When President Lyndon Johnson heard angry protesters bellowing this chant outside the White House in 1968, he reckoned it a conspiracy. Surely, he thought, somebody had paid for this show of support for the enemy.
The man who was determined to help “little nations” and protect them from “tyranny and aggression,” should have spent more time studying the history of Vietnam, and its northern leader Ho Chi Minh, than preoccupying himself with the motives of protestors outside the white house gates.
Being driven more by political instinct at home than a desire to understand the enemy he was confronting abroad, Johnson errored in the extreme. When Martin Luther King criticized “Western arrogance” as having “everything to teach others and nothing to learn,” he was describing Johnson, and his team of the so-called “best and brightest.”
Vietnam was a country long before the US entered it, and long before the French arrived in 1858. However, US historical accounts, particularly regarding the war, are weak with respect to Vietnam’s far-reaching past.
Why does this matter?
First, as a fundamental principle of military engagement, it’s crucial to know your enemy. We didn’t. Instead, we assumed our powerful military would win the day. As Johnson said: “America wins the wars that she undertakes.” This may have been true prior to the 1950’s when America exercised equal measures of brains and brawn. But, with the military build-up that followed WWII, the US resembled Goliath. Massive, powerful, and so confident that it failed to imagine the game plan of an opponent who played by a different set of rules.
Second, had we taken the time to study Vietnam’s past, one that goes back over 2,200 years, we would have been aware of their fierce resistance to foreign domination – by any force – whether French or American. Since its origin, Vietnam exhibited a fierce determination to be free of foreign intervention, including from its dominant neighbor to the north, China.
And third, rather than attempting to assess the situation critically, we fell victim to homespun rhetoric: The Domino Theory. It was a fantastic bit of propaganda, mostly because it was easy to sell to the American public. The Domino Theory reasoned that if Vietnam fell into the bloody red hands of communism so would all of Southeast Asia; putting communism one step closer to world domination. Even though our government knew better, it was politically inconvenient to explain the complex nature of the communist world that we were all taught to fear.
What was portrayed as an unwavering mass of hemorrhaging red contained many fault lines. These fault lines were defined primarily by the hundreds of ethnicities within the communist world, many of which harbored distrust, and often hatred, for each other and the leaders determined to unite them. The Soviet Union alone was made up of over 120 languages, and at least as many nationalities, although only 21 were officially recognized. China had over 50 ethnic groups and was forever at odds with the Soviet Union. But we heard none of this at home.
In the end, racial prejudice may have been our greatest enemy. Like the Vietnamese people in general, the West saw Ho Chi Minh as a worthless gook and not as an educated man who, like his father, trained to be a civil service mandarin, working in support of his people.
Having lived in Paris at the conclusion of WWI, Ho, then 29, and his group of Vietnamese nationalists, attempted to meet with US President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. They were excited by the principle of self-determination outlined in Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed when they learned it didn’t apply to them. Wilson never met with Ho and his colleagues.
This was a seminal moment for Ho who then turned to Marxist-Leninist Communism. It was a political philosophy he initially struggled with but came to accept in large part because it accepted him, and his people.
Many years later, following WWII, Ho would again reach out to the West. This time appealing to President Truman. He was persistent and wrote Truman a total of 11 times. Having helped the OSS (today’s CIA) defeat the Japanese in Southeast Asia, Ho was likely expecting better treatment than he had received 30 years prior, but a reply was never received.
Ho’s messages were hidden from the public and not disclosed until leaked in 1971, in what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Unlike his predecessor, Roosevelt, who wanted to help Vietnam move towards independence, Truman seemed to be of the opinion that the yellow-skinned illiterate peasant of Vietnam was not ready for it.
Despite his rejection, Ho’s belief in self-determination and democratic government remained with him. Following the end of WWII and the surrender of the Japanese forces that occupied Vietnam, Ho moved to unite Vietnam as an independent nation. Speaking from the balcony of the old French Municipal Theater in Hanoi, on September 2, 1945, he quoted the Declaration of Independence saying: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.“
Had we acted upon the convictions that are the founding principle of our democracy – in tandem with Ho rather than against him – we would have put aside our prejudices, donned the blindfold of Lady Justice, and accepted the people of Vietnam as the friends they wanted to be.
Instead of building a gateway to communism in Southeast Asia, we could have erected a roadblock. Instead of legitimizing communism, we could have exposed its weaknesses, saved millions of lives, and prevented immeasurable suffering in the process.