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A Lesson from Vietnam, Part 1


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One lesson offered to America by the Vietnam War is the folly of forcing regime change in a nation whose religion, culture, history, and politics differ dramatically from its own.

As a story, the folly may begin in September 1945, when a slender figure stood on a balcony in Hanoi to address the assembled masses. He proclaimed,

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776.

The speaker was the communist leader Ho Chi Minh (“He Who Enlightens”). The document being read was the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. American army officers shared the review stand while a Vietnamese band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Later, American warplanes flew in salute over the city. The Americans saluted Ho Chi Minh, who had actively assisted the Allies against the Japanese during World War II.

Thirty years later, on April 30, 1975, the U.S. ambassador would flee by helicopter from a Saigon besieged by North Vietnamese troops. His departure would end American involvement in the Vietnam War — a conflict during which one president was assassinated (Kennedy), another declined to run for reelection (Johnson), and a third was discredited (Nixon).

A large part of what doomed both the American war effort and the politicians associated with it was the disaster of American-sponsored “regime change” in South Vietnam.

At first, the United States had no clear sense of how to handle post–World War II Vietnam, which formed the eastern border of Indochina. President Franklin D. Roosevelt favored a U.S. trusteeship that would block the reestablishment of French colonial interests in Vietnam, but Britain — a colonial power herself — wanted Vietnam returned to France. Harry S. Truman, the next president, opposed colonialism but was more concerned with blocking global communism, for which he needed France’s goodwill. Thus, Truman ignored the pleas for support from Ho, who had proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French recaptured key areas of the South, including the city of Saigon.

Through a series of tortuous negotiations and perceived betrayals, North and South Vietnam soon became separate and independent territories. In the French-controlled South, Emperor Bao Dai — called the “Playboy Emperor” — gave the fig leaf of respectability to a puppet government.

At that point, the Vietminh opposing the government represented a broad spectrum of people who were united in their opposition to the French; they were not synonymous with communism. Most of the Southern population backed the Vietminh because of their program of land reform (most Southern land belonged to a handful of wealthy owners) and their liberal treatment of tribal minorities.

The issue of tribal minorities would haunt Vietnam. The 30 tribes, called “montagnards,” who inhabited the high country, were culturally distinct from the lowland Vietnamese. Traditionally the tribes had been left alone so long as they paid taxes and tribute. The Vietminh cultivated them, just as they cultivated the peasants with land reform. The United States watched nervously, as the Vietminh’s popularity soared.

The nervousness spiked when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. America had become a major player in Vietnam by providing massive financial aid to French military efforts there. But President Eisenhower, a military man, opposed sending American ground troops into Vietnam. The aid had been given in exchange for France’s support in blocking Chinese entry into the UN.

The post–World War II world seemed to verge on revolution and communism. Russia had swollen in size and influence; China was now a people’s republic under the leadership of Mao Zedong. And America feared a communist China. Foreign policy became dominated by the Truman Doctrine which stressed three points: (1) a unilateral American approach to matters of vital concern; (2) the containment of communism; and, (3) the domino theory. The latter theory held that if a nation such as Vietnam fell to the communists, other Asian nations would follow in a chain reaction.

Meanwhile, a young Vietnamese named Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was in America lobbying for support. Among the leaders he deeply impressed was the future president, John F. Kennedy, also a Catholic.

In 1954, the Indochina War officially ended with the Geneva Accords. In essence, the settlement ended the war, “temporarily” divided Vietnam in half along the 17th parallel, and set up an apparatus for a national Vietnamese election in 1956 to unite the nation. Until then, the South was under French influence with Bao Dai “ruling” from Saigon; the North was under the communist rule of Ho from Hanoi.

America did not like the Geneva Accords. The Republican Senate leader William Knowland denounced it as “the greatest victory the Communists have won in 20 years.” Propaganda against the North began in earnest, as exemplified by one story that received mass coverage:

As the Vietminh established control over the North, approximately 875,000 people, mostly Catholics, moved south. This migration was heralded by American planes that dropped leaflets proclaiming, “The Virgin Mary is moving south.” The January 1955 Look magazine carried an impressive photostory on the Catholic refugees, which was accompanied by an article subtitled “Battered and shunted about by war, they are too weary to resist the Reds without us.” The article stated,

Asians are convinced that U.S. prestige and influence in Asia cannot survive another defeat. Europe wants to see whether the Communists will be stopped here or will grow into an irresistible force. No more than 18 months remain for us to complete the job of winning over the Vietnamese before they vote. What can we do?

The “Miracle Man of Vietnam”

To some American policy-makers, the answer was clear: the pro-American Ngo Dinh Diem, now called “the Miracle Man of Vietnam.” The French journalist Bernard Fall — widely considered the definitive commentator on the Vietnam War — described Diem’s Catholicism:

His faith is made less of the kindness of the apostles than of the ruthless militancy of the Grand Inquisitor; and his view of government is made less of the constitutional strength of a President of the republic than of the petty tyranny of a tradition-bound mandarin.

After the Geneva Accords, Emperor Bao Dai had gone to France, leaving Diem — his prime minister — to manage South Vietnam. Diem basked in American support. For example, America stopped a revolt by the South Vietnamese army by making it clear that the United States would not pay its wages if Diem were overthrown. Secure, Diem announced a referendum on the issue of monarchy versus republicanism: in other words, Bao Dai versus Diem. Diem won this referendum by a vote of 98.2 percent. In this remarkable election, 605,000 votes were cast in the Saigon-Cholon area, where there were only 450,000 registered voters.

America wanted to implement western democracy, believing it would immunize South Vietnam against communism. But Diem espoused a philosophy of “personalism” — a potpourri of right-wing Catholicism and anti-communism. In practice, it resembled absolute state power. To please the United States, Diem gave a nod to democracy but he and his family retained power.

He appealed to President Eisenhower for support, and money and advisors poured in. The advisors orchestrated the formation of a secret police force under the control of Diem’s brother. Using the American FBI as a model, a Vietnamese Bureau of Investigation was created and controlled the flow of information and mail. To pacify the countryside, a Civil Guard was organized. Americans also trained immigration authorities to fingerprint the Vietnamese-Chinese population, distrusted by Diem.

Against this backdrop, the South Vietnamese constitution was proclaimed on October 26, 1956. Although it borrowed from the American Constitution, it laid heavy emphasis on a strong executive and little emphasis on protecting individual rights. The rights of minorities also slipped between the lines of the constitution. For example, the half-million or so Cambodians living in the Mekong Delta were prohibited from participating in various religious and cultural practices.

Again, the most important minority in Vietnam was the montagnards. Diem’s official policy toward them was equality and integration with the lowland Vietnamese. But, in practice, equality meant the right of low-landers to colonize tribal areas; integration meant the loss of tribal schools and tribal identity. By contrast, the North Vietnamese infiltrated the tribes with propagandists, who not only spoke the language but who went so far as to break their own front teeth to conform with local mores. The imprudence of Diem’s policies should have become apparent when tribesmen massacred 60 South Vietnamese officers and seized a radio transmitter to announce their autonomy. But the Americans interceded and the autonomy was short-lived.

Diem also had conflicts with the non-Catholic majority of South Vietnam. The two most important religious groups opposing him were the Hoa Hao, a reform Buddhist sect, and the Cao Dai, who adhered to a combination of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Roman Catholicism. These sects maintained their own armies and had been a strong barrier against communism for years. The Hoa Hao claimed as many as one million followers and, with an army of 15,000, they dominated the Mekong Delta. The Cao Dai claimed two million followers and, with an army of 20,000, they controlled much of the area north of Saigon. During the Indochina War, the French had deployed relatively few troops in South Vietnam because they could rely upon the anticommunist vigilance of these sects.

Anti-Diem dissent

But the armies threatened Diem, who had alienated the sects by his preferential treatment of Catholics. The Catholic refugees had been resettled into the most desirable areas, mostly around Saigon and along major roads. Much of the land had been confiscated. These Catholics became Diem’s base of support and they provided the cheering crowds that convinced American visitors of Diem’s popularity.

The Vietnamese scholar and poet Thich Nhat Nanh observed,

Various groups in South Vietnam sought to participate in the government in the hope of making it a genuine representative one. Such groups as the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, who had their own armies, used these as a base from which to seek participation in government. However, Diem and his American advisors chose instead to suppress all of these groups forcibly, maintaining that a state could not exist within a state. The Diem government became obsessed with eliminating all opposition, but gave no thought to the consolidation of the various non-Communist forces in South Vietnam.

Another group that hated Diem was the Binh Xuyen, an organized-crime group with an army of 25,000 men, which had also stood as a barrier against communism. Communist agitators in Saigon had a tendency to show up floating face down in the river. With the approval of Bao Dai and the French, the Binh Xuyen had run Saigon’s police force and occupied most of the roads leading out of Saigon, where they levied “safety taxes.” Diem replaced them.

On March 31, 1956, the Binh Xuyen shelled Diem’s palace with mortar fire. A brief but bloody civil war gripped South Vietnam. By the middle of May, the Binh Xuyen had been pushed back. Flush with victory, Diem pushed into the Mekong Delta, held by the Hoa Hao. By June, all organized resistance through South Vietnam had ceased.

But there was another threat to Diem’s regime. The Geneva Accords had called for a national election to be held by July 1956, in order to unite the two Vietnams. Ho Chi Minh was a clear favorite to win.

In July 1955, Diem had tested the air regarding the elections. Speaking for the National government in South Vietnam, he declared,

We did not sign the Geneva Agreements. We are not bound in any way by these Agreements, signed against the will of the Vietnamese people. Although elections constitute one of the bases of true democracy, they will be meaningful only on the condition that they are absolutely free. We remain skeptical concerning the possibility of fulfilling the conditions of free elections in the North.

Backing away from the promised elections, Diem purposefully destroyed the traditional electoral system within Vietnam that had provided stability. “The Law of the Emperor ends at the village gate” — this old Vietnamese saying expresses the delicate balance that existed between central authority and the relative autonomy of the villages that “elected” their own officials. Diem destroyed this balance by abolishing the village councils and mayorships. Instead, he installed his own leaders and tax collectors, thus imposing his rule directly upon the peasantry.

Bernard Fall commented,

When Diem ended 400–500 years of the tradition of the democratic election of village chiefs by each village, he made, to my mind, probably his crucial mistake. He began making local appointments from Saigon, and the villagers met the appointees with open hostility. The hard fact is that when the Viet Cong assassinated these men, the Viet Cong were given a Robin Hood halo by the villagers.

Diem pointed to these acts of violence as evidence of spreading communism. He explained to the Americans that it was necessary to send troops into the villages. Thus, Diem not only destroyed village democracy but also convinced the Americans that he was really eliminating communism.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).