Vietnam: Retrospective Part 6 of 8
There you have it – the anti-war argument damning the American government for its refusal to allow the Vietnamese to freely choose to reunify under the communists. Why were we sacrificing American lives and squandering its fortune if, as Eisenhower himself admitted, all Vietnamese preferred to be communist?
So, whatever happened to the provisions of the Geneva Convention that ended the French-Indochinese War and mandated free elections to reunify Vietnam? The truth is, that isn't exactly what Eisenhower said. The President was commenting on a hypothetical election between Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai.
Bao Dai was the Chief of State of South Vietnam from 1949 to 1955. Previously, he had been the King of Annam (1926 – 1945), the portion of the French colony in Indochina that eventually became Vietnam. He was very unpopular as he was seen as a symbol of French occupation and abandoned the people during the Japanese occupation. Of course, he could not win an election in Vietnam against anyone. Bao Dai was replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem, the first President of South Vietnam, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and the nation was partitioned between the communist north and free south.
Ngo Dinh Diem. Remember the protests – Buddhist priests burning themselves in the streets of Saigon – weren't they protesting to join North Vietnam? Hardly. They were Buddhists! Why would they want to submit to a government with an absolute stricture against religion – all religion? The truth is that the Buddhists constituted the majority of the population in the south. They were protesting the nepotism and corruption of the administration presided over by Diem – a Roman Catholic.
Still, Eisenhower's statement being irrelevant, the Vietnam era anti-war activists argued – and college professors still argue today – that the United States reneged on its agreement to support reunification elections. Not true. The United States never agreed to such elections because the communists enjoyed an unfair advantage. Nearly eighty percent of the Vietnamese lived in the more industrialized north, while the remainder lived in the agrarian south. The results of any election would have been extremely lopsided.
Of course, none of this would have mattered if the people living in South Vietnam wanted to join their communist brethren in the north. After all, wasn't the Viet Cong a populist movement in the south? Prior to the Tet Offensive of 1968, there is no way of proving the argument one way or the other. It is clear that the Viet Cong were armed, supplied, and led by the communists in the north – under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap. However, there are no records proving whether or not the majority of the members of the Viet Cong were southern born or if the people in the south freely supported them. Following the Tet Offensive, there is no doubt that the Viet Cong ceased to exist as a viable organization. The prosecution of the war against South Vietnam and the Americans was openly prosecuted by North Vietnam Army regulars.
Ultimately, President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War failed because he hamstrung the military from pursuing the enemy into their sanctuaries and attacking their supply trains.
Following the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) assumed the full weight of prosecuting the invasion of South Vietnam. They violated the sovereignty of neighboring nations, Laos and Cambodia, to move troops and supplies south to attack the flanks of South Vietnam. American and armies of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) were forbidden from pursuing them when they retreated into these sanctuaries to regroup, rearm, and resupply. To Americans watching the war on their televisions, it seemed that the NVA was unbeatable, and they were under those conditions.
It’s interesting that American diplomats and politicians didn’t learn the lesson. Their attempts to instill democracy in Iraq failed for much the same reasons and in much the same manner as Vietnam, and the results appear to be headed in the same direction. No, communism and Stalinism are not the motivating forces in Iraq, but the vision of world conquest by religious fanatics is equally as aggressive.