A lot of the old leftie conspiracy theories that used to impress our girlfriends in high school turned out to be true, with a little help from the Freedom of Information Act. I visited the Gulf of Tonkin this week as I worked my way down the Vietnam Coast from Hanoi.
The incident that got LBJ to go on national TV to ask Congress and the American people to support the acceleration of the Vietnam War never happened.
On August 4th, 1964, the USS Maddox reported that it was under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. James Stockdale, the American pilot who would become a Vice Admiral, serve time in the famous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo) prison and run for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket, was flying over the Gulf that day. Years later, Stockdale admitted that he “had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” His superiors told him to keep that information to himself. Secretary of Defense at the time Robert McNamara admitted in the masterful Errol Morris doc ‘Fog of War‘, “It was just confusion, and events afterwards showed that our judgment that we’d been attacked that day was wrong. It didn’t happen.” President Johnson later said, “”For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Not that it mattered. The Johnson administration was looking for a pretext to justify escalation, and was repeatedly sending warships and aircraft into the Gulf as both provocation and in active support of South Vietnamese military operations. After the phantom attack, coastal cities were bombed.
McNamara: We introduced what was called “Rolling Thunder,” which over the years became a very, very heavy bombing program. Two to three times as many bombs as were dropped on Western Europe during all of World War II.
I visited Vinh, which was destroyed by the bombing. You see a stark difference between the beautiful old imperial and colonial towns like Hue and Hoi An, and cities like Vinh rebuilt with East German and Soviet aid. The French destroyed Vinh in their battle against the Viet Minh in the late forties, early fifties, the US in the sixties.
An Afterparty project backer took offense at one of the reasons I gave for Vietnamese forgiveness and their uniformly kind treatment of American visitors. That is, that they won the war. In Joseph Galloway’s 1999 New York Times book review of the Naval Institute Press’ “The Wrong War: Why We Lost In Vietnam,” he writes:
(Jeffrey) Record, who served a tour as a civilian State Department adviser in the Mekong Delta and was later a legislative assistant to Senators Sam Nunn and Lloyd Bentsen, declares at the outset that in his view the main causes of the American defeat in Vietnam were a misinterpretation of both the significance and nature of the struggle; an underestimation of the enemy’s tenacity and fighting power; an overestimation of United States political stamina and military effectiveness; and the absence of a politically competitive South Vietnam.
Record goes on to quote Gen. Colin Powell, a two-tour Vietnam veteran: ”Our political leaders led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anti-Communism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism and civil strife.”
I am visiting numerous museums as I roll south. The inspiring and horrifying Land Mine Action Center (over 40,000 killed and 60,000 maimed from mostly US unexploded ordinance, since the end of the war, or 10x our 9/11 casualties), the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hoa Lo prison, the DMZ facilities, the Citadel in Hue, the military museums. Exhibits documenting a thousand years of struggles for independence from the Chinese, then the French, then the Japanese and the puppet Vichy regime, then the French again, then the United States.
McNamara, again from ‘The Fog of War:’ Kennedy announced we were going to pull out all of our military advisors by the end of ’65 and we were going to take 1000 out by the end of ’63 and we did. But, there was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown and he and his brother were killed. I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I’ve never seen him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kenndy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but my God, he was the authority, he was the head of state. And he was overthrown by a military coup. And Kennedy knew and I knew, that to some degree, the U.S. government was responsible for that.
The farmer, the mother, the teacher fighting American forces in the rice paddies knew and cared little about Das Kapital or The Communist Manifesto. They had been fighting foreign invaders for decades, for centuries, for millennia, and they were ready to fight to the last man or woman.
McNamara, quite a reviled figure during the Vietnam War, but a man capable of extraordinary introspection, went to Vietnam in the nineties. He tells this story:
The former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, a wonderful man named Thach said, “You’re totally wrong. We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.” We almost came to blows. That was noon on the first day.
“Do you mean to say it was not a tragedy for you, when you lost 3 million 4 hundred thousand Vietnamese killed, which on our population base is the equivalent of 27 million Americans? What did you accomplish? ….”
“Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you’d had, you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.”
French colonialists and companies undermined Vietnam’s subsistence economy by forcibly expropriating vast amounts of land and reorganizing farmers into large plantations. By the 1930’s, French Indochina was producing sixty thousand tons of rubber annually, five per cent of world production. Vietnamese worked long hours in debilitating conditions for slave wages. Malnutrition and malaria were common on the plantations. In the years between the two world wars, one Michelin-owned plantation recorded seventeen thousand worker deaths. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh was in Paris studying revolutionary philosophies in vogue in French cafes and universities. He wasn’t there because he got off on Engels. He was there to adopt a framework for leading his people out of the humiliating repression of French colonial capitalism. He was a nationalist, returning to drive out the French and Japanese. Working alongside the American OSS, moving American leaders like FDR to furiously insist the U.S. support Vietnamese independence and oppose French colonialism, much as the U.S. opposed British colonialism post-WWII. Ho began his independence address to a half million newly liberated Vietnamese in Hanoi with the words of the American Declaration of Independence.
As with radical Islamists who know fuck-all about the Koran, but have had brothers, neighbors and uncles killed by western bullets, missiles, bombs, drones, there was a history of grievance that American leaders ignored. Walking Vietnamese streets in Hanoi, Vinh, Dong Ha, Hue and Hoi An, I see rare signs of Marxist-Leninist triumphalism. The occasional billboard, a tribute to military heroes, the iconic flag, a rare photo of Marx on a shop wall, a statue of Lenin in a park. Young people have accepted that they can talk whatever shit they want with their friends, but will be visited by the state police if they get too public with their discontent. There is too much state control of industry, but a growing, mostly market-driven economy. It is a young country that is eager to move on, feeds on American culture and technology and, considers the Chinese (manufacturer of cheap American consumer goods, produced by underpaid, exploited laborers) their biggest threat.
Finally, this, from Galloway.
In the end it all boils down to one question: Could we have won a military victory in Vietnam? Record’s answer is: Yes, but not at any price even remotely acceptable to the American people. One thoughtful former infantry battalion commander told me he had reflected long and hard about what would have resulted from unlimited war, including an invasion of North Vietnam: ”We could have won a military victory without question. But today my sons and yours would still be garrisoning Vietnam and fighting and dying in an unending guerrilla war.” The war was ours to lose, and we did; it was for the South Vietnamese to win, and they could not.