ Thieu complained to his advisers. ‘He does not want to have the old mistress hanging around.’

Nguyen amply demonstrates that enthusiasm for North Vietnam’s war of liberation did begin to wane in Beijing and Moscow. Both expressed their desire that Hanoi reach a negotiated settlement with Washington. Both issued only tempered protests when in response to GO-GU’s third iteration, Nixon launched the fiercest air attacks of the war, pummelling North Vietnam with B-52 raids. Although neither ended its shipments of weapons and other war matériel, there would be no more blank cheques. Crucially, however, ‘neither ally was successful in forcing the VWP to bend to its will.’ Hanoi, unlike Saigon, retained control of its own destiny.

What the changing diplomatic landscape did achieve was to induce Le Duan to revise his strategy. Once the disappointing 1972 spring offensive had ground to a halt, Nguyen writes, ‘Le Duan finally admitted defeat.’ This is surely an overstatement. More accurately, after GO-GU 3.0 proved a bust, Le Duan finally shifted priorities. Rather than seeking to topple the Saigon regime in order to rid himself of the Americans, he astutely reversed the sequence. He sought to secure the US departure through negotiation, with the idea of dealing with Saigon in due time. The new plan, as summarised by Nguyen: ‘American withdrawal – Puppet collapse.’

The viability of the new strategy depended on Nixon’s willingness to go along with it. By 1972, an election year in the US, the president very much wanted out of Vietnam. Continuing the war no longer served his purposes. Hanoi’s priorities and Washington’s now meshed; negotiations that for years had been stalled made rapid progress. In a generous mood and hoping to wrap things up in Paris before the election, Kissinger distributed presents to members of the North Vietnamese delegation. By way of a bonus he withdrew the demand that Hanoi remove the 140,000 troops still occupying the northern precincts of South Vietnam in the wake of the spring offensive. In effect, Nixon ‘accepted that North Vietnamese forces would stay in South Vietnam after the signing of any peace agreement’.

Nguyen notes this concession, but seems not to appreciate its significance. President Thieu did. Routinely lied to and kept in the dark about the negotiations in Paris, Thieu learned of the decision to allow North Vietnamese forces to remain within the territorial limits of his country only after it had been made. General Creighton Abrams, commander of the US forces in South Vietnam, argued (somewhat preposterously) that ‘northern forces would soon wither away after the ceasefire for lack of reinforcement,’ but Thieu wasn’t buying it.

By the autumn of 1972 he had become the last real obstacle to ending (or, more accurately, suspending) hostilities. He tried ‘blackmail, foot-dragging and manipulation’ to postpone his fate, but proved powerless to avert it. Indeed, he had long before glimpsed the writing on the wall. ‘When Nixon decides to withdraw,’ he remarked in 1969, ‘there is nothing I can do about it. Just as when Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson decided to go in, there was very little my predecessors had to say about it.’ Thieu was a minnow swimming among sharks, and he knew it.

In December 1972, B-52s once again devastated North Vietnam. The Christmas Bombings served no political purpose: they were primarily an outlet for Nixon’s petulance. He might have kicked his dog; instead, he visited Hanoi and Haiphong with more than 15,000 tons of ordnance. In the meantime he informed Thieu of his intention to end direct US involvement in the war immediately, regardless of the RVN’s objections. For Nixon, now re-elected for a second four-year term, freeing US POWs was the sole remaining war aim. In February 1973, the American prisoners returned home and the guns fell silent, although only momentarily.

What Nixon’s diplomacy had achieved was not peace but Vietnam’s removal from great power politics. In the 1950s and 1960s, the fate of Vietnam had mattered a great deal to policy-makers in Washington, Beijing and Moscow. In the 1970s, it no longer did. The great powers, Communist and Anti-Communist alike, had moved on to more important concerns, at last allowing the Vietnamese to sort out their own fate. In one last great spasm of violence, the southern and northern Vietnamese attacked each other with arms provided by their former patrons. As a result, they achieved in 1975 what they would have achieved in 1945 had they been left alone. Were it not for the millions killed and dispossessed during the three intervening decades, one might ask what all the fuss had been about.

‘The key to Hanoi’s ultimate success in the war,’ Nguyen writes in her conclusion, ‘lay not in launching general offensives or even winning hearts and minds in South Vietnam; rather, it resided with its world relations campaign aimed at procuring the support of antiwar movements around the world.’ This is hogwash. The key to Hanoi’s ultimate success lay in accepting Washington’s offer to sell out an ally it had ceased to value. Other small nations that entrust their well-being to promises emanating from Washington may wish to take heed.