Vietnam Labyrinth: Allies Enemies & Why the U.S. Lost the WarBy Ken Fermoyle
Tran Ngoc Chau and I have been asked about the meaning behind the title and subtitle of our book. The title, Vietnam Labyrinth, is appropriate because Vietnam was indeed a complex maze during the period the book covers. It was easy to lose one's way in those complexities, and all things were not what they seemed to be.
The result was that the U.S. often made bad choices in its allies, then compounded the problem by perceiving as enemies those who might have been friends if our leaders had been more knowledgeable and less arrogant.
From the beginning of U.S. involvement after the French suffered defeat at Dien Bien Phu, our political and military leaders aligned themselves with the Vietnamese class that had served under the French colonial regime for many decades. Actually, the French influence went much further back than just decades, as far as the 16th century when a Jesuit priest, Father Alexandre de Rhoses, established a mission in the country, and Catholicism put down its first tentative roots in what was a traditionally Buddhist country.
French influence grew over the centuries, until Vietnam finally became a colony in 1887. The Catholic population also grew, but they were still a minority in 1945, outnumbered by Buddhists at least 4 to 1. They were disproportionately powerful, however, making up the bulk of the government civil service in the pre-World War II French colonial system and under Japan and its puppet French government during WWII. They were the Vietnamese elite; they identified more with the French than their own countrymen. Nearly all had converted to Catholicism. They sent their children to French schools in Vietnam and to universities in France and the U.S,
In a word, they had become “more French than the French!” And they were largely an urban class; even most of those who held positions in the provinces tended to isolate themselves from the peasants in the countryside. As a result, they knew little about the realities of life in their own country.
Yet these were the very people the United States chose as its allies Since our political, military and diplomatic leaders know little of Vietnam's culture, history or traditions, it became a case of “the blind leading the blind!” And that bad choice of allies was the first—though definitely not final—blunder the United States made in Vietnam.
For a second disastrous blunder, let's look at the joint misconception by both U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders about who their enemies actually were.
When Ho Chi Minh issued his call to arms and created the National Army of Liberation after the Japanese surrendered in August of 1945, there were at most 8,000 actual Communists in the country, less than 3% of a population of 25 million--and possibly fewer than that! The vast, overwhelming majority of those who answered that call to arms were not Communists; they were nationalists!
Few had any knowledge of politics in general, much less communism—or democracy.
The majority were illiterate peasants, with an admixture of dedicated nationalists from Buddhist mandarin families (like Chau), the intelligentsia and others who had escaped being “Frenchified.” Even members of the Vietnamese Communist Party at thee time were nationalists first, activist dissenters who were indoctrinated and converted to communism while political prisoners under the French, proving once again the old adage that “Prisons are the universities of rebellion.”
So although the insurgency that began against the French in 1945 was led by Communists, it was not a Communist movement; it was an uprising of Vietnamese nationalists!
It is critical to recognize and understand this critical fact. It was an utter lack of this knowledge and understanding by the United States and its South Vietnamese allies after the Geneva Accords that were at the very root of the conflict that followed. A detailed examination of how this happened and why it is so important will be the subject of a future blog. - KF