Saigon--Then and Now
By Dick Martin
I recently received an email from a friend who called the Vietnam War, Nixon’s war. I think most people would call it Johnson’s war! Say what you want about Nixon’s character and motivations, he spent most of his presidency deescalating the war from about 550,000 US troops in Vietnam to zero; whereas Johnson escalated the war from less than 20,000 troops to 550,000 troops. Perhaps an argument can be made that the war was nobody’s war but my generation’s.
Since everyone at the time (early 1960’s), including newsmen, TV anchors, politicians, newspapers and American citizens, thought Communism was a monolithic evil, you can hardly blame any of the presidents from Truman to Johnson for doing what they could to stop it. We had had success in Korea, we had treaty commitments, and the Communist Manifesto said the goal of Communism was to take over the world.
Johnson dragged us deeper into the war, but it was Harry Truman who initially got us into the war. At the end of World War II, France’s De Gaulle threatened to join the Commies if we didn’t let them recolonize Vietnam. FDR and Eisenhower did not want anyone to think we were fighting the war to let any of our prewar colonizing allies recolonize their prewar colonies. But FDR was dead and Truman knew nothing about FDR’s plan for a postwar world.
At the end of WWII, Ho Chi Minh did everything he could to influence Truman into allowing Vietnam to unite into one nation. He even adopted much of America’s Declaration of Independence to influence Truman’s decision. Ho wrote numerous letters to Truman, none of which were delivered, hoping to gain America’s support for an independent and united Vietnam. Because FDR did not update his VP about what his plans were, it is possible that Truman’s lack of interest in what was going on in Indochina was the result of his ignorance about that part of the world and Americans’ commitment to not allow recolonization.
But what if the war was the primary reason SE Asia is doing so well today. I believe most historians would say it is still too early to tell whether our involvement in the Vietnam War was a mistake or not. It seems that more and more of them are daring to take another look at the current situation in Southeast Asia, ie Southeast Asia may be experiencing the best economic conditions and most peaceful time in its long history. After their idealistic policies devastated the economy and culture of Southeast Asia, many of the war-time leaders were jettisoned within a decade after the war and replaced by Western-thinking leaders. I do not think in our wildest dreams we could have anticipated what is going on in SE Asia today. Maybe the war was not a mistake after all.
By Dick Martin