Lest we forget
BY M A H I R A L I | 4/29/2015

FORTY years after the liberation of Saigon, Vietnam continues to be disputed territory, at least in the metaphorical sense. April 30, 1975, was a turning point in world history, albeit not exactly an unexpected one. Most of the American troops that had begun pouring in 10 years earlier had by then mostly left, in the wake of the 1973 Paris peace accords.

The Nixon administration had signed those accords in the belief, or at least the hope, that South Vietnamese government forces, with American support, would be able to continue resisting the North. But it wasn`t quite as simple as that. It ought to have been plain by then where the sympathies of much of the South`s population lay.

In fact, this had become clear a couple of decades earlier, after the Vietnamese resistance inflicted a decisive defeat on French occupying forces and a conference in Geneva decided to temporarily divide the country pending a vote scheduled for 1956. That election never occurred because, as the US eventually acknowledged, an estimated 80pc of voters were expected to endorse Ho Chi Minh`s party.

Ho had long banked on American support.

As far back as the 1920s, he had petitioned Woodrow Wilson to back Vietnam`s decolonisation, but to little avail. In the aftermath of the Second World War, his hopes raised by Franklin Roosevelt`s rhetoric against Western imperialism, he tried again. The foundational document of the Vietnamese republic Ho inaugurated consciously echoed the words of the American Declaration of Independence.

But Roosevelt die d in 1945, and the Truman administration had few qualms in the emerging Cold War milieu about opposing any liberation movement with socialist inclinations.

It chose instead to back the French reoccupation of Vietnam after Japanese forces had been driven out. And following the decisive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, it decided to step in as a sponsor of the unviable South Vietnamese entity.

It was another decade or so before American troops began pouring in to keep the country divided, based on the notion that if communism succeeded in Vietnam, its appeal would become inexorable in neighbouring nations and eventually across the rest of Asia.

Did the strategy work? In the short run, clearly not. By 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected president,, it had already become clear that the war was unwinnable. Ho Chi Minh had prophetically told the Americans: `You will kill 10 of our men and we will kill one of yours, but in the end it will be you who tire of it.

The Tet offensive and revelations about the My Lai massacre fed into a burgeoning antiwar movement in the US, led by the young but steadily attracting the sympathy of older generations.

Domestic activism in the US, fuelled to a large extent by moral indignation and repulsion, undoubtedly served as a crucial factor in bringing the conflict to an end. The contention, though, that the war was essentially lost on the home front remains disputable. Inexorable Vietnamese resistance was of paramount significance in determining the outcome.

The unprecedented Vietnamese victories on the battlefield, first against French colonialism and just 20 years later against American imperialism, served as an electrifying inspiration for the Third World. To cite but one instance, a delegation from the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front that visited Lahore in 1969 or thereabouts elicited a mammoth outpouring of support, in a Pakistan broadly allied, then as now, with the US.

The `Vietnam syndrome`, meanwhile, became something of an albatross for the US, at least until the Reagan-Bush era, when military interventions abroad beginning with Grenada and Panama, and moving on to Iraq again became `respectable` enterprises. The indirect intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s was explicitly intended to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam of its own payback for Soviet support to Hanoi through much of the Indo-Chinese war.

In the present day it is claimed by some that, notwithstanding the military outcome in 1975, the US eventually won, given that Vietnam ultimately abandoned its socialist ideals and embraced neoliberal capitalism despite remaining, in the same way as China, a one-party state where the ruling communists exercise total political control. Relations between the US and Vietnam have meanwhile developed steadily to the extent that Washington now sees Hanoi as an ally in resisting the growth of Chinese influence in Asia.

Let us not forget, however, that although Vietnamese resistance against the French and the Americans was propelled to some extent by communist ideals, at a very basic level the underlying principle of the struggle was all about Vietnam exercising the right to choose its own destiny, without foreign interference.

The Americans had no right to be there in the first place. The fact that they were driven out continues to resonate in this day and age.

Times have changed, but the US ignores the lessons of Vietnam at its peril.
m mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn