French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia)

Another "transition to independence" tragedy is what happened in what was called French Indochina.  The French had colonized this part of the world in the 19th century.  During World War II, the Japanese had over-run the area, but, after 1945, the French came back.  The French had important economic interests in the area, but, if those interests were assured, they were prepared to grant at least a measure of indpendence.

However, it was not easy to decide how to organize the region into indpendent countries.  Ethnic rivalries were a problem: Cambodians and Laotians didn't much like the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese themselves aren't exactly a homogenous ethnic group.  Complicating the situation was the rise of Communist insurgencies, groups like the Viet Minh in Vietnam and the Pathet Lao in Laos. 

In 1946, The French granted a measure of independence to both Laos and Cambodia.  Laos had a constitutional monarchy, Cambodia a monarchy: but both nations remained within what was called the French Union.

The Vietnamese situation was trickier, and, when independence was delayed, the French found themselves fighting a number of nationalist insurgency groups.  The result was absolutely horrible.  During the 1950-1954 period, there were 172,000 French casualties, 356,000 Viet Minh casualties, and over 250,000 civilian casualties.

For a number of years, the US had been backing the French in Indochina, helping the French defend their colonial possessions because, among other things, the French were keeping the Communists from gaining control.  But in 1954, the French suffered a major defeat at Diem Bien Phu, and it looked like they would be unable to hold onto Vietnam unless the US provided more than money.  The US would have to send troops.  This President Eisenhower would not do.  But he also was not prepared to leave all of Vietnam in the hands of the Vietnamese Communists.  Instead, a 1954 compromise created two nations: communist North Vietnam, and democratic South Vietnam.  Eisenhower now committed the US to defending the newly-created South Vietnamese nation--and probably no one at the time realized how costly that commitment would eventually become.

The North Vietnamese people paid a price right away, as the Communists suppressed all dissent.  Perhaps as many as 100,000 were liquidated, many in frightful ways--suspended by their thumbs while being beaten to death.   Something like 900,000 fled to take refuge in the South.

The Communists were not content to control just the North, and prepared their forces to attach South Vietnam.  At the same time, a Communist insurgency in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong) made things even more difficult.  

For almost ten years, American strongly backed the Diem government of South Vietnam in Saigon against communist insurgents: against the Vietcong rebels in the south itself, and against North Vietnamese attacks. But things were just not going well.  Why?  The South Vietnamese military blamed the civilian government.  If only they didn't interfere, we could win this war. The military planned a coup, but they knew they needed the continued support of America, and so they sent representative to President Kennedy asking if he would support them if they took over.  Kennedy promised that he would, and, on November 1, 1963, a military junta took over in South Vietnam, murdering Diem.  This put us in a very uncomfortable position.  No longer were supporting a democratically elected South Vietnamese government, but a group of thugs--better than the Communists, no doubt, but hardly the kind of government that would inspire the enthusiastic support of the American people.

Still, when President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to authorize the direct intervention of American troops, he got overwhelming support. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by an overwhelming majority: only two congressmen voted against it! 

In 1965, Johnson began escalating America’s commitment. In April we had 82,000 soldiers in Vietnam.  By July, we had 125,000.  And, eventually, we had half a million men committed to winning the war.—and we were spending $30 billion a year. 

Now this would have been enough to win the war, but, unfortunately for Johnson, there was a shift in popular opinion.  In 1964 and 1965, the big newspapers and the television stations advocated exactly the policy Johnson adopted in Vietnam, rejecting the all-out war effort Barry Goldwater had advocated.  But when this strategy didn’t produce immediate victory, the media began swinging against the war.  Media coverage was often one-sided: showing the enemy side rather than ours!  For instance, there is a famous picture of a South Vietnamese office shooting a Vietcong captive in the head at point-blank range.  What the newspapers and television stations didn’t bother to mention was that that Vietcong captive had been apprehended after murdering a police officer—and killing his wife and children to boot. 

The media weren’t the only ones turning against the war.  Young university students began having serious doubts about whether the war was worthwhile—and I suppose you can guess why!  The colleges were filled with young men with 2S deferments: exempted from military service for four years as long as they maintained a full load and a 2.0 GPA.  These young men were easily recruited by radical groups as participants in massive student demonstrations.

Even within Johnson’s administration, some were giving up on the war.  Robert Strange McNamara (Johnson’s Secretary of Defense) resigned to protest our ongoing commitment, pronouncing the war unwinnable.  McNamara had been the chief architect of the Kennedy and Johnson Vietnam policy!  And what *really* happened is that McNamara’s strategy hadn’t worked so he though *no* strategy would work.

But what was Johnson to do in Vietnam?  Simply leave and let the Communists take over?  Unthinkable.

Fortunately for Johnson, the Communists made a mistake.  In January of 1968, they launched the Tet offensive, an all-out effort to destroy South Vietnamese resistance.  They initially had some success, but the Americans and South Vietnamese regrouped and turned the assault back.  An estimated 45,000 of the 80,000 Viet Cong guerrillas were killed: a tremendous victory for America and the South Vietnamese. North Vietnam at last agreed to go to the bargaining table, and we now know that they and their Viet Kong allies were discouraged and defeated.

But a strange thing happened.  One textbook notes that, during the Tet offensive, the N. Vietnamese launched a massive assault.   It notes that that assault failed and that the Communist forces suffered “horrendous” casualties, and then agreed to peace talks.  But the text then says that within a few weeks, Johnson’s approval rating dropped from 40-22% and victory seemed as distant as ever.

Now all of this is exactly right.  But how could these things go together?  How could Johnson’s and how could victory seem distant after such a major triumph?

Well what happened was that the media presented Tet, not as the victory it was, but as an American defeat.  Walter Cronkite was particularly outrageous in his mis-coverage of Tet. Having earlier pronounced the war an “unwinnable quagmire” the most trusted man in journalism (!) refused to see what was really happening.

In any case, America was getting tired of seeing American boys coming home in body bags, and so, if we were to continue our were effort, we were going to have to have a different strategy. Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, implemented what he calleed the “Vietnamization of the war.”  He cut American troops from over half a million to 24,000 and greatly reduced spending on the war.  At the same time, he gave the South Vietnamese a chance to win by launching a massive bombing assault on Communist targets—including, unfortunately, targets in Cambodia.  This meant few American boys coming back in body bags, but it was very tough on the peoples of Indochina.  Unfortunately, it was probably the only option the American people would support at this point.

And, ultimately, it worked.  In January of 1973, Nixon’s bombing campaign forced the NorthVietnamese to the bargaining table.  They signed an “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.”  The U.S. would withdraw its troops, South Vietnam would cede some territory to the North, but the rest of South Vietnam would be free and independent.  The United States also pledged itself to stationing U.S. carriers in the regions with planes onboard that would resume bombing if Hanoi violated the accords.  The war was won once again!

And we threw victory away again.  Preoccupied with the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, we turned our backs on Southeast Asia.  When America withdrew its troops in America in 1973, we promised to come back in with our bombers should the Communists break the agreement with S. Vietnam.  We didn’t keep our promise, and, without American support, S. Vietnam fell to the communists. The result was a bloodbath, with tens of thousands killed, and the S. Vietnamese pushed off their lands to make way for N. Vietnamese settlement.  Many S. Vietnamese became “boat people” where they became prey to pirates.  Others went through the horrors of Communist “reeducation camps.” 

But it wasn’t just South Vietnam: Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia fell to communist insurgents, with horrible results—particularly in Cambodia.  The Communist Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) decided to cleanse the country to prepare the way for a Marxist dream society.  In Marx’s dream society, there would be no beggary or prostitution.  The Khmer Rouge took a short cut: they killed all the beggars and prostitutes.  In Marx’s dream society there would be no private business. The Khmer Rouge took a short cut: they killed all the businessmen.  In Marx’s dream society, no one would teach ideas contrary to those of Marx.  The Khmer Rouge took a short-cut: they killed all the teachers.  Whole village were wiped out, with public executions of the most brutal kind, executions that involved mutilation and even crucifixion.  Eight to ten year old children might be taken out, hand rocks, and forced to stone to death their teachers, calling out “bad teacher, bad teacher, bad teacher.”  Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge genocide took the lives of two million people—1/3 of the population.

While all this was going on, Jerry Ford pleaded with Congress to let him intervene--but the anti-war liberals had taken control and refused to let him do anything at all.  Interestingly, George McGovern, the anti-war candidate of 1972 eventually changed his mind and said we should intervene at least in Cambodia.  But America did nothing at all—in my opinion a crime.  It’s one thing to ignore atrocities: we can’t police the whole world.  But in this case, this mess was of our making.  We had destabilized Indochina, and we had some responsibility for helping avert a total catastrophe.