America became entangled in Vietnam following a disastrous French attempt to prevent Indochina gaining its independence. Was the French campaign doomed from the outset?
One of the most extraordinary aspects of postwar French history was the fact that they fought these ferocious battles in Indochina [the area of south-east Asia that contains Vietnam] – and then in Algeria – to try to hang on to an empire that it was obvious to most people was doomed. You could only sustain these European empires in faraway places with some degree of popular acquiescence and this was completely destroyed by the experience of the Second World War [where Vietnam had been administered by Vichy France at the behest of Japan].
George Orwell memorably said the quickest way to end a war is to lose it and in Indochina the French took eight years to do so in what was a messy, bloody, murderous business. I don’t think that the French would have tried it but for the fact that they had been so humiliated by their experience of occupation and defeat by the Nazis that they were desperate to restore La Gloire. De Gaulle foolishly overruled the views of some of his advisors in 1945 that they would have to talk to the Viet Minh. Instead, he decided to fight it out. The result was a disaster.
Having seen what happened to the French, why did the Americans still decide to get involved militarily?
The Americans have always had a deep belief in their own exceptionalism. They came to believe that the French had lost their war to the communists because they were French, while they, as Americans, were imbued with this virtue that they wanted to introduce democracy and bring good things to the people of Indochina.
Yet underlying everything that the Americans did from 1954 onwards was their desire to contain China. They were absolutely convinced – completely wrongly, as I show in the book – that the Russians and Chinese were pulling the strings on Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese nationalists as their puppets. One of the huge ironies is that all through the war, with all their vast intelligence machine, the Americans never really understood that the Russians, especially, loathed the Vietnam entanglement but felt that, as the leaders of the so-called socialist world, they had to go on supporting the North Vietnamese. As for the Chinese, they had just gone through the Korean War and the last thing they wanted was another big war on the Asian continent. The Americans didn’t understand this and thought that staying in Indochina was about containing communist aggression, whereas it was overwhelmingly a nationalist cause.
Why was it that the Americans couldn’t overwhelm a poorly resourced foe?
The fundamental reason that the communists won in Vietnam was because they were Vietnamese. After 1945 Ho Chi Minh achieved ownership of Vietnamese nationalism, and he maintained this for the following 25 years. Even after Ho died in 1969, nothing the Americans did was able to shake that.
What was extraordinary was that, even in 1965, the Americans understood that the so-called Saigon government they were supporting was paper thin. It wasn’t a real government: it was a load of crazy generals. It was terribly unpopular. But the Americans believed that, with their military superiority, it didn’t matter that they were supporting a rotten regime. They were wrong.
It was like trying to use a flamethrower to weed a flower border. They were using completely the wrong tools. The Americans could go on killing Viet Cong, they could go on killing North Vietnamese, but they didn’t have a coherent strategy, and that was always the problem.
And although Americans always professed to loathe colonialism, in a way their approach was profoundly colonialist. One veteran who made a great impression on me was a former medic called David Rogers who told me about a time when he and his infantry company were out on a sweep north of Saigon with some Vietnamese soldiers. They stopped somewhere and on the radio the Vietnamese’s American advisor said over the radio, in front of everyone: “OK, guys I’ve got to go now, I’m with the little people.” David Rogers heard that and he saw the reaction among the Vietnamese. A little while later, a Vietnamese officer who had become his friend said: “David, we must go now because we are only the little people.” Now if you treat people like that, then it ain’t too surprising that you lose your war.
How do you rate the military ability of the North Vietnamese?
There is no doubt that the communists were better soldiers. They knew the country and a lot of them were far more experienced than the Americans, who typically only spent a year there, whereas they had been fighting for years on end. Even though they didn’t have anything like the Americans’ firepower, they were extraordinarily skilful.
One thing the communists did have was the AK-47 and it was really in this war that it became the most famous gun in the world. The Americans had the M16 rifle, which is a terrific bit of kit if you are on a firing range – far better than an AK-47. But if you drop an M16 in the jungle, or it gets mud in it, the whole thing will seize up. In contrast, the AK-47 was designed in the Soviet Union for use by ignorants and it was so simple and brilliantly machined that even if you dropped it in a river, and it got covered in mud and sand, it would go on shooting. For jungle warfare it was a far better gun than the M16 and a lot of the Americans got a sort of inferiority complex about that. They found themselves going into battle with cleaning rods taped to the stocks of their guns because they knew they were going to jam and the only way to clear them was by – in the middle of a battle – pushing a cleaning rod up the barrel to try to get the spent case out.
Was the Vietnam War unusually savage or is its reputation due more to the media coverage it received?
If you had lived through the Thirty Years’ War, or a lot of the Second World War, then you would have seen just the same terrible things happening. But in the Second World War, nobody showed newsreels of the thousands of hookers hanging around Piccadilly Circus to pick up Americans, or British or American soldiers shooting prisoners. What was different about Vietnam was that, in the new mood of revelation in the 1960s, the realities of war were brought brutally home.
The communists had a policy of silence and they wouldn’t let anyone into North Vietnam who wasn’t a known sympathiser. So when they buried landlords alive, for example, they did not record it on camera. But all the dreadful things – and they often were dreadful things – that the Americans and South Vietnamese were doing were all recorded. There are some of the most notorious photographs from history [see right]. These images forced the western public to face up to the horrors of war, but it was a very selective view because it didn’t show the horrors inflicted by the other side.
I myself always remember one moment when I was working in Vietnam. I used to find it absolutely thrilling to fly around in ‘Huey’ helicopters – I thought it was all very exciting. And when you are 24 years old and an ambitious journalist, you are thrilled that someone is paying you to do this, and you don’t think too much about having your head blown off. But one day in 1972 or ’73, I was in a jeep driving north of Saigon, trying to look at a battle we came across, when we had to stop because there was a South Vietnamese army patrol dragging onto the road a group of communists whom they had killed in an encounter during the night.
I remember watching them dragging one half-naked corpse whose guts were spilling out about 10 feet behind him. And, as they dragged this corpse, I thought that if I got shot in the guts and I was being dragged, then that’s how I would look. It was the beginning of a sort of growing-up process for me. I went on doing a lot of war reporting, but I made a personal journey from an ignorant teenager thinking there might be something romantic about war to someone who understands that it is actually unbelievably ghastly.
Why do you think the Vietnam War stirred up so much opposition in the US and around the world?
One has to remember that this was in the sixties, which was a time of revolt against capitalism and imperialism, and all sorts of other things that the war seemed to represent. It was also a time of extraordinary naïvety among the young. They convinced themselves that people like Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were great heroes but were oblivious to the fact that, even in those days, a lot was known about Castro’s extraordinarily repressive regime in Cuba and the fact that Stalin and Mao were the greatest mass murderers in the 20th century, after Hitler. So it was a time of great naïvety, it was a time of generational revolt – and Vietnam seemed a symbol of everything the older generation was getting wrong.
But while the anti-war movement was incredibly naïve, one thing they were right about was the simple fact that the war was a catastrophe, it was crazy. Passions were also stirred by the fact that a lot of the people doing the fighting were draftees, whereas nowadays, not only are the casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq much smaller, these wars are all being fought by professional soldiers who want to be there. That creates a different mood from the fact that the kids in Vietnam didn’t want to be in Vietnam, and felt miserable about risking their lives.
Max Hastings is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor whose numerous books include the bestselling All Hell Let Loose, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 and The Secret War
Book: Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy: 1945-1975 by Max Hastings (William Collins, 2018)