HUNGARY AND VIETNAM
Published in The Quadrant November, 1997
SIR: During the Khruschev liberalisation years of the early sixties, I was working in Australia’s Moscow embassy. In those days it was not hard to meet Russians critical of the regime. But on one thing they were all agreed. This was the correctness of the Soviet 1956 intervention in Hungary.
Most saw it as crucial in preventing the establishment on Soviet borders of a capitalistic, right-wing, anti-Soviet, pro-US regime, and the domino effect this would have had on other East European regimes. Some worried about the fate of pro-Soviet and pro-communist Hungarians if the rebels had won. And one told me in horror about how a friend in the Soviet forces had had his eyes gouged out by the rebels (no mention, of course, why the rebels might have wanted to behave in this strange manner).
I mention all this in the context of Peter Edwards’ article (September 1997) in which he suggests that “familiar protagonists” like myself have yet to moderate our extreme anti-Vietnam war views, that we still fail to realise that there may have been some correctness in arguments for the other side and are reluctant to admit any fault. Of course there was some correctness in the other side’s arguments, just as there was some correctness in what those Russians told me about the Hungarian intervention. But that does not stop me from condemning that intervention too.
In most civil wars both sides can claim some element of truth and justice. But when outsiders intervene wholeheartedly to support one side or another in those civil wars, in effect they decide that the side they support has right completely on its side and that the other side is completely in the wrong. The alternative is to accept that both sides can claim right, in which case outside intervention is only justified if it seeks some compromise solution — something very absent during the Western intervention in Vietnam.
However, claims that the West had to intervene in Vietnam to meet Chinese “aggression” and then North Vietnamese “aggression”, as if there had never been anything called the Geneva Agreements affirming that Vietnam was one nation to be reunited by elections, more than match Soviet claims that the Warsaw Pact and US plots required intervention in Hungary. In this situation, those who are aware of the falsity of those claims have no choice but to take a stand and oppose the intervention. When the intervention involves brutality on the scale of Vietnam – brutality far in excess of anything that happened in Hungary – then it has to be a very firm and vocal stand.
There is a simple test to decide rights and wrongs of civil war situations – who started it and who does most of it. By both standards the West and its Saigon allies stand heavily condemned in Vietnam. Throw in the “bright, shining” lies and the very basis of Western claims to any residual moral supremacy over communism is also under threat. Add in the fact that the defeated side., not just in Vietnam but in Cambodia and Laos too, slunk off into obscurity with no attempt to establish anything like a government in exile – something very rare in genuine civil war situations – and the barrenness of the Western case for intervention becomes excruciating.
Of course there were good and deserving people on the Saigon side. And it is even possible that Vietnam would be better off today if Saigon had won. But if the good people on the Saigon side lacked popular support, and were unwilling or unable to defend themselves, are we outsiders really entitled, as in Hungary, to intervene and kill large numbers of people on the other side just to prove that our side is right?
The ultimate irony is that the compromise solutions put forward by some of us anti-intervention ” extremists” would have saved some of those anti-commurust, pro-Western Vietnamese and might even have led to a non-communist or at least neutralist South Vietnam. It was the extremist, no-compromise, fight-to-the finish attitudes of the interventionists that guaranteed that Vietnam and these people would end up as they did. Do we see any sign of willingness to admit that particular fault?