Seven Years of Vietnam
NATION, JULY 8, 1972
A lot of us were wrong about the Vietnam war back in 1965. For a start, few guessed that the pro-communist Vietnamese would hold out for seven years against the sheer weight of U.S. military superiority. The Vietnam rebellion seemed headed for the same scrapheap as Hungary, Ireland, Brunei, Guatemala, Mozambique, Berlin, Malaya, Greece, you name it: nations where legitimate uprisings had been crushed by foreign intervention.
To us anti-interventionists there seemed at the time to be just one outside chance to stop the seemingly inevitable carnage and injustice, and it was this: Australia’s backing was an important, almost crucial, psychological prop to the Americans in Vietnam. As ever, they (the Americans) needed desperately to be told that they were saving the world from something, in this case another Munich. If somehow or other the tide of public opinion in Australia could be swung against the war, this prop to US opinion would disappear and the Americans might give up in discouragement.
In other words, there was just a possibility that the concentrated expenditure of energy and resources by those of us opposed to the war could provide enormous returns. There was the added moral imperative to protest against unjust killing. Nor was this quite as naive as it seems in retrospect. Despite the overwhelming conservatism of Australian opinion at the time, there did seem to be a genuine searching for information and arguments about Vietnam. Later, when “our boys” and the “communist enemy” were killing each other in Vietnam the jingoists would take control and it would be too late, though I also clung to the other hope that reason based on human experience would prevail once people came at close quarters with those whom they were supposed to be killing and those whom they were saving.
The failure of those hopes and efforts pales beside the many other tragedies of Vietnam. But it still hurts. Almost as painful, and this is shown in the recent debate over the North Vietnamese attack, is the fact that more than seven years later the anti-Vietnam war protesters still have not been able to marshal their arguments against that war.
There have always been three distinct arguments over Vietnam.
The basic government argument, or rather formal justification for government policy, was that Vietnam represented “part of the thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans” (Menzies), “the determination of Communist China to establish hegemony in South East Asia” (Hasluck), or “the first round of an attack by the Chinese Communists in an effort to dominate the world” (Fairhall). Today we no longer have to debate this sort of nonsense, though it is remarkable that a country can go to war for six years without anyone bothering to challenge the obviously false premises on which that war was launched. Even the U.S. Congress has had enough sense of democratic responsibility to repeal the Tonkin Gulf resolution.
Then came the hard-nosed realpolitik argument which said that regardless of the morality of the Vietnam war, Australian national interests demanded that we stay with the U.S. in Vietnam, that we deny territory to communist regimes, that we act to stop the dominoes from falling. The first point looks very sad today when educated U.S. opinion is fast moving to revulsion against the war, and when the U.S. leaves Australia behind with its initiatives to Peking. As for denying territory, the Vietnam war has consolidated existing communist regimes; the progressive Russians, Chinese, etc., who might have influenced their conservative governments to liberalise, have somehow to explain the West’s behaviour over Vietnam.
Alone of these points, the domino theory had respectability, yet I never found a pro-interventionist who understood the real reason why. It is simply that if you have a bunch of weak, corrupt governments under your wing, all of which have to suppress their opposition in order to survive, then the overthrow of one of them has a very demoralising effect on the others. An identical situation has long existed in East Europe. (The Russians call it the worm in the apple.) But at least some of the East Europeans have made some effort to improve their performance in recent years. Can we say the same about the South East Asians, the Thais or the Laotians for example?
But the crucial argument was, and still is, the morality of the Vietnam intervention. This hinged on whether there had been “aggression” which in turn depended on two distinct and separate sub-arguments: were the pro-communists in the south entitled to use force against the anti-communist Saigon government, and did Hanoi have the right to encourage and subsequently intervene directly to assist this use of force? The failure to bring the two together has left the anti-Vietnam War protesters wide open to criticism today.
To say that it is aggression for the pro-communists in the south to use force against the government and its officials is naive. As early as 1956 the Saigon government decreed the death penalty for pro-communists. Was that aggression? Since then, the only choice for the pro-communists has been to fight or be executed. This is not to say that Saigon was necessarily immoral in its 1956 decree; most communist governments suppress their anti-communist opposition too. But any government, communist or anti-communist, which moves to suppress its opposition must expect the opposition to fight back. And if it loses that fight despite its advantage of the state apparatus it controls and the foreign aid it can summon, then it deserves to lose. This is what nearly happened in Hungary. It nearly happened in Vietnam before the Americans intervened in force.
Even conservative Australia once appreciated this basic principle of democracy by voting to prevent the suppression of its own domestic communist party. Yet for some reason normal intelligent democratic Australians today consider it is quite natural, even praiseworthy, if Asian governments suppress their communist movements. And when those movements fight back against enormous odds to the point of victory (proving they had far more indigenous support than the Australian communist party), this is considered some form of dark, insidious immorality. When outside powers encourage those movements this is supposed to be gross subversion, though the same people believed the West had a moral responsibility to help East European revolutionaries. Perhaps the psychologists have an answer for it; I don’t. One clue is that the Russians react in an identically irrational manner to developments in East Europe.
Ah yes, the pro-interventionists say, but even if the Saigon government is weak and unpopular, the pro-communists are still no more than a fraction of the population in South Vietnam. They have no right to take over.
Here even the psychologists bow out. Active supporters of all Australian political parties would not come to more than ten per cent of the population, and in Australia active support does not lead to the risk of death. How about the million we have killed in the south already? Were they secret anti-communists? And how long do we have to wait before the true representatives of the Vietnamese people stand up to be counted?
When it comes to debating the morality of Hanoi’s behaviour, the logic of the pro-interventionists is equally threadbare. America and South Vietnam did not accept the Geneva agreements, they say. Therefore they were not bound to hold elections promised for 1956.
Fair enough, but in that case there has never been any legal basis for the partition of Vietnam. The situation remains that of pre-
1954 which was civil war throughout all Vietnam between pro and anti-communist forces. Hanoi has all along been free to attack Saigon; Saigon has been free to attack Hanoi.
Certainly, Saigon and Washington have long realised this. In 1955 America had detailed plans to support a Saigon invasion of the north. Eisenhower vetoed them, not because of any concern about aggression, but because they involved occupying the Chinese territory of Hainan. Saigon has always threatened the invasion of the north.
Both Saigon and Washington have long engaged in clandestine warfare against North Vietnam in the hope of encouraging an uprising there. No one has ever argued that this was immoral. Yet somehow if Hanoi, having been deceived over its Geneva agreements, encourages and belatedly intervenes to assist an uprising in the south, and then finally intervenes directly to try to balance the overwhelming unfairness of U.S. intervention against the uprising, this is supposed to be aggression. Here again we need something more than a psychologist.
In Australia, one simple question on notice to the government would have completely demolished the “invasion from the north” argument: Do the credentials of the Australian ambassador to Saigon say he is accredited to the Government of South Vietnam or to the Government of Vietnam? Does Australia recognise the existence of a state of North Vietnam? Has Australia ever protested against Saigon moves to use or threaten force against the territory controlled by the Hanoi government?
The answers would have been of interest.