Vietnam: 25 Years On


Richard Broinowski

This report is prompted by two events - the anniversary in April of the apocalyptic events that occurred 25 years ago in Vietnam, and the appearance of a new book by a former United States marine about the Vietnam War.

Officially, the 30-year Vietnamese war against the French and then the United States and its allies ended on 30 April 1975. On that day North Vietnamese main forces entered Saigon, and local Vietcong units and political cadres joined them in occupying the city. What the Western media call the 'fall of Saigon' is for Vietnamese the 'liberation of Vietnam.'

The date marks Vietnam’s second most important national celebration. The first is the anniversary, 30 years earlier, of Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square on 2 September 1945. On that day, dressed in khaki tunic and white rubber sandals, Ho invoked parts of the United States Constitution to make his case against the return of the French and their recolonisation of his country.

The United States paid no heed to Ho’s entreaty. It supported efforts by the French to retake the country, and when these failed at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, embarked on a 20-year war of its own which cost over three million lives. Most of these were Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, who died as victims of massive American ground and air fire power. A much smaller number, approximately 58,000, were American servicemen.

Politically unwilling to sustain the war effort much beyond the 1968 Tet Offensive, the United States and its allies ‘Vietnamised’ the war, wound down their military presence, and completed the removal of all combat units by 1973. In order to continue to prosecute the war, the Armed Forces of Vietnam (ARVN) were left enormous quantities of military hardware by the Americans. But cynicism at the corruption of their military and the civilian government corroded the will of the ARVN to fight.

Their end came quite suddenly in the first few months of 1975. Wanting to be in Saigon before the rains came in May, the North Vietnamese began their final campaign in the southern highlands in early March. Kontum fell on 10th, and Pleiku and Banmethuot shortly thereafter. The ARVN commander General Pham Van Phu promptly evacuated the area, leaving 200,000 panicky and leaderless men, women and children to find their way to Danang on the east coast, where they hoped safety lay. Their retreat became a rout. Quangtri, Hue and Danang fell, and so, in rapid succession, did all the other coastal towns north of Saigon.

There were acts of courage and resistance by a few ARVN units who continued to believe in the viability of South Vietnam, notably at Xuan Loc just north of Saigon. But their resistance was token. Those political and military leaders who had the means and the connections to do so fled the country. The rank and file soldiers simply deserted. They threw away their rifles and uniforms and blended into the columns of civilian refugees. NVA commander General Van Tieu Dung and his comrades were still able to enter Saigon ahead of their most optimistic schedule by the end of April.

Such facts, and the truths that underlie them about the non-viability of unpopular governments in civil war situations, seem to need repeating from time to time. For revisionism and historical distortions about the Vietnam War continue to appear in the western media.

The latest example is 'Unheralded Victory', a book by Mark Woodruff, an American, now living in Australia. It has been given much publicity in the Murdoch press.

Woodruff fought in Vietnam with the US Marines in 1967-68. He claims the United States and its allies eliminated the Vietcong and drove the North Vietnamese from all southern battlefields, and that the South Vietnamese government fell solely to an invading northern army. He discounts the mobility and massive air and ground fire power available to the Americans, and the countless small engagements won, nevertheless, by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. He denies the indigenous nature of the war, and the fact that there was (and remains) an active communist political movement in the south that contributed significantly to the eventual unification of the country under Hanoi. Like many other revisionists, he exaggerates the differences between northern and southern Vietnamese, and by implication reinforces the myth that this was basically an invasion of a sovereign country by an alien communist power.

Woodruff’s book retells a story that has been told by other American apologists. Its value is best summed up in an anecdote told by another historian of the war, Stanley Karnow. A US Colonel reportedly told a Vietnamese colonel from the north 'You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.' His counterpart responded 'That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'

WATCHPOINT: Does the 25th anniversary provide an opportunity for Vietnam to revise its image in the Western media?


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