In 1988, after having taught New Testament Studies, Sexuality, Chemistry, Physics and Algebra at Xaverian Brothers' High School in Westwood, Mass., I was asked to teach an elective to seniors named Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace. I took up the challenge with butterflies inside because there was some unresolved issues in my past as to my situation vis a vis the Vietnam War. I knew that many of my seniors would come from families whose father probably had unresolved issues with either the war or with the attitudes of people to that war. I felt that I would have to be very sensitive to both sides. Whenever Jane Fonda’s name came up in conversations at the pub, anger bubbled over, or in regards to Bill Clinton’s draft dodging, or Oliver Stone’s version of the conflict. I knew that I was going to have a non-violence bias, but I needed something factual to build the course around. It came in the form of the PBS documentary, "Vietnam, A History", by Stanley Karnow. I would show it for about 20 minutes per class and then we’d discuss its significance. Many of the students went home and talked about it with their Dads, some for the first time. I received no negative feedback from either.
As the documentary presented the early history of Vietnam, under French Colonial domination, the frustration of the people was evident. Their focus was on Ho Chi Minh as the leader who might best lead them to independence. In 1940, a tidal wave swept over Southeast Asia. The Japanese, pouring down from China, their offensive timed to be simultaneous with Germany’s conquest of France, crushed the French administration in Vietnam. They went further to drive the British from Malaya, the Dutch from Indonesia, the United States from the Phillippines. Many Asian nationalists rallied to Japan as to a deliverer, but Ho feared the Japanese more and aligned himself with the Allies, expecting them to defeat Japan, oust the discredited Vichy French from Vietnam, and reward his country with independence.
Early in 1941, Ho slipped into Vietnam, lived in a cave near Pac Bo and met with confederates like Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap. They called him “Uncle”, and with a reverent yet familiar manner, in the Confucian spirit, he was the respected elder. Thus began a broad front of patriots of all ages and types “to fight the Japanese and the hated French who were then collaborating with the Japanese, just as Vichy France obeyed Germany’s dictates. They called this new organization the VietNamDocLapDongMinh. ( “ the Vietnam Independence League” - soon to be simply the Vietminh).
Ho was inspired by the Alantic Charter issued during the summer of 1941, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill pledged, “to see the sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who had been forcibly deprived of them.” Churchill, dedicated to the preservation of the British Empire, undoubtedly considered the pronouncement to be idealistic rhetoric. Nor was Roosevelt’s position entirely plain, despite his anticolonial reputation. In 1943 he wrote that he would work with all his might and main against any plan to “further France’s imperialistic ambitions”. In 1944 he proposed an international trusteeship for postwar Indochina, saying that, “France had milked it for one hundred years, and left its people worse off than they were at the beginning.” In that same year he amended that by suggesting that the French could repossess the territory by pledging its eventual independence.
Ho believed that he should keep trying to persuade the United States to underwrite his cause. He was essentially a pragmatist, principally occupied with Vietnam’s salvation and not with the allegiance to Moscow Communism. He traveled to China to meet and be photographed with Claire Chenault of the Flying Tigers primarily for the propaganda value in Vietnam, to show the nationalists that he was supported by the United States. As the war neared completion, at the State Department, the Far East Division criticized French colonial rule as the “least satisfactory” in Asia and urged that pressure be put on France to grant Indochina “true autonomous self-government” - or else there would be “bloodshed and unrest for many years, threatening the economic and social progress, peace and stability” of the area.
On September 2, 1945, a feeble Ho addressed a hopeful, supportive and cheering crowd by reading to them from his draft of the independence declaration many of them had never heard before:
"We hold the truth that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That these words were spoken by Ho Chi Minh in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, should cause us to reflect on our own bias to disbelieve their sincerity. Ho Chi Minh, afterall, we believed, was a communist, ultimately advocating the overthrow of the "free-world". The long history of Vietnam's independence movement had conditioned Ho to realistically view Colonial France as its chief opponent. He looked to the United States as model and primary help for attaining independence from France after, in Roosevelt's own words, that France had "milked it for 100 years" and left its people "worse off than they were at the beginning." Realistically, however, Roosevelt was on a very uncomfortable fence and ultimately fell on France's side and refused to intervene on Ho's independence side. On January 1, 1945, three months before his death, Roosevelt told his Secretary of State, “I still do not want to get mixed up in any Indochina decision...Action at this time is premature.”
The proficiency of Ho’s intelligence network astonished the Americans, and they were also impressed by his guerillas, whom they supplied with rifles, mortars, grenades and other material training them to train other Vietminh partizans. As one member of the OSS team remembered, “They had an uncanny ability to learn and adapt...”
The OSS experience in southern Vietnam was less congenial. While Ho had taken over Hanoi by September 1945, the French and various Vietnamese factions struggled for power in Saigon.
Lt.Col. A. Peter Dewey, the son of a conservative Republican congressman from Chicago, was a remarkably accomplished young man. Educated at St. Paul’s in Concord, NH, Yale and Virginia Law, at twenty-eight, he had already worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris, written a book on the French defeat, fought in the Polish Army, and engaged in espionage in North Africa and was decorated behind German lines in France. In Saigon, he soon collided with Major General Douglas D. Gracey, commander of a British force assigned to disarm the Japanese. Dewey, though passionately pro-French, disapproved of Gracey’s bias for the French, while Gracey suspected Dewey of conniving with the Vietminh and ordered Dewey out of the country. Before he left, Dewey sent this prophetic cable back to the OSS in Washington:
"Cochinchina is burning, the French and British are finished here, and we (U.S.)ought to clear out of Southeast Asia."
Early on September 26, 1945, Dewey was driven to the Saigon airport by Captain Herbert J. Bluechel, only to find that his plane had been delayed. They came back later in the morning to check on the aircraft, with Dewey behind the wheel of the Jeep- which Gracey had forbidden to be identified with a U.S. flag on the grounds that only he, as area commander, was entitled to fly a pennant on his vehicle. Another OSS officer had just been wounded by the Vietminh, and Dewey was upset. On the way back the Jeep encountered a barrier of logs and brush. While negotiating around it, Peter was killed by a burst of machine gun fire to the back of his head. Bluechel, unharmed, fled the scene, a bullet knocking off his cap as he ran.
Dewey was thus the first of 58,000 Americans to be killed in Vietnam. His body was never recovered. French and Vietminh spokesmen blamed each other for his death, and Ho Chi Minh sent a letter of condolence to the State Department.
From 1945 to 1954, the United States spent $2.5 billion dollars to assist France's futile military effort to choke off the independence movement under the nearly unanimously supported leadership of Ho Chi Minh. When the French failed, the United States felt obliged to pick up the fallen standard under the heading of Democracy's anti- Communist effort against the "Domino - Effect". It did this first by stalling for free elections in two years - which Ho had reluctantly agreed to, so confidant was he as the country's most popular leader; then by attempting to prop up a "non-communist" candidate against Ho; then finally by permanently dividing the country into a North under Ho and the "democratic" South. Ultimately this led to a revolt by the Vietminh, followed by years of fighting led by United States advisors, then by troops followed by a decade of what has to be termed the "Second Vietnam War". All of which former Secretary of State Robert McNamarra has recently admitted that he early on recognized as a tragic mistake, but one he did not protest.
Surely, after 50 years of such a tragic and horrendous history there must be some way in which we can learn how to prevent such a mistake from ever happening again. As a former school teacher of mine used to say so often, "a little mistake at the beginning of a journey can become a huge error at the end." What was our mistake at the beginning? It surely is that we should have thrown all our support to Ho Chi Minh at the conclusion of WWII. This is in fact the very course our Intelligence had directed the United States to follow.
I know that nothing can ever undo the tragedy of the last 50 years, but something must be done to never let it happen again. Let us earn back our integrity as a world leader. Let us begin by reexamining our relationships with countries in hardship and difficulties, in Africa, in South and Central America, in eastern Europe and Russia, in Tibet, Pakistan and SE Asia. Let us pursue a diplomacy on a higher road than that of simple economic profitability. Let us honor A. Peter Dewey and others like him who "Question Authority". Let us acknowledge and accept the harsh judgements of history which have so permanently stained our dialogue with the Third World, and recognize our subsequent errors in viewing war as a reasonable path on which to resolve world problems. Our Military Industrial Complex, as depicted by the last warning of President Eisenhower, remains our guide in pursuing and achieving prosperity at the highest economic levels while sparing any personal sacrifices in the “in the boots, on the ground” vulnerability of the less advantaged.
Now we are on the verge of a war against Islamic extremists and we are going to call upon hi tech weapons to prevent the US from having to put “boots on the ground”; and our tactical objectives are to destroy the billions of dollars of weaponry supplied to the “enemy” by the United States taxpayers, and which action will in all likelihood generate much “collateral damage” and increasing hostility to this country by those we are trying to rescue.
Has there ever been a time in the history of the world where “good intentions” have done so much damage? Is it too late for dialogue? Let us hope not.
On Wednesday, July 12, 1995 an extraordinary scene took place in the US House of Representatives at a meeting of the International Relations Commitee where then President Clinton, flanked by liberals and conservatives which included from both sides, Senators either wounded and / or decorated as veterans of the Vietnam war, announced his intention to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
The story of Peter Dewey should be in print. He is a true hero and had his advice, and that of his OSS team been followed, Ho Chi Minh would have been one of our best allies in Southeast Asia. We would not have poured so much money and weapons and air-support into the French-Vietnam War which cost many lives and ended in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu with the surrender by the French and the suicide of their commanding officer. Not having learned even then, we proceeded to wage efforts to prevent Ho Chi Minh from ascending to the political leadership, supporting puppet regimes, none of which were popularly supported except by Vietnamese desiring American financial support, and culminating with our military activities in the 60’s and 70’s. The insanity of all of this would have been avoided had we not followed the economic imperatives set down by francophiles in places of power.
It wasn’t until 1988 that I learned of the above, and it was at that time that I was first able to explain why I opposed our involvement in Vietnam. Would that everyone had known this decades sooner.
( Extended excerpts from VIETNAM- a History; by Stanley Karnow, Penguin Books and
WHY Vietnam:Prelude to America's Albatross)
WHY Vietnam:Prelude to America's Albatross)
New York, NY 1983)