French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos,
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
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
defend their colonial possessions because, among other things, the
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
more than money. The US would have to
send troops. This President Eisenhower
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
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
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,
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
support of America, and so they sent representative to President
would support them if they took over.
Kennedy promised that he would, and, on November 1, 1963, a
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
that would inspire the enthusiastic support of the American people.
Still, when President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to authorize
the direct intervention of
troops, he got overwhelming support. The Gulf of
passed by an overwhelming majority: only two congressmen voted against
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
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
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
after murdering a police officer—and killing his wife and children to
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
can guess why! The colleges were filled
with young men with 2S deferments: exempted from military service for
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
commitment, pronouncing the war unwinnable.
McNamara had been the chief architect of the Kennedy and Johnson
policy! And what *really* happened is
that McNamara’s strategy hadn’t worked so he though *no* strategy would
But what was Johnson to do in Vietnam? Simply
leave and let the Communists take
Fortunately for Johnson, the Communists made a
mistake. In January of 1968, they
launched the Tet offensive, an all-out effort to destroy South
resistance. They initially had some
success, but the Americans and South Vietnamese regrouped and turned
assault back. An estimated 45,000 of the
80,000 Viet Cong guerrillas were killed: a tremendous victory for
the South Vietnamese. North Vietnam at last agreed to go to the
table, and we now know that they and their Viet Kong allies were
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
talks. But the text then says that
within a few weeks, Johnson’s approval rating dropped from 40-22% and
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
quagmire” the most trusted man in journalism (!) refused to see what
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
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
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.